Ten years after publication of Barefoot Times, the first novel in this series, I finally had the chance to revisit Narrabri, the town in north-western NSW where much of the early action takes place. Just west of the town is the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array, a radio telescope using 6 movable dishes in conjunction with the Earth’s rotation to synthesise a much larger antenna. In the story, this became the AusScience astronomical research station, with Billy’s father Dr Tom Collins the chief scientist.
To the east of the town is Mount Kaputar (1510m), the highest peak in the area and the location of the bushwalk Billy and Peter did at the beginning of the book. The mountain is actually the remnant of an ancient volcano, with many of the volcanic spires still visible.
More photos from the trip can be seen on the book’s Tour page.
In Part Four of Cry of the Bunyips, Peter Thorpe recalls a bushwalk he’d done as a schoolboy which saw him spending a frightening night lost in the wilderness. “We’d gone on an excursion to the Blue Mountains to see the Three Sisters near Katoomba and ride the scenic railway down to the floor of the valley, where we wandered out along the track towards the Ruined Castle. As the new boy in the class, I was friendless at the time and consquently ended up walking alone, taking my time to examine plants and rocks of interest. The inevitable happened, I suppose, and I became lost.”
Today I retraced at least some of Peter’s steps, taking the Golden Stairs down from Narrowneck to do the 5km walk to the Ruined Castle, a rocky outcrop half way along the ridge extending south-east from the Castle Head spur off Narrowneck to Mount Solitary. It’s a delightful walk to do barefoot, with textures underfoot ranging from cool moist leaf litter to sun-warmed sandstone and the occasional pool of delightfully squishy mud. While it’s a fairly easy scramble up the rocks to the top, with my wonky sense of balance I baulked at the final ascent, leaving it to my walking companion to become King of the Castle.
Along the way, I kept an eye out for possible places where Peter may have been lured off the track, with the spot shown below seeming the most likely. Here the track turns up to the left, but there’s a curious path of sorts leading straight ahead that would have taken him off the spur and south into the wilderness. Upon realising his mistake, he may well have turned west towards the highest ground, hoping to rejoin the track, but that would have only led him into a maze of steep-sided gullies. As twilight approached and he realised his predicament, he would have found his cosy nesting spot alongside one of the tributaries to Cedar Creek. As they say, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened next.
A further 5km south-east along the track is Mount Solitary, and it was near there that real life imitated fiction when, in July 2010, British backpacker Jamie Neale became lost, spending twelve grueling days in the wilderness before stumbing upon a campsite. That would have been at about the same time I was writing Peter’s predicament, but although I recall hearing about the lost bushwalker on the news at the time, I didn’t make the connection to the location until reading a magazine article about it a year or so later. Spooky.
The main park entrance is near the town of Gembrook, itself an interesting place to visit with many historic buildings and the Puffing Billy tourist steam train which runs up the mountainous track to Belgrave.
The park lies in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, with the Bunyip River passing through its eastern end. The southern part along the Diamond Creek tributary is flat and swampy, making it prime bunyip real estate.
The bushwalk and waterholes described in the novel are ficticious, but the old dam near the start of the Buttongrass nature trail is pretty close to what I’d imagined the pool where David disappeared to be. With plenty of reeds along the shore and mysterious ripples moving across the surface, it was easy to imagine monsters lurking in the depths.
The Bunyip River itself was less impressive than I’d imagined, being little more than a channel a couple of metres wide where it crosses Bunyip River Road near the south-eastern entrance to the park. A bit further upstream is an old weir and aqueduct that used to carry water to the farmlands of Gippsland.
The park was badly burnt in the horrific Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, but the vegetation had mostly recovered by the time I visited in early 2011. In such a tranquil setting, it was difficult to imagine what it would have been like at the height of the fires which claimed the lives of 173 people.
More photos from my visit can be seen on the series’ website at http://www.barefoottimes.net/CryOfTheBunyips/tour.htm.
Right from the beginning, fractals have featured prominently in the Barefoot Times saga, but what are they?
The word fractal is a contraction of fractional dimension and the concept can be illustrated by considering the circumference of an island, represented by a one-dimensional line drawn on a map. But how long is that line? The more detailed you make it, the longer it gets since it starts following inlets into bays, rivers, creeks, then around rocks, grains of sand, individual atoms and even subatomic particles. Mathematically, such a line encloses a finite area but has infinite length, and is thus considered to be somewhere between one and two dimensional.
Perhaps the most well-known fractal object is the Mandelbrot set, an image created by calculating the region of convergence of a simple non-linear mathematical equation. Zooming in on the boundary reveals more and more detail the closer you look, ad infinitum. The area of the Mandelbrot set is finite (the whole object can be enclosed within a rectangle so its area must be less than that) but it has infinite circumference.
So how does this relate to the stories?
In Barefoot Times, Billy Collins and Peter Thorpe discover the existence of a subspace which is conceptually at “right angles” to real space in four-dimensional space-time. Fractal crystals, having properties lying between three and four dimensions, provide the mechanism for entering this subspace and allowing faster-than-light travel.
But every new invention has a downside, and in the case of subspace and fractal crystals that’s the phenomenon described in the book as a time cusp, in which the flow of time turns back on itself with potentially different outcomes. To quote from the opening paragraph of that novel, “From time to time there are momentous events that change the course of history. But what would have happened if some of those events had gone the other way?”
Cry of the Bunyips takes this a step further with the introduction of the Nexus, a place where all possible time lines exist. I visualised it physically as a Mandelbulb, the three-dimensional extension of the Mandelbrot set created by Daniel White at skytopia.com. The Mandelbulb has finite volume but infinite surface area, while zooming into its surface reveals more and more detail, again ad infinitum.
This nexus of all possible time lines becomes a unifying point for the story, tying together the time cusp from Barefoot Times in which Jim and Pedro find themselves trapped, the disappearance of fourteen-year-old David Collins, the Eridanian Southern Ocean restoration project and, of course, bunyips.