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.