Sunday, 8 June 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - Towards Townsville)

On the second day out of Brisbane, the tarmac to all intents and purposes ended. There were one or two half-hearted stretches of pitted bitumen, but they were full of craters and petered out after a few miles.

Seven hundred miles to Townsville and most of it on the rough. We lashed the equipment down more securely, put a few more pounds pressure into the tyres and settled down (if one can call it that) to a very bumpy interlude. There was no longer a comforting traffic stream passing busily either way, no petrol stations every few miles, and the townships began to string out until it was almost an event to pass through one.

Maryborough: with a main street so wide that driving down the middle we could barely see the tin roofs on either side of us in the shimmering midday heat. At every stop now, we found ourselves beating the thick alkali dust from our clothing-quite like old times.

But if the route was rugged, the scenery was beautiful. Majestic gum forests, blue mountains, rolling hills and valleys; all of it sparkling in the bright air; one of Australia's finest coastlines. We camped among the gums, entirely alone, just whenever we felt tired. Sometimes we drove all night, or part of the night, sleeping during the heat of the day, or vice versa, depending on our mood. At night the bush was peaceful and fascinating, and at last we began to feel something of the mystery of this timeless continent, where man is but a newcomer. For the first time we watched a timid wallaby, and saw it as the strange marsupial it really is. And watching the wallaby and conjecturing on its unique anatomy I thought of the platypus, the koala, and the wombat, which must have roamed this vast, silent continent in thousands, together with other creatures a million years extinct, about which man has but a glimmering of knowledge.

As we progressed farther north, through Bundaberg sugar-cane country where dark-skinned Italian migrants toiled like beavers cutting the cane amid the choking ashes of the clearing fires, we became more and more aware of the great silence-a silence almost tangible, especially during the middle of the day. To shout would be a profanity. Perhaps that is why the true Australian is considered to be taciturn-never chatting-speaking only when there is something of import to say.

We arrived in Rockhampton after a night of gruelling driving over tracks which tossed us about like a cork at sea and ripped our rear tyre into shreds on jagged rocks. It was absolutely necessary to get hold of a replacement tyre and tube. Rockhampton, a large community by North Queensland standards, with the status of a city, is the half-way point between Brisbane and Townsville: it must be one of the few cities in the world that has a main-line railway running up the centre of one of the main streets.

Here, in this sleepy easy-going place which gives the traveller the impression that the rest of the world has somehow passed it by, we met one of the nicest couples on the whole of our continental journey: Vivian and Joan. Viv, as everyone called him (abbreviations being the rule in the southern hemisphere), had shown enterprise and courage in opening the city's first scooter centre. In Sydney or Melbourne he could not have put a foot wrong commercially, but in Rockhampton I regarded him as something of a hero, for scooters appeared to be about as popular there as roller-skates in Torquay. But he was a typical Aussie battler, and he was going to convert the populace from push-bikes to scooters, whatever happened.

He and his wife lived in a charming, spacious bungalow up on stilts, in typical Queensland fashion-a home that boasted every labour-saving device and contemporary comfort-with the exception of television. Somehow, in this Queensland town of perpetual summer, the magic box would seem entirely out of place. Our hosts had not lost the art of conversation, and after an excellent dinner of roast duck (shot by Vivian a day previously on the nearby marshes), we sat on the high veranda discussing the merits and demerits of our contrasting home towns. We discovered that each had something to offer the other, although it took us into the small hours to reach this amicable decision: that, whatever else Londoners may have to endure, they are at least free from white ants, but that well-constructed bungalows look awfully ┬Čattractive on stilts.
Two hundred and fifty miles to Mackay. There were a few stations along the track, but in the main it was deserted bush country; hot, dusty, arid.

It was as well we had had a new tyre fitted in Rockhampton, for we needed every ounce of tread between that city arid Darwin. We drove for the whole of the second day without seeing a soul. There was only the track, the dust, and the occasional empty beer bottle lying beside the' highway' -mute evidence of thirsty drivers. Those beer bottles! There must be millions scattered across the continent, tossed with thirst-quenched abandon out of car windows from Darwin to Adelaide and Perth to Brisbane. I am sure that were we to visit the most unfrequented spot in this vast land, a hundred miles from anywhere (and there are plenty like that), before an hour passed the tell-tale glint of the dust-covered brown glass from the centre of a spinifex clump would be seen. All those bottles (terribly dry after roasting for months and years under the fierce sun) tend to aggravate one's own thirst enormously. It is impossible to pass a wayside pub.

Mackay is a pretty little town, built with forethought and imagination. Down the centre of the main street is a line of beautifully kept palm trees which are restfully functional, besides being a pleasant adornment. There is a fine swimming beach-Eimeo-┬Čof which all the inhabitants are rightly proud. Nita and I soaked off two days' dust in the tepid water, luxuriating in the white foam of the breakers, yet keeping a wary eye for the first signs of any curved fish-tails among the waves.

There are a great many casualties every year in Australian coastal waters, despite shark nets, warning bells, and volunteer look-outs. Not only does the sea-tiger take his toll; there are creatures far more sinister than the ravenous shark in the tropical sea off North Queensland: the giant jellyfish man-of-war, the little-known sea-wasp, and a variety of vividly coloured coral snakes. All of these creatures are immensely venomous. While we were lazing on the silver sands and drying ourselves under the sun, a fellow swimmer told us that the previous week a man had been bitten by a sea-wasp while standing in only six inches of water. He had died writhing in agony an hour later, with the doctor powerless to ease his suffering. It seemed ironic that nature at its most beautiful could be fraught with such terrible danger.

Even some of the shells which can be found on the more deserted beaches, delicately tinted and perfectly shaped, begging to be picked up, can inflict a fatal wound on the unwary. However, discounting the hazards (including those magnified out of all proportion by the Aussie, who loves to exaggerate his country's drawbacks), we continued to swim wherever there was water. Anyone who has spent days on end under the blazing north Australian sun without the protection of a car roof will appreciate that this was not foolhardiness-at least not altogether.

Another gruelling stint over a hostile track, thick with bull-dust, and we reached Proserpine. This is an old township with a strong flavour of the Wild West, complete with bat-wing doors on the pubs and, strolling along the main street, a crowd of cattlemen
(ringers), wearing high-heeled ringer boots and wide-brimmed hats.
We filled the sidecar with stores, stopping only long enough to finish the necessary shopping. I did not like Proserpine; it was decrepit and dying. One old fellow we spoke to said that in a few more years it would be nothing more than a ghost town. It was a mining community, with the seams running dry, and was poor and drab; there were no compensations for its unfortunate geographical position which was low-lying and swampy. The area was infested with snakes and pestiferous insects. I dragged Nita away from the store where she was parleying with the shopgirl who had emigrated from St Albans; we filled the fuel tanks and departed.

We drove all that day and most of the night. Now we were back to Middle East road standards. The track fought us like a live thing. Great craters, with a deceptive appearance of smoothness, jarred shatteringly as we broke through the bull-dust to the jagged rocks beneath; our average speed was reduced to something like ten miles an hour.

Just before midnight it rained. No gentle patter this, but a full-blooded tropical storm which lashed us furiously, transformed the dust to quagmire, and had us shivering, when a few moments before we had been sweating profusely. The quivering, bouncing beam from our headlamp pierced the sheets of water, lighting up a path ahead which was, to say the least, discouraging. The track had disappeared and in its place was a murky lake. I pulled up at the edge and dismounted to survey the depth. Saturated to the skin as I was, it made little difference to my comfort to wade in, hoping fervently that this product of the storm would not be more than the scooter could cope with. I waded for fifty yards and discovered that on average it was about a foot deep.

Slowly, keeping the throttle open all the time, we gurgled across the lake. There was nearly half a mile of it which was not surprising, as we were traversing a valley which had rapidly filled from the overflow of rain rushing down the hills on either side of us. Nita had disappeared wisely under the ground-sheet and was visible as a glistening hump of waterproof sheeting, which remained silent and unmoving during the worst of the storm.

The rain passed as quickly as it had arrived and, although it was a wonderful relief to drive again without battling against the icy, stinging lash, there were now other obstacles. Long stretches-anything up to a couple of hundred yards-of gluey mud in which we bogged repeatedly. The only remedy for this was to get off and push, which we did almost continuously for the next two hours, with gradually diminishing enthusiasm. I think there can be few more depressing experiences than pushing a vehicle through patches of mud, soaked to the skin in the middle of the night. . . .

There was, however, worse to come, for that ghastly night heralded what I now look back on as a Month of Misery. This was to be one of those fearful black periods which periodically engulf all expeditions-a month when we caught ourselves thinking frequently that we were a couple of blasted idiots. It took a long time to shake ourselves free from the ill-luck which dogged us.
The bitterest blow fell suddenly about thirty miles from Bowen, a tiny township growing up around an opencast coal mine. Bowen! Who had even heard of the place? Certainly I hadn't. But I'll never forget that 'Sleepy Hollow' as the residents termed it in a self-deprecating manner.

For it was here that the accursed rear wheel gave up the struggle again; only this time there was no warning, no gradual deterioration. As we tore into yet another' jump-up', trying to maintain enough impetus to get out again, the rear end hit the bottom with a sickening thud and that was that. The whole assembly locked solidly, and we were stranded thirty miles from a dot on the map, with a vehicle that was once more utterly useless. In a flash, all our plans for the miles and days ahead evaporated into thin air. We would not be able to reach Townsville for Easter and Nita's birthday; neither would we be in Darwin 'within a couple of weeks' and our money would certainly not now carry us to the capital of the Northern Territory.

We hauled the outfit from the chasm and sat down at the side of the track, almost weeping with anger and frustration. Once again I loathed the scooter, the silent, arid landscape of waving spinifex, the monstrous track, the Australian Government for permitting such primitive motor roads to exist, and-during that mood of hopelessness-myself and everything else. Had there been a possibility of being spirited home to comfort and regulated security, I should have gone immediately.

Wearily we pushed the scooter into the shade of a nearby gum tree, and leaving Nita busily brewing up-her antidote for all adversity-I grunted a dismal farewell and set off to walk along the scorched track stretching into infinity, with Bowen at the end of a thirty-mile tramp.