07 Nov 2016
Words Mike O'Connor
The Clock's Ticking
I first went bush when I was 19 and decided to visit a mate in Gladstone, which to me as a city dweller was "the bush.” I had never left Brisbane, knew very little of the world and imagined that all I had to do was stand on the highway, stick out my thumb and some kind soul would give me a lift. By day’s end Gladstone was still several hundred kilometres distant and it was getting cold. I spent an incredibly uncomfortable night sleeping in the scrub waiting to be attacked by snakes and spiders, and wishing I’d never left home. The bush, I was thinking, was over rated.
Then I went overseas for a year and when I came back, realized that I had travelled across half the world but had seen nothing of my own country.
It was time, I thought, to give the bush another shot. By then I’d somehow wrangled a job as a journalist, a job which turned out to be my ticket to ride throughout regional Australia.
There was a trip to Cape York were I stood on the northernmost tip off the continent and imagined the great land mass that stretched away behind me. The next day I stood on a Cape York beach waiting for the chartered helicopter my photographer was using to come back and collect me. The hours passed and the shadows began to lengthen. The place was alive with crocodiles and I was getting ready to find a tree to climb when the chopper returned. "Sorry mate,” smiled the pilot. "We forgot about you.” There was a time when a company called Bush Pilot Airways flew World War II vintage DC-3s throughout the north. I travelled with them on one trip, flying low and slow from Cairns for days across the Gulf Country, landing on dirt strips and marveling at the vastness of the Deep North.
There was a trip down the Darling River staying at rural properties that then were in the grip of a devastating drought. I slept in the shearers’ quarters and got up at sunrise for a cup of tea with the owner. We stood on the verandah and as dawn broke, he looked out at a cloudless horizon. I knew what he was looking for but there would be no rain that day nor for many months to come.
There’ve been train trips from Darwin to Adelaide and Brisbane to Cairns and out to Longreach and Mount Isa. On a trip from Sydney to Perth one December, the Indian Pacific train stopped somewhere in the middle of the Nullabor Plain and staged a Christmas concert. It was an annual event and the battered utes and four wheel drives came from hundreds of kilometres distant and camped beside the railway line overnight waiting for the train. The grins of the indigenous kids who stood barefoot and watched shyly as a well known entertainer of whom they had never heard performed for them have stayed with me.
There was the Great Ocean Road in winter. Do it in any other season but never winter, and Uluru in autumn and the Sounds of Silence dinner served in the desert with candelabras and white linen tablecloths.
There was Darwin with the kids and a road trip through the Northern Territory in a rented four wheel drive where they discovered to their horror there was no Wi-Fi in Kakadu National Park. What were we thinking!
There was a trip down the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley with a night at El Questro and a flight over the Bungle Bungles and a trip to Broome for a race meeting. The races were one of the highlights of the Broome social calendar and never before have I seen so many pearls. There were pearl earrings, pearl pendants, pearl bracelets, pearl necklaces and pearl rings. The only people not draped in pearls were the jockeys.
There’ve been road trips throughout western Queensland and drinks at The Irish Club in Mt Isa, The Blue Heeler Hotel at Kynuna, Tattersalls Hotel in Winton, the Longreach Club which sadly is now closed and a lot of places in between.
I’ve island-hopped my way through the Great Barrier Reef resorts from Lizard Island to Great Keppel and once found myself in Airlie Beach at the same time as the annual yacht race. Somehow, I was appointed judge of an event known as The Miss Figurehead Contest. Each boat in the race sported a young lady posing in the bow as a figurehead, all topless as it transpired, and it was left to me the select the most worthy. I did my best, in those politically incorrect days, showing neither fear nor favor.
There’s a lot more out there in "the bush” yet to see. "Let’s get moving,” I tell my wife. "The clock’s ticking,” and if I’ve learnt one thing it’s that the older you get, the louder it ticks.