THE GATES OF HELL

Out here nothing changes,
Not in a hurry anyway.
You feel the endlessness,
Running from the light of day…
                             – Goanna, Solid Rock.

East of Borroloola the back left tyre of my four-wheel-drive exploded.  I was driving fast, too fast, probably, on a hellish stretch of road riven by pot-holes and deep puddles of bull-dust.  The corrugated surface was so rough that I was unaware the tyre was disintegrating until I felt the automatic transmission change down a gear and realized the back corner of the vehicle was sitting low.  By then I had driven several kilometres on the flat tyre and all that remained of the outer wall was a few hot shards of steel fibre and charred rubber.  The rim was pitted like a golf ball.

I unpacked the tool kit and one of the two spare tyres I was carrying.  The handle of the bottle jack was missing so I spent the next hour sprawled in the dirt beneath the vehicle, winding the jack up with an adjustable spanner.  Once the ruined wheel was off I had to dig a hole in the road beneath the hub in order to get the spare on.  I was covered from head to toe in bull-dust, grease and sweat.  Even the flies wouldn’t come near me.  I dusted myself off and continued on towards Hell’s Gate.

Beyond Wollogorang cattle station I crossed the border between the Northern Territory and Queensland.  The sun was incandescent in the blue dome of the sky; the ground too hot to stand on in bare feet.  The border itself was nothing more than a cattle grid set into a post and wire fence which stretched off into the bush and was soon swallowed by the trees.

Hell’s Gate turned out to be a far more pleasant place than its name suggests.  I parked outside the Hell’s Gate Roadhouse in the shade of a spreading magnolia tree which shed its fragrant petals like desert snow.  The beer was icy cold, the girl running the place was charming and friendly, and the Barramundi Burger I had for lunch was the best food I’d eaten since Darwin.

It was the sometimes bloody history of early European settlement which gave the outpost its ominous name.  In the late 1800’s police stationed at nearby Corinda provided regular escorts for Territory-bound settlers as far as the rocky escarpments of Hell’s Gate, refusing to accompany the travellers past this point because of the fierceness of Aboriginals in the area.

Later, on an arrow-straight, red dirt stretch of road scraped through the bush, I was breathalysed by a pair of Queensland Police officers.  Their white 4WD was the first vehicle I’d seen all day.

“You’re a long way from home,” the policewoman said, looking at the Victoria plates on the front of my vehicle.

“Further than you think,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re a bloody Kiwi,” said her burly partner, whose suntanned arms looked like truck axles.  They checked my licence and I blew into a gadget which confirmed I wasn’t some drunken lunatic driving around out in the bush alone.  A battered Toyota Landcruiser laden with grinning Aboriginals from the nearby Doomadgee Community pulled up and the police lost interest in teasing me.

Burketown (pop 230) shuts its shops early.  I booked into the Burketown Pub – “the oldest pub in Queensland” – and by 5pm it seemed virtually everyone in town was at the bar.  The English barmaid, Sophie, in a neat inversion of the Kiwi bartender in London, had applied for the job – board, lodgings and an air ticket from the east coast – when she ran out of money in Cairns.

I swallowed an ice-cold glass of Toohies New beer while some of assembled drinkers ribbed me about the destroyed wheel bolted to the back of my 4WD.

“Ya won’t be geddin’ that one fixed mate,” said a stockman sitting under a wagon wheel-sized Akubra hat.

When I asked him the way to the Burketown Salt Flats he nodded his hat towards the horizon and said  “Just drive that way till you don’t see any more cane toads.”

In the darkness before dawn next morning I drove out past the edge of town.  The road crumbled into furrows then into a single pair of wheel-tracks leading out onto the salt flats.  The headlights cast twin pools of light onto the flat, featureless ground ahead; everything else was black as if I was driving into a void.

The salt flats were the quietest place I have ever been.  I was the only living thing out there that morning.  Nothing moved apart from vague air currents too insubstantial to be called wind.  The surface of the ground was cracked like a reptile’s skin and the cool air possessed a vague odour of phosphate.  It was so still I could almost feel the movement of the Earth.

Saltflat Dawn.

A sliver of moon, attended by a pair of planets, hung in the eastern sky which was washed pale pink by the approaching sun.  Soon, the heat would begin to rise and I would be on the road again, driving into another day of Outback adventures beyond the Gates of Hell.

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