North of Capricorn
Australia has few large towns north of the Tropic of Capricorn but it is worth while to visit them occasionally. Bill Bryson writing about us, loved the phrase applied to those who lived north of Capricorn - mad as cut snakes. It is time I think to look more closely at why we are different if indeed we are.
The first thing you notice about these Capricornian outposts is that you are never more than five minutes away from a multinational fast food outlet. And when you enter one they are all jammed with patrons, cooking for yourself must be a very low priority on their agendas. Several establishments I checked actually had cars patiently queuing up in the street because the drive through was full. On entering (as opposed to driving through) you notice immediately the dress code, I assume rigidly enforced, which is stubbies, black singlet to display the tats, and thongs. And that is the women.
Now you may ask what I was doing in such a place, well the sign said free internet so for the price of a cup of coffee I could check my emails. A pretty good deal I thought until I tasted the coffee. After ten minutes of trying I still could not get on, good signal from the WiFi but refused to let me on. I of course assumed I was doing something wrong and that there was some trick to the free WiFi, a trick more frequent customers knew and understood. Fortunately a girl sat down at the next table and produced her lap top, so I asked if she was using the WiFi. She said yes so I waited another ten minutes until she too said it does not seem to be working. I then went to the girl at the counter and said that the WiFi did not seem to work. She replied cheerfully that it has not been working for months. When I suggested it was time to fix it or take down the free WiFi sign she rolled her eyes coquettishly and rushed off to serve another black singlet - this one in bare feet I noticed. I wondered if I should bring the dress code to his attention. Perhaps not I decided. So I left.
Most Capricornian towns have not had the benefit of any town planning so the streets are rarely straight and run higgly piggly in all directions. This traffic problem has been solved by putting roundabouts on nearly every intersection. Our singleted friends consider each such roundabout an affront to their manhood and on spotting you coming down an intersecting street immediately speed up throwing down the challenge to see who can get there first. I must say that initially I enjoyed this jousting until I realised that even when beaten they did not slow down. That probably explains why all cars have dings and scrapes and why each night I am woken by screeches and bangs from the nearby roundabout.
Up here every second or third vehicle is a tray back Toyota, many with rotating warning lights signifying they are mine vehicles, or at least want to be mine vehicles. This has led to a new hand signal; you put a finger out the window pointing straight up and vigorously spin it in circles. This tells them that they have forgotten to turn off their warning light. I first encountered this signal from a car approaching me (directed at the trayback behind me) and unsure of the correct response, returned the signal to him much to his astonishment. My etiquette has since improved.
Of course these constant traffic joustings often end up in Court, and reporting these court appearances adds considerably to the content of the local paper. There is a special section of the paper devoted to listing the misdemeanors of its readers - "crime", name and sometimes suburb as well, just in case you are not sure which David Johnson they are identifying. I read that XXX of YYY was today fined $250 for indecent behavior after being interviewed by Police naked on his balcony - I assume he was naked not the Police, not that that is clear. The trouble is that such snippets leave more questions unanswered than answered, not very satisfactory when we are avidly seeking the why's or even a little more details !
The front page of the paper is not concerned with this trivia preferring to concentrate on more important issues, in this case a four and a half metre crocodile cruising the main swimming beaches. The front page displays three photos of the places the monster (they are always monsters) has been seen, not the actual croc just spots where it was claimed to have been seen. One photo even has someone pointing out to sea. Riveting stuff. Yesterday’s page one was devoted to a major story warning persons to be aware that box jellyfish washed up on the beach were still dangerous, I assume to stop you collecting them. Just not sure why you would want to collect them.
I am on my way back south of Capricorn when trouble strikes on a forlorn and largely deserted stretch of outback highway. A flat tyre, and the jack has actually collapsed after I had removed the offending tyre. The result is a jack jammed under the car with the car slumped down to the ground on that side. While I sit and contemplate my dilemma my wife retires to the shade of a nearby gum to sulk after informing me that I should have bought a new jack if I knew it was getting dodgy. A tray back complete with warning light on the roof passes at eye blinking speed, then skids to a halt some hundred metres up the road. He then backs up and leans over and asks if we are OK. I reply bloody jack broke, I have been up here long enough to know that you do not waste words. He nods and pulls off the road. As he gets out another car pulls up, a couple get out and stroll over. Hey Fred he says to my first Samaritan, problems ? Need a second jack Dave he replies, grab your's will ya. No surprise is expressed by either at meeting in this fashion in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile Dave's companion has wandered over to my wife where they sit on a log in the shade and exchange full details of their lives to date.
The difficult task is soon completed lengthened somewhat by a couple of breaks for a stubby apiece from my esky. I learn that Fred drives a loader at the mine (down the road a bit) and Dave manages Cooper Downs a nearby cattle property. Fred is a FiFo (footnote) and I listen with interest as they discuss the pros and cons of FiFo; great money, disastrous family life, no involvement in the local community. I sense a little friction in this discussion since they are on opposite sides of the fence but they soon turn to a much safer topic, politics. Both are in total agreement that the fat cats in the capital spend all their waking hours finding ways to get fatter at the expense of the Capricornians. Their local Member, while a "good guy", was "thicker than mud on a black soil plain" and was simply being hoodwinked by the "sly grog pushers" in the Capital. Their paranoia is on the prowl as they explore this conspiracy to defraud them of all their worldly possessions by Southerners, namely Cockroaches (from New South Wales), Mexicans (from Victoria) and bloodsucking Leaches (from Canberra). Some of these epithets have clear origins but you may wonder about Mexican - they are always trying to come over the border I am told.
My car is finished and time for my new friends to dust off and continue to where ever they are going. I of course am dust free. They brush aside my thanks. And as they leave I think affectionately - mad as cut snakes.]
Foot Note FiFo - Fly in, fly out. In many remote area mines the workers work 12 hour shifts for 10 days then have 10 days off (10 days on 10 days off) with the work force flying in for their roster and flying out for their break. Usually these flights are to the major cities. Of course such arrangements contribute little to the local small towns.