UP YOUR NORTH  Parts 1 and 2

UP YOUR NORTH

THE KIMBERLEY AND KAKADU

Broome to Darwin in 14 days by 4WD

[These are the first two of eleven parts of a small book on this subject.]

I

But things may not be so bad after all at an airport hotel – God knows that they charge enough in this country – and you find that the staff are more cosmopolitan than the guests.  Far more.  I did not realise then that this would be a recurring theme on this trip.

And I was offered a lamb shank for dinner – and it was decently cooked and served.  I gathered from glancing about that mashed potato is in vogue at this level of accommodation, and of course there were the dreaded microwave greens, but they both happened to be right for the shank.  There should be a law requiring airport hotels – or those serving footy crowds – to serve shanks, or ox-tail, or osso bucco, or fore-quarter – meat on the bone – with mashed potato.  I recalled the time I went down to the café in the Beverly Wilshire after enduring three hours in a queue for immigration at L A and feeling a wave of blessing when my eye fell on the special for the night – meat loaf and gravy with mashed potato, truly a meal offered as a balm to the soul.

The staff at this unostentatious but over-priced hotel (a Holiday Inn) were at least trained a bit and they seemed keen to participate.  We have during the second half of my life changed a lot for the better in businesses meant to serve people – we now follow the American rather than the Russian model.

The crowd was desultory and white, except for four guys who came in well after me.  The looked both relaxed and assured, and of very mixed backgrounds, but of a common calling – one of them of colour had something like a tea-cosy on his head.  They were courteous, if casually dishevelled, but they were not on the grog.  I surmised that they worked on rigs or were perhaps itinerant (fly-in) miners.  Two other guys in the lift confirmed this when I said that the others looked like they were feeding up for a year.  These guys said that the food on the rigs was good – I bet it is – but that these people would feed up big because it was on the ticket.  That had a ring of truth, but these guys, who were being picked up by helicopter at 6 am, did not look to me to be spongers.  Nor did they look to me to be likely to have any trouble with the girls – even putting to one side their doubtless astronomical incomes.

There was a different kind of itinerant worker at breakfast the next morning, but I will come back to that in my discussion at Broome on the subject of bogans.

II

I had forgotten how red the earth gets up here.  It is a kind of earthy ochre – it is so often balanced by the grey-green of spinifex.  This is a very Australian palette.  It looks permanent, but perhaps forgotten.  As had been my 4WD reservation.

The laid-back approach of the outback started the moment I got off the plain at Broome, in a temperature about 20 degrees higher than the one I had left.  They took their own sweet time getting the luggage off the plane, and almost immediately the conveyor belt seized up.  No one said anything – or appeared to be doing anything, except for a man whose title was Quarantine Officer, who was desperately trying to look relevant – and failing.  It eventually started and after about twenty minutes – Qantas would shatter this record on my return flight – it got going.

By the time I reached the taxi queue, there was not a taxi in sight, but some rather anxious resort seekers a little curious about what they might be in for.  We tried to join forces but it is hard when you do not know the lay-out of the town.  Eventually a very nice man from Pakistan drove me to the address of the 4WD agent.  (My host at the Ochre Moon B & B that night, Frank, thought he may have been a Timorese posing as Pakistani, but he was well acquainted with the hill-towns of the Raj, as was the Rajasthani cab driver who would drive me home two weeks later from Tullamarine.)  When we got to the address I had been given, I could not see a sign for my company Australian 4WD so I asked the driver to wait

G’day, I gave to pick up a car.

Not from us mate.

Are you not Australian 4WD?

Shit no.  They haven’t been here for months.  They are right over the other side of town.

That’s a bit of a bugger.

You’d better take it up with them, mate.

If I had been told of a change of address, it certainly had not come to mind – I was going by the contract.  So the Pakistani and I resumed our discussion about the Raj while I took a Cook’s tour to refresh my memory of the lay-out of Broome – at, of course, some expense.

When we made it to the new address, I could see no sign, but there was a Nissan Patrol with the name Australian 4 WD stamped on it.  As a precaution, I again asked my Pakistani mate, who was of a genial and philosophical disposition, to wait.  I thought I was picking up a Toyota Land Cruiser or the like, which I had formed a high opinion of in a trip into the desert from Dubai.

G’day, mate.  Have you got a 4WD drive for me?

No, but I have one for some guy tomorrow.

Shit, mate, we had better do something about this – otherwise it could get ugly.  At least I have now found the correct address.

I went with Graeme, who was from Vancouver, into what might be called an office, and Lo!, there on the computer was an email which had come in just then saying that I was to have the Nissan outside.  This was done after Graeme – I am not sure of the spelling – had rung his boss – not the HQ of Australian 4WD.  He began stripping the vehicle of camping gear and jerry cans that I did not need.  He said that opinions varied on Toyota Large 4WD against Nissan.

Graeme was extremely affable.  He and his girlfriend were working their way around Australia after he had done an exchange course in Cairns and fallen in love with the place.  He was right into American football, and we discussed the differences with ours’.  He had heard of Jared Hayne, the NRL guy trying out for the 49ers, and was keen to see him in action.  Graeme was keen to make up for the bugger-up at HQ, but I fear that he may have been better informed on gridiron than the Nissan Patrol.  Graeme did demonstrate to me how to engage 4WD and put it into Low 4WD, something he said I would only use very rarely.  I scribbled some notes on a scrap of a brochure – subsequently, I found the basics of the 4WD transmission on the back of the sun visor.

I had frankly expected and sought a lot more instruction on driving in the outback – across desert tracks and fording creeks – because although I had driven a small 4WD in Kakadu before, I had not been exposed to the big 4WD in what I saw as the extreme conditions I was now heading into.  Graeme had not taken long to get laid back in the outback.  He said that he was not completely au fait with this vehicle, but that if something went wrong on the road, there would be plenty of people about who knew a lot more about this vehicle than he did and who could help.  If something went really wrong, I should just ring the company – in which my confidence was fast ebbing.  Their number was on the door.  The assumption of course was that I had a phone that would be in range all the way – which was not the case.  If my phone did not work, I suppose I should just have to wait for some bastard to arrive with one that did.

This was unsettling.  Surely these companies have a commercial interest, as well as a humanitarian if not legal duty, in instructing people about the controls of the vehicle, which they are charging out at $200 a day, and its use in conditions that most city folk have not experienced before.  As I set off, I got Graeme to note on the contract that the tank was only one quarter full.  The reserve tank was reading empty, but in my uninstructed state, I thought that may because it was not switched on.  I was wrong there, too.  The problem was that Graeme was not ready because of some glitch at HQ.

I navigated my way to the Ochre Moon without a prang, and was glad to get out and get the low-down on the town and the area from Frank.  When he referred to issues with the indigenous people, he did so with that slight downward glance and inflection that people get when they are feeling their way on an issue that their audience might find sensitive.

At Frank’s suggestion, I drove down to the Divers’ Tavern that I had patronised about fifteen years beforehand.  I went to get a meal, and to buy some wine.  As I pulled into the drive-in bottle-shop, there was a blackfella as full as a state school, nursing three bottles of grog precariously in a paper bag who began to scratch at my driver’s window.  This is confronting when you have been away from it for a while.  You get this kind of in your face meeting with the bottom of the human pile at Calcutta or Mumbai – where the beggars are not pissed – but in a first world country?  God only knows what the answer is – it is not, I expect, to put them in funds to get the next three bottles of grog.

It is either me or the girls, or both, but the girls behind the bar at the Divers’ seemed a lot more leggy than I remembered them.  And they were sent out very smartly and cheerily in sinfully hot pants.  Broome was starting to remind me of the snowfields here fifty years ago as a collecting place for people from other lands.  The leggy girl behind the bar was from South East London.  I picked her accent.  I was fairly confident that the one who brought the meal to the beer garden was from Northern Ireland – until she said she came from Munich, Germany.  When I got back to Frank’s, I met guests from Milan – at least they were tourists.

Because I was still on Melbourne time, I went to the Divers’ early, at about five thirty.  In the course of my taxi tour, I had seen what were described as eagles landing on the road.  In the forty-five minutes I was at the Divers’, I saw another horde descend for feeding – the fabled grey nomads, of whom I was one for that day and the following.  They came in a bit of a rush, as if on a cruise.  For some reason, I found it a little unsettling – would these polite ageing folk be up to helping me out if I broke down in the middle of nowhere?  Could they lift the wheel and tire when I could not?  I was also a little unsettled by what looked like some subservience on the part of the male of the species.  Some of them looked fatigued and downtrodden.  They looked like they were there to carry the bags and order the food and grog, and accept instructions on the well-being of themselves and others.  Travelling on your own may have its benefits.

The next morning I had a swim at Cable Beach for old time’s sake – it is quite a sight, the scene of sunsets and camel tours – and visited some other sights of note.  That night at Frank’s, there was a young guy of Chinese extraction – I think called Wai: I am not sure of the spelling – who was working for a South African guy who was trying to get going with a small company working in the tailings of mines.  He was most interesting on the mining industry in W A.  Neither Wai nor Frank had any time for riggers.  Frank’s definition of a bogan was someone who wears his sun glasses on top of the cap.  These were the dudes who had turned up breakfast at the airport hotel that morning.  I never liked the word bogan, but I now think it may have some use.  It is snobbish, but there may be occasions when it is fair to look down at some conduct – especially when they turn the cap back to front before putting up the sunnies – and then the coup de grace – putting the hoodie over the lot, black gray and white camo over Adidas trackies, and shot sneakers without laces.

Frank, who with his wife runs a first class B & B, was interesting about one company, Woodside, in which I hold some shares.  He said they went of their way to instruct their workers on the kind of behaviour that they expected.  He had seen a manager shirtfront a bogan making a pest of himself with an attractive woman by telling him that unless he pulled his head in, he would go back where he came from on the next plane, even if it was full, and that by the time the plane landed, this idiot would be unemployable in this industry in this country.  I was enormously impressed by this good conduct on the part of one of my companies.  Here was a time when the notion of brand could actually do some good.  Thanks, Frank.

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