Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - From Brisbane)

The plan was to continue up the coast as far as Townsville, then turn westwards inland to strike the road that runs from north to south through the centre. The road that would carry us to Darwin. Our first stop, then, would be Townsville, a mere eight hundred miles north of Brisbane.

Our first night stop from Brisbane was just one hundred miles farther on. It seemed a pretty puny effort on the face of things, particularly as the whole hundred miles had been on good bitumen. However, we found a glorious camping spot on the edge of a wood, with a fresh bubbling river which had been half-heartedly dammed for some reason or the other, and which provided a large patch of white clean concrete on which we could spread all our gear, together with the sleeping-bags.

There are always incidents on a trip, or situations which remain evergreen in the memory long after the bulk of the journey has been forgotten. And that first night out of Brisbane was perfect. For one thing we were still clean, with all our clothes neatly pressed and ironed; and the scooter was giving me no worry. We were both fresh in body and mind, stimulated by our Brisbane interlude, and our conversation was mainly a post-mortem on the Queensland capital. To blend with this contentment was the warm, balmy, tropical night-beautiful-with a huge full moon and a cloudless, starry sky, velvet and friendly over our heads.

Toughened by our ceaseless travelling, we scorned the tent (as we did for the rest of the trip unless there was heavy rain), considering it almost profane to shut out the beauty of the night sky. Our camp-fire crackled merrily, giving off the fragrant aroma of burning gum leaves and billy-brewed tea. And for once the beam from our headlight, which was focused on our supper activities, was free from the myriad insects which usually converged directly I switched it on.

But that perfect spot offered something more. The river was teeming with flathead, those succulent fish that are sought after with rod and line every week-end by a million Australians. I caught three huge, healthy specimens in as many minutes with the gut line and hook which had been carried hopefully and, until that night, unsuccessfully among our belongings.

Nita discarded the tin of bully-beef and was kept frantically busy frying, to keep pace with my catching, scaling, and gutting. We ate royally. Four huge fishes apiece and as many billycansful of tea. Replete and supremely content, we lay for a long time on top of the sleeping-bags, savouring the glowing warmth of the fIre and the beauty of the night.

Just after midnight, when we were drowsily contemplating the exertion of getting into our sleeping-bags, the silence of the bush was shattered by the approach of an unsilenced pick-up truck – a 10 cwt. open-backed vehicle which is one of the most popular forms of transport in the open country-referred to as a 'utility' or, more commonly, a 'ute', which careered down the dusty approach lane, stopped by the weir and deposited a young husband and wife and a brood of jean- and T -shirted offspring. .

We watched-as yet unnoticed-while father skinned a rabbit and dissected it for bait in the glare of his headlamps, and the rest of the large family prepared the lines for what was obviously going to be an all-night fishing session. When preparations were completed and the group stood solemnly in line, each peering intently at the dark, shadowy water, we strolled across and bade these nocturnal sports good evening.

'Good night,' said the husband cheerfully, evincing, with typical Australian mien, no surprise at our sudden appearance. 'How you goin'?' By now used to Australiana with its rare use of the English' good evening' and automatic enquiry about the state of one's well-being, I replied in kind: 'Good, thanks.'

We talked for a few moments about fishing and the fun of night-angling, while the kids-pert and lively without being precocious-were laying bets on who would make the first catch.

'You're English, ain't you?' asked father.

'Yes,' I replied. 'But don't hold it against me.'

'Why should I? So's she.' He nodded in the direction of his wife. The wife, in her middle twenties, slim, fresh-complexioned, and dressed in jeans and sweater, introduced herself in a quaint Yorkshire accent. She looked far too young and petite in the moonlight to have mothered such a large and energetic brood. Nita said in surprised admiration:

'Are they all yours?'

'Good Lord, no,' the girl answered. 'Only four of 'em are mine. The two others are our neighbour's kids.' The humour was unintentional; four children are commonplace in Australian families, and six, or even eight, create no surprise.

The fish were beginning to bite and the catch on the bank was taking on an impressive size. The husband and I talked about Australia and Queensland, while the women chatted reminiscently about England. After about an hour the husband laid down his line. 'Time for smoko, Mary, I'm parched.'

We sat round their camp-fire, drinking the billy-tea while the children swarmed over our scooter outfit, and mispronounced the list of names written on the side until the four of us were rocking with laughter.

'Y'know,' said the Aussie, 'you're the first two Poms I've met in a long time who really speak English I can understand.' This was not the first time we had heard this remarked upon, and I was interested to find out why.

'Well,' said the husband. 'Most of you people pronounce words like my wife used to when I first met her down in Melbourne. Y'know, "reet" instead of right; "coop" and not cup; that sort of thing. And when they're talking quickly I can't understand 'em at all, dinkum.', And you mean that every Englishman you've met had a Yorkshire accent?' I asked.

'Oh, I wouldn't say they were all Yorkshire,' said our friend, with a furrowed brow, 'but most have got a burr or a brogue of some sort. Of course, some's worse than others, but you're the first couple I've met who don't have me straining to catch what you're sayin'. Course, even you say "charnce" instead of chance; still, your English is pretty good," he concluded with a twinkle.

Can this mean that there is more migration from the provinces than from the London area? Judging by the number of our own countrymen whom we met in our Australian travels this would seem to be the case. A man from Halifax, Jarrow, or Swansea is more likely to adopt Australia as a new home than his compatriot living in the suburbs of London. Perhaps the Londoner is less adventurous than his provincial brother. Or do Londoners lead a fuller and more satisfying life?

Despite the ribbing of each other's accents, the young couple seemed to be a perfect blend of northern and southern Anglo-Saxons. This was reflected in the children, who possessed the easy-going, devil-may-care attitude of the Aussie together with the shrewd, cool-blooded temperament of the canny Yorkshireman. These were no crazy, mixed-up, hypersensitive kids!

I asked the wife if she ever yearned to return home to England, and got a very emphatic no for an answer. She said that at first she would have given anything to return home to the familiar world of her childhood; but after five years in a sub-tropical climate among people who became increasingly friendly, without most of our worries about international tensions, in their own house (built by themselves on their own land without any petty restrictions), plus all the little things-like being able to fish in the middle of a warm night anywhere she cared to toss her line-how could she go back to a world of concrete and grey skies? She would like to visit, of course, if they ever saved enough money. 'But,' she said, as her ruddy, sun-bronzed arm lifted the billy for the sixth time, 'I'm a Queenslander from now till the day I die.' Which indeed this one-time Yorkshire lass was.