(This was Bill the American, a genial bloke from Arizona who worked in East Asia).
(This was Bill the Aussie, a writer of non-fiction histories. Very tall, very elegant for an Aussie.)
(This was . . .)
Heck, if you shouted 'Bill!' in the morning, about a dozen replies would come from all sides. Just like that oldie, if you yell Jock down the hatch of the engine room of a seagoing vessel (or rather more lately, a spacegoing starship) someone is bound to appear wiping his hands on an oily rag.
I stared out over the landscape. One of the two Cuzzies had accidentally hit a kangaroo over the last few days and unfortunately killed it stone dead. The rider and his bike were undamaged, so I understood. How this can happen with a Honda 110 is astonishing, kangaroos being big fellahs and bikes and blokes being a great deal smaller. Accidents like this were rare, but they did happen on occasion. A kangaroo had almost jumped on my bike earlier. It managed to swerve away when it was almost on me. Something spooks the creatures, out in the bush (maybe the bike engines?) and they just bounce off at high speed, crossing the highway if it's in their path.
There were also non-indigenous creatures out there. Wildcats, camels, wild pigs. I had been reading about the camels. Apparently when they were first introduced to Australia they came with Arab camel drivers. The writer of the article also said that when a camel driver died the lead camel was always killed and buried with him. Tradition.
I imagined a little scene in the Outback with the lead camel waking up and seeing the stiff body of his driver lying nearby, thinking, 'Oh crap!' and trying to make a run for it. This would account for all the wild camels now roaming the antipodean desert. Escapees from a sort of camel suttee. I didn't see any wild camels this trip but they had seen them last year. I think Pete took one or two photos of a herd.
I saw wild pigs, big ugly fellahs, but they were always on the side of the road, having been struck dead by traffic. These cadavers were usually bloated to twice their normal size and smelling fairly ripe. The stink would wrap around you like clingfilm as you rode past, reluctant to let you go. There was also a danger of hitting these carcasses and going over the bars, especially late in the day when the tiredness came on.
I was on the lookout for my first wild camel carcass.
After breakfast at the Purple Pub, we set out for Karumba, a small town on the Gulf of Carpenteria. So far the trip had been totally linear, but Karumba was a sort of side-shoot, a day trip to the seaside. Our eventual destination was Croyden – no, not one south of London – an old mining town on the way back to the east coast.
Karumba! Doesn't Bart Simpson say that, ever so often? Aye, karumba! I think I used to say it too, when I was a kid. Anyway, this offshoot was a pleasant diversion, across marshy country and close to mangrove swamps. The sky was full of those beautiful birds the brolgas, majestic as the herons of my own Suffolk waterlands. I did not tire of seeing flocks of them above me and more than once almost ended up in the ditch through not paying attention to where I was going.
Karumba is a fishing town. Prawns and barramundi apparently earn somebody in the region $130 million dollars a year. That's a lot of dosh. On approaching the town I saw a sign: WELCOME TO KARUMBA – POPULATION SMALL, BUT WE LOVE THEM ALL. Nice way to tell people to drive carefully. The Outback towns were fond of their signs. One of them, no doubt suffering a drought, said: WANNA BATH? - BYO WATER.
I would have liked to visit Sweers Island, 30-odd miles out from Karumba, but my little 21 was unfortunately not aquatic.
Sweers Island is home to about fifty species of bird. Charles Darwin dropped off there on his way around the world in the Beagle. He might have met the Kaiadilt people who it seems traditionally use the island for seafood gathering. That redoubtable sea captain Flinders gave the place a name in English, though undoubtedly it had one anyway in another language. He called it Sweers after a politician. Personally I wouldn't even name a dunny after a politician – or maybe I would – but only a dunny.
Captain Flinders and Captain Cook are well thought of in Oz, which is rare considering they're Poms. There's railway stations, streets, squares and even towns named after them. Good blokes, apparently, who navigated much of that which needed navigating back in the days when hardly anything had been mapped or charted. And so far as I know, neither of them were whingers, which goes down well with the local populace. Good on yer, captains courageous.
'You want to see the sea?' asked Pete, as we arrived in Karumba. 'There's quite a bit of it.'
So there was. A lot of sea. Blue too.
The first thing I saw above the beach was a sign which said, 'Watch out for salt water crocodiles.' It said it in English of course, but it also had a huge 'ACHTUNG!' and then said it more emphatically in German. Perhaps the crocs don't eat Frenchmen or Italians? Or maybe the Germans are particularly careless with their bodies? Who knows, I know I wasn't going to go swimming off that damn beach, which incidentally was being churned up by reckless young men on postie bikes when I arrived. They were having a sand party. I wasn't skilled enough to do the doughnuts and other stuff they were making their Hondas do, but it looked great fun.
Schoolteacher Josie's bike now had training wheels on the back. Someone had found the wheels in a garage sale and fitted them on for a joke. Richard-the-mechanic did not approve and they were removed a little later.
Pete and I went for a quiet coffee. I tried another of those double-shot long blacks that he always kicks his system off with. I was getting used to them. Whether I'd ever get to likethem was another matter. They certainly got the blood racing round the arteries.
We were supposed to be visiting the barramundi factory and I had been looking forward to seeing a live one of these fish, but the factory was closed. Someone had forgotten it was Sunday. Apparently Aussies don't work on Sunday, which is pretty slack of them when you come to think about it. Still, we zoomed around town like the Wild Ones, and had a good look at everything before heading back towards Normanton.
John told us later that he had come across a broken down road train, a monster that had been stilled.
'The driver was kicking the wheels and calling it all sorts of ugly names,' John said. 'The vehicle was stuck halfway across the road and had seized on the turn. When I arrived they'd got two tow vehicles trying to shift it, but it didn't look as though it was going to move.'
Like trying to get a dead diplodocus out the way, I should imagine.
John didn't get any photos which was a shame.
The ride to Croyden was long and hazy. One of those stretches of bitumen which can make you sleepy. I hate that feeling when your eyes begin closing and you have to force them open with muscles you don't usually use. On those occasions I sang lustily to myself, old folk songs, old scout songs, anything, it didn't matter because it was all inside my helmet. No one else could hear and that was a blessing.
(I was once lost for 48 hours in the Yemen wilderness as a boy scout of 13 years – the maps were poor and a companion and I ended up circumnavigating an extinct volcano - and I sang the same songs then, only at that time brown kites, gazelles and pi-dogs were within earshot and I'm told they registered a complaint with the British Embassy.)
One way to make the journey on bitumen go faster was to lean forward and flatten yourself against the handlebars, thus presenting a low target for the wind. (Sit up and you act like a sail-brake). I used this method, as did others, for overtaking some of the larger members of the ride. And for going up long hills. I could get past Pete easily on a hill, though he still argues the fact. I passed QUASI-MOTO on this run, who took umbrage at my audacity and immediately repassed me. STEADY and EDDIE were there, and CUZZIE BRO 1 and CUZZIE BRO 2, the two cousins who rode together.
Still, the wide open spaces of Australia amazed me as I rode along. If I was to get poetic (which I sometimes do) I would say it filled my spirit with something quite extraordinary. I have never been to anywhere like it. The deserts of the Middle East come close – I got a similar feeling when standing on the pink sands of Wadi Rum in Jordan – but Australia is unique in its atmosphere. I would like to have captured the feeling of riding through the open countryside of Queensland, and bottled it. In my great old age I would open that bottle and take a draught 'Aussie Outback' for I'm sure it would be more invigorating than any drug or medicine.
Driving in Australia is in complete contrast to the other country where I spend a great deal of time: Spain. Andalucia has its wide open spaces of course, its mountain fastnesses and its red-and-yellow coloured landscape, but when I'm there I find myself driving mostly through pueblos blancos, the white villages in the hills, with their ever-narrowing streets.
I can't count the times I've driven into a town or village in Southern Spain on a normal width road, only to discover that within a few yards my wing mirrors are brushing the walls of houses on both sides of the car. I once mistakenly went down one of these funnels in a village in the Sierra Nevadas and realised we were not going to emerge out the other end of the street without ripping the doors off the hire car. I had to turn round. This involved asking a very obliging senora to open the front door of her home so that I could reverse over her stoop. She was very generous and helpful, and so were her neighbours, who all emerged from their houses to give me advice on inching the corner of my car into her living room. By the time I actually managed to turn the vehicle the sweat was pouring from my brow – most of it due to embarrassment and humiliation – while the villagers all cheered clapped. There was probably more than a little sarcasm behind that applause.
Croyden was a welcome sight. We camped at the Rodeo Grounds again. The Shire Council were looking after us here in this old goldmining town. Would you believe there were once 5000 gold mines around this district? Once we'd tented up, seen to our bikes and showered, we got a talk from one of the local officials who shall remain unnamed.
'We used to have a shit-load of bawdy houses and pubs, and now we're down to one pub,' he said, 'but we're still on the map, with a shit-load of sheep, and a shit-load of cattle . . .' He was great. I wish he'd been my history teacher at school. I listened to his talk with undivided attention. He had one of those Outback accents which you only hear in old black-and-white movies about sheepshearers and flying doctors. He used a shit-load of phrases I'd never heard before in my life.