Saturday 31 August 2013

G'day Australia - Safe at last - 22

I hate mosquitoes. I hate them with a passion. How can something so small be the cause of so much irritating discomfort? 
The earnest 'Bush Cook'
     For a few unfortunate people, malaria is the painful consequence of a single mosquito bite. but most people suffer thousands of bites yet never contact malaria. The daily fight and suffering caused by the constant buzz, bites and sleepless nights can send a person up the wall. They make one’s life a misery.
     I am not a vengeful person, but I once spent a whole night in Alaska killing mosquitoes with a high-powered, battery operated, zapper bat. It was payback time. Sheer bliss!
     Night-time in Darwin, northern Australia, is alive with mosquitos; I and my three compatriots, with whom I had been rescued from the island of Car Nicobar, had just landed by air from Singapore, and we were being eaten alive whilst seeking sheltering in the Darwin Sports Pavilion.
     Our rescuers, the NZRAF, had dropped us at Changi Air Base, Singapore had issued us with a non-negotiable one-week permit to stay, and the British Embassy had taken us to the Toc H hostel whilst they tried to figure out how best to repatriate four Brits who were unwilling to return to the UK.  Fortunately, Australia offered to accept us and we had left Singapore with just one hour to spare.
     The sun finally rose over Darwin and our well-satiated, night-time tormenters sought shelter in the darker recesses of the pavilion. We were tired, penniless, and well bitten. We were without our passports; they had been confiscated on landing until such time that we could repay the repatriation fees. The nearest city to start looking for work was 3,051 kms away at Adelaide in the south, or 4,049 kms south-west to Perth. Life did not look very rosy.
      Eric and I set off to hitch-hike to Adelaide along the only bitumen road leading south in the Northern Territory. At the small settlement of Pine Creek, we were given a sandwich and £5 to help us on our way.
     The following day at a cafe in the township of Katherine, we were chopping wood in exchange for a meal, when a customer offered Eric a job at a garage and I met a supervisor for the Northern Territory Department of Works who gave me a lift 700 kms south to Tennant Creek.
The pot-hole free Main Street, Tennant Creek - nearest towns - Darwin 900 kms, Alice Springs 500 kms, Adelaide 2,000 kms.
     During the trip southward, through endless expanses of nothing, he quizzed me on my adventures and background and on arrival gave me a temporary job, a pay-day loan and pointed me in the direction of an old wooden caravan in which to sleep.
     My first week was spent filling potholes in Tennant Creek’s only street. This was followed by a short spell as an ‘offsider’, cooking meals and being a general dogsbody at a small roadside camp on the Stuart Highway. This ended after eight days when the other two workers got drunk one night and crashed their vehicle.
      I was transferred 160 kms to a remote outback site to ‘offside’ for a bushie whose job it was to grade access tracks to water pumping windmills used for cattle.
An cattle drover stopped by for a chat
      Within three weeks, news of my culinary skills had spread across the airwaves and I was recruited by the Department of Works to replace the bush cook at a mobile camp just north of Alroy cattle station. They were surveying and building a major dirt track across the Barkly Tableland.
     I was a worldly-wise twenty years old, brimming with confidence and entrusted with feeding a disparate group of twenty hard-working, gregarious, cussing, non-conforming roughnecks. These colourful characters were prepared to live under canvas, put up with primitive hardships, in order to either save enough money to start a new life, or to celebrate their avoidance of mainstream society with the occasional ‘bender’, whereby they would drink themselves into a stupor for a week or four before returning to the bush to start work again. Most camp cooks fell into the latter category, which was why I had been recruited as his replacement.
     My previous experience of catering had been as a hotel management trainee at a five-star hotel at Eastbourne, England; a far cry from the rustic catering wagon I was now in charge of. It had a small kitchen with a bottled gas stove, a paraffin refrigerator, and a table for ten people.
Barkley Tablelands
     Close to the ‘food wagon’ stood my tent, a water bowser and a walk-in collapsible meat safe, where a side of salted beef hung and which was regularly replaced from the nearest cattle station. It was lined with muslin to keep the flies at bay.
     Nearby, were a row of two-man tents and off in the distance stood a couple of thunder box latrines made from 44-gallon drums with a section cut away and a plank of wood wedged in place.
     I quickly came to terms with ordering food supplies over the radio, which were delivered once a week, along with bread, milk, eggs and sundry engineering supplies for the heavy plant being used. The earth-packed track would eventually stretch 488 kms to Borroloola, on the coast of Carpentaria, and would later become known as the Tablelands Highway.
     Everyone in the Australian outback seemed to have a nickname. Mine quickly became ‘Bluey’ because of my blonde hair, or occasionally ‘Lord Romsey’ because of my English accent.
     Another Englishman arrived shortly after me as the Civil Engineer in Charge. He had been recruited direct from England and arrived in freshly ironed khaki colonial shorts, a safari jacket, carried a cane under his arm and thought he was going to run a military style camp – big mistake.     He was loathed instantly, was the butt of much humour and cut down to size as only the Australians know how. He, however, remained stoic and isolated in his specially commissioned caravan and ate his meals alone.
Bush Camp for the Barkley track
      Every 10–14 days, the camp was dismantled and moved forward to a new location. It was supposedly alcohol-free with two days off every fortnight, whereupon most workers would pile into a truck to drive 60 kms to the nearest source of beer at the Frewena Roadhouse on the Barkly Highway, or make a dash for Tennant Creek some 270 kms away.
Hello and goodbye

     Because most men returned with hangovers that lasted a further two days, the new English ‘commandant’ tried to solve the problem by banning the use of government vehicles during time off, but relented after a threatened mass walkout.
      Part of my job was to hitch up the water bowser to the tractor and drive it to the nearest cattle station or water windmill. - I didn’t drive, but I soon learnt.
     I remained at the camp for a number of months and because there was nothing to spend my wages on, I soon amassed a respectable savings account.
     A few miles to the north of us was the homestead of Brunette Downs, which was the largest cattle station in the Northern Territory, and at that time, part of King Ranch of Texas. Despite its isolation on the Barkly Tableland, it held its own rodeo each year where beer was freely available.  
     The annual rodeo happened to coincide when our camp ‘commandant’ had to return to HQ for a meeting. Before the dust cloud from his departing Land Rover had even settled, everyone in the camp had grabbed their swag, and loaded themselves quickly into whatever vehicles were available and drove pell-mell for Brunette Downs.
Spurs, but no boots, no feelings, and no sense.
     It was a wonderful couple of days to remember; I learned to play and lose money at the Australian chance game of  ‘two-up’, which I was featured playing in the national magazine, Pix.  My fellow workers got me so drunk that my only recollection of being entered into the rodeo on a bucking bronco was the severe bruising the next day and a photograph which I still treasure, of me parting company from the horse.

    The weekend was our undoing; I happened to be in the truck with a number of others, when it caught fire on the way back to the camp, not something that could be easily explained to the fuming commandant who had arrived back before us. His glowing sense of satisfaction was very palpable as he gave everyone in the truck instant dismissal.
     What did I care?  Not a jot. I had experienced many new aspects of life. I had learned to drive, to be a bush cook, to play ‘two-up’, to get along with roughnecks and to fall off a horse, all whilst being well paid and accumulating a healthy bank balance. What a wonderful introduction to Australian life!
     I wonder what I should put on my c.v.
New tales are posted on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month.


  1. Roy, On reading this account I can only envy your experiences in the outback before the hordes of present day campers descended upon the scene. They are even to be found in the most remote of locations. Further, spending six months or so in the outback with some of the true blue locals would have provided some valuable skills in communicating with others. Perhaps you even learnt a new expression or two. Most folk here share your dislike of mosquitoes and positively loath the midges found along the northern beaches. Even dogs are driven to distraction by the pain inflicted by the latter. Several of us tried using the zapper bats in Vietnam and thought them amazing, that is until we tried to board an aircraft with strange batteries and electrical components located in the handles. That's a story in itself.
    When travelling north last I'm certain I located your potholes at Tennant Crk. My lasting memory of heading east from Tennant Crk was the howling easterly wind sweeping right across the almost treeless Barkly Tableland. The locals all assured me that this was characteristic of the area and even thought it a little odd that I should comment on it. In the context of trying to cook meals I can't but wonder if you remember this.
    if your next episode leads you north for crocodile shooting might I recommend Tom Cole's book, "Hell West and Crooked". As a youngster Tom tried his hand at crocodile and buffalo shooting.
    Looking forward to your next account.

    1. Thanks Bob, You are right, the winds really howl across the Tablelands.
      I'll try to do a better job on the potholes next time around.

  2. It’s arduous to seek out knowledgeable people on this matter, but you sound like you already know what you’re talking about! Thanksland rover australia


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