Trip back

On Friday morning the blokes who were supposed to come to fix the trailer bearings did not show but after a couple of phone calls they suggested they would come in the afternoon. They did a very thorough job packing the bearings and charging me an arm and a leg. I had thought of shipping the boat back to Brisbane on a road train but that was going to cost nearly $4,000 so towing it back became attractive. By 6.00pm the boat was ready to be hooked-up. I had already packed the Troopy whilst waiting for the bearing blokes to show.

The next morning I rose about 4.00am had a shower and a cup of Timorese coffee, said hooray to Wes (who had been my host for the last three months) and headed off. I hate travelling at night when towing the boat. I’m scared I won’t notice things you’d see in daylight and if you have to pull over it is hard to see where it’s safe to stop. The trip to Adelaide River was slow but at least I was heading in the right direction. After refuelling, there was enough light make the driving more pleasant.

Somewhere out of Mataranka a 4 carriage fuel-tanker road train overtook me but moved back early on to my side of the road forcing me to brake heavily and reminding me just how easily one can slip under the wheels of these monsters.

I saw 8 Black Cockatoos before Katherine then just south of the town another 20 flew over with their slow surging wings. Then a further 100k along the Stupid Highway there was a tree full of them. The last ones I saw 600k south of Darwin were also hanging off every branch of a large tree. It was about there I noticed the last of the Turkey Bush (a pink to purple flowering shrub 1 to 3 metres in height).

Just north of Renner Springs there was a female Bustard or Bush Turkey (proper common name is Thick Knee) standing in the middle of the road I stopped parped my horn several times before it walked off the road then its striking male partner walked on to the road as if to say “I don’t get off the road for road trains so bugger off Troopy”. Several blasts of the horn and he finally took to the air. I have not seen a pair of Bush Turkeys on the Stuart Highway since 1968.

As dark closed in I arrived at the Three Ways and ensconced the Troopy amongst the road trains at the back of the garage. I slept like a log until the alarm reminded me it was 5.30 and time to make coffee before leaving the Stupid Highway for the Barkly. It was only 450k to Camooweal so I decided that would make a good spot to have breakfast because Graham and I had had an excellent steak and egg burger there on the way to the Top End.

I started salivating as I crossed the Queensland border. After refuelling, I duly ordered a steak and egg burger with salad but no sauce. The attractive young Aboriginal cook who had served us on the way up must have had a day off and her place was taken by a young English backpacker. As I sat there waiting for breakfast I recalled how many years before I had had a hamburger in Camooweal before driving off into the night and how I had driven well off the road because there had been several murders around that time on the Barkly Highway. About an hour after eating the hamburger I became violently ill and was so weakened by the encounter that I had considerable difficulty in the morning getting back into the land rover to drive on. Breakfast finally turned up I bit heartily into the burger only to find that my steak burger had metamorphosed into a hamburger. I muttered an expletive under my breath and walked out.

I drove on to Mt. Isa and then down that very winding stretch of the A2 into Cloncurry. I rang Penny from there to ask if I should order a Pizza for her. Years ago on her first trip to the NT, we had stopped in Cloncurry for dinner. I suggested she order a steak. But coming from Leichhardt in inner western Sydney her eyes lit up when she saw the large sign declaring the café made the best pizzas in the west.

Young girls served us at the table who we assumed were helping in the family business – their parents were doing the cooking. I realised we were in a bit of trouble when my steak and chips appeared with the exclamation of “Sorry about the steak” which was charred. Penny had smiled broadly when her pizza appeared. It looked very much as if it had come from Little Italy. Penny eagerly attacked her dinner and then paused saying “I’m not quite sure what they have done”. It appeared the young chefs had used tomato ketchup rather than (Italian-style) tomato paste. In response to my call, Penny assured me there was no need to order a pizza for her. I drove on in the fading light and settled for a make-do spot to pull over for the night about 40k south of the pizza capital of the world. The only point of interest was the plague of locusts which had decided that the light on my boat made it a very attractive place to shelter.

The next day I headed south stopping at McKinlay for a steak and egg breakfast to which the cook had added some excellent bubble and squeak. The dead Wallabies, Euros and Kangaroos were like a guard of honour at a soldier’s funeral. They attracted a host of whistling kites and what were either Little Eagles or juvenile Wedge Tails. The road-kill trail was almost uninterrupted all the way to Roma. The only variation on the theme was that as the Troopy headed further south the hawks were replaced by Australian Ravens.

Monday was a fairly uneventful day – though I was getting sick and tired of the incessant road trains interspersed by grey nomads (the more affluent driving Winnebagos, the less rich in various Australian copies of these mobile homes or their home “handyman” versions, then there were the caravans and the poor driving overloaded vans with their assorted packages on the roof).  The only other variety of transportees seemed to be young backpackers making their way in “wicked” vehicles covered in slogans some of which were mildly amusing.

At Ilfracombe, just south of Longreach, the drizzle started. Between there and Blackall I saw three young Emus a few well behaved Euros and several Wallabies who seemed resolute as they dashed with a fierce determination from one side of the road to the other to see if I could manage to lock up the breaks on the boat trailer. I stopped in Blackall as the drizzle had transformed itself into rain.  I wondered where I might pull up for the night and to my delight noticed a collection of grey nomad vehicles parked for the evening just off the A2 in the centre of town so I joined them.

As I finished the champagne I wondered how the town council had managed to resist that nasty but ubiquitous bunch of bastards who call themselves Queensland caravan park owners and who constantly pressure town councils, parks and wildlife, state politicians and other people of influence to close all the public places where poor travellers might linger for the night, forcing grey nomads, backpackers, and assorted others into booking into their cramped and uninteresting little gulags of misery.  As they wrote at the time of the English enclosures:

The law locks up the men and women
who steal the goose from off the common
but leaves the larger villain loose
who steals the common from the goose.

Just as I was thinking of opening a bottle of red this old fella with a glass of white in his hand from Benalla, on the Victorian/NSW border, wandered over and after inspecting the boat announced that if I went up to the Court House the next morning I would be able to vote in the forthcoming federal election. I thanked him for the news but informed him that I had written to the then Prime Minister Rudd advising him that for the first time in my life I would be voting informal. I have always voted for the Greens or left wing candidates but this time because of income quarantining and other aspects of the NT Intervention I could not, in all conscience, allow my preference to flow to any party which supported such racist interference in the lives of Aboriginal people. Later that evening I was talking to Penny and came to the decision that perhaps Gillard wasn’t in a position to dump Macklin, the Minister in charge of the Intervention, before the election and I was considering voting again.

A good night’s sleep and the realization that though Graham and I had only taken 4 days to drive from Brisbane to Darwin I was not going to make it back in that time. Armed with such insight, when I arrived in Augathella I not only refuelled but had a shower and a sausage and eggs breakfast before heading back out through the mud and slush and pointing Troopy south. Whilst waiting for breakfast I had noticed on the map that my intended route (via Charleville) would have added a further 80 k to the trip – so by hastening slowly it seemed I would arrive earlier in Brisbane.

As I drove east the rain got heavier. But I managed to find the ABC Parliamentary and News station just as they crossed to Julia Gillard’s press conference in which she unveiled her revamped welfare policy with increased penalties for people out of work who missed a Centrelink appointment and a $700 penalty for parents who failed to take their 4 year old to a doctor for a preschool checkup. Then she handed the microphone over to the most undeserving of welfare ministers, one Jenny Macklin. Macklin got on to her favourite message, suggesting that the unemployed were not to be trusted. She even trotted out the Lathamesque cliché that all working aged people had to be “learning or earning”. This silly woman fails to realise that the majority of working age people are both learning and earning. She apparently fails to understand the multitude of reasons why some people are not able to engage in either education or employment for periods of time or she just refuses to accept that non-engagement is due to significant incapacity. She has such a distrust of those whom industry does not want to employ that she needs to denigrate them at every turn. In that half an hour Julia and Jenny lost Wayne Swan one vote – the only thing I will write on the Lower House voting slip is “Stop the NT Intervention”. I will vote Greens in the Senate because they have a real chance of getting a Senate seat in Queensland and they are opposed to the Intervention.

Between Roma and Miles I saw three young Emus looking like they were enjoying the rain and a few Euros and Wallabies. By the time I reached Miles (which I would have thought the Decimal Currency Board would have insisted change its name to Kilometres) I had had enough of driving in the rain. Even though it was only 5pm I pulled over and had a Dagwood steak at the Caltex Café. I had passed the entrance to Dagwood Station several kilometres back along the Warrego Highway. I then swung the rig around and headed back to the free camping area just out of town, by the river. I rang Penny and Graham, finished the red I’d opened in Blackall, killed a few mosquitoes and hit the bunk. As I lay there listening to the rain hitting the deck, I pondered the Zen question “Is a futurology billboard a sign of the future?”

First light revealed the rain had stopped and the ABC told me it was People’s Day at the Ekka. It wasn’t long before I was crawling down the Toowoomba Range behind a semi-trailer which was going even slower than I wanted to go. There was only light traffic through Brisbane and I arrived at the Deagon Institute at noon.

Written in 2010 not published.