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.”

IRON AND GOLD

the emu-sextons pay me a last cursory glance…

At Menzies, a dead-on-its-feet mining town a hundred kilometres north of Kalgoorlie, I turn off the bitumen highway onto a rutted track bulldozed through the red dirt landscape of Western Australia.  My rented car moves about on the loose surface like a schooner under sail on a rough sea.  A cloud of ochre dust from the wheels obscures the rear view.

After an hour or so, a signpost points down an even rougher track leading through scrubby sand hills to the edge of Lake Ballard.  The empty lake, its bed white with salt crystals left behind when its ephemeral waters evaporated, lies pressed under the weight of the hot sky.  Waves of heat distort the flat expanse of the lakebed, where fifty-one skeletal figures stand immobile in the shimmering air.  I leave the car parked in the sparse shade of a bloodwood tree and begin to walk.

The Inside Australia installation is a collection of metal sculptures set up on Lake Ballard in 2003 by English artist Antony Gormley.  The sculptures are based on computer scans of the inhabitants of Menzies, rendered in alloys of iron, molybdenum, iridium, vanadium and titanium.  According to his website, Gormley sought “to find the human equivalent for this geological place.”

“I think human memory is part of place,” he wrote, “and place is a dimension of human memory.”

Out on the lake bed, I am alone in my own dimension of heat, flies and sweat.  The red mud of the lake floor, overlaid with its rime of salt, has dried and cracked like the skin of a reptile.  It’s slightly sticky surface sucks at my jandals, which, in hindsight, were not the best choice of footwear for exploring the widely-spaced components of Inside Australia.

Each of Gormley’s works is set a distance of seven hundred and fifty metres from its neighbour.  The footprints of previous visitors trace indistinct pathways leading from sculpture to sculpture in a long loop around the lake.  From a distance, the sculptures are merely vague outlines: shadows caught in the distorted, iridescent air.  Up close, they are eerie, with outstretched arms, protruding breasts and shrunken heads.

The midday sun casts foreshortened silhouettes of each statue onto the ground, simplifying their forms even further, like the charcoal rock drawings of Aboriginals.  As the sun moves across the sky, the shadows change shape and size, each one describing a sun-dial ellipse around the sculpture’s feet.

It takes two hours for me to complete my circuit of the sculptures.  Back at my the car, my sweat- and dirt-stained reflection in the windscreen looks vaguely like a component of Inside Australia, seared by heat and light.  I start the engine and let the air-con revive me before returning to the road.

As afternoon cools into evening, I walk alone through a deserted desert town. Whereas at Lake Ballard I had seen human shapes inhabiting an empty landscape, here in the abandoned mining town of Gwalia I walk through an urban space devoid of human forms.

The timber and tin buildings stand sway-backed and forlorn beneath the empty sky.  Front doors hang agape in their frames, giving views down the throats of hallways to the rooms inside.  Windows stare sightlessly out across the dusty street.  A pair of morose emus, like feathered sextons in a kindling cemetery, watch me in a desultory fashion as I wander the ruins.

From 1897 until 1963, the Sons of Gwalia Gold Mine was the life-blood of Gwalia.  The rough-and-ready township grew up around the nearby mine-shaft, which descended for a kilometre into the hard granite beneath the town.  By 1910, more than a thousand people called Gwalia home.  During its lifetime, the mine yielded 2.6 million ounces of gold: worth about NZ$2.4 billion at today’s prices.

But in the early sixties, the gold ran out.  In December 1963, the owners closed the mine.  Trains were dispatched to convey the remaining miners, their families and whatever they could carry to Kalgoorlie.  Overnight, Gwalia became a ghost town.

The setting sun casts long shadows between the buildings.  Inside the kitchen of a once-comfortable miner’s cottage, tiny shafts of light pierce the gloom through bullet-hole gaps in the tin walls.  Cast iron pots stand on the long-cold stove; a table set with two plates and a fork sits askance on the disintegrating floorboards.  Faded newspapers cover the walls in lieu of wallpaper.

Inside another cottage, books that will never again tell their stories stand on a shelf above a bed which will never feel the weight of a sleeping body.  The roof is open to the sky.  A glassless lantern, which will never light another night, hangs beside a back door opening onto the endless space of the Outback.

The grimy windows of Mazza’s Store – “Birthday Goods, Tobacco and Lino” –  reflect the last rays of the setting sun as I sit on the store’s verandah watching the day end in Gwalia.  Funereal crows, whose gurgling cries are the ghost voices of the Australian bush, perch in a nearby scribbly gum.

I imagine Gormley’s iron sculptures, radiating the day’s heat back into the air over Lake Ballard.  Here in Gwalia, it is the past which radiates: in the deserted homes of the people who once gave this place a dimension of human memory.   Their day’s work done, the emu-sextons pay me a last cursory glance before ambling off towards the abandoned pub.

Ghosts of Cooper Creek

I live and breathe the silences
and dust where no man reigns…
        – Cold Chisel, Wild Colonial Boy

Dawn at Cooper Creek.  Day begins early out here in the far north-east corner of South Australia.  Long before first light seeps into the sky, the birds are awake: screeching and wailing and squabbling in the river red gums along the banks of the Minkie Waterhole.  Sprawled on my camp stretcher, beneath the diaphanous folds of a mosquito net, I watch the stars fade.  The Southern Cross, whose four points have shone brightly through the trees all night, lingers longest.  The waterhole lies mirror-calm in its frame of trees, reflecting their gnarled branches and bushy crowns in perfect symmetry.

Travel Writer at Minkie
Travel Writer Life: Dawn at Minkie Waterhole, Cooper Creek.

It is pointless trying to sleep with the avian racket going on overhead so I rise and boil water for tea: black of course, this is the Outback and milk is a luxury.  I sit on a spit of white sand down by the creek watching the sunrise.  Fish jump and plop out on the water.  A pelican cranks itself aloft like a Catalina flying boat.  I can already feel the heat seeping inexorably into the air even though the sun has yet to clear the horizon. 

It is a ghost river in a land full of ghosts.

Cooper Creek is the third longest river in Central Australia.  It rises on the inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range near Charters Towers, a thousand kilometres to the north-east.  But unlike our steep New Zealand rivers, the Cooper is a sluggish creature.  Its waters seep slowly westwards through thousands of channels and billabongs.  Eventually it loses itself in the salty expanse of Lake Eyre, dying without fulfilling the dream of every river: to fall gently into the sea.  It leaves no trace of its passing.  It is a ghost river in a land full of ghosts.

In 1861, the explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills met their deaths on the banks of Cooper Creek not far from my camp.  Burke was the leader of the grandly-named Great Inland Exploring Expedition which had set out from Melbourne in 1860 with the intention of being the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north. 

Having established a base camp beside Cooper Creek, near present-day Innaminka, Burke and Wills, along with two others, set off north towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, two thousand kilometres away.  It took them four months to reach the north coast of the continent and return.  Through mismanagement and bad luck, by the time they arrived back at Cooper Creek one of their number, Charles Grey, was already dead.  Burke, Wills and John  King, the third remaining member of the party, were in advanced stages of malnourishment.  The rest of the expedition had given them up for dead and returned to civilization.  The three men began starving to death in a land of plenty.

The local Aboriginal people had lived happily on the banks of the Cooper for millennia.

Cooper Waterhole
Cooper Creek.

To them the waterholes, forest and scrub-lands were a well-stocked larder with everything needed to sustain them.  But to the pompous Burke, the local people were not to be trusted and the party made little effort to learn from them.  Consequently, first Burke then Wills expired: skeletons dressed in rags under the trees.  Only King, who understood the locals’ abilities better, survived.  He was rescued after four months.

With my breakfast of black tea finished, I break camp and set off in my 4WD.  As I drive up the rutted track leading away from the creek I wave to Jim and Dave, a pair of retired teachers from Adelaide who are spending a week camping and fishing at the Minkie Waterhole.  A dingo idles across the track in front of me; emus peer at me with wide, glossy eyes.  I reach the road, which is really no more than a slightly wider dirt track than the one I have followed up from the edge of Cooper Creek, and turn east into the sunrise towards Innaminka.  On the radio, through the static of the AM band, I hear the forecast temperature for the day: forty-three degrees.

Innaminka is a town that died and was reborn.  Crouched on the edge of a howling, red-dirt wilderness, the few scattered buildings have been revitalized by both tourism and the discovery of natural gas reserves further west.  The town originally comprised a pub and a police outpost servicing the lonely cattle stations along the Cooper.  In 1910, the Australian Inland Mission established a hospital at Innaminka and for sixty years it provided medical care for the outback families and stockmen whose lives depended on the “mantle of safety” provided by the AIM hospitals across the Outback.

But eventually, Innaminka fell into disrepair.  The pub burned down, the police post        – described as “the loneliest posting in Australia” by officers unlucky enough to be sent there – closed and the AIM hospital fell into disrepair.  Innaminka became a ghost town. 

In the 1950’s a few audacious tourists began passing through the Cooper Creek area.  A new pub was built and Innaminka began it’s long, slow come-back.  In the 1990s the

Storm Clouds
The old AIM Hospital, Innaminka.

vandalized ruins of the AIM hospital were completely re-built and now house the headquarters of the Innaminka National Park.  And, best of all for a road-weary and dusty travel writer, the Outaminka Bar at the Innaminka Pub serves the best coffee west of the Blue Mountains.

I spend three days camped at various spots beside Cooper Creek.  Each day I rise with the birds and set off to explore before the day becomes too hot.  I visit the Dig Tree, an ancient coolabah tree where supplies were left for Burke and Wills by the expedition before they retreated back to Melbourne.  The tree still bears Burke’s carved initials and the Roman numerals LXV denoting it as the expedition’s Camp 65.  In 1899, a local man carved a likeness of Burke in the bark of a nearby tree.  The solemn-eyed, ghostly carving still gazes sightlessly out across Cooper Creek.

An ominous bank of cloud, as black as charcoal, hangs over the landscape and bolts of silver lightning jump across the sky.

I visit the spots where first Burke, then Wills died.  They are lonely, isolated places where the incandescent sun beats down with an almost tactile force.  Hot winds shake the desiccated leaves of the gum trees with a sound like crumbling bones.  In this land of vanishing rivers, beneath the vast cobalt dome of the sky, I often feel very small and alone.  I can sense the endlessness of time out here.  The implacable waters of the Cooper lie motionless between banks of sand, never giving up any secrets.  Only the gurgling crows seem to recount the memories of ghosts. 

By mid-afternoon each day the temperature reaches the forties and I retire to the cool sanctuary of the Innaminka Pub to drink cold liquids of various kinds and chat to the locals.  The shop next door keeps me in supplies and I can update my Facebook page via satellite from there for a dollar a minute. 

Road
Forty-three Degrees Celcius on an Outback Road.

On the third morning, however, the weather is different.  I awake to the low grumble of thunder off to the west.  An ominous bank of cloud, as black as charcoal, hangs over the landscape and bolts of silver lightning jump across the sky.  I break camp and drive into Innaminka.  The dirt compound out in front of the pub is full of four wheel drives. Campers from all over the area have made for the safety of “town” before the roads become impassable.

The air is heavy with the sweet smell of rain: an aroma only the desert can produce.  I sit on the verandah of the old AIM hospital and listen to the first heavy spots as they hit the corrugated iron roof.  Thunder splits the sky and shafts of lightening crackle and fizz in the air.  The rain increases in ferocity until it sounds like ball bearings hitting the roof.  It seems as though all the energy amassed by the heat of the previous few days is suddenly being unleashed.

And then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the storm has passed.  The sun sparkles on beads of rain hanging from the fences around the AIM.  Wreaths of steam rise from the road. 

Pub Carpark
The Scene at Innaninka.

The wet red dirt sticks to my boots as I walk across to the store where the assembled 4WD enthusiasts are discussing the weather.  The forecast is for more rain in the days ahead.  The last thing I want is to be trapped out here by a flood. 

I decide to let discretion be the better part of valour and leave while I still can.  I re-fuel my vehicle, send an e-mail home saying “I’m OK…see you soon”, then watch Innaminka fade in the rear-view mirror. 

I reflect on the fact that Outback travel isn’t for everyone.  The mind-bending distances, the punishing heat and the vast, silent, red-dirt spaces make visiting the Outback a very different prospect to the Australian coastal holiday experience.  A digital display on the dashboard tells me it is forty-two degrees outside.  I turn up the air conditioning and the stereo.  Off to my left, Cooper Creek shimmers in a quicksilver mirage, then vanishes into the sunlight like a ghost.

Dawn at Minkie Waterhole