GRANDDAD never lost the red dust of the goldfields from his eyes. Small and slight he may have been, but he was as fit, he said, as Malley's bull. One of the adventurous breed of pioneer Australian settlers, he had been taught in a hard school, where he had thought nothing of tramping for miles barefoot over rocky tracks. In those days, milk and meat hung in a Coolgardie Hessian safe, and on a hot night the children slept under the house. So it was no surprise to me when the new gold boom revived Granddad's memories and lit up his expectations. To forestall his repairing his old bicycle and heading off alone into the outback, Bill and I booked the three of us into a safari tour.
We boarded the small commuter bus at dawn, rigged up comfortably with no eye to fashion, and pulled out onto the road which headed for more than 300 miles into the heart of the old Western Australian goldfields. Our fellow travelers were a mixed bunch. We were jammed in like sardines, and by the time we bounced beneath the shade of a clump of eucalypts for our first break, Granddad had learned every name. Fifty miles north of Perth, the gum trees gave way to sparse scrub, which continued, diminishing in height, for the rest of the journey.
It was getting dusk as we drove into the old northern settlement. At first glance it appeared to be a ghost town. The road, doubly wide to accommodate the one-time camel trains as they turned, was deserted, and boasted no streetlights. We drew up thankfully beside the dilapidated jarrah weatherboard building which served as hotel and restaurant.
Later, as we ate our fill, we confided our plans for all the gold we would find. No one was more garrulous than Granddad, of course. Even the Aboriginals shyly crept nearer and shared in our laughter. When one of them produced a small nugget of gold, Granddad's eyes lit up with excitement, and he handled the tiny scrap of precious metal almost reverently.
Early morning found us out of our two-man tents and eager to begin prospecting in spite of the desert coldness. The still morning calm was broken by the shrill whine of 12 metal-detecting instruments until we grew used to toning them down. Granddad, with his wide-brimmed hat jammed well down over his ears, waited for no one, but, with detector swaying rhythmically through the white ``everlastings,'' made off with firm intent into the scrub.
We swung our detectors in contented silence all through the morning. The sun swiftly rose higher and began to burn our backs. Once or twice the detectors bleeped over metal, and by the time the shadows lengthened in from the horizon, Bill had unearthed an old horseshoe, and Granddad a handful of cartridge cases, but the gold had proved illusive.
The succeeding days passed in similar quiet enjoyment. As we sat around the campfire in the evenings, scorching our fingers on potatoes or dampers baked in the hot ashes, we discussed the day's findings -- gold dust from a dry creek bed; pyrite, or fool's gold, glinting in gabbro rocks; and colorful quartz and mica specimens.
Granddad's enthusiasm was contagious. He told hilarious tales of bygone escapades down mineshafts.
On the final day of the safari, I stood for a long time contemplating the vastness of Granddad's well-loved territory. I began to see it through his eyes -- a terrain full of surprises. From the dry red rocky ground had arisen flora of such delicacy that it seemed unbelievable to find it there. I could see why Granddad felt at one with this wild, free wilderness.
My reverie was broken by a shout in the distance. Bill and I looked at each other and leaped toward the sound. Then we stopped in our tracks as Granddad's head appeared above ground out of an open mine shaft completely covered in red dust. He had cleared his eyes and was wiping the grit from his mouth so he could talk. To my relief I saw a great grin spread across his face as he clambered out of the shaft, holding something aloft.
``Look at this beauty!'' he exclaimed. ``I'd been thinking there was nothing down there. I'd had a real good look, but couldn't spot a thing. Anyways, I'm on my way up when the old wood gives way, and down I goes face first into the dust. There I was, setting there like a stunned mullet, when I sees this little darlin' looking up at me. Didn't care whether I'd broke me leg or me neck, I was on that nugget like a dingo on a rabbit!''
It was 4 o'clock in the morning before the hilarity had died down and the last tent zip was closed. Everyone in our group had been successful in his own way. Gold-bearing rocks had been located and would be assessed when we returned to the city, more gold dust had been panned and shared, unusual rock data had been recorded, and many friendships sealed.
On the way home, Granddad sat beside the driver, questioning him eagerly about future safari tours. I was with him all the way. I looked at Bill, and I could see that he too was smiling.