Story telling from Australia
This week’s interview for the book I’m writing involved a flight from Sydney to Townsville, an overnight stay in a motel then a seven-hour drive inland. I was heading for Gilberton Station, in cattle breeding country due west across the Great Dividing Range.
I hired a 4WD with a satellite navigation system and picked up a sat phone from a camping store on Ingham Street. The assistant’s eyes widened when I told her where I was going. ‘Will I need anything else?’ I asked. Nicole handed me a head torch that flashed SOS, a tube of full strength mosquito repellent and an emergency foil blanket. ‘If you get stuck overnight it will keep you warm.’
After last week’s interview I checked the forecast for Townsville before I left home – 25 degrees during the day, 15 at night. With hindsight that was like checking the forecast for Cornwall then driving to the Scottish Highlands. It was clearly going to get cold inland, but surely I wouldn’t need a space blanket. And a head torch? Nicole was so lovely I couldn’t refuse.
I made up for my lack of suitable clothing (again) by stocking up in case I rolled the car, fell down a gully and wasn’t found for two weeks. I bought cheese, chocolate, bread rolls, bananas, strawberries, bottles of water, red wine (a gift for host Lyn French but if trapped at the bottom of a ravine I wouldn’t hesitate to drink it) two oranges and a tub of coleslaw (it was on offer).
Sixty kilometres out of Townsville all mobile coverage stopped. The road cut through the Harvey Range, mountainous country where early settlers would have hewn a path through the harsh terrain. I imagined them shifting mud, rocks and boulders, dodging landslips and rock falls that even now looked perfectly possible. I crossed Stony Creek, One Mile Creek, Two Mile Creek, Three Mile Creek…
After two hours I passed a roadhouse, two hours later another. Then nothing. The dirt road was chalky white or desert red, a shifting base of sand, dust and gravel that kicked up stones, juddered across corrugations, swooped into creek beds and soared up the other side, twisting and bucking as I gripped the steering wheel. In three hours I didn’t see another vehicle.
Termite mounds as tall as kangaroos lurked in the long grass. Sometimes it was a kangaroo, appearing in a single explosive leap. Another bound and it was gone. Each time I let out a cry, ‘Whoah!’ forcing myself not to brake, not to swerve. A feral pig shot across the road, its black nuggetty energy bursting out of the bush. I saw rock wallabies, wedge tailed eagles, emu, rabbits and, of course, cattle. Herds of Braham bulls, with solemn faces, long ears and loose skin, lumbered out of the way as I passed. This is Brahman breeding country.
Like Adele last week, Lyn had extraordinary stories to tell about living and working on the land, and the challenge of raising a family when the nearest school or shop is several hours drive away. They’ve survived fire and flood, and they will again. It’s part of the cycle out here. It was a privilege to be welcomed into her home and to be offered a glimpse into her life.
By the afternoon of the second day we’d finished the formal interviews and my thoughts turned to the drive back to Townsville. At this point I realised I would be useless as a mountaineer – I only worry about getting to the top, not about getting back down. I calculated I would have to set off at five the next morning to be sure of making the early afternoon flight. Then I thought about the long drive on twisting dirt roads, in the dark, dodging kangaroos at dawn, driving due east into the rising sun. I realised I would never make it. The hire car didn’t even have bull bars on the front.
Lyn rang the Oasis roadhouse, three hours away, and with two hours of daylight left I made a hurried departure, carrying two bananas and a bottle of water to keep me going. It was pitch black when I arrived, my speed a paltry 50km an hour, the pins and needles in my hands testifying to the grip I’d had on the steering wheel.
Thanks to the lovely Nicole and her head torch, I found my way to the hut I was sleeping in, and when I woke shivering in the middle of the night I wrapped myself in the space blanket. The only thing I didn’t use was the mosquito repellent, which serves me right because the next day in Townsville I got bitten.
Next week I’m going to Tasmania. I’ll be taking that space blanket. And the head torch.