Sunday, 27 July 2008

The Aborigines of Snake Bay (Chapter 13 – Darwin)

Darwin has the reputation of being the fastest-growing city in Australia. Where, around a natural seaport in the sweltering tropics, barely a decade ago there was nothing but a few tin shacks and a motley, fluctuating population, there is now a thriving, modern city, together with an airport comparable to any in the whole continent. It is a brightly coloured, exotic community of cosmopolitan beings, pleasantly secure in the knowledge that their home is the Government administrative headquarters of the Northern Territory, virtually run by far-off Canberra.

The city is small enough to be intimate and cosy-only a city by outback standards, something like, say, Blandford in Dorset but large enough to boast some very attractive clusters of stilted bungalows of ultra-modern design, a couple of cinemas, a beautifully kept tropical garden, and a whole army of Government officials. There is already a firmly established 'Nobs' Hill', radiating an almost American atmosphere. Among the crowds of uniformed officials, looking neatly businesslike in their white shirts and navy blue shorts and immaculate white socks, the rest of the population stroll about at a pace in keeping with the climate. I believe on our first drive up the main street we saw, without undue effort, practically every nationality of the globe, from Chinese and Slavs to Sicilians and half -caste aborigines.

By a tremendous stroke of luck the first person to whom we spoke turned out to hold the key to our quest for aborigines. As always, on arriving at a new town, we were pottering slowly along, surveying our surroundings, sniffing up the atmosphere, and marvelling at the sight of the Timor Sea which shimmered, almost a cobalt blue, beyond the wide palm-lined avenue. It was good to see a coastline again.

There were some very plush residences along that marine drive, and busily painting the fence of one palatial bungalow was a man of medium build and age, dressed in ragged shorts, who was, I think, only too glad to pause in his labours and watch the approach of our strange-looking outfit. Thus, by the slenderest chance, we met Doug Lockwood, chief reporter in Darwin for the Melbourne Daily Herald, who had only just returned from London after being specially flown over to receive first prize for the London Evening News competition for 'The World's Strangest Story' (a fantastic but true tale of Bas Wie, an island native who had made an incredible illegal entry into Australia after the war -we were to hear all about Bas Wie later that evening). He smiled cheerfully as we approached, and we stopped to ask where the administrative headquarters were. And so an invaluable friendship was formed.

Doug Lockwood was one of the very few men in the capital of the Northern Territory who could guide us along the narrow and rocky path of officialdom to our objective-Melville Island. That the people of the island occupied such an isolated wilderness was due almost entirely to the Australian Government Department of Native Affairs, which exercised a justifiably rigid control over all European visitors, allowing only a few entries, and then not without a stiff medical test. For the Snake Bay aborigines are highly susceptible-usually with fatal results-to common ailments of the civilized white which inconvenience us for no more than a few days.

So, on that balmy, tropical evening, as we sat under a swishing fan and admired the primitive wall decorations in his cool, spacious bungalow, Doug outlined a plan for Nita and me to follow.

First, we would have to go to the Native Affairs Department and get permission to visit the island. This, Doug thought, should not be too difficult as we were writing and film-making. Then we would have to undergo the medical, equip ourselves with supplies, and lastly find some method of crossing the shark-infested stretch of Timor Sea which separated us from our goal.

Unfortunately the man we had to see was in Canberra and would not be back for a week. We would just have to wait.

Not wishing to encroach too much on Lockwood's hospitality, we declined his 'open house' offer and set up camp on a beautiful stretch of green sward that overlooked the bay. That this particular piece of springy turf was also the pitch of Darwin's cricket club was immaterial; they were not using it, so we could; which was typical of the big-heartedness of Northern Australia. No one objected to our using the changing rooms and showers, either. Indeed, the attendant encouraged us to do so and left all the doors unlocked. We waited six days for the return of the administrator, in complete comfort.

During those six days, the hours simply weren't long enough. We explored Darwin from end to end, became regular visitors to the Native Affairs Department, met and made friends with two Latvian crocodile hunters (robust, heavily built characters who had just returned after six months in the bush of Cape York Peninsula and who were enjoying civilization again on the £ 1,000 profit from the sale of skins), had the scooter and sidecar overhauled and a stronger spring fitted to the third wheel-ready for the marathon trip south some time in the hazy future-and lastly, we met Jack Kelley.

On the fourth day of our stay there was great excitement in the township. The Mobilgas 'Round Australia Rally' was coming through in the evening. We spent the afternoon getting in necessary supplies-optimistically perhaps-for the forthcoming expedition, and after the standard Australian main meal of steak and eggs, we fastened the tent flap and strolled across the cricket pitch; past the luxurious, brand-new Darwin Hotel (two-roomed suite: £20 per day) to a fenced enclosure already thronged with expectant watchers waiting to greet the first competitors in this, the world's most gruelling motor-sport event.

The first car, a Volkswagen, arrived dead on time smothered in bull-dust, the windscreen patterned with spattered insects, to disgorge two weary drivers, red-eyed and very, very tired. They checked in at the control, grinned at the crowd of cheering onlookers by dint of great effort, and left their vehicle impounded to snatch a few hours' sleep before the next lap.

During the following two hours the rest of the field arrived. Surprisingly, the majority of the cars were in good shape considering the terrain and the average speed set. Some of them were, of course, very sick mechanically, but the major cause of body damage appeared to be from collisions with kangaroos during the night drives. One such car, a Holden, sponsored by a southern departmental store, had the front offside door tied with string; a door only vaguely resembling its original shape. I was unable to understand why so many drivers could not avoid a glare-blinded animal, and it was not until we started on the return journey south that I discovered why.

A little later Nita and I found ourselves talking to one of the crew, a tall, sun-bronzed fellow of large physique and twinkling eyes, who, despite the world's toughest rally in which he now competed, seemed more interested in our own achievements on the scooter. And so we struck up a spontaneous friendship which was strengthened the next morning, when the rested driver had slept off the worst of his fatigue. He knew of our plans and aspirations, and his parting shot as he left again on the next stage to Mount Isa was a good illustration of his warm, generous nature.

‘When you get back to Melbourne, come straight along,' he yelled above the revving engines. 'I've got a caravan in the back yard. Built it myself. All mod. cons. It's yours for as long as you want to stay.' He handed me a slip of paper with his address hastily scrawled. 'Look forward to seein' you two in about four months' time. G'bye.'

And with a quick wave of the hand the timekeeper signalled, the rear wheels of the Holden span a moment in the dust, the car took off at full bore, went through the compound gates in a controlled slide and was in seconds just a speck at the far end of the palm-lined avenue. Well, whatever might befall us, we knew that if or when we got back to Melbourne we would be sure of a very warm welcome from Jack Kelley, master builder and sometime competitor in the toughest trial of all.

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.

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.

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.