Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mount Isa to Darwin (Chapter 12 - To Frewena)

There must be few areas in the world where one can drive along a good-surfaced road all day long without meeting anyone. In fact, I cannot remember ever having done so. One expects and, indeed, provides for lonely travel over bush tracks, but to have a perfectly good tarmacadam road stretching for hundreds of miles all to oneself is rather disconcerting. And that is how it was for hour after hour. No sign of another human being; no sound (save that of the buzz of the scooter), and no habitation. A hundred miles of scorched Australian bush; the only evidence of man to disturb the tranquillity of this 'Dead Heart' country being the black ribbon of the War Road.

Suddenly, just before dusk, we were in Camoweal. A dip in the barren hills, up over a rise and there it was-a row of low, sprawling, wooden shacks on either side of a main street which must have been nearly a hundred yards wide. The line of shacks continued for a quarter of a mile, then ended abruptly as the bush began once again. There was not a soul to be seen in this township-the last in Queensland-it was almost a ghost town. There were one or two small signs of life. A prowling dog, a flock of bleating goats, but of humanity, nothing. We drove through the 'High Street' and pitched camp at the far end adjacent to the town's water supply which ran in a thin trickle along the near-dry bed of a creek. Save for silent, deserted-looking shacks behind us, we might almost have been in virgin country.

Just before dark, the night of solitude to which we had resigned ourselves was broken by the approach of a travel-stained and somewhat battered Hillman Minx. The occupants (a couple of men) looked hard at our unorthodox transport as they passed, stopped a little way up the road-apparently deciding to investigate further-reversed and came back. We had company for the night.

Ross and Harry (no one bothers with surnames in the bush) were travelling the outback, selling lingerie to the station housewives. They were doing very well, too, with their latest' Paris creations', which apparently proved irresistible to women who spent most of their lives in jeans and check shirts. These brawny characters, lustily pulling up tree roots to feed the camp-fire, resembled lumberjacks rather than underwear specialists. Harry, bouncing and effervescent, whirled about performing a one-man mannequin show, looking utterly incongruous as he held a scarlet dress in front of his bearded face and hid his own clothing of dust-covered khaki bush-shirt and shorts.

Ross, the quieter of the two, just sat, smiling faintly, while Nita and I laughed uproariously at the burlesque. Ross had obviously seen the display many times before. I should imagine that Harry was an extremely good salesman, being one of those unpredictable people who go through life fully wound, and to whom even a moment of tranquillity is a torment.

After an excellent meal, in which we pooled our respective larders and came up with barbecued steaks, Harry kept us amused eating old razor blades, doing a variety of conjuring tricks, and in the interim acting as a most energetic stoker. Our modest campfire reached enormous proportions and would have done credit to any November Fifth. Harry was still working feverishly-and probably unnecessarily-on the underside of the Hillman when the rest of us, rolled in our sleeping-bags, could not keep our eyes open a moment longer.

I awoke early the next morning to the accompaniment of a frightened chorus of goat bleats, and I raised my head in time to see Harry haring past about a hundred yards off in hot pursuit of a nanny-goat, with a mug in one hand and clutching his shorts in the other. The pair disappeared in the long spinifex and I knew we would have fresh milk for breakfast.

At seven o'clock, with breakfast eaten and goodbyes said, we found ourselves alone again with the bush and the wide blue sky. Two hundred miles to the next dot of habitation, Frewena.

Later that same morning we crossed the border beneath a rusty bullet-riddled signboard. At last we were in the Northern Territory.

Ahead, straw-coloured plains of waving spinifex, devoid of all visible life, heralded our entry into the northernmost state of the vast Australian continent. The country was desolate, parched, almost painfully silent. But it wasn't unfriendly. The tarmac thread gave us a sense of security. It was impossible to lose our way, so we were able to enjoy the experience of driving across the wilderness without actually being in contact with it. Nita felt it was a civilized way of crossing an uncivilized terrain.

For all that, though, the last lap to Darwin was no joy-ride. The heat became intense as the miles mounted and the sparking-plug demanded attention every twenty miles or so. The front tyre, too, was wearing very rapidly since the addition of the sidecar, and I began to be afraid that it would not last the distance.

Hot, dust-covered, and parched, we reached Frewena at sundown. It was one solitary shack at the side of the road.

Frewena was run by a bearded giant named Arthur. Laconic, with a dry sense of humour, he blended beautifully with the immense surroundings. Clad only in shorts and sandals, he ambled out from the cool veranda to inspect the latest arrival at his staging post. In no hurry to open the conversation, he stood about three paces off and surveyed us and our diminutive outfit, rolling a cigarette unhurriedly and taking us in with a steady glance.

'Good day,' I said.

He nodded.

'I'd like to get hold of a loaf if you can spare it,' I said.

'Clean out of bread, sport. But you'll more'n likely get some at the store.' He broke his silence with seeming reluctance.

'Good,' I said, 'and where's the store?' I glanced round at the uninterrupted horizon on every side.

'Aw, she's about a hundred miles up the road.'

Nita and I looked at each other blankly.

'Let you have some flour for damper though, if you like.' We heaved a sigh of relief and eased our aching bodies from the machine.

'We'll take the flour and a couple of iced beers,' said Nita, parched of throat and momentarily casting economy to the winds. I did nothing to dissuade her from indulging in such luxury. Bottles of iced beer in the middle of the Northern Territory are almost impossible to resist.

While we sat luxuriating in the cool store-cum-rest-house, with the glasses in our hands, the storekeeper thawed rapidly.

'Name's Arthur. You gonna stop here the night?'

I said that two hundred miles in one day had been enough for us.

'By God,' said Arthur with feeling, 'I reckon you're a couple of heroes.'

We were stiff, certainly, but not unduly so. We had certainly become tougher since those far-off days in France and Germany, when sixty miles per day was an absolute maximum.

'We think you're something of a hero yourself,' said I. 'Don't you get desperately lonely here at times?'

'Sometimes,' replied our host. 'But when I find myself talking too much to the dog or that pet galah of mine, then I take a run into Tennant Creek to sort of rehabilitate myself. After a few days among those beer-swillin' friends of mine, I'm glad to get back for a rest. 'Course, it's pretty lonely when the wet sets in further up north, then the road's pretty well deserted and I don't see a soul for weeks on end. Gets pretty boring then.'

'But you wouldn't swop places, for all that?'


We set up camp about a hundred yards from the shack and after eating a very good supper (considering our breadless condition) just spread the sleeping-bags and slept like logs until sunrise.