The Coolibah Tree

Away in the darkness the bore head quietly grumbled and snorted as it disgorged it’s boiling water from the subterrainian depths. I raised my head and shushed the kids who were squabling amiably over the last of the tinned peaches, and sure enough in the distance we could hear the growl of a large diesel. Lights began to glow over the sandhills and we could now hear the gear changes as it charged over each sand summit. A few minutes later it came rearing over the last rise like a prehistoric monster with three piercing eyes blazing through the darkness and, accompanied by a swirl of dust, pulled off the track beside our camp. With a clatter of dying engine and sigh of air brakes, the truck and its load came to a stop and silence returned to the desert. After a moment of quiet, the door opened and a large dust covered figure dressed in stubbies and blue singlet climbed down.

 “G’day” he said, even though it was several hours past sunset.

“I’m Mac an’ this is me mate Joe” he said as another dusty figure emerged from the other side of the truck, a figure as short and lean as Mac was broad and tall.

 “Would ya like a beer?”

 Now I had been in the desert for a week, with none but the two kids and wife for company, and besides my beer was long gone.

 “Yes” I said, “where are you off too?”

 Mac was rummaging in the tool box of the Inter and replied over his shoulder that they were on their way into Mokari with some gear for the oil rig there. Joe said nothing and stood immobile at the edge of the firelight. The kids were quiet too and stood very close to their mother. He strolled back to the fire with three Darwin stubbies in his hands. I gave him the opener and after a moment he returned it with an opened bottle.

 “Cheers” he said.

“Pull up a log” I said and he dragged a chunk of timber into a comfortable position and settled himself on it beside the fire. Joe said nothing.

 “ Where’d you come from today?” I asked casually, neither of us acknowledging that we were the only people for hundreds of miles in any direction. Nor did either of us show any visible surprise at meeting people where no people should be.

 “Urindi” he replied “we had a bit of tyre trouble and did’nt get away ‘till after smoko so we’re runnin’ pretty late. We were s’posed to be at Mokari by now but we won’t make it tonight. I needed a break though and your fire looked pretty good when I came over that last sandhill. It’s bloody hard work pulling thirty tons up and down over these bloody sand ridges all day. Yer miss one and ya gotta back up and try again. Hey Joe come and warm your backside on the fire” he added.

 Joe shuffled forward to the fire but he didn’t say anything. The beer was cold and the malt flavour smooth on my tongue after a few weeks of abstinence. I rolled a cigarette and offered the packet to Mac who shook his head.

“ Where’yer from?” asked Mac.

I explained that we were from Brisbane and on our way to a new job in Perth. We had decided to take a few extra weeks and have a look at the desert. I told him I was a teacher and that we had come across the old track as far as we could and then cut down the new shot line track until we hit the Mokari rig road. We had left Beetoota about a week ago and had not had any problems apart from getting lost a few times. Mac gave the fire a poke with his foot and gazed into the flames.

“ I met a teacher out here once “ he said pausing reflectively.

I eased myself into a more comfortable position and the kids crept in and sat beside me as they realised a story was in the air. The truck creaked as the freezing night air cooled the engine down, the bore gurgled and Joe didn’t say anything.

“ It was about ten years ago when the oil boys first started looking around out here. The only way across then was the way you came, and I was coming out here every week with fuel for the oil camp. It was good money but the driving was bloody hard and if you got into any trouble you just had to sit there until someone came looking for you. Sometimes that took a week. You never saw anyone

between Urindi and Mokari and it was pretty bloody lonely. Sometimes the boys would want some more equipment brought in and then I would have another truck for company on that trip. Then it wasn’t too bad. The desert can be a pretty funny place, mostly it’s quiet and comfortable and everything seems OK but occasionally it gives you the heebie jeebies ‘specially when you’ve been out here too long.” He stopped for a moment and we all looked at him expectantly except Joe who looked silently into the fire. The kids eyes had grown bigger and they moved closer to me.

“ Anyway it was about this time of the year maybe a bit later when the dry storms come up. I’ve seen blokes go off their head when those storms are around. Every thing is so still and the air seems to fairly crackle with ‘lectricity. I had another truck for company that trip but every thing seemed to go wrong from the start. We didn’t get away until late in the afternoon so we decided to drive all night and have a sleep when we got to the camp about midday the next day. Well we had been driving all night and I was dog tired. All through the bloody night the whole truck had had blue sparks buzzing and crackling off it everywhere, ‘round the mirror, off the aerials and even off the bull bar. There was sheet lightning across the whole sky and the air itself seemed to be buzzing making your ears ache.

By breakfast time I’d had enough so decided to stop for and hour or so boil the billy and have a cup of tea. Now the only tree between Beetoota and Urindi is that Coolibah tree where the shot line meets the rig road. In those days that was the only track, there was no other way and there were no turn offs. You remember the Coolibah tree?”

I nodded.

“I could see the tree over the sandhills about a mile up the road and as I got closer I could see that there was another vehicle under the tree. I pulled up along side it and got out to talk to the bloke sitting in the front. It was one of those little Suzuki four wheel drives with a canvas hood. We chatted for a while and the bloke said he was a teacher from Adelaide and that he came through there regularly. That surprised me a bit ‘cause I had been coming up that bloody road for the last year or so week in week out and had never seen another soul before.

Anyway I didn’t ask him why I hadn’t seen him before, I was beat and just wanted a cup of tea and half an hour nap before the other truck caught up. The other truck was a fair bit slower than me and I reckoned that I had about an hour before he caught up.

This guy in the Suzuki didn’t seem like he wanted to talk too much and when I asked him if he wanted a cup of tea with me he said no he was late and had to get moving. I thought that that was odd too since I could not imagine what he was late for at seven o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere. But I was too beat to worry about it and was busy making my tea as he drove off back the way I had just come. Too late I realised that I hadn’t told him about the other truck, when you aren’t expecting traffic you can get yourself into trouble if you meet something on the crest of a sandhill. Five minutes later I was asleep.

The sound of the other truck woke me up ‘bout an hour later and in a few minutes they pulled in beside me. The driver was Pat an old mate of mine and he had an offsider with him so they had two driving and were as fresh as daisies. We checked the loads, had another cup of tea and were about to drive off when I remembered the Suzuki.

‘Where did you guys pass that crazy bloke in the Suzuki?’ I asked Pat.

Pat looked at he a bit oddly and replied,

‘ What Suzuki?’.

I told them about the bloke waiting under the Coolibah tree when I arrived. By this time the hair was starting to stand up on the back of my neck as I tried to convince them I wasn’t pulling their leg.  And they were starting to look a bit uneasy too.

“ Look “ I said , “he has got to have left tracks, that will convince you that I havn’t lost my marbles.”

Pat’s truck had come in where the Suzuki had been so that the big duals on the truck had wiped out any tracks out from under the Coolibah. We had a real good look round that old Coolibah but the trouble was there were no tracks coming in either.”

Mac was quiet and poked at the fire again with his boot.

 “ Well I guess it’s time for us to get moving “ said Mac.

 “ Was it real or not?” whispered one of my kids.

 Mac stood up, stretched and then replied,

“ Well that I don’t know. But what I do know is that a few months later Pat was bringing a load in for me when he saw the Suzuki parked under the Coolibah tree. Before he got there it drove off in the other direction.”

Mac and Joe climbed into the Inter. Mac started it up then climbed down and checked the chains holding the load.

“ See you later “ he called as he climbed back up and started off for Mokari. Joe didn’t say anything.

Ten minutes later we were in bed. It may have been the bore grumbling or maybe it was just the beer but as I drifted off to sleep I’m almost sure I heard the purr of a Suzuki off in the sandhills.