Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - Mount Isa)

On the station itself, which was merely a space cleared at the side of the line, with a dilapidated wooden building serving as station offices, were a few men strolling about, dressed mainly in shorts and sandals. It transpired that they were the town's shopkeepers, waiting for the train which was bringing the next week's supply of goods, from foodstuff to newspapers.

Nita and I jumped down to the dusty ground, hauled our gear after us, and made our way to the shade of the station. Our bank balance suddenly seemed very small and I was bent on immediate action in order to remedy our sad financial state. While Nita guarded the baggage I set off to walk to the mine offices, which lay near the railway, just a stone's throw from the enormous, glittering silver chimney which belched smoke night and day and was the trade-mark and landmark of Mount .Isa.

'Ever worked in a mine before, mate?' asked the bush-shirted clerk behind a tall counter.

I had to say no, but I volunteered the information that I would no doubt be a valuable asset to any mechanical device which might lie within the mine. (How I envied that clerk his safe job behind the counter, with his wages assured and his peace of mind untouched by worries such as mine!) At that moment I wanted to be employed more than anything else in the world. I swore a mental oath to work like a slave if I found a job, and not to stir an inch this time until we had plenty of money to complete our travels in comparative comfort.

'Well, I'm sorry mate, but there's nothing just at the moment.

Leave your name and address with me and if there's a vacancy within the next week or two, I'll let you know.'

'The next week or two!' I hid my disappointment and said to the young man who seemed genuinely sorry about it, 'Do you know that ever since we landed in Australia, from Adelaide to Brisbane, we've heard the most glowing reports about this place-about the mine crying out for men and paying them enormous wages? In fact the place is legendary everywhere but here.'

'Well, it was, a couple of years ago,' replied the man with the job, 'but things have gotten tougher in the last twelve months or so. As a matter of fact we've been laying men off this last few weeks. The demand for lead and copper has fallen in the world markets apparently, and of course it has affected us here with a vengeance. Even the lead bonus is down to ten pounds a fortnight.'

'What was it before?' I asked morosely.

'Fifteen a fortnight, cobber, on top of wages and all the overtime. You should have been here a year or so back,' his face grew very wistful. 'Still, even today it's not a bad little number if you can get on it. Anyway, I'll let you know if an opening crops up.' That was the death knell of any aspirations I might have had regarding Mount Isa Mine.

Back at the station, Nita greeted me with a prophetic 'They don't want you?' I nodded, crestfallen, but thinking hard about the next move.

'While you were over there, I've been talking to a porter,' said my wife. 'He thinks there might be an opening for a shunter right here on the railway.'

'What's the good of that?' I grumbled hopelessly. 'I don't know the back of a train from the front. Only those three days of barrow-pushing on Townsville station.'

My wife said nothing, and merely glanced at the sun-peeled brown door marked Stationmaster. I shrugged, and ambled towards it. There was nothing to lose. . . .

'Course, it's fortunate you've worked on the Queensland Railway before, even if it was only for three days,' said the tall, grizzled man with the Sherlock Holmes pipe. 'It'll make things much easier. I'll send a wire today and with any luck we'll get a reply back tomorrow and you can start Monday.' I nodded eagerly and tried desperately to look like an ace shunter.

'Did you have a medical in Townsville'


'Pass O.K.?'


'Right, then it's just a matter of confirmation really. You'll get three days' training, then we'll put you on one of the shifts. It's hard work but lively. You'll soon get used to it.'

I walked out of the cool office into the hard sunlight. As I started back along the dusty platform, the porter who had been talking to Nita stopped me.

'Did you get it?'

'Yes,' I said, 'the old boy must have been in a generous mood.'

'Generous mood, nothing. He's been trying to get a shunter for the past two months but none of the other blokes'll take it on. Your predecessor was killed on the job just up by the water tower there; slipped on a beer bottle and went straight under the engine.
But you'll be all right so long as you don't try groggin' and shunting at the same time.' He lit a cigarette and strolled off towards the town. 'See yer later.'

Well, the tide of misfortune was starting to recede. So the job was risky? But so is living. The next move was to find some sort of living quarters. There was a camping ground about three miles from the town, and a good-hearted chap offered to give us and our gear a lift to the spot. We loaded up the boot of his car and in two minutes were heading away from the station down the narrow strip of bitumen towards the town and the camping ground. It was just noon when we completed the half-mile from the railway and swept into the main street of the township.

The shifting population of any boom town work hard and play hard. Mount Isa was no exception. After a five-day week, Saturday mornings (and mainly the rest of the day) were devoted to shaking off the working atmosphere of the week. And the people did it in style.

The most dominant buildings in the small community were the pubs, three of them. Gargantuan premises with bars almost fifty yards long and all packed to capacity. The hubbub which burst from this beer-dispensing trio came literally in a roar. I had never heard anything like it; nor, I think, has any English publican for a good many years.

The main street was thronged with strollers, most of them men, with only a sprinkling of women. The shopfronts were gay and brightly painted, with the usual canopies offering shade, although in Mount Isa the rear of the business premises jutted directly into the bush. In the hundred yards of main street there were a lot of new cars, chiefly American, and a brand-new Holden was being raffled in front of Boyd's Hotel, the crowd buying tickets at a pound each.

The population of Mount Isa must be among the most cosmopolitan in the world. There were aborigines, dinkum Aussies, Swedes, Germans, Italians, Dutchmen, even Chinese, all chattering in quaint, polyglot English. The temperature was around the hundred mark and a huge dust pall, raised by the cars, hung like a fog above our heads. Half a mile away, the great silver chimney plumed its smoke into the brassy sky, evidence of the Saturday shift toiling five hundred feet below the surface of this, the true Australian bush.

The camping ground was just a dust bowl. So thick was the choking powder that I had to dig down almost a foot before I could find ground firm enough to take our tent pegs. There was not a blade of grass left in this square half-mile of ground, which had deteriorated into a kind of humpy town. There were all manner of makeshift living quarters: huts built of kerosene cans, a few caravans, tents, and many huts-cum-tents-half corrugated-iron, half canvas structures in which some hundreds of people were living.

Accommodation was at a premium in Mount Isa, but still the roving population poured in, most of them emigrants from southern Europe. We had pitched camp in the' initiation ground' as it were. When the newcomer found his feet and progressed a little, he graduated from the dust bowl to something better. I was determined to move out with all haste from this baking, shadeless shanty town.

We placed our things inside the tent, fastened the flaps and set off straight away back along the dusty road to the township. While Nita bought a few items of food (at astounding prices, of course, everything having to be freighted overland from the south), I barged my way through the bar crowds of Boyd's Hotel and nailed Mr Boyd himself, who was pulling beer at a very fast rate.

'Mr Boyd,' I roared, trying desperately to catch his eyes between a check-shirted shoulder and a Stetson.


'Do you want a good barmaid? Inexperienced, but intelligent and very quick?' I watched the sweat trickling off the end of his nose as he continued pulling the beer without looking up.


'Thanks,' I said, 'I just wondered.' I began to back out between the glasses.

'Can she cook?'

I was back in a flash and leaning over the bar with all the temptation I could muster.

'She can cook anything. She specializes in Continental dishes and she. . .'

'Don't want any o' that foreign muck. Jus' good plain English cooking. Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, plum duff, that sort o' thing.'

'She's marvellous with English cooking and she. . .'

'Bring her round tonight. Eight o'clock. Can't stop now.' 'Right, Mr Boyd, eight o'clock it is. And I'll have a beer. . . .'

Nita got the job, starting at six o'clock on the following morning, Sunday, so our jubilation for the rest of that Saturday evening can well be imagined. We were really riding the crest and I decided to push our luck to the nth degree. 'Let's punt round and find some quarters,' I said. 'The lodging position sounds very black, but you never know.'

Nita was game, so we started. We stopped people in the street and asked at the tiny police station and the newly erected fire station: did they know anyone at all who would let a room for a few months? Apparently they didn't. But we kept trying. The pubs had no rooms left at all. We tackled the barmen and people whom the barmen told us to tackle. And somehow nothing could subdue us that evening. I asked an old man who was sitting on a veranda in a cloud of mosquitoes:

'You wouldn't like to let a room for a few months, would you, Pop?'

'Nope. Got three Eyetalians here now.'

'Thanks, anyway.'

'Try Bert Hodges, next bungalow along. He might know something .'

We made our way over the rocky, corrugated track, across a hundred yards of no-man's-land, till we reached the next bungalow. A neon sign was hanging from the porch-' Store'. Bert Hodges was a huge, blond Bavarian with an English vocabulary comprising about two words. He was packed to capacity (everyone let rooms) but his friend Mr Kristoff might be able to help.

Mr Kristoff could help. Regardless of the late hour he was hammering and banging, fitting window panes in a new chalet which he was erecting on his acre of ground. (The noise he was making did not matter in the least, for no one seemed to go to bed in Mount Isa on Saturday nights.) There were already six wooden bungalows in the compound, and lights twinkled in most of them.

Mr Kristoff was another giant of a fellow with a dark, swarthy complexion and a mouthful of steel teeth. His English was on a par with Bert Hodges', but the words he spoke were the right ones.

The chalet would be completed in three days' time and we could move in at eight pounds a fortnight; which was dirt cheap for Mount Isa, even though it was a one-roomed chalet with only two beds and a table.

To Nita and me it was the Dorchester. We paid friend Kristoff four pounds on account and returned, footsore and tired but in the highest of spirits, to our patch of dust in Shanty Town. Our Month of Misery was over.