Where Desert Rivers Run
© Peter O’Shaughnessy
Winner, 2022 Boree Log Award, Fellowship of Australian Writers Eastwood/Hills, NSW.
I come from where the blue hills rise beneath the searing sun
out where the rolling plains are wide and desert rivers run.
I wander on a burning land where heated air defines
the hazy shapes mirages make in silver fuzzy lines.
The path I take is often through the sparse grey mulga trees
where breezes whisper endlessly their soft soliloquies.
A desiccated lonely place of sunburned dark brown stones –
of spinifex and quartz glass rocks that shine like sun-bleached bones.
My path runs through a heated world of fiery scorching air
where sun glazed black and shiny stones reflect a burning glare.
Those scattered pebbles all around – like shards of broken glass
all help define the winding course that desert rivers pass.
For where I run my sandy bars merge into tumbled blocks,
with piles of rounded boulders and great rumbled rugged rocks.
My terrifying flooding flows have swept these age-old lands
and worn the ancient mountains down to hills and sunburned sands.
This land is bare. My course is long. I wind where hills abound
and over plains may disappear beneath the sandy ground.
I wander through the mulga groves, the kurrajong and gum,
on plains of silver spinifex from where the hot winds come.
And when my bed is wide and dry and channels do not show
you find a line of ghostly gums. My path lies down below.
For even in the driest drought, when desert rivers sleep,
my waters run beneath the sand. They run both cool and deep.
And where I carved down through the plains, deep shadowed banks contrive
to hide the cool dark shaded pools where ghostly gum trees thrive.
Their stark, white, twisted massive trunks and drooping grey-green leaves
reflect the tranquil beauty that a desert poolside weaves.
These secret, shining, placid creeks where desert parrots screech
wear velvet veils of budgies in bright clouds along each beach.
Disturbed, they fly and sweep as one, in swerving golden fright,
like watered silk that flashes fire, then quickly drop from sight.
And hidden in the rushes by the silver pool-side’s edge
the stately, crested heron stalks sedately through the sedge.
His prey lives in the shallows where the frogs and fishes lie
and nothing much escapes the hunter’s dark and shiny eye.
And skipping on the surface of this shining, mirrored scene
the dragon-flies that skitter by – in shades of silvered green –
are bright-eyed, lace winged visitors that hover, flit and glide,
then dip and sip the water where the tiny insects hide.
And down beneath the sheltered bank, where ferns and grasses hang,
is where the sacred dance was done and desert people sang.
They came from burning, red dirt plains to where my cool pools lay
and camped there in those shady spots to hunt and fish and play.
For even in the dry times there was life beneath their feet
and there the local people could escape the desert heat.
The secret lies beneath the sand and desert people know
that even in the driest times it’s where my waters flow.
But now, where once red rivers ran, you’ll only find dry creeks
where flat topped hills and breakaways were once great mountain peaks.
This ancient land has many tales – my story’s very old –
but even yet, there’s more to come, the whole tale’s not yet told.
You see I’ve also had my days, my weeks of flooding rains,
when rising waters filled my banks and drowned the sweeping plains.
As raging torrents rolled great rocks and rent the river’s race,
my muddy fury scoured the land – all feared my wild embrace.
But that’s how desert rivers run, from blue hills down to lakes,
those vast white plains of silvered salt the endless summer bakes.
My sandy creek beds lie there, dry, a few pools might remain
until the flooding rains return and rivers rage again.
For that is how it’s always been. We hope it will once more
when once again my wild assault will rape the valley floor.
Till then I lie abandoned to the burning desert’s creep.
My pools are dry. My time will come – until then I must sleep.
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