Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - To Mount Isa)

At six o'clock in the morning, Townsville looked bright, colourful, and full of promise. It had, for me, an atmosphere of mixed attraction. There were the tropical palms and exotic flowers; colourful bungalows, modern and airy; main-street shops that were a mixture of Oxford Street and the village store; traffic that was driven with a Continental gay abandon, and a railway station that was solid and solemnly British. Overlooking this lively little port a solitary hill-rather like that outside Brisbane-dominated the skyline, and from the top we gained a superb bird's-eye view of the township. As we looked down on the shining corrugated roofs, like dolls' houses, I felt very confident that we should be riding forth again soon; which was optimistic but sadly inaccurate.

The agents who ran a thriving motor-cycle and scooter business opened at eight o'clock, and at first things looked very bright. We were introduced to Mr Page, the owner, who wore the regulation Townsville business dress of short-sleeved white shirt, blue drill shorts, and white knee-length socks. He had our broken transport picked up from the railway station and while we were waiting for its arrival we were offered iced drinks and shower facilities. There was an air of competence about the workshops and Mr Page's appraisal of the damage to our scooter. Nita and I, in a jovial mood, resigned ourselves to a brief stay.

But by five o'clock that evening it was clear that events were not quite going to plan. The rear hub was in a worse mess than had been anticipated. This time the alloy casing itself had been holed, the spline had bent, and one of the bearings had seized solidly upon it. However, they wouldn't give up without trying to find suitable replacements, and in the meantime we were driven out to a nearby camping ground, together with our sidecar full of belongings, to set up camp until repairs could be made. In two or three days they would manage to fix it somehow.

For the next fortnight our home was in Townsville's caravan park. A pleasant spot, with shady trees and brick-built shower baths; there was even an ironing room. We could buy our supplies at an adjacent store and the sea was only fifty yards away across the road. We met a number of interesting people who usually stopped for only a night or two, most of whom towed caravans, although second favourite was the utility with sleeping arrangements at the back of the driving seats. It was restful and relaxing, but we were getting nowhere. .

Each day I walked the five miles into town to find out how the work on our transport was progressing. It wasn't. Several, indeed many, ingenious theories were put into practice-including a half-hearted attempt to weld the casing-which of course proved a dismal failure. But no one could say the Page emporium did not try. It was a repetition of the old story: the broken rear hub was impossible to repair.

Therefore the next move was a cable to Sydney, to our old friend Jack Crawford: 'Send air express complete new rear end unit for Prima.' Somehow the message .became garbled over the two thousand-odd miles, for the reply which came three days later said, in effect, 'What did you say?' I controlled my exasperation and we tried again.

All this procedure of course consumed the days alarmingly, and there was the question of our fast-dwindling cash. I scrutinized the local paper for casual work but Townsville, like the rest of Australia, was feeling the beginning of the 'slight recession'. There was precious little demand for labour, except on the railways, whose yearly losses would not be greatly affected by the employment of casual porters. I blessed the State-run White Elephant, and for the next week pushed a trolley up and down a long platform in company with about fifty other men. Sometimes we really did work, unloading vans full of foodstuff and supplies from the south. At other times, when things were slack (more often than not), we trundled slowly from the train to the loading bay carrying nothing more bulky than one packet of soap-flakes, or a small roll of magazines. No one laughed, or thought it ludicrous. So long as there was activity, all was well.

I stuck this for a week. Never have hours dragged so wearily. The eight-hour day stretched into eternity and by the evening I was exhausted playing at this mockery of labour. We had reached the stage, however, when there was a real necessity for another working spell.

Nita tried very hard to find a job in the town, but most of the businesses were family concerns and tightly sewed up so far as staff were concerned. The only vacancies were for barmaids (experienced) to man the innumerable pubs which the town boasted.

We hadn't budgeted for another breakdown and the purse now held only twenty-five pounds. Jack Crawford had finally got the gist of our telegraphic message and replied with the depressing news that he was clean out of stock and had wired to Germany to get another unit flown out from the factory. It was going to be a long business.

There was a young married couple who stayed for two nights in the caravan park. They towed their van with an Austin A.go and converted it during the working day into a gown shop. Their customers were the shop-starved women of the outback stations, who apparently fell hungrily on them wherever they went. They had been in the far north for two months and Ron (the husband) painted a glowing picture of Mount Isa, the mining boom town in central Queensland. It was as hot as hell, a mushroom town of choking dust and a shifting population, but it was rich in lead and copper and labour was wanted. If we could put up with the dust and discomfort, we could save a tidy nest-egg in a short time.

As far south as Brisbane we had heard whispers of the fabulous Mount Isa, where the lead bonus was as high as fifteen pounds a week, in addition to the regular wages; where the pub customers never asked for change, and where a man could save a thousand pounds in a startlingly short time. This latest first-hand account, coupled with Nita's inability to find a job (and my own time being wasted with a porter's barrow), decided our next move. We returned the sidecar to Page's, packed a few essentials into the valise, and with an arrangement that the scooter would be sent on by rail when it was mobile again, paid the railway ten of our precious notes and boarded the train to make the two days and nights' trek inland to Mount Isa.

Rapidly the fertile coastal belt fell away behind us and the tiny engine, pulling the three carriages, settled down to the six-hundred-mile journey westwards, towards the parched interior. Nita and I had the carriage to ourselves and we pulled down the sun-blinds to keep out the worst of the blazing sun, relaxed on our respective seats, crossed our fingers, and hoped our decision had been a wise one. We had ten pounds left and would know not a soul at our destination.

Up to this time, all our travel in Australia had been confined to the coastal belt, spacious country true enough, but a land of trees and rainfall with the waters of the sea never far distant. Now, along the twin ribbons of glittering steel rails, we chugged in a straight line over vast, uninhabited plains and prairies towards the centre of the continent-the 'Dead Heart'.

The air became noticeably drier and a hot wind fanned through the little steel train until we found ourselves almost gasping for air. I supposed we would become acclimatized in a few days. I filled the glass water bottle which the railway supplied at one of the little whistle-stops-a spark of humanity in the middle of a seemingly dead planet. The sky was no longer blue, but brassy, metallic, reflecting the scorched straw colour of the flat world on every side.

Mile after mile the landscape remained unaltered. Spinifex and mulga, stunted grey-green clumps that grew no higher than a man's knee. A tree was an event. We came to regard our little carriage as a haven from a hostile world. It was comforting to look round the man-made box which moved on through a sea of parched desolation. The temperature rose steadily as we ploughed on through the second hot night, and as we tried to sleep away the second period of darkness in the cramped carriage I hoped desperately that St. Nicholas was going to smile on us on the morrow. This time we had really burned our boats.

On the strength of a few rumours and glamourized hearsay we had started on what could easily be a wild-goose chase, transport-less and with only ten pounds in our pockets. There was one bright spot in this somewhat doubtful business, we should be at least six hundred miles nearer to our aborigines. I told Nita this, but at that moment she wasn't very enthusiastic.

It was a blistering Saturday morning when the train pulled up the last gradient between the scorched sandstone hills and rattled along the straight into the railhead and township of Mount Isa. Through the dust-coated windows we could see rows of hastily erected bungalows: most of them looked sun-baked and temporary. There were a few more permanent buildings, but for the most part the place generated a pioneering atmosphere, with big pay packets as the sole reason for its existence.