By Peter Papathanasiou
Having walked up the mountain’s fire trail with my toddler son, we finally reach the turnoff for our destination. It takes some convincing to coax him to follow me along the single track veering off to our left. He’s now fascinated by a termite mound; the larger trees in the Australian bush are almost all hollow thanks to termites. He can’t yet see where I’m taking him, but it’s somewhere new and special. It’s a place I remember fondly from my youth and which has stood the test of time despite years of severe erosion and variable rainfall.
‘This way,’ I tell him, ‘nearly there.’ He giggles, showing his precious new teeth, and tries to run but is eventually undone by an unseen tree root. I rush to his aid, pick him up, hold him close and apply medicinal kisses. His grizzling soon subsides as I carry him the rest of the way and finally show him my surprise.
At first, he’s unsure of the watery expanse before him. The dam is calm, its water dirty brown above a clay base. Fallen branches rest in the water like a giant’s fingers. My son stands in the protective space between the triangle of my legs, staring out with intense brown eyes. On this day, the dam appears like the mountain itself: lifeless, without even a thirsty grey kangaroo gently lapping at its surface. Hoping to have shown him some wildlife at the watering hole, I’m a little disappointed. A platypus or long-necked turtle would’ve been a highlight. Instead, the dam is replete with aquatic insects and an introduced species of mosquitofish, now considered a noxious pest due to its impact on native fish populations and frog species.
Hand-in-hand, we walk carefully along the dam’s exposed soil banks in a clockwise direction. My son is soon imploring me, wanting to drag me into the water, to drown us both, his curiosity getting the better. He’s pulling on my arm, his face tensing and contorting in agony. ‘No, mate,’ I tell him, ‘can’t go in there.’ My resistance is wise, but I sense it is also about to bring on a tantrum. In this situation, my wife has told me, the best form of parenting is distraction. I look around, but there’s not much on offer in the dry, desolate Australian bush.
Finally, I look down and see them, on the ground around my feet.
‘Watch this,’ I say, and attempt to skip a rock across the dam. It skips once across the glossy surface before disappearing from sight. I was never a good rock skipper. My son watches attentively but is even more enthralled when I pick up a larger rock and proceed to simply toss it into the drink with a deep and resonant ‘gloop!’ He laughs out loud and brushes his hands behind his ears in excitement. He is soon collecting his own pebbles and cheerfully throwing them into the water, sometimes double-handed. It is the best game ever. I marvel at his pleasure, at his sheer unbridled joy from the simple act of throwing rocks into water. It warms my heart like sunshine through my veins.
It takes a long time to complete a circuit of the dam. My son climbs on every log and rock he sees, wanting to be taller like his dad. With nappy hanging out of his shorts, he stops every few metres to pick up every loose pebble. We then toss them into the water, listen to them splash, watch the ripples radiate, laugh. My son’s arm is still weak, his technique poor, so he has to throw from the dam’s very edge. I’m careful to make sure he doesn’t take one step too many, although I’m certain his mother will notice the mud on his sandals. She’s stayed home to rest, hopefully to nap. She’s about to enter her third trimester. We’ve tried to explain it to our son and we think he understands, but are still expecting his world to turn upsidedown in three months’ time when our small house becomes even cosier.
Tired from throwing, laughing and walking, my son steps forward to proffer his outstretched arms; the universal sign of ‘pick me up’. Having feared another tantrum at the prospect of ending his fun, I am relieved. I hoist him up; he nestles comfortably into my collarbone, breathes deeply. I carry him home, struggling with his growing weight. At least it’s downhill. As I walk, I imagine what it will be like to take our second born up the mountain in a few years’ time, and perhaps how our son will teach them how to throw rocks into the dam.
We’d like to extend our congratulations to Pete and his wife on the birth of their second baby boy!