Once there was a young wombat named Benson who lived in a comfortable, dry wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
Aunt Lillibet’s friend Gordon was very excited. “I’ve found a cave with ancient rock paintings on the walls!” he said. “They’re probably thousands of years old!”
“Paintings of rocks?” Benson said.
“No,” Gordon said, “paintings of ancient animals and things. Very very old things.”
“Who painted them?” Benson asked. “Very very old people?”
“No, of course not,” Gordon said, getting cross. “They were painted by artists, hundreds of years ago. Probably thousands of years ago.”
Benson’s mother was very interested. “That’s amazing! Where did you find the cave?” she said.
“It’s near Grass Tree Gully,” Gordon said. “I can’t tell you exactly where because it’s a secret. We don’t want lots of people going up there. They might draw on the walls or do things to spoil the paintings when no-one’s looking. But I’m taking a group up there tomorrow, if you want to come.”
In the morning they all got their hats and their water-bottles and set out, with Gordon and Fenella. It was a long walk, through a lot of bush with no track. When they got close, Gordon said, “Now remember these paintings are very very old and very important, so no-one is allowed to touch them, or get too close to them, or even breathe on them very hard. Especially you, Benson!”
Fenella said, “We have to show respect for the ancient peoples who did these wonderful paintings, and we have to make sure they’re kept safe for future generations to come.”
Everyone nodded seriously.
The cave with the paintings wasn’t really a cave at all. It was more like a long wall tucked under a long rock shelf that hung over it, keeping the rain and the sun off.
Benson loved the paintings. They were red and orange and brown, mostly painted with clay and sand mixed with water. There was a big kangaroo, and lots of bony fish, some of them so old they were nearly faded away. There were even some wombats drawn on the walk with black charcoal. He went up to have a closer look.
“Keep back!” Gordon said loudly.
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” Benson protested. “Why is that little wombat wearing a hat?”
Gordon said, “It’s not a hat. That’s an ancient wombat called a diprotodon. Their heads were that shape.”
Gordon wouldn’t let them stay very long, in case they wore the paintings out by too much looking.
When they got home, Benson couldn’t wait. He knew where there was a big rock on the track to the creek. He got some clay from the creek and took it to the big rock and started painting. He was just making a beautiful pademelon when he heard a shout and a big hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Gordon yelled.
“I’m doing rock painting,” Benson answered.
“You young vandal! You’re defacing public property, that’s what you’re doing!” Gordon roared. “You’re destroying the beauty of nature! You’re… doing graffiti!!”
He hauled Benson away and dragged him home. “I caught this young scoundrel defacing a natural rock face with graffiti!” he said to Benson’s mother.
Benson was shaking with fright and shame. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought I was just doing rock painting.”
Aunt Moss said meekly, “I’m sure he didn’t mean to do any harm.”
Benson’s mother said, “Why don’t we go and see for ourselves?”
Gordon led them back to the rock that Benson had painted on. “See?” he said. “It’s appalling!”
“It’s a pademelon,” Aunt Moss said.
Benson’s mother said, “Benson, this is a place that everyone uses – it belongs to everyone. It’s not a place where you can do paintings without permission.”
Benson hung his head.
Gordon said, “That’s right. If we wanted a painting here, we’d form a committee to decide who was going to paint it and what it would be of, and what sort of paint they would use, and there would have to be regular progress reports and site visits and approvals. You can’t just paint on a rock face!”
Benson said, “I’m sorry,” in a small voice.
His mother said, “You’d better clean it off straight away.”
Benson scrubbed and scrubbed until his hands were sore. It took much longer to clean it off than it did to paint it on. At dinner time he was so tired he could hardly eat anything. Aunt Moss wasn’t eating either. Then she said suddenly, “I have a confession to make. I did it!”
“What did you do, Aunt Moss?” Benson’s mother asked.
“The rock painting in the cave at Grass Tree Gully,” Aunt Moss said. “It was me!”
“But Gordon said it’s thousands of years old,” Benson said. “You’re aren’t that old, are you?”
“It isn’t thousands of years old,” she said. “It’s old – I was about your age when I did it, but it’s not that old.”
Benson’s eyes grew bigger and rounder. “You’re a vandal, Aunt Moss? You did graffiti?”
Aunt Moss looked horrified. “Oh no!”she said. “I had permission to do it. I asked the owners first.”
“You asked the traditional owners?” Benson’s mother asked. “How did you do that?”
“I asked Nanna,” Aunt Moss said simply.
“Nanna is the traditional owner?” Benson said, amazed.
Aunt Moss nodded. “She’s one of them, around that part of the country. She said it would be all right so long as I showed respect for the land and the rocks I was painting on.”
“I thought I recognised that little wombat in the hat,” Benson’s mother said. “It’s Lillibet, isn’t it?”
Aunt Moss nodded. “Lillibet always had a thing for hats, even when she was very young.”
Benson thought about the paintings, the kangaroo and the fish and the wombats that were so beautiful and looked as if they had been there forever. “I think you were very respectful, Aunt Moss,” he said.
Then he thought some more. “Do you think I could get permission?” He was already thinking about the things he’d like to paint: Pascoe and her mob, and Aunt Moss’s turtles.
Aunt Moss said, “I don’t see why not.”
Benson’s mother got up. “Come on, Benson,” she said.
“Where are we going?” he said.
“To see Nanna,” she said. “Right now.” And off they went.