Chink, chink, rustle, chink. Somebody has obviously given up trying to sleep. They are up, pulling out pegs, wrapping their tent.
Pete grumbles, ‘Is that you, Kilworth?’
‘What the hell are you doing? It’s only four-thirty.’
‘It’s not me, I tell you. It’s Wikipedia.’
Wikipedia is our name for a guy who is truly a carrier of knowledge, especially about the local wildlife. I’m always asking him questions. He knows about whistling kites and blue-tongued lizards. And many insects. Wikipedia is quietly getting his stuff together. Well, almost quietly. Just the occasional chink or rustle.
‘It sounds like you.’
‘Well it bloody well ain’t.’ Sound carries in a campsite.
John’s voice. ‘Is Garry getting up already?’
I give in. ‘Yes, it’s me - I’m getting up.’
The whole camp is stirring. Torch-lights are battling with the rising sun to see who can remain brightest longest. The torches lose of course. There’s no beating the Ozzie sun once it’s over the horizon. Most of the torches are of the headband kind. Miners’ lamps. They leave your hands free for tasks. I climb into my riding gear, boots last. They’re a pig to put on, the leather being stiff and unbending. They’ve lost their shine and are now thoroughly embedded with red and sandy-coloured dust. My plastic elbow guards, knee guards and bollock guards feel uncomfortable at first, but after half-an-hour I’m used to them. I trudge off, being ahead of the others in packing, and fetch three teas.
The shed where the breakfasts are being cooked is full of riders. Many have forgotten they’ve got a lit headband torch around their skull. Me included. They walk about, bemused, looking for the toaster. I get three paper cups full of tea and return to John and Pete. They are appreciative, which is something. John is a talker, bless him, and he talks while he’s packing his bag. Pete screws up his eyes and looks at the new day as if it’s challenging him to a duel.
We’re almost ready for the road.
Once breakfast is over, the daily briefing from Dan is next on the agenda.
We left Rolleston, bound for Barcaldine. Today was all about bitumen. Tarmac from door to door. No dusty tracks. No interesting creeks to skid into. Just black tar and white lines.
Barcaldine is the town where the great shearers’ strike took place in the late 1800s. I remember seeing a movie when I was a kid called ‘The Shiralee’ based on a novel by D’Arcy Niland, about a roving swaggie shearer and his child. Shiralee apparently means ‘burden’. The burden is the young daughter the shearer has to drag around the sheep farms with him. I loved that film. It had great atmosphere. Where it was accurate or not was irrelevant to me as a young boy. I wanted to be out there, on the dusty roads of Australia, in the Outback of Queensland. Now, here I was, heading for the heart of that shearing country, where shearers downed their clippers and told the establishment to go to hell, if for a short time only.
Barcaldine was an American bomber base during the war and has around 2000 souls today, one or two of whom apparently look north eastwards to the USA for their forebears. Pete, who did the ride in 2007 as well as 2008, told me how he had fared in that year. He had arrived in the town and asked for the oldest pub. Sent to a hostelry called ‘The Artesian’ he found he was a minor celebrity there amongst drinkers who were well into their favourite sport. They all had their photos taken with him, then he said he had to leave. A young woman tried to persuade him to stay, but he had to join the rest of the riders camping at the showgrounds and told her so. As he rode away she yelled after him, ‘I’m only 30.’ Despite the inferred offer he kept going.
On the way to Barcaldine we passed through Springsure and Emerald. There are precious stone mines at Emerald, but they don’t mine emeralds there. The emerald the town is named after is a lush green hill at the back. What they mine at Emerald is sapphires. Not green stones, but blue. Most confusing. Apparently the sapphire fields at Emerald are the richest in the southern hemisphere. What is very interesting at Emerald is a tree that’s 250 million years old. Happy Birthday, tree! It has now turned to stone, having fossilised, but still it’s an impressive age. Dead though. The region is famous for its live plants too: sunflowers. A Van Gogh land of big blooms.
The journey that day was long and tedious, except for one incident when we were going across a creek. Pete was just in front of me. We were hammering away noisily at around 75 kph when this large kangaroo suddenly shot out of the bush and bounded across the road right in front of him. Pete didn’t deviate, but I thought wow, that was close! Then a quick movement to my right made me turn my head. Another roo was leaping out of the undergrowth, this time towards me!. I braked sharply and skidded, while the kangaroo suddenly realised he was going to hit one of those many angry red machines that were careering through his territory. He did a quick sideways leap and then athletically spun round, turning back towards the way he had come. I missed his plumbob bottom by inches. Pete waved a hand over his shoulder as if to say, ‘Pay attention, mate, or you’ll end up as a kangaroo road kill.’
450 straight kilometres of bitumen is not great fun. Still, Pete entertained me at the stops with his dark tales of ‘bull dust’ trails to come. I would part company with my bike, he told me, everyone does. Secretly I thought: not me. I shall stay stuck to the saddle because I shall be sensible and ride at a speed that will keep the bike firmly under my backside.
Little did I know.
Little did I understand the devious nature of bull dust.
Anyway, not today. Today we were cruising through greenish countryside, with kangaroo road kills every several miles. They were somewhat whiffy. I imagined the poor bastards being hit by a road train. Those big articulated monsters would mow them down as easily as a car going over a weasel. Bang. Squish. Kangaroo heaven. The kites were feeding though, and the ants, and various other beasties.
There are other road kills. Taipan snakes. Feral pigs.
‘Anna has gone to the hospital,’ one of the riders tells us as we stop for a coffee. ‘She might be back, but maybe not.’
Anna was one of the female riders who had damaged her ankle when she parted company with her machine. That’s two down so far. Maybe more. I had heard about someone whose back had gone, not from a fall but from a simple task like kick-starting the bike. My knees gripped the fuel tank of my lovely redheaded Honda beauty, with her hot vibrating flanks and willing chassis. We were not getting divorced if I could help it. Let no bull dust put us asunder. Till death us do part, I thought, hoping of course that it wouldn’t come to that.
We entered Barcaldine by crossing a railway.
Railway journeys I have known.
My wife Annette and I were in Thailand in the late 1980’s. We wanted to travel by train from Bangkok to Chang Mai on an overnight sleeper train. Just obtaining the ticket turned the clock back to a time when Rudyard Kipling was in his youth. First we obtained a number at a kiosk. We took that number, just a simple figure like 8 or 9, to an office where a man wrote our names in a great ledger. We then went to another office where we were assigned seats and canvas bunk beds that unrolled from the side of the carriage. Finally, we went to the last office, where we were issued with tickets for the 6 pm train to Chang Mai.
We were excited. This was our first long rail trip in the Far East.
At quarter-to-six that evening we boarded a train which said ‘Bangkok to Chang Mai’ on the side in big letters. The platform from which it was leaving was registered on both our tickets. We stowed our luggage, sat in our seats and were delighted to be served curry from a man who had a portable paraffin stove set up in the linked bit between the next carriage and ours. We had especially opted for no air conditioning, because we like the climate of Thailand and don’t like to freeze.
The train pulled out at precisely 6 pm.
Once out in the countryside we would stop only at the odd station, but on the edge of Bangkok there were a number of suburban halts where people could board. At about 7 pm a Thai family entered our carriage. There was dad, mum and two children. The man looked at us, looked at his tickets, and said, ‘Madam and sir, you are in our seats.’
I took out my own tickets, looked at the seat numbers, checked the carriage number, and shook my head.
‘You’ve made a mistake. These are our seats.’
He shrugged and showed me his tickets. I showed him mine. They were identical. Damn railway clerks, I thought. They’ve either sold the seats twice, or made a stupid error. All those ledgers too! You would think the system infallible with so much bureaucracy.
‘I must fetch the ticket inspector,’ said the Thai gentleman. ‘He’ll know what to do.’
‘Good idea,’ I replied, safe in the knowledge that possession was nine tenths of the law. ‘He’ll sort it out.’
In the meantime I offered my seat to the man’s wife and Annette chatted to the two children.
The ticket inspector turned out to be a corpulent official covered in gold lanyards, medals and scrambled egg. He looked like an amiable general in Thailand’s army. However, he was accompanied by a lean narrow-eyed lieutenant who wore a gun at his hip. This one looked like an officer in the Vietcong, the one from the movie ‘The Deerhunter’ who keeps yelling, ‘Wai! Wai! Wai!’ or some such word into the ear of Robert de Niro. This man’s hand never left his gun butt as he stared at me from beneath the slanted peak of his immaculate cap.
Neither of these rail officials spoke English.
The ticket inspector studied all the tickets on show and then spoke softly to the gentleman with the nice family.
‘He wants to know,’ said the gentleman, turning to me, ‘why you are on the wrong train?’
We were nonplussed. Stunned. Gobsmacked.
‘What wrong train?’ I argued. ‘This is the 6 pm from Bangkok to Chang Mai, isn’t it?’
‘No,’ came the calm reply, ‘this is the 3 pm from Bangkok to Chang Mai, running late as usual.’
‘What? You mean . . .’
‘All trains run late here, sir. The 6 pm will still be standing in the station. The ticket inspector says you will have to get off at the next station and wait for your right train.’
Annette and I stared out of the window at the blackness rushing by. The country stations had no lights whatsoever. They were pits of darkness in a world of utter darkness. I had visions of standing on one of those rickety wooden platforms trying to flag down an express. It was scary. Too scary to contemplate. I’m sure the people who lived near those stations were perfectly respectable citizens, but the night time jungle does things with the imagination. There was no way we were going to get off our train, now that we were rattling towards Chang Mai.
Through our gentleman translator we managed to persuade the inspector to let us stay on the train. At first he wanted to sell us first class tickets to the air conditioned compartments. When that didn’t work - Annette digging in her heels - he found us similar seats to the ones we already had. It occurred to me he could have done that in the first place, but since all was well that ended well, I really didn’t care.
There is a post script to this short tale.
To avoid any repetition of this near horror story, we chose to return to Bangkok by a reliable bus. I kid you not when I say that when we boarded the coach our pre-booked seats were completely overflowing with Thai monks. We explained to these orange-robed young men that they were in our seats and they pointedly ignored us, staring out of the window. I fetched the driver who said, ‘Sir, as monks they are permitted to sit anywhere, eat anything, and the law tells us we can do nothing.’ Since young men serve a year or two as monks, in the way that they do their national service in the army, we weren’t too impressed by the piety side of things. They were not dedicated holy men, having taken vows of poverty, but ordinary youths serving out a set time.
The guys wouldn’t budge. They knew their rights.
A fierce woman conductor told us to ‘get off the bus’. We told her we had tickets for the seats these two queue jumpers were sitting in. We were not going to move. Other passengers began to get restless. The driver started looking panicky. Finally he came to us with his hands clasped as if in prayer and said, ‘Sir, Madam, I beseech you. I plead with you to understand my problem and leave the bus.’ We sighed, gave up and got off the vehicle. It’s a tough man who can withstand a Thai beseeching, I can tell you. Tougher than me, anyway. We collected our luggage from underneath the bus and waited for the next one. Hopefully the place had run out of monks and we could get back to Bangkok. And where do Thai bus drivers learn words like ‘beseech’? I guarantee half the population of the English-speaking world doesn’t know that word. He probably had a degree in English Literature, having read Chaucer and Piers Ploughman, while all I know of Thai is ‘good day’.
One problem began to mar my voyage through the Outback. Although I had managed to phone Annette at Gayndah on the first evening, I hadn't managed to contact her since then. She had taken the tilt train from Brisbane to Cairns, then set out for some Quaker Friends located on the Atherton Tablelands.
The trouble was we both had UK mobiles which for some reason would not work in the Outback. I borrowed Pete's Aussie mobile but by that time Annette had disappeared into the Tablelands, a remote area of rainforest and bush, where she would be looking for wildlife. (She eventually became 'the platypus lady' having located some of these strange creatures and asked by the eco lodge to take out parties to see them). Her location was as bad as mine, for cell phone reception. I knew she would be worrying about how I was managing, but I couldn’t get hold of her. (In fact, we would not manage to speak again until I reached Innot Springs near the end of the ride, though she had by that time contacted one of the organisers’ mothers and ascertained I was not in surgery).
It would have been nice to get all excited by each day's events and share them with Annette on the going down of the sun, but hey, when we were first married the Royal Air Force sent me to South Yemen for a year during which we could only communicate by letter, and it had been far more dangerous then, since I was being shot at, probably quite rightly, by anti-colonialist Arabians who wanted me out of their country almost as much I wanted to get out.