On a trip to the Top End, the Aussie actor and author found magic in the landscape and an unexpected lesson in a stranger’s sleight of hand.
Drifting through the wetlands of Kakadu National Park with Yellow Waters Cruises, the guide banged on. He was a pleasant fellow who described the wildlife and spoke a bit about the character of the animals. But basically he rated creatures by their taste.
“Magpie geese over there. Beautiful birds but you’ve got to cook ’em slow or they’ll be as tough as old leather. Now that’s a beautiful fish, that little jack. Tasty as.”
After a while, his words drifted away and we all just sat, floated and marvelled at the colour, grace and timelessness of the landscape. It was blissful and, in a very quiet and soothing way, incredibly humbling. Time seemed to disappear a little and that finite measure of life we all have seemed soft and balanced.
That night, an old man from America, who’d been on the cruise with his wife, was at the hotel bar, drinking Bourbon. He beckoned me over.
“You were on that boat today, sir,” he said.
“You’d like a drink?”
“Thanks,” I said, and asked for a Bourbon, “just to keep you company.”
He smiled. “You know I’m 84?”
“No. You’re doing well.”
He said I was too kind but he was only going to buy me one drink. “Out on the boat today,” he continued, “I don’t know... it was beautiful.”
“I’ve seen some things in my life. But out there, I thought if I was to die, it would be okay because I’ve lived a life.”
He laughed and said sorry. I told him it was okay.
“I’ve got a son about your age,” he said.
“I just rang him at home. It was early and he was kind of grumpy – never did like getting up in the morning. But I told him I loved him. I don’t often do that but that boat trip was something. I wanted to tell him. And I rang our daughter; it was even earlier for her.”
We drank a bit and didn’t say that much.
“You’ve been to Australia before?” I asked.
“During the Second World War.”
He told me he’d been stationed in New Guinea and how one night they were watching a cowboy movie, a John Wayne serial: “And there was a gunfight, old Duke shooting away and the bad guys shooting back. I thought, ‘Those shots are loud.’ All of a sudden, the Japanese were shooting back at the cloth screen. They hit the Duke but he kept on riding. Darnedest thing. We scattered and I remember thinking that John Wayne wears a lot of lipstick for a cowboy.”
We finished and I asked him if he’d like another Bourbon. He shook his head. He got up and shook my hand.
“Have a good life, son. Hold your kids close and just remember to tell them what you think of them when you can.”
He walked away like an old man. A long way from home yet as close to his family as he could be.
Later, when I checked my bill, I saw that I’d bought two Bourbons. The old bugger hadn’t bought me one at all.
I laughed. It was okay. We’d shared that time on the water and he’d taught me something about being a father.