Sunday, 6 July 2008

Mount Isa to Darwin (Chapter 12 - Mount Isa and onward)

On the Monday morning I started with the Queensland Railway as Trainee Shunter, and after three days was pronounced fully fledged and put on to shift work.

At the end of ten days I was just beginning to grasp what it was all about. And that first fortnight was the toughest I had ever experienced. For eight hours a day I ran like a scalded cat up and down those dust-choked marshalling yards chasing runaway F wagons, switching Kangaroo points, clinging desperately to a speeding engine as we whooshed round 'the balloon', making up 'strings of hoppers', frantically swapping 'D links' and generally trying to follow, in a dazed, sweat-soaked manner, the mysterious and utterly bewildering 'railway game'.

By the end of the first month I became reasonably efficient. That is, I could jump on or off the speeding engine with a sure foot; I could wrestle with the handbrake on a runaway fly-shunted wagon full of copper ingots from the mine, and apply the wretched thing before the truck smashed into the back of a made-up train; I could jump off the engine and race the iron brute to the points and switch them before the twenty tons of metal thundered past. And I mastered the delicate art of 'catching on'.

In England, I believe, the shunter uses a long pole to 'catch on'. This is simply the operation of linking a stationary wagon to a moving one. In Queensland they scorn all mechanical aids for this process, preferring to do it by hand. I sweated a good deal before
I perfected the operation-and it wasn't all from exertion.

The method is to lean the body across the buffer of the stationary wagon, catch hold of the steel link (which weighs about half a hundredweight) and start the thing moving, pendulum fashion. The engine fly-shunts the next wagon and this free-running monster comes charging down the track towards the standing wagon.

The object is to swing the link and drop it on the spike of the approaching wagon at the precise moment when the impact compresses the two buffers close enough for the link to stretch over both hooks. If the chance is missed, the stationary wagon goes hurtling down the line, a lot of time is lost, and the engine driver gives vent to his annoyance in no uncertain terms. So, if possible, one does not miss. But it takes a day or two before one can overcome the almost irresistible urge to jump clear at the last moment, for if the buffer were to break while the body was stretched across. . . But one thinks only of making a clean connection.

The shunters are the elite of the rail yards. We (after a month I passed my unofficial test with the rest of the team) worked a shorter shift than anyone else, for it was undoubtedly a most strenuous job, holding a strong element of danger and requiring quickness of hand and eye and the agility of an acrobat. Our trade-mark was the horsehide gloves with which we 'caught on', and when the shift was over we would walk into the porter's office, proud of our grease-blackened forearms and wringing wet shirts which clung damply to our backs. We were paid sixpence an hour more than the rest.

While I helped make up the long trains of copper ingots which left Mount Isa every day, Nita was tackling the equally strenuous if not harder job of cooking for the hungry patrons at Boyd's Hotel. She started at six in the morning, finished at two p.m., then went back at four o'clock until eight in the evening. Here was no genteel dainty cooking for a select few, for it meant preparing huge steaks, joints, and gigantic puddings for ravenous Queenslanders who (despite the climate) liked their roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. She cooked on a colossal scale in kitchens equipped with six huge coke-burning ovens. Add the heat of these to the outside temperature of a hundred in the shade and it gives some idea of the stamina required. Although only five feet two of slender femininity, my wife is strong and tenacious. She must be, for I could barely stand the tremendous heat of those kitchens for the five minutes' wait each evening when her day was over.

We saw very little of each other during the next three months. When we did, it was to smile a weary greeting and collapse on to our beds to sleep like the dead before starting the next stint. We worked every day of each week, Sundays included, accepted all the overtime that came our way, and rarely was our working day shorter than eleven hours. We spent nothing, other than the chalet bill. Nita ate her free meals at the hotel, but missed one in three (two meals a day being ample in that climate) and gave it to me; it was more than enough to keep me going for the following twenty-four hours. And our money mounted.

At the end of the third month I had my boots soled and heeled for the third time, and Nita washed her apron for the hundredth. We took stock of our position. We were both very fit, a bit on the lean side perhaps, but healthily skinny; our purse was now bulging with two hundred pounds and our feet were feeling itchy with the call of the north again. After three months, however, there was still no scooter.

So another battle to regain possession of our transport began. Telegrams to Townsville, Sydney, Germany. Negative replies and excuses came back in quick time. The variety of reasons which were advanced for our not having the Prima after a three months' wait were quite astonishing. So we battled through the medium of the Post Office, worked like Trojans at our jobs, and waited.

With the coming of July, winter came to Mount Isa and we found it necessary to wear pullovers during the early morning. On one never-to-be-forgotten Saturday it rained. The heavens opened and in two minutes the whole area was flooded. With no provision against cold (a fireplace being a rarity) everyone went to bed and lay huddled and miserable under blankets during the two-day deluge. Nita and I loved it. We took our sleeping-bags out of the valise and lay with our faces in the crisp, strange night air, for once able to gaze at the dark sky through the open window without having it filtered by a mosquito-net.

So to the beginning of August, and one magic morning our scooter reappeared. The rear end positively gleamed with new parts. The last lap to Darwin was going to be a piece of cake.

The arrival of the Prima completely upset our routine. After four months in Mount Isa it was extremely difficult to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we were on an expedition. I almost felt we had grown up with the place. Also the joint wages we were getting made us reluctant to put an end to our security. But the lure of the road soon outweighed the monetary advantages. We spent a week overhauling our gear, getting in supplies to take with us, and handing in our respective notices. Then, with the comforting sum of two hundred and fifty pounds in Nita's purse, we said our goodbyes to all the friends we had made and started for the Northern Territory.

We had traversed six hundred miles of the bush by train, now there lay ahead a thousand-odd miles to Darwin to be tackled under our own steam. It is not until one travels leisurely in the north of Australia that one realizes the immense loneliness of the bush. We now faced hundreds of miles across spinifex and mulga country, relieved here and there by the odd ghost gum and tiny outback settlements. Looking at the map, the places named give the impression of townships or at least hamlets. But most of these names symbolize nothing more than a spring of water pumped by a windmill, a stack of petrol drums for the odd traveller, and a general store carrying everything from harnesses to Coca-Cola.

On the outskirts of Mount Isa there was a rickety signpost pointing a weather-beaten finger towards Camoweal, 100 miles. The black strip of bitumen, glistening under the fierce sun, stretched straight as a die into infinity. Early one Sunday morning, we swept past the signpost for the last time. I had passed it every day on my way to work and I often used to think what a glorious moment it would be when the beckoning finger was behind us for the last time. When it actually came, however, the moment fell rather flat; we were leaving behind some good friends and an excellent joint income. The tall, silver stack of the mine chimney was belching smoke exactly as it had done on the morning of our arrival: Mount Isa may have had a shifting population, but there was never a break in the extracting of the precious metals from the bowels of the earth. We settled down to cover the hundred barren miles to Camoweal.