I’m on the Gold Coast just north of Coolangatta staying with family friends. Refreshed, well washed, well fed, with the car fitted with a roof rack, jerry cans for petrol and water, spare tires, radiator hose and fan-belt, ready to resume my travels in a day or two.
The “Gold Coast” is the most American looking region I have been in outside the United States. Vast prefabricated shopping malls of the neo-Etruscan order, motels and hi rises flank the ocean beaches, as though suburban San Diego had been bred with Waikiki beach. This mess stretches from Coolangatta on the NSW border, thirty kilometers north to Surfers Paradise. Another fifty kilometres north of that, Brisbane is hilly, clean and friendly, with a cluster of Victorian buildings and shiny towers at its center, on a bend in the river. I was in a sunny version of Seattle. The Gold Coast is mostly owned by American and Chinese business interests, which accounts for the urban style and the plethora of Asian gambling clubs and restaurants. But some old Aussie charm remains.
Arriving in Brissie, I parked at the Brunswick St. train station and shopping mall. The biggest space in the mall is a tatty looking bingo hall, the size of a large empty supermarket that looks as though it is about to be demolished. Hundreds of retirees, mostly old ladies with cups of tea and plates of biscuits and scones were busy, heads down, checking out the numbers. When I returned to pick up the car after an afternoon sightseeing there were still a few clusters of oldies waiting around for the suburban trains to take them home. It’s better than sitting on a recliner lounge in front of the television hooked up to a saline drip.
Two weeks earlier, after a few days with friends in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, I fired up the old wagon and headed North West to Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town on the edge of the outback.
Spent the first afternoon driving north west on the road to Gunneda and Narrabri, undulating hills with low rugged mountains in the middle distance, and at dusk, turned off the main road at Narrabri, and headed up to the Mount Kaputar National Park, and found a quiet spot to sleep. A cold frosty night, and next morning got ready for a hard hike up to one of the rocky outcrops, remnants of old volcanoes, as many of the small mountain ranges in the eastern part of Australia tend to be. These ranges are similar to the Warrumbungles, which my former partner and I visited a few months back, but about three hundred meters higher. Decided to hike up to the Yulladunida crater, through dense eucalypt, and tall bushy “blackboys” dark stumpy prehistoric looking plants with a big tuft of spiky green grass on top, to the base of the rocky escarpment, where there’d be a one hundred and fifty meter scramble up the steep rocks, with lots of foot and hand holds. The rock resembled the dark crinkly folds on the back of an elephant’s neck, and closer up, patterned and plated like the skin of a crocodile, or Stegosaurus.
About half way up these rocks, I saw a couple of eagles wheeling around the main peak. Ahh, my favorite bird – from a distance. Pretty soon they noticed me, and more had wheeled into view, proceeding to sail over to where I was rather gingerly perched. Birds and feathers have always left me queasy, and in a moment, I grew giddy and un-nerved as eight big brown wedge-tailed eagles wheeled and flapped overhead, and around me, close enough for me to see their eyes. An irrational fear of being clawed to death descended, and I scrambled down a couple of meters to a safer foothold, from where I could look up and around in all directions, wishing for once that I were not alone up there.
I then got a hold of myself and realized that I was more in danger of slipping and falling in a moment of panic, than I was from these curious but wary birds. They soared off towards the summit, wheeled around its rocky mount a few times, and then flew back towards my perch again for another look, lazily wheeling around each other, a couple of them “dogfighting” in mid-morning play, each time getting up the courage to fly a bit closer; though I am sure they never got closer to me than twenty meters, it was stomach churning nonetheless. I could hear the whoosh and crackle of air through their great bronze splayed wings as they flapped and adjusted, much like the crackle of breeze in a flapping sail.
Managed to allow my racing heart to calm down, and after five minutes or so, they wheeled and flew back to the summit for another circuit, and finally all headed west for the day’s hunt and forage. After that, it was an easy scramble up to the topmost ridges, for a full view of the hills to the east, and the great flat disc of the Australian plain to the North, West and South, like a dead and dusty ocean, with the faint blue Warrumbungle mounds and ridges a hundred and fifty kilometers away to the south west. Panglossian ecstacy, after such turbulent emotions.
A late-coming eagle flapped over and soared around me, checking me out for a few minutes, me still wary but not so freaked out, before it too headed west to join the others.
It was now a glorious morning, after having had a good chance to take a look at one of my phobias before the hike down to the road again, coffee, and the rough drive back down to Narrabri for petrol, and the road to Wee-Waa and Lightning Ridge.
The void is dripping with stars. There is enough light from a crackling fire to scribble by.
I spent a day in Lightning Ridge, a dusty collection of trailers, tractors and mounds of opal tailings, like a broad brown tablecloth scattered with the crumbs and rubbish of a good meal. A few streets intersect, with general stores, opal outlets and shanty cafes. There’s a section of town where those who struck it rich have build large bare suburban homes. There weren’t many folks around; a few lean, leathery looking men and women in big hats, and some urban oldies in shiny new 4-wheel drives checking out the opal displays in the rather pricey and touristy looking shops. Opal is not my kind of stone, though I did see some gorgeous blue and purple “black” opals, for rather more money that I would have thought, out here.
I met a big ruddy German fellow living in the local “Caravan Park” as trailer parks are called in Australia. Ollie was trying to get his visa extended before trying his luck digging for stones. He’d spent time in Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, dreaming about finding gold there, but then moved east. He told me I could probably find work helping small claims holders with the laboring brunt of digging, but that it would take a few days to build up trust with anyone I might meet in the local pub. No one admits to finding anything and few make a living at it – the piles of rock and rusted abandoned equipment littered around the town attested to that. Ollie seemed a bit nervous of me. The caravan park lady with whom I’d been chatting about life had introduced him to me. Perhaps he took me for an itinerant immigration agent. He reiterated earnestly that he was studying mining techniques, and didn’t plan to make any money at all. Fair enough I thought, but I was obviously welcome company over black coffee in his hot little caravan. His English wasn’t good, and relaxed and candid company hard to find in this hard bitten, wary place.
On the road leading east out of town there’s an artesian spa, with hot water pumped up from a depth of fifteen hundred metres or so. There’s a big circular pool with shower stalls built to cater to locals and visitors. Had a great soak in the hot sulfurous water, and a couple of smokes in the sun waiting for my shorts and towel to dry. The late afternoon light got some color to it, and the breeze got cooler, so it was time to head back through town and onto the highway north to Queensland.
I needed to find a quiet spot to camp before sundown. I’d been driving North West for a couple of hours through unfenced land; flat, red and ochre earth with eucalypt and pine scrub. After slowing several times for a likely hideout during the last half hour’s drive I chose a dusty track trailing off to the left and into a scrubby waste of abandoned mining claims. Big red kangaroos bounded out of the way through white mounds of quartz and small scabby trees.
The cirrus clouds began shading to pink. It would grow dark quickly and I had little time to waste. I managed to gather enough dead wood for a decent fire next to one of the piles of gravel, and settled in for a good dinner of curried veggies, bread, and wine. Over the next couple of hours the fire died down. The piney blaze, bright and chattering, began to nod off and slumber in its soft warm glow. As the night stretched westward the stars awoke and began to blaze.
In the quiet intensity of solitude, you begin to feel very small in the face of the universe above and around you. At first the sensation was peaceful, perhaps a kind of thanksgiving. But then from the road half a mile to the east, I heard the sound of a vehicle slowing down and stopping. Had someone seen the glow of my fire between scrub and the trees? I could see no headlight, nothing at all. In the moments of silence, before the vehicle (I imagined it was a pick-up truck) started up again and drove south towards Lightning Ridge, fear crept into my sense of peace. Had a passenger, or passengers, got out of that vehicle, perhaps to sneak up on my camp?
In Lightning Ridge that day a local store owner and her husband had insisted I stop for no one on the road, as there were occasional dangerous characters prowling around. She made a blunt reference to local aboriginals.
“Some of em’ll hit you on the head for anuff money furra bottle a’ booze”.
When I started up my innocent urban mutterings about what a shame that was, and that one really mustn’t judge people, the woman gave me a dusty and patient look with her much older and experienced eyes.
“Yair, it’s sad,” she said, “but it’s a fact of life out here Love.”
Her prejudice aside, I knew I should heed her warning. The papers we full of stories about a murderer who had flagged down a couple in their Kombi van north of Alice Springs a couple of days earlier. He was still at large; having most likely killed the English traveler, and tried to kidnap his girlfriend. She had wriggled free from her bonds at night and fled – the killer had tried to track her with his dogs, but failed, and she had reached the road and been found the next morning. The police were hunting for the killer with heat seeking helicopters, and for the remains of her companion using aboriginal trackers.
So there was incident and story to inflame my fear at night. A cold curl of unease licked down my back. Something told me with icy clarity “get out of here within ten minutes or you’re done for.”
I sat a while longer, aware of my shadows, the fear pouring out of me and dancing in the blackness between the dimly lit bushes and pine scrub. I’m aware enough of these things now to realize that intuitions and insights are sometimes misleading. All I could do was rest with the fear for a while, and let the fire die down to the coals. With only the leaky little kerosene lamp for light the car loomed, a flickering bulk a few yards from where I sat.
But what about “discernment” I thought. What is really going on?
Nothing was going on.
“Stay alert,” said common sense.” If you notice anything unusual occurring out there in the dark, then you have reason for alarm.” I then remembered that the vehicle I heard an hour or so earlier had pulled up, stopped, and driven off; sounding quite distinct in the semi-desert silence, but with no sound of any doors opening or clicking shut.
But shadows of fear continued to reach in to this little circle of warmth and light.
I had to get up and walk away from the fire, treading quietly over the gravel to sit on one of the cold piles of quartz. Looking up at the thick wads of stars I felt much safer in the darkness. I was hidden from the firelight by the car’s shadow. The smoke rose from it in a thin blue column. It spread out as a broad, drifting platter of silver fog at treetop height; that and the soft glow of fire and coals on the foliage, and the intensity of the Milky Way above, rendered the scene unearthly, almost ludicrous.
Fear vanished into absurdity for a while, over an hour the two sensations flickered back and forth like red light and shadow across my face. I slept in the car with the doors locked.
A few hikes, nights spent sleeping by a campfire, another thousand kilometers of narrow sealed highway slowing for numberless kangaroos, emus and mobs of sheep have been followed by well-laundered rest and a visit to Brisbane. I’m ready to head up the coast to Cooktown, or at least Cairns for some sun, and maybe a bit of snorkelling, before making my way across to the tropical North to Darwin, where I will have a chance to freshen up at my uncle Terry’s place, before taking up any seasonal work that might be available, and heading to the Kimberleys, and the arid wilds of outback Australia, of which I have had the first dusty taste.
I hope that in forty years I’d want to end my days camped under a tree, under the stars by a warm fire, age having faded my fears of being stalked and attacked by dark-hearted strangers, or big, curious birds.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org