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.

CROCODILE COUNTRY

Out where the river broke,
The bloodwood and the desert oak…
                            – Midnight Oil, Beds Are Burning

At Roper Bar I was swimming with crocodiles. And not the harmless freshwater variety, either. These were the real deal: big ‘ol, bad-tempered, drag-you-under-and-drown-you saltwater crocs. The sort of creatures only Crocodile Dundee could handle.

I had joined pilot Paul Smith and his friend Brigit, both of whom worked at the nearby Ngukurr Aboriginal Community, for a swim where the Roper River tumbles over a rocky slab of granite which gave the area its name. As we lolled in the cool water, Paul’s eyes constantly scanned the river for the tell-tale ripple of an approaching croc.

ROPER BAR

“We’re fine swimming here in the shallows as long as someone watches the river,” Paul said. “But out here you should never swim alone or even go near the water unless someone has told you it’s safe.” Of course where crocs are concerned, “safe” is a dangerously loose term. So when the setting sun began casting shadows on the river, making it harder to see into the water, I was happy to return to the campground and leave the Roper in the care of its Silurian masters.

Dawn in the Australian Outback is always heralded by the strangled gurglings, maniacal cackling, rasping, clicking and guffawing of birds. As I lay awake in the pre-dawn darkness, a pied butcherbird sang limpid notes in the tree above my tent, like a bell tolled in liquid. I rose at 5.30am, lit my petrol stove and ate peaches out of a can while the water boiled. One of the simplest pleasures of travelling in the bush is waiting for the billy to boil for a dawn cuppa. A pair of whistling kites eyed me from a tree-top as I broke camp.

Beyond Roper Bar the road became absurdly rough: corrugations, bull-dust and potholes you could lose an oil drum in. After an hour or so I stopped at the Tomato Island fishing camp. Mick and Rita Caulfield were mooring their aluminium dinghy beside a concrete boat ramp leading down to the glassy Roper River. Mick held a big barramundi Rita had caught. They invited me to visit their nearby camp.

Mick, stocky and graying, was a motorbike mechanic; Rita was a nurse who worked part-time at the Ngukurr Community, a five-minute boat-ride across the river. We drank coffee and they told me how they had quit their busy lives in Melbourne for the solitude of the Northern Territory bush.

ON THE ROPER RIVER

“We went away for twelve months,” Rita said. “That was two years ago and we’re not ready to stop yet.”

“We spent the Wet (the rainy season) in Darwin last year,” Mick added. “Might settle down there when the time comes.”

Later, Mick took me upriver in the dinghy to see the wreck of the Young Australian. The bush grew down to the water’s edge; the river hid its secrets (and its terrors) beneath the glossy, opaque surface.

The wreckage of the boat, run aground at night by a drunken crew in 1873, lay against the upstream edge of a rocky islet. The rusted boiler, with its fire-door agape, had the appearance of a half-submerged skull. I imagined the horror of a sinking boat, the men scrambling blindly in the darkness as the water swirled across the deck-plates, and a crocodile-infested river to swim to safety.

THE YOUNG AUSTRALIAN

Beyond Tomato Island camp the road hugged the right bank of the river. The radio picked up a broadcast in Pidgin English from Ngukurr. I sat for a while beside a lily-covered lagoon and listened to thunder growl in the distance. But it was an empty threat and no rain came.

Later, I hiked alone through the Southern Lost City, where eons of erosion have sculpted the hard granite into a natural architecture of towers, abutments, arches and grottoes. The hot wind had desiccated the surrounding bush and everything felt tinder-dry and lifeless.

BORROLOOLA

I reached the dusty, red-sand township of Borroloola in the late afternoon. I had a cold drink at the local store, called home on the satellite phone, then drove out to King Ash Bay fishing camp, situated where the McArthur River drains languidly into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

I pitched my tent overlooking the river then retired to the Groper Bar for a beer. The bar occupied a rough corrugated shed with a big circular awning out back. Beers were served straight out of a rusty chest freezer. There were eleven other drinkers at the bar, mostly retired-looking gents in grubby singlets and shorts. A wall-eyed dog sprawled in the dirt.

The kitchen sold a range of fried food (is there any other kind at a fishing camp?) and as I worked my way through a giant steak one of the locals came over.

“That your tent by the river, mate?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “If I was you I’d shift it back from the water a bit.”

I thought back to the Roper Bar and how I’d survived actually sitting in a river full of crocs. Surely I would be safe thirty metres from the river. Mick Dundee wouldn’t have been worried. Sensing my reluctance the old-timer glanced down at the hunk of red meat on my plate then back up at me.

“We’d hate to see you end up like that, mate,” he grinned. ”S’up to you but anything would be better than being eaten by a bloody croc.”