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A quiet day in outback Australia


Kalumburu is an Aboriginal community centred around a Mission, though now a tiny supermarket and café seemed to be the preferred focus. The Mission comprised a beautiful old stone building next to a corrugated-iron church.

We were invited to camp in its tranquil grounds.

With the tent pitched Ness and I went for a walk. Hordes of rotund aborigines surrounded the café, devouring chips at an alarming rate. At the end of the street a white man in his mid-fifties, dressed in shorts, looked particularly hot and bothered. He was busy putting up netting around his makeshift house.

“To keep the snakes out,” he explained. “Bad time of year, lot of king browns around.”

“What do you do here?” Ness asked.

“Repair houses. They smash ’em, I repair ’em, they smash ’em again,” he replied with a resigned shrug, pretty much reiterating what Chook had said.

“They’re placid, amicable people ’til they hit the grog, then all hell breaks loose. Too much money’s thrown at them. Brand new vehicles, trashed within a week.”

That word ‘trash’. We heard it again and again.

“Let me give you an example,” he went on. “The other week the blackfellas were out in a spanking new cement truck, a work gang. They spent all afternoon eating their lunch rather than getting on with the job in hand. They forgot to turn the mixer on. So what happened? The cement set. Ruined. $100,000 down the drain.”

Here was he and others like him, up in the back of beyond doing their bit for these communities only to end up like this; disillusioned, exasperated, confused. The clash of cultures. We had seen it all over the world, from missionaries in Chad, to game wardens in Zimbabwe to indigenous Indians in Mexico.

He led us into his bachelor pad and took a grotesque fish head, dripping with blood, out of his fridge, his face now a picture, totally transformed.

“See. I told yous they grow big in these parts.”

Our arrival in Kalumburu had not gone unnoticed by ‘the Father’. He was to give us a guided tour the following morning at 10 o’clock sharp. It felt strange, to actually find ourselves with an appointment. I was tempted to buy a diary and ring the day in red.

In the welcome shade of coconut palms and mature mango trees we gathered around the Father in a tight circle, like infants on their first day at school. He began with a history of the Mission. It had originated further along the coast as the Pago Mission. As his words rang out a familiar tale unravelled. One has to wonder why white missionaries, over the centuries, and around the world, have found it necessary to inflict their ideas on indigenous peoples who have lived in commendable harmony with their natural surroundings for tens of thousands of years. Especially when the process of Christianisation invariably seemed to necessitate imprisonment, indoctrination and a sad and disastrous ruination of their existent culture. Still, having accepted this as an unfortunate fact of history, it would seem that the Mission here provided a degree of stability and refuge for these people in a turbulent century of change.

The Father took us into his very own miniature museum – once we had paid him of course. It was a Pandora’s Box of artefacts which he had collected over the years including aboriginal tools, specimens of art and geological curiosities. He also claimed that some of his more unusual objects had come from famous monuments and ancient structures from around the world. Quite how he had come to own stone from the Pyramids or marble from the Taj Mahal I was never too sure. It all seemed a little dubious to me. He was a true human magpie with the most bizarre, crescendoing, high-pitched Basil Brushtype laugh, culminating in an odd and disconcerting squeak at the end of each sentence. The more proud he was of what he had just said or shown us, then the more pronounced his laugh and squeak. I found it almost impossible not to piss myself laughing – as did the others. In fact seeing them stifle their giggles made it ten times worse. Memories of schooldays, when laughing was a full time occupation, came flooding back to me.

His heart was in the right place though. He was saddened by the current state of the community and its general moral demise since the Government had taken over from the Mission in the 1970s and ’80s. Up in Australia’s far north history could seem so recent.

The Mission was so picturesque and peaceful it was tempting to do nothing after the rigours of our journey to reach there. Mending ailing footwear and minor vehicle repairs initially took up our time. Then one day we followed the sandy road out of Kalumburu for its final twenty kilometres, all the way to the sea. The ocean was dreary and flat, the coast an endless line of mangroves. The occasional baobab, emerging from the sand, relieved the visual monotony. We felt a very long way from anywhere. Swimming in the sea was unthinkable; the dangers of saltwater crocodiles, box jellyfish, hammerhead sharks and sea snakes were only too real in the deceptively tranquil waters. The sunsets however were extraordinary. We shared the experience with a local fisherman. Something of an expert, having watched it night after night, he explained how the setting sun shifts along the horizon from week to week.

Outback Australia

By the time we reached Mt. Barnett, 370 kilometres south of Kalumburu, back on the Gibb River Road, Rob and Karen had moved on. The four of us who were left walked to Manning Gorge with its clear water billabong, sunburnt rocks and tiny patch of beach. The place was achingly beautiful. It could so easily have been one of those wall-sized posters, put up in offices to remind the staff that paradise does exist…somewhere. I found myself studying spiders as we lay on the rocks. Balancing on invisible webs they appeared suspended in thin air, given away only by the flash of white and red on their bodies, and their elongated, striped legs stretched out in pairs. The four of us talked of home, so very far away. Rachel worked as a chiropodist. Richard had tried various jobs including hospital porter, postman and milkman, finally settling for probation officer. They were heading for New Zealand where they hoped to find work.

Overnight we heard rumbles of thunder and saw faint flashes of lightning far away. No rain fell anywhere near us but it was a reminder that the ‘buildup’ was well on its way.

Hundreds of miles on bone-shaking corrugations took its toll on the Bear. Sadly the frame fractured, same place as in Mexico. This was very unsettling; like crumbling foundations. At home such a major break in the frame would have rendered the bike written off. We didn’t have that luxury; we still had half a world ahead of us. Luckily we were a mere fifty miles from Imintji where an old railway carriage had been lovingly converted into a Store to serve the aboriginal community. Its walls were covered in simple, brightly coloured paintings, the work of local children. In front of the store stood a lone diesel pump, petrol a rarity in these parts. Two Caucasian ‘beardies’ were sat under the verandah in deep conversation discussing aboriginal psychology. “You see they have spatial awareness but no concept of time,” said one to the other with a pained expression.

I chuckled to myself, wondering what Chook would have made of these hirsute, spindly academics. To the rear of the store we found a workshop, welding equipment and an altogether more practical looking man. Dressed in the short shorts and tan boots so beloved of the Outback, Neville was proud of the fact that he was the only mechanic on the Gibb River Road. By the look of the carnage around him he wasn’t short of work. I liked Neville; he had a slow, methodical air about him. He could sense and understand the importance we bestowed on this filthy, overloaded, tired, sad and now broken machine. So many mechanics we had met in the past were like bulls in a china shop, eager to show off, full of their own self-importance, like the one in Iquique, Chile, who had wrapped a sling around the bike and tried to lift it by crane. Neville was different. He took his time, first using a ratchet strap to perfectly oppose the jagged edges of the break, then taking the extra precaution of welding in a strengthening rod to the beleaguered frame. Within the hour the job was done.

Read more by buying Dr Pat Garrod’s book about his motorcycle trip around the world,  bareback. Pictures courtesy of shutterstock.

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