A vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended.
We have just returned from a long and difficult trip firstly into the Tanami Desert and then back across the Simpson Desert. Old stamping grounds for me but high adventure for our passengers, namely grandsons Will and Jake. As part of their preparation for the trip they needed to be suitably armed notwithstanding the fact that I had assured them that the Bedouins were friendly. So it was off to the local camping shop to see what was on offer. Will, the older, had his own money and while Jake, the younger, distracted me he purchased an extremely murderous looking sheath knife. When I asked why he needed it he calmly told me that ‘me and Jake’ – yes I corrected him as I always do to ‘Jake and I’ – would be alone in their own tent and needed protection. He will make an excellent candidate for the National Rifle Association’s first Australian chapter. I did later note that they usually pitched their tent as close as possible to ours (read one inch) so I took comfort in the fact that I was protected as well.
Jake of course insisted that he be also suitably armed. At least I was able to deflect him into a knife that had many short blades rather than one murderous long one. I had also assured them that camels were quite slow and that you could easily catch them on foot if we ran out of food. They immediately made plans for the capture and eating of the first camel they came across and added walkie talkies to their knives and other necessary survival equipment. We duly came across a small herd of camels in a remote sand hill area of the desert and the boys, pumped on adrenalin and urging by me, set off on foot in hot pursuit. Now these nomadic small herds consist of the bull with a number of wives plus little ones of various ages, this means that the speed of flight is dictated by the smallest. All is not lost for the herd since the bull ALWAYS puts himself between the herd and any danger, so the bull runs at the back nipping at the heels of the little ones to make them run faster. This is of course very stressful for the bull who becomes enraged with his slow herd and the unfairness of life in general. You know he is in this state by the fact that he is drooling and a white sheet of drool hangs down from his mouth about 3 or 4 feet. He is also starting to make appropriate belligerent growls/moans (?), actually a very strange and clearly intimidatory sound. We watched in interest as Will and Jake raced along the dunal corridor rapidly closing on the herd. When they had closed to about 10 metres the bull, drool and all, made moves to turn and face his tormentors.
Even this partial manoeuvre was enough for his pursuers who stopped rather suddenly and trotted back to the car. When they arrived I said - I thought you had them - and they replied – No they were just too fast! So I guess survival has to wait until they are somewhat hungrier. I will admit, but not to Will and Jake, that the chase went as expected and that a frothing bull camel is a sight enough to shake most people!
On our way out to the Tanami we went via Blackall where I used to live and attended the Primary Correspondence School, about Grade 2. Now my parents lived in a Main Roads camp part of the crew building a new road. The only memorable fact about Blackall was that one of the road workers spent an entire day teaching me what he called a “poem” together with instructions to recite it to my parents that night. Which I duly did. I cannot recall their reaction but I can still repeat it verbatim.
There once was a nice girl from Blackall
Who wore a newspaper to the fancy dress ball
Her dress caught fire
Burnt the front page
The back page
The sporting section
I also met an old acquaintance who ran the garage in town and had done so for as long as I could remember. It was the only fuel for many hundreds of kilometres so I always stopped there and refuelled. He was always good for a chuckle and seemed to remember all who were ‘regulars’, even though in this case I was a 6 months apart regular. His only claim to fame was that he was completely blind and much preferred you to use a credit card since cash was a nuisance. I once asked him how he knew I did not sign the slip Mickey Mouse, he replied – I don’t care what you sign the Bank never looks at it anyway and I get my money. The last time I called in he had told me that he was going down to the Big Smoke (Brisbane) for an operation on his eyes so on arrival my first question was - How did the operation go?. He replied – Great, the doctor said it was a complete success but I still can’t see. I expect he will stay away from the Big Smoke in future.
Our first real off road excursion was to an old gold mining town deep in the Tanami Desert, a town now completely deserted. All buildings have been removed except for those around the mine itself. The Olympic sized swimming pool is empty and crumbling and weeds are beginning to push up through the bitumen streets. The ware house buildings are still partial full of abandoned equipment, giant electric motors, tools and all sorts of bits and pieces including about five tonne of sodium cyanide, enough to wipe out the entire population of the Northern Territory. Parts of the mine are underground and parts are open cut and the plant also had a number of holding ponds for the treatment water from the floatation process. This mine produced gold plus copper and bismuth so the tailings dams were (are) pretty toxic. Of course the company went into liquidation so no one is stepping forward to pay for any clean up. Not that this worried the kids who were intent on finding gold – with the metal detector that I had fortuitously brought. Since the gold was (unusually) in magnetite the metal detector spent all its time singing its head off. I kept gravely informing them that yes there was certainly gold in that rock until my wife pointed out that the back seat of the car was half full of rocks. There after I had to sneak one out the other side as one was put it their side. Further I was always asked to put a value (of gold) on each rock which I was able to do with confidence since there was no one to contradict me.
It is pretty tough on vehicles in this part of Australia and about two days in it appeared that we had a serious electrical problem. A hasty retreat was called for but it actually turned out to be a false alarm. Our “serious” problem was a fault with our electronic voltmeter and there was nothing wrong with the car, just our maintenance equipment. A bit of a fright and a change to our plans was all that happened. Some we farewelled the Tanami and headed south to Alice Springs, the Alice.
Now our plans put us in the Alice in the Northern Territory on the 1st of July which to those who do not know is Territory Day. A day of celebration and general abandonment, in fact much like any other Saturday night in the Territory with the added bonus of fireworks. Amongst other things you can, on Territory Day, buy fireworks the purchase of which has been long banned in the eastern States. According to the local laws you can only buy fireworks on Territory Day and you must let them off on Territory Day. This led to some excited anticipation by the kids, five altogether. Alas our itinerary fell apart and we were nowhere near any firework seller on 1 July. Now the kids immediately turned to me for help since I had an (undeserved) reputation for being able to make a decent bomb. Possibly this was related to my penchant for filling balloons with a mix of oxygen and acetylene, hanging them on the clothes line and setting them off. Anyway being far from any oxygen or acetylene some improvisation seemed in order, in fact an Improvised Explosive Device – an IED - was needed. The answer lay in the disposable gas canisters used in the cheap portable gas stoves we carried for emergencies. We waited until dark with the desert pitch black and mysterious, then set up but did not light, a longish fire. The full gas canister was placed at one end of the fire and the fire was lit at the other end. We all retired a considerable distance at great speed and waited. We were not disappointed. The resulting explosion produced a fireball about 3 metres in diameter which rose to about 4 metres. I did not need to do any more, the kids pronounced it an exceedingly satisfactory Territory Day and much better than roman candles and rockets.
One of my more enjoyable moments was when I wrote “Yvette is a boof” in chalk on the tyre of Yvette and Dayne’s Toyota. Yvette and Dayne were along for the trip with their 1 year old daughter. It was Dayne’s first trip into the desert whereas Yvette had been tripping across the Simpson since she was about 6 with her father and now was back with a daughter of her own. A bit of a trip down memory lane for her. On one of those trips when she was around 10 mysterious messages started appearing on the tyres of her father’s Land Cruiser, including such gems as “Yvette is a boof”. At that time this drove her half crazy until my wife finally said to her “Who in this convoy would be carrying chalk perhaps because they teach?” Will and Jake had chalk with them so the temptation was again irresistible – and the boys enjoyed the lead up story too. The net result was that the kids loved it – kids love a bit of simple slapstick - and Yvette said it made her feel like she was 10 again which cannot be bad.
One section of our trip involved going cross country to a clay pan which I had visited before. It is in fact so remote that only one other party has ever been there and that was part of an oil survey team sometime in the 1960’s. This remote, desolate and strikingly beautiful spot captivated us all, absolutely flat, kilometers long and surrounded by spectacular blazing red sand hills. It was here that Jake decided the time had come to teach Matthew how to throw a knife. Both Will and Jake had spent many a pleasant hour in our back yard practicing this skill on our trees so they were relatively proficient. I was aware that Matthew’s mother was not altogether in favour of her children honing this skill but they were using my knife which was particularly blunt; so notwithstanding the frowns she did not actually stop Matthew from participating. Barb and I watched surreptitiously, this was obviously a serious business, as Jake carefully arranged Matthew’s stance, his grip on the knife and the smooth delivery swing of his arm. Then the delight on Mathew’s face when he “got it” and the look of pride on Jakes face for his pupil. It was worth the struggle getting to the Clay Pan just to see that little cameo. We left the next day after erecting a suitable cairn complete with notes for the next visitor, although I suspect that is most likely to be me!
We have finished another desert trip, just as memorable as those past. The sand hills get into your blood and it is always with regret that I return to the city. For me it has always been a case of “Clancy”
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond'rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the fetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all
from Clancy of the Overflow – Banjo Paterson
I can only hope that Will and Jake will also be infected with a touch of the “Clancy”.