On The Road
In 1986 I commanded a 200 man, 100 vehicle convoy from Darwin to Brisbane. The whole trip took 11 days as we could only travel at the speed of the slowest vehicle, a 20 year old fridge trailer. Upon arriving at Tambo I had the guys set up camp just north of town, grabbed a Land Rover and went to town to phone my long suffering wife. I found the Post Office and at about 6:00 pm I duly called home. When finished it became apparent that the Post Office front door had been left opened ? the wind was cold and kept banging the door as a reminder of someone?s slackness. The Post Office being a Commonwealth Building and myself a Commonwealth officer I was obliged to do something about it so went in a search of the Sergeant policeman. The search for the local constabulary would have been quicker concluded had I gone straight to the bar of the biggest pub in town but I eventually arrived there and asked him if we could talk outside for a moment. I didn?t want to un-necessarily embarrass the locals and the Sergeant appreciated my tact. He went off to fix that problem and then came back outside. I mentioned that I had a mind to let my 200 man forces loose on the town with a leave pass and would he like to suggest a good pub. I also mentioned I had my own Military Police under command and that he most probably would not have to become to involved in policing. The Sergeant introduced me to the publican who was as keen as mustard to get 200 punters into his pub on a mid week night. He figured the last time that happened was during World War II. During some spirited bargaining he reduced the price of a pot from $1.50 to $1 .00 and agreed to put on a free BBQ for all if my cooks would help. Deal done, the troops got leave, fed and watered. Some fell in love and all were back for first parade. We?re now at Lawn Hill Gorge with 2415 on the trip meter. The day we went through Tambo we ended up at the famous or infamous Kynuna Pub known as the Blue Heeler Pub. For non Aussies, a Blue Heeler is a local cattle dog ? Blue because they have red in their coat and Heeler because they influence the cattle?s intended direction of movement by biting one of the beasts heel.. The old Heeler behind the bar was nineteen and was no longer required to mix it with cattle ? reduced to mascot. The Publican, a lady, confided in us for some reason and we got the whole saga. ?Some reason? might have been associated with the fact that she was consuming copious quantities of Bundy Rum but that?s a bit presumptive of me. Her dishonest male partner left her with nine unpaid tax bills totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars and fled the scene. Negotiations with the Tax Office allowed her to continue trading and pay off the bill. Once this was resolved she started negotiations to buy the pub freehold but was gazumped by the only other trader in town ? her 1.2m offer for the pub was not enough ? he brought the pub and the service station and now owns the entire town. Sounds like a plot for a B Grade Western Movie but with no John Wayne in town (remember her fellow had walked out) she was beaten. A retired English teacher she had a good turn of phrase and I wish her well in her search for a freehold country pub. The next day we travelled to Gregory River to camp on the banks of the river and soak up the local atmosphere at the pub. Road, bridge and Telstra workers were staying at the pub so lots of stories told by the actual players. On the outskirts of town there is an aborigine mission with kerbing, sewerage and water reticulation which you might correctly state is their right. The white town people think they should have all these services as well, but they don?t. They have to pump water up from the river into tanks and they have to pay for and organize their own sewerage and kerbing is simply out of the question. Mick, (not his real name) the Telstra manager, told us horror stories of dealing with the local indigenous population. Cultural monitors demand $300 per day for their presence at any work site. Once the monitors on any Telstra job exceed 6 then there is a Cultural Monitor Supervisor who gets paid in excess of a $1,000 per day to make sure the monitors are doing their job. Telstra are expected to have an Archeologist on site as well and he is charged with ensuring the Optic Fibre lines are not desecrating culturally significant sites. Stories of the Archeologist picking up a rock and saying? ?This looks like an old axe? or whatever, and the monitor saying ?Is it? Oh yeah. You fellows have to go around? Ah, such science. Four D11 dozers are used on an optic fibre line. One to clear the scrub, one to level the path, one to rip the trench and one to fill. These things cost thousands of dollars per day so I would hate to think of the costs associated with rerouting the line a kilometre or two around a culturally significant piece of rock. The fibre optics get to a mission and Mick tells me that Telstra gives all the locals CDMA phones. Do they pay for them? No Do they pay for their calls? No Conferencing Indigenous style. Telstra have to fly the participants, the elders, to the conference site wherever that may be. They refuse to fly commercial thus Telstra are forced to charter aircraft. All well and good except often, on arrival, for some inexplicable reason, the elders decide now is not the time to hold the conference. Stay a while, have a chat, take the plane back home. Nothing achieved. Maybe next time. A word for 4WD enthusiasts. According to Mick Telstra are changing their entire fleet from Codan HF radios to Sat phones. If your looking for a second hand Codan I think there will be thousands on the market very soon. The next morning after a delightful camp on the Gregory River we go back to town in time to see the road train taking fuel out to Century Mine. We spoke to the driver who says he does it daily. 4 dogs (trailers) carrying a total of 111,000 litres goes to the mine everyday and soon, when just three more vehicles are brought on line, the total daily fuel will increase to 150,000 litres. In the pub there was a photo of a dump truck with a D11 dozer in the back, like a dinky toy. Big machines, big fuel burners. We travel on and do the sites of Lawn Hill Gorge. I comment on the age of the land, the well eroded hills and Brian tells me these same hills were being eroded before Mount Everest was pushed out of the ground. Looks about right to me. Ancient land Australia. Lawn Hill Gorge. Imagine a semi arid landscape ? small rocky hills, very sparse vegetation, flat dry and hot. Take a D111 bulldozer, scrape a ditch 100 metres to 500 metres wide, up to 100 metres deep and maybe two or three kilometres long. Fill it with fresh running spring sourced water, all types of fauna and flora that exists only there and has done for millions of years. Add tourists. We went for a walk and swam in the ancient river amongst a dozen different species of water life with palms and grasses throwing up a lush backdrop. At night we are visited by a Wallaby. Small and totally unafraid of humans he approaches Brian demanding food. Brian is being polite..nice Skippy, settle down Skippy?stop it?and I interrupt with a tap to his ribs to try and make him let go of the vegetable bag. We?re laughing and trying to pick up spilt potatoes and onions quicker than Skippy. We eventually convince him to stop bludging and go eat leaves or whatever but as he takes off he grabs a bag of sausages and we have to leap double quick to save them. The tourist brochures talk of ancient sands being the base of the sandstone cliffs and rocks. Formed some 1560 million years ago they are in danger of being eroded by the tens of thousands of tourists who visit each dry season. Well worth it. Go there Doomadgee, an Aboriginal town ? the least said the better. Travel on and camp at Wollogorang, pay $48.00 for six cans of Bundy Coke and a $1.40 per litre for fuel. Talking with other campers makes it worthwhile Next day head for Daley Waters, some 650 Km away but a pub of such character as to make it all worthwhile. 150 Caravans and associated contents crowd the scene but the eye fillet and barramundi dinner lift the standards of the night. A long conversation with Russell, (I knew his brother Bob in the Army ? 6 degrees of separation) a retired Corrective Services Inspector is based on a lot of preaching to the converted. An associate of Ted Eagan, the current Territory Administrator (read Governor for states) and Shane Stone the Liberal Party Federal President and ex Leader of the NT Country Party he tells us stories of both of them that we should be able to confirm at dinner with Shane and Ted later when get to Darwin. The Grey Nomads ? retired couples travelling the land in $45,000 caravans tend to socialize with other nomads and spend little time talking to the locals. The first night they camp and meet a couple they like and then agree to meet the next night at the next caravan park. That night they meet another couple and they all cluster like Indian Myna birds, sit in their plastic chairs and swap the same stories about kids?our mortgage is paid out?Jayco caravans are best and have you been to Uluru yet? I?d rather talk to the locals ? the truckie, the publican, the Jackeroo, the Ringers and the professional Roo shooter. Different stories?real stories. Why travel a thousand miles to talk to a replica of yourself. All the bar staff are backpackers with more accents than the UN and they?re selling pots and schooners as ?a half? or ?a pint?. Sacrilege. The other backpackers aren?t looking for a plastic copy of home ? they should be told how to order a drink in Australia. Next morning we start the final leg to Darwin and stop at Katherine for coffee at the Bucking Bull Caf?. I notice an elderly Aborigine couple dining there and I?m pleasantly surprised. We order coffee and are seduced by the smell of fish and chips. We sit at a table outside and the owner comes out and talks to us. Ivan, a Croat, had a choice when he left his old home and still chose Australia. With his daughter and son-in-law to help they are all working hard to make a go in the new home and they are exactly the type of new Aussie we need. He has developed a relationship with the local tribes and encourages them to come and have a proper meal. If they have the money they pay. If not they can tick it up until pension day or sign a chit that the local Government authorities will honour. Other businesses in town don?t like this approach and are trying to get him out of town. One of the local charities even took him to task for taking away their customers from the soup kitchen line. Ivan counters that they are only feeding them left-overs and the Aborigines know it, while he sells good tucker at fair prices. A journalist from Darwin phones and accuses Ivan of taking advantage of the disadvantaged by charging them for a meal. Ivan points out that no one accuses the Publicans of taking advantage of people by charging them for beer and wine and no one gets up the local petrol service station owner for charging them for petrol to melt their brains. The Journalist hung up. Ivan says he loves Australia and generally agrees with the Governments attempts to fix the problem but the debate is hamstrung by bullshit. One of his indigenous customers stops and asks for a smoke. Ivan is embarrassed but stays cool. It?s midday and the man starts singing at the top of his voice. He has a reasonable voice but teeth like ?Jaws? of James Bond fame. The drunken signing continues and conversation is stifled while Ivan tries to move him on. He gives him money for cigarettes out of his own pocket and the drunk quits while he?s ahead. Lectures about lung damage falls on deaf ears but anything for peace and quite I sneak a look at his tab system and see hundreds of cards with the one card I saw having twenty or so entries. Ivan is carrying a lot of money ? I hope it works for him Just another day at Katherine.