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Back To Australia Part 1 Onto Australia Part 3 Return To Home
 

Onwards and upwards and into the red dust. Things were ok to start with, but then the wheels started to come off. Things have gone pretty much tits-up and unbelievably luckily in equal proportions since striking my car up on one fateful morning. So I'll get the tits-up element out the way here, and then deal with the really, really lucky stuff later on. 

Since things started to go 'tits', that meant the fishing hit the skid-pan a bit, a relief for some people bothering to read this. Wheels.

Now, it's a long story. Is everyone sitting comfortably?

Everybody knows that Australia is one immense island, but it has only been since I started to plan my tour of it that realisation has dawned at just how large. Some of the distances I planned to cover seemed never ending- to the point of intimidation, after coming from a tiny, overcrowded place called Great Britain. I left Darwin a couple of days later to begin my journey, and headed off in the direction Kakadu National Park, where I planned to try and encounter some Barramundi in the numerous creeks, rivers and billabongs littered throughout the wilderness.

I had driven for some four hours (nowadays this seems merely a quick stroll in the scale of things) through mile after mile of parched, tinderbox bush when I checked my map to see how far I'd gone and how close I was to a place to park up and bed down for the night. I'm not sure what the scale of the map was, but I'd travelled approximately seven and a half millimetres on it. Hmmm. I looked at the route I'd and realised that I was going to be spending a lot of hours behind the wheel and burning a few hundred litres of fuel!

There are two main rivers in the Kakadu area, these being the South Alligator and East Alligator, so these 

seemed like the obvious places to start having a snoop about. These rivers are both muddy, tidal affairs, with thick, silty water and loads of exposed mud at low tide- even this far in from the coast. Other problems are the very limited access points for shore fishing, and last but not least the massive infestation of crocodiles- the names of the rivers given by early explorers who found them full of the reptiles and misidentified them. I had a drive to the one town in the whole of Kakadu Park, Jabiru, and discovered there was a small tackle shop there which advertised boat hire, so I went in to make some enquiries. The owner, a very rotund, pontoon-eyed (one stuck, the other twisted) bloke with matted hair and an alluring streak of egg yolk down his T-shirt, was seated behind his counter.
"I see you do boat hire mate?"
"Nope. Not any more mate- customer of mine lost his arm over the side of one of my boats a couple of months back".
"Careless..." I thought.
Pontoon Eyes actually turned out to be a helpful kind of bloke, after my initial scepticism, and I soon had a few pointers and tips on places to have a try at. However, it looked like I was to be confined to shore fishing the limited access points on the rivers and any of the billabongs that still held water at this time of year- being the height of the dry season.

"Kaaa kaaa du du du push pineapple, shake a tree..."
























Kakadu National Park and priceless indigenous artwork depicting some Barramundi (so it said...) adorns the rock face at Ubirr.

When I was a kid all I got was a smack round the head for scribbling on the walls with my crayons.

 





























 

I decided to give the East Alligator a try, so headed up the dusty road to fish the boat ramps at Cahill's Crossing, where travellers from Kakadu pass into the Aboriginal territory of Arnhemland, the border between the two contrived in part by the river itself. I walked down the path to the river's edge at the boat ramp there, and was immediately confronted with three large saltwater crocodiles sunning themselves in the mud along the river bank. This obviously ensured that I would be stood well back from the water's edge when throwing my lures about! 

As it turned out, getting takes on the rubber shad lures I used was no problem at all. In fact for a while it seemed to be a bite a cast. The only problem was that they were all slimy, stinking catfish which were a novelty for the first 17 minutes. There were so many of them that they must have been almost carpeting the river bed, and after four hours of catching them and removing a foot of glutinous slime from my leader after every fish, I was badly willing one of the raps on my rod tip to be from a Barra instead.

 

 

However, it wasn't to be, and aside from the lack of Barramundi, another pain in fishing there was the amount of visitors I had appearing behind me every few minutes. Typical scenario: large, white, rented Toyota Landcruiser with phone numbers all over it pulls up. Five people get out, dressed in the essential rugged outdoor wear of Ray Ban Wraparounds perched on forehead, khaki shirt, Hugo Boss (or similar) multi-pocketed trousers and crisp looking Berghaus hiking boots, fresh out of the box, tipped off with the pungent smell of after shave mixed with mosquito repellent. 
Question one: "Have you caught anything mate?" 
Answer: "Catfish". 
Question two: "Have you seen any crocodiles?" 
Answer: "Lots. There was one over there, one over there, and another over there", gesturing at the last locations I had seen the nostrils and eyeballs of a saltie poking through the surface film of the river. 

Then they would stand behind me for anything from 2 to 20 minutes, finally shake their heads and mutter something about there being nothing there now, get back in the 4x4, and then go and find another spot to try and see a croc. And so it went, all afternoon long. After another night sleeping in the car, I was up at first light to try the spot again, and after three catfish in five casts, I realised it was probably all going to be same same but similar, gave it a while longer, and then decided to get the hell out of there before the first truck load of flashpackers arrived.

I spent the next couple of days investigating the numerous billabongs and creeks I'd circled on my map, only to find after long, baking walks through spider-web festooned bush tracks that most of them were either completely dry or little more than six inch deep swamps enmeshed in lily pads and tangles of thick weed - quite unfishable even at the few points I could actually access the water. Eventually I found a likely piece of water- a beautiful gin clear oasis-like streak of life in the barren wilderness and as I meandered to the water's edge, I made a note of the crocodile warning signs nailed to a couple of the trees. 

It turned out to be great fun fishing there, with several small Barramundi hanging themselves on my lures as I flicked them under various overhanging bushes and partially submerged tree trunks and logs, some of them staying hooked, others managing to tailwalk clear, while around me numerous lizards, kingfishers and other fauna scuttled about their daily business. As the evening drew to a close, I found myself at a spot where during 

Above: Weird markings on one of the dozens and dozens and bloody dozens of catfish carpeting the bed of the East Alligator.

Below: Cahill's Crossing at low tide on the East Alligator River.

 

Dry season, and many of the billabongs I investigated from my map were little 
more than weed filled 
swamps a few 
inches deep.

the wet season a creek obviously emptied into the billabong, with a set of shallow sand bars visible under the  oily flat water, which was quickly darkening in the dusk. 

This proved to be a great holding spot for the fish, having three takes in three casts, and landing two pretty Barra of a couple of kilos a piece and jumping another off the hook before blackness finally descended. I briefly considered whether to continue fishing after dark, something which I had been advised on three separate occasions not to do. But... after all... despite the warning signs, I had seen no evidence of any crocodiles in there all afternoon... and, I mean, the billabong had not been connected to any fresh or moving water in months now... However, after a short while the mosquitoes were coming out in force and driving me nuts, so I decided to call it a night, trough another gourmet Pot Noodle, crawl into the back of the car for some shut-eye, and start again at dawn. 

As I turned and picked my way through the moonlit shadows of the bush, I nearly wrote off another pair of boxer shorts when I stumbled across a kangaroo, which itself leapt ten feet in the air in shock and careered off on a high-speed, out of control charge through the undergrowth, reminding me of an old joke, the punch-line 

Not something I'd fancy walking through in the dark.

of which goes something like "squeeze these fellas too love, cos I've gotta catch that bastard!!"

First thing the next morning I rambled back to the same spot which I had finished at the previous evening, cock-sure that there would be some more fish to be caught. As I slithered my path down the sand bank to the edge of the billabong, I strained my eyes through the half-light to catch a first glimpse of the Barramundi spot. And there, not ten metres out, right in the very place I had hooked the final fish of the previous day a few hours beforehand, laid a large, motionless, coldly-staring saltwater croc, betrayed only by the spiny ridge of it's back, and it's eyes and nostrils as a strip of silhouettes on the silver mirrored surface. 


Darkness closes in over a deserted billabong. Yet again, spot on, bob on.
Inset: Lip landing a small Barra.










Was it there all the time I fished the previous evening, watching my every move? Or was it drawn to the spot by my presence and hoping I'd return? Or was it the commotion of playing out the fish? Whatever... I had been given a sharp warning about getting too secure about my relationship with the local wildlife! As I reached the bottom of the bank I watched the crafty croc sink slowly and silently out of sight without so much as a ripple. I decided that I'd perhaps fish a little further along the bank, and there was no way I was going within ten feet of the water's edge! 

As it turned out, the sand bar ridges produced some lovely sport again, and I managed a few takes from the aggressive Barramundi, beaching two or three of them in quick succession- including one quite nice sized one that I took the time to get the tripod out and photograph after it had given me an aerobatic tussle on my light spinning gear, in all probability watched all the way to shore by our crusty companion lurking around out there somewhere close by. The session was concluded with a nice bonus of a Tarpon (Ox-Eye Herring) which seized a rubber shad and spent the next few moments airborne on the end of my line, leaving me feeling pretty pleased with my good fortune. 

 
























Billabong-a-Barramundi on a rubber shad... Watched all the way in by a low-down, low-life, sneaky, sly-prick of a croc I suspect.

As the sun climbed higher into the sky, sport slackened off a bit, and by the time the clock said ten my T-shirt was soaked in sweat under the bush canopy - time to go cool off (NOT swimming!), get some breakfast, and move on to investigate some of the other blue spots on the map... some of which would surely prove to be temporary mirages, but then again, just maybe one or two of them may provide me with a few more pulls on the rod tip...

The Barramundi search continued through the bush as I headed east along the Kakadu Highway, with the tinderbox countryside occasionally alight with roaring bush fires, wheeling birds of prey circling the skies above to swoop on any partially barbecued rodents scuttling off through the grass in their little singed hides. I checked out a couple of blue spots on the map, only to find them either not there or just a shallow bog again, and after a while came to a turn-off signposted to Jim Jim Falls. The idea of maybe catching a fish or two in the vicinity of some idyllic waterfalls captured my imagination, so I decided to head up the red dust track and see if I could find them. 

After a 60 kilometre drive, with my already fragile motor being rattled to pieces by the rutted surface of the track, I arrived at the end of the road... with Jim Jim Falls still some 6 kilometres distant, and a big sign saying "Four wheel drive access only". Great. Why didn't it say 

 

that at the start of the track 60k back? In fact, why didn't it mention anything on the map? I checked again, and there in brackets along the dotted line were the words "4x4 only". Ok... so reedin and rightin has never been a strong point...

I turned right around and shook the scarlet battlecruiser to pieces again all the way back to the main road, most probably amusing all the Landcruiser drivers I passed heading in the other direction in their vapour trails of red dust. 

Next stop, Jim Jim Billabong then. And after having a good walk around it, not only did it look fishable, but one or two of the spots looked really fishy, with overhanging bushes and some sub-surface tree roots 

entangling themselves in one secluded corner of the water. Since it was still mid-afternoon and baking hot at this point, I decided to make the short trip up the road to the lodge at a place called Cooinda, where I could get a beer, an ice-cream, and put some fuel in the tank, then return later when evening had started to creep across the horizon and the chances of a fish or two had risen inversely proportional to the sunshine. 

As I pulled into Cooinda, I quickly realised where the hatchery was for all the white 4x4's steaming their way around the rest of the park. It felt a bit like when Sigourney Weaver finds all those eggs in the Alien film. So after a quick, cold, and expensive glass of beer I hightailed it out of there back to the quieter backwaters of the billabong again, and pulled into a shady spot in the dust and scrub in an attempt to prevent my dashboard melting, before preparing a bag of tackle and a spinning rod for a few hours lure fishing in the evening.

While I pottered about, I noticed there were a few other backpacker-mobiles littered about the parking 























Home sweet home.























Micro Tarpon (Ox-Eye Herring). Not quite up to it's Florida Keys cousin's dimensions.

area, for the most part surrounded by a selection of dreadlocked and braided heads, with tie-dyed clothing and fisherman's pants drying on the bushes. One hairy-toed traveller was washing herself down with a bowl of lake water wearing only her grubby looking apple-catcher knickers, although it would have to be a pretty large apple to not just fall through the holes. This would very much qualify as a double-take moment where I come from...

The short fishing session that evening was pretty much uneventful, with a couple of Barra throwing the hook in the submerged trees, and yet another fat, lard-ball of a catfish hanging itself on the plastic shad. After descent of darkness I wound my way back to the car through the trees, coming a cropper several times on broken branches and scraping the skin off one of my shins. I then got some sticks and bark together and built a nice big campfire, made yet another staple-diet pot noodle, and sat in the tailgate of the motor savouring the atmosphere. A bright, silver moon lit up the still night air, cicadas rasped their tunes, and the sound of crackling and laughter from the fires of the other travellers all combined to make it a tranquil place to contemplate all things worldly. And then it started... one at a time. Now two... Three of them in the end... Surrounding me... Oh no. It seemed that it after-dinner-time was didgeridoo time. Why oh why couldn't they just have an After Eight and a cigar? All I needed was Rolf Harris and his wobbling board thing to come out of the undergrowth and my night would have been complete. Unfortunately I don't think anyone could actually play one of the things, since all we ended up with was a bunch doing a chaotic composition of fat blokes farting down a set of rainwater pipes. Finally three 4x4s turned up, complete with trailers and heaps of other paraphernalia, set up camp and put on the stereo with some hard core techno stuff. All quite amusing - briefly - until it had gone on for half an hour too long and even the cicadas had ceased their noise. Probably cos they had pulled their wing casings down over their ears.

The outback oasis of Daly Waters: 
"Smart motor, mate".
"Thanks. It's a four litre with automatic transmission you know..."

 











Why?











The smoky bush dusk.

I left the scene early the next morning, hoping to see the stub ends of a few disillusioned didgeridoos in the embers of the campfires, but unfortunately it wasn't to be. So I pointed the 'cruiser west again and headed off to continue the search of Kakadu. This proved to be a mistake. I passed over blue line after blue line on the map, but they were almost without exception bone-dry creek beds. Where I did find some water, bank side access ranged from very difficult to impossible, and after driving for some three hours I found myself at the Mary River Roadhouse near the entrance of the national park without even finding a suitable spot to get a line in the water. Not inspired, I called in for a coffee and deliberated whether to drive all the way back for hours on end to the billabong where I'd had some success with the Barramundi, or whether to just keep pressing on. My next fishing destination was planned to be a pretty remote outpost of a shanty town called Borroloola, somewhere up close to the coast on the Gulf Of Carpentaria, so since I was pretty sure I would be crossing swords with some Barra up there, I decided to keep toe to metal and carry on kicking up the dust. 

Borroloola, I had calculated, was some 750km distant from my current location, and I also worked out that it would be some 1500 to 2000km before reaching any

civilisation again - dependent on the final route chosen. In an effort to ensure that the battlecruiser didn't break down and leave me stranded in the outback, it seemed best to head for the town of Katherine, book the motor in for a check up and service there (the final major conurbation- although I use the term very loosely), and then make the big push through to the wilderness. Of course, knowing jack-all about engines and other such stuff, I knew I could be laying myself open to some unscrupulous extortion, but I figured I was less likely to be really painfully violated there than in some desolate dust-pit in the middle of nowhere.

Katherine is the kind of place which is (almost) fine to spend a night in when in transition from one place to another. But I ended up spending five nights there, in a dorm with several other people all similarly bewildered as to how they had ended up there, and 


















Pulled in for a breather on the Wolf Creek Bypass.

even more to the point, what the hell they were still doing there. A simple service and check up ended up meaning three days of hanging around, waiting for some new brake pads, new brake discs and something else which he may as well have spoken to me in tongues about. Great. Still, reasoning that this should mean that nothing else could happen to the car while I was burning a trail through the bush, I suppose I felt like it was money well spent... although obviously it would have been better spent on bait, petrol, lager and sun tan lotion. 

In an attempt to fill the hours of waiting around in Katherine, 9pm Saturday night saw me wandering into "town" in search of entertainment. First port of call- the Katherine Hotel Motel lounge bar. Several of the panes of smashed glass in the sidelight to the entrance provided a none-too-subtle hint as to what joys awaited inside. As I entered, I scanned around the room, noting chaos kicking off at every corner: one Aboriginal bloke was swinging a stool over his head in an attempt to decapitate his mate, another had a bottle planted up the nostril of the bloke in front of him as he screeched threats an inch from his face, and half a dozen unconscious piss-artists littered the beer soaked formica tables and lino floors. I hoped my attire for the evening passed the stringent dress code requirements. I kept my head down (literally) and necked a quick beer, before heading for the exit- resisting the temptation to start running and do an SAS style roll around the table legs and out the door. I tried another couple of bars, one of which had four people in it, all looking a bit lonely and sorry for themselves- like an AA meeting where the counsellor hadn't turned up. Another 30 second stubby later I was out of the door and on the street again.

Finally I found one which was full of US servicemen... Hmmm. Now where do I start? As I supped on an ice cold Corona at the corner of the bar I was treated to a delightful vignette (good word, that...) of one of the world's finest fighting forces in recreational mode. 

Firstly, being the barber for the US services has to be the easiest job on planet earth - a 30 second induction on how to plug in some clippers should just about cover it I reckon - just mind those ears. It also seems that the food in the canteen is obviously a little too good and a little too plentiful - or maybe the service had just been franchised to Pizza Hut? I also figured that not only were they issued fatigues and the like for 'business hours', they were also given uniforms for out of hours activities, judging by the profusion of lurid polyester basketball vests and 'shorts' (which should have been 'longs' really, seeing as they all looked like shell-suit bottoms that had recently had a fall-out with their sneakers). The sneakers themselves were almost without exception those basketball boots with nylon zips or Velcro up the middle a la Michael Johnson meets Flash Gordon, complete with silver wings on the heels. And not one of them could put a baseball cap on straight either. And that was just the aesthetics. 

Throw in general aloofness (at best) and rudeness (at worst) to the bar staff in an attempt to be 'supercool' in front of their buddies, the necessity to dish out communal high-fives each time they ordered a beer/cracked a joke/pissed off another member of staff, and a battle cry of "where are the chicks to party with in this place, maaaaaan?" and it seemed even worse. When I became startled at the spectre of a 6 foot plus, incredibly pale looking bean-pole of a ginger fella (dressed as aforementioned) attempting to breakdance in the bar, but in reality looking more like a paramedic should be over there prising his jaw apart with a spoon and forcing down some morphine, I decided it was time to split. At ten past ten I sat myself back down at the table outside the dorm: "Have a good night then, mate?" asked English long-term inmate, Kev, with a wide, all-knowing grin spread across his face...

Finally the wheels were ready, and I could set off on my voyage of discovery into the outback for real. I filled up with fuel, water, then more spare fuel, and more spare water, then left in the late afternoon, and decided to do a couple of hundred kilometres south that evening and then spend an overnight sleeping in my car in the road outside the Daly Waters Pub. I had heard of this place on my travels, and it turned out to be really good fun- packed with people, live music playing, good food and a load of 

"Welcome to Borroloola"

beer- which seemed frankly bizarre given that it was in a real two-pony location. One of the people packing the place was a massive Aussie woman who was obviously celebrating her birthday. She stood at the bar, completely pissed, in a mad looking top-hat type of arrangement, loudly berating anyone with the audacity to speak to her. Unfortunately I needed to get to the bar to get a round in for myself and the English and Dutch people I was having a drink with:
"Excuse us please" I asked as I wedged myself in at the bar. Waynetta (for want of a better name) waddled round and faced me:
"And what the f**k do you want, c**tface?" she politely enquired. Very classy. And I had no idea she already knew me.

 

The morning sun had already started to make me feel like an ant under a magnifying glass when I woke in the back of my car, so I kicked open the tailgate, started breathing, had a coffee, checked the water and oil again, and at last I was on my way up the Carpentaria Highway on course for Borroloola- and hopefully a bit more fishing, although I have to say I had no idea what would be awaiting me there and how I was actually going to access any water. I just figured that anywhere with an outpost near it called Bing Bong had to be worth a look anyway.

On the long, straight road, very few cars were passed, except for a scattering of the huge road trains operating in this part of the world, up to three trailers long and over 60 metres in length. Some 400km later the car wheezed into the car park of the Borroloola Inn with a perceptible sigh of relief- this being the pub and hotel for the region. Hungry, I decided to grab a bite to eat there, so I wandered through the gap in the wire mesh which acted as a door. By the dart board, the words "No Fighting- Offenders Will Be Barred" were painted on the corrugated zinc walls. Behind the bar the message was repeated. And finally on the partition between the 'nice' side of the bar and the 'nutty' side of the bar (which had a padlocked door to prevent bottles and glasses being taken through and causing any damage to the local saloon fauna) there was a "hall of fame"- a long list of names on the barred list, with about a dozen offenders with the word 'LIFE' written next to them, and a similar amount with actual 'end of sentence' dates. 
How wonderfully quaint...

After grabbing a sandwich and a cold stubby of beer, I decided to spend the evening driving up to a place called King Ash Bay, some 30 or 40 kilometres away, where there were allegedly some camping facilities and a boat ramp. There I hoped to get to speak to someone about the fishing opportunities in the vicinity. I set off up the main road in the late afternoon sun, and then found the turning onto an unsealed road which would take me all the way up to the bay on the estuary of the McArthur River. Arriving there all shaken to pieces yet again, I had a walk along the banks, saw no-one to speak to, and decided to make my way back to the pub, since the barmaid there had already told me it shouldn't be difficult to get talking to a few locals over a stubby or two and wangle myself onto a boat for bit of angling activity.

Back down the unsealed track I rattled, night time closing in on the bush all around. As I reached the junction back with the main road, suddenly something went very badly awry. The dashboard lit up like I'd hit the jackpot on the pokies, and the car ground to a creaking halt. I immediately turned off the engine, but it still looked like something very serious was kicking off under the bonnet, with steam billowing out from every available crevice.
"Bollocks... bollocks... bollocks...", was all I could manage to whisper as I nutted the steering wheel repeatedly in slow motion.

I stepped out from the driver's seat and opened the lid to survey the damage, although quite what I expected to see I don't know, since I might as well have been looking at the wiring layout for Apollo 13. And there I stood, in the darkness, miles from any habitation, in the silent, stationary night air, with a knackered wreck of a car as my only companion.  

Loading up the Gentle Giant...

Then winding our way through a whole lotta nothing and the hairpins of the Australian Alps.

 




















Down on the farm. All 25000 square kilometres of it.

I have had happier moments. But what to do? Call the RAC? Fat chance. Start walking? A 15km walk in the dark in any direction out here held very little appeal. Start praying? Now I know that's not gonna work... So I leaned against the wing of the battlecruiser and waited for inspiration, divine or otherwise. Luckily it arrived in the form of a white 4x4 Ute which pulled up a short while later.
"Gotta problem mate?" asked the driver, who in retrospect looked anything but divine to be honest, but seemed like the very apparition of the Angel Gabriel at that moment in time.
"Just a small one mate".
"Where you headin' mate?"
"Not far at the moment by the looks of it. But Borroloola would be nice mate" (never thought I'd say that).
"Wanna tow mate?"
"Please mate".
  
We rigged up my tow cable and dragged the heap of junk back to base, finally uncoupling it in the car park round the back of the pub. I offered the Ute-man a few dollars for his trouble, which he refused, so I thanked him for the tow, and bought him a beer instead in the bar. Later in the evening, as I sat deliberating any moves I might now be able to make, a Kiwi bloke called Benjamin turned up and took himself a seat at the bar. It turned out he had been Borroloola-bound himself that day, ready to do some fishing, but had had not one, not two, but three punctures in six kilometres on the Savannah Highway, leaving him stranded some 160kms from destination. A group of locals in a pick-up truck had given him a lift in, and so there we sat, drowning our sorrows, talking fishing and listening to the lunacy kicking off in the 'nutty' side of the bar. From the sound of it, if we'd unlocked the partition door and dared to look in, things would have been looking like that scene in Poltergeist where all the furniture is flying round the living room. The conversation deteriorated as the beer took hold, both of us moaning about cars for the most part, and casting occasional concerned glances over towards the padlocked door leading into Pandora's Box. After a momentary silence, he raised his head from the bar:
"Tits and wheels mate..."
"Eh?" I looked across at him. He shook his head; 
"Tits and wheels... Let's face it mate - they're always gonna cost ya a fortune and cause ya headaches".

The last thing many a Kangaroo has seen before its pouch overtook its arse cheeks. That, my friends, is Monster Truckin' across the outback.

Pondering these words of wisdom, I realised thus that I had learned yet another very valuable lesson in life.

And it was one that came in useful right away, since a short while later, a massively drunk, monster of a toothless Aboriginal lady came and sat the other side of me at the bar. As she screeched and dribbled something unintelligible at me, her thick-fingered hands rubbed my shoulder, and grabbed my thigh. Now, I'll admit it was the best offer I'd had in some time, but being a person of high morals and deep virtue (!), I felt duty bound to let her down gently;
"Sorry love, but I can't understand a chuffing word you've just sprayed at me", I smiled.

And with that, she screamed with laughter, pinched my leg again, blew me a kiss, rubbed my shoulder and staggered off through the bar, sniggering hysterically.

Benjamin shook his head and I sighed with relief.... "Tits and wheels mate..." he muttered, "tits and wheels..." And we both burst out laughing ourselves over my close call.

Borroloola has a garage. I found it the next morning. It was strategically hidden deep under a pile of scrap cars and zinc sheeting. I then found the owner, Terry, 

who was so well camouflaged I had a job making him out in his native ecosystem. He looked like he had spent the last three years sleeping in his pit and was perhaps in his late fifties/early sixties, with one arm held at some cock-eyed angle by a leather sling made from an old belt. His flip-flopped feet and stork-like legs were black with ground in oil and dirt, and a pair of filthy shorts, so very short that they were very nearly hot-pants, covered up the middle bit.This was very, very scary. Perched on top of this was a barrel shaped body- so distended he looked like an Easter egg on legs, and capping it all off was a thick grey and yellow beard which was home to some bread, cheese, milk (Jesus, I do hope that was the case...), tobacco strands, dribble and I'd guess several small woodland creatures, along with an alco's nose stuck on just above it looking like someone had been chucking purple walnuts about and he didn't duck quick enough.

His pink eyes flashed briefly as I explained my predicament, and he agreed to come down and "have a look at it" later that day. I spent the day milling about with nowhere to go, reading in the dust and sun outside the pub. 
Eventually Terry the Stig arrived, somehow crow-barred in time to slip down a couple of large Bundaberg rums in the bar, and then fiddled about with the crippled mechanics. 

He scratched his head, stroked the lunch out of his facial possum, and finally offered his diagnosis: 
"Head gasket's f***ed mate. If she's got really hot your block could be f***ed as well".
"Yeah, it must have been to even buy the bloody thing", I remember thinking.
"The damage?" I tentatively asked.
"Hmmm. You're looking at 650 plus mate - if it's just a gasket. New engine if it's the block, though that'll cost you more than the thing's worth I'd say. But won't know that til we get her opened up mate. Thursday today. Order parts tomorrow. Week for them to get here, maybe three days labour... Should have it done in ten days or so..."

The horror finally dawned in full technicolour. Ten days marooned in Borroloola shanty town. No money to play with, no wheels, and worst of all, nothing to do. "Shite" didn't do it justice. After reserving judgement on Stig's pricing regime and having a word around the regulars at the inn, it seemed there was a road train arriving in town that evening, due to leave the next morning, and there was a chance that the ailing 'cruiser could be on it - for a fist full of dollars of course. After some urgent phone calls and deliberation, and after doing my sums on a bit of paper, and adding in the hefty weighting that I could be out of town and getting my logistical difficulties resolved ASAP, and that getting a piggyback on the road-train would save at least 150 dollars in fuel... 

























Dawn over the bush (at last) after a night playing at asylum seeker in a road train trailer.

 

Looking at it realistically, I decided to bin the fishing in Borroloola, and add a tonne of scarlet scrap to the return payload to Mount Isa. This is despite the fact that the bloke from a caravan park up the road had already offered to buy the crate off me if I saw fit to "get it off my hands"- a ruse I have since found out to be a scam in the outback, in that they give you a grand for the car (for which you feel both relieved and eternally grateful in equal measure)... and then sell it to a drunken Aboriginal for about five grand on the basis that it had a stereo and air-con- albeit that neither of mine worked. And as much as that sounds like I'm taking the mick, that is the truth of it! The rest of the day passed in a dusty haze, bored out of my tiny brain, waiting for said road train to roll up. In the interim, I sat having a quiet drink with Kiwi Benjamin and a couple of lunatics (in the nicest sense of the word) who were staying at the inn and working for Telstra mending phone lines in the area, and who kindly offered to tow the car up the track to the loading ramp for the trucks. I bought them a beer for their trouble:
"Two Four X please" I ordered for them from Swedish Ida behind the bar.
"Stubbies or cans?" she asked.
"Couldn't care less love - I'm an alcoholic, not a connoisseur" chirped in Telstra 1, a man who clearly knew his calling in life. He then added that he wanted to order some food on the basis that he was so hungry that he could "eat a shit sandwich without any bread", a dish I hadn't even seen on the specials board.

Uncle Tom hard at it as the scarlet battlecruiser lays in dry-dock. I now know where the head gasket lives. You learn something new every day.

As it turned out, trucker Johnno didn't want to hang about until morning, and suddenly at 9pm that evening he used up a tiny handful of his few words to announce that the road train was leaving. Now! A hasty cheerio to Telstra 1 & 2, Swedish Ida and Kiwi Benjamin, and moments later I found myself 20 feet above terra firma and pile-driving through the darkness on the rigid, vertical, non-adjustable passenger seat of the 'Gentle Giant'. 

And that's about where I stayed for the next 25 hours, except for a couple of leaks, a few hours shut-eye in the trailer on yet another voyage of discovery getting a taster of what it's like to be an asylum seeker, and a couple of stops for expensive and crap food ('motorway' services seem to be the same the world over). There was brief (thankfully) bout of country and western music, and a couple of glancing attempts at conversation, but as much as nothing was uncomfortable - except for the seat - there was just a pleasant, benign silence that was just about the size of it... Along with miles and miles and miles of, well, a whole lotta nothing. Looking on the positive side, I had to think that I guess there aren't too many people who have done the 1000km run across the outback of the Tablelands in the same style that I did... (and that was about as positive as I could get about it!) At last we passed into Queensland, where a whole new set of driving rules and regulations came into force, and hit the 'bustling metropolis' of Mount Isa at 9.45pm the next evening.


"I love my life".

Mount Isa is purely a mining town, and it has the distinction of being the largest city on Mother Earth - in terms of square mileage covered - believe it or not. But apart from a glut of fast food outlets, and 23000 inhabitants with huge 4x4's, beer guts, goatee beards and Bundaberg rum promotional vests (and that's just the Sheilas...), there is nothing else there - a bit like the Royston Vasey of Queensland. 

I arranged for the car to go into one of the auto repair centres in town so they could check out the damage and sort out the final cost, and they confirmed they would pick it up from the truck yard first thing on Monday morning to carry out the necessary. I then headed for the truck yard, and somehow ended up helping out by spending my 'day of rest' (!) scrubbing down truck cabs and trailers under the bright sunshine, which, bizarrely enough, I actually quite enjoyed despite it knackering me up completely, being the first day's work I'd done in a short ice-age. But it all proved to be worth the effort in the end. Glen, one of the lads I was helping out, asked me where I was planning to get the surgery done on the motor. His simultaneous grimace, sharp intake of breath and weary shake of the head confirmed all my worst fears.
"Listen, mate", he said, "those blokes will rip your arse right off. My grandad is a retired mechanic with nothing much to do. Let me have a word with him tonight. He loves mucking about with cars, so I'm sure he'll sort it out for you if you just buy all the parts". 

And so it came to pass, that, after a brief row at 8am the next morning with the proprietor of the auto repair centre cos he wanted to charge 80 bucks for cancelling... even though they hadn't even picked the car up or so much as seen it yet (the phrase "get stretched" sorted one that out), Glen's grandad, Tom, and myself spent the next two days taking the battlecruiser apart and reassembling it in his back yard. Glen came down to help too, and thanks to two of the most helpful and generous people I have met, gradually she was coaxed back to life. Uncle Tom refused to take any kind of payment- despite letting me stay and eat with him at his bungalow and working like a madman on the heap of junk. I felt so indebted to him that when I left at dawn the next morning to continue my journey, I sneaked an envelope onto his table containing a note expressing my thanks along with some money to hopefully recompense him for his trouble and preventing me from being ripped off again - even though I know the cantankerous old sod would probably still be moaning about me doing that to this day. Tom & Glen really did save the day for me, and, quite literally, got my travels back on the rails again. Top blokes. 

Oh, and it turned out that the 'new' brake discs the nice man at Katherine fitted in the interests of road safety weren't exactly 'new' either... I mean, do these people take me for some kind of a mug or something...?!

Back To Australia Part 1 Onto Australia Part 3 Return To Home
 

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