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troublemag | May 7, 2021

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The Road to Darwin

The Road to Darwin

part one

Ben Laycock

Chapter 1 – Hattah

We leave Castlemaine on the last day of July, heading for Darwin and beyond. We don’t see anything to write home about on the first day. Inglewood seems like a thriving little town, plenty of locals out in the street, until you notice they are actually shop dummies dressed up in old clothes. Good ploy though. You’ve got to have a gimmick these days if you want to stay ahead of the pack. After that we don’t see many real people, but there are flocks and flocks of sheeps. But they are really dirty. I am not impressed. After a few hours we come across a farmer outstanding in her field. I wind down the window and give her a piece of my mind:

“Your sheep are filthy.” I say. “It’s a disgrace. You should be ashamed of yourself. When we go to the country we like to see nice white sheep surrounded by nice green grass.” 

She ambles up to the fence, gives the vehicle the once over like it’s a mangy dog that should be shot, fondly pats the dead fox hanging off the barbed wire, wipes the sweat from her brow, takes off her Akubra,  swats a blowfly, scratches her crotch laconically, sticks her thumbs in her braces, spits out her chewing tobacco, assumes a nonchalant air and launches into a long and sibilant soliloquy (due to her missing teeth, no doubt). Something about the drought, the wool price, the wheat board, the water board, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the Government, the mouse plague, the locust plague, the dust storms… 

“That’s all very well,” I say. “But what about our visual amenity, have you taken that into consideration?”

She lets out a loud fart and wanders off, shaking her head. 

Dirty Sheep

We get as far as Hattah Lakes on the first night, where we camp with a flock of wild emus. Emus can be very curious. They scare the living daylights out of our poor old deaf dog, Gunyarr. I don’t complain to management because it is a National Park after all. 

It’s great to sit by a log fire again. I haven’t done that since last night. (Did you know that the television was invented just after the introduction of the electric radiator. It was designed to replace the trance-like state induced by starring into the flickering flames of the open fire.)

Emus scaring Gunyarr

Next day we get sprung with a shit load of fruit and vegetables on the South Australian border. I am talking top shelf, organic, free range, biodegradable produce here. Goods we paid good money for. Such a shame to see it chucked in the bin, but there are only so many raw vegetables one can eat in a single sitting.  It’s all a big scam of course: we are meant to restock the larder at the next town. Very good for business. The Victorians do the same thing in the opposite direction, so I guess it’s all fair enough, but a terrible waste of fine food none the less.

I politely suggest that the confiscated items could be given away to the poor. The officer replies: “That is a matter for the Welfare Department, not Border Security.”

We cross the Murray at the cute little town  of Morgan, our cute little car on the cuttest little barge, like something out of yesteryear. It’s really hard to find a camp on the river. In the socialist enclave of Victoria, you can camp pretty well anywhere on any river you bloody-well like, because the rivers and the beaches belong to the people. (Make that ‘Communist enclave’.) Not here in the Fascist State of South Australia, where private property extends right through the river and up the other side. 

Of course we camp there anyway, ready to tell any belligerent land holder that it actually belongs to the blackfellas, who are traditionally in favor of camping.

Morgan is the point on the river where it takes a left hand turn and heads South. That is why there is a massive pump that pumps water all the way to Whyallah on the Eyre Peninsula, some 360 kilometres to the West. Unbelievable, isn’t it? Some of the water cooling those giant smelters has come all the way from Queensland. 

Being skeptical by nature, we decide to follow that pipeline and see if it really does go all the way to Whyallah. As soon as we leave the river it gets rather arid. Nothing but salt bush, dotted with stone ruins. We have crossed the famous Goyder Line. For those who didn’t pay attention in Form 2 Geography: some time back in the late 1800s, there was a wet period in South Australia. This happened to coincide with an influx of  Prussian refugees (presumably from the losing side in The Crimean War). The naive immigrants were sent North, with their goat herds in tow, on a quest to tame the wilderness and quell the restless natives. Their first mistake (one of many, it appears), was to eradicate the natives before asking them probing questions  about the prevailing climate in the area, a subject the local natives knew well, I might add, having studied it studiously for countless generations.

As you can guess, the good times didn’t last. As luck would have it, their halcyon days were an aberration, a blip on the flatline of  semi-endless drought that we so quaintly refer to as ‘life in the outback’. The hapless pioneers scuttled back to Prussia, with their tails between their legs, leaving behind a treasure trove of quaint stone ruins to add to the rustic charm of the landscape. 

Having failed to learn their lesson from the locals, nature set about teaching them anyway, with the help of George W. Goyder, who traversed the land with a pointy stick, drawing a long and meandering line, delineating the arable land from the wasteland. Henceforth all lands falling to the north of the Goyder line were to be referred to as The  Badlands. It was decreed that no farmer should ever sow a single seed outside that line, no matter how deceptively fecund the land appeared, for, as sure as night follows day, they would all be ruined. This maxim was strictly adhered to for as long as the latest drought persisted, but, irrepressible optimists that we humans are, as soon as the heavens opened, the happy peasants forgot about Mr. Goyder and his pointy stick. The downpour had washed away his markings anyway. They rushed North  again with gay abandon, astonished to find perfectly good homes to inhabit, complete with barns and weather vanes, just waiting to be filled with ‘hard working families’. 

What a Godsend!

We can all see where this is heading, can’t we? Let’s leave the story here before it gets too grim. Suffice to say, it doesn’t have a happy ending.

… So that is why the heroic deeds of George W. Goyder have been passed down from generation to generation of Form 3 Geography students, making sure his name will go down in the annuls of history alongside the late, great Richard Bowyer Smith, fellow South Australian and inventor of the stump jump plough no less.

Now where were we? Ah yes, we are passing through endless waistlands dotted with rustic stone ruins, surrounded by hills dotted with those ghastly  wind turbines. They are everywhere. Such an eyesore. So glad to get to Whyallah and see the lofty chimneys on the  steelworks, choofing out black smoke, just like Puffing Billy, so much prettier!

I ask a local why it is called Whyallah. He tells me an Afghan Cameleer once built a statue of the Muslim God up on the hill here and everyone would ask: “Why Allah?”. It is apparently the only statue of Allah in the whole world because whenever anyone else built one they got their head chopped off. Thank God the Taliban never got as far as Whyalla.

Chapter 2 – The Giant Cuddlefish-fest

I just went for a swim with 250,000 cuttlefish. Awesome! (Yes, they do breed quickly, don’t they?) For reasons best known to themselves, cuttlefish have chosen to spend their most intimate moments, before they die, between an LPG refinery and a steel smelter. I suspect the cuttlefish were there first.

They have chosen this unlikely spot because it is shallow and protected and has lots of rocks and seaweed to lay eggs under. They don’t seem to mind us swimming around about 2 metres above them while they do their thing. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever encountered.

The Australian Giant Cuttlefish can grow up to a metre long. They live a solitary life roaming the seas for a year and growing up big and beautiful ‘til they all suddenly get that urge to return to the place of their birth, and perform one of the world’s greatest orgies. As you can well imagine, having five long, slippery tentacles, this involves a lot of groping.

Then they all die together. Isn’t that romantic?

Lamentably, the rapacious fishing squads were the first to discover this unique event, but they did not see a great natural wonder, all they saw was floating wads of cash! In the late ‘90s, at the height of the pillage, over thirty boats extracted 270 tonnes of cuttlefish in the space of a few weeks, sending  cuttlefish numbers plummeting towards extinction. Luckily, some bright spark realized they were much more valuable as a spectacle than as a piece of mock crabstick at the fish and chip shop.

So now the cuddlefish flourish, unconcerned by the toxic activities all around them. One can only assume that smelting metal pollutes the air far more than the sea.

The locals claim the air is perfectly fit to breathe, even though the entire town and its residents are covered with a dusting of soft, grey soot. Roaming the streets I couldn’t help but notice the hospital is unusually large for such a small town, and the cemetery is vast!

I searched for the mythological statue of Allah, but alas I was too late. It had been reduced to a pile of rubble, like so much of our cultural heritage.

Chapter 3 – Coober Pedy

Done Whyalla, Darwin here we come! Nothing to see except salt-bush until we pass Iron Knob. It looks different every time I see it. It is definitely getting smaller every time.

More saltbush and the occasional dirty, lonely, mangy sheep, then more salt-bush. Plenty of rotting kangaroos being devoured by crows, and wedge-tailed eagles, salt lakes, one cow, nothing else until Coober Pedy, where there is lots of holes in the ground. 

Apparently an old Italian Nona was the one who discovered how to find opals, way back in days gone by. After eking out a meager existence scratching in the dirt for the first thirty years, watching her delicate complexion become all hard and leathery, and her children run off, one by one, to the siren call of the big city, she came to understand that the opals grew in fissures in the rock. These elusive fissures held a little bit of water that made the grass just that little bit greener. So she and her faithful husband, who had grown equally withered by her side, went in search of thin lines of slightly green grass. She devised a most ingenious method of detection: standing at the top of a long ladder tied in the back of a ute, scanning the barren wasteland day after day, through shine and shine.

Her method was very successful. They both became rich beyond their wildest dreams. But their road to riches was not without its potholes. At first they refused to divulge their secret method under pain of death. Folklore has it they were tortured mercilessly for days on end, covered in honey and tied to ants nests and such things, but being hardy peasant stock from Sicily, where they endured much worse from the Cosa Nostra, they both kept mum. 

It was many months before they recovered from their ordeal and continued their quest. But of course, their every move was being tracked. Their secret was soon exposed. It is pretty difficult to be surreptitious when you are wandering around the desert on the top of a 4 metre ladder tied to a ute. Even the most incurious start to wonder what you are up to.

Iron Knob
Iron Boob

[continued next issue]