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  • Published: 3 April 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761342455
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $34.99

The Rivertown Vet


Jana stood beneath a lonely, old swamp paperbark. It had somehow escaped the axe when this land had been cleared for pasture one hundred and fifty years ago. She loved melaleucas, and this was a particularly fine specimen. Its trunk textured and weathered, its bark like the faded pages of an ancient book. Each layer peeling away to reveal a palette of soft ochres, burnished browns and whispers of pale gold. Its slender leaves fluttered in the slight breeze, reflecting the cold mid-winter sun with a luminous shine.

She gazed across the grassy clearing, then glanced up at the threatening sky. Dark clouds were rolling in from the west. A storm was on its way. In the distance, a row of red gums marked the course of the Murray River. How she’d love to head over there to look for platypuses in her favourite billabong, but no, not today. She had more pressing matters: taking grass samples and retrieving Wall-E one last time.

Jana was part of a statewide research team studying the southern hairy-nosed wombat. She and her sister also ran a sanctuary for orphaned and injured animals. These chunky characters were the marsupial equivalent of excavators. Known as ‘bulldozers of the bush’, they were South Australia’s faunal emblem. With their charming faces, large noses and small bright eyes, she considered these wombats to be Australia’s most beautiful and charismatic creatures.

Jana loved their quirky personalities, their determination and their affectionate nature. She loved their work ethic and stubborn dedication to earthmoving, thus improving soil health by bringing nutrients to the surface and burying organic matter. The clearing ahead was dotted with dozens of mounds and burrows, all connected by a complex tunnel system. These passageways had multiple entrances and extended nearly ninety metres underground.

Jana should know. She’d spent the past fortnight exploring the twists and turns of this particular warren with a Wombot – one of the state-of-the-art exploratory robots developed by the University of Tasmania to study conditions within burrows. It was down a warren right now, equipped with sensors and cameras.

Jana checked the video feed being sent back by the Wombot and adjusted its course. She’d nicknamed it Wall-E and had grown quite fond of the intrepid little robot. Unfortunately, it was only on loan, and she had to send it back to the university tomorrow. She’d be sad to it go.

Wall-E reminded her of a scaled down Mars rover, remote controlled and able to traverse, rough inaccessible terrain while sending back a live video feed to the accompanying tablet screen in Jana’s hands. She marvelled at the intricate tangle of passages and the unexpected residents that Wall-E’s camera had revealed. She now had proof that tawny dragons, echidnas and snakes often shared the wombat tunnels. Even a burrowing bettong or two. That had made her laugh. Lazy little buggers – couldn’t they dig their own homes? But Jana had been heartened that such a rare species had been found here at Odessa, the farm that had been in their family for three generations.

She frowned as two rabbits appeared on the video feed. Of all the threats her precious wombats faced, competition from feral herbivores was near the top of the list, along with mange and introduced weeds invading their grasslands. Potato weed and onion grass were taking over large swathes of the Murraylands, crowding out the native grasses. Their toxins poisoned the wombats’ livers, killing many and leaving others sick and emaciated.

For the past few years, Jana and her younger sister, Sash, had worked hard to eradicate rabbits, wild goats and weeds from their land. They’d replanted hectares of degraded pasture with native Mitchell and spear grasses. Thanks to their efforts, the wombat population at Odessa was recovering. And thanks to Wall-E, Jana now had a working map of this sprawling warren, together with humidity and temperature readings. Understanding the secret life of wombats would make it much easier to protect them. For example, knowing the relative humidity inside burrows could help in controlling the parasitic sarcoptic mange mites. And access to birth dens could cast new light on the rare marsupial’s reproductive biology.

Jana checked her phone. Two o’clock. Reluctantly, she switched to the Wombot’s rear-facing camera. She was due for her shift at the Rivertown Vet Clinic at three and had already been late twice in the last week. If Oliver docked her wage again, paying this month’s feed bill for the animals would be a problem.

Wall-E reversed and began trundling back through the maze of branching tunnels. But when it was a few metres from the surface, it stopped – caught on a tree root.

‘Come on,’ urged Jana, jiggling the remote. But Wall-E merely spun on its tracks. The robot was well and truly stuck.

After a few minutes of useless manoeuvring, Jana checked her phone again. It was well and truly time to leave. The clinic was almost an hour’s drive away. She pulled impatiently on the ethernet cable connecting Wall-E to the ground station at her feet. Yes – the robot moved a few inches. Encouraged by this progress, she tugged the cable again, harder this time.

Suddenly the cord came free in her hand and Jana lost the video feed. Shit. She’d yanked the cable clear out of the unit, losing all connection with Wall-E. Now the Wombot was not only stranded underground, but it was broken as well.

Jana kicked at the wombat hole that yawned before her. The little robot was only a few metres underground, tantalisingly close. Maybe if she lay down, she’d be able to reach it. Jana dug around in the pack for her head torch, tied back her dark hair, knelt on the ground and shone her torch into the hole. No sign of Wall-E. She got down on her stomach and wiggled into the entrance. What was that? Something glinted in the torch light. She wriggled in a bit further. It was Wall-E all right, out of reach by less than a metre.

Jana gritted her teeth and crawled in as far as she could, arms extended like those of a diver to make her shape as streamlined as possible. It was a tight squeeze, but soon her groping hand almost had a grip on the little robot. One last squirm, a mouthful of dirt and – success! Her fingers closed on Wall-E. She jiggled it free of the root and let out her breath. Thank goodness. Hopefully Sash, who was a tech whizz, would be able to reattach the ethernet cable tonight.

Now, time to get out of here quick smart and hightail it into Rivertown. She might make her shift after all. But when she tried to back out of the tunnel, she found herself wedged fast. With her arms outstretched as they were, she couldn’t use her elbows to push herself backwards. And her knees were jammed fast against the floor of the burrow. No matter how much she wriggled and squirmed, she couldn’t move an inch.

After what seemed like hours of futile attempts to free herself, Jana was spent. She lay exhausted, sniffing back tears and spitting dust.

At least her head torch lit up the narrow tunnel ahead. Without it’s light she’d be suffering a serious case of claustrophobia. Jana could feel her heart racing and soil sticking to her sweaty palms.

Jana’s phone rang in her pocket – probably Oliver ready to berate her for being late. Amazed that it still had reception, she instinctively tried to answer it, then swore as it rang out. How long would it be until someone came looking for her? Jana had no way to call for help, but eventually her sister would wonder where she was. Eventually. Sash had the day off from working at the produce store, which meant she was home, but Jana had left her tinkering in the shed that morning – she was trying to build a solar-powered automatic opener for their front gate. Once Sash got stuck into one of her projects, she could barely drag herself away. It could be five o’clock before she noticed that Jana wasn’t back to help feed the orphans.

A rumble of thunder sounded, and a cold, wet feeling began creeping up her jeans from the direction of her feet. Jana groaned. The forecast had been for a substantial downpour, and wombat burrows could flood or even cave in if it rained hard enough. At best, Jana faced a miserable few hours trapped down this damp hole. At worst . . . Well, she didn’t want to think about it.

Something touched her ankle, startling her. ‘Sash?’ she called. ‘Is that you? I’m stuck.’

She strained her ears for the sound of her sister’s voice, but all she heard was a sharp crack of lightning.

The touch on her leg came again, higher now, nearer to the top of her calf. A shiver of fear ran down Jana’s spine. Something was moving along her body towards her face. Jana held her breath as she felt a slight pressure on her neck, soft as silk. It was all she could do not to shout out loud as the head of a large tiger snake emerged from behind her ear. Stay quiet, she told herself. Don’t alarm it.

The snake slid over her head, making her shudder and blink as the tail flicked her eye. It coiled its black-and-tan striped body around the root that Wall-E had been snagged on. The two of them stared at each other by the light of Jana’s torch, which seemed to be dimming. Great. Meanwhile the wombat hole was turning into a muddy pit as the rain continued to fall. The snake’s tongue flicked in and out, tasting the air. Jana licked her own lips and shut her eyes, hoping that the roof wouldn’t cave in and kill them both.

The Rivertown Vet Jennifer Scoullar

A slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers romance, by a favourite Australian author.

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