Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - Mount Isa)

On the station itself, which was merely a space cleared at the side of the line, with a dilapidated wooden building serving as station offices, were a few men strolling about, dressed mainly in shorts and sandals. It transpired that they were the town's shopkeepers, waiting for the train which was bringing the next week's supply of goods, from foodstuff to newspapers.

Nita and I jumped down to the dusty ground, hauled our gear after us, and made our way to the shade of the station. Our bank balance suddenly seemed very small and I was bent on immediate action in order to remedy our sad financial state. While Nita guarded the baggage I set off to walk to the mine offices, which lay near the railway, just a stone's throw from the enormous, glittering silver chimney which belched smoke night and day and was the trade-mark and landmark of Mount .Isa.

'Ever worked in a mine before, mate?' asked the bush-shirted clerk behind a tall counter.

I had to say no, but I volunteered the information that I would no doubt be a valuable asset to any mechanical device which might lie within the mine. (How I envied that clerk his safe job behind the counter, with his wages assured and his peace of mind untouched by worries such as mine!) At that moment I wanted to be employed more than anything else in the world. I swore a mental oath to work like a slave if I found a job, and not to stir an inch this time until we had plenty of money to complete our travels in comparative comfort.

'Well, I'm sorry mate, but there's nothing just at the moment.

Leave your name and address with me and if there's a vacancy within the next week or two, I'll let you know.'

'The next week or two!' I hid my disappointment and said to the young man who seemed genuinely sorry about it, 'Do you know that ever since we landed in Australia, from Adelaide to Brisbane, we've heard the most glowing reports about this place-about the mine crying out for men and paying them enormous wages? In fact the place is legendary everywhere but here.'

'Well, it was, a couple of years ago,' replied the man with the job, 'but things have gotten tougher in the last twelve months or so. As a matter of fact we've been laying men off this last few weeks. The demand for lead and copper has fallen in the world markets apparently, and of course it has affected us here with a vengeance. Even the lead bonus is down to ten pounds a fortnight.'

'What was it before?' I asked morosely.

'Fifteen a fortnight, cobber, on top of wages and all the overtime. You should have been here a year or so back,' his face grew very wistful. 'Still, even today it's not a bad little number if you can get on it. Anyway, I'll let you know if an opening crops up.' That was the death knell of any aspirations I might have had regarding Mount Isa Mine.

Back at the station, Nita greeted me with a prophetic 'They don't want you?' I nodded, crestfallen, but thinking hard about the next move.

'While you were over there, I've been talking to a porter,' said my wife. 'He thinks there might be an opening for a shunter right here on the railway.'

'What's the good of that?' I grumbled hopelessly. 'I don't know the back of a train from the front. Only those three days of barrow-pushing on Townsville station.'

My wife said nothing, and merely glanced at the sun-peeled brown door marked Stationmaster. I shrugged, and ambled towards it. There was nothing to lose. . . .

'Course, it's fortunate you've worked on the Queensland Railway before, even if it was only for three days,' said the tall, grizzled man with the Sherlock Holmes pipe. 'It'll make things much easier. I'll send a wire today and with any luck we'll get a reply back tomorrow and you can start Monday.' I nodded eagerly and tried desperately to look like an ace shunter.

'Did you have a medical in Townsville'


'Pass O.K.?'


'Right, then it's just a matter of confirmation really. You'll get three days' training, then we'll put you on one of the shifts. It's hard work but lively. You'll soon get used to it.'

I walked out of the cool office into the hard sunlight. As I started back along the dusty platform, the porter who had been talking to Nita stopped me.

'Did you get it?'

'Yes,' I said, 'the old boy must have been in a generous mood.'

'Generous mood, nothing. He's been trying to get a shunter for the past two months but none of the other blokes'll take it on. Your predecessor was killed on the job just up by the water tower there; slipped on a beer bottle and went straight under the engine.
But you'll be all right so long as you don't try groggin' and shunting at the same time.' He lit a cigarette and strolled off towards the town. 'See yer later.'

Well, the tide of misfortune was starting to recede. So the job was risky? But so is living. The next move was to find some sort of living quarters. There was a camping ground about three miles from the town, and a good-hearted chap offered to give us and our gear a lift to the spot. We loaded up the boot of his car and in two minutes were heading away from the station down the narrow strip of bitumen towards the town and the camping ground. It was just noon when we completed the half-mile from the railway and swept into the main street of the township.

The shifting population of any boom town work hard and play hard. Mount Isa was no exception. After a five-day week, Saturday mornings (and mainly the rest of the day) were devoted to shaking off the working atmosphere of the week. And the people did it in style.

The most dominant buildings in the small community were the pubs, three of them. Gargantuan premises with bars almost fifty yards long and all packed to capacity. The hubbub which burst from this beer-dispensing trio came literally in a roar. I had never heard anything like it; nor, I think, has any English publican for a good many years.

The main street was thronged with strollers, most of them men, with only a sprinkling of women. The shopfronts were gay and brightly painted, with the usual canopies offering shade, although in Mount Isa the rear of the business premises jutted directly into the bush. In the hundred yards of main street there were a lot of new cars, chiefly American, and a brand-new Holden was being raffled in front of Boyd's Hotel, the crowd buying tickets at a pound each.

The population of Mount Isa must be among the most cosmopolitan in the world. There were aborigines, dinkum Aussies, Swedes, Germans, Italians, Dutchmen, even Chinese, all chattering in quaint, polyglot English. The temperature was around the hundred mark and a huge dust pall, raised by the cars, hung like a fog above our heads. Half a mile away, the great silver chimney plumed its smoke into the brassy sky, evidence of the Saturday shift toiling five hundred feet below the surface of this, the true Australian bush.

The camping ground was just a dust bowl. So thick was the choking powder that I had to dig down almost a foot before I could find ground firm enough to take our tent pegs. There was not a blade of grass left in this square half-mile of ground, which had deteriorated into a kind of humpy town. There were all manner of makeshift living quarters: huts built of kerosene cans, a few caravans, tents, and many huts-cum-tents-half corrugated-iron, half canvas structures in which some hundreds of people were living.

Accommodation was at a premium in Mount Isa, but still the roving population poured in, most of them emigrants from southern Europe. We had pitched camp in the' initiation ground' as it were. When the newcomer found his feet and progressed a little, he graduated from the dust bowl to something better. I was determined to move out with all haste from this baking, shadeless shanty town.

We placed our things inside the tent, fastened the flaps and set off straight away back along the dusty road to the township. While Nita bought a few items of food (at astounding prices, of course, everything having to be freighted overland from the south), I barged my way through the bar crowds of Boyd's Hotel and nailed Mr Boyd himself, who was pulling beer at a very fast rate.

'Mr Boyd,' I roared, trying desperately to catch his eyes between a check-shirted shoulder and a Stetson.


'Do you want a good barmaid? Inexperienced, but intelligent and very quick?' I watched the sweat trickling off the end of his nose as he continued pulling the beer without looking up.


'Thanks,' I said, 'I just wondered.' I began to back out between the glasses.

'Can she cook?'

I was back in a flash and leaning over the bar with all the temptation I could muster.

'She can cook anything. She specializes in Continental dishes and she. . .'

'Don't want any o' that foreign muck. Jus' good plain English cooking. Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, plum duff, that sort o' thing.'

'She's marvellous with English cooking and she. . .'

'Bring her round tonight. Eight o'clock. Can't stop now.' 'Right, Mr Boyd, eight o'clock it is. And I'll have a beer. . . .'

Nita got the job, starting at six o'clock on the following morning, Sunday, so our jubilation for the rest of that Saturday evening can well be imagined. We were really riding the crest and I decided to push our luck to the nth degree. 'Let's punt round and find some quarters,' I said. 'The lodging position sounds very black, but you never know.'

Nita was game, so we started. We stopped people in the street and asked at the tiny police station and the newly erected fire station: did they know anyone at all who would let a room for a few months? Apparently they didn't. But we kept trying. The pubs had no rooms left at all. We tackled the barmen and people whom the barmen told us to tackle. And somehow nothing could subdue us that evening. I asked an old man who was sitting on a veranda in a cloud of mosquitoes:

'You wouldn't like to let a room for a few months, would you, Pop?'

'Nope. Got three Eyetalians here now.'

'Thanks, anyway.'

'Try Bert Hodges, next bungalow along. He might know something .'

We made our way over the rocky, corrugated track, across a hundred yards of no-man's-land, till we reached the next bungalow. A neon sign was hanging from the porch-' Store'. Bert Hodges was a huge, blond Bavarian with an English vocabulary comprising about two words. He was packed to capacity (everyone let rooms) but his friend Mr Kristoff might be able to help.

Mr Kristoff could help. Regardless of the late hour he was hammering and banging, fitting window panes in a new chalet which he was erecting on his acre of ground. (The noise he was making did not matter in the least, for no one seemed to go to bed in Mount Isa on Saturday nights.) There were already six wooden bungalows in the compound, and lights twinkled in most of them.

Mr Kristoff was another giant of a fellow with a dark, swarthy complexion and a mouthful of steel teeth. His English was on a par with Bert Hodges', but the words he spoke were the right ones.

The chalet would be completed in three days' time and we could move in at eight pounds a fortnight; which was dirt cheap for Mount Isa, even though it was a one-roomed chalet with only two beds and a table.

To Nita and me it was the Dorchester. We paid friend Kristoff four pounds on account and returned, footsore and tired but in the highest of spirits, to our patch of dust in Shanty Town. Our Month of Misery was over.

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.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - Townsville)

Ten miles from the scene of our breakdown I was given a lift by a middle-aged couple in a Holden sedan (Australians never use the word' saloon') and we floated over the craters and dry creek-beds in a manner which I felt to be almost airborne.

'Oh, that was a nasty one,' said the wife, as the nose dipped ever so gently into another dust-filled pit. I sat morose and silent in the back seat, perversely grudging this couple their comfortable ride. What a tale they would have to tell when they returned home to Brisbane (or wherever it was), of intrepid adventure in the Mighty Outback. The dash-radio played some tinny drivel and the only sound which rose above it was the clink of bottle on glass, as the lady adventuress poured the iced beer. For them the harsh, relentless bush did not exist, save as a brassy blur that passed their windows between hotels. I cannot recollect a more severe attack of 'sour grapes' than I suffered during those twenty luxurious miles.

'Well, we're just about to close down for four days, y'know,' said the tall, grizzled garage proprietor. 'But Cyril here'll get the old jalopy goin' and pull you in, an' we'll have a look at it before we pack up.' Cyril, wiping his hands on a piece of cotton waste, pushed his wide-brimmed hat to the back of his head and nodded a silent greeting. I followed him round the back of the garage and we clambered into an ancient T-model Ford, which was coaxed and cajoled into life after much fiddling under the bonnet. The old pick-up truck wheezed her way down the strip of bitumen that ran the length of the main street and finished abruptly with the last house, and in two minutes we were swallowed by the bush.

'You're from England, aren't you?' said my companion, wrestling with the wheel as we crashed into a succession of hollows. 'Yes,' I replied, in no mood to enter into conversation. Another ten minutes passed, during which time the clatter from the engine was undisturbed by the human voice, then, 'So am I,' said the driver. 'Came out from Camberwell in '48.' 'Oh,' I replied, mildly surprised at this admission. I almost added 'why?' but let caution prevail. 'You prefer the bush to the cities then?'

'My word,' said the ex-Londoner who had forsaken his native 'not 'arf'. We rode on in silence; it was impossible to talk above the rattle.

Five hours of bush solitude had done nothing to improve Nita's spirits either, and her greeting was a trifle disgruntled. 'Thought you'd drowned your troubles in the local pub.' She smiled sweetly at Cyril and threw me a black look at the same time.

'Couldn't get the truck started,' I explained, appreciative of the long lonely wait my wife had just had. 'There's a chance that the garage may be able to do something,' I added (by way of consolation for her hours of solitude). 'But we'll have to be quick because they're closing tonight for Easter.'

'Naturally,' said Nita. 'Have we ever broken down on a day that wasn't a bank holiday or a week-end?'

Cyril regarded our strange-looking vehicle without change of expression and piped up again.

'I come from London,' he said, his sad little face wistful for a moment under the huge hat.

'Then,' stated Nita, surveying the sea of burnished grass, 'all three of us must be crazy.'

Four hours later the future looked a little brighter. We got back to Bowen, the garage mechanics stripped the rear end and pronounced the job as hopeless, but by that time we had at least formulated a plan, and were no longer drifting on a sea of despair. What we had surmised, however, was now certain. Repairs to the broken hub were impossible-even with the necessary parts this tiny garage had no experience of scooters. So we would load the outfit on to the train and make our way to Townsville; we had the address of an agent there on whom to call and he would be able to fix something.

But the train did not run during the Easter holiday. We had four days to kill in the tiny township, and thanks once again to Cyril these were made bearable by his invitation to spend the time with him and his wife. We blessed him, disconnected the sidecar body from the chassis, loaded all our belongings into the box and heaved it on to the back of Cyril's own utility.

Half an hour later we arrived at Queen's Beach, a long strip of silver sand, deserted save for a few bungalows dotted over the landscape, most of which seemed to be in varying stages of construction.

Queen's Beach: it was as though the first arrivals at this barren spot on the Australian coastline had christened the strip of beach in a desperate attempt to give the area a personality; to tame the place, making it synonymous with people and life and all the comforting hubbub of gregariousness which would swamp the wilderness for ever. This was a sad misnomer: Had it been called Desolation Bay one would have been agreeably surprised and felt that perhaps it was not so desolate really, there being quite a few people about. I don't know quite what we had expected to see, for the township was only minute, but here was no tight-knit community but a straggling skein of dwellings-flimsy, temporary, puny efforts of man to stabilize these vast, shifting silver dunes which were being ceaselessly pulled back and devoured by the white-capped tropical sea.

Cyril possessed the foundations of a bungalow which he was erecting piecemeal, a sturdy wife who had all the qualities of a pioneer, and a large tent in which they were living with their ten-year-old boy until the bungalow was completed.

'He'll never finish it,' said Jessie, with good-humoured disgust. 'All he wants to do is swim and fish when he's not at the garage. A born idler, my husband. If I didn't keep nagging him he'd watch the grass grow over the foundations and be quite content to live in this.' She indicated the canvas walls around us. In the middle of a trestle-table a paraffin lamp burned fitfully, an irresistible magnet for a million insects. Yet in spite of their lack of possessions, Cyril and Jessie were a happy couple, and battlers in the truest Australian sense.

Nita and I pitched our own tent a little way off on Cyril's carefully marked-out two acres, and for those four Easter days we sampled the life of those two ex-Londoners who had swopped Camberwell for the bush.

The garage which employed Cyril as a general mechanic paid a wage of fifteen pounds per week, which enabled the couple to buy all the necessities for immediate living, run their pick-up truck, and pay for their building programme on the instalment plan. The plot of land had cost them two hundred pounds and they had an arrangement with the builders' merchants whereby they were supplied with material on credit terms. Someone had lent them a cement mixer, with which I became acquainted on the first day of our stay, during which Cyril laid the floor of what was to be the kitchen. On the second day, after about an hour's work, we ran out of cement.

'Ah well,' said Cyril with undisguised relief, 'can't do nuffin' else till we get some more. Let's go for a swim.' So we gave up our toiling, walked fifty yards down the beach, and waded in just as we were; we were only wearing shorts anyway.
'Course, if my mother knew we were living in a tent she'd have a fit,' said the comfortable-bodied Jessie. 'They'd think you were a freak if you did that at home while you were building your house, but of course out here it's very different. No one takes any notice.' We were sitting round the table again, drowsy with fresh air and the balmy tropical night.

'We wouldn't be building our own house at home, anyway,' rejoined Cyril with a tinge of righteousness. 'Leastways, not 'nless I won the pools.'

‘And if you won the Casket here you wouldn't be building our house yourself. You'd get someone else to do it for you.'

'Course I would,' replied our host, looking dreamily at a couple of mice which cavorted unmolested just underneath the kitchen cabinet in the corner of the tent. For the Londoner had transferred from one nation of gamblers to another. Everyone had their fling on the state lotteries which are the Australian equivalent of our own pools system. The Queensland jackpot was called the Golden Casket and paid out prizes up to the usual dizzy standards.

'If we ever land the Casket,' said Jess, 'I want to go and live at Surfers' Paradise.' (This is a glittering chromium-plated mushroom resort south of Brisbane, made fashionable by the Queensland socialites.)

'Over my dead body,' replied her husband with some warmth. It was clear that this little man, who had been born and bred in the welter of busy Camberwell, did not intend to have his halcyon days in this little backwater of civilization exchanged for anything remotely connected with a fast pace. Despite Jessie's aspirations, she was obviously extremely adaptable, and devoted to her husband, and he was one of those rare beings who had found complete happiness and contentment.

We caught the train on the last evening of the holiday, saw the still-dismembered scooter safely in the guard's van, and settled down in a saloon compartment to chug through the night to Townsville. Our train, whose engine wailed mournfully from time to time in true transatlantic style, paused briefly at tiny whistle-stops, where one or two solitary figures hurried on or off dimly lit platforms. The station names were barely discernible in the flickering gaslight: Guthalungra, Inkerman, Ayr, Brandon, names that stirred the imagination. Why had these places been thus christened? Had a Crimean war veteran, blood-stained bandage at rakish angle across forehead, stood on a wind-swept knoll and proclaimed in ringing tones: 'From this moment I name this area Inkerman?' Had Ayr come into being on a wave of nostalgia, to the skirl of pipes and kilts and sporrans being unpacked from dusty trunks? Somehow Guthalungra was the only station that dropped neatly into place on the railway from Bowen to Townsville.

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 ¬attractive 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-¬of 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.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - From Brisbane)

The plan was to continue up the coast as far as Townsville, then turn westwards inland to strike the road that runs from north to south through the centre. The road that would carry us to Darwin. Our first stop, then, would be Townsville, a mere eight hundred miles north of Brisbane.

Our first night stop from Brisbane was just one hundred miles farther on. It seemed a pretty puny effort on the face of things, particularly as the whole hundred miles had been on good bitumen. However, we found a glorious camping spot on the edge of a wood, with a fresh bubbling river which had been half-heartedly dammed for some reason or the other, and which provided a large patch of white clean concrete on which we could spread all our gear, together with the sleeping-bags.

There are always incidents on a trip, or situations which remain evergreen in the memory long after the bulk of the journey has been forgotten. And that first night out of Brisbane was perfect. For one thing we were still clean, with all our clothes neatly pressed and ironed; and the scooter was giving me no worry. We were both fresh in body and mind, stimulated by our Brisbane interlude, and our conversation was mainly a post-mortem on the Queensland capital. To blend with this contentment was the warm, balmy, tropical night-beautiful-with a huge full moon and a cloudless, starry sky, velvet and friendly over our heads.

Toughened by our ceaseless travelling, we scorned the tent (as we did for the rest of the trip unless there was heavy rain), considering it almost profane to shut out the beauty of the night sky. Our camp-fire crackled merrily, giving off the fragrant aroma of burning gum leaves and billy-brewed tea. And for once the beam from our headlight, which was focused on our supper activities, was free from the myriad insects which usually converged directly I switched it on.

But that perfect spot offered something more. The river was teeming with flathead, those succulent fish that are sought after with rod and line every week-end by a million Australians. I caught three huge, healthy specimens in as many minutes with the gut line and hook which had been carried hopefully and, until that night, unsuccessfully among our belongings.

Nita discarded the tin of bully-beef and was kept frantically busy frying, to keep pace with my catching, scaling, and gutting. We ate royally. Four huge fishes apiece and as many billycansful of tea. Replete and supremely content, we lay for a long time on top of the sleeping-bags, savouring the glowing warmth of the fIre and the beauty of the night.

Just after midnight, when we were drowsily contemplating the exertion of getting into our sleeping-bags, the silence of the bush was shattered by the approach of an unsilenced pick-up truck – a 10 cwt. open-backed vehicle which is one of the most popular forms of transport in the open country-referred to as a 'utility' or, more commonly, a 'ute', which careered down the dusty approach lane, stopped by the weir and deposited a young husband and wife and a brood of jean- and T -shirted offspring. .

We watched-as yet unnoticed-while father skinned a rabbit and dissected it for bait in the glare of his headlamps, and the rest of the large family prepared the lines for what was obviously going to be an all-night fishing session. When preparations were completed and the group stood solemnly in line, each peering intently at the dark, shadowy water, we strolled across and bade these nocturnal sports good evening.

'Good night,' said the husband cheerfully, evincing, with typical Australian mien, no surprise at our sudden appearance. 'How you goin'?' By now used to Australiana with its rare use of the English' good evening' and automatic enquiry about the state of one's well-being, I replied in kind: 'Good, thanks.'

We talked for a few moments about fishing and the fun of night-angling, while the kids-pert and lively without being precocious-were laying bets on who would make the first catch.

'You're English, ain't you?' asked father.

'Yes,' I replied. 'But don't hold it against me.'

'Why should I? So's she.' He nodded in the direction of his wife. The wife, in her middle twenties, slim, fresh-complexioned, and dressed in jeans and sweater, introduced herself in a quaint Yorkshire accent. She looked far too young and petite in the moonlight to have mothered such a large and energetic brood. Nita said in surprised admiration:

'Are they all yours?'

'Good Lord, no,' the girl answered. 'Only four of 'em are mine. The two others are our neighbour's kids.' The humour was unintentional; four children are commonplace in Australian families, and six, or even eight, create no surprise.

The fish were beginning to bite and the catch on the bank was taking on an impressive size. The husband and I talked about Australia and Queensland, while the women chatted reminiscently about England. After about an hour the husband laid down his line. 'Time for smoko, Mary, I'm parched.'

We sat round their camp-fire, drinking the billy-tea while the children swarmed over our scooter outfit, and mispronounced the list of names written on the side until the four of us were rocking with laughter.

'Y'know,' said the Aussie, 'you're the first two Poms I've met in a long time who really speak English I can understand.' This was not the first time we had heard this remarked upon, and I was interested to find out why.

'Well,' said the husband. 'Most of you people pronounce words like my wife used to when I first met her down in Melbourne. Y'know, "reet" instead of right; "coop" and not cup; that sort of thing. And when they're talking quickly I can't understand 'em at all, dinkum.', And you mean that every Englishman you've met had a Yorkshire accent?' I asked.

'Oh, I wouldn't say they were all Yorkshire,' said our friend, with a furrowed brow, 'but most have got a burr or a brogue of some sort. Of course, some's worse than others, but you're the first couple I've met who don't have me straining to catch what you're sayin'. Course, even you say "charnce" instead of chance; still, your English is pretty good," he concluded with a twinkle.

Can this mean that there is more migration from the provinces than from the London area? Judging by the number of our own countrymen whom we met in our Australian travels this would seem to be the case. A man from Halifax, Jarrow, or Swansea is more likely to adopt Australia as a new home than his compatriot living in the suburbs of London. Perhaps the Londoner is less adventurous than his provincial brother. Or do Londoners lead a fuller and more satisfying life?

Despite the ribbing of each other's accents, the young couple seemed to be a perfect blend of northern and southern Anglo-Saxons. This was reflected in the children, who possessed the easy-going, devil-may-care attitude of the Aussie together with the shrewd, cool-blooded temperament of the canny Yorkshireman. These were no crazy, mixed-up, hypersensitive kids!

I asked the wife if she ever yearned to return home to England, and got a very emphatic no for an answer. She said that at first she would have given anything to return home to the familiar world of her childhood; but after five years in a sub-tropical climate among people who became increasingly friendly, without most of our worries about international tensions, in their own house (built by themselves on their own land without any petty restrictions), plus all the little things-like being able to fish in the middle of a warm night anywhere she cared to toss her line-how could she go back to a world of concrete and grey skies? She would like to visit, of course, if they ever saved enough money. 'But,' she said, as her ruddy, sun-bronzed arm lifted the billy for the sixth time, 'I'm a Queenslander from now till the day I die.' Which indeed this one-time Yorkshire lass was.