Sunday, 10 August 2008

End of the Adventure (Chapter 14 - The End)

After the stimulation of the tropical north and the delightful company of the aborigines, the trip south again-despite the distance and the terrain-seemed rather an anticlimax. By now, anyway, we were quite used to making the most extraordinary demands on our Prima scooter, and another thousand-odd miles seemed merely a hop. Half an hour after rejoining our little machine, which had been garaged a stone's throw from Darwin's stockaded civil prison, the gear was packed, Nita was firmly ensconced, and the engine was ticking over erratically, voicing its displeasure at having been laid up.

Four days later we reached Alice Springs-more commonly called 'The Alice'-an over-publicized township which proved (save for the Flying Doctor Memorial Church) to be a disappointment. The usual assortment of coffee-bars and chromium-plate seemed strangely out of place in the majestic tranquil desert among the Macdonnell Ranges. The church was the exception: although ultra-modern in design-symbolically incorporating the suggestion of an aircraft wing in the construction-it did not appear misplaced. At the entrance was a lily pool of remembrance, while inside a little museum behind the altar contained some of the early equipment used by John Flynn, including a pedal radio set and the great man's swag and blackened billy. This unique and functional memorial was built entirely by the people of Alice Springs on a voluntary basis. It seemed all the nicer when one heard about that.

From one hundred degrees of arid heat we went southwards again aboard the 'Ghan' railway for four hundred miles; then there was another ride through South Australia towards the greatest contrast of the whole trip: a contrast which came as a shock after living for months in the briefest of clothing. For as we re-entered Victoria we were met by a howling snowstorm which lasted for three days and had us shivering constantly and stopping every few miles to make roaring fires at the roadside.

We arrived in Melbourne, two very dejected and half-frozen creatures, at eleven o'clock at night. Desperately I searched through our papers and found the scrap which had been given to me by Jack Kelley-the Mobilgas Rally driver-so long ago in far-away Darwin. I huddled in the 'phone booth, glad for a moment to cut off the biting wind.

'Marriott! Sure I remember. Come right on out. We'll have bowls of hot soup and a roaring fire to greet you. Sure you can find the way now?' I answered that warm, friendly voice, saying that wild horses couldn't stop us, and rang off.

So, fittingly in a country with a reputation for its hospitality, we spent the last six weeks of our Australian venture with two of the most friendly people one could hope to meet, in Australia or anywhere-Jack and Lila Kelley of Preston, Melbourne.

Jack's hastily given promise during our brief Darwin encounter was kept to the full. After lavishing their hospitality on us (it was heavenly to sit round a roaring fire in a cosy room, sipping hot soup, after battling in the teeth of a snowstorm for so long) they presented us with the key of Jack and Lila's luxury caravan, with the words, 'It's yours for as long as you want it.' This was, indeed, great generosity.

And so the six weeks passed. We wrote a great many notes, organized the processing and packing of our film, spent most week-ends as guests of our wonderful hosts, and toured the Victorian countryside, generally acclimatizing ourselves once again to city life.

One night I was dragged hastily from our extremely comfortable quarters to watch the path of the first Russian Sputnik as it raced across the sky; at the time I had been engrossed in studying some of the photographs of our aborigines-the most primitive people on earth. The sudden revelation of the first earth satellite zipping over Melbourne was most disturbing.

It also seemed incongruous that, only a few days previously, an expedition a couple of hundred miles from Alice Springs had reported making contact with a tribe of aborigines who had never before seen white men. There were very few details of the discovery at that time, other than that the tribesmen had been almost mesmerized at the sight of the wheels on the expedition trucks. As I watched the fast-travelling light in the sky, I wondered what those primitive men would think (were it possible to explain the technicalities) of their white brothers' latest achievement.

Possibly, we are in the last generation of those who will find adventure on this planet, and future exploration will be limitless. But at that moment, puny as our own efforts seemed, our desire to see over the next horizon had been more than fulfilled.

As the Southampton-bound liner pulled away from the Melbourne wharf, breaking the brightly coloured streamers, and echoing the cheers of those left behind, the faces of our friends gradually merged with the rest of the crowd. It was with mixed feelings that we prepared for the next six weeks of shipboard tedium.

Our adventure was over. The tiny vehicle that had made our journey possible lay once again in the hold beneath us, with nearly thirty thousand miles to its credit. Perhaps not a wise choice for the venture we had undertaken, but with our limited resources, the only possible one.

As we watched the nose of the ship ploughing through the choppy sea of the Great Australian Bight, we thought of the many anxious moments we had undergone in remote and outlandish places, and how thinly lined our pockets were. But, as Livingstone declared, 'the mere animal pleasure of travelling in a wild, unexplored country is very great'.

The Aborigines of Snake Bay (Chapter 13 – Snake Bay Burial Corroboree)

During the beginning of the third week we awoke one morning to the sound of most dismal semi-musical cadences. Laurie One-Eye told us that it was his sister-widowed some time previously -trying to 'sing' her husband back to life. Laurie One-Eye intimated that the day was very near when the whole tribe would hold 'Pukamuni' (a burial corroboree) to bury the dead man and cast him out of their memories for ever. Since the poor fellow had died he had been mourned by his wife and a host of near and distant relatives. The 'Pukamuni' would send him finally and irrevocably to the land of his ancestors and his name would be taboo ever after.

As the day for the send-off corroboree drew nearer, excitement mounted in the camp and more time was devoted to celebration preparations, and Nita and I waited expectantly.

While Joe hunted in a desultory fashion, prior to the 'One-Bloody-Big-Fella Corroboree', his young wife Fillissy, carrying her baby piccaninny, fossicked among the steaming mangrove swamps for giant crabs and oysters. A rewarding pastime, provided a wary eye was kept for marauding shark and crocodile, of which the Melville Island variety are reputed to be the hungriest and most ferocious in the world. Joe himself was nearly taken by a croc and bore some ugly scars on arms, chest, and shoulders that he would carry with him to the grave: 'Him debil-debil a'right dat one.' (Joe's uncle, Larry One-Leg, had acquired his white-fella name from the same source.) These occupational hazards, however, are viewed by the aborigines with the resignation of city-dwellers towards road accidents.

By this time, my wife and I were almost two of the tribe. It was no longer quite so astonishing to watch a man make fire with two sticks almost as quickly as I could light a match, and I ceased to gasp with amazement when Joe's throwing stick sped unerringly into a clump of foliage and a dead bird or lizard fell out instantaneously. We knew that when Fillissy suddenly darted at a hollow log, thrust a long stick into the black cavity and pulled, a furry creature-'possum usually-would be brought struggling forth, its fur hopelessly entangled round the end of the stick. We were no longer amazed, but our admiration at the prowess of these hunting nomads increased as the days passed.

And sitting round the camp-fire at night under a soft velvet sky, with the water lapping gently against the nearby beach, the contented murmur of gossiping natives, piccaninnies, and dogs became blurred at times as I wondered about the 'advancement' of mankind. Here was life in its simplest form, and I'm not sure that complexity is preferable.

The 'Pukamuni' started haphazardly enough. One morning we crawled from our sleeping-bags to find nearly all the tribe assembled in camp. They weren't doing anything much, but no one seemed anxious to pick up hunting spear or throwing stick. Pretty Polly (an effervescent old woman, hideously mutilated by yaws) made the first positive move in the corroboree preparations. Squatting cross-legged she began to mix a number of different make-up paints from ochre, wood ash, and the sap of certain trees. Then, with a line of little clay pots before her, she began to colour her own particular offering to the dead man, a woven bark basket. Soon, most of the other women followed suit and by midday all were industriously weaving, painting, binding, and carving. The pile of 'send-off' presents grew larger each minute. In the nearby bush an unseen mourner began a rhythmic tap-tapping on a hollow-log drum. A feeling of expectancy crept into the air.

While the women toiled at an increasing speed to swell the gift pile, the men occupied themselves with more personal adornment. Joe extricated himself from between a couple of his dogs and sparked off the proceedings by casually robbing his wife of some of her coloured paints and, using the lid of a food tin as a mirror, began to decorate his face and neck with a startling and most impressive series of zebra stripes. In his hair were placed the exotic tail plumes of birds he had successfully hunted, and around his neck was placed a gut necklace with a fur bobble attached, which he told us would 'keep debil-debill-o-n-g wayway'.

By late afternoon we were surrounded by a ferocious-looking tribe of warriors-only one or two of whom we could still recognize-who looked quite capable of overpowering Nita and me without the slightest qualm and popping us into the ashes for their next meal. Joe now appeared positively frightening, his charcoal-smeared face slashed with vivid white and red ochre streaks. He had added a couple of armbands of sharks' teeth and approached us clutching his ceremonial spear in one hand and a vicious-looking panga in the other. His words, however, were not in keeping with his appearance: 'Gibbit li'l bit 'bacco, Baas.'

Gladly I gave him a pinch from my ever-open tin, as I rested for a moment from filming the colourful scenes around me. Even the camp dogs had caught the fever and were chasing each other round and round the camp, livelier than we had yet seen them. One of the bitches pupped in the middle of the proceedings and again Nita and I marvelled at these aborigines, the only primitive people we had ever met who showed kindness to dumb animals. Under the supervision of the dog's owner, a host of naked children dashed around collecting leafy branches, and within minutes the litter and anxious mother were transplanted to their own whirlie to be left in complete peace under the cool shade of the boughs.

I felt certain that the actual ceremony would start directly dusk fell, and I cursed our equipment which could not cope with semi-dark conditions. Joe had been trying to tell me something about a special corroboree ground, but it was too much for his limited English. Nita and I watched the restless nomads closely, wondering what form the great occasion would take. We watched, and, with camera poised, we waited.

We were still waiting when the warriors had become nothing more than vague silhouettes around the flickering camp-fires. The solitary drummer was still beating out the monotonous dirge and the rest of the tribe were still restlessly milling around between the
whirlies. But by nine o'clock there was one different aspect which Nita spotted, and she exclaimed with some amazement, 'All the women are gone.' Somewhat alarmed (for I did not want the men to slip away and hold the corroboree without my getting at least a part of it on film), I approached Joe. He was non-committal, but partly reassuring. 'Alllubra goin' c'rob'ree ground; bye'm bye all men goin' same; makim one bloody-big c'rob'ree true. . . .'

'Bye'm bye' turned out to be next morning. Nita and I were awakened by a bustling in the camp and already the men were filing away in ones and twos towards the thick walls of the jungle. We jumped up, grabbed our camera equipment, and fell in behind Joe. Somehow we knew that this time it was no false alarm.

As the sun filtered through the last of the dawn mists which rolled in from the sea, our party-strangely silent and reverent, despite their savage adornment-emerged from the dense jungle into a clearing already thick with wood smoke. Nita and I gasped with amazement as we broke through the last barriers of foliage. We were in the burial grounds of our aborigines.

All around the clearing stood groups of huge tree-trunks thrusting up like totem poles. Gaudily painted and painstakingly carved, these were the headstones of the tribal dead. Some of the monuments seemed very old, yet still highly impressive like gaunt fire-blackened fingers-many over fifty feet high-pointing nakedly to the sky. Most of them, however, appeared to be recent additions, for the paint was bright and unfaded. In the middle of these commanding pillars the corroboree ground, an area about fifty feet square and inches thick in dust, lay ready.

When we arrived there was one figure in the centre of the stamping ground: the grief-stricken widow, who swayed about, wailing a dirge and beating two throwing sticks together in a monotonous rhythm. She had been mourning thus for two days and nights

Nita and I took up positions as unobtrusively as possible at the edge of the clearing. While my wife made sure that all our available film was ready for immediate use, I took one or two shots of the tribe surrounding the corroboree ground and the mourning widow. Another woman's wail joined that of the chief mourner, and someone else started tapping out a rhythm; then another voice, still female, added to the lament until all the women were wailing in a mournful, strangely rhythmic chorus.

Suddenly, Laurie One-Eye leapt from the crowd of men and assumed a commanding stance in the middle of the clearing. He chanted rapidly in a roaring baritone for something like a minute and then ceased abruptly, his spear raised above his woolly head.
From the throats of the entire tribe a great crescendo of shouts rent the silence of the jungle. No undisciplined yelling this, but a swelling volume of sound that crashed from an exciting vocal staccato to an ear-splitting roar. The corroboree had begun.

After the initial incantations there followed, in symbolic mime, a reconstruction of a burial ceremony that has remained unaltered through the centuries. Indeed, as these whirling, glistening figures were direct descendants from world's most primitive man, certainly much of what we were now witnessing had been enacted long before Australia became peopled with white men.

But on Melville Island today, with white man ruling supreme, there have to be modifications to an age-old ritual. No longer is the youngest wife of the deceased burnt alive, and never again will the nearest relatives hurl themselves from nearby treetops to commit suicide in a frenzy of grief. Yet, in spite of the make-believe and the miming, the magnetic pull of ancestral practices is still extremely strong. The warriors had the greatest difficulty in restraining the buxom young widow from throwing herself into the fire. Instead of standing calmly over the token fire, which was merely a handful of twigs giving off a wisp of smoke, she tore herself from the paint-streaked elders and dashed across the clearing straight for the huge cooking fire, which was about two yards in width and crackling merrily. Fortunately some of the old women realized what was happening and intercepted the suicidal widow, who fought like a wildcat in a frantic effort to hurl herself into the flames. For the next hour she remained sobbing-almost in a trance-but now very safe, lashed firmly with twine to four of her compatriots.

The potential suicides from the treetops went more smoothly. While twenty or thirty men clung to the topmost branches, poised before crashing to their deaths fifty feet below, the rest of the tribe entreated them not to take the plunge: the tribe would be weakened; the dead elder would not go on his way rejoicing, etc. Without too much difficulty these relatives were persuaded to abandon the death plunge and they climbed carefully down, wailing tenfold in order to disguise their discomfiture; for even though the entire ceremony is only symbolic, it is still very hard for a warrior to appear chicken-hearted.

After the initiation ceremony, all the gifts were carried reverently to the newly carved group of totem poles. The body had been buried some time previously and now the hump of earth, surrounded by the ornate tree-trunks, was smothered with the parting gifts. The tribe, about a hundred strong, fell silent and stepped back from the grave.
A line of young warriors, heavily armed and formidable in their ceremonial paint, formed up and pointed their spears at the remains of their comrade. There was a moment's pause and another of the tribal elders-white-fella name Death's-Head Leo-incited the younger men to frighten away the evil spirits which lurked in the vicinity ready to capture the dead man's spirit as it left the body.

The warriors stamped their feet savagely, once, twice, then twice again, and repeated the pattern at increasing speed, shaking spears and throwing sticks at an imaginary enemy. From the crowd of watchers a ripple of synchronized handclapping arose in an ever-increasing swell, urging the spearmen on to greater effort. Clouds of dust billowed beneath the thudding feet, and a series of blood-curdling yells rent the air.

It was a magnificent spectacle and I hoped fervently that our stock of film would last through this fantastic performance. The sight of the young men, pitting themselves against the unknown, was quite terrifying, and many of the young children were crying with fright at the sight of their normally gentle elder brothers transformed into savage, whirling demons. Nita and I thought quite seriously at one point that they might run amok. Surely those demoniac creatures, almost hypnotized in a welter of dust and sweat, with the goading chant ringing loudly in their ears would not be satisfied with lunging savagely at the empty air! I was frankly quite relieved when the tempo slowed down after about twenty minutes and the dancers, utterly exhausted, fell off one by one and collapsed at the edge of the clearing.

At the end of the casting out of the evil spirits, as the last man staggered on buckling legs back to the crowd, Joe leapt into the centre to tell the story of the dead man's life in mime. Beside us, Billy Geranium told us in hushed pidgin-English whispers exactly what Joe was portraying. It was the story, in savage primordial ballet, of the life of a man of Snake Bay.

Joe danced non-stop for three-quarters of an hour, re-enacting all the major events in the life of his dead brother. The lad at our side pinpointed some of the more intricate phases of the dance, but the verbal assistance was hardly necessary.

Nothing of the dead man's life was omitted, from the day he was born (Joe interpreted this with graphic mimicry of a woman in labour), throughout his career as a hunter and fighter (here there were long sequences of deadly battles fought with knife and spear against animal and human adversaries), to the slowing down of the pace representing age, infirmity, and the last struggle of all. The finale showed Joe briefly and magically endowed with the strength of youth to make the final long walk-about, then a sudden collapse in the centre of the dust-filled arena. The chanting died away for a brief space, and there was a strange silence in the fetid jungle clearing.

But only for a moment. Joe rose wearily to his feet, made his way back into the crowd, and was hardly swallowed up among the glistening ebony bodies when another member of the tribe sprang out with a blood-curdling whoop to perform his own interpretation of an incident in the life they were mourning.

Late in the afternoon we ran out of film. For a while our still-camera was constantly clicking, but even that stock had expired by dusk. We had, however, recorded all that was possible with the very limited means at our disposal, and I was hoping that some highly spectacular ceremony was not being withheld to the last moments of daylight.

We need not have worried. The corroboree had hardly started. All through that night the drums barely paused in their frenzied beat. We slept fitfully and were awakened every few minutes-it seemed-by a wild shriek or a wailing lament. They were still hard at it the next morning and all through the second day, but luckily for our recording the ceremonials proved to be fairly repetitive. A full forty-eight hours elapsed before the burial rites showed the first signs of abating. But once into the third day the incredibly overtaxed stamina wilted rapidly. The whole tribe were now afflicted with the equivalent of a gigantic hangover.

Nita and I, heavy-eyed through lack of sleep but jubilant at the thought of our rolls of precious film, carrying the unique record of a Snake Bay burial ceremony, made our way slowly back to the aboriginal camp on the jungle headland. The exciting climax to our odyssey was almost at an end.

Our whole journey, started more than eighteen months before, had culminated in the moment when we dropped from the tropical skies above the Timor Sea by the most modern method of transport, 'and entered the lives of these primitive people, who were to act as our hosts during one of their rare periods of tribal ritual. I most sincerely hoped that the film we had taken would be as exciting when projected as it was through the viewfinder.

We were to catch the mail plane in the morning. Around us the crowds of black tribesmen, faces split in wide grins, jostled each other laughing and chattering to give us a send-off. Comfortably weighed in our arms were the many presents bestowed on us by our new friends. There was the pair of ironwood throwing sticks, presented by Death's-Head Leo: 'You takem Boss sure. Takem longa your country all-a-time white-fella.' There, too, was the beautifully carved spearhead (we just couldn't transport the shaft) which Joe carved specially for us; a debil-debil bobble of tightly woven feathers to ward off evil spirits, and two woven baskets together with a group of little carved figures for Nita.

Those Melville Islanders are a wonderful people. Happy, generous, kind to their animals, they were apparently glad to have had us share their company for a while. For my wife and myself, the Melville Island experience had been extremely educational, balancing our sense of values to a great extent. We had found a race of people who could still live a full and satisfying life without any of the amenities of modern civilization. Australia is working on an integrative policy, the plan being to merge the black with the white, rather as New Zealand has done with the Maori. We ourselves hope that for all the full-blooded aborigines, like Warnpiat-L-Miri (alias Black Joe), this will be entirely beneficial.

The little speck in the sky grew larger, and soon its snarling aero-engines were shattering the peace of the Snake Bay jungle. Twin puffs of dust rose as its wheels touched down on the dry earth and it taxied along the short narrow strip. A quick turn-round, the mail-bags bustled out, and the plane was ready for the take-off .

We shook hands solemnly with Black Joe for the last time and walked across to the waiting aircraft. The Melville Islanders' word for goodbye is 'Nim Bungi'. It sounded very moving when shouted from a hundred throats.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Aborigines of Snake Bay (Chapter 13 – Snake Bay)

The little aircraft stood on the runway of Darwin Airport, coughing fitfully as the pilot warmed the engine against the cold morning air. Nita and I, carrying our one valise between us, crossed the tarmac strip and stood waiting (somewhat apprehensively, for the plane was shuddering violently and a mechanic was collecting a heap of tools from beneath the fuselage) for the Native Affairs officer. The pilot, a cheerful type (unfortunately looking only about fifteen years old) greeted us.

'Not a bad old tub,' he volunteered, interpreting Nita's worried glances. 'We call her Bleriot's Prototype. A bit of historic machinery that, but we should make it with a following wind. If we do get any trouble it won't be in the air, but trying to put it down on dirt strips. Never did like those jungle clearings to put down on. Last bloke over did a ground loop and finished up in the scrub; took a hundred natives three days to fish him out. Still, it is early morning. Gets real turbulent around midday when the temperature climbs a bit.'

The sun was already uncomfortably hot and we looked around for our travelling companion. To our relief he appeared on time and we boarded the flimsy aircraft and strapped ourselves in. The Administrator was paying a brief visit to the twin island of Bathurst and the Catholic Mission there. We would go on to Melville as guest passengers in his plane, where we would be deposited and left very much to our own devices for as long as we liked. If the ancient aeroplane held together, fortune was indeed smiling on us.

The little plane made a perfect crossing and an equally good landing on the Bathurst strip. It took off again and dropped down finally into the steamy jungle of Snake Bay with equal ease, and my wife and I heaved a sigh of relief, brushed the perspiration from our eyes, and were once again convinced that appearances can be very deceptive. Soon the hum of the aircraft grew fainter. We watched as it circled once and rapidly disappeared into the brazen sky; the roar of petrol engines was replaced by the buzz of insects and the weird, chiming call of the bell-bird. Beneath our feet was the scorched brown earth; on every side the thick emerald green of the jungle. We hitched up the valise and made our way to the warden's lonely bungalow which overlooked the tropical grandeur of Snake Bay, Melville Island.

Colin Townsend was a man who had forsaken the city for the bush. He strode out from the bungalow to meet us. From beneath a wide slouch hat, a keen, mahogany-coloured face grinned a greeting.

'Good day. Good trip over?'

'We have arrived, and that's as good as I want it,' I replied, relief evident in my voice.

Col laughed and introduced himself. 'I look after the running of the sawmill. Most of the boys go walk-about from time to time, but we still manage to ship a fair amount of timber to the mainland.'

'Sawmill!' we both ejaculated in amazement, gazing round at the seemingly virgin jungle. 'Do you mean to say that the aborigines work here for a living?' I asked.

Col laughed again. 'Oh, you needn't get anxious. Some of them hang around the administration building here and do the odd spot of labour; but then again a lot of 'em don't. Guess they're the ones you're after, eh?' We nodded.

Inside the bungalow, cool and comfortable, with the roar of the surf breaking only fifty yards away on the golden beach, our host elaborated.

'The Australian Government have a sound scheme, under the Native Welfare Department, whereby all these islanders can, if they wish, have a fair share of what our gracious modern living can offer: tucker, clothes, medical treatment, even wages. But of course it's the devil's own job to convince 'em that if they can have everything else for free, why should they have to labour for cash which they can't spend, anyway.'

'What do they do with the money, then?' asked Nita.

'Oh, they're usually saving up for something. Some of it goes as bride price, perhaps, or for the odd one or two who are ambitious, on a trip to Darwin. Or they swop it for tobacco, or buy bits and pieces from the store. And in return they work the sawmill.' All our visions of truly primitive people began to disappear.

Outside, a small knot of islanders had gathered to inspect the new arrivals; and on the surface they looked primitive enough. The men, with tall, well-built figures of glistening ebony, were dressed only in nagas (loin-cloths) and were all carrying long, twin-barbed fishing spears. The women, in Mother Hubbard gowns, clutched blackened billycans and equally black children with both hands. The only thing that marred the picture was a packet of Capstan cigarettes which protruded from the waistband of one hunter.

Col, following my gaze, explained. 'There are only one or two of 'em who can afford tailor-made cigarettes, and only then on pay day. They usually smoke Nikki-Nikki-trade tobacco-most of the time. Anyway, you might as well start your visit by having a look at the post. Don't suppose you'll want to spend too much time in the "civilized" part of the island.'

The 'sawmill' was something of a relief. Just a clearing in the bush with one circular saw under a corrugated-iron roof, driven by a mobile generator. The store was equally modest, and a hundred yards from the tiny settlement the rest of the island appeared just about as it had been since the beginning of time.

Next morning, the formalities completed, we set off, leaving the buildings behind us to search for a family of island nomads who were living their lives independent of the settlement. The authorities had presented to us for the next few weeks an ideal family to study; that of Wampiat-L-Miri (pidgin-English name, Black Joe), his wives and children and, of course, his dogs.

We found them about four miles away, camped with two or three other families in a natural amphitheatre, through the middle of which ran a crystal-clear stream. Smoke from the cooking fire curled in and cast a slight haze over the camp area. The whirlies, those merely temporary shelters built by nomadic aborigines, were all but invisible against the rest of the bush and jungle patches, being just discernible as dwellings by the limp leaves of the cut branches.

Reclining in the doorway of the biggest, most central whirlie, was Wampiat-L-Miri, tribal elder, battle-scarred and dignified, a full-blooded aboriginal. He was smoking a crab's-claw pipe with obvious relish, and across his knees was a half-finished spear of ornate carving. Our young guide pointed at the lounging elder. 'Dat one fell a him Black Joe,' he announced. Then, with duty done, he turned about and set off back towards civilization and the tailor-made cigarettes which he obviously preferred.

Black Joe, we immediately discovered, was not cluttered with any chains of formality. He greeted us with 'Gibbit li'l bit 'bacco,' and held out the enormous crab's claw for replenishment. I had been forewarned and had brought two dozen tins of the precious weed with me. Nita found a tin and opened it; it was returned with a few strands in the bottom. Lesson one, never hand a tin of tobacco to an aboriginal.

The man who now puffed so contentedly watched us shrewdly from beneath craggy brows. Confident, without being arrogant, he basked in the comfortable security of his position, that of chief elder.

In the grass hut behind him, three wives sat crouched over a smoky cooking fire. Two were wizened crones who muttered to themselves, champing toothless jaws the while, while the third was a lithe girl of some nineteen years, already well initiated into motherhood with four chubby children to her credit. The youngest clung to her, pick-a-back fashion, watching our every movement with doubting, amber eyes. He was very near to tears during the first day after our arrival.

For that first week Nita and I did nothing more than camp a little way off from the cluster of whirlies and spend the days winning the confidence of the small tribe, and Black Joe in particular. It was this battle-scarred old warrior and his favourite wife (white-fella name, Fillissy) whose fortunes we wanted to follow in the humid jungle and thick bush of Snake Bay.

Gradually the barriers of suspicion were broken and we began to record camp life on film, without being stared out of countenance; and the army of dogs growled and bristled no longer. Indeed, having given scraps to one winsome pooch during the first days, we had great difficulty in eating at all without a vast canine audience, expectant and disconcerting, ringing our camp-fire among the gums.

One morning, Nita and I rose very early, at that time of transformation when the first grey streaks tinge the night sky-and tried to capture on film the fascinating sight of an aboriginal family awakening.

By the time we had the camera set up I could just get a reading on the exposure meter. A few yards away, Black Joe and his brood were still asleep and, despite the chill air, looked warm and cosy. In the middle of still warm fire ashes, Joe and Fillissy lay huddled back to back. Each had an arm protectively around a soundly sleeping baby. One of the children lay between its parents' legs and the other-the youngest-curled between their shoulder blades. To retain the warmth there were no fewer than five dogs forming a furry wall around the slumbering bunch of humanity. The family had, as always, started as a circle round the fire, gradually contracting as the flames died and the air became colder. They always finished up right in the ashes.

Joe awoke first, instantly alert, and grinned when he saw us with the camera turning, but averted his head almost immediately. My repeated requests' not to look-im-in-eye one-fell a camera' had been well absorbed. Fillissy jumped up at the same moment. The piccaninnies and the dogs were the most reluctant risers, rolling instinctively towards the warm space vacated by the adults. Joe and his wife were, of course, smothered in wood ash, but they did nothing to disturb their coating of fine particles.

After taking a long draught of water from the nearby stream, Joe sauntered off, armed with his throwing stick, to look for breakfast. He returned an hour or so later with a fat goanna lizard about four feet long dangling limply from his shoulder. He might have stumbled on a 'possum, a snake (nearly all edible), any of a variety of birds, wild yams, or other succulent roots; all manner of fish in the hundreds of creeks that twisted away from the golden beaches; or, had he been very lucky, a wallaby, crouching in the thick bush of the higher level inland. Later we were to see Joe use his throwing stick. His accuracy was uncanny.

One might think that to wake in the morning, hungry, with nothing edible to hand would be a source of constant anxiety. But these primitive people know what vast resources are at their fingertips, so well are they versed in bush lore. They can, in fact, live very comfortably in country where a white man would have (and has) starved to death, with the nearby sounds of game mocking him from impenetrable green walls.

So the time passed and Nita and I became increasingly fascinated as we watched each day unfold for our primitive family. No longer were they camera conscious, or 'playing to the gallery' ; we were accepted completely-or so it seemed-by these children of Nature, and the ensuing days gave us a vivid picture of the life of the world's earliest men.

Joe's command of the English tongue was very shaky, but that didn't matter at all. I was more than content just to tag along with him on hunting expeditions, or to watch him shaping throwing sticks or carving ironwood spears outside his whirlie. He may have been slowing up a bit with the years, but his old cunning and knowledge of the bush stood him in good stead. If he got within striking distance of goanna or bandicoot, that animal was as good as cooked-well, moderately cooked, for Joe's idea of a well-roasted lizard was one that had been rested in hot ashes for about five minutes. The resulting dinner was promptly eaten, skin, innards, hot ashes and all.

Although these people are direct descendants from Stone Age Man, they still have something to teach our modern world about harmonious living. Their moral code is of the strictest, and they are true communists. Everything is communal-game, implements, weapons, tobacco, clothing. Their vocabulary does not include the word 'gratitude': no one is beholden to another.

Even their peculiar marriage laws have sound reasoning for a basis. The old men marry the young girls, and the youths marry the old women. They are, of course, polygamous, but this custom is an ideal genetic arrangement. It ensures that at least one half of the family is capable of food gathering and that the tribal population is kept up to economic strength. Three or four wives to each elder is not uncommon. Security for all is assured.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

The Aborigines of Snake Bay (Chapter 13 – Darwin)

Darwin has the reputation of being the fastest-growing city in Australia. Where, around a natural seaport in the sweltering tropics, barely a decade ago there was nothing but a few tin shacks and a motley, fluctuating population, there is now a thriving, modern city, together with an airport comparable to any in the whole continent. It is a brightly coloured, exotic community of cosmopolitan beings, pleasantly secure in the knowledge that their home is the Government administrative headquarters of the Northern Territory, virtually run by far-off Canberra.

The city is small enough to be intimate and cosy-only a city by outback standards, something like, say, Blandford in Dorset but large enough to boast some very attractive clusters of stilted bungalows of ultra-modern design, a couple of cinemas, a beautifully kept tropical garden, and a whole army of Government officials. There is already a firmly established 'Nobs' Hill', radiating an almost American atmosphere. Among the crowds of uniformed officials, looking neatly businesslike in their white shirts and navy blue shorts and immaculate white socks, the rest of the population stroll about at a pace in keeping with the climate. I believe on our first drive up the main street we saw, without undue effort, practically every nationality of the globe, from Chinese and Slavs to Sicilians and half -caste aborigines.

By a tremendous stroke of luck the first person to whom we spoke turned out to hold the key to our quest for aborigines. As always, on arriving at a new town, we were pottering slowly along, surveying our surroundings, sniffing up the atmosphere, and marvelling at the sight of the Timor Sea which shimmered, almost a cobalt blue, beyond the wide palm-lined avenue. It was good to see a coastline again.

There were some very plush residences along that marine drive, and busily painting the fence of one palatial bungalow was a man of medium build and age, dressed in ragged shorts, who was, I think, only too glad to pause in his labours and watch the approach of our strange-looking outfit. Thus, by the slenderest chance, we met Doug Lockwood, chief reporter in Darwin for the Melbourne Daily Herald, who had only just returned from London after being specially flown over to receive first prize for the London Evening News competition for 'The World's Strangest Story' (a fantastic but true tale of Bas Wie, an island native who had made an incredible illegal entry into Australia after the war -we were to hear all about Bas Wie later that evening). He smiled cheerfully as we approached, and we stopped to ask where the administrative headquarters were. And so an invaluable friendship was formed.

Doug Lockwood was one of the very few men in the capital of the Northern Territory who could guide us along the narrow and rocky path of officialdom to our objective-Melville Island. That the people of the island occupied such an isolated wilderness was due almost entirely to the Australian Government Department of Native Affairs, which exercised a justifiably rigid control over all European visitors, allowing only a few entries, and then not without a stiff medical test. For the Snake Bay aborigines are highly susceptible-usually with fatal results-to common ailments of the civilized white which inconvenience us for no more than a few days.

So, on that balmy, tropical evening, as we sat under a swishing fan and admired the primitive wall decorations in his cool, spacious bungalow, Doug outlined a plan for Nita and me to follow.

First, we would have to go to the Native Affairs Department and get permission to visit the island. This, Doug thought, should not be too difficult as we were writing and film-making. Then we would have to undergo the medical, equip ourselves with supplies, and lastly find some method of crossing the shark-infested stretch of Timor Sea which separated us from our goal.

Unfortunately the man we had to see was in Canberra and would not be back for a week. We would just have to wait.

Not wishing to encroach too much on Lockwood's hospitality, we declined his 'open house' offer and set up camp on a beautiful stretch of green sward that overlooked the bay. That this particular piece of springy turf was also the pitch of Darwin's cricket club was immaterial; they were not using it, so we could; which was typical of the big-heartedness of Northern Australia. No one objected to our using the changing rooms and showers, either. Indeed, the attendant encouraged us to do so and left all the doors unlocked. We waited six days for the return of the administrator, in complete comfort.

During those six days, the hours simply weren't long enough. We explored Darwin from end to end, became regular visitors to the Native Affairs Department, met and made friends with two Latvian crocodile hunters (robust, heavily built characters who had just returned after six months in the bush of Cape York Peninsula and who were enjoying civilization again on the £ 1,000 profit from the sale of skins), had the scooter and sidecar overhauled and a stronger spring fitted to the third wheel-ready for the marathon trip south some time in the hazy future-and lastly, we met Jack Kelley.

On the fourth day of our stay there was great excitement in the township. The Mobilgas 'Round Australia Rally' was coming through in the evening. We spent the afternoon getting in necessary supplies-optimistically perhaps-for the forthcoming expedition, and after the standard Australian main meal of steak and eggs, we fastened the tent flap and strolled across the cricket pitch; past the luxurious, brand-new Darwin Hotel (two-roomed suite: £20 per day) to a fenced enclosure already thronged with expectant watchers waiting to greet the first competitors in this, the world's most gruelling motor-sport event.

The first car, a Volkswagen, arrived dead on time smothered in bull-dust, the windscreen patterned with spattered insects, to disgorge two weary drivers, red-eyed and very, very tired. They checked in at the control, grinned at the crowd of cheering onlookers by dint of great effort, and left their vehicle impounded to snatch a few hours' sleep before the next lap.

During the following two hours the rest of the field arrived. Surprisingly, the majority of the cars were in good shape considering the terrain and the average speed set. Some of them were, of course, very sick mechanically, but the major cause of body damage appeared to be from collisions with kangaroos during the night drives. One such car, a Holden, sponsored by a southern departmental store, had the front offside door tied with string; a door only vaguely resembling its original shape. I was unable to understand why so many drivers could not avoid a glare-blinded animal, and it was not until we started on the return journey south that I discovered why.

A little later Nita and I found ourselves talking to one of the crew, a tall, sun-bronzed fellow of large physique and twinkling eyes, who, despite the world's toughest rally in which he now competed, seemed more interested in our own achievements on the scooter. And so we struck up a spontaneous friendship which was strengthened the next morning, when the rested driver had slept off the worst of his fatigue. He knew of our plans and aspirations, and his parting shot as he left again on the next stage to Mount Isa was a good illustration of his warm, generous nature.

‘When you get back to Melbourne, come straight along,' he yelled above the revving engines. 'I've got a caravan in the back yard. Built it myself. All mod. cons. It's yours for as long as you want to stay.' He handed me a slip of paper with his address hastily scrawled. 'Look forward to seein' you two in about four months' time. G'bye.'

And with a quick wave of the hand the timekeeper signalled, the rear wheels of the Holden span a moment in the dust, the car took off at full bore, went through the compound gates in a controlled slide and was in seconds just a speck at the far end of the palm-lined avenue. Well, whatever might befall us, we knew that if or when we got back to Melbourne we would be sure of a very warm welcome from Jack Kelley, master builder and sometime competitor in the toughest trial of all.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Mount Isa to Darwin (Chapter 12 - Frewena To Darwin)

From Frewena we travelled under a baking sun due west until eventually we came to the road junction of the Alice Springs-Darwin road. The junction was marked with an impressive stone tribute to that great humanitarian of the territory, the Flying Doctor, or Flynn of the Inland.

His work has laid the foundations of a life-saving system that reaches even the remotest outback stations. With time concertina'd by radio and aircraft, no one any longer dies for lack of rapid medical attention.

The monument cast a finger of precious shade and Nita and I relaxed in the relatively cool patch until the sting went out of the sun. Then the scooter's nose was turned north, to start on the last six hundred and fifty miles to 'The Gateway of Australia'.
Six hundred and fifty miles: a distance similar to that between Land's End and John o' Groats, with but one fair-sized township two hundred or so miles from Darwin itself, Katherine.

It took us a week to reach the capital. A week of sun-bleached, arid country as wide as the sky itself. One might think that such terrain-sliced through with a bitumen strip-would be boring to drive across; on the contrary, for us it was a week of excitement.

First there were the aborigines-our first glimpse, in their own land, of the people we had travelled so far to see. It was, in fact, quite a shock to see in the grey dawn light four dusky figures squatting on their haunches about fifty yards off, regarding us silently and steadily.

There were three men, wearing only loin-cloths, and a woman swathed in a Mother Hubbard. The men carried long hunting spears, while the woman was hugging a bark basket which, from the way she held it, probably contained a baby. I was so excited that I forgot the timid nature of these wild people and instead of playing it slowly I jumped up, reaching for my camera as I did so. I hailed them with what I hoped was a very cheerful greeting and started towards them. It was too much for the shy nomads. They rose and started to walk quickly away through the bush. I hastened after them, cursing their shyness and not, at that moment, blaming myself for being a clumsy idiot.

'Don't run away,' I pleaded in a loud voice. It must have sounded like a threat, for they broke into a loping run and simply melted into the mulga. I retraced my steps slowly back to the camp, crestfallen and very disappointed. One does not come across aborigine hunting parties in the vicinity of the main road every day. However, I had learnt a lesson and next time would spend all day if necessary in making the initial approaches.

Then there were the bush fires: vast areas, charred and blackened, right up to the edge of the road, the air full of smuts and the heavy, acrid smell of burning assailing the nostrils. Frequently it was necessary to run the gauntlet through a veritable sea of smoke and flames. At one point the heat had melted the bitumen into a sticky, slippery mess, and we all but skidded off down a precipitous slope.

Those fires were most eerie at night. We did a lot of after-dark driving, as the scooter engine preferred the night air. Sometimes the whole horizon was flickering and dancing with flames, with an occasional vivid flash of light as another resinous gum tree exploded with the intense heat. One night we drove through several herds of kangaroo and a swarm of snakes fleeing the all-consuming flames. During the day squadrons of hawks hovered over the ever-shifting boundary of fire, swooping continually on small game that rushed panic-stricken from cover, escaping one fate only to rush into the waiting jaws of another.

And there were always the derelict, abandoned vehicles which told their mute story of disaster. Most of the assortment of trucks and cars we passed had rusted and settled down to blend, not unharmoniously, with the background, but a few were more recent victims of the relentless bush and we even came across one Holden sedan-not more than two years old-complete down to the last nut and bolt; there was still enough life in the battery to turn the engine over. But who would tow such a cripple (the front offside wheel hanging crazily from impact with a tree) three hundred miles to the nearest repair shop? I drove extremely cautiously on that marathon ride to Darwin.

For us there was always the infinite pleasure of night in the bush, when our own small fire crackled merrily and the smell of brewing tea mingled with the roasting gum leaves, creating a delightful and unforgettable aroma. Nights of clear air, crisp and invigorating after the heat of the day, when the cicadas shrilled a steady, lulling whirr and a million stars twinkled seemingly just above our heads. These were periods in our lives that were savoured at the time and became, in retrospect, priceless memories.

One stifling Saturday afternoon (humid and sticky, for we had now reached the coast), we passed the last of the hastily erected and now overgrown wartime landing strips, driving through the last avenue of dark green, fetid mangrove trees, to arrive safely at our base for the aborigine expedition. The capital of the Northern Territory was drowsy, somnolent, gasping in one hundred and ten degrees. I hoped the authorities would not be too sleepy to attend to us and our needs.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mount Isa to Darwin (Chapter 12 - To Frewena)

There must be few areas in the world where one can drive along a good-surfaced road all day long without meeting anyone. In fact, I cannot remember ever having done so. One expects and, indeed, provides for lonely travel over bush tracks, but to have a perfectly good tarmacadam road stretching for hundreds of miles all to oneself is rather disconcerting. And that is how it was for hour after hour. No sign of another human being; no sound (save that of the buzz of the scooter), and no habitation. A hundred miles of scorched Australian bush; the only evidence of man to disturb the tranquillity of this 'Dead Heart' country being the black ribbon of the War Road.

Suddenly, just before dusk, we were in Camoweal. A dip in the barren hills, up over a rise and there it was-a row of low, sprawling, wooden shacks on either side of a main street which must have been nearly a hundred yards wide. The line of shacks continued for a quarter of a mile, then ended abruptly as the bush began once again. There was not a soul to be seen in this township-the last in Queensland-it was almost a ghost town. There were one or two small signs of life. A prowling dog, a flock of bleating goats, but of humanity, nothing. We drove through the 'High Street' and pitched camp at the far end adjacent to the town's water supply which ran in a thin trickle along the near-dry bed of a creek. Save for silent, deserted-looking shacks behind us, we might almost have been in virgin country.

Just before dark, the night of solitude to which we had resigned ourselves was broken by the approach of a travel-stained and somewhat battered Hillman Minx. The occupants (a couple of men) looked hard at our unorthodox transport as they passed, stopped a little way up the road-apparently deciding to investigate further-reversed and came back. We had company for the night.

Ross and Harry (no one bothers with surnames in the bush) were travelling the outback, selling lingerie to the station housewives. They were doing very well, too, with their latest' Paris creations', which apparently proved irresistible to women who spent most of their lives in jeans and check shirts. These brawny characters, lustily pulling up tree roots to feed the camp-fire, resembled lumberjacks rather than underwear specialists. Harry, bouncing and effervescent, whirled about performing a one-man mannequin show, looking utterly incongruous as he held a scarlet dress in front of his bearded face and hid his own clothing of dust-covered khaki bush-shirt and shorts.

Ross, the quieter of the two, just sat, smiling faintly, while Nita and I laughed uproariously at the burlesque. Ross had obviously seen the display many times before. I should imagine that Harry was an extremely good salesman, being one of those unpredictable people who go through life fully wound, and to whom even a moment of tranquillity is a torment.

After an excellent meal, in which we pooled our respective larders and came up with barbecued steaks, Harry kept us amused eating old razor blades, doing a variety of conjuring tricks, and in the interim acting as a most energetic stoker. Our modest campfire reached enormous proportions and would have done credit to any November Fifth. Harry was still working feverishly-and probably unnecessarily-on the underside of the Hillman when the rest of us, rolled in our sleeping-bags, could not keep our eyes open a moment longer.

I awoke early the next morning to the accompaniment of a frightened chorus of goat bleats, and I raised my head in time to see Harry haring past about a hundred yards off in hot pursuit of a nanny-goat, with a mug in one hand and clutching his shorts in the other. The pair disappeared in the long spinifex and I knew we would have fresh milk for breakfast.

At seven o'clock, with breakfast eaten and goodbyes said, we found ourselves alone again with the bush and the wide blue sky. Two hundred miles to the next dot of habitation, Frewena.

Later that same morning we crossed the border beneath a rusty bullet-riddled signboard. At last we were in the Northern Territory.

Ahead, straw-coloured plains of waving spinifex, devoid of all visible life, heralded our entry into the northernmost state of the vast Australian continent. The country was desolate, parched, almost painfully silent. But it wasn't unfriendly. The tarmac thread gave us a sense of security. It was impossible to lose our way, so we were able to enjoy the experience of driving across the wilderness without actually being in contact with it. Nita felt it was a civilized way of crossing an uncivilized terrain.

For all that, though, the last lap to Darwin was no joy-ride. The heat became intense as the miles mounted and the sparking-plug demanded attention every twenty miles or so. The front tyre, too, was wearing very rapidly since the addition of the sidecar, and I began to be afraid that it would not last the distance.

Hot, dust-covered, and parched, we reached Frewena at sundown. It was one solitary shack at the side of the road.

Frewena was run by a bearded giant named Arthur. Laconic, with a dry sense of humour, he blended beautifully with the immense surroundings. Clad only in shorts and sandals, he ambled out from the cool veranda to inspect the latest arrival at his staging post. In no hurry to open the conversation, he stood about three paces off and surveyed us and our diminutive outfit, rolling a cigarette unhurriedly and taking us in with a steady glance.

'Good day,' I said.

He nodded.

'I'd like to get hold of a loaf if you can spare it,' I said.

'Clean out of bread, sport. But you'll more'n likely get some at the store.' He broke his silence with seeming reluctance.

'Good,' I said, 'and where's the store?' I glanced round at the uninterrupted horizon on every side.

'Aw, she's about a hundred miles up the road.'

Nita and I looked at each other blankly.

'Let you have some flour for damper though, if you like.' We heaved a sigh of relief and eased our aching bodies from the machine.

'We'll take the flour and a couple of iced beers,' said Nita, parched of throat and momentarily casting economy to the winds. I did nothing to dissuade her from indulging in such luxury. Bottles of iced beer in the middle of the Northern Territory are almost impossible to resist.

While we sat luxuriating in the cool store-cum-rest-house, with the glasses in our hands, the storekeeper thawed rapidly.

'Name's Arthur. You gonna stop here the night?'

I said that two hundred miles in one day had been enough for us.

'By God,' said Arthur with feeling, 'I reckon you're a couple of heroes.'

We were stiff, certainly, but not unduly so. We had certainly become tougher since those far-off days in France and Germany, when sixty miles per day was an absolute maximum.

'We think you're something of a hero yourself,' said I. 'Don't you get desperately lonely here at times?'

'Sometimes,' replied our host. 'But when I find myself talking too much to the dog or that pet galah of mine, then I take a run into Tennant Creek to sort of rehabilitate myself. After a few days among those beer-swillin' friends of mine, I'm glad to get back for a rest. 'Course, it's pretty lonely when the wet sets in further up north, then the road's pretty well deserted and I don't see a soul for weeks on end. Gets pretty boring then.'

'But you wouldn't swop places, for all that?'


We set up camp about a hundred yards from the shack and after eating a very good supper (considering our breadless condition) just spread the sleeping-bags and slept like logs until sunrise.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Mount Isa to Darwin (Chapter 12 - Mount Isa and onward)

On the Monday morning I started with the Queensland Railway as Trainee Shunter, and after three days was pronounced fully fledged and put on to shift work.

At the end of ten days I was just beginning to grasp what it was all about. And that first fortnight was the toughest I had ever experienced. For eight hours a day I ran like a scalded cat up and down those dust-choked marshalling yards chasing runaway F wagons, switching Kangaroo points, clinging desperately to a speeding engine as we whooshed round 'the balloon', making up 'strings of hoppers', frantically swapping 'D links' and generally trying to follow, in a dazed, sweat-soaked manner, the mysterious and utterly bewildering 'railway game'.

By the end of the first month I became reasonably efficient. That is, I could jump on or off the speeding engine with a sure foot; I could wrestle with the handbrake on a runaway fly-shunted wagon full of copper ingots from the mine, and apply the wretched thing before the truck smashed into the back of a made-up train; I could jump off the engine and race the iron brute to the points and switch them before the twenty tons of metal thundered past. And I mastered the delicate art of 'catching on'.

In England, I believe, the shunter uses a long pole to 'catch on'. This is simply the operation of linking a stationary wagon to a moving one. In Queensland they scorn all mechanical aids for this process, preferring to do it by hand. I sweated a good deal before
I perfected the operation-and it wasn't all from exertion.

The method is to lean the body across the buffer of the stationary wagon, catch hold of the steel link (which weighs about half a hundredweight) and start the thing moving, pendulum fashion. The engine fly-shunts the next wagon and this free-running monster comes charging down the track towards the standing wagon.

The object is to swing the link and drop it on the spike of the approaching wagon at the precise moment when the impact compresses the two buffers close enough for the link to stretch over both hooks. If the chance is missed, the stationary wagon goes hurtling down the line, a lot of time is lost, and the engine driver gives vent to his annoyance in no uncertain terms. So, if possible, one does not miss. But it takes a day or two before one can overcome the almost irresistible urge to jump clear at the last moment, for if the buffer were to break while the body was stretched across. . . But one thinks only of making a clean connection.

The shunters are the elite of the rail yards. We (after a month I passed my unofficial test with the rest of the team) worked a shorter shift than anyone else, for it was undoubtedly a most strenuous job, holding a strong element of danger and requiring quickness of hand and eye and the agility of an acrobat. Our trade-mark was the horsehide gloves with which we 'caught on', and when the shift was over we would walk into the porter's office, proud of our grease-blackened forearms and wringing wet shirts which clung damply to our backs. We were paid sixpence an hour more than the rest.

While I helped make up the long trains of copper ingots which left Mount Isa every day, Nita was tackling the equally strenuous if not harder job of cooking for the hungry patrons at Boyd's Hotel. She started at six in the morning, finished at two p.m., then went back at four o'clock until eight in the evening. Here was no genteel dainty cooking for a select few, for it meant preparing huge steaks, joints, and gigantic puddings for ravenous Queenslanders who (despite the climate) liked their roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. She cooked on a colossal scale in kitchens equipped with six huge coke-burning ovens. Add the heat of these to the outside temperature of a hundred in the shade and it gives some idea of the stamina required. Although only five feet two of slender femininity, my wife is strong and tenacious. She must be, for I could barely stand the tremendous heat of those kitchens for the five minutes' wait each evening when her day was over.

We saw very little of each other during the next three months. When we did, it was to smile a weary greeting and collapse on to our beds to sleep like the dead before starting the next stint. We worked every day of each week, Sundays included, accepted all the overtime that came our way, and rarely was our working day shorter than eleven hours. We spent nothing, other than the chalet bill. Nita ate her free meals at the hotel, but missed one in three (two meals a day being ample in that climate) and gave it to me; it was more than enough to keep me going for the following twenty-four hours. And our money mounted.

At the end of the third month I had my boots soled and heeled for the third time, and Nita washed her apron for the hundredth. We took stock of our position. We were both very fit, a bit on the lean side perhaps, but healthily skinny; our purse was now bulging with two hundred pounds and our feet were feeling itchy with the call of the north again. After three months, however, there was still no scooter.

So another battle to regain possession of our transport began. Telegrams to Townsville, Sydney, Germany. Negative replies and excuses came back in quick time. The variety of reasons which were advanced for our not having the Prima after a three months' wait were quite astonishing. So we battled through the medium of the Post Office, worked like Trojans at our jobs, and waited.

With the coming of July, winter came to Mount Isa and we found it necessary to wear pullovers during the early morning. On one never-to-be-forgotten Saturday it rained. The heavens opened and in two minutes the whole area was flooded. With no provision against cold (a fireplace being a rarity) everyone went to bed and lay huddled and miserable under blankets during the two-day deluge. Nita and I loved it. We took our sleeping-bags out of the valise and lay with our faces in the crisp, strange night air, for once able to gaze at the dark sky through the open window without having it filtered by a mosquito-net.

So to the beginning of August, and one magic morning our scooter reappeared. The rear end positively gleamed with new parts. The last lap to Darwin was going to be a piece of cake.

The arrival of the Prima completely upset our routine. After four months in Mount Isa it was extremely difficult to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we were on an expedition. I almost felt we had grown up with the place. Also the joint wages we were getting made us reluctant to put an end to our security. But the lure of the road soon outweighed the monetary advantages. We spent a week overhauling our gear, getting in supplies to take with us, and handing in our respective notices. Then, with the comforting sum of two hundred and fifty pounds in Nita's purse, we said our goodbyes to all the friends we had made and started for the Northern Territory.

We had traversed six hundred miles of the bush by train, now there lay ahead a thousand-odd miles to Darwin to be tackled under our own steam. It is not until one travels leisurely in the north of Australia that one realizes the immense loneliness of the bush. We now faced hundreds of miles across spinifex and mulga country, relieved here and there by the odd ghost gum and tiny outback settlements. Looking at the map, the places named give the impression of townships or at least hamlets. But most of these names symbolize nothing more than a spring of water pumped by a windmill, a stack of petrol drums for the odd traveller, and a general store carrying everything from harnesses to Coca-Cola.

On the outskirts of Mount Isa there was a rickety signpost pointing a weather-beaten finger towards Camoweal, 100 miles. The black strip of bitumen, glistening under the fierce sun, stretched straight as a die into infinity. Early one Sunday morning, we swept past the signpost for the last time. I had passed it every day on my way to work and I often used to think what a glorious moment it would be when the beckoning finger was behind us for the last time. When it actually came, however, the moment fell rather flat; we were leaving behind some good friends and an excellent joint income. The tall, silver stack of the mine chimney was belching smoke exactly as it had done on the morning of our arrival: Mount Isa may have had a shifting population, but there was never a break in the extracting of the precious metals from the bowels of the earth. We settled down to cover the hundred barren miles to Camoweal.