ONE FOR THE ROAD
With the prospect of travelling around Australia for 12 months looming large, my chosen accommodation was to be the biggest decision. After all, my car, an all-wheel-drive Subaru Forrester was just four years old and had done just 25,000-odd kilometres and still under warranty, was never going to be a problem. I figured it would probably take me to many places a normal car would not. Rough 4WD tracks may be out of the question, but it was a case of wait and see and have a bit of confidence in the vehicle and a sense of adventure.
Back to my digs. I toured the caravan and camping show in Melbourne, looked at many vans, campervans, trailers and tents. My initial feeling was to go for an A Van, one of caravanning’s simplest, yet amazingly comfortable inventions. In the end, I said no. I ruled out campervans because the idea of packing up every time I wanted to get to town to buy something would be a pain in the arse.
I shopped around the camper trailer haunts and finally found one that looked the goods. The brand is Koala, built by a great bloke called Terry, who had businesses in Bundaberg and Melbourne. The trailer has, according to Terry, a lifetime guarantee. I was sold.
Let’s get down to trailer basics.
• It’s built like a brick shithouse … solid as a rock in every department and has independent springs. It has been sprayed with galvanised paint, a must when spending a lot of time on the coast.
• I erected the tent at my brother’s place down the coast (Curlewis) and, as recommended, hosed it down to shrink the canvas into place. It stayed there for a couple of weeks weathering and survived everything nature could throw at it, an attack of earwigs inside notwithstanding.
• The tent (over the trailer) is simple to erect. It has three ribs that just fold out and you put two poles in place, each with a pegged rope and it’s done. It’s about five metres by three metres and has a zip-up door and a zip-up screen (midge proof). Takes 10 minutes at best. The undercover area is doubled when you put up the annexe, which has midge-proof screen all the way around (it all zips together) with the exception of a solid wall to shield the kitchen from the wind. The tent floor is held in place by Velcro, which sticks like shit to a blanket. I have a jigsaw type of rubber floor for the annexe, which is kind to my tender feet.
• The tent has two huge windows, each that either rolls up or can be pegged out as an awning. There’s also a window at each end of the bed. All are held in place by good zippers, which need a coat of silicon spray every now and then to keep them running smoothly.
• The bed is a queen-sized innerspring, a particularly comfortable unit. Its only drawback is that it’s a metre and a half off the ground, not an ideal situation after an evening on the singing syrup, which, surprise surprise, is a regular thing. The bed is hinged and lifts to give access to the trailer where my life is stored.
• There are two water tanks (I think 140 litres capacity all up), one accessed by a 12-volt pump … yes, it has running water … the other by a hand pump. There are also two 4.5-kilo gas bottles, a deep-cycle battery to power the water pump. There is also a 12-volt plug to run lights or whatever. A huge aluminium plate toolbox sits on the draw bar along with the spare wheel. There’s also a jerry can on the side.
• The kitchen (OK, that’s a bit of a flash term), too, is hinged and fold out the back of the trailer. It’s a cracker. Plenty of bench space and storage, plus a three-burner stove with a fold-down glass splashback and a stainless steel sink.
• The fridge is a Dometic (a Swedish company) three-way … 12-volt, mains power or gas. It appears to be at its most efficient when operated on gas, which augurs well for time in the bush without power. I also have a nine-can cooler … it’s also a warmer so it could be OK for food, too …which I run in the car
• I’ve added lots of bits an pieces, including hanging pods to get stuff, including food, out of the way, a zip-up cupboard for kitchen utensils. Two of the said cupboards are also my wardrobes. They seem secure as in they keep out bugs and mice, which is comforting. There’s also a small flat-screen TV with a long exterior antenna and a small DVD player
• I have two enviro-friendly 240-volt lights to use at powered sites, three 12-volt tubes as back-up, two solar lights, which I keep on permanent charge. They offer 4-6 hours of light when fully charged so, again, life off road should pose no lighting problems. I also have a larger solar panel, which can charge the spare lantern (you can never have too many lights), my phone, in fact most things with a cigarette lighter plug. Not powerful enough, however, for the teev, but I rarely seem to unpack it.
• I have a hammock on a frame, which is just the ticket for the afternoon nap. I’d even consider sleeping on it a given that I bought a mosquito net after a night of killer mozzies.
• The iPod and its dock keep me and the neighbours entertained. And I stay in touch with the laptop, via a Telstra stick modem.
Packing clothes for a year was no mean feat. I suppose I’m lucky because I’m a slave to my own fashion sense or lack of it. Jeans, a singlet or T-shirt and cowboy boots has been pretty much the order of the day since God’s dog was a pup. I’ve since amended my mode of dress to be mainly Crocs or sandals, shorts and a singlet (T-shirts and jeans are reserved for cooler days) although I did pack three pairs of boots. And I bought some Ugg boots along the way. Of course, I packed about eight towels … two would have been enough … some tea towels, enough kitchen utensils to sink a ship (including a stick blender and a mortar and pestle), a huge can of extra virgin olive oil and, for God’s sake, about 30 bottles of spirits. Not that I thought of bingeing, mind, it’s just so bloody expensive when you’re a million miles from a decent bottle shop. There were sundry other things … a blow-up mattress, a sleeping bag (both for guests), a fold-up table, a poker set, a couple of dozen books, first-aid kit, sewing kit, various storage bags, plenty of toiletries (again expense was a consideration), a couple of hundred DVDs … a man’s gotta have his Seinfeld and Outrageous Fortune fixes every now and then … pens, writing pads, a hard drive for photo storage, two cameras and a tripod, four fishing rods and a tackle bag and box, yabbie nets, landing nets, a shovel, an axe, a pick, a cricket bat and some balls, a hose, a bucket, a funnel, ropes, all sorts of tools, assorted spares … plus odds ‘n’ sods that I figured I’d need including a couple of jackets. Well, you never know when there may be a formal in the offing. I have six 50-litre sealable containers in the trailer for all the goodies. Tidiness is an essential because it takes no time for it to become a shambles if you leave stuff all over the place. Since I’ve been on the road I have added an air compressor, a sandwich maker, two chairs and a fold-up Esky … it’s a beauty for when the fridge is too full of food and has an easy access point through its top. The ice lasts the best part of two days, so it must be well insulated. I left some beer in it for four days and the cans were wonderfully chilled by the water.
LET THE DRIVE BEGIN … TO WARRNAMBOOL
As if being job-free wasn’t liberating enough, the first half hour on the road was total freedom. Finally in early November I was on my way and did I feel smug. “Look at me, look at me, I’m on the road and I don’t have to be anywhere at any time” I kept thinking as I headed down the Geelong Road bound for wherever. This was the trip I’d been planning for months and now it was finally happening.
Wherever ended up being Warrnambool. It was to pay homage to my very dear friend, Steve Waldon, who died just weeks before I left. Waldo had spent many happy years with his family in the Bool. It seemed somehow fitting that I should go there, given that Waldo was planning to come on the road with me now and then.
My plan was to have a five-week familiarity trip to work out the foibles of the trailer and me. And also to decide what I did and didn’t need. Anyway, I planned to be back in Melbourne to spend Christmas with the kids and my ex and her husband, so five weeks was a perfect introduction.
I stayed at a big park in Warrnambool. Needless to say, it was an inauspicious start to my camping life. I put the tent up facing the wrong way, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. (From memory Kramer called it a God blessing … ie. A blessing in de skies.) When the rains came I was definitely facing the right way, with the water lashing against the BACK of my tent, leaving the annexe dry. It also gave the tent a thorough workout in terms of whether it was weather-proof. It was.
My first real lesson came quickly. I didn’t need the box of spirits. I became mates with the bloke next door. He, like me, was travelling alone. He had a ute and a bloody big caravan. Perrie was a truckie with a thirst although he only drank Carlton Light. Yeah, sure.
As you do when you meet the person next door, I said: “I’ll have a beer with you once I get set up.” He was already onto his third but that didn’t stop him accepting the invitation. We had a few beers during the afternoon, a bite to eat and then settled in for a chin wag and a few more beers. As you do when you have the necessary evil, I suggested that we have some very fine Glemorangie single malt that I had grabbed a year before in the duty free shop in Hong Kong.
“I’m not really a spirits drinker,” said Perrie, “but I’ll have one to be sociable.” And we only had one. Bottle that is. When I saw him the next morning it was a toss up who was in worse shape. We decided over a cup of tea that it was a draw. I knew the spirits had to go and didn’t go near another bottle. They are now firmly ensconced back home in Melbourne.
There was a hiccup with the trailer. I filled the water tank but the pump (although doing its thing) wouldn’t deliver said liquid from the tap. I phoned Terry, the trailer builder, and he suggested all sorts of remedies none of which worked. But it did have its upside. I felt like I knew what I was doing, being under the trailer and undoing all sorts of things and then reattaching them. I suggested to Terry that after a week at Warrnambool I would return to Melbourne and get him to look it over.
I bade Perrie farewell and headed back to Melbourne for a date with Terry. He pushed, prodded and cajoled the bloody thing. He replaced the pump. Still nothing. Finally he removed the hose from the tank. Seems there was a thin film of plastic (like Gladwrap) that had taken up residence inside the tank over the outlet. Problem solved.
Terry said that nothing ever goes wrong with the pump. “It’s a simple 12-volt mechanism,” he said, “but take the other pump. You just never know and I would hate for you to have a problem on the road in the middle of nowhere.” There was no charge, just a smile and a wish for a good trip.
Given that the weather wasn’t yet at its best, I headed north to the Murray … and Echuca. It was warm in almost every way. The weather, the people, the whole town vibe. What a great place.
I stayed at a big camp on the river. As I got to the site to set up, I found my new neighbours. “Is this a decent neighbourhood?” I asked. “Yep, sure is,” said the two young blokes who were kayaking the length of the Murray. There was nothing flash about their digs. One bloke, who looked like he’d stepped straight from the set of Romper Stomper, lived in a tiny tent. The other, who had dreadlocks, wore horn-rimmed glasses and overalls, lived under a two canvas sheets strung between two trees. Yep, he slept on the ground. Their only concession to furniture was a hay bale to sit on and a supermarket trolley to move their stuff around.
They were pretty keen on a drink too, which we did on several occasions. They both got temporary jobs in Echuca despite being told by the relevant organisation that there were none to be had. During their kayaking hours, they foraged for food, fished and hunted.
Yep, Romper Stomper man bought a bow and arrows in Echuca and planned to skewer the odd roo or whatever along the way. Not sure how the park residents took it when he set up the hay bale (with a red face painted on it as a target) just outside the park so he could fine-tune his bow. I couldn’t help but wonder how many tattooed men armed with bows that I would meet on the trip. The count is still one.
I stayed at Echuca for a couple of weeks and had a grand time. I met some terrific people, including Mike, who worked at the park. I felt honoured (in a useful way cos I’d done nothing in the way of work for ages) when he asked me one day to give him a lift with some stuff. He returned the favour when I went to the kiosk to buy some batteries (for the TV remote. The cricket was on) and the lady there told me they had none. Mike gave me gratis a couple from the office supplies. There’s something nice about country people. Give them a hand or a g’day and they respond.
I had regular chats with the blokes at one of the camping shops on the main drag. (There are two, side by side.) “You’ve been here every day this week,” he said to me. He was right, but it was always for something I needed. He even put me onto a good fishing spot when I went there to buy bait to go fishing with Dirk, the Dutchman, who was staying at the park with his wife, Marika. It was a great fishing spot. No bloody fish biting, just flies, but a great spot. Dirk and Marika were great company. Dirk was a butcher and had a huge supply of meat in the freezer. They invited me to share their booty a couple of times.
After a couple of week feeding ducks at my tent door, touring the local sights and museums with Dirk, getting to know some locals and enjoying the two-for-one night at one of the local pubs, it was time to move. Yarrawonga beckoned.
It was a pretty easy drive. I again was full of euphoria as I motored east, looking at the rear-view mirror and seeing MY house happily trailing along behind. There’s that freedom thing again, although the fine, warm weather contributed.
I stayed at a large park right on the river (Murray). It was a great site just metres from the water. My next-door neighbour was Mark, a shearer. He had a huge van with a dunny and shower and a workshop in which he kept his two motorbikes. We became drinking and counter meal mates and went on the odd pub crawl or to the Mulwalla yacht club. Mark was shearing at a property not too far out of town so didn’t have too much in the way of late nights. He did, however, sharpen his shears in his workshop, often when I was asleep. It sounded like what I imagine a cat sounds like when it’s run through a bandsaw. Eerie thing that, especially at one in the morning.
There were a couple of things I didn’t like about the park. Sure it had unlimited water from the river, but they kept the sprinklers running for hours at a time, often flooding the road. When I put it to a park worker that it was a waste, he shrugged and said it was nothing to worry about. “It all runs back into the river,” he said. When I asked him about the evaporation of water lying on the road, he shrugged again. He couldn’t see it as a problem. The park also had big dump bins into which everything was dumped. Grass clippings, glass, paper, general rubbish, food scraps. Let’s have some thought of recycling here please.
Yarrawonga also gave me time to catch up with long-time friend and local Tom Hutchison. Tom had been doing it tough since he lost his wife, Diane, late last year. I said to him at the funeral that I would catch up with him soon and was good to my word. It was great to just sit and drink tea while we shot the breeze and relived the many happy times we had when he lived in Melbourne.
I also found time to get to Ray’s Outdoors in Albury.
After a couple of weeks of fishing (again, nothing but the flies were biting), sight-seeing, carousing and enjoying the heat of Yarrawonga, it was time to head south to Melbourne. It was fate that didn’t help when I packed to leave. The heavens opened, I got saturated despite wearing a parka and waterproof pants and had to pack a wet tent. It pissed down all the way to Malmsbury, my next stop and bush home to Jodie and Stefan Pfarr.
MALMSBURY AND THE FESTIVAL TO END ALL FESTIVALS
Christmas was in the offing, but first there was to a Festivus for the rest of us. Jodie was hosting it (Stef was away at work) and we would be joined by the redoubtable Simon Kaye (the K man), the little cowboy Frank (he could be the real Frank Costanza, given the greatness of his impersonations) Miaorana and the placid, glove wearing, BMW driving, quietly spoken John Mangan.
I’d given up smoking in Yarrawonga, but started again very quickly at the bush block. When I put up my tent, I discovered that the mattress and doona were wet. I hadn’t fully closed the door zip and the aqua pura did its thing. I slept the first night on one third of the mattress with a quarter of the doona to keep the cold at bay. Not that it mattered too much, I reckon, because the 314 drinks I’d had since I arrived meant that a) I never moved once I’d hit the mattress and b) I was unlikely to feel the cold. Both things dried out in the shack by the fire the next day, but they were the only things to dry out during the few days there.
The real Festivus (Seinfeld fans will understand) had very little to do with alcohol. That had to change and it did in a big way.
We spent the Friday, Saturday and Sunday wetter on the inside than it was after the rain outside.
Frank’s arrival on the Saturday was momentous, the only downside being that Jodie missed it cos she was in the shower. Frank came cruising in his car down the drive. He was wearing a motorcycle helmet and had his entire face swathed in crepe bandages. It was a reminder of K man’s last trip there when he did himself some damage by dropping his motorcycle on the dirt road just near the block. He did, mind, do considerably more damage later after he’d had a medicinal bottle of scotch and fell into the fire.
Festivus had it all: a visit to a local winery (where Jodie licked the road. She’ll say that she didn’t, but I know there’s a photograph somewhere.), tests of strength, silly hats, the aluminium pole, the airing of grievances at times armed with a large machette, dogs, jokes, great food, great wines (OK all sorts of grog), the mandatory watching of the Seinfeld Festivus episode (three times I think) and a wonderful collection of people to share it. It remains one of the best weekends I’ve ever had. And it’s great to be reminded whenever I like because Jodie (aka the office skank … Seinfeld fans will again understand) put together a great DVD of the weekend … lots of stills, excellent titles and random comments, great music (she’s a love because she included Cold Chisel) all spliced into the original Seinfeld Festivus episode. The DVD is unfortunately unavailable commercially although I’d be happy to show it to anyone interested.
The only thing happy to leave Malmsbury was my liver, but leave we did, bound for Christmas in the wilds of Wantirna with Monica, my ex, her husband Jim and my sons Joel and Liam. Joel is a native of Wantirna and Liam had flown in from Vanuatu where he has lived since January last year.
LAWN ORDER IN WANTIRNA
I had planned to camp somewhere close to Monica’s and Jim’s place but it was Christmas and most sites were booked. Jim very kindly suggested that I set up camp on the front lawn of their home. The neighbours certainly made a few comments, but I think Monica quite enjoyed the fact the she had the only erected tent in the street.
Joel was helping me to move the trailer around so I could position it within the confines of some trees, when I literally ducked when I should have weaved. I stopped pulling the trailer as Joel gave it a big shove … the jockey wheel landed squarely on my right foot, busting the second toe and leaving a bloody big bruise for a week or two. The toe still gives me grief.
It was to be my home for two weeks: again lots of good food, grog, conversations, one of which gave me plenty to think about. I was shooting the breeze with Joel and he said: “You know, this is about the longest time I can ever remember spending with you.” I was shell-shocked, but the realisation hit home. Monica and I had parted company when Joel was a little tacker. I somehow felt that I’d let him down in some way. Still do.
Christmas Day was an excellent family affair: Monica did the usual roast pork with all the trimmings and lots of other bits and pieces. I contributed my (now famous, well Mim really loves it) smoked salmon and dill dip and a bloody big cray. It was $132 for the cray but worth it. Jim’s son, Brendan, also happened along. He works on a crocodile farm just out of Broome. I hadn’t seen him for years and it was good to see that he’d grown into a decent young bloke. His woofer, Moondog, was the afternoon entertainment, which has carried out with great aplomb. It was the first time I had ever seen a dog fishing, but that’s what he did in the pool and spa. Very funny.
I also got to see Mon Senior, Monica’s mother, who I hadn’t seen for a long time. The sparkle in her eyes when we all walked in was enough to make the whole Melbourne trip worthwhile.
I did manage to spend one night in Melbourne at a hotel. I headed that way to attend the Age editorial Christmas party and to catch up with lots of friends (some acquaintances) and, later, another Jodie. It was a good thing all round.
It was with a tinge of sadness that the time had come to hit the road again. Not that I was having second thoughts about traveling, but because I’d had a such a good time back in the big smoke.
I packed up the whole shebang and as I was moving the trailer around to attach it to the car, I did my back … big time. I said all my goodbyes and hit the road again, knowing that this was the worst thing I’d ever done to my back, which is saying something because I’ve been a career bad-back person.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER DOWN WERRIBEE WAY
It was only when I pulled into the Werribee South park that the severity of my back problem really hit home. I booked a site and, in agony, managed to get the whole thing set up again. Werribee South is a real surprise to anyone who hasn’t been there (I had). It’s a quiet, pretty little seaside town … and it’s just 30 minutes from the city. It’d be a great family picnic spot.
I had come this way to catch up with Cheryl Waldon and family. She was still coming to grips with Steve’s death (if you ever do get to grips with those things) and I’d planned to spend some time with them. Sad (for me) that my first three days there were flat out, literally. My back was so bad I couldn’t move, save a trip or two to the toilet and the odd occasion to prepare some food. After three days I had all but run out of food and ventured to the nearest supermarket, which happened to be at Point Cook. I had a basket of goodies and was walking towards the register when the back really gave out. I put the basket down and doubled up. I could even feel the colour drain from my face. I was quickly grabbed by a man and a woman who politely asked: “Are you OK, are you having a heart attack?” I explained the my back was rooted and not my ticker. I thanked them for their concern, paid for my stuff and walked like a crab back to the car. I did eat well that night but consumed much more than enough grog to dull the pain. Somehow it worked.
The next day I finally caught up with Cheryl and her son, Cameron, for lunch. It was great to see them both and relive the good old times that we’d all had together with Steve.
Again, the road beckoned. I was heading back through Warrnambool and onto the next town.
LURED BY THE PORT FAIRY LIGHTS
I stayed at Southcombe Park, a giant of a place, for two weeks. Port Fairy is such a nice town full of friendly people, among them Steve Kelly (aka Ned), his wife Rachel and their kids Bridie, Will and Ted. We had a few meals together, which was just great. Young Ted has more energy than any five athletes I know. He was a great source of entertainment.
Ned and I managed an afternoon at the Caledonian, supposedly the oldest continuously licensed pub in Victoria, where we caught up with Alan Oakley, who had just finished his tenure as editor of the SMH. It was great to shoot the breeze with them and it reinforced my decision to quit the Age. The pictures of the future of newspapers were bleak in the extreme, and painted by both. (Ned, by the way, is editor of the Warrnambool Standard.)
Dinner at Ned’s and Rachel’s was a great night with Ned doing his stuff on his guitar (he’s taking lessons and is very good). The five kilometre walk back to my digs was anything but good, given that I was in unfamiliar territory. The walk involved some tacking (it was the last couple of drinks that did it) and I’d almost attained sobriety by the time I was under canvas again.
Camping is the ultimate classless society, it seems. Everyone uses the same dunnies and showers, everyone chats to everyone else, people let their guards down and don’t worry how they look. The sight of a (largish) woman in silk pyjamas strolling through the park brought that home.
The best thing though was walking into the urinal to take a leak. Two blokes walked in, each with beer in hand (which they plonked on top of the urinal) and set about their thing. One turned to me and said: “How good is this?” I momentarily thought he was talking about camping, but no. It was about having a piss. “This is better than a root,” he said with much enthusiasm. “Dunno,” I said, “my memory’s not that good.”
Ah, such is the joy of meeting new people.
I decided to book for the Port Fairy Folk Festival (another four weeks or so down the track) and grabbed a couple of tickets and booked a camp site. I thought the tickets were expensive enough at $175 a throw, but the cost of the site … sweet mother of Jesus … was $80 bucks a night (unpowered) and another $10 for the car, quite a jump from the $28 they had been charging. Still, Southcombe would have a captive audience … many thousands … why wouldn’t they cash in? This though was more than cashing in, it was over the top.
I stayed at the camping ground on the way into town. There is a larger one (I think) down by the river, but I had camped at the smaller one before. One thing really going for it is that it has en suite for all sites. Nothing too flash, mind, just a hot shower, a dunny and a washbasin. It’s really a good place to go and sit on a really hot day because it’s the coolest place around, the air-conditioned bar at the pub notwithstanding.
I did sit in there during one of the 40-degree days after I’d unsuccessfully tried to keep cool in the annexe by sitting under towels soaked in cold water.
I spent most of the time knocking around with Perrie, (a truckie by trade) who has been towing his caravan to all parts Australia. I met him in October when I camped next to his site at Warrnambool.
Good fella, but we tend to drink too much when we get together. Perrie’s the only person I know who will order a hamburger with the lot, but “no salad, ta”. He drives a Ford ute, which is full of tools, spares, a generator and a fridge full of light beer, and has pulled a caravan to all points of the compass. He has two forms of address: “G’day, bloke” when he’s talking to a man and “g’day, mate” when it’s a woman. I’m yet to see any bad reaction from either gender. Even his daughters get the same treatment, although he ends each phone call to them with a “love you”.
He’s also (like me) addicted to Ray’s Outdoors. Seems we both have more camping-type knick knacks than we really need. Perrie has a generator, an air compressor, a couple of fridges, more other tools than you could imagine. Christ knows where he manages to pack everything when he goes on the road. And he likes to travel with beer in the Esky. Just Carlton Light, mind, but he thinks nothing of having a few while he’s driving. The worst part of that was that it got me started (Carlton Draught) on it much earlier and depending on whether I was driving.
We fished on the beach at night and also at the river. Had a few bites on the beach, but caught nothing. The best chance I had to land anything was at what’s known as the Blue Hole at the end of the river by the beach. Stuck my rod into my pocket and started to roll a cigarette. The line went off, so did the fish.
Perrie spent some time living at Peterborough, so he knows just about all the locals and spent plenty of time showing me the sights. I met many of them at the local pub, including big Aaron, who was as pissed as a human can be the last time I saw him. There was a fair amount of bad-mouthing of the publican by the big fella and subsequent finger pointing from Peter the publican who was threatening to ban him … again. I managed to put my life in my hands by getting him outside where I tried to talk sense with him. Another local, Dave, managed to call Aaron’s long-suffering wife, who drove to the pub to get him. I think many of the patrons were glad to see the end of him for the night.
Roo, on the other hand, was only just behind Aaron in the pissed stakes, but he’s as placid as you’d want. He’s just difficult to have a conversation with cos he was blowing bubbles out of the corner of his mouth at the time. He’s a local farmer who’s been known to go missing for a day or so, although not often cos his wife is usually with him, as she was the morning we stopped for a beer at the Port Campbell pub.
That began quite a day. Port Campbell pub, then a bar at Prince Town for the one, then a huge session at the Boggy Creek pub. And what a pub it is. Very friendly people running it and a great location and atmosphere. The guys at the pub used to play darts with a pub in England over the phone. They must have run up quite a large phone bill.
There’s a small billabong out the back where people would moor their boats and come in for a serve of the singing syrup. It needs dredging to attain its former glory, but I was assured that it was in the publican’s plans.
There were some great people passing through Peterborough. I had an early night (yep, an alcohol-free night) and presumably not long before I fell asleep, I heard some late arrivals setting up in the dark next to my site. I wandered out in the morning, cuppa in hand and feeling good due to the absence of grog the night before: I said g’day to the couple next door. They had a camper trailer with an extra room on the side. I soon found out why. Five kids of various shapes and sizes emerged into the day. “Jesus,” I said, “You’re brave travelling with five kids. Dunno how you do it,” There’s five more at home, they told me, and a new grandchild on the way; pregnant daughter and boyfriend had just move back into the house. There was another couple with two young kids. They were on the road for a couple of years until the kids were of school age.
There are just two shops at Peterborough: one sells takeaway grog, the other sells food, papers and bits and pieces. Perrie and I got to know Erin, the young girl who cooked there. She was a local of sorts but was living in Sydney. She was in Peterborough to catch up with family and make a few bob in the process.
The night before the Boggy Creek session she invited us to a party at the shop. It was to be her last day and she was keen to celebrate with a drink or two. We duly turned up with more than a few under the belt, bought some grog across the road and settled in on the veranda of the shop for the party. Turns out it was just Perrie and myself, Erin and her best girlfriend (whose name I forget. Sorry). Erin was extremely considerate; she supplied paper bags in which to hide our grog “just in case a copper wanders by”. The beers flowed until I’d reached saturation point so I did the sensible thing. I went across the road and bought a supply of bourbon and Coke. Erin then offered to organize the pizza (well you’ve gotta soak it up with something) and we carried on drinking to the delightful strains of some modern rap crap from her laptop.
After the pizza two things happened: one, I felt better and, two, I asked Erin what the plans were for the night. “Probably go to the beach’” she said. I wasn’t quite sure just what going to the beach entailed, but I was thinking probably what any pissed bloke thinks when a girl says we’re going to the beach at night. After all, what would two girls (in their 20s was my guess) want with two pissed old farts like us. There was no need to worry because Perrie and the other girl finally twigged: they were cousins. And we were simply not in Jerry Lee Lewis territory. Instead we finished our grog and bade the girls farewell. As Perrie and I were walking away, we heard Erin exclaim: “I can’t believe he’s your cousin.” Perrie countered with “I heard that” There was much laughter between us all as we sauntered off into the night while the girls presumably hung out a “temporarily out of ardor’’ sign.
Time again to go, this time to meet up with friends, Simon Kaye, Reid Sexton and Ian Gilbert. Simon and Reid are still at the Age and Gilbo, a former Age man (I got him the job there) was back in Oz on holiday from the UK where he is lecturing in journalism in the dark, dingy north of the Old Dart.
UP THE (SKENES) CREEK
I had no idea where Skenes Creek was, but when the guys from Melbourne were heading there for a weekend and, given that I wasn’t far away in Peterborough, I made a beeline. For the record, it’s a picturesque little town about seven minutes’ drive from Apollo Bay.
The Skenes Creek campground is right on the beach and is run by a bloke called Charlie, who’s as mischievous as he is savvy about the camping and caravan business. The joint is managed by Abe and Marion, husband and wife veterans who live in a large van on-site and Charlie’s mum, Helena, who is a gorgeous woman. It’s also a backpacker and dog friendly site, both big pluses. It has a well-stocked kiosk (milk, bread and most things in between), rents surfboards and wetsuits and sundry other things.
I was allotted my site (No.21) and being in a hurry to put the thing up, I missed the marker, which resulted in me having a site and a half, something that didn’t entirely endear me to Charlie or Marion. I offered to take it down, but they saw the funny side of it and left me alone.
My second day there heralded the arrival of Simon, Reid and Gilbo. What followed was much drinking, petanque, nibbles and lots of laughs, although that came to an end later in the night. After dinner (the kangaroo was delicious) at the Apollo Bay Hotel, we ventured to the other pub … dunno what it’s called … for a blast of live music and some dancing with as girl who was old enough to be my granddaughter. I doubt that she was old enough to have a licence, let alone be in a pub drinking.
Reid was in touch with the office during the night and explained to us the beginning of the horror that was to be the bushfires. I felt great sadness when he told us that 14 had died.
Life at Skenes, however, was a breeze. Most nights there was a pool tournament on in the TV room or someone would have a campfire going and be inviting all and sundry to sit around it and drink the night away.
My nearest neighbours, Bruce from Melbourne and Dan, a Canadian, were constants in everything the happened here. Dan was a go-getter 24/7 and Bruce had some sort of passion from drinking flagons of sherry. And there was Amy, a British backpacker who was working at the camp and Ange and her son Lachie.
Chloe, a dog owned by Charlie, was a constant source of amusement. She always seemed to have a ball or be near one and enjoyed the thrill of the chase. One morning I was sitting around in my tent having a cuppa when I saw Chloe approach. She’s well trained enough to not just walk in to the tent (although she was an invited guest many times), but this morning she felt like a game. She came to the tent flap, ball in mouth, and stopped, poked the ball with her snout under the flap and waited. It was a plaintive canine cry for “come out to play” Who could resist?
The campground is always clean and tidy (backpackers work there for accommodation and meals. I got a bollocking from Charlie one morning about cigarette butts I’d left outside the pool room. I really didn’t know there was an ashtray out front, mainly because it had a pot of sweet basil growing in it. For what it’s worth, there a campground at Port Fairy, which claims to be Australia’s only smoke-free park.
One of the greatest attributes of the park is the sound of the ocean at night. It’s a very therapeutic, sleep inducing thing, especially when there’s a prolonged silence when the waves have a well-earned break.
The major highlight (if you can call it that) was the night two Dutch girls set fire to their campervan. It seems that girls and gas bottles aren’t a good mix. I helped them get it out, checked their appliances for dodgy bits (there were a few) and offered them the use of my kitchen.
Apollo Bay is a friendly town with most things you’re ever going to need. I met up with Bernie in the hardware shop. He recognized me from the Age where he also worked for many years. He was minus his afro, which was why I failed to recognize him. It was great to catch up and we had many a good chin wag during my time there.
The town’s surrounds are pretty in the extreme. I never tired of looking at the landscape every time I drove into or out of town. I could easily live there for ever.
Alas, though, it was not meant to be. I’d been there for a month and had to make it back to Port Fairy for the festival, although my enthusiasm dampened a bit when Trish, my former girlfriend for whom I’d bought a ticket, sent me a text message to say she couldn’t make it. I would have been OK if she had phoned, but a text? And just a couple of days before the festival. The tickets were non-refundable, so I would have to scalp it at a cheaper price to recoup something.
Time to pack again and make a beeline for the festival site. Before I left I asked Charlie whether I could come back and work for the cost of my site. “Sure,” he said, “just a couple of hours a day will see you right”.
WELL I’LL BE FOLKED
The Southcombe park was as full as a public school, which was a good thing because in the backblocks of the park it’s as windy as a small Indian village that lives solely on lentils.
Dinner with Ned and Rachel beckoned. Again the walk back to the site was a test of stamina of navigation.
I sold the ticket for $130 and enjoyed the time cruising through the various tents listening to whoever was doing something. A message from Ned led me to a tent with a Guinness bar. No flies on Ned. We tended to meet (and stay there) each day of the festival. It did have its upside though. Among the acts in the tents were the Pirates of Beer, a band fronted by Chris Wilson and his wife, Sarah Carroll. I’m great friends with Sarah’s dad, Des, and stay in touch with him via email wherever I am. Christ, I’ve known Des (aka Bung) since 1965.
Among the festival’s other highlights for me was a curry. No disrespect to my cooking … and I do make a mean curry … but this was a pearler. So, too, was the poncho I bought. It’s shades of Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter. People give me all sorts of weird looks but it works. It’s alpaca wool, it’s waterproof and bloody warm.
I had one light moment when I went for a shower one morning. OK, it was very late morning. There was a woman on cleaning duty and very kindly, she said she’d get out while I had a shower. Obviously I took longer than she thought I should. I was toweling off when I heard her ask: “You decent, love?” I resisted the temptation to say yes and she duly gave me another five minutes.
After the festival crowd had cleared, I was left like a shag on a rock, about 300 metres from the nearest sign of life, which had its good and bad points. It was quiet in the extreme, but Jesus, it was windy.
Perrie, my truckie mate from Warrnambool, was on the move again. He’d just come back from Darwin where the heat and humidity drove him away. He wasn’t far away and booked in for a couple of nights. It was good to catch up and enjoy the fruits of the chef’s labours at the pub, not to mention a few quiet ales. He was bound west again in the quest for a job. I was bound east to a certain job. Soon, I was motoring back to Skenes Creek. It was getting to the point where I even knew bends in the road. And I always stopped for a very special pie at Laver’s Hill. They’re expensive but they’re worth it.
SKENES CREEK REPRISE
“Do you want your old site back?”asked Marion. It was like old home week, back on site 21 again (and just site 21, no extra space this time) and feeling more than comfortable with the familiarity of those around me.
The last thing I needed after I got my site set up was to hear that Amy needed to get to the Tulla airport to catch a plane for Malaysia. I was the only one there with transport and ended up driving her to Geelong to catch the train to Melbourne. I did about 550 or so kilometers for the day, well above my rule of thumb limit of 350. But she had to get there. That’s what mates are for I guess.
I felt a bit like Gandhi, working at the park. Cleaning the toilet and shower blocks, emptying rubbish bins, using the whipper snipper to trim the edges of the whole park (three acres I think), cutting the grass with the ride-on mower, collecting stuff left by untidy campers, driving the ute to the tip for the recycling run … I even learned how to use the espresso machine.
I got to the point where I felt part of it all, attending to customers’ needs, selling things and using the till, even pulling people into line in the absence of Charlie, who always seemed to be going somewhere or doing something.
And I became mates with a host of backpackers … Tim, Craig, Holly, Cian, Haley, Toby, Windy, Vincent (a young French fella who is a barista in Port Melbourne) among them.
Not all backpackers, however, were good like that lot. There was a group of eight French people in one night and at about 11 they were making some sort of racket. “Listen, you lot, there are other people here wanting to sleep,” I said with as much authority as I could muster given that I was wearing shorts and a poncho. “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you, keep it down.” The noise immediately abated, but they were still frisky and started a food fight at the table just outside the kiosk. That was it. If I hadn’t been so in love with the really tall, really pissed French girl I would have given it to them. (She was about 5’10’’ in the old money and drop-dead gorgeous. She was drinking half wine, half vodka and could barely stand.) I marched out and ordered them to clean up the joint, which they did. They even called me back to check that all was OK. I felt good about it.
Not so the next morning when I went to the kiosk for a coffee. Marion was bemoaning the fact that they’d taken their food fight into the ladies shower and toilet block. Food was everywhere and they’d squirted tomato sauce up and down the walls. Pigs.
Work wasn’t always at the park. Charlie had a farm up the Colac road about 10 kilometres away. He was clearing a tract of land … shitty, puffy little trees often with bigger root systems than a cheap Chinese brothel (No, before you ask, I haven’t been to China) to make way for an olive grove. It wasn’t easy, armed with a mattock and standing on a severe slope, hacking these little buggers from the ground. Mind you, it was a fair guide to my level of fitness or not. It was hard yakka, but Vincent (he was like a machine), Craig, Tim and I managed a fair clearing on the only day I worked there. Trust me. Once was enough for me.
I also bumped into Bill Farr, the Age art director, who was shopping at the supermarket in Apollo Bay. I met him for a coffee along with Warwick McFadyen and his son, and Dan (I forget his surname) and his girlfriend (I forget both her names). It seemed Age people favoured this wonderful place. The Saturday before, I had bumped into Sly of the Underworld, who was having coffee with friends.
One of the real highlights here … no it wasn’t the German sisters … was the great car key episode. A British brother and sister were camped for the night. She was living in Melbourne and he was here for a few weeks’ holiday. They’d been down to the rocks just near the end of the camp, admiring the spectacular views. When the bloke jumped across a large hole in the rocks, his sister’s car keys went for a swim. Now this caused her great consternation because she didn’t have a spare. What’s more it was one of those battery things. They came back to the kiosk and she was near tears. A few phone calls later (she had to borrow the camp phone because hers was locked in the car) it became apparent she was going to be $680-odd worse off if she could get a key at all. I suggested to her brother that we at least go and have another look. “It was about four feet or so deep,” he said, “and very narrow.” And it was coming up to high tide: waves were starting to crash over the rocks and it wouldn’t be long before the whole rock area was underwater. I borrowed some goggles (it’s hard not to type google when you type goggles) and a snorkel. “You be careful. We lost someone off the rocks a few years ago,” said Marion, giving us a great feeling in the pit of our guts before set off. To borrow a few words from George Costanza, “the sea was angry that day, my friends”. OK, it wasn’t yet, but was starting to get that way. I grabbed a rope on the way and took it with us. We got back to the rock hole, carefully marked with a blue plastic bag full of dog shit. True. They hadn’t locked the dog in the car, nor had they dropped it into the sea, but when the dog dropped one, they picked it up. It was the perfect marker. The poor Englishman went straight into the water … well it was too cold for me and, anyway, I had tracksuit pants, a singlet and gumboots on because I’d just been cleaning the dunnies. He had a look with the goggles, but couldn’t see much. As the waves were coming further and further in he stretched his legs into the rock hole (it was just too narrow to get anyone other than a Twiggy type in there) and had a feel around with his feet. Nothing. Another stretch in there and again nothing. Yet another stretch. “I’ve found them,” he yelled over the noise of the waves as he tribe to grab them between his toes. No dice until he tried again and managed to get hold of them and place them with some very deft footwork onto the rocks. There were smiles all around when we got back to the kiosk.
I also managed to spend a couple of nights back in Melbourne after going through everything I owned to see what I could unload. That and the fact that a family of mice had taken up residence in the trailer. There was, it seems, a plague of the bloody things right throughout the park. I first became aware of the extent of their moving in when when I lifted the bed and found it looking like a snow storm had gone through it. I had carried a few rolls of dunny paper just for emergency … the mice apparently thought it would make a great nest. They also managed to get hold of a bag of falafel mix, which they spread through everything in the trailer. Spose it was a good thing because it meant that I had to go through everything, was it all and repack what I wanted to keep. However, I did get to bag up some stuff and return it to Albert Park.
I also managed to catch up with a few people at Lina’s (it’s a wine bar in Albert Park for those who don’t know it) … Jodie, Mark Fuller (Fulvio), David Dick, Jo Gay, Andrew Cooke (Cookie) among them. It was a great night. Thanks again, Jo, for the lift back to my hotel. The next day I caught up with a few people from around the traps and a farewell. to Jodie at the Age office. While I was in that neck of the woods I went to buy some shampoo from the hair shop across the road from the Age. I got my shampoo and went to pay. The girl at the till looked up and said: “Hi, haven’t seen you for a while. Must be four months.” “Nearer to five,” I said, feeling really chuffed that at least she’d remembered me. I had to same sorts of welcomes from people at the South Melbourne Market. It was great to be back there and see so many familiar faces. I walked to the coffee shop and before I’d reached the counter, Leon, the young bloke behind the counter said: “Latte, one sugar for Mick.” Chris, the T-shirt man, ended a phone call so he could talk to me. Anna, the woman with the best smile at the market, gave me grief about always being on holidays. The little bloke at the fruit shop gave me grief about being tall but said it was good to see me back. It wasd a great two days back in the big smoke.
I spent my last week at Skenes (it had be about two and a half months all up in two stints) working with two 23-year-old Swedish girls, Karen and Annalie. Charlie was away and we just went about our work with a minimum of fuss. We even too k time out to have a pub lunch. I was sitting there with the girls, shooting the breeze and all drinking Diet Coke when I heard: “Jeez, it’s a tough life for some.” It was Bernie from the hardware shop.
The girls were sorry to see me go, no doubt, because I was their only source of transport to get to town. But go I did.
After five months on the road, I still hadn’t made it out of Victoria (except for a couple of quick trips to Moama from Echuca and Mulwalla from Yarrawonga). And anyway, Perrie phoned and said he was back from the west and in Warrnambool. It seemed a fair thing to catch up with him again before I headed west and across state lines.
I had a week in the Bool again, catching up with Perrie and his daughters Janelle and Lisa for dinner a few times. Bloody good roast at the Warrnambool RSL, let me say. The roast was certainly better that the weather, which turned sour. Yeah, I know we need the rain, but shit, it was so cold. The only other worthwhile thing I did was to get the Subaru serviced and with a break in the weather (I hate packing up wet gear) I was heading west.
BOUND FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA
The drive to Robe was as easy as it gets. The weather was good, the roads were quiet and my mood was buoyant. Finally after almost five and a half months I was getting out of Victoria.
Robe is as beautiful as I remember, having been here a few years ago after a cricket trip to Adelaide. I snaffled a campsite at a park right in town. The ocean is about 30 metres from my tent.
I strolled through town, made friends with the chatty newsagent and the equally chatty bottle shop attendant, did some food shopping ( I also bought a sandwich maker) and settled back to enjoy the cloudless skies and the 20-degree weather. For a day anyway. Then the heavens opened and it pissed down for the best part of two days and nights.
I wanted to leave straight away. There’s something about cold and wet weather … it puts a dampener on the camper’s mood in every which way.
A call from friend Ken Haley brightened day two. He’s just quit his job at the Canberra Times and has just got a publisher for his second book, I think tentatively titled Europe at 2.5 kilometres an hour. Ken’s in a wheelchair and he’s had a speedometer fitted. Told me his maximum speed was just about 25 kmh going down a corkscrew road somewhere in Europe. He’s waiting to hear from a regional paper about a job. If nothing comes of it, he will head to Europe again for the rest of the year to work on the book.
Ken’s first book … Emails from the Edge … was an amazing read. Travelling through 60-odd countries is testing enough let alone someone in a wheelchair doing it. It’s a book I’ve read and enjoyed and one which I’d recommend to anyone. It’s a cracker.
I had a phone call from son Liam in Vanuatu while I was up the street buying beer. We had a chat for about 20 minutes, getting across what each of us had been doing. It’s always good to talk to him every week.
About 20 minutes later I was back at camp having a beer with Barbara, Elaine, Peter, Terri and Dan before dinner. My phone went again. It was Liam back on the line. “What’s up?” I asked. “Nothining,” he said, “It’s just that I was talking to my mate about you and I thought I’m gonna ring again. It’s been too long since I told you I love you. You’re my favourite man in the world.” I was blown away and teared up. It was such a wonderful thing for him to do.
THE PROBLEM WILL ABATE EVENTUALLY
The great mouse invasion of Robe continues, but at least the little bastards are taking the baits and I’m seeing fewer of them. I’m hanging around here until Monday to allow the baits to do their thing. Meanwhile, I’m doing the breakfast thing up the street, reading lots of papers … there are three local area papers plus the Addy and the Melbourne papers on an irregular basis. It’s actually good to walk up to have a feed … it’s helping to keep my weight under control. Dunno how much I’ve lost cos I cannot finds scales anywhere. I reckon I must have lost 4-5 kilos, which is probably a great thing given that I’ve had almost five days off the smokes and my appetite is constant. Must be fate or something … Liam started wearing nicotine patches in Vanuatu at about the same time as I did here. He’s hangin’ tough as well.
Speaking of patches, yesterday I went to nearly every shop here trying to find some iron-on patches for my rapidly disintegrating jeans. In the end a lovely lady from the patchwork and craft shop got me there. Even my neighbours (there were 11 of having a drink the other night) have given me grief over the jeans and everyone I spoke to today mentioned something about my repair job.
Finally I've got this thing right. New entries at the top. There's a ton of stuff reading down the page. I got behind in writing it, so did it all in one, long thing. To anyone who reads it, sorry about that.
Yesterday was a less-than-ideal day in the wilds of Robe. The only things really wild around the place were the weather … and me. The weather was busy doing the rain and overcast thing most of the day …yeah it was cold, too. Me, I was angry because I was pissed off about sharing my digs with bloody mice. I’m camped right at the end of the park and there’s lots of bush. That’s green stuff, Jodie, and I’m sure they come out of there in search of warmth and food. Given that all of my food is now in mouse-proof containers, I can only assume that the bastards think the trailer is warm. Well, it is carpeted. Even as I write this, I have watched one mouse six times as he comes and goes around the place. I put baits down a couple of days ago and they seem to have made no difference. It really came to a head, literally, this morning when a mouse ran by my head just after I had woken up (it was about 7.30).
On a brighter note, I’ve been up the street, had a huge breakfast (eggs, veggies and coffee), read the papers and booked into mouse heaven for another night. Doing that will give me time to go through everything (I checked all of my clothes yesterday) in the trailer and make sure I don’t have nature’s version of illegal boat mice … the last thing they’ll need is to wake up in fright somewhere near Coober Pedy and wonder how the hell they are going to get back to Robe.
One other thing on today’s agenda is to do the washing, something I usually do the penultimate day of my stay somewhere. I ambled up to the camp laundry and, while I was putting my dirty clobber in the machine, struck up a conversation with a woman who was hand-washing. I asked her if she had used the dryers and how much time and money she thought I would need for my load. “You could always hang them on the line’” she said, “and it wouldn’t cost you anything. Still, you’re young and you’re probably short of time to do whatever you want to do today.” At a guess, we were both born in the same decade. Perhaps she was fooled by the beads in my hair and the Viva el Che T-shirt I was wearing. Whatever, she made my day.
FINALLY, I’VE DISROBED
Yep, it took more time than I thought, but I finally managed to pack my grip and flee the wilds of Robe. A couple of nights before I left, I had a most welcome farewell with my most excellent neighbours … Peter, Elaine, Al and Cheryl. We all managed to drink a little more than we’d planned. Guess it was my fault. It was meant to be 5pm, but somehow I’d reset my watch onto Melbourne time by listening to 774 in the morning. Bugger. Peter was surprised that I arrived at 4.30 but, being a trooper, he assembled everyone and we talked longer into the night than planned. I plan to remain in touch with them all in one way or another. They’d all left the morning before me, so packing literally flew by. I had decided to drive to Port Wakefield, just north of Adelaide I guess because I had been there before, albeit in 1972 with my first wife. I remembered it as a pleasant place. The drive, which took me through the middle of Adelaide, was particularly easy … no doubt something to do with the excellent scenery that generally is South Australia. The drive through the hills is particularly stunning. Even the traffic through Adelaide was easy. I stopped to get petrol on the outskirts (the far side) and a woman in the petrol station asked: “So, where are you heading with your trailer?” “Coober Pedy is my next goal,” I replied. “I’m leaving for Coober Pedy in two days,´she said, “I might see you there.” That sort of friendliness in South Australia seems to be the order of the day. The road to Port Wakefield is excellent … well signed … and the traffic was light, until I hit Lower Light where there had been a fatal crash on the other side of the dual highway. I didn’t realize just how much of a mess it was until I saw a picture in the paper the next day. I’ve never seen so many police cars in one spot at one time (plus fire trucks and news crews). The road had all but been closed. It was a stark reminder that I should be on full alert when I was behind the wheel. I was. Port Wakefield was a major disappointment. I drove through the main drag and it reminded of (this is a big call, I know) an industrial and fast-food dominated area of some of Los Angeles’ poorer suburbs … it may have been glitzy at one time or other by the sheen had long since faded. No way I wanted to stay there and, given that it was just another 260-odd kilometers to Port Augusta, I thought I’d press on. So glad I did. The landscape soon changed into a thing of great beauty. The Flinders Ranges were on my right most of the way … it’s a pity they don’t go on for ever. The colours are amazing. I wanted to stop so many times and take pictures of something that had an amazing three-dimensional effect. Often it was a single tree against this stupendous backdrop. And then there was the grace of the wind farms. Why this country doesn’t have many more of them is beyond me. The one drawback for the trip was a lone fly that had been with me since Robe. Finally, I got him (or her) to the driver-side window and set it free. It set me to wondering about how flies may come to grips with a new environment. What they’d do for food, where they’d live and whether they’d make friends easily in a new neighbourhood. Sounds stupid, I know, but that how my mind was working … and it sure beat talking to the voice on my GPS. I resisted the opportunity to visit Snowtown, the infamous bodies in the barrels town. It’s just off the main highway and sheltered from view by a big stand of trees that seem to run the full length of the town. It was almost as if the town was hiding, still trying to come to grips with its past. Harsh maybe, but that’s what I thought at the time. I made very good time (just like George Costanza likes to make good time. Seinfeld fans will understand) and was due to hit Port Augusta at about 4.30. About 60 kilometres out there was a small town (its name escaped me) and a large sign alongside the road. “Antiques turn right”. No we don’t, I said out aloud. Thank God Port Augusta was close cos I’m starting to go mad, I thought. I berated myself and the thought, no, that was a fair joke given the circumstances. I finally arrived at Port Augusta at 4.35, cruised the main drag, wandered off following signs that said shopping area. I needed to find an ATM. Took me a fair while but I managed. Then went to one of two caravan parks I could locate. The girl at the first … she was outside sneaking a smoke … said she couldn’t help me with a powered site. (I try to get power whenever possible to keep the laptop and phone charged.) She was great, though, and rang the other park to find out of they had a powered site. “Yep,” she said, and gave me a map to get there. “Have a great stay,” she said. I like this place, I thought to myself. Of course, I got lost trying to find the other park and relied on the GPS woman to get me there. She had me driving into the Port Augusta Golf Club and the Arid Plants Botanical Gardens. I cracked the shits with her and closed he down. Hope that’s not an indication of things to come. I drove back into town and retraced my steps. Seems I’d driven right by a sign that was about 10 times the size of my car. Finally got a powered site and camped under a wattle tree surrounded by red dust. Guess I’ll have to get used to that from now on. I ended up putting the tent up in the dark, which was a piece of cake really. I also felt like a real camper with the dust and whatever. Dunno why cos I’d been a real camper for quite a while. My site is right by the dunnies and showers, which are the best I’ve encountered so far. They even use two-ply dunny paper,a welcome first in about six months on the road. I reckon there should be some sort of toilet paper rating system for caravan parks and camping grounds. You know the deal, “four-star accommodation, cabins, a pool and TWO-PLY dunny paper.” I reckon it would bring in more punters than it would deter. Sleep came pretty easily later on despite the lack of the noise of the waves of the ocean singing me to sleep, something I’d gotten used to for months now. I reckon I’d just been sleeping for a couple of hours when the traffic noise woke me. Been a long time since that’s happened. After an early (for me) shower, I headed back to the tent to dress, switched on the wireless and listened to Roland Rocchiccioli doing a book reading on the ABC. It’s from a biographical account of his childhood with his mum Beria. It was the first book I read on the road and I enjoyed it a lot, so it was good to hear Roland reading it. I’d had a chat with him just before I left for the trip. He rang me after seeing me on some TV news footage outside the Age building. “Michael,” he said, “I saw you on the news, looking like some sort of bikie moll and I though I should call you given that we haven’t spoken for a long time.” I still send him the odd email and look forward to catching up with some mutual friends when I get back to the big smoke. I spent the early part of the afternoon shopping for food at Woolies. The supermarket in Port Augusta is probably the best stocked supermarket I’ve ever been in. It even had eight varieties of chillies. I made a big call there and decided to opt for the easiness of canned veggies. Hence, lots of chickpeas, lentils, baked beans, corn and stuff … lots of canned fish, muesli bars. I can always get some fresh veggies as I go … there seem to be plenty of roadside stalls along the way. I even managed to pack it all beautifully and organize my kitchen accordingly, leaving plenty of time to drink beer (I only drink Carlton Light these days) and bring the blog up to date. Roll on tomorrow when I get back on the road, bound for Woomera.
CARRION UP THE OUTBACK
The morning of my departure from Port Augusta started just a little too early for my liking. The night before (it seemed) about 100 exchange students pitched their tents and made merry until a little too late. That was the easy part. These bastards were up and yahooing just before 5am. Needless to say, everyone within a 200-metre radius may as well have been up too. Sleep was impossible until they left at seven. I did manage another hour before the alarm had me springing into life. I’d done most of the packing the night before and only had the tent to fold, so it was easy. I even had time for a shower, which had me feeling on top of the world as I hit the road and pointed the car at Coober Pedy. My initial plan was to spend a night at Woomera … just to say I’d been there … but it was about 90 minutes up the road, about eight kilometres out of Pimba, a service town for the Olympic Dam Mine, Andamooka or the Oodnadatta Track. Pimba also features Spud’s (I bought Andrew Tate a bumper sticker), a place to get a bite, have a beer, get petrol or play the pokies, which I reckon are more available in South Australia than Victoria. Every little nook and cranny seems to have them, even Pimba at 366kms south of Coober Pedy. Despite the fact that there were blokes having a beer there (it was just after 11am), I opted for a cup of tea, a ham and cheese sandwich and a packet of tobacco and papers. That lot was just shy of $38, which turned out to be cheap compared to what I’d spend on petrol. $1.45 a litre to be exact. Fortunately I just topped up with half a tank and besides, I was carrying 20 litres in a jerry can as a back-up. There are a couple of spectacular (from the road) lakes not far from Pimba … Lake Hart and Island Lagoon, neither of which I stopped to look at. I did pop into Woomera for about 20 minutes. Thank God I didn’t stay there for the night. Nuff said. Next stop was to be Glendambo, another 120 or so clicks. On the way there the landscape was changing about every few kilometres … different colours, different plant different everything. I could feel myself getting excited about the emergence of red dust and gnarly little trees and shrubs. Outback at last. Pretty soon I was pulling in to Glendambo, which was designed as a traditional homestead and woolshed. It’s got everything you’re likely to need, including a good cuppa and some fabulous homemade fruitcake. I figured I had enough fuel to get me to Coober Pedy so resisted the chance to top up … it was just 250kms to go. The quality of the road surface all the way is magnificent with nary one or two rough spots (which are signed as a warning) although the grids (signed too) continued to scare the bejesus out of me about three out of every five. There was a sign: Flying Doctor emergency landing strip ahead. I was looking left and right for it when it suddenly appeared … on the road. It was widened and had all the usual airport runway lines painted on it. Again I thought outback. I was getting more excited. There didn’t seem to be too much in the way of wildlife, roadkill notwithstanding. Once I saw a large beast on the road a few hundred metres ahead. I couldn't make out just what it was until I was almost on top of it. There stood the biggest eagle I’ve ever seen (Glenn Jakovich excepted) … it and a smaller mate were feasting on a dead roo. I though all I needed now was Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques and we could produce a film: “Carrion up the Outback”. Yeah, the mind does tend to wander at times. The next sign of life was a fair way in front of me and I have no idea what it was. It appeared to be walking on two legs and was short and dumpy and moved like it was pissed in the extreme. Pig man, I thought, but there was no sign of Kramer (Seinfeld reference, sorry). I thought about stopping and having a look around, but thought better of it. And anyway, Coober Pedy was just 100 clicks or so away. My fuel go the distance was now an issue. I’d read the manual the night before to find out how much is left when the warning light comes on. Nine litres, it says, although nowhere in the manual does it tell the exact (or even approximate) capacity of the tank. I pressed on and the first (to my eye anyway) sign of opal mining was Prominent Hill Mine. Then I looked at the petrol gauge. Light on. Would I, wouldn’t I make it? I decided in the negative, stopped, and poured about 10 litres from the jerry can into the tank. Too easy. I rolled into Coober Pedy at about 4.30 and found a caravan park/camping ground/motel/hotel/restaurant and whatever. It’s probably the only place in town that doesn’t sell opals although it is called the Opal Inn. Dunno what the receptionist thought when I walked in and asked for a site. I was wearing a yellow fluoro singlet, shredded jeans, red Crocs and hadn’t washed the hair for a couple of days so it looked a bit matted. But she didn’t miss a beat. Her name is Olu and she told me to go and choose a site and come back and let her know which one and she would do the paperwork. I opted for six, just near the dunny block and headed back to reception. “How long would you like to stay, sir?” she asked. “A week,” I said. She looked surprised but said that it was good news because she could off me a 10 per cent discount. “That will be $99 for the week,” she said. It sure beat the $30 a night at Port Augusta and it had its own bar and restaurant. It was about 6.30 by the time I’d set up the whole shebang and it was beer o’clock. I had just one in the fridge and thought, bugger it, I’ll have dinner in the bar. I explained my dining intentions to Narelle, a nurse and my new neighbour as she was busying herself preparing her dinner. She said she had just bought food from the supermarket and on the way back to camp had seen a sign advertising a Thursday night special: Roast, $10. I’d set my sights on a large steak (I’d check the menu at reception) and a glass or two of red, so I put on a clean T-shirt and some clean jeans and made a beeline for the bar and restaurant. It, too, had a roast special: lamb or beef for 10 bucks with a complimentary schooner of beer or glass of house wine. It was a no-brainer. After I’d ordered lamb I looked at the wine list. The house wines were: $2.50 a glass, $5 for a half carafe and $10 for a large carafe. “What’ll it be, mate?” asked the barmaid. “How large is a large carafe?” I asked. It was about a litre so I opted for a half. As it was, it held five decent glasses of not-so-decent wine. But it got a pass mark. I always remember Bung from the Wizard of Id. His idea of whether a wine is good or not is all to do with the wet test. It’s good if it’s wet enough to pass his lips. And so it came to pass. So, that was dinner: roast lamb, five glasses of red and a schooner of West End Draught, all for 15 bucks. I could see I was really gonna like Coober Pedy. I headed for the door and thought, bugger it, I’ll have a flutter on the machines. About 45 minutes later I walked out $120 up. I went back to the tent via the bottle shop (this caravan park has it all) and treated myself to a couple of premixed bourbon and cola stubbies. Yep, I do like Coober Pedy.
UNDERGROUND … AND UNDER THE INFLUENCE
My first full day in Coober Pedy also featured my first full night … and full took on a whole new meaning. But more of that later. I got the day started at a reasonable (for me anyway) time and took a wander downtown. Typically, I left my camera in the tent, but not to worry, I had plenty of time. Everything downtown Coober Pedy is either to do with opals, underground this or that, food, grog and petrol. Oh, and there appears to be a fair amount of dust in the air. There’s also a bank or two, a chemist, a community centre or two, a carwash, couple of churches (underground of course) and … I’ll update the list the next time I walk around. I had a bit of a look at several of the opal shops … some of the names, mind, are cutesy … I was a sign for Fred and Wilma’s, there’s John and Yoka’s, the list goes on. . They sell all sorts of trinkets, cut and uncut stones, books and it seems most anything else touristy that they reckon they can make a quid from. Judging by some of the opal prices, they do indeed make a good quid. What struck me most about all of the people in the opal shops was the unquestionable friendliness of the staff. The all seemed ready with a spare 10 minutes for a chat about me and what I’d been up to. I didn’t pick up on any pressure from anyone about the goodies on sale although they were all happy to talk about them too. The first opal shop I visited was (of course) underground. It was amazing although I reckon the earthy smell would get the better of me if I spent a long time there. It was worth putting up with just to have a look at the reams of memorabilia dotting the walls and the buckets and barrows full of rock specimens. I love rocks. I wandered into one shop, said g’day to the two blokes behind the counter and had a look around. As I was leaving, one bloke who was drinking a takeaway coffee said: “Probably see you at the pub tonight.” “Every chance,” I said. I headed off around town, checked out the supermarket/newsagency. Couldn’t muster the interest to by the previous day’s papers, so made do with some milk and a baguette. I wandered back to my digs (that’s a really appropriate word in this neck of the woods) and settled for lunch … a baguette crammed full of sardines in soy oil. Healthy, I reckon, and anyway I love sardines. Given that I was still suffering from the long drive the day before, I decided to take it easy and planned to head to the pub for a bite at about sixish. It was a good move to go that early; I only just managed to get a table (the second last available). A delicious feed of kangaroo later, washed down with a half carafe of the red stuff out of a box, I was ready to take on whatever Coober Pedy by night could offer. Or so I thought. I walked towards the bar alongside the gaming room (had no idea there was another huge bar there) but stayed in the gaming room for a flutter. I figured I was playing with their money after I’d won the night before. I fluttered away playing a penny ante one cent machine upon which I’d won the night before. Again, it was kind to me and I finally hit the big bar with an extra $300 in my kick, a very fine result. I breasted the bar, ready to order when the coffee drinker from the opal shop walked up to me and said: “Told you I’d see you here.” We introduced ourselves (it was easy cos he’s Michael as well), I bought him a beer and we headed to the pool table where he was playing against Carley, the barmaid. She could play and she was leading 3-2 when she had to get back to work. I took over and gave Michael a bit of curry in the first game, narrowly lost the second and gave him a toweling in the third. I played pretty well for a change. I wandered outside to have a smoke. Great decision cos I met a heap of locals, many of whom had seen me wandering the street earlier in the day. Des, Doug, Ivan and his faithful hound Georgiou (a magnificent blue heeler/dingo cross), and a couple of other blokes whose names I cannot remember. Even a few of the local girls came out, most using the C word with as much regularity as I usually do. A couple more games of pool with Michael (I’m leading 3-2 for the record) and then a lot of shooters (it was green stuff. Dunno what it was called other than potent) with Michael and Carley and as the pub was winding down, Michael and I headed to the underground bar up the road. So, it seemed, did everyone else. It was going off with everyone doing their best to stop their drops going stale. A couple of blokes played guitars, another, Simon, played the didge. I’ve gotta get to talk to Simon one on one at some stage. His mode of transport is a magnificently restored bus that’s painted with lots of indigenous art. He did tell me about a time when he took a deputation to Buckingham Palace … the details have somewhat blurred in my mind, hence the need to chat to him again. And I must get some pictures of his bus. Doug bought me too many beers, Michael too, and of course I bought a few of my own. At least I remember talking to Doug about him looking at a wheel bearing on my trailer (he’s a mechanic) because in my new-found DIY most things phase, I noticed a bit of grease outside the bearing. Hope he remembers too. I reckoned by this stage of the night I’d had what the locals call a gutful. Didn’t quite have the staggers but they were lurking not too far away. Time to head home, right? Nah. Time to go to another bar up the other end of town and out a bit. Sure, I thought, that’s why I’m here. I didn’t drive all this way to NOT have a look around. I got a lift there and gathered again with all the usual suspects. Two or three drinks later it was time to pull stumps, but how to get home? I’ll walk, I thought, it didn’t seem that far. I turned left out of the bar and hit the bitumen. Mistake. Home was to the right. I tacked my way along the road for a while before it hit home. I’m not gonna make it, I thought. I reeled back into the bar and asked the barmaid if she could call me a cab. “No bloody cabs here, luv,” she said laughing. I turned right and walked for what seemed an eternity, across the road and back more times than I’d care to remember (if I only could). Still, I had no idea where home was and considered finding a sheltered spot and sleeping it off … I was then met by an Aboriginal bloke standing in the middle of the road. He wasn’t a particularly big fella, but he had the biggest smile I can remember seeing. “Don’t spose you got a spare couple of dollars, mate?” he asked. “Sure do,” I said, “but only if you’ll do me a favour when I give it to you.” “No worries,” he said. I rummaged through my pocket and gave him $10 in coins. “Shit, thanks, mate,” he said beaming and he gave me a big hug (no easy task for a small bloke). “You’re a good white fella,” he said, grabbing me again for another hug. “What’s the favour?” he asked. “I can’t find where I’m staying. Do you know where the Opal Inn is?” I said. He started laughing uncontrollably. “It’s right there,” he said pointing across the road 30 metres away. “You’re a good white bloke, but you’re not going to well, eh?” he said still laughing loudly. Sure, I was as full as a public school, but I was also full of bonhomie … I could certainly see the funny side of things. I grabbed another 20 bucks from my wallet (I was still a mile in front on the night) and handed it to him. “Don’t blow it on booze,” I said, “use it for something you need.” We hugged again and said our goodbyes and I headed across the road to my tent. What a night and home at last. One small hiccup to go. I managed to find the tent and promptly tripped over a guy rope and went down like a bag of spuds. I was covered in red dust, had grazed my elbow, bruised my shin and severely dented my pride but at least I was home. Sleep came very easily. I didn’t wake until 11.35 (still not really sure what time I put my head down but it was very late), so I was really glad that I hadn’t taken up Michael’s invitation to go to the races at Oodnadatta for an overnighter. I had a hangover big enough to photograph and spent the entire day recuperating. It’s now Sunday afternoon and I’m yet to have alcohol. I even had a lemon squash at the pub. And anyway, I need to be up early tomorrow because I’ve booked a trip on the mail run to Oodnadatta, William Creek, through the dingo fence and sundry other places. It’s a 12 or so hour trip, so a clear head in the morning is a must. And I’m so looking forward to someone else doing the driving.
I’ve been cruising the delights of Coober Pedy for a few days now and it’s really growing on me. The odd few familiar face says g’day in the street, I’m getting to know my way around the shops and I’ve been a regular sight walking the street with my camera hanging from my neck. I spent Monday on the mail run to William Creek and Oodnadatta, via a heap of cattle stations. It was an amazing day (12 hours or thereabouts) and even though it cost $185 was worth every cent. The bloke who runs it, Peter Rowe, is a champion bloke. Rowie’s a former opal miner, volunteer ambulance driver, fitter and turner, potter and, of course, mailman and tourist run operator. Don’t wanna write too much about it because I’ve done a yarn that I’m trying to flog to the Herald Sun and the Adelaide Advertiser or the Sunday Mail. It they all give it the arse then I’ll post it on the blog cos I reckon it’s a fun and interesting read. I spent the better part of yesterday writing the yarn after I’d been noodling for a couple of hours at the end of town. Noodling is the official term for opal fossicking and there’s a heap of mullock heaps where noodling is encouraged. It’s illegal anywhere else unless you have a claim or the miner’s permission. I got a lot of interesting rocks (just what I need. More weight in the car) including a couple of small opal traces but nothing to write home about. Hang on, I am writing home about it. A few people I spoke to, including a lovely young Dutch uni student who spoke to me for ages, had picked up bits and pieces. Spose it’s the luck of the draw. Mind you, I literally cut a dashing figure using my machete to help loosen the heaps. A kind woman gave me the piece of wood she was using. Said it brought her luck. Oh well. Later on after I’d finished writing in the dark I headed to the pub for a couple of lights and another feed of kangaroo. Can’t seem to get enough of it. I think it’s great. Had a good night’s sleep and woke up fresh enough to take on the day. Even climbed out of the cot at about eight, which is early for me when I’m not traveling. While I was having my second cuppa, Liam rang from Vanuatu to let me know he’d received his mail. I’d sent him a book I’d planned to reread – Cold Chisel: The Pure Stuff – in which my kids Joel and Liam and myself get a mention. Liam wanted it because Ian Moss (and Diesel, Barnsey’s brother-in-law) are doing a concert in Port Vila. It’s being organized by one of Liam’s mates and Liam is getting backstage. He wants the boys to sign the book for him. On that subject, Barnesy and his son, David Campbell – currently touring the Dad and Dave Show – are also going to do a Port Vila gig and Liam hopes to get them to sign the book too. The rare and lovely Sally Heath and Jason Steger sent Liam some reading material too. (Liam said to say thanks to you both.) Apparently there’s little in the way of books to buy in Vanuatu. Liam told me he was even thinking of opening a bookshop. As always, it’s good to chat with him. Over my third and fourth cuppas, I made some amendments to the yarn I’d written and then phoned Rowie to see if I could catch up with him to clear up a few queries. I also wanted him to check a few of the facts I’d put in. I drove out to his place … the Underground Pottery … abouth three kilometres out of town where he was busy working on the four-wheel-drive mail truck getting it ready for tomorrow’s run. He read the yarn and told me he enjoyed it. He also corrected a couple of little things so it was a worthwhile exercise. Then it got better. “Wanna have a tour of the house and the pottery? he asked. Done. He guided me through this enormous dwelling/shop/office/workshop (the whole place is a whopping 80 squares) all of it underground. It’s truly amazing, especially the ambient temperature. I finally said my goodbyes to Peter and headed back into town, stopping to take more pictures on the way. I stopped by Bull’s garage to see Doug, the mechanic, who was going to have a look at the wheel bearing on my trailer. Another bloke there said Doug had to leave town to visit a sick friend and won’t be back until Saturday, so I don’t know yet what I’ll do about the bearing. It’s not as if it’s behaving badly, just a little grease on the outside of the wheel. The old hunger thing was starting to set in so I stopped at John’s Pizza Shop and ordered the coat of arms. It’s a thin, crispy base topped with cranberry jam, emu, smoked kangaroo, camembert and silver beet. It was truly amazing, quite the best pizza I’ve eaten anywhere in the world. I cruised a few more opal shops after lunch, bought a bottle of opal chips and headed for the supermarket to buy some soft drink. This not drinking thing is really good. Light beer or soft stuff is giving my liver a most-welcome holiday and the liver seems to be loving it. Standing outside the supermarket was the young Aboriginal bloke who directed me home the other night. His smile was still beaming as he walked over to my car to say g’day. We shook hands and finally introduced ourselves. He’s Stephen (it’s Stephen Michael actually) and his wife is the Missus, a very shy but constantly smiling girl. He reminded me of the condition I was in the other night and had another laugh about it. I said to him: “I hope you didn’t waste the money I gave you the other night.” “No, no,” he said, “spent it on food” as he made an eating motion with his hands. “Don’t leave. When I come back out of the supermarket I want a picture of you.” No worries, brudda, was the swift reply. I came out, grabbed the camera from the car, Stephen and Missus posed for me against the supermarket wall, I snapped and it was done. As I slipped him a tenner, I said to him “Food, OK.” He smiled the big beaming smile and again said thanks brudda. Reckon I’ve made a real friend there. Nothing left to do in town so it was back to the camp to write this after which I’ll have a clean-up of stuff and work out when I’m leaving. I’m meant to go tomorrow morning but may defer it a day. The plan though is to head north to Marla (about 250 clicks), top up with petrol and then head another 270-odd clicks to Eridunda and camp there for the night before I go to Uluru, 242 kilometres to the west. I wasn’t gonna go there but I’m this close. I can’t not go, eh?. Guess I’ll stay there for a few days and then head back to Eridunda and onto Alice Springs another 200 kilometres north. After that, who knows? Only, I guess, the great CEO in the sky and he or she isn’t tellin’.
THE ROCK AND ROLL
I spent my last day in Coober Pedy pretty much packing and getting everything right. Washing was a priority (clothes, not me) and it seemed to be done in no time. Without doubt, the clothes dryer was so hot it was second only to the sun, which I didn’t use cos time was a also priority. I had a quiet wander downtown, grabbed some cash from one of the few Westpac ATMs I’ve seen this side of Victoria, bought a 10-litre cask of water (just in case), filled the gap in the petrol tank and filled both jerry cans (again just in case). Somehow I managed to pack everything beautifully because I had more room than ever in the car, not that I didn’t fill it before I left. A quiet dinner at the pub beckoned … a chicken parma and a couple of pints of light beer. I also met up again with Stephen, the Aboriginal bloke who was now one of my friends. We always seemed to be bumping into each other. As a parting gesture, he gave me a handful of beads (he figured that since I wear them around my neck and have a few in my hair that too many was never enough). “Make yourself a necklace, brudda,” he said, flashing his big smile. I thanked him, told him to behave and stay off the grog and bade him farewell. I settled into the tent, opened a can of light and got deeper into my book: it’s a history of famous explorer John McDouall Stuart. It’s an amazing read so far … the crap he endured to open up the centre of the continent was almost beyond human endurance. It’s certainly inspiring me in many ways, not the least being that I should read and learn more about the country and the way it was opened up. Although I’d planned to be on the track by about 8.30, it was closer to nine when I punched Marla into the GPS and said a fond goodbye to Coober Pedy. Marla is 235 clicks down the road, a pretty easy drive, made easier with the help of my Ipod running on shuffle through the radio. I felt strange (dunno how really) about it being my birthday and spending it with no one other than the voice of the GPS to talk to. Never mind. By the time I’d reached Marla, a cuppa and a sandwich were in order. A chicken, lettuce and mayo roll and a Lipton’s later, I topped up the tank ($1.55 a litre) and headed off the 185 kilometres to Kulgera (pronounced with a hard e) and a taste of the Northern Territory. The landscape wasn’t inspiring, but it was still interesting. I got to thinking that Stuart had traveled through this country and that lots of rocks, trees or sandhills were actually seen by him during his wanderings. I felt lucky to be seeing what he’d seen. Then I had a moment. The band Weddings, Parties Anything came on the Ipod doing (I think it’s called) Father’s Day. My mind started to wander back to when I was a part-time father after Monica and I had parted company. I started reflecting on things I’d done with the kids, how I wouldn’t get to see them on my birthday and how much I miss them. I teared up big time, which is not the ideal when you’re cruising at 110kmh. By it was a good moment because it gave me a reality check. Boy, I miss the kids, phone calls notwithstanding. At least with Joel, he’s on the 3 network (the same as me) so our calls (3 to 3) are free. We talk sometimes for an hour, which is always a great fillip for me. I had a somewhat lesser moment a little while later when a song came on … it was one I played to a then-special girlfriend (she’s now a good friend) when we broke up. Whenever I hear it I think of that, but this one was heightened by my solitude. Enough already. Barnesy singing Driving Wheels soon snapped me out of my emotional state. There’s not much at Kulgera other than a pub, which prides itself in being either the first or last in the Territory, a roadhouse and some dunnies. I learned a lesson straight away. I walked up to the counter, the woman there smiled at me and said: “What can I do for you? I said I’d kill for a cuppa, ta. There was a fleeting looking of fright on her face. “There’s no need to kill for anything,” she said. That’s an expression that will no longer leave my lips. The woman gave me a cardboard cup and, I paid, and she told me to help myself in the truckies room. I sat outside to have my cuppa and got another lesson. The Territory flies are the most insistent I’ve yet come across. There always seemed to be one that settled into the corner of my eyes, glasses notwithstanding. I’d read the night before how McDouall got a really bad eye infection from this very thing. Time to break out the fly repellant, a wonderful thing that’s made in Victoria. It’s cedarwood and camphor (I think, the label has smudged), but it keeps the bastards at bay. In fact, it’s almost comical to watch them. There’s almost a cloud of them hovering in front of my face, but they just don’t land. I set sail for Erldunda, a mere 74 kilometres up the road. I’d tentatively planned to camp there for the night before heading to Uluru the next day, but I seemed to be there in no time (the limit was now 130) and thought, bugger it, I’ll keep going to Uluru, despite Erldunda offering free overnight camping beside the roadhouse. I didn’t mess about cos it was another 240-odd kilometers to Uluru, so I topped up the tank (again $1.55 a litre) and beat it. The scenery ranged from pedestrian (that’s probably unkind) to spectacular. It was also the first time I felt unease on the road. I was out of phone range, in the middle of nowhere and I wondered what would happen if anything gave way on the car or trailer. It was a feeling that would stay with me until I reached Uluru and my phone beeped with its message alert. I was busy rolling a smoke (a bad habit health-wise and particularly when you’re driving) and when I looked up I saw an amazing, spectacular flat-topped rock/mountain/whatever and I felt my jaw drop. True dinks. I missed the sign telling me what it was called (although I will make a note when I’m heading back to Erldunda), but I stopped and took some photos, said g’day to a couple in a campervan and pressed on. I was surprised by the amount of traffic … in and out of Uluru … and then I glimpsed the reason for the traffic. Shit, it’s big and I was still a fair way off. Stupidly I hadn’t read my camping guide and drove straight into the park. The woman at the entrance explained that there was no camping in the park. Shit, I thought, I haven’t seen a camping sign anywhere. Then she said: Drive back to the resort. There’s plenty of camping there.” Phew. I did a U-turn and drove to the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort and booked a powered site (I was amazed that it was just $19 a night) with running, drinkable water. I got a great site, right at the back of the park (although the dunnies and showers are just metres away), and there’s a small hill behind my site from which you can see the rock. There’s everything at the resort, except a sign out the front to announce that people can camp there. Apart from the various accommodation, there are nine restaurants, four bars, a live entertainment venue, a supermarket, bank, newsagent, cafes, a deli, all sorts of retail outlets, the list goes on. I suppose it’s more of a town (albeit a tad or two more upmarket than the towns I’ve seen thus far. Oh, there’s a petrol station just down the road. Also, if you plan to buy grog, you have to show a signed (by admitting staff, in my case Nicole) voucher to prove that you’re staying here. I set up camp in the almost-dark, but it was too easy. I think I’m actually getting good at it. It was made a tad easier with a happy birthday phone call from Jodie, who’s at home suffering with a cold, poor luv. Look after the girl, Steffen. And for the first time I opted to do the minimalist thing and left the car pretty much laden (not bin by the way). It was still pretty warm by the time I’d set up (it had been 24 degrees quite late in the day) so I folded out the kitchen and for the first time in ages prepared myself some food. (Remember, the counter meals at the Coober Pedy pub were cheaper than I could do them.) Dinner was a big bowl of lentils, canned tuna with chili, cucumber and small tomatoes all washed down with a most excellent vintage Carlton Light beer. My brother, Philip, also called to wish me a happy birthday, which was a most welcome call. I haven’t spoken to him for a few months. A beer later, Joel called, again doing the birthday thing. I also had a chat to Jim, Monica’s husband, who was busy in the kitchen cutting out gaskets for his Harley. I also had a chat to Monica, who was pissed off because Liam was due there for dinner (he flew in from Vanuatu on Thursday night), but he hadn’t shown up. He can be a bugger sometimes. Given that Monica had gone to some trouble to have Joel’s restaurant shift cancelled so he could be at home and be surprised by Liam’s visit, I guess she had every right to be. I didn’t get a call from him either, so I guess he must have had something really good going on. I had one last beer and then set my phone alarm for six so I could watch the sun rise over the rock. When it went off this morning, my first thought was: “What are you? A sleeper or a photographer?” Sleeper was the verdict. I was still pretty knackered after driving almost 750 kilometres yesterday, so I went back to sleep until nine. There was something amazingly pleasant about having my first cuppa, my toes dipped into red dust and the rock just over the hill. It was just as good for the second. Finally, I hauled arse, had a shower (this place has the best showers so far and it uses two-ply dunny paper), got dressed, put on plenty of fly repellant and drove the 24 kilometres to Uluru. The closer I got the more I was in awe. I had a chat to the woman on the gate, paid my $25 for a three-day pass and headed in. As is my wont on this trip, I jagged a car spot in the first bays, grabbed my camera and wandered into the cultural centre. It really is well put together: it’s informative and attractive. I went walkabout on a couple of tracks, took a few photos and thought just how easy it would be to get lost in the bush. I had wandered off the path to get a better angle for a picture and for a micro-second, felt lost until I say a burnt log I’d photographed earlier. I wandered back to the cultural centre to grab another cold drink (yes, I had taken liquid with me on the walk) and have a look at some of the local crafts. It was then I saw a group of German backpackers, one of who was the most ample bosomed blond woman I’d seen in yonks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just the most of her bosom was out there. I’m no prude, but this was inappropriate: she looked for more suitable for the beach rather than a sacred Aboriginal site. And she may have been a backpacker, but she was really a front-packer too. I immediately christened her Ayers Rack and desperately wanted to get a profile picture of her with the rock in the background. Alas, it wasn’t to be and anyway, it wouldn’t have been right for me to do it. Intrusive, you know. OK, I did some work on tabloids years ago. That’s my excuse. I bought a couple of souvenir badges and a bumper sticker or two (I’m starting a collection of both, the badges on my hat and the stickers on the car’s side, rear windows) and headed back to the car. I headed back to camp, stopping seemingly about every 500 metres to have another look at the rock. It’s truly mesmerising. I’m planning to head back tonight to watch the sunset … there are special elevated viewing areas on the way back to the resort. I bought some bread and milk on the way in and came back to the tent to do what you are reading now. The whole time I’ve been typing, there have been little grey and yellow birds landing at my feet just a foot away (the measurement not mine) in the hope of finding something to eat. No apparent fear, these fellas, and of course I talked to them. Still waiting for an answer. Also, it’s apparent that I need a haircut. Three times this arvo I’ve caught my hair in the zipper of then tent. Hurst like hell cos each time I’ve been moving forward. Anyway, such is life at Uluru. I’m looking forward to the sunset, a few great picture, a bite to eat and a good sleep. Tomorrow, I’m driving to Alice Springs.
R IS FOR ROCK, RAIN AND RADIO RATBAG
The sunset at the rock was a pearler. It was still probably in the 20s (it had made 28 earlier in the day) and there were plenty of people trying to get vantage spots along the fence. I managed to grab a clear view. I was pretty serious about the pictures I was going to take and I knew what I’d do with them when I get back home. A kind of Andy Warhol thing, a collection of the rock in varying shades of bright red to black. The fact that a segment of my tripod fell off and I lost the little black lock thing in the red dust didn’t help. I still took plenty of shots at about every three or four minutes (I didn’t want to risk missing a new colour) and I suppose I was pretty happy with the results although I haven’t yet loaded them onto the laptop. In between pictures I just stared at the rock. It’s hard to explain but I felt a real emotional connection to it, a kind of feeling I haven’t had before involving an inanimate thing. Strange that. I was also amazed at the amount of people who left early, but not so the backpackers who were playing guitars and generally serenading the rock and the viewers. A nice touch. Finally, as the light was disappearing, my phone went off and my ring tone, Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones, was suddenly competing with the backpackers’ guitars. It was a pretty pissed Jodie, Simon (the K man) and Frank, the little cowboy. They were sitting around the fire at Jodie’s and Steffen’s Malmsbury bush shack and were reliving (perhaps they were rehearsing for the next) Festivus. It was an amazing experience, not least trying to understand their grog-fuelled conversation but mainly because here I was standing, staring at the rock and talking on a bloody mobile phone to friends far away. The call ended as did the light and I motored (in a long line of vehicles. I felt sorry for the bloke trying to make a right-hand turn out of the resort, waiting for the equivalent of peak-hour traffic.) back to the resort for a bite to eat and a good night’s sleep. I had my last light beer (my only one for the day) and was listening to the West Coast-Collingwood game on ABC FM (clear as a bell). I listened because, yes, I’ll fess up to being a second-tier Magpie fan … I really follow Melbourne Storm (I later learned that the Storm boys copped it up the freckle at the hands of Canterbury). I was getting sleepy but listening on cos the Pies were winning when I heard one of the commentators say something like (and I’m sure I wasn’t dreaming): “The margin could be as big as Hitler’s last gas bill.” I nearly fell out of bed. What a shithead, I thought. Then I grabbed my phone and called the Age office to tell Sunday Age sports editor Janelle Ward what I’d heard the former VFL/AFL player say. It was good to chat briefly to Wardie eventually … the Age switchboard or lack of it is a bloody disgrace (OK, it’s not even that good) … and she said she would follow it up. If I wasn’t dreaming, I hope this bloke loses his job. He’s a crap commentator anyway and obviously comes from another era. Sleep time arrived just after the Pies saluted. So much for driving to Alice today. I woke up at 7.30 and there was an unfamiliar noise: it was rain against the canvas. Only light, mind, but it was definitely rain. Bugger, I thought, I hate to pack the tent up when it’s wet. If you leave it for any length of time it can go mouldy, not that I’d be leaving it for long but I wasn’t happy. Not that rain isn’t welcome wherever I am. Still, if the rain stayed at its current light level, no probs. I’d just towel it down as I packed. I’d done it before. I hauled myself out of bed, unfolded the kitchen and boiled the billy … OK, it’s a billy but it has a spout. While it was boiling I started to empty the tent back into the car and reckoned I’d be away by 10. By the time I’d started on the second cuppa, Hughie started to get serious … the drops were getting bigger, the clouds in the distance were as black as the inside of a dead dog’s guts. They looked really menacing. I kept at it cos there’d be no dramas because I don’t mind driving in the rain and anyway, that would be a good thing because I’d keep the speed back a bit and save on petrol. By the end of the second cuppa it was serious rain. Earlier on if I looked at the ground there was no sign of water. As soon as the raindrops hit the red dust they disappeared. Now there were puddles forming. I just may have to book in for another night. Meanwhile, I’m listening to a Northern Territory FM station: the program is called Hair of the Blog. I smiled when I heard that and made a mental note that I must use it some time down the track. It’s now just after 11 and although the rain isn’t as heavy, it’s still consistent enough to consign me to a day indoor (indoor is correct cos my tent only has one door).
ALICE SPRINGS ONTO THE RADAR
The back is still giving me grief, but it wasn’t gonna stop me packing. It was probably the first time since I started out that I actually felt the cold during the night, not that the doona didn’t do its stuff. It was just that when I moved during the night it was bloody cold. There was a heavy dew overnight and the canvas was wet, which meant that I had to wait to do it. I busied myself by having a few cups of tea and talking to my neighbours who had just arrived the night before. It’s always good to chat, and chat I did too when my mate, Lloyd from Perth, called to wish me a happy birthday. I felt tempted to stay another night and hope that the back came good and allowed me to walk more around the rock, but nah, old age won the day. I was still cursing that I hadn’t made it to the rock yesterday to get some pictures of water cascading down the rock. I finally left the camp at about 10.45 (10am checkout, but what the heck), filled up with petrol ($1.55 a litre), checked the tyres on the car and the trailer. Obviously it had been a while since I checked the trailer. They were all down (all including the spare). The drive back to Erldunda was pretty easy (230-odd clicks). I managed to remember to check the name of the flat mountain/rock/whatever: Mt Connor. My jaw didn’t quite drop as it did on the way in, but it was again a wonderful sight/site. There was plenty of traffic heading for the rock and just about every driver, without fail, managed a friendly wave. The road train drivers seem especially enthusiastic. It’s a very comforting thing about driving in the outback. I resisted the temptation to stop at Mt Ebenezer (that’s where they offer free overnight camping, not Erldunda as I said in an earlier blog), although I did have to stop twice, the legacy of three cups of tea and a Gatorade. It’s a nice feeling that, having a pee in the bush beside the road. There were plenty of people stopped at Mt Ebenezer so it was just as well to press on. There were three times as many people at Erldunda, but that didn’t stop me getting a salad and a cuppa. I even managed a brief chat with a couple of Dutch tourists who had earlier been chucking a footy about. Again I topped up with petrol (again $1.55), bought a hat badge and a sticker, and set sail for Alice, about 190 kilometres. The vastness of the joint and the comparative lack of traffic make those sorts of distances a piece of cake. The only things that really registered on the trip were Finke Creek, which I’d read about in the Stuart book, and a memorial for someone who died during one of the ill-fated Cannonball runs through the Territory. Pretty soon there were buildings (albeit industrial) starting to dot the landscape: Alice. I drove around briefly and settled for a camping spot at the Big Four Park, an excellent set-up. I booked for five nights and then took about two hours to get the whole home thing set up. My neighbours were sympathetic or perhaps my constant hammering of pegs into the ground struck a chord with them. The camp has blokes on scooters who come and check that all is OK with the site, give you a rundown of what’s available at the camp and really just shoot the breeze. Simon checked on me. He was a great bloke who has been here just a short time, but loves it. He suggested a few things I should definitely do while I’m here. I told him that I’d report back on the results of his suggestions. I met a couple who did the mail run with me out of Coober Pedy and was invited to drop in later. The lure of a drop at home though got the better of me and I had my first taste of retail, Alice Springs style. I drove to the nearest supermarket: it’s also a grog shop, which was just as well cos I needed nothing from the supermarket. Still, it was good to check it out. A $15 bottle of shiraz, six cans of Carlton Draught and a packet of Champion Ruby and two packets of papers was $63. And to get the grog I had to provide photo ID, in my case a driver’s licence that had to be scanned to make sure I hadn’t been done for drink-driving. It the first time in yonks I’ve been asked for ID (although I’m hoping to improve on that when I finally apply for a seniors’ card), but I’m not complaining. I haven’t had a traffic fine since 1966 when I was done for speeding and lost my brief for three months. A chick pea salad, a beer and a bottle of red later, I was feeling like I belonged. I had a good chat to Andrew Cooke’ who phoned. It had been a long time since we talked other that text messages. I hope his house auction goes well. I don’t reckon sleep will be a problem after today’s drive and a bottle of red. My last task for the day/night is to rid my bed of the red dust that has accumulated. It’s a bit like (I imagine) sleeping on sandpaper sheets (no Dick Emery jokes here). Bloody stuff seems to get into places where there aren’t places … and I’m talking tent and bedding here, nothing of a personal nature.
A TOWN LIKE ALICE
My first full day in Alice was pretty easy, but for the dodgy back. I eased into the AM as best I could by drinking lots of tea and reading whatever I could lay my hands on. The ABC news helped although news these days seems to be less than interesting. After an excellent shower, it was time to cop an optic on downtown Alice. The ever=faithful GPS swung into action and pretty soon (it’s just four kilometers or so) I snaffled a parking spot and had the feet do their duty. First stop was the information centre where I grabbed a fair bit of printed stuff to help me navigate the place. I have to make sure I recycle most of it. The last thing I need is more weight in the traveling part of the show. At the moment I’m getting just 360 kilometres from a 60-litre tank full, not the ideal conversion rate. Still, I am carrying a fair bit and I’m sure the roof pod doesn’t help. . Still, with two 20-litre jerry cans, I reckon I can get 600 kilometres without too much bother. I’ve studied a map of where I’m going and there should be no hiccups. Anyway, the Alice town centre is not quite as I’d pictured it in my mind. I half expected it to be spacious, wide streets but it seems that everything is close together. There’s all the shops you could need (supermarkets and grog shops, that is) and I guess I’ll do a stock-up shop the day before I leave. I did the tour of the shops, galleries, cafes and whatever. There seems to be more travel agents than anything else in the centre of town and they all seemed to be doing business of one kind or another. Lots of backpackers hanging around. There’s a millions and one tours on offer, judging by what I saw in the information centre. Given that staying upright enough to walk was a pain in the back, I didn’t hang around for too long. About three hours saw me out, but not before I did a little bit of retail therapy in the form of a camera cleaning kit, a shopping bag with the Aboriginal flag on it, a hat badge (of course), a couple of local newspapers and a day-old Age (dunno what made me do that), a couple of books (one by Len Beadell and the other a biography of Sidney Kidman, one the biggest landholder and pastoralist in history), a great album … Gundulla We Dance by and Aboriginal band called The Yabu Band. It was playing while I was in the Aboriginal Culture Shop (and the young bloke behind the counter did a good sales pitch), and I also bought a bandana. Christ knows why, but I did. I also spent a lot of time in a didgeridoo shop talking to the owner. He was an amazing player … he demonstrated the different sound you can get out of the various thicknesses of pipe. It was astonishing. I pretty much have made up my mind that I’ll but one and learn to play it, although the bloke did tell me that I’d have to trim my mo because the didges tend to be abrasive on the top lip. Small price to pay really. I’m not as attached to the mo as it is to me. I was at a dinner party a couple of years ago and John Woodstra and another bloke both brought didges along. Woody let me have a crack at his. From memory, it’s not that hard. As I’m writing this I’m talking myself more into buying one. That’ll give me two things to learn to play when I get back. I bought a harmonica ages ago and that’s easy as well, I reckon. I managed to play happy birthday pretty quickly. I did the sandwich and a sports drink thing before hitting the road back to camp. For the rest of the afternoon I pretty much did the R&R thing with, of all things, a hot-water bottle on the hammer and tack. Spose it helped. I read that papers and just about had a laugh a page in the Northern Territory News. The front-page splash was a ripper: in about 200 point, it said: The car’s empty, but I’m full. It was about a pissed bloke who pulled into a servo to get petrol and fell asleep at the bowser. The story spilled to page two, where there was another yarn headed Qantas clowns with baggage. It was about Qantas staff not sending some baggage with a flight. Page three there was Bus guards boot 80, a yarn about bus security guards who have kicked off 80 unruly passengers and arrested 33. Best of all was a small extra piece in the leader column, headed … and another thing. Verbatim I will quote it: Sadly, it seems that AC/DC will not be coming to Darwin in the near future. But the enthusiasm shown for the prospect has increased the chances the next time the band goes on tour. Jesus wept is all I can say. In the Centralian Advocate there are a couple of ads for a Barnsey show at Anzac Oval here on June 19. Sorry I’m gonna miss it. The CA also picked up the pissed petrol buyer story but ran it on page two. It’s worth pointing out that I also read a yarn that said Territory drivers pay the most for fuel in Australia, averaging $1.29 a litre. Later on I finished reading the John McDouall Stuart bio, which I really enjoyed. I hadn’t noticed until last night that there’s a snippet of the Age’s review on the front cover , which also gives it the thumbs up. I had a quiet bite, a beer and a glass of red and then did some stretches before hitting the horizontal. Just as I got into bed, I got a message from Craig, a Welsh backpacker I’d met at Skenes Creek. He’s in Bowen packing fruit and is keen to catch up for a beer when I get to that neck of the woods. The back was a tad better in the morning, so after the usual three cups of tea, I was ready to do some touring, but not before a couple of chats with fellow campers. Racism, it seems, is very much alive and well in these parts, well with the visitors anyway. One bloke with whom I walked to the shower block said to me: “We`are heading north and were going to stop at Tennant Creek, but I heard it’s not a good place to go. Too many Aboriginals, you know. They’re OK, I suppose, but all they do is hang around looking dopey, you know.” This came on top of my neighbours talking last night about a girl who had served them in a shop during the day. “She seemed to be all right, friendly and all, but she had those slanty eyes.” Jesus is still weeping. They seem to be more at home talking about the size of bolts that hold their turbo thingy in place or whether the sausages in Alice are better than the ones they get at home. Anyway, I finally got away bound for a joint called Desert Park. It’s about 6-7 clicks out of town and easy to find thanks to the GPS woman. I spent four hours walking around it and was just blown away. A lot of it has been replanted with lots of desert plants, there are bird, snakes, roos, lizards, goannas, bilbies, bush rats and mice, in fact all manner of wildlife. I got an electronic talking guide thing, which made the whole thing even more interesting. A pearler of a place it was. I sat and drank water after doing a lap of the place and I thought: “Shit, I’d like to do that again, now.” I didn’t, of course, but I don’t reckon it would have taken much. The landscape was amazing. I even carried a cigarette butt for about an hour because I couldn’t entertain the thought of ditching it in the park. Ashtrays. That’s another strange thing about this neck of the woods. These butt receptacles are the old style metal pub ashtrays and they are screwed onto the tops of rubbish bins. I laughed the first time I saw one. The day was starting to cool a bit so I headed back to camp for a cuppa and a couple of bikkies while I downloaded 400 photos onto the laptop. Gotta take some time tomorrow and transfer them all (there’s about 2000 or so) to the portable hard drive so I can free up some space on the laptop. Took me a while to figure out why it was a bit slow reacting. A couple of thousand pictures will do that every time. Then it was blog o’clock. Oh, I’d almost forgotten until now about a text message I got from Richie, one of the guides I met in the Kimberley last year. It read: “A recent study proves that a dog is man’s best friend. How? Well, what you do is you take your wife and your dog and lock them both in the boot of the car for four hours and see which one is pleased to see you when you open the boot.” Thanks, Richie. Wonder if he’s broached the subject with his wife. Somehow I doubt it.
SOGGY IN THE CENTRE
Another beautiful day in Alice. It was in the 20s again. I reckon if it stayed like this I could live here. OK, maybe that’s just wishful thinking but it is pleasant. And pleasant readily described my late-morning visit to the old telegraph station. I’ve read plenty about the opening up of this neck of the woods; it was primarily to get the telegraph line from Indonesia underwater across to Darwin and down the guts of the continent to put Australia in touch (quicker than it was at the time) with the mother country and the rest of the world. The station is a magnificently preserved piece of architecture. Beautiful stone buildings with lots of props … OK, not lots .. of the period. It could of done with a few more displays but I suppose things from that era are not too easy to get. In terms of a comparative display, it wasn’t up to the standard of the desert park the day before, picky I know, but that’s the way I saw it. Got lots of photos of the telegraph station and some spectacular shots of the surrounding desert, including the original water hole called, appropriately enough, Alice Springs. Time to pull the pin and do some food and or necessities type of shopping. The Woolies supermarket is enormous with a great variety of fruit and vegetables, probably bigger than any I’ve seen in Melbourne. I filled a couple of calico bags (no plastic for this little black duck), bought a few more newspapers and headed back to camp to unpack the shopping and ended up talking to my neighbour for what seemed ages. He invited me to happy hour, where about 10 people get together, drink a fair bit and tell lies (well sometimes). I decided to hit out and have a bottle of red, but forgot to take ID with me. Back to the tent, then ID in hand, I headed off for a red. The best I could get (it’s a really limited supply) was a current vintage Grant Burge shiraz, which set me back $20. It went down a treat, just the same, as did the chat with the neighbours. I’m sure they all think I’m a throwback from another era … probably true … but we were all pretty much the same age, give or take a few years. I felt they were more like parents in a lot of ways. There’s one thing I’ve noticed in all the van joints I’ve stayed at, and it’s not necessarily applicable to my neighbours, but there’s a real lack of love among the travellers. I reckon so many of them have reached a stage in their relationships where it’s all about companionship (God I wouldn’t mind some occasionally). There’s just one couple I’ve met (a few times) who do the hand-holding thing and I reckon they still love each other. Sad, but I think a true observation. Even the newcomers across the road were a good example. They had this huge rig and the bloke was backing it into place while the wife was guiding. She didn’t do it to his liking and he said something I didn’t catch, but I sure heard her response. “I’m tellin’ ya, don’t you start on me,” she screeched in fishwife-ese. I reckon most of the neighbours heard her. Good set of lungs that woman. Seeing her the next morning, sitting outside the van and wearing pink pyjamas and an aqua chenille dressing gown with a fag ganging out of her mouth did little to change my opinion. Later that morning I made a beeline for Emily’s Gap (they’d call it a gorge, I reckon, in the Kimberley). It’s not that far out of town and is well worth the drive. A beautiful sandy tract wanders between two really high rocky outcrops … they may have even been mountains … and there are a few water holes where lots of birds drink, some haunting rock paintings and generally breathtaking scenery. Again the shutter was busy. Another cruise around town, for nothing in particular, other than sightseeing. There were quite a few people demonstrating the government decision to acquire Aboriginal land … not a popular decision that in these parts. I found my way back to the didgeridoo shops and bought one. The German girl in front of me bought two, which she was going to carry with her. Brave girl, that. I’m looking forward to having a crack, meanwhile it can stay in the bubble wrap. Happy hour was on again, a rapid gathering because everyone was due to leave the next day. I’d packed all that I could during the afternoon and was ready to rock. The crew was going for the no-cook night and we all grabbed a spot at the local pizza restaurant, which was surprisingly good, especially washed down with a bottle of red. Lots of good chat before we all headed back to camp. I woke early. It was 3.45 and it was pissing down. Oh, and it was still nine degrees at 1pm. This is the middle of Australia, I thought, it’s not supposed to be cold during the day. Overnight maybe, but during the day? I think not. My first thought and action was to go and book another night. I hate packing the tent wet. I spent the whole day wrapped in the doona, listening to the rain and the radio. It didn’t get up until the afternoon when I ventured out to get some food. At least it was an alcohol-free day … the happy hour crew had all headed north. It was still pretty wet (although not raining) come morning and I thought, bugger it, I’m going. The canvas was still wet but I banked on it being sunny a few hundred kilometers north. It was. It was still cold when I packed the tent. I was the topic of conversation whenever someone walked by. I, of course, was wearing a singlet and it was nine degrees, which but for the literal, felt like none. But once I got moving it was OK. I finally said goodbye to Alice and hit the Stuart Highway bound for Alleron, but given that the fuel was holding its own I continued to Ti Tree where I topped up the tank (1.75 a litre) and my gut with a bacon and egg sandwich and a cup of tea. A picture or two was enough and I hit the road for Barrow Creek, scene of the infamous Peter Falconeo murder. It was a pretty easy drive. I pulled into the carpark, headed for the boozer and ordered a cup of tea. I got to chatting (it’s the first time I’ve breasted a bar with a cuppa in hand) to an amazing local, a mango farmer who had a place a few kilometres out of town. I dunno what made him the happiest … the 45mm of rain he’d recorded at the farm the night before or the can of VB (it wasn’t his first for the day). It was also hard to tell which had the more wrinkles … his hat or his face, but what a great character. I’m sure he would have talked and drank all day if I’d stayed. Alas it wasn’t to be. I had an appointment with the camp ground at Wycliffe Well, about 100 clicks up the road. I was planning to drive to and camp at the Devil’s Marbles but the driving just got the better of me.
WELL, WELL, WYCLIFFE WELL
I was ready to pitch the tent and chill by the time I hit Wycliffe Well. It’s a strange place, this one, apparently the UFO capital of Australia, although it was 22 degrees and still singlet weather. In its UFO-dominated brochure, it says something like “most people would think they were lucky to see a UFO: here you’ll be unlucky not to see one”. Yeah sure. I looked for quite a while later and I guess I was unlucky, although dotted all around the park are green, plaster alien statues and a terribly out of place Phantom. Everyone knows he’s not an alien. It also has a pub and licensed restaurant. I pitched the tent really quickly and though I’d just as well drive to the Devil’s Marbles (about a 60-kilometre round trip) and it would save me stopping in the morning when I’d planned to rack up some kilometres. Driving out there without the trailer was like being a kid again. The limit is 130 and I did it (I actually got to 145, which was not good). I ambled around the marbles for an hour or so and took lots of pictures. I’m glad I didn’t camp out there, the joint was packed to overflowing. Hardly a site to be had. Back at Wycliffe Well, I settled in my chair in the sun, grabbed the laptop and put some words down. It’s a great feeling, sitting in the sun in the bush, armed with technology and only the flies and birds for company. The flies were so bad I had to use the cream I have. It’s amazing. It’s made in Victoria from rosemary and cedarwood. The little bastards hate it cos they won’t come near it. I watched the park fill up as I was writing. There’s a constant with all the grey nomads (me excepted): the bloody television. You see it almost every time; the first thing they do after setting their vehicle into place is to point the TV antenna in the right direction. Fair dinkum. One couple walked by while I was typing and I said g’day, how’re things? “Bloody frustrated,” said the fella. His wife chimed in with “Bloody satellite dishes.” Poor people couldn’t get a picture. God forbid that they should talk to each other instead. When I booked in I said to the woman that I’d probably eat at the restaurant, to which she replied: “If you want to eat here, be here before 6.30. No ordering after 6.30.” Yes ma’am. What a great decision it was to eat in. I bought a newspaper and a beer ($5 a stubby of Carlton Draught) and grabbed a Laminex table, complete with plastic flowers, pepper and salt and a tube of toothpicks. The walls are covered with newspaper and magazine clippings of UFO sightings (not sure what a sighting at Beveridge has to do with Wycliffe Well), brochures, Aboriginal artwork, shelves with a few snakes and a scorpion in bottles, the ubiquitous baseball cap rack, T-shirts and a photo or two. But it gets better. There at a table across from me was a large, make that huge, Polish chap, wearing very short shorts and a singlet, heavy beard, loud voice and playing a violin … badly. Mind you the women at the table with him thought he was good enough to play with the New York Philharmonic. After he’d graced us with a couple of “classical” pieces, and asked everyone what the second one was. I couldn’t help it. “Elvis sang that. It’s called It’s Now or Never.” “No, non, no, ‘tis Italian song by Pavarotti,” he said triumphantly. One woman turned to me and asked: “Did Elvis really sing that, luv?” I smiled at her and nodded. Then one of the women at his table, she the one drinking a can of Jim Beam and Coke, which was resting on her pack of 50 Horizon cigarettes, while she tucked into her steak and eggs. “D’ya know Danny Boy, luv?” she blurted. “No, no no,” he replied, “you sing it for me, I will try to pick it up.” Please, no, I thought, but too late. She burst into Danny Boy for about 15 words before the lyrics got the better of her. Saved, I thought, but then the strains of Danny Boy filled the room, courtesy of a laptop with a tourist. The big Pole loved it. He ended his show (thank Christ) and sat with the laptop fella who took him through a variety of songs and promised to print out the sheet music. “I shall learn them all and play for you tomorrow night,” he said. I’m staying one night for sure, I said to myself just as my Chinese beef and vegetables arrived. That was a disappointment. I was hanging out for a lot of veggies, but this being beef country, the veg were outnumbered about eight to one. It was good just the same. Another beer saw me out and I had an early night listening to the crackly ABC. I was up at 7.30 and packed by eight and on the road for Tennant Creek, via Wauchope for petrol and a cuppa. I drove straight through Tennant Creek. It has a bad reputation in the parts: violence is apparently a way of life. I stopped again at Three Ways, the last petrol for a few hundred clicks, had a cuppa and pointed the car at Barkly Station. It was a pretty easy drive: the road is in great shape and the landscape seems to change every now and then. There seemed to be a lot of road kill. I still felt mildly concerned that I was out of phone range. What’ll happen if I break down, I thought. I still hadn’t had anyone check the grease leakage on the left wheel of the trailer. The bearing wasn’t making any noise and didn’t seem to have any sideways movement, but the excessive grease was still a worry. I fuelled up at Barkly Station (1.69.9 a litre), had a drink and a sandwich, the bought a Darwin Stubby, which I intend to try to get back to Melbourne full. Next stop Camooweal, Queensland.
ACROSS STATE LINES
For the first time in ages, the kilometers were slow to tick off. There’s a sign every 10 kilometres saying how far it is to Queensland (it started out at 340, I think) but they seemed to takes ages to reach. A bit like watching a kettle I suppose. Finally there were signs along the road advertising the joys of Camooweal and I was within 20 clicks. I was expecting a roadhouse like all the others I’d stopped at on the highway, but no, this was a genuine town population 310. It even had two caravan parks, one with it’s own pub. No contest there. I booked for just a night, which set me back the princely sum of $9 for a powered site. I quickly set up, grabbed a beer and did a bit of blogging, not much mind because the pub was beckoning. I got there at about five, ordered a XXXX Gold and leant on the rail on the front veranda and watched the world go by. It was about 25 degrees (singlet weather) and I don’t reckon it gets much better. But it did. I befriended plenty of people, among them the publican who’s a really switch-on bloke, and his wife, a black woman from PNG who is pregnant. I ended up talking to her on the veranda for a couple of hours after dinner. She’s an absolute hoot and a mad keen rugby league fan. With state-of-origin tomorrow night, it’s a big talking point in these parts. Everyone in the pub was friendly in the extreme, even the German barmaid who wholeheartedly recommended the chicken schnitzel for dinner. Spot on it was. I shared a table with an old miner, Dave, who is heading to East Timor to do some work and see out his days there. Great bloke. There was entertainment at the pub, too. A fella who was hell-bent on impersonating every singer in the world and none of them brilliantly. He had put down his own backing tracks which gave the impression of a band. Sorry mate, you didn’t cut it for me. But others seemed to be enjoying it. I could tell when some of the oldies started to dance on the veranda. No, I thought, I’m being haunted by music of one kind or another. Then this woman danced up to me … she’d had a red or 12 … and very politely asked me: “Are you nice?” “Yep,” I said, “I’m a decent bloke. Why?” “I was frightened of you when I saw you in the caravan park,” she said, “just like I was frightened by the Aborigines. I wouldn’t get out of the car.” “Fear’s a good emotion,” I said, not giving her any easy way out. “What’s to be frightened of with Aboriginals,” I said and then related the story of my Aboriginal friend, Stephen, in Coober Pedy. “There just people.” Without another thought, she said: “And I’m scared of crocodiles. They should all be killed. They were swimming right alongside the boat we were in.” Jesus, I thought, what have I got here. Her husband was no help. He just went along with her. “It’s their water. They were there before you,” I said. “Shit, you’re not a greenie too,” she said. I explained how I felt conscious of helping to save the planet by looking after itand that I’d formed a few opinions that were neither right nor wrong … they were just opinions. She countered with: “I save water. Don’t use too much. And you do see like a nice person although you’ve got some strange opinions. You haven’t got a sign on your car that says you’re looking for a woman to travel with, have you?” Nope, but I am looking, I told her. “You’ve got plenty of time. What age are you? Late 40s?” All was forgiven and her strange opinions were written off as the after effects of the red she’d been drinking. Time for a last pot with Dave and the publican’s wife before I hit the hay. Again I was up early (although I hadn’t adjusted my watch to Queensland time) so I headed for the office to ask whether there was a decent mechanic in town and Graham, the manager, said: “There’s Kym over the road but don’t go to him. He doesn’t like to work and once told a customer to go to the next servo down the road. That’s Mt Isa and a coupla hundred kilometers. Go down to the Shell and ask for David. He’ll help ya straight away or if he’s not there, there’s a young bloke called Jamie who’s pretty handy. Tell em that Graham sent ya.” I thanked him and headed to the Shell. Dave was out on a job and Jamie hadn’t arrived. “Dunno where he is, luv,” said the woman at the counter. About 10 minutes later he arrived, said g’day, and pulled the wheel apart, checked the bearing, re-greased it, put a new cap on it and said: “No worries with that. I won’t tell em about the new cap. Is 15 bucks OK?” Too right it is. Jamie’s an interesting bloke who has been traveling for years and at the moment is restoring a T-Model Ford to take on the road. He camps with his dogs at night down at the creek, has a swim for a wash and works full-time for Shell and four hours at night for the other garage. He’s also doing up a couple of dirty bikes. Terrific fella with a very short crew cut, a long goatee and tatts. He looked surprised when I shook his greasy hand, but he wished me luck and I was off to Mount Isa, just a couple of hundred clicks. I managed to get decent radio reception on the ABC and about halfway to Isa, a really good mate of mine, Lloyd Marshall, from Perth (a former Blackall resident) was interviewed. I was talking to him in just the past week or so. I rang him from Mt Isa and told him. We both had a good laugh about it. I grabbed a site not too far out of town and, yes, there is a pub across the road so I can watch origin tomorrow night. Meanwhile, I’m off to see what makes Mt Isa tick.
ISA A LOW FOLLOWED BY HIGH KARUMBA
I’m not sure what makes Mt Isa tick, but I reckon bad manners plays a part. No one seems to say thank you to anything … I held a door open for a bloke carrying a stack of stuff and he ignored me totally. Women serving in shops the same treatment. I didn’t feel very emanoured of the place because of it. I don’t reckon there’s a whole heap to do other than mine tours or mine-related stuff, which I couldn’t be bothered with. I drove around and had a look at the place, that’s about it. Most of my fellow tourists were of the same opinion. There didn’t seem too many staying for any length of time despite this being the biggest place they’d been in for some time. I tended to chill out at the camp chatting to the neighbours. They were all terrific. I did some shopping: a pair of pants, a Queensland state of origin top (I’d planned to go to the pub to watch it, but even that was too hard. It would have been about a 1.5-kilometre walk back home. Not ideal with a few beers under the belt.) I also bought a UHF (CB) hand-held radio. Seems a lot of people doing what I’m doing have them. It’s just a peace of mind thing. I took it home, put it on charge, waited for the green light and then had a play. It lasted about five minutes and went dead. I thought the battery needed a bit more juice so recharged again until the green light came on. Nothing and by this time it was too late to take it back to the shop and I was leaving the next day. I left it on charge overnight in the forlorn hope that it would spring to life. I was pissed off, but given this would be my last night in a town, I opted for a pizza and a six-pack and to watch the origin game at my tent. I hadn’t had the teev out for months so I was on tenterhooks. Would it go the way of the UHF radio? The highlight of my time in Isa came at the pizza shop. No, it wasn’t chatting to the mum and her kids out the front … they were selling raffle tickets to win a state of origin pack. And it wasn’t the precocious seven-year-old taking the orders and virtually running the front of the shop. It was a 20-minute chat to a local boilermaker. Her was a real salt-of-the-earth type who had just come back from Townsville where he had an MRI scan on his shoulder. “How’d you bugger your shoulder? I asked. “Getting’ a mate out of a fight. Don’t remember much of it because a heap of them belted the shit out of me. They dislocated my shoulder backwards. Totally wrecked it. It not a good thing for a boilermaker. Looks like I have to have a major reco.” Apart from the medical chat, it was good to chat sport to someone. My television fired up with a perfect picture (I had To put up the large antenna), so it was pizza, beer and the footy. Just like being at home really. I drank several times to Queensland’s success on the night and set the alarm for an early call so I could be packed and ready to go before I ripped into town to do something about the UHF radio. I killed time and had one of the best coffees I’ve ever had at an arcade café (it cost $.50 so it had to be good) before Dick Smith’s shop opened. I chatted to the bloke who sold it to me. He tested it, looked at me blankly and said what I’d thought all along. “It’s rooted, mate.” Yeah, tell me something I don’t know. Still, he replaced it (and it has worked ever since) so all it cost me was about an hour of my time and God knows, I have plenty. I flew back to camp, did the last-minute crap that always seems to crop up, and then got chatting to the new neighbours all the way from Eltham. Their daughter’s best friend is Paul Daffey’s partner, proving for the umpteenth time that it really is a small world. They said they’d say g’day to Daff from me when they hit Melbourne again. Pretty soon I was bound for Cloncurry (Martin Sherrard used to work there) through some rolling but spectacular countryside, occasionally getting stuck behind a road train or two. It was still an easy drive and in no time I was having a sandwich and a cuppa at the servo there. I backtracked a little out of town and turned for Normanton, about 300 and plenty clicks away. There was just one site listed on the map on the way … Burke and Wills Roadhouse … but it was a great drive, again the countryside being wonderful to look at. There were plenty of road trains along the way … Jesus, they’re big (50 metres or so long) and the wind … sheeeeesh. Another cuppa and sandwich at B&W roadhouse and a look at lots of cowboys and cowgirls hanging around, many of whom I suspect were on their way to Normanton for the rodeo and annual show. It was good to see lots of other people wearing cowboys boots. Me? I was wearing Crocs, shorts and a singlet. The road beyond the roadhouse takes on a disturbing character for quite a lot of long stretches … it narrows to just one lane of bitumen with plenty of dirt on the sides, hardly the ideal conditions to meet road trains. But meet them I did. And I put into practice one of the many things I’ve learned on this trip. I hit the dirt and give the big fella all the bitumen. It’s a good practice and saves you from a huge stone shower. And it is kinda cool driving in the dirt. I feared I was gonna run out of light and the sun seemed to be sinking quickly. Dodging roos on the road became another things to worry about. Judging by the amount of spent roos on the road, a lot of either drivers or roos weaved when they should have bobbed. It fortunately was still light when I hit Karumba and found the only campground in town. My heart sank when I saw it. It was packed to the gunnels, but they had a site back against the fence. I had to back the trailer through a bevy of caravans. It was my best backing performance of the tour. At 22 bucks a night (powered) it was a steal. I had planned to chill here for a week (can you chill when it’s in the 30s?) by it was three night maximum. The Normanton show and rodeo were on and there were also a heap of fishermen in town. My nearest neighbours are here for two months. I got the tent up quick smart, had a great cold beer and made a beeline for the boozer, across the road and featuring (their words) the Famous Animal Bar. Yep, there’s a big banner announcing it. Animal bar it was then. As the night wore on it became evident why it had this name. No trouble, mind, from the paying animals this night so far, although I heard one large bloke admonishing one of his drinking partners a couple of times … “That’s why you always get bashed, you idiot.” It was the small, feisty Irish girl in the kitchen who provided most of the entertainment. When she called out my table number and I went to collect my chicken, chips and salad, she started. “Twenty five,” she screamed, and I mean really screamed. She had another two goes before a local woman ambled up to collect her plate of oysters. “They’ve been here fooking ages,” she screamed (and I mean screamed) at the woman. “No need to scream,” the woman replied. After dinner (they call it tea here) I settled in on a stool at the bar and chatted to Les, a charter boat driver while an Angels’ concert blared on the TV. Les was a decent fella who has worked in and around the outback for a long time. Then there was a scream and a might crash from the kitchen. The Irish flyweight had chucked a real wobbly and thrown a large tray of pots and pans at someone. Then it went and stayed quiet. Maybe someone decked her. The Les ordered his tea. A bowl of chips and gravy with a large white bread roll. The barmaid gave him No.30. “Shit, you gave me this number deliberately. Thanks a lot,” he said to the barmaid, who started laughing. “What’s the drama with 30?” I asked. “That Irish Sheila can’t say 30 properly and it makes her mad and everyone else laugh,” he said, laughing himself. When the off-duty barmaid came and sat with him, he bought her a beer. She took one sip and then moved to talk to someone else. “Bitch,” said Les, “can you believe her. That’s the last beer I buy for her. She didn’t even stay and talk.” He then told me some great stories, many involving himself and the coppers at various places in the bush. I finally bought him one for the road (it had been a long day for me), told him that I’d catch him the next night. I slept like a baby, courtesy of a few beers and the fact that it was probably about 20 at worst overnight. Morning meant chatting to my new neighbours, then a feed of bacon and eggs at the only café in town. Come to think of it, there aren’t too many of anything here. A pharmacy/furniture shop/giftware with a nursery attached, a bakery, a butcher (who has just closed for five days), a supermarket/Retravision shop, a cop shop and a place that sells petrol. Oh, and there’s a licensed restaurant across the road from the campground. That’s the CBD, Karumba-style. Still, it has a nice feel to it. I suddenly realized that I had just $50 in cash and of course there’s no ATM in town, so I took a drive to Normanton, a 140-kilometre round trip. It’s a great drive when you’re not in a hurry … vast plains, dense bush, wetlands … they’re all there. I had a bit of a look around Normanton (there’s a Westpac ATM although there was a queue) and about five pubs. This place must really go off at show/rodeo time. At one pub on the main drag there was standing room only on the veranda and it was only 11.45. I took a few pictures around town, filled up with petrol ($1.35 a litre) and headed back to Karumba. I stopped for lots of pictures at some wetlands just out of town. The place was live was a mat of water lilies and birds … ducks, magpie geese, cranes, brolgas and egrets. It was magnificent. There was a similar scene right across the road. After the pictures I had a chat to an older couple who had camped in the bush the previous night. “Yeah, we don’t do it too hard,” said the husband. “We do maybe 30 or 40 miles a day and then stop. We’re in no hurry. Beautiful spot this.” He was right. I bade them farewell and headed again for Karumba, stopping for pictures a few times on the way. I took a tour of the town extremities and it was surprising just how many houses are secreted away in the bush and down this track and that. Mind you, there are more boats here than people. I booked a sunset cruise for tonight. Takes just a few hours and they feed you and give you a drink … and it’s just $35. Hopefully there’ll be plenty of photo opportunities including a big salty croc or two … apparently there are quite a few around the area. I just have to get my backside trackside near the pub at about 4.45.
A ROUND OF GULF (WITH APOLOGIES TO CHRIS RICHARDS)
There were seventeen people booked for the sunset cruise, plus the driver, his wife (who gave a great running commentary) and their son (who passed around the food and refilled drinks). The sea was not angry that day, my friends (excuse the Seinfeld reference). It was pretty much like a mirror when we headed away from the slipway and turned left heading away from town. I don’t reckon we’d been going more than a few minutes when we were alerted to the presence of a rather large croc taking in some rays. Apparently he’d been there all day. He was very close to the middle of town, such as it is. This is a hoot, I thought. Lots of pics of the big fella as we continued on. The commentary filled us in on what the port was used for during the war (it was a flying boat base) and the woman knew the history of all the boats along the way including a wooden one that was used between here and New Guinea during the war. Wood is apparently good for wartime boats because the mines weren’t attracted to it. As we passed the barramundi research place, she said to make sure we all go and have a look but to be careful not to buy the “mother-in-law” gifts that they had there, although she did mention bow ties made from cane toads. Now I’ve gotta take a look. The son put a heap of fish scraps onto a tray on the bow for the kites, which swept down and grabbed a feed. It was like feeding time at the zoo. At the end of civilisation as Karumba knows it, we did a U-turn and headed for the mangroves across the way. They had to check one of their crab pots, which had one large female crab and a couple of mullet (“bottom of the food chain” we were told) firmly ensconced. They were all given a second chance and tipped back in the briney. Soon, it was wine o’clock, which was a very welcome thing. As we cruised alongside the mangroves, watching the birds, we came across a huge (and I really mean big) grouper. He would have been about a metre or so long and about the girth of my waist. (Note well, I have tightened my belt by about three inches in the old money.) The problem with this fish is that it was only half of him. He'd become a snack on the run for a rather large shark, poor bugger. The grouper, that is, not the shark. The fact that he’d washed up onto the mudflat was just another link in the food chain. He’ll no doubt provide plenty of tucker for the birds and crabs that live here in their thousands (or is that millions?). We stopped along the way to say hello to the nesting kites on the warning light pole. The locals have named them and keep a constant watch on their breeding habits. The first family had one chick, the one on the next pole had three. About this time, the driver pointed out in the distance (right over the other side of the bay) a white eagle sitting in a tree. “We’ll go over there and see if we can annoy here into action although it’s unlikely. She’s pretty lazy’” he said. I’d never heard of a white eagle, but there she was, sitting there and moving for no one. “She gets pretty aggressive with her partner and gives him a belting if he doesn’t bring enough food back with him.” About this time, our food chain kicked in and we helped ourselves to heaps of chilled, fresh prawns (the best price in town is just down the road from the camp. $12 a kilo.) while we watched the sun sink quickly out of sight. I took a picture about every 90 seconds and I was always moving quickly. It was quite amazing just how quickly it disappeared. Some more wine also heralded another croc, this time a smaller fella. We could just see his eyes above the water as he checked out two silly egrets about a metre or two away. As we got close to him, he went under and the driver said: “ That’s an aggressive move by him.” He backed up to boat and said: “Now he thinks that he’s frightened us away.” We moved closer as he came back to the surface. I suppose it could have gone on like that all night if we’d stayed. It was pretty as a picture as we headed back to town, the lights shimmering on the still sea. All too soon, we were back on terra firma. It was a great couple of hours. The biggest worry was that the walk back to my tent meant I had to pass the pub. Who am I kidding. Pass? Nah. There was a decent crowd in (it was Friday I was told) and there were a few familiar faces from the night before. I teamed up with Les again and he introduced me to Dave (who works on the fishing boats), Sam (boats) and we set about solving the problems of the world over a few jars. Not much in the way of problem solving, mind, but the beers were going down a treat. It helped to have the Storm-Broncos game on the big screen. I fessed up to the blokes I was with that I support Storm, but that if anyone asked, I follow Penrith. A bit of safety-first here, although it seemed like every time I went to the bar, one local or another would say something like “G’day, big fella, how’s it goin’.” They’d seen me there the night before. It was a comforting display of acceptance although I was the only one in the bar with long hair with beads in it. Don’t reckon there are too many judgmental types living here. And no one gave me a hard time for my lilly-white legs. They were brown but this was just the second time I’d had shorts on since the weather turned cold a few months ago down south. The Storm boys did the right thing and towelled the Broncos. Not too many people in the bar were disappointed because most of them follow the Cowboys. The Storm’s effort wasn’t the only towelling for the night. I braved the crowd and put my two bucks on the pool table. Time for my game against a big bloke called Matt, who shifted houses for a living. Partners, I said. He didn’t care and asked his dad, Greggy, so I grabbed young Sam and it was game on. It was a slow start although I dropped a couple my first time up. I played my only miss for the night with my next shot, but Matt didn’t capitalise and then I cleared the table. Six in a row. Precise, good to watch even if I do say so myself. We all shook hands and then they challenged us to another hit. Again it was slow going in the middle, but again I cleared the last four balls, including an absolute cracker on the black. A celebratory schooner and then I did the smart thing. “Time to go, boys,” I said, “good to leave undefeated.” I was in great shape because the beers hadn’t kicked in. Why mess with a great night, I thought, as I headed home. Mind you, I got a challenge on the way out from a big Kiwi I’d met the night before. I just may take him up on it. The hardest decision in the morning was whether I should go again to Normanton for the rodeo and show. I was chatting to Jack Mac on Facebook about my lot for the day. “I’m sitting under a palm with a mango tree nearby chatting. Will I go or won’t I? I reckon the mango tree might win.” It did. My biggest drama of the day so far was a bloody big bullant falling into my cuppa. I’ll pretty much chill for the day and make sure everything is either packed, tied down or consumed, ready for the drive tomorrow to Georgetown and then maybe Cairns, although I think it’s 700 and plenty clicks, which may be a bit tough even though I’ve had days when I’ve done that sort of distance before. It’ll be a long haul though, longer even than the road train that’s driving by as I type. Here he comes again. He must’ve done a lap of town.
CHILLING IN 32 DEGREES AT KARUMBA
My last day in Karumba was pretty much the usual last day anywhere of late … pack, check that all’s OK with all that needs to be OK (although I couldn’t be buggered to do the washing. There wasn’t too much anyway.) blog a bit and generally do little else. It was the perfect preparation for the long drive pointed at Cairns, although not before I had one last yee ha at the Animal Bar at the boozer. What really struck me as funny was the bar next door to the Animal: same pub of course, but it has the Suave Bar, a magnificent contrast to the open-air Animal, which I hadn’t noticed before. At about 4.45 when my neighbours were tucking into “the best home brew beer in the world” (yeah, right, best and home brew are three words that don’t really belong in the same sentence) I announced to them that I was going to sample the product at the pub. They looked pretty surprised. I haven’t seen too many blow-ins at the bar. Perhaps they give it a wide berth because of its past reputation. Never mind, the locals are more fun anyway. It was 32 degrees; the perfect temperature for the 200-metre walk. On the way I made sure not to look too hard at the pretty young woman walking along the other side of the road. You never know in these parts when a crazed husband or boyfriend may be driving by at the time. I met up with Dave, the fisherman, who was nursing a headache and a schooner of XXXX Bitter while watching some rugby league. I grabbed a schooner of XXXX Gold, a very good drop that I have stopped going stale on many an occasion and sat down with him. “G’day hairy,” screamed a Maori girl at the next table. I said g’day and smiled at her and she smiled back. She’d had a few. Dave works for a mackerel fisherman who makes a million bucks a year catching Spanish mackerel. I met the skipper and his bride the night before. They seemed a really friendly couple. Dave told me that “he was offered $10,000,000 for his licence” a while ago and said to the fella: “Why don’t you come back and see me when you’ve got $30,000,000.” A good quid to be had obviously. Dave said that the skipper had given two of his marks in the gulf to his brother-in-law and he’d bought and paid for a house in two seasons. Dave then gave me a lesson in catching mackerel, which is all done with hand lines (wires so they don’t put their molars through it). There are three lines at the back of the dory (five-metre runabout) and he’s the only one in the boat, so when all three go off it’s a busy time. “I run on adrenalin the whole time. I usually buy a complete new set of clothes before I leave for a season. Two sizes smaller. I lose so much weight while I’m out there, but I end up really fit,” he said. Then he showed me a few scars on his hands and his legs, courtesy of exuberant mackerels. I’ve watched them go berserk on a deck floor after they’ve been landed when I was fishing on the Arafura Sea. Nasty pieces of work they are. Dave said he wears two pairs of welder’s gloves with the fingertips cut out to give a bit of feel to it all. It can’t be a lot of fun wrapping a heavy-duty wire trace around your hand to pull in a fish. The he showed me how to quick release it, a real art in itself. He said that last season he got pulled into the drink a couple of times, not a good place to be when the mackerel are running, literally, from feeding sharks. Says it doesn’t really faze him, which I find hard to believe. I asked him the biggest mackerel he’d ever hooked. Without hesitation, he said: “Seven foot nine.” “Jesus,” I said, “how big a fight was that?” “Yeah, he went for a while. There’s a picture of him on the wall over there,” he said. The Gold must have kicked in because I forgot to go for a look. By this time hunger had kicked in so I ordered a rump steak, surprisingly the only beef (I didn’t count the crumbed steak) on the menu. While I was at the bar ordering, I got to talking to a big unit who said he’d had a fair bit to do with boxing over the years. He said he’d trained a lot of boys who’d appeared on TV Ringside. We got to throwing names at each other and a lot of people I’d met, he’d met. We had a great chat until my side of beef arrived. No kidding, this things was a good 10” round in the old money. If it had been much bigger I could have milked it. Wasn’t the best piece of beef I’ve eaten although I made a fair fist of it. I enjoyed more the salad, which was poking its head out of one side of the great beast. I then got talking to a bloke whose name is best left alone. He told me that he was working in the bush and got a call from his dad, whom he hadn’t seen for 20 years. His father asked him to come and help him run a bush pub he’d just bought. I don’t know how that father found him. S’pose the bush telegraph. “I said to him, ‘yeah, I’m not doing a lot and it’d be good to see ya’ so I caught up with the old man and it was real good. Mended a few bridges. The pub needed a bit of work, so we painted it up and got it lookin’ OK. It didn’t take long for the local black fellas to start givin’ us a bit of shit. When we finally left the pub, there were 35 bullet holes in the ceiling. Funny thing, though, these blokes were more scared of out big black labrador than they were of the old man or me when we got out a shooter. I had three guns at the time. Licences for ‘em all too. And the bloody dog would have licked ‘em to death if only they’d stayed around long enough when he went towards them,” he said. “I can say this now, and I tell ya I’m not proud of it, but I’ve shot three black fellas. It was either them or me. They were gonna kill me.” I got back to talking with Dave whose headache was fast disappearing by the schooner. We chatted for about another hour although I couldn’t work out why, about every 15 minutes, he’d head out to the front of the pub. “I didn’t know there was a toilet out there’” I said to him. “Yep, there’s a few. They’re called trees,” he said without a hint of a smile. And it was further to walk than the inside loo. Ah, the bush at its very best. I called it a night before too much damage was done by the beers. If I was gonna try for Cairns I’d have to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the AM. I was. I was out of bed at seven, made a cuppa, then packed the tent (I’m getting really good at it now. It’s about a 15-minute job.) and cruised on out of Karumba (without a cane toad bow tie … I forgot to go there), bound again for Normanton, 70 clicks away. I stopped in town for a look at Krys, a statue of the (they say) largest crocodile ever shot. It’s called Krys after the hunter’s wife and there’s a picture of her sitting astride this monster after the fatal shot (obviously she wouldn’t have been there had Krys still been drawing breath). Did I say big? Well this thing measured 28 feet four inches and weighed two tons. It’s like a caravan with legs: well it weighs about the same as a big van. Onward again to Croydon, 149 kilometres down the road where I’d top up the petrol, then on to Georgetown where I thought I may camp for the night if Cairns seemed too hard. By the time I got there I was doing it easily so pressed on to Mt Surprise (a pit stop and a cuppa) and then on to Mt Garnet. That would be the stop for the night. Cairns would be too hard and it would be dark or thereabouts when I arrived. As I was cruising along, I had an epiphany. I’m gonna do this whole bush thing again, I thought to myself. I just love doing this. I still get a real kick out of it when I see a roo or whatever in the wild, the countryside is an ever-changing thing of beauty and there’s the liberation thing, the freedom. I immediately started to plan the next trip in my new four-wheel-drive ute, with a lot less gear than I have with me now. It was a great daydream … OK, more than a daydream. I’m gonna do it, although next time it will be with a woman. Anyway, about halfway to Mt Garnet I saw a sign for Undara and the lave tubes. I’d seen the ages ago on a TV travel show and someone had told me a few weeks ago that if I was near that I shouldn’t miss them. I did a fast righty and headed the 14 kilometres to Undara figuring that I’d have a couple of hours to look around and still have time to make Mt Garnet. Although Undara is in a national park, there’s a bloody resort there … and plenty of camping space. And it’s beautiful country. A camp site was just 10 bucks for the night. While I was checking in I booked a tour of the lava tubes for 10.30 in the morning. I set the tent up in 10 minutes, found a charged light for the night and I was set. I wandered back up to the resort just in time for the snake man’s talk. He had a couple of pythons and was telling anyone who’d listen the ins and outs of snakes in the bush. And he was passing around the snakes, which were nothing short of beautiful. One, a black-headed python called … no, not Monty … Clancy was superb. I had a crack at cuddling (OK, handling) both. I hadn’t handled a snake for a few years and loved it. I got a bloke standing nearby to use my camera to record the moment. I took my camera back to the tent and headed back to the resort. Did I mention it had a bar and restaurant. Well it did. I booked for dinner, which was for $38 an all-you-can-eat thing, with fresh meat cooked each time you ordered again. I sat around and had a couple of quiet beers and checked out the resort (have a look at undara.com.au) until I was hungry enough to tackle dinner. I went to the restaurant counter to order and the girl who’d checked me in said: “Hello, Michael, hope you’ve brought an appetite.” Good PR that remembering my name. I ordered kangaroo (which I love), emu and crocodile. “Sorry,” said the chef, “but we’re all out of croc.” No matter, I thought, “Can you throw in a Georgetown sausage, ta (the menu says they’re the best in Australia and may be right).” I started with a great bowl of tomato soup and some crusty bread, then the mains arrived. I bulked up the plate with lots of vegetables and salad, ordered a glass of shiraz and it was on. The roo was stupendously good, the sausage the same, but the emu? I reckon it’s just a gimmick putting it on a menu. To me it had no gamey taste (and was almost bland), was stringy (although cooked rare) and was generally a waste of space on the plate. I left about half of it, but this was up there with the best feeds I’ve had on the road. The one glass of red was ample, even lasting long enough for a cheese plate (wouldn’t have minded some fruit either) too. I retired well sated to the smokers’ lounge (OK, a table and chairs away from the dining area) and chatted for about an hour with three blokes who were have a camping long weekend. They were great company: we had two or three beers before all calling it a night. I was up before seven and boiled the billy three times before leisurely packing the tent and heading to meet the guide for the lava tube thing. Kev was the guide, a good bloke (Jeez I’d like a quid for every time I’ve said that on this blog) and pretty soon he’d herded 22 of us onto a little bus for the 15-minute drive to the tubes. But not before he’d warned us that this was the last-chance toilet stop. “The trees are thin and the grass is sharp,” he said, “so if you’ve got to go, go now because you can’t in the national park.” Walking through the lava tubes was a wonderful experience. Just getting to them was great. We drove through savannah country, where grass and trees grow in a thin layer of topsoil (it’s really broken down granite) and when we got to the first tube, it was surrounded by a seemingly out of place rainforest and as we went below we could see vines and tree roots running 6-7 metres to find something to hang onto. It was beautifully cool too. Onward, into the next tube called The Arch) because of a ceiling collapse ages ago. Again the out of place rainforest. I asked Kev (at questions time) what was the significance of the rock paintings a few metres up the wall. “They’re actually not paintings. They’re caused by a parasite.” Pretty bloody clever parasite, I thought. One looks like a wallaby or roo and the other could be an alien reaching for the sky. Bloody artistic parasite. (see picture somewhere on this page). Onward into another tube, this time with a fair amount of water in it. Well all (well nearly all) took off our shoes and waded in knee-deep water for about 100 metres into the tube to keep company with the bats who were no doubt pissed off by our presence. It was just a two-hour tour and it flew by too quickly. I’d love to have seen more. We detoured on the way back to a lookout from where we could see a row of extinct volcanoes. Brilliant. All too soon I was motoring out of Undara bound for Cairns. I reckoned I had fuel enough to get me there so I motored on to Mt Garnet where I stopped for a cool drink and continued to Ravenshoe where my phone reception kicked back in after about a week. I copped a few beeps from messages that had stored up. I turned off the Innisfail road, went through Millaa Millaa, which was about where the road started to take more twists than I could ever have imagined possible as it headed for Herberton. I skirted around Atherton, through Yungaburra bound for Gordonvale. By the time the car had made it to level ground, I had become car sick, an experience I haven’t had since I was a kid. The turns in this road were nearly all hairpins (with a 30 limit), some of them so severe that I could almost see the bloody trailer alongside me. I broke out in a heavy cold sweat, my chest was pounding and I felt more stressed than I can ever remember. I was so bad that I wanted to pull over and take a break but there were no spots to do it. By the time the road had straightened and again was a 100 zone I could only get to 80. I felt almost too frightened to go any faster. It stayed with me until about 20 clicks out of Cairns after which I hit the ton again. I couldn’t believe how much the outskirts of Cairns had changed … there was so much development. Then I remembered that the last time I was here (for the Test against Sri Lanka) I didn’t get to the outskirts. Strange that. Earlier I’d picked out the closest park to the city proper and I had no trouble finding it. I booked for a week. The fee includes three hours a day unlimited downloads on the net, a real bonus. Got a great site just near the dunnies and showers. It was the first time since Coober Pedy that I’ve set up the whole shebang and I was sweating like a pig after the two hours it took to get it just so and to unload all the stuff from the car, by which time I was hanging out for a cold beer. I headed to the nearest bottle shop, which was next door to a supermarket, which was next door to a pizza shop. I’d got the trifecta. I ordered a pizza, bought a small tub of butter and a loaf of bread ($10.60) and a slab of Carlton Draught ($44). My life was now complete. I had dinner and the means to wash it down and I had breakfast.(If it all sounds like I am drinking too much, not true. In the heat it seems to sweat out as quickly as I put it in. I’m actually drinking less on the road than I did at home. In some ways it’s showing. I’ve lost about 10 kilograms and am sitting at a comfy 93 and not much, if any, of a gut. If I can lose another four kilos I’ll be very happy by the time I hit Melbourne.) After dinner I chatted for quite a while to a lovely Dutch couple who have migrated here and have spent nine months having a look around. I chatted on the phone to Liam (Joel’s phone was busy), which is always a good thing. He said that he’s meet me in Brisbane (he can get a return flight for about $200), which would be an excellent thing. Then I had a long chat to Joel, which too is always a good thing. They’ve both grown into fine young men and I’m looking forward to seeing both of them soon. One nightcap beer and I slept like a babe until 6.45. A few cuppas, a chat with the Dutch couple who packed up to head north and then it was shower time and a trip to rediscover the Cairns I knew from last time. I got a call from Charlie, the owner of the park at Skenes Creek. He has suggested a few things I can do including going to see Stacey at Backpackers’ World. “She’ll put you onto some things to do,” he said. He’s back up in Cairns in two weeks so I may catch up with him if I’m still in this neck of the woods. I headed for town and went straight to the market but it is now a night operation. Then I wandered the CBD and found plenty of places and the odd face I remembered from way back. I chatted to the bead salesman who I recognised. “You sell beads, too,” he said, “you sure wear a few.” Nah. I then gave him some stretching exercises to do for his crook back and told him I’d be back in a couple of days to check out his progress. It’s a bustling little town. I like it. After a few hours of wandering, it was blog o’clock and maybe time for a cooling beer. So far (and it’s 4.45) I’ve held out on the beer because I’d like to go to the market. Tomorrow is a good look around day without too much stress and the day after I’m planning to catch the train to Kuranda, a bit of a hippy village, for some craft shopping, a bite to eat and maybe a ride on the cable car. Then, who knows?
R&R: IT’S A CAIRNS-DO THING
My first two full days (not a reference to my drinking habits) in Cairns have been pretty much R&R. I seem to have driven a long way … OK, I have driven a long way … and other than a couple of trips to look around (nothing too strenuous) it has been very much rest and recreation. The traffic noise in the evenings is something with which I can’t cope at the moment and that isn’t helping. I did buy a didge bag and got an offer for free lessons despite the fact that I bought my didge in Alice Springs. “Doesn’t matter, mate,” said the woman in the shop, “we just want people to learn to play.” Dunno if I’ll get back there but I feel obliged to try. I did get chipped by a bead and bangle salesman after the didge shop. “Don’t smoke too close to here, mate, you’ll get fined by the coppers,” he said. Apparently you are not allowed to smoke within four metres of people or places on the street. I suppose that’s a good thing. They (whoever they are) should make it illegal full stop. At least then I’d give it up … I have stopped so many times since I’ve been on the road. I’m obviously still doing something wrong in the way I’m going about it. Got a call from my Welsh mate, Craig, the night before last. “I’m on my way to Cairns, “ he said. “Got to return a rental car and I’m hoping to buy one for myself while I’m there.” A great opportunity to have lunch and a beer or two and relive some of the good times we had at Skenes Creek. I was planning to take the train to Kuranda, but not to worry. A familiar face is always welcome on the road. I rang him about 10 the next morning and he was in the middle of something and said he would ring me back. At about noon I headed for the centre of town, grabbed a melon juice and chilled while I waited to hear from Craig. I finally sent him a message at about 12.30 to say that I was in the middle of town. I’m still waiting for a response. Bad form that. Still, can’t complain. It got me out of the tent and the centre of town is always good. There were a couple of guitar playing singers strutting their stuff on the stage at the square. They were joined by a local Aboriginal belting a tambourine (he walks around banging the thing). It was good to hear some live music although only the girl singer could really cut it. I grabbed a bite to eat (California rolls with extra wasabe) and finished up a couple of blocks away at the Swiss Cake Shop. Time for a treat, I thought, so I had a long black and a slice of mango cheesecake. I wandered back to home base and spent what was left of the afternoon reading a camper trailer magazine that I usually get regularly. It’s good. A quiet bite to eat and a couple of beers and I let the ABC lull me into a state of sleepiness, which was just as well. I slept well enough to bound (yep, I bounded) out of bed at seven. Had a couple of cuppas and a shower and by 8.30 I’d called a cab to take me to the station to meet the train bound for Kuranda. In an unusual display of efficiency I found myself with three-quarters of an hour to kill so I headed for my second coffee in two days … that’s more than I’ve had in months … before climbing aboard for the hour-and-a-half trip. It’s an old, but beautifully refurbished, train although the running commentary was a tad loud for such an early hour. No real bother. The scenery was spectacular after we made it out of the gravity pull of Cairns. I could rabbit on about cliffs, valleys, mountains, waterfalls and whatever, but I’ll just go with the previously mentioned spectacular. It’s an historic railway that wends its way through hand-dug tunnels and over bridges constructed more than a century ago going through Barron Gorge National Park, which is World Heritage listed. It took 90 minutes and lots of photos later to hit Kuranda. There were aspects about the place that disappointed me. Too much in the way of commercial stuff … jewellery, leather stuff, Aboriginal art, food, T-shirt shops et al … they were all there in abundance. That said, there were some great people to chat with. Lots of really friendly people, although I took exception to the mango smoothie man having a sign across the footpath saying that smoking wasn’t on. I understand why, but if I’d seen the sign before I bought the smoothie, I’d have gone elsewhere. The highlight of the day was the butterfly thing … lots of winged creatures fluttering about. I’ve been to the butterfly enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo and I’ll go there again, but this was a cracker. There’s something special about being in a beautiful environment, surrounded by action aplenty … and silence. It was very special. I walked the streets of Kuranda several times, bought some (hot) chilli sauce and some mango and chilli fortified wine. Both buys are among the best I’ve made. The chilli sauce is called “Slap my arse and call me Cindy” and the wine, which has a magnificent hot aftertaste, will last for months after I open it. Now that’s my kind of drink. I also bought some emu oil (to aid my aching body) and some freshly cooked vegetable spring rolls, which were splendid. After wandering the streets and shops for a few hours (and avoiding the retail advances of the mango wine lady “Don’t forget, love, you know where I am if you change your mind”, I headed for the second pub in town. “Time for a pot,” I said to myself, and it was so. I was considering reading a newspaper that someone had left on a table, then I saw the sign for the gaming room. Why not? The machines here take a $20 note max, so I stuck a tenner in a machine and played for almost an hour (while nursing the one pot for the afternoon). When the machine told me that I was $109 in credit, I decided to gamble the $9, which I duly lost, but collected the $100. That made it $90 in front, which paid comfortably for my entire day. I took it pretty easily for the rest of the day. A quiet bite to eat and an early night. I again had a early start the next day. I must be getting used to getting up at seven or thereabouts. The morning ritual of drinking tea took about three hours. I talked for quite a while to my new neighbours, Peter and Katherine, and discovered that Pete knows Liam’s bosses and workmates in Vanuatu. I rang Liam to tell him. He was having lunch with a mate of my neighbour before going scuba diving. Small bloody world, this. Time to get industrious, I thought, so I headed off to buy some wet’n’dry sandpapers and some rustproof paint to treat a small dent in the roof of my car. Don’t know how it happened. I reckon some bastard has given it a belt with something. It certainly wasn’t done by another car or a truck and no tree branches have come my way. I drove to the previously unexplored regions of outer Cairns (I could have bought the stuff closer to home but it was time for something new), bought my repair kit, some newspapers and headed to town for the tattoo shop. I checked it out a few days ago and reckoned I was a cert to get another one. Parking was at a premium but I managed to jag a spot right by the fresh fruit and veg market. Bugger the tatt, I thought, I’m going shopping. Great decision. The produce was amazing, but not as good as the smells. I walked around for a couple of hours just soaking up the aromas of basil, Vietnamese mint, bananas, rock melons, you name it. I helped my cause with a couple of fresh vegetable samosas doused with chilli sauce. Life doesn’t get a whole lot better. I filled my large calico shopping bag with heaps of fruit and veg and the most amazing buffalo mozzarella I’ve ever tasted. Avocados could be had six for a buck, rock melons a dollar, mandarines were the sweetest I’ve tasted and the rocket was fantastic. Needless to say, dinner was an absolute cracker. It was the first time in a while that I’ve cooked meat (a big fillet steak). It went down a treat with a slightly chilled pinot noir while watching the Wallabies give it to the Italians up the freckle. And I heard that the Argentinians beat the Poms. Like I say (probably) too often, life’s OK. I was due to check out on Sunday, but by morning I thought I may as well stay another day or two before heading to Port Douglas. As I was writing this, neighbour Katherine wandered over and invited me to a roast turkey dinner tonight. I’m definite staying. Mind, I will do some washing today (the basket is getting full and I’m running out of singlets) and whatever other prep I need to do to repackage the kit, ready for the trip north. Roll on turkey time.
NO SWEAT, I’M STAYING A WHILE LONGER IN CAIRNS
What is it about blokes and cowboy hats? Sure, I’ve been in favour of the cowboy boot thing most of my adult life, but these blokes just take it too far with their choice of headwear. Seems a lot of them can’t leave their digs without one and how do they look when they’re shopping in town, dressed in shorts, sandals or thongs, a cheap slogan T-shirt and a bloody cowboy hat? Ridiculous, I reckon. I watched a less-than-satorially splendid chap (shorts and a singlet) this morning heading for the showers. And he was wearing his cowboy hat, tilted just so to elevate his blokiness a tad more. I know he didn’t wear it in the shower cos it was still dry when he walked back to his camp. Even when they’re sitting in the shade of their camps, the hats are still there. Walking to the dunny at night and guess what? The hats are still there. Haven’t they noticed that the sun has disappeared? Reckon I missed the boat in the money-making stakes. Baby boomers (aka grey nomads) must spend millions on hats. I know that when it comes to fashion sense I have none and really should shut up, but bugger it, I’m allowed to say what I want, when I want. Anyway that’s enough ranting for one day ... and don’t get me started on the baseball cap thing or the fact that wine writers talk in a language that’s alien to me. I still have copies of reviews at home extolling the virtues of wine that has “the heady aroma of fresh cow pat” and another “I detected dry terracotta dust”. Jeez, that’ll be a rant for another day. Anyway, I spent yesterday doing the washing (at last a fresh supply of singlets), shopping at the fruit and veg market in town and generally doing the pack/organise things. Also had a phone chat to Warwick Green, which was a good thing. Haven’t spoken to the big fella in ages and am looking forward to catching up with him when I next grace Melbourne. Late afternoon and all I needed to do was done, so I did the only sensible thing. Opened a beer and turned on the telly to watch some rugby league. It didn’t come on until after the Brisbane-Hawthorn debacle (for the Hawks), but as I’ve said a few times, it was great Cairns-style R&R. It wasn’t long before my neighbours Pete and Katherine started roasting turkey, with all the trimmings … spuds, pumpkin, onion, green beans and corn. I rustled up a salad to lighten their load and eventually moved my chair to their table. Great night. The roast was a cracker as was the chat. I ended up introducing Katherine to a bit of Cold Chisel, which she enjoyed although she’s a big Nirvana fan. About 10 o’clock was late enough for us all. The dishes would wait until morning. Morning, however, did herald the arrival of an unwelcome visitor: I have a blocked sweat gland on the cheek of my bum (close friends will be well versed in the trials and tribulations of this event) and it flared, big time and quickly. Thank goodness I have a plentiful supply of antibiotics (thanks Dr Mulvey), which will make it disappear in about three or four days. This was reason enough to prop in Cairns for another few days.
DROPPING THE PILLS
The unwelcome visitor should have been shown the door after four, five days max, but it decided it had a good foothold and what seemed like endless popping of antibiotics was having some effect. Not enough, however, to give myself a clean bill of health. I was pretty crook for five days: cold sweats, no appetite (I had two small containers of yoghurt in two days) and a general feeling-like-shit demeanour. My neighbours, Pete and his German girlfriend Katherin, were great support and always checked in on me. All I seemed to be doing was getting up, drinking tea (well I had to wash the antibiotics down with something) and then going back to bed for most of the day. And it’s not cold in the tent, so they were uncomfortable days. I sat and chatted with the neighbours, by now joined by Alex, another German, who had me almost in stitches. He was busy trying to flog his aged (375,000kms) four-wheel-drive and was on the phone to his French insurance company. “Bloody French,” he yelled in his guttural, but impeccable English, “no one there speaks English.” Finally he got onto someone else in the company. “Thank god, an Aussie. It’s fixed in two minutes.” His car certainly stands out even among the heaps of backpacker rigs that get around Cairns (pronounced by the locals as in “nice set of cans”). Most of the duco is covered with signatures, messages, drawings (some rude), scribbles and, of course, there’s a large, dust impregnated brassiere stretched across the bulbar. I hope he sold it. The last time I saw him he was heading into town to see two likely prospects – an English couple and a German couple – before heading south. God knows how he would have managed with the amount of luggage he was toting. Pete and Katherin cooked me dinner one night – shit they looked after me and I was disappointed to see them go. I’m certainly gonna catch up with Pete once I hit Melbourne again and before he heads to Germany for a white Christmas with Katherin. It took me pretty much un till last Saturday to feel any semblance of good. The drugs (I upped the ante from two a day to four) finally kicked in big time. I felt good enough to heads for the market and bought a heap of fruit … paw paw, rock melon and grapes the main ones … and spent the rest of the day shoving it down my throat, all washed down with lots of water. As I always say, there’s always a positive in every piece of adversity; this time it was that I stayed off the drink all week. I watched the Magpies give Sydney a lesson in between having a welcome, albeit text, chat with the rare and lovely Linda Kavan before shutting down to the strains of a band playing somewhere in the vicinity. By morning things were at about 80 per cent and have improved to the 90s during the day, although I done nothing other than buy some more fruit and some soft drink … and listen to the broadcast of the Storm-Tigers game from Melbourne. I’m due out of here tomorrow morning, but I’m gonna stay another day just to be sure that the health is all it’s meant to be. Then Tuesday, it’s off to Port Douglas to catch up with a French mate, Vincent, who arrived there on Friday. I’ll be glad to put Cairns behind me (pardon the pun).
WELCOME TO PORT FRIENDLY
The drive to Port Douglas is a shortie, which is the best kind. Some beautiful coastal scenes though. I grabbed a spot about 1.5kms out of the main town centre, which is a good thing. It means I’m walking into town at least once a day. I caught up with my French mate, Vincent, who is here looking for work for a while. He hasn’t had much luck yet, but that’s been good for me. It’s great to have someone to talk to, have a coffee or lunch or beer, whatever. He was here a few months ago so knows the place pretty well. We walked here and there, checking out the sights and of course, I left the camera at the tent. After a day just chilling, we went to one of the pubs for a most welcome dinner of lamb medallions and vegetables, washed down with pints of Stella. It was a great pub … lots of locals out on the tiles and we met plenty of them, thanks to the lure of the pool table. Dale and Joey, both in the foodservice industry, made sure they introduced us to any of their friends who rolled up including a nice girl called Alex, who was busy honing her reiki skills on Joey’s hands. Didn’t help his pool game though. Despite the fact that Vincent had never played the game, we took the locals to the cleaners. We hung out there until late, but it was an excellent walk back to the tent. I almost felt invigorated by the time I hit home. I grabbed a coffee with Vince in the morning (not too early, mind), then lunch. What is it about some sandwich type shops here? I ordered a wrap with roasted chicken avocado and asparagus. Simple enough, I thought, but not so. The chicken was fine but here in the home of big fresh avocados they used a commercially made dip and tinned asparagus, which hadn’t been drained, resulting in a soggy, shitty mess. I mean, it’s not that hard. In the afternoon we headed off to Mossman Gorge, just a short hike down the track (or is it up?). It’s a beautiful area of rainforest, with lots of water running through the gorge and plenty of tourists braving the icy water. There were bush turkeys wandering around, birds twittering and at one spot we watched (I was in awe) a small shoal of black fish (some quite large) just shooting the breeze. It just doesn’t get much better. A couple of hours later we wandered back to the car park and into the Aboriginal art gallery. The woman in there was a hoot. *I asked her a couple of questions about a few things and she came over to explain. “Sorry but I hope you don’t mind if I don’t put my shoes on,” she said, “but I can’t be bothered.” I bought a fantastic piece of slate with a small painting on it. It was the only one left. I also bought some clapsticks made out of black palm wood. I’m gonna learn to use them to accompany my didgeridoo playing. I felt happy to spend the money there because all the proceeds go straight back into the local Aboriginal community. It was a quiet, easy drive back to tow and because it was about four o’clock, we stopped at my tent and checked the contents of the fridge. It was a really good two hours we sat there doing the get-to-know-you-well things. We discovered that I’ve seen more of France than he has, but he’s seen more of Australia than me. I’m sure we’ll be mates for a long time. He’s heading back to Melbourne about the same time as me and is gonna start his old job at Café Zest in Port Melbourne. We walked into town at 6.30 – and got squirted by lots of sprinklers on the way - and checked out a pizza shop where you get a large pizza for $10, thanks to Vince’s backpackers key tag. Port Douglas was always going to be busy, especially in the pubs for the night because of the state of origin game. We jagged a couple of stools right under a TV in the bar – there were also two giant plasma screens and about eight other sets all with the volumes up to the max – and settled in to wait for kick-off. I got to chatting with the bloke next to me, Pete, who is a vet involved in the horse racing industry. He’s mates with Tony “the King” Bourke and Patrick Bartley. Again, a small world. When the national anthem started, an amazing thing happened. Lots of punters in the pub – the place was full - stood and sang along. I felt very proud and can’t remember that ever happening anywhere other than at the ground. It was a great moment. All the blokes around us in the bar were just there for the game and a good time. And so it was. I can’t remember a more friendly atmosphere in a boozer. The only problem for me was the fear of losing my seat when I went outside for a smoke. On the road, in fact, because you can’t smoke within three metres of anywhere selling food or drink. Good thing though because I met some good people out there. Example: I had just lit up when a bloke, who’d had a couple more than he needed, walked over and said: G’day, I’m Simmo and I work at a restaurant called Salsa. I’m off tomorrow but come in the next night and I’ll look after ya. What’s your name?” Someone else (his name escapes me) borrowed my sunglasses for the night cos he thought they were cool. Another fella lived not far from where we lived in Olinda. By the final whistle, the joint went off. Dale and his mate, Matt came reeling over. “C’mon boys, let’s hit the town.” We stayed on for a couple of post-game drinks with Pete and Chris, a Canadian girl we’d met the night before. Vincent has been trying to contact the local who runs the kite-surfing school with a view to getting a gig as an instructor. No prizes for guessing who I was talking to when I went to the bar. The kite-surfing fella. It looks as if Vince has an in and they are planning to get together. We all stayed and talked – and drank lots of Bundy and Coke - until closing and then headed to the pub further down the road to catch up with Dale and Matt. “Sorry, we’re closing and anyway you just missed Dale. I think he’s gone to Ironbark,” said the waitress. “It’s just up the road on the same side as this place.” I don’t reckon there’s a person in Port Douglas who doesn’t have a degree in friendly. We ambled up to Ironbark but, alas, it wasn’t to be. “Sorry, mate, go can’t come in if you don’t have proper shoes and sleeves,” said the security bloke on the door. Given that I was wearing old, paint-stained cut-off jeans, a fluoro yellow singlet and a grubby pair of old Crocs, I was never gonna make it past the door. Probably a good thing because it had been a long day (and night) and enough was enough. I enjoyed the walk back to base and the resultant sleep. Not so the morning when the Bundy-induced ill-feeling hit home. I fired off a message to Vincent to cancel a day trip to the Daintree and Cape Tribulation and headed back to the land of nod. It was a more civilised 11 o’clock when I finally saw the light of day. I put on the kettle, asked Michelle, my neighbour to join me and we shot the breeze for an hour with a couple of cuppas. Michelle is here for a couple of months. She’s from England via New Zealand and has just organised herself a job to start next week. I also had a text chat with Andrew Cooke, who is bunged up in hospital with a badly broken (generally wrecked) ankle. He’s out of hospital today but is expecting to be unable to walk without crutches for about 10-12 weeks, poor bugger. I also got a most welcome phone call from my mate, Julian Malnic. I’d sent him an email yesterday and I’d felt guilty because we hadn’t spoken for a long time. While we were on the phone he sent me pictures of Diane, his wife, and their three kids. I still have a picture of Julian, Diane and the kids on the fridge door at home in Melbourne. It was great to talk again. “Mate, the Vaughan wing of the house is still waiting for you,” he said. “You have to stay for a couple of weeks.” They have a new house because their last place burned to the ground a couple of years ago. “We lost everything,” said Julian, “but the new house is OK. The roof area is the same size as the block of land we had at the last house. Have a look at it on Google Earth.” I did. It’s huge and about 35 minutes out of Sydney on eight acres and they are just about to get some horses. I had planned to bypass Sydney but not any more. I’m looking forward to catching up with the whole gang. One of the many things I like about Julian and Diane is that we may not speak for a couple of years, but when we do it’s as if we’d chatted the day before. They are very together people. Anyway, time now to walk into town to catch up with Vincent for a coffee and a bite of lunch and to plan the Daintree/Cape Trib thing.
CROCS, BEAUTIFUL BEACHES, FOREST AND
A FINE PICNIC: TATT’S ALL FOLKS
After a couple of days R&R taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Port Douglas … each of the three were experienced at the Central hotel on both nights … it was time to haul arse and head for the Daintree village and Cape Tribulation. Young Vincent, by now an honorary Aussie, organised fromages, salami, jamon and a baguette plus lots of water while I bought tobacco and papers (that says something about our respective priorities) and we hit the road for what is a very easy drive to Daintree. A quick stop for petrol and ice along the way and pretty soon we were clear of Mossman and wandering through lots of cane fields (sugar growers up here are pleased as all get out with the spike in world sugar prices) with mountain backdrops. It really is a most beautiful place. I stopped to get some arty pictures of the fluffy tops on the cane with the sun shining through. Saw the same shot in the market a couple of days later selling for $120. Sheesh. Mine are just as good if not better, but that’s another story. Daintree village is a cute place with not much other than a couple of cafes, a tourist shop or two, a public dunny and a boat ramp. The first coffee of the day was in order before we booked a one-hour cruise on the Daintree River, departing at noon. It all about the timing and ours was great because Vincent and I were the only two on the boat … OK, there was Brian, but he was driving the bloody thing and needed to be there. Brian has lived in the area for a long time and is well-versed on all things wildlife, geographical and meteorological. But, shit, he was interesting. First port of call was to spot a three-metre croc sunning herself on her private beach. A few pictures later we headed across the river … Brian was pointing out stuff and adding commentary all along the way … and we spotted a green tree snake on a branch hanging over the water. Brian eased to boat right under the tree for a close-up. “I reckon it’s about to shed its skin so he will probably stay here for a little while,” he said. “Make sure you hold the branch up so the boat doesn’t hit it and disturb the snake.” He gave the impression that the wildlife matters first in all cases. “There is a very rare pair of frogmouths nesting a few hundred metres along on the other side,” he said, as he showed us a book featuring the birds. “There aren’t to many in the wild,” he said, “but they’ll let us get up nice and close.” And so it was. He eased the boat right in under the tree and the birds just sat there, eyes closed, ignoring us. Brian shook a few leaves. “Have a look at their red eyes,” he said, “They are beautiful.” Only the female seemed to have anything other than a fleeting interest in the visitors. “They mate for life and these two are pretty settled,” he said. They were bigger than I had imagined them to be, but they were beautiful. We felt very privileged to this close up and personal. Next stop was a native hibiscus tree, covered with yellow flowers. Brian eased the boat in, picked a couple and said: “The flowers last for just a day, but they turn from yellow to orange to (I think) purple before they drop. When its season is in full throttle the place is a sea of colour. There’s also a business with them. If you put a closed bud into a glass of champagne they open up and give the drink a bit of oomph,” he said. I told him that I have a jar of them at home in Melbourne and that they are always a hit with people of the female persuasion. And you eat the flower after the drink. After about half and hour, he swung the boat around ready to head back to Daintree. I asked him about Fat Albert, a huge male croc that a woman in town had told me about. “I’ve got pictures of the big fella,” he said as he grabbed his camera. “We don’t see him too often. Maybe about every 10 days. He’s one of two dominant males in the area and is about six metres long and one-and-a-half metres wide and high. He’s almost circular and he weighs about a tonne.” In Brian’s pictures he looked every bit of what he’d told us. He was one big unit. “I’ve also got some good pictures of Doylie, the area’s other dominant male.” Good pictures was an understatement. He had shots of Doylie which had just snaffled a whole cow and was lying on his beach with the cow’s head in his mouth. “He stayed like that for a few hours before he ripped off a feed and swam a few metres away. One of his girlfriends then helped herself to a feed but buggered off when Doylie came back.” I’d have loved to see the pics blown up on a laptop screen. They were awesome. As the boat was easing along the bank to see the female we’d seen earlier, Brian pointed out another croc about 40 metres up the river. He cut the motor as we cruised in for a closer look. At the stage it was just her head above water, but as if on key, she decided to walk out of the water onto the bank to catch some sun. I rattled off a heap of shots (camera, not a gun) and got her whole little trip. It was an amazing thing to see. Thee hour seemed to fly by and pretty soon we were back on terra firma. We thanked Brian for his efforts and headed back to town. I got chatting to a very pissed Canadian bloke, who unloaded on me some of his conspiracy theories about “how we’re fucking this world”. “Too many chemicals. They’re not jet streams we see overhead in Canada, they’re chemicals being sprayed,” he said. “That’s why I really love Australia. There are lots of shades of green. Back home everything now is in two shades of green. That’s it. They’re fucking the place.” I short-circuited his rant for a minute and showed him pictures of the croc walking out of the water. “Jesus, man, did you just see that now? We’re going right now. There are seven of us. We’re doing it. Where do you buy the tickets?” We bashed fists together as a parting gesture and he wandered off to get his friends while we found a table in a park and set about lunch. I can’t think of a more enjoyable lunch. The car door was open, Cold Chisel was doing its bit, and we ate well. “This is one of the things I like very much in Australia,” said Vincent. “You could not have a table and chair, a barbecue and rubbish bin like this in France. It would be wrecked in no time.” Vince has been here almost 14 months and I know is dead keen to come back. He’s got 10 months more to run on his visa, then has a two-year wait before he can come back again. Catching up again has been a great exercise for both of us. He calls me old man and I call him young man. “You are like my Aussie father,” he said. I’ll take that as a compliment. He questions me on a lot of words to improve his English and in turn he teaches me some French, including a French slang term for good-looking women. “I read the Herald Sun every day to help improve my English too,” he said. “I cannot read The Age. It is too big.” Shit, I’d like a quid for every time I’ve heard that or, for that matter, thought it myself. Anyway, Cape Tribulation was the next stop. I never cease to be amazed by the sheila on my GPS. “Drive 200 metres and board ferry,” she said as we approached the river crossing. How does she know that? It’s $19 return for the ferry trip, no waiting and it’s on with it. The road to Cape Trib has its fair share of twists and turns and the worst speed humps I can remember. Not only are they tall, but they have rocks embedded in their tops to slow people even more. They work well though. An ice-cream stop and a quick look at the coast from a lookout later, we were walking on the beach at Cape Tribulation, surely right up there with the most beautiful beaches in the country. Anywhere for that matter and I reckon I’ve seen a few. Walking through the mangroves on the way to the beach was alone worth the price of admission. But then the water temperature took over. It must have been 28-30 degrees. I could have stayed in it for ever. I tried to buy some sunglasses from a shop on the way out. I’m getting sick of the ones that I have because they are forever getting tangled in my hair and it takes ages to get the bloody things out. The bloke in the shop couldn’t find what I was looking for but said: “How good is the weather today? It’s 31 degrees and I went and checked a copy of James Cook’s logs and it was 31 degrees the first day he was here. Some coincidence, hey.” Yep, ‘spose so, I thought. We ventured to the next beach a few clicks along the road. Same thing. Just stunning. Lots of pictures later, it was time to hit the road. We had to be back in town for tonight’s Australia-France rugby match. “There will be lots of French people there,” said Vincent. “Sounds good to me,” I said, “cos anywhere there are French girls is OK with me.” It was still warm as the light of the day started to fade. Then just outside Mossman we saw amazing mist hanging from the mountain range. It looked spectacular. We stopped to get some pictures. “I think this is maybe smoke, not mist,” said Vincent. I had explained the word mist on the way up and he was only too happy to get it into conversation. He was right. The closer we got to Mossman the clearer it became that it was smoke from cane burning … and it was hanging just below the top of the range. There was a good crowd at the Central Hotel for the rugby although, sadly, all the French girls were taken (and, sadly again, not by me). We eased down the back of the beer garden for a half-time smoke and there I met another pissed Canadian, Sheldon. He was almost as pissed as the one at Daintree, maybe even more so. I didn’t think it was possible. I had a 10-minute conversation with him during which I understood about 11 words by which time his girlfriend had reappeared. She had a most abrasive, almost piercing, East London accent. You could almost have cut wood with her voice. She was like a vocal chainsaw. “So where you been?” she asked. “You been to Uluru?” Yep, I said, it was amazing. I told her how I thought I had bonded with the rock. “Nah, a girlfriend told me it’s awful because there are millions of flies. I hate bloody flies.” I told her that her girlfriend was an idiot and then she asked: “Where you goin’ next?” I told her that I was heading down the coast to catch up with my son in Brisbane, but how it was gonna be a tough drive. “That’s bullshit,” she said. “What’s bloody hard about driving. You’re whingeing even though you don’t have to do anything hard.” She was totally aggressive and I’d had enough and turned to talk to Vincent. She said something I didn’t quite hear … but I know it was another go at me … and I turned to her and told her again that her girlfriend was an idiot, she was a fuckwit and that, if she didn’t mind, I didn’t want to talk to her. She didn’t seem too upset at my outburst, I suppose because Sheldon had started groping her. Good time to head back to the big screen to see the Wallabies put paid to the French resistance. We headed back up town after the game and grabbed a $10 pizza before returning to the pub for a few to see out the night. I met up with Vincent in the morning and we grabbed a coffee and I headed off to but some white pants (hemp) that I’d seen. It was gratifying to know that they had nothing in my size. Everything was too big. And that’s despite drinking lots of beer lately. Guess I’ve kept off most of the (I reckon) 10 kilograms I’ve lost on the trip. The Frenchman is definitely becoming an Aussie. “The Melbourne Storm is on television at the Central at 2 o’clock. Do you want to meet and watch the game and have some beers?” he asked when I caught up with him later. Too easy. The Storm didn’t do the right thing although the beers certainly did. We wandered to the supermarket, grabbed some salad and some dead beast to char on the barbie and headed for my place to ease out of the day. It’s a good thing to have a drink at my place because it meant that Vincent had to walk home for a change. I seem to have made the trek from town a lot. More days of R%R for the next couple … nothing more strenuous than catching up for a coffee or whatever and again a bite to eat and a beer at my place. Vincent and I caught up again for a coffee and to shoot the breeze. “It’s time to go to the tattoo shop, old man,” he said. We’d discussed a few days earlier about going there. Ingmar, a local hillbilly I’d met in the pub, recommended the place. “I want to get something Australian,” said Vince. We has a look around the shop and he finally decided to get the Southern Cross on his ankle. Fifteen or so minutes and $120 later it was done. “Well I suppose if you’ve done it then I will too,” I said. I asked Mark, the tattooist, to pencil me into his appointment book. “Nah, let’s do it now,” he said. Same result. Quick, painless (mostly) it was all too easy. “I’ll have a beer with you blokes later,” said Mark. “OK,” I said, “We’re meeting up with a couple of locals, maybe you know them. Dale and Joey.” “Yep, know ‘em well,” said Mark. “See ya then.” Vincent headed off for a job interview and I retired to the tent to blog a bit and then wash my latest addition. Liam called late afternoon and told me of the fun he’s having trying to get some work done on his motorbike. “The bike has been with mechanics for 16 days so far. I asked the first one to clean the carbie and give it a bit of a tune. It took them six days. When I went to pick it up they had broken the stand, snapped off the speedometer, broken the seat and wrecked a spring. And it wouldn’t start. I took it to another mechanic who’s had it for 10 days and it’s still not working. And the second bloke is a licensed Honda dealer. Jeez it shits me. But that’s Vanuatu.” Motorbike aside, it’s always good to talk to him and he’s going well and still enjoying island life. What’s not to enjoy, I guess. Monica and Jim rang just after Liam phoned. It was good to chat with them although it was difficult to hear them over the rain that was bucketing down at their place. They’re heading to Brisbane on the 17th with Joel and plan to cruise the resorts and whatever for a few days while Joel and I do something similar. It’ll be good to catch up with them all because I haven’t seen them since I camped on their front lawn at Christmas, something I’ll do again for the last few days before I move back into the house in Albert Park. Well, it’s nearing time to have a beer with the tatt man and the other blokes and then maybe a 10 buck pizza to round out what has been an eventful but enjoyable day. I was due out of here on the 29th of June, but I seem to be becoming a fixture at the reception desk to book another few days. Really, it wouldn’t be hard to live here. I’m finally due out on Sunday morning. I’ve stayed not only because I like the place but also because the backside thing has reoccurred. I was talking to Michelle, my neighbour, about it and she nailed it. “Your body is probably immune to the pills.” Yep, it has to be. It’s happened before. Just need to go to the doc and get him or her to up the ante. It took half a day to get an appointment, but finally I got to see a doc called Ron, a decent bloke, who went through the history of the problem. He scripted a couple of different pills, which I duly picked up from the chemist. I checked just how long I’d have to be on them by doing a count. Seems the chemist hadn’t given me a repeat on one lot so I made a beeline to the shop and got him to check it with the doc. It was supposed to be repeated but technology being the shit thing that it is, the scanner had deemed that a repeat wasn’t necessary. I’ve always found technology a pain in the arse, but I didn’t want it to be contributing to my personal pain in the arse. Good thing I checked. Armed with enough pills to probably kill a large brown dog, I bought some fruit, yoghurt, water, a roasted chicken, a baguette and the papers and returned to my digs for a couple more days of R&R and hopefully a pain-free rear. The plan is working slowly but at least it’s working. The good thing, though, is that I can’t have alcohol for two weeks, which is the one bonus to come out of this thing. That and the healthy eating. I’m actually feeling OK. So is Vincent. He’s grabbed a full-time gig at a local restaurant, working 6am-2pm, which leaves him plenty of time to do some kite surfing in the afternoons. He’s told me that he’s nailed it in the first two days. “No problems,” he said, “I have made no mistakes. I love it. I have even met some people from the restaurant I work at in Melbourne.”
THE MISSION POSITION RATES NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET
My last couple of days at Port Douglas were on the easier side of very easy. Nothing too strenuous other than to catch up with Vincent for a coffee and to have a bite to eat. One excellent moment came when we were sitting at my tent having a knock-up dinner (whatever happened to be in the fridge) and a bandicoot wandered from beneath the trailer. Cheeky as you like: he was obviously looking for some food. When he realised that someone was there he retreated but was back again in a minute or so. Unfortunately for him there was bugger all to eat. I suspect he was the perpetrator of the missing bananas a couple of nights before. I had left them on top of a box outside the tent. Mistake. They’d been pretty well peeled by morning. Bugger didn’t clean up his mess though. Seeing wildlife up close and personal is a real hoot. Like watching the thousands of bats fly over the camp each night just after six o’clock. Quite a lot of them take up temporary residence in the trees around the tent while others obviously have their secret, favourite spots elsewhere. Vince, meanwhile, has managed to kick goals at a great rate with his new job. He worked (I think) 38 hours in his first four days, including a call-in to help out after he had done a shift. He’s one very happy camper. He’s even been the floor supervisor after just two shifts, which means they must really like his work. “I try to do the very best in everything,” he said with a grin. I admire his efforts. Things seem to be really falling into place for him. He’s teaching a French girl, Julia, to do a bit of kite surfing … and I reckon he’s keen to teach her a few things not part of the kite-surfing curriculum. She’s gorgeous. He also looks like getting a gig as a teacher in whatever spare time he has away from the resort. I told him he’d probably be lord mayor of the bloody place within a couple of weeks. For my last night Vincent said that he was buying me dinner, a result of his new-found wealth via his job. “No problems,” I said, “ that’d be great.” But what was supposed to be my last night just wasn’t. I was sitting outside the tent having a cuppa when the manager wandered by and said: “You still here? You were supposed to be gone this morning.” “No,” I said, “I’m not meant to leave until the fourth.” “It is the fourth,” he said. I asked him whether he could squeeze me in for another night and apologised for being an idiot and not knowing what day it was. Mind you, it’s not the first time I’ve done it. “We’ve got someone booked for the site,” he said, “but I’ll reorganise. They are only booked for one night.” I thanked him as he wandered off and a short while later went to pay for the night that wasn’t supposed to be. His wife told me that they’d done the same thing the last time they went camping and that I shouldn’t worry. “It proves that you’re relaxed and enjoying being here,” she said. Hard to argue with that. Vincent had booked a table on the street at an Italian restaurant on the main drag. “We have to sit on the street so we can watch the girls walk by,” he said. Again, no argument. Without question, the funniest thing of the whole trip happened not long after we’d sat down, when Vincent, in his finely manicured French accent, blurted to me: “Did you see those skin footies?” as a beautiful girl walked by. I cracked up but in a proud way. It proved that he takes in the things that I tell him even if they are not necessarily PC. Our waitress for the night was the lovely Julia, the target of Vince’s affections. She has a magnificent smile (a magnificent everything really) and was fantastic. Adelle, another French girl I’d met a few days earlier was also working the tables. I even surprised myself by ordering “poisson da jour, merci” which brought another beautiful smile from Julia. It was an excellent dinner and a great way to wind up my time in Port Douglas. “I’ll see you soon in Melbourne,” said Vincent as we parted company for the last time in the north. He’d made an enjoyable break even more so. It’s always great to catch up with mates anywhere, but this was special. We’ll stay friends for life, I reckon. Given that I’d packed all that could be packed the afternoon before, it was a pretty easy thing to get ready for the road in the morning. I’m actually now pretty damned good at folding the canvas away in bugger-all time. A cuppa and some last-minute farewells with Michelle and Phil, my nearest neighbours and Stu from just across the way. Stu’s a great bloke who told me to drop into his place at Tathra if I felt like a chat. Pretty soon Port Douglas was just a fading vision in the rear-view mirror. Just my luck, mind, that Pink was there the day after, mixing on the main drag with the locals as she and her husband stopped there on a motorbike ride to the Daintree. No matter because I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of her songs. She’s cute but. I started rolling down the highway bound for Cairns and beyond … but it was with some trepidation. Seems I’ve heard nothing but stories about road deaths in the far north. Every bloody day, sadly. It’s hardly surprising though because I reckon the state of roads in Queensland is probably the worst I’ve driven on the whole trip, the desert of South Australia notwithstanding. As the countryside and the coastal views opened up I was struck with a real sense of purity of how I felt about Australia … it’s unabashed love. Love enough, I suppose, to have the Southern Cross tattooed on my arm. This purity of thought got stronger the more I saw of the joint. The coastal views alone are worth the price of admission. I was driving out of heavily treed areas that opened up to great expanses of the Pacific, dotted with islands. The good stuff soon gave way to the suburban sprawl that is Cairns. It was comforting, of sorts – no, familiar – to see places I knew well enough not to need the assistance of my travelling companion, Ms GPS, much and all as I love chatting to her. A chat with Perrie, my trucking mate, was better than her. He called to say that he’d bought a camper trailer (he sold his caravan) and was heading north for some warm weather. We organised to catch up in Brisbane. I told him where I was going to stay. “Yep, I know the place,” he said. “See you there in a couple of weeks.” As soon as it came, it went. Cairns, that is. I had my sights set on Mena Creek, just South of Innisfail (the home of Storm full-back and world player of the year, Billy Slater). I stopped for petrol just outside Innisfail ($1.26 a litre) and headed through some really spectacular countryside – the road, though, wasn’t much chop – dotted with endless canefields and banana crops framed by beautiful mountains. If I needed any incentive to ever do this again (and I don’t) I reckon this was it. The whole area is criss-crossed with cane train tacks and it’s actually fun to watch them pass. The road, often seemingly wide enough for just one car, winds gently, a pleasant change from my drive into Cairns through Atherton where, I’m told, there are 160 bends in the road. Pretty soon Mena Creek appeared and with it, Paronella Park, my destination for the night. The site ($32 a night, which included a tour of the park) was the size of a dining table and required some exceptional manoeuvring of the trailer to get it just so. I did it first go, mind, and went within a whisker of patting myself on the back. I put a chair at the front of the tent after setting up and sat for a smoke and a cold drink (ginger beer) before heading for a tour of the park. I was sweating plenty after the burst of activity and closed the eyes and enjoyed the sounds of the silence. It was about two o’clock. There was a tour at 2.30 (they do one every hour). I finally managed to wake up at 5.20 just as the light was preparing for an early exit. I’d blown my chances of a tour for the day, but I had booked into the 8.30 night tour so all was not lost. At least the sleep was a fair indication of just how relaxed I was. Dinner was most welcome fruit and yoghurt before it was time to have a lie down before the tour. Bugger it, I thought, it’s time for a treat so I went to the café and bought a packet of chilli chips and a soft drink. “Dinner?” asked the woman (the wife of the owner) behind the counter. Nah, this is the after-dinner treat, I told her. She seemed impressed that I’d eaten fruit and yoghurt for dinner. Pretty soon, with about 30 others, I headed off on the night tour, hosted by the owner (Keith, I think). He has a genuine passion for the place and it showed. The park was started in 1930 by a Spaniard, Jose Paronella, who decided that this was the site where he’d build his castle, and I DO mean castle. It’s on five hectares. He built a castle with a ballroom, movie theatre, ice-creak parlour, tennis courts, waterfalls, picnic areas, a tunnel of love and the country’s first privately owned hydro electric plant (opened in 1933). The expansive gardens are planted out with 7500 varieties of tropical plants that frame the concrete structures (everything here is done in concrete formwork) mostly that are now covered with lush green moss. I could bang on about the place for ages but I reckon if you want a look, go to www.paronellapark.com.au and see for yourself. There are plenty of picture galleries and lots of words on the history of the place. Needless to say, I loved the night tour, especially the fish and eel feeding frenzy just near the 15-metre waterfalls. My neighbours at the site were good and I also enjoyed watching the scrub turkeys that wandered by every now and then. It was an easy avenue to sleep – the only noise was the odd bird or bat breaking what otherwise was silence. That silence was broken the next morning at 5.50 … a screaming, stomping child letting the world know that “I don’t want to” or “but I want it”. Jesus wept, people have to keep dogs quiet in camps. Same thing applies, I reckon, with kids. I’m a former child, have children of my own and have friends with children, all good things, but I’ve had enough of the out-of-control variety at camp grounds. Muzzle em please or at least teach them that there are some people who only recognised one six o’clock a day … and it’s not the first one. It’s also about respect. I developed plenty of respect for Jose’s workmanship during a wander around the park. I opted to miss the tour and take my own good time and it was a great decision. Lots of good pics along the way. I had a couple of scones and a pot of tea at the café to sustain me for the short drive to Mission Beach. Again, it was a thing of great beauty, dominated by greenery and lots of signs suggesting that a run-in between car and cassowary was a bad thing. Still haven’t seen one in the wild yet. I drove onto the main drag at Mission Beach and chose the camp ground right on the beach. It was a great decision and not just because it was 15 bucks a night (double over the road). This was the most beautiful site I’ve stayed at so far – and it’s unpowered, a great thing because it means I have to get organised with solar lights, gas for the fridge, etc. This is hard-core camping at this site. It’s got the most solar panels I’ve seen anywhere in the country so far. And it’s also the friendliest. After getting well set up, I opted for the sleep in the chair thing. It was 28 degrees. I finally dragged myself into an upright position and headed for the supermarket to buy some tucker for dinner (locals still call it tea. I like that). The supermarket is small, but its produce is terrific. Lots of organic herbs, fresh greens and fruit. I had a bit of a yearning for some red meat (it had been a few weeks since I’ve had any) and I stopped at the meat fridge. Another punter wandered up and said: “How good is this place. The food is terrific and they don’t have steep prices. It’s fantastic.” It was hard to argue. These were among the cheapest prices I’d found in ages. Then a woman stopped (I reckon she owned the joint) and said: “G’day. This meat is really good. The supplier doesn’t use any chemicals or hormones. It really is good quality stuff. What sort do you feel like?” I opted for the sirloin, which looked to be as good as it gets. “You’ll enjoy that,” she said. I also stocked up on ginger beer stubbies (at least they looked like grog when they’re hidden in a stubby holder and didn’t make me look like a wuss), bought some newspapers down the road and headed back to camp. I put the shopping away and went for a walk to the beach … it was just 20 or so metres from my tent. The first bloke I bumped into said: “G’day mate, how ya goin’?” He was from Geelong. “I come here for a few months every year. Just love this camp ground. It’s cheap, a bit rough around the edges cos there are only two brascoes (that’s a slang term for dunny that I used to use all the time in the 70s. It was good to hear it again.),” he said. I could understand why. What’s not to like. Beautiful expansive beach, the bluest of blue water and Dunk Island just across the way. A full moon was busy setting in the sky and when I mentioned it he gave me a run-down on the tide’s behavior during such cycles. He was a lovely bloke, just like the blond fella (think Alby Mangels. If you’re too young to remember him, check him out on the web) and his Islander wife I met on the way back to the tent. They had their three kids in tow, each one blessed with a smile guaranteed to melt the hardest of men (not that I’m in that category, I think). We each said “g’day mate” as we passed. His youngest daughter, about three or so, flashed her big brown eyes at me, smiled, and said: “G’day mate.” It was a beautiful moment. I opened up the kitchen and cooked up a treat. Steak, char-grilled zucchini and salad satisfied me in a big way and I finally stretched out on the bed to finish my Len Beadell book by solar light before being lulled into a deep sleep by the gentle crashing of the waves just across the way. The next day was as tough as putting up an awning, drinking lots of tea, watching the sky divers float around, having fruit and yoghurt for brunch and reading a new book: Kidman, the forgotten king, a yarn about Australia’s greatest ever pastoralist. I broke up the day by wandering again to the supermarket to buy more ginger beer. The owner again nailed me as I was wandering around. “How was the meat?” she asked. When I replied in the affirmative, she said: “Told you our supplier was good. I knew you’d like it.” This is service with a capital S (for her smile as well) and I love it. I could live here. Some new neighbours, Ron and Robyn on one side and Craig, Robyn and their twin daughters on the other had rolled in while I was out. They were all great to chat to, especially Ron who had a sense of humour so dry it wouldn’t be out of place in any drought. I kept thinking that it was like camping on a film set. Palms everywhere, the ocean and people doing little or nothing depending on how energetic they were feeling. The bloke over the road, Terry, is a great example of doing stuff. Every morning he grabs the juicer and makes fresh juice for brekkie from whatever fruit is good at the shop. He has four big solar panels and runs a fridge and separate freezer from them. Even a TV when he feels like it. He’s got a generator, there are cable running every which way, bags of fruit and veg hanging here, there and everywhere, dishes drying on the bonnet of a camouflage green Land Rover (it has bits of tree stuck in the front springs as testimony of where its been), a tinny on the roof, a wind generator he built from stuff he found at the tip, a dirt bike for when he wants to get around and a pushbike to ride to the dunny across the camp. I talked to him about solar panels, picking his brain for my future travels and he said that the hardest party of life at the moment is the bashing he’s been giving his liver with the home brew. “Don’t tell me you brew beer too,” I said. “Yep,” he drawled in a typical laconic Queenslander drawl, “there’s a couple of cases there under the table. Been givin’ it a nudge because me mate just moved in a week or so ago next door. Haven’t seem him for a while so we’ve been hittin’ it a bit.” I asked him how often he got the tinny into the water and he told me not as often as he’d like because he had a crook back and it was hard to get it up and down from the top of the Land Rover. “There’s a spare gearbox under it on the roof,” he said. “I buggered one a while ago and rebuilt it on those stumps over there. I had shit everywhere. It was when Cyclone Larry was comin’ in and I had to do it in a hurry and head south for a few months. Now I carry a spare one.” He’s an aircraft engineer so obviously knows what the hell he’s doing. I asked him how long he was staying. “Dunno, mate, as long as it takes. At some stage I’m gonna build a new tinny and it’s gonna have a Perspex bottom so I can grow stuff on the roof of the car. A bit like a hothouse. Fresh herbs and some veggies so I can barter for other stuff that I need.” The bloke is a genius. I’d love to have sat him down and done a yarn on someone who is probably Australia’s most self-sufficient camper, but I really thought it would be intrusive to ask. Maybe next time I see him (and there will be a next time) I will. “There’s a flat spot on me wind generator turbine, but there’s an old washing machine at the tip with what I need to improve it. Guess I’ll be set when I do that and get me fishin’ gear from me daughter’s place,” he said smiling. He got that right: he’ll be set and then some. It rained pretty heavily for my second-last day at Mission Beach. It was so heavy that Dunk Island was hard to see, but it was a good thing. It was the first rain I’ve seen since Alice Springs, which seems like months ago. Come to think of it, it is months ago. It abated for long enough for me to again cook dinner in the fresh air before retiring for a night of Ashes cricket on the radio. Dunno what induced sleep more; the wireless or the waves. Methinks the waves won the night. It was a pretty cruisy day the next, just reading, eating and relaxing while watching the beach. I watched the beach a lot. Then it was time to organise stuff for an early-morning departure. I can’t tell you how much I dislike packing up, especially at a place such as this. But pack I did and it meant that I was leaving a camp ground the likes of which I haven’t seen or experienced before. This is the friendliest place and it has (and I know this is hackneyed) a great vibe. It rained a couple of times again during the night and I guess I hoped that it would be too wet to pack the tent and I could stay on, but alas, it was all dry by morning. No matter because next time, it’ll be three months here, no doubt about it. It was time to ask the GPS sheila to do her thing and I punched in Airlie Beach, about 550 or so clicks down the road, no easy task cos it’s a long bloody way especially on the shit roads that are the norm in this neck of the woods. Again there was no sign of a cassowary on the cassowary-heavy way out of Mission Beach. One day I’ll get to see one in the wild I’m sure. The last thing I felt like doing was driving but I pushed on to Tully, one of the wettest places in the country. Of course, it was raining when I stopped for a bacon and egg brekkie and a pot of tea. Still there’s something comforting about driving while being warm and dry while it’s pissing down outside. As I left Tully I left the rain and just cruised, stopping every couple of hours to have a stretch and a smoko. I also got a phone call from Julie (I’d left her a message the day before) in Brisbane. I’ve known Jules for most of my life. She and her family used to live around the corner (her dad, Earn, was my best man at my first wedding) and I probably spent more time at her house than I did at my own. I reckon she was the first girl I ever had a crush on … spose I’ve probably always had a crush on her … so it will be great to catch up with her when I hit Brisbane. I haven’t seen her since I was last there for the Age and we had dinner about four years ago. I just have to wait until she gets back from Melbourne. She’s heading there for a couple of days to catch up with her brother, Michael, one of the few mates from my long gone past that I still catch up with now and then. By the time I hit Airlie Beach it was after four. Again I’d been warned about the presence of cassowaries, but again they were no-shows. I booked into the first park I came across because I was knackered after the drive. They had just two powered sites left, one of them as wide as the hallway at home so I opted for the noisy one (it’s right beside the amenities block) but it was a good thing because it’s just a five-metre walk for the 2am leak. I set up really quickly, checked some emails, had a Facebook chat with Simon Kaye, who is heading to Greece on Sunday. It was good timing. I’ll miss Simon’s company, but I’m also sure we’ll get together again sooner rather than later. Speaking of emails, it was good to get the lowdown on Mim’s life. I haven’t spoken with her (apart from a few text messages while she was on the Gold Coast when I was in Cairns). I’m looking forward to catching up with her and seeing her new cowboy boots when I again hit town. I also finally got a response from Kathryn McNess, a friend from the Age in another century. I’d lost touch with her and am so glad we’ve hooked up again. She sent me some great pics of her kids. I look forward to catching up with her too. Pizza was the order of the night. I couldn’t be bothered cooking after driving all the way. It was a chill-out night, listening to the wireless, having my first (and only) beer for about nine days and sending text messages to and fro to Mark Fuller, solving the selection problems of the Aussie cricket team and the odd world problem. The dulcet tones of Jonathon Agnew and Jim Maxwell ensured that it was a good sleep. I’ve spent all of the morning catching up on the blog … it’s better to do it in one fell swoop rather than bits … before I head out to catch a few of the local sights. It’s also comforting to be able to put down the laptop, in full sight of anyone who walks by, and wander off to the dunny for a pee or whatever and know that it will be there when I get back. Camping’s very comforting like that. We’re an honourable mob.
AIRLIE BEACH A GOLD COAST IN THE MAKING
Driving to the hub of the joint, it’s pretty. Yep, physically pretty. Well it is once you get beyond the industrial/retail centres that dot the road on the way in. I mean, when you finally see the sea, what’s not to like about blue water, islands dotted here, there and wherever, the odd palm tree, lots of boats (meaning lots of money) and the odd few (or should that be few odd) shorts and singlet clad holidaymakers walking there and back. Not too much traffic either. Even parking, once I hit town, was a breeze. If there’s anything other than travel agents, cafes, pubs, bottle shops, McDonald’s, two chemist shops, souvenir shops and place selling sunglasses and hats, then I don’t remember it. Oh, yep, there’s a newsagent, now cleverly placed behind the golden arches, away from it’s former prime position on the main drag. After depositing the car in a spot at about the halfway mark, I headed for the foot tour. It took 20 metres to turn me off: three women, goods sorts all, dressed in fine clothes and expensive calf-high boots (very good for the beach, you know), hair done to within an inch of its life and no doubt well-manicured hands, were having a bitch about someone. I know this because I walked very, very slowly. The girls were probably taking winter away from their tawdry Double Bay or Toorak lives and I guess had nothing better to do than verbally assassinate someone they didn’t particularly like. That’s my take anyway. I pressed on into the milling throng that is British packpacker heaven, each it seemed, wearing a pork-pie hat. Why? Why would anyone want to look like a racing steward or a leftover from an episode of The Untouchables? But these days it’s de rigeur. Spose it’s their right, just as much as it is mine to look like a large dunny brush. Anyway, I decided there and then that I didn’t much like the place. I wandered to the newsagent, bought a paper and settled at the Village Café for a long black and a blueberry muffin. I think that amounted to $9.90. This better be good, I thought. The coffee was OK, but the muffin, which was sitting in a refrigerated cabinet beforehand, had done a lop-sided tour of the microwave because it was hot and cold. Nice try, but no cigar. I rolled a smoke and pondered my next step (or is that steps?) and headed across the road for a wander along the shops. I couldn’t resist going into what I think is the tackiest souvenir shops I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a few. Not that I wanted anything other than a bumper sticker, mind. (I collect them on the trailer.) This joint had it all in spades. Kangaroo condoms (I immediately started thinking pouch jokes to myself), boomerangs with “G’day” carved into them, a small packet labelled “Your own big tits”. Presumably they were the blow-up variety because under the cellophane they looked decidedly small. Stubby holders of all shapes and sizes, T-shirts, aprons with things printed on them … Ok I’ll end it with rubbish of all shapes and sizes, including the particularly Australian bandana emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. I picked up two bumper stickers without looking at the prices and reluctantly handed over the $15.50 requested by the woman overseeing this retail tip. It was a small price to pay, I guess, to see it all up close. I walked (briskly by now) up both sides of the main drag and it was a case of the Peggy Lee song, Is that all there is? I couldn’t wait to get back to the sterility (true, it is, although it has the best bathrooms I’ve seen on the road) of the caravan park that I called home. A bit of a read was the order of the rest of the afternoon before I made a beeline to the pub about 150 metres across the road. It’s a typical suburban, sports bar full of blokes and women drinking schooners and watching any one of about eights TVs, each showing a different event. Every time you but a beer here, the barmaid (she calls everyone darls) gives you a raffle ticket or two for a cash prize to be drawn at 7.30. I donated my tickets to the local footy club coach. “If you come back here and go to the footy ground and see that there have been renovations done, then we’ll owe you a few beers,” he said as he thanked me for my interest. The Sea Eagles, by the way, are 12-0 and have won the flag the past two years. I headed back to home base after four pots, grabbed a bite to eat and settled in to listen to the cricket. It felt strange climbing under the doona at such an early hour but it was starting to get cold … at least I thought so. It was nothing like the balmy nights at Mission Beach. After about an hour, I decided to put on a T-shirt and head back to the pub for a chin wag with whoever would talk to me and ended up staying until just after midnight when I retired again to listen to the cricket, which was rained off within a short time. So I slept. I greeted another beautiful morning as I unzipped … the tent, that is … put the kettle on and had a couple of cups of tea, then a shower, and headed off for another trip downtown to see if, indeed, it had any redeeming features. I was in the mood for a big breakfast (I haven’t had one for ages, other than fruit) and headed to the newsagent to grab a paper to see me out over brekkie. I walked by the Village Café again, read the sign advertising a big breakfast and I thought, bugger it, I’ll try here again. Any anyway, they had a supply of papers so no need to buy one. One big breakfast and a (small) pot of tea set me back $21.90, eventually. The girl had all sorts of trouble getting the till to do its thing. Or maybe it was her. No matter. I took up residence at a table outside and waited with the Weekend Oz for company. About five minutes later, my waitress, a precocious (maybe) 10-year-old girl (she’s the chef’s daughter) stood beside me with a tray and said: “Tea.” Upon closer examination by me, it was a tray upon which there was a small pot of hot water, a cup containing a small jug of milk, two sachets of sugar, a serviette, a plastic spoon and a teabag. I had to make my own bloody tea. It was all cold by the time the little miss arrived with the announcement: “Big breakfast.” I thanked her again and eyed the food. I reckon it’s the first time I’ve had a breakfast stack. Two eggs, one on top of the other on top of 3-4 rashers of bacon on top of four thick slices of white toast. Somehow the kitchen hadn’t managed to get the (commercially made) hash brown of the two small sausages into the act. They were all relegated tucked up to the side. What, for Christ’s sake, is the point of the stack other the chef being fucking pretentious? I mean, have you ever tried to cut an egg that’s a good six inches above the plate? No way, Jose. It took a few minutes to get everything into position for a meeting with the knife and fork. I know I probably sound bitter and twisted. All right, I was bitter and twisted. There was no pepper, salt or a condiment for the snags anywhere to be seen … a bit like the waitress who was probably watching the Wiggles somewhere. Believe me, everything on the plate needed something to give it some semblance of taste. Except for the two chive things. I ate them a little at a time with each mouthful of the other stuff. At $21.90, this breakfast rated 1/10. At least the plate appeared to be clean and for that its only point. Oh, and they had stapled the newspaper sections together making it next to impossible to turn pages. I headed for the street, stopping briefly among the hat-wearing, singleted backpackers to roll a smoke and consider my next move. Maybe I missed something worthwhile yesterday so I walked on. The Pommie backpackers were at their thickest (read that whichever way you like) outside the fish-and-chip shop where they were tucking into big parcels of chips and (I presume) calamari (well it was round with a hole and I’m pretty sure they weren’t doughnuts) cooked endlessly until they looked more like the colour Michael Jackson used to be. Before I left home, I floated a question on Facebook: “Is Airlie Beach the most overrated place in Queensland?” Nicko Place had a go back at me asking whether I’d ever heard of the Gold Coast? As everyone knows (and certainly Nicko should), no one rates the Gold Coast full stop. My conclusion on my second viewing of Airlie Beach is that the place is crap. Maybe it’s not even that good. Sure there may be some nice places somewhere … shit, there must be something other than a paid for tour of this or that … but even if there is, I’ve been put off for life. I can’t wait for tomorrow to get the flock outta here. Yep, Peggy, that’s all there is.
HERE IS THE NOOSA BULLETIN
Another day, another long drive, but certainly worth it because it means I’m getting the hell out of Airlie Beach. Rockhampton is about 550 clicks away, a bit more than I normally like to drive in a day, but it’s gotta be done. It was pretty easy going despite the pretty ordinary roads. That’s something I’ve noticed about Queensland. The lack of roadworks. Just about everywhere I’ve been outside Queensland has had its fair share with the odd delay here or there. It was still a pleasant drive just watching the countryside change from one thing to another. God I love this place. I didn’t buggerise around stopping for lunch or whatever, rather the odd cuppa here and there and a break for a smoke and a stretch about every hour or so. I’d decided when I left Airlie that my one night in Rockie would be at a motel, a first in the nine months on the road. Dunno why, it just seemed like the right thing to do for a change. And anyway the last night of the cricket would be on the telly. Once I was close enough to Rockie, I punched into the GPS the motel of choice and found my way through streets alien to me, not to mention the traffic, which was as heavy as I can remember on the road. The people at the motel were (I reckon) a little taken aback by the presence of a scruffy, hirsute person with a big collection of beads and other assorted neck paraphernalia in their foyer but it didn’t stop them being friendly. The bloke said: “It’s $104 a night, is that OK?”. No problem, I told him, expanding to tell him that it was to be my first night not under canvas for a long time. I’m not sure he was in any way impressed but he smiled anyway. “I’d better have a couple of beers, too,” I said grabbing two XXXX Golds from the fridge in the foyer. “They’re $4.50 each,” he said. No matter. I was thirsty after the drive. He organised for me to park the car and trailer in a long parking bay at the front door of unit No 1. Too easy. I’d ripped the top off a stubby by the time I got to the front door and proceeded to grab whatever I’d need (change of clothes, toothbrush etc) before I settled in to some sloth-like activity. It was a biggish but clean room. Pretty soon I was flat on the bed, beer in hand, watching whatever was on the telly. I’d planned to have a pizza delivered, so there was no way I’d be leaving the room. My mate, Perrie the truckie, rang from Denniliquin, his first stop on his way to meet up with me in Brisbane. It’s always good to chat with him. And funny, in a way, listening to someone desperate to flee the cold of Victoria. “It’s 25 here today,” I said to him, inducing string of words better not used here. Hunger kicked in some time just after six and I phoned a local pizza shop to place an order. This proved to be the biggest test of the day, the girl at the other end of the phone being less than intelligent. It took a good 10 minutes to finally convey to her that, yes, I wanted a large pizza with my choice of toppings, and yes, sooner would be better that later. “OK, thanks,” she said, “it should be there in about an hour. Oh, and what’s your phone number?” “I gave it to you at the start of this conversation,” I said. “I’ve lost it. Sorry. What is it again?” she continued. Finally she had the number down pat, but an hour? “Is it really gonna be a hour?” I asked. “Yep, thanks for calling.” The only way to circumvent the emptiness in my stomach was to again venture to the foyer and grab some more beers and a packet of chips. It was worth the trip to watch the bloke fight with technology to register the $16 bill. Finally he had to get his missus to put it right. It was fun to watch. Finally the pizza arrived. It was worth the wait and did its filling duty admirably. I settled in to watch the cricket and as the night wore on, decided to leave the picture on without the sound so that I could wake and check on the game’s progress easily. Sleep time. With the telly’s sound down I became aware of the woman next door trying to cough a lung out at about five-minute intervals. She was performing in tandem with her old man who was snoring. The walls in this place were so thin I could here the woman next door change her mind. The traffic noise wasn’t helping either (it’s a long time since traffic noise played a part in my life) but finally sleep won the night. The woman next door had coughed herself to sleep and must have put a pillow or something over her old man’s head. I did mange to wake and catch the last hour of the Test. It seemed like no time that I was busy tucking into baked beans on toast and cups of tea to set me up for another long drive to Noosa. I lingered in the shower longer than I should have and even used the hairdryer. Luxury. The traffic out of Rockhampton was pretty heavy but soon eased to a manageable flow. An hour into the drive I stopped for a cuppa and a stretch before heading to Miriam Vale, again for a cuppa and a sandwich. The big ant on the lettuce in my sandwich came without charge. It’s always nice to pick up a bonus here or there. The Miriam Vale roadhouse has a fair bit of pink in its signage. I took a pic or two to send to Miriam and sent her a text to let her know that her name had been honoured by a town. The next stop was at a Lions club free cuppa and biscuit site about 100 clicks the wrong side of Noosa, a most welcome break. The people who run these things deserve a medal. They’d been on their feet for hours and were only too happy to know the buy and sell of everyone’s trip. I had a longish chat to a truckie, Dave, who was planning to stay there for a feed and a sleep before hitting the road again at midnight. He was pushing a huge petrol tanker and had just given up the smokes, something that wasn’t going easily. I gave him a few helpful (I reckon) tips on giving away the weed although the fact that I was smoking at the time probably did little to add weight to my efforts. I pushed on to Noosa, a task that even had a 10-minute delay for roadworks, surprise, surprise. I made my way through the maze that is Noosa, grabbed a site for four nights and headed to Woolies to grab some food for the night and for brekkie and a suitable quantity of grog to ease the pain of another 550 kilometres on the road. It all worked. Back at camp I had a long talk to Danny, a plasterer and my new and nearest neighbour before pulling the pin at about 9 o’clock to head for the land of nod. It was all too easy.
BRISBANE AND THE SON SHINES
Noosa and noise … both five letters and very closely related. My nearest neighbour, Danny the plasterer, was the noisiest neighbour I’ve run into in the nine months on the road. Every morning he’d crank up his V8 at about six … I just loved that, not … and every afternoon at about four I’d hear him and his mate rumble back. Usually the first item on the agenda was to crank up the blender to make a (presumably) alcoholic jug of something followed by the DVD/TV extravaganza. These blokes listened to programs about four-wheel-drives, motorbikes or something like Jackass and they always had the bloody volume set at about 10. So loud in fact that I couldn’t hear the radio despite sitting right beside it. One lesson I learnt years ago is that you never complain about noise to pissed young blokes when the sun is still out. I spent the days just cruising around doing nought in particular. The odd coffee her or there, a feed, and a general look around. Noosa and surrounds is just too big and too suburban for me (in my current “I love the bush” frame of mind) to get me off my bum to do the tourist thing. I did meet up with a woman I’d met at Alice Springs during a shopping trip. She told me that all the usual suspects were at the same campground as me. There were six of them travelling together and I’d become a regular at their happy hours in Alice. We even all went out to dinner for the last night there. It was good to catch up again with some familiar faces. A bottle of red was made even more enjoyable, firmly ensconced in the heated annexe of Bob’s and Jude’s caravan with Gaz and Maz. And as always it was good to swap travel stories. Anyway, with the noisy blokes doing their thing I was too happy, despite having some mates there, for the days and nights to fly by and get the hell out of there. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. Besides, Joel, Monica and Jim were flying into Brisbane to catch up. The traffic on the way to Brisbane (yep, it was a freeway) was just crap and it has only got worse the more time I spend here. I grabbed a site at Tingalpa, about 10-12 kilometres from the CDB and close to the airport. I was plonked two sites away from Perrie, my truckie mate, who was back in the north chasing some warm weather. It was good to catch up with him again and, needless to say, we celebrated long and hard at the nearest boozer (it’s a 1.3km walk). I finally made it to the airport to pick up the troops despite being sent to the Virgin staff car park by the GPS woman. Her ineptitude again was enough to convince me that I need a real woman in my life, one who fancies the idea of seeing this joint for maybe 12 months before putting some roots down somewhere. I reckon that’s gonna be a priority once I settle again in Melbourne. But I digress. The plane was delayed (there’s a surprise) by 45 minutes but finally it was great to see Joel, Monica and Jim. Joel was camping with the old man and Jim and Monica opted for a cabin just 10 metres away. It was the first time I’d seen them all since Christmas. A detour to the bottle shop and soon we were reacquainting ourselves with what we’d been up to … they were obviously enjoying the warm weather for starters. We spent the first night just shooting the breeze and having a few (OK a lot) of drinks. About the hardest part of the night was getting a pizza delivered and believe me, that took some doing, but it was worth the wait. The next morning we went for a wander into Brisbane to check out the markets. Monica and Jim headed off to pick up a rental car so Joel and I cruised the market a few times, had a coffee and just wandered along the river and did a spot of people watching, chatting all the way. I know I’m biased because he’s my son, but I can’t recall a more intelligent, interesting 23-year-old anywhere. It was just great picking his brain, catching up with his latest thoughts and enjoying his humour. We worked out later that we’d probably walked about 10 kilometres … we did cheat and get a ferry across the river … so it was a good workout in every sense. It didn’t take too long again to find the car and head back to camp to wait for the rental car crew before we headed to the local for the Sunday night special - $2 steaks. Monica and Jim took a while to make camp again. They were stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway for an hour and a quarter. Needless to say they were in the mood for a drink by the time they made it back. The $2 (fillet, porterhouse or T-bone) steaks were excellent although they charge you $5 for the salad and chips and you have to buy a drink. No problem there. A cheap night by anyone’s standards, made even cheaper thanks to a quick fling on the pokies (true it was Monica’s idea) because I grabbed a $290 payout (plus another 20 odd for Joel). A very cheap night. Monica and Jim headed north the next day while Joel and I decided to go to Dreamworld. I sort of sold the idea to him because I’d been there years ago and had fond memories of it. My memory was clouded by the fact that it was a private day there for 1500 travel agents (I was there on a working junket) and it was all new (the official opening was a couple of days later), there was free grog and food on every corner and it was fun. My last trip to an amusement park was at Disneyland with Liam. Sorry Joel, Dreamworld it is. What a tired old place it is now, which perhaps explained why there wasn’t too much in the way of a crowd. It was a 130-odd bucks for two for the day plus tucker and whatever. A sandwich and a coffee were the starters for the day, which wasn’t a bad idea … or was it? We` were sitting in the sun finishing off and throwing the odd scrap at some ibis that were on the lookout for a feed. Like a shot out of a gun, the woman from the hotdog stand stormed over and told us in no uncertain terms: “Don’t feed the birds, they are pests,” as she shooed them away with the aid of a heavy plastic tray before retreating to the sanctuary of her dog caravan. We wandered around the place (the park, not her van) but it was pretty much without inspiration to ride on anything, the train that circles the place notwithstanding. Mind, Joel did brave the long walk to the top to hitch a ride on the rollercoaster, which he enjoyed. I was too keen to retain my sandwich, so terra firma won the day for me. More wandering, little (OK nothing) in the way of inspiration. It wasn’t long though before I was overcome with desire to have a foot long hotdog to soak up some of the previous night’s excesses. If I have eaten worse tasting anything in my life, then I’ll go he. And it was just 10 and a half inches long. This was crap of the highest order. Mind you, the birds were still keen and I reckon they would have been the only punters prepared to eat the bloody thing. About the only good thing to come out of the day was spending time with Joel and doing lots more walking. Joel, Perrie and I did the pub thing again for dinner (it sure beats cooking) and I grabbed another $160 payout before retreating into the night. Joel went to catch up with a mate across town. He finally hit the tent again at about 1.30 and 70 odd bucks lighter in his pocket thanks to the Brisbane cab system. He did say, however, that the first cabbie was a great bloke who did a running commentary of all things Brisbane. It had all flown too quickly. Joel was to be on a plane at 3pm. By the time we all eased into the day there was just enough time to grab a bite before heading again to the airport. I’m sure he enjoyed catching up. I’m looking forward to seeing him again soon as I hit Melbourne. Perrie and I braved the tollway back to camp. The next couple of nights were quiet hitouts at the boozer before he headed north to follow the sun. I’d like to say that since he’s departed it’s been quiet, but not so. The traffic noise is driving me to distraction. Can’t wait to get the flock outta here and hit Nimbin in a few days. Before I go, I’ll catch up with Julie for lunch at her place on Sunday. Also there will be Gary Woodbridge, a mate I haven’t seen for a million years. We knocked around together when we were growing up. Perhaps my last memory of catching up with him was when I beat him on a count-back for the best and fairest at our footy club. Then again, I don’t remember much of that night either. I had lots of drinks and was nursing a broken nose.
THE GREAT KAFTAN SEARCH FAILS AGAIN
Lunch with Jules was a most welcome relief from doing not a lot other than relaxing. It was great to catch up with her again after about four years. Being the good woman that she is, she drove way across town to pick me up and did the scenic drive back to her apartment. Gary Woodbridge, his wife Chistine and Julie’s friend Denise made it five. It was also great to catch up with Gary after about 40 years. Well, that’s the figure we decided on over far too many bottles of wine. It all got a bit too hazy towards the end. I’m sure the second bottle of red did little to help, although I do remember Jules chastising me for pashing her friend. It was tough the next day to put everything in its place. The hangover raged well into the day after as well, but not enough for me not to farewell Brisbane (and Queensland) and make a beeline for Nimbin. I also found out that Cameron, the bloke doing the house-sitting, had moved out. That pretty much meant that I’d head straight for Melbourne and probably be back by Sunday. As I was hooking up the trailer, I noticed that the trailer plug looked like it had been belted with a hammer, so I had to find an auto electrician to get a new one. A 10-minute drive and 15 more minutes and 20 bucks later I was away. It won’t be an easy drive to Melbourne, but perhaps 3-4 stops will get me there. It wasn’t the best drive in the world leaving Brisbane … the roads are pretty ordinary … but the good thing is that it only took a couple of hours to lob in downtown Nimbin where it was all blue skies and about 20 degrees. It took me two laps of the main street to find somewhere I could park the car and trailer. Finally I found a spot, locked up and surveyed the street. Straight away a bloke called Bob, backpack in place and a big cuppa in his hand, wandered over. “G’day brother, got any grass?” I did expect that would be the first conversation in rainbow country, but I guess I wasn’t really that surprised. “Nah, sorry, mate, can’t help ya.” Bob is one of the stolen generation and he had just returned from Melbourne. “Pitched the tent in the Fitzroy Gardens, the Flagstaff Gardens and for a couple of nights under a bridge at Docklands,” he said. “Bloody cold down there.” He proudly told me about his “Stolenwealth” Aboriginal flag and smiled when I showed him one of the Aboriginal flags I have. “That’s the spirit, brother, you’re a good fella. Anyway, I’m off to find a smoke,” he said as he wandered towards the park. I liked this place straight away. I went for a wander up both sides of the main drag, got offered dope twice, and generally soaked up the whole place. I’d been to the camp ground earlier and the sign said come back at three, so I took the time to have a cup of tea and a sandwich. It was organic local tea and fantastic. The sandwich wasn’t half bad either. On the way up the street, people said hello, g’day or whatever, smiled and told me to have a good day. The spiritual home is looming, I thought. Maybe. More wandering the happy, hippy shops and it was amazing how everyone had the time of day to talk, show interest in what I did, where I’d been and whatever. Three o’clock loomed so I headed to the camp ground and met the manager, a laidback dude if ever there was one. He took me to see a site and said: “If you don’t like this one, just pick whatever you like, man.” It was $17 a night for a powered site, the third cheapest I’ve found on the whole trip (Camoweal on the Queensland/NT border was $9 and had a pub attached). It took just 10 minutes to get the tent to the stage I needed it to be at and I was thinking of opening a celebratory beer. A bloke called Darren was walking by and we got to talking. He had a large backpack and was carrying a chair, the exact same one that I was sitting on. He’s been travelling for 20 years (he’s 41) and has spent the past four years travelling around the rainbow area. “I just love it here,” he said. “I wash in the creek or wherever. It doesn’t get a whole lot better.” I offered him a beer and we talked for about two hours. It was amazing the number of similar things we’d experienced. Right then I realised just how much I’ve changed in my outlook to so many things since I’ve been on the road. It was a good feeling. While we were chatting, about 20 parrots landed nearby and walked right over to us … wandering between our feet, under the chairs, then three or four jumped onto Darren. They were after a feed (although a few did make polite inquiries around the necks of our beers) and although I had some bread nearby in the fridge, I was reluctant to give them processed food. No tucker, so they headed for what they hoped would be more benevolent campers. Darren headed off to pitch his two-man tent, I opened another beer and lolled in the really nice feeling I had about life right at this moment. The disappearance of the sun soon had me shivering. It turned cool really quickly, so out came the poncho and the desire to take a walk into town, have a beer and suss out what was on offer for food for the night. The pub was about the third place on the way into town. The three people I passed on the street all said hello. The pub was a good place to start although I was really surprised (especially in Nimbin) to see the ubiquitous poker machines lining a wall. Most of Nimbin had moved indoors by this time, so I headed back to camp, intent on grabbing a beer and a feed (it has a Chinese menu) at the bowls club, which is right by the camp ground. It’s a cavernous place and I was the only person in the restaurant, which seats more than 100. A warming bowl of soup and a plate of garlic chicken and vegetables saw me out. By the time I’d reacquainted myself with the tent I was freezing again. It was the first time I’d felt the cold like this for bloody months and I didn’t like it. What to do, but fill the hot-water bottle, throw the poncho on top of the doona, put on the windcheater and trackie daks and tough it out until morning. The bloke playing guitar and singing outside his tent near the creek helped. Job done. It was another beautiful day in paradise (at 8.30) after being woken by the kookaburras and magpies doing some of their best vocal work. I’d forgotten just how beautiful that is after a week of traffic noise and planes roaring overhead in Brisbane. I whacked on the kettle and wandered off to the dunny, which isn’t too far from the camp kitchen. The air was filled (not in the dunny, mind) with the smell of bacon and eggs and the sounds of Darren and another camper just across the way prattling on loudly about politics and generally solving some of the world’s problems. I could live without the politics, but not the bacon and eggs. I’d just got back from a shower and was getting ready for a walk to the brekkie shop when I heard a bloke from across the way say to his girlfriend: “That’s what you do in Nimbin. Chill. Drink some coffee, have a smoke and chill.” She wasn’t arguing. Me either, after all I was here on a mission. To buy a kaftan. Alas, again, it was not to be. I went into every shop in the town and the result was the same. “Sorry.” Although I did get to have some great chats with women who had all had kaftans at some stage in their lives. They all had great stories to tell, especially the woman who owns four Kombis. She’s leading a group of 60 of them through Melbourne in the not-too-distant future. The bacon and eggs did the trick although the young couple at the next table were having their problems. They were locals and she was pregnant. “I wish you wouldn’t smoke,” said her boyfriend as he dragged on one. “Fuck off, I’ll smoke if I want to,” she offered in a none-too-polite response. “Jeez, ya tits are as big as ya gut now,” offered a loud, somewhat uncouth woman who was walking by. “Yeah, they’re big now,” said the boyfriend with obvious pride. “Trouble is,” said the uncouth one, “then they grow up and leave ya. What’s the point?” From my observations, there’s an undercurrent of stuff that wasn’t meant to be part of the Nimbin cultural ideal. Sure, there’s lots of smoking dope and dealing on the streets (there’s the odd sign saying “no dealing”), but there are also a lot of people hitting the turps in the AM. People sitting around with grog in brown paper bags getting themselves wasted one way or the other. It’s sad really. A lot of them are really showing the signs of wear and are loud to go with it. But in the main I’ve spoken with some lovely people while doing the shopping thing … rainbow headbands and T-shirts, a few Nimbim stickers and badges (yeah, I’m a tourist sucker too), a love poster, an iron-on peace sign for my jeans … I reckon I’m ready to re-embrace my 60s time over again. While I’m writing this, the bloke by the creek has just started playing and singing again. Nice that. I’ve relived my time in Carlton with a former Carlton woman at a hemp shop, met another woman who is great friends with a friend of mine who runs an Indian import shop on Ackland Street, shot the breeze with a bloke (he was drinking early) who’d spent three years in Adelaide 18 months ago. I said he was drinking. The Nimbin museum was well worth the $2 donation. I found it inspirational. I’m gonna head off this afternoon with the camera for a few happy snaps before the cold sets in. By then it’ll be beer o’clock (I’m having the only one I had in the fridge now) and time to get some more food into me to keep the cold at bay. It won’t be a big night. Tomorrow I’m planning to drive to Dubbo to meet up with a friend who lives about 25 clicks out of town and from there it’ll be on to Yarrawonga and then Melbourne. It’s difficult to let people know that I’ll be back that soon because there’s no phone reception for me here, which is a real pain. Christ knows what I’ll have to do then to keep the cold at bay. Roll on central heating.
THE LONG ROAD HOME
I kinda hated leaving Nimbin, but the house and stuff took priority. Even though I’d planned to have a crack at reaching Dubbo and just beyond to catch up with Richie, the guide I’d met in the Kimberley, it was out of the question. I settled on Tamworth, not that it was the country music that attracted me … more the comfort of a motel. Yep, decided, it was going to be motels between here and home. It was just a comfort thing and the motel in Tamworth certainly come up trumps on that score. Clean sheets, heating, a fridge full of grog and the in-house menu. I decided to eat in my room, do the telly thing and generally relax to make sure I was prepared to hit the road the next day and be in good shape.
And so it was.
I was back on the road by 9.30 after a typical motel breakfast fry-up. It was a good move.
I pushed on soon leaving Tamworth to the country fans, but not before I received a huge thumbs up from a couple of Aboriginal blokes in a ute. They’d seen my One Mob Aboriginal flag on the back of the trailer.
Soon it was Gunnedah and then Dubbo. I had planned to have a look around Dubbo, given that knew plenty about it and its characters, courtesy of sharing a house with Mark Fuller. But I was making good time and set my sights on West Wyalong, a place nears and dear to my heart after spending time there years ago. Our Landcruiser blew up on the weay home from a shooting trip to a farm just near Condobolin. The motel I chose at West Wyalong was homey in the extreme, right down to the … yes, really … meals cooked by the manager’s wife. It was good to see the town again. I didn’t make it into the pub I stayed at years ago. Max the publican would have been long gone. It was an amazing pub back then. Steak and eggs for breakfast every day and beers in the bar not long after. Every morning a shearer called Bob would come in for a schooner. Max used to pour it right on 10 o’clock and put it beside a Bex powder. Bob would always waltz in, open the powder and wash it down with a cold one. He immediately became human.
As I was leaving West Wyalong, the roads and scenery looked vaguely familiar and brought back again memories of that trip. It wasn’t that far from Yarrawonga and it seems like little time before I was settled into a motel on the main drag and one the phone to Tom Hutchison, organizing to catch up for a feed, a beer or two, and the news … his and mine. It was good to see Tom, who is still working for the local paper and enjoying it.
I called around to his house the next day for a cuppa and a farewell chat. I asked him whether he still had the tinny we all chipped in to buy way back when I was a family man and went camping on the Murray just downstream from Yarrawonga. He suggested I should take it with me (plus the little outboard) and although I was keen, it was probably just a little too large to fit on top of the trailer … not to mention heavy. I’d always pictured it as a tinny but in fact it was pretty solid fiberglass. I’m still keen to get it cos it will fit on top of the ute I plan to buy for the next trip. It was a fond farewerll to To. I always manage to catch up with him at some time or another or at least talk on the phone to stay in touch.
Soon I was, at last, Melbourne bound and it was a good feeling. About three or so hours later I was cruising into the streets of Albert Park and I felt at home. Sure I was already missing the road but Jesus it was good to be back.
It was great to be back in the house, surrounded by familiar stuff although I was devastated to discover that every plant I had left in Cameron’s care was dead, except the large chilli plant In the back garden.
I quickly settled back in, was offered a job at Crikey in a few days and so began life in a new year at home.
As it turned out, it was the best and worst time of my life, all to do with a woman (whore privacy I shall always respect) with whom I fell madly in love. Yep, it was amazing.