This is the long version of my entry for a travel writing competition about my time in the outback in Australia. Words and characters were limited, so I had to leave so much out. One day, I will write about it all.
The Post Office Motel is a bar, motel and Caravan Park in Camooweal, Australia, 105 miles north of Mount Isa on the border of Northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. I looked it up in my guidebook only after I had agreed to take on a job offered to me by a job club in Brisbane. The guidebook said: “The only place of consequence for 700km.”
In Scotland, where I live, you can pretty much drive to a city from anywhere else in the country in a few hours. I had no real understanding of a 700km distance. It will be an adventure, I told myself.
I had been in Mooloolaba, on the Sunshine Coast 60 miles north of Brisbane, looking for fruit-picking work to qualify for a second year visa on my working holiday, but after four weeks I still did not have any work. I was running low on money. The job in Camooweal involved free food and lodgings and $2500 a month. I decided I would go there for three months, save some money and that would give me more opportunities to do my regional work. I made the decision to go on my own. However, two eighteen-year old girls I had met fruit picking, Jo from Hertfordshire and Tori from Canada, asked if they could come with me. I enjoy travelling on my own, but I was pleased that I wouldn’t have to make the 1862km, 36-hour journey on the bus on my own. I called the pub and organised jobs for the girls in the roadhouse and we left the next day.
I have always loved road trips and often feel they are over too soon. This one taught me that I too had a limit; it was about eight hours. The bus drove north along the coast, and then inland on the A2 to Charleville, north towards Longreach, and further into the centre past Cloncurry before finally reaching Mount Isa, about 1000km from Alice Springs. The cracked, arid land seemed to go on forever. The sky seemed to look bigger because of it. Scraggly bushes were dotted sparsely on either side of the road and there were few animals. The faded trees in the distance kept playing a trick on my eyes so that I imagined I could see great lines of trains moving along the horizon. As we travelled further into the outback, the lines of trees stopped and I could almost play spot the bush. It became hillier and as the sun set in the sky, the bushes on the hills made the horizon look furry.
We discovered after speaking to several locals on the bus that Camooweal was actually two hours drive from Mount Isa, the last stop in Queensland. They had a good laugh when they found out that was where we were headed.
It was late at night when we arrived and it was dark. None of us had reception on our phones. Had I been on my own, I would have been petrified but I put on a brave face for the girls as we got off at the roadhouse where Jo and Tori would be working. I was ten years older, and felt like I had to be the responsible one. The lady who owned the pub with her husband came and collected me. Michelle was from Papua New Guinea. She was small, round and smiley. I thought that she seemed like a good person with a lot of personality.
The motel was like something out of an American film with trailers and caravans around the back. It was all one-level with meandering halls and communal showers at one end. Michelle showed me around the bar. It was full of locals, most of whom were inebriated. Some of them were local Aboriginal people. I had never spoken to one. I realised I knew very little about them. They were wearing Western clothes and speaking English. Michelle explained that there had been a local funeral that day, and that a lot of them were just passing through.
I was to stay in the staff quarters: one of the motel rooms. I was hoping it was en-suite, but it wasn’t. I got into my room, locked the door immediately and stood behind it listening for voices in the corridor. I went for a shower because I hadn’t had one in two days. I was aware of how vulnerable I was there in the middle of the night on my own. Michelle had assured me that everyone who worked there said the time flew in. I hoped she was right.
What have I got myself into now? I asked myself. My friend had given me a card before I left that said: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” At the end of my comfort zone, I thought, I am in the middle of nothing. I always gave a place a chance though – a couple of weeks at least. I had to keep my mind on the money I would be earning. It took a couple of hours with my iPod turned up very loud to drown out all of the suspicious noises around the motel before I fell into a very deep sleep.
Things looked different in the daylight. The town, although small, had something about it that I liked. It was like a movie set for a western. It had a population of 187. When we went into the post office next door (the actual post office, not the Post Office Motel), the friendly owners saw that we needed cheering up, and took us through the back to see the animals they had saved from the roadside. They had lots of birds, cockatoos and parrots. They also had joeys. Baby kangaroos were often found in the outback. Either because their mother had been shot by locals for food, or their mothers had been killed in road accidents on the highway. The post office owners reared them until they were old enough to be taken to a farm in Mount Isa to bond with other kangaroos and released together as a pack.
The joeys had been put into makeshift pouches and fed from baby’s bottles. They also had to have their bums stimulated to do the toilet. Their mothers would use their tongues, but their new guardians had to use their fingers, stroking gently and catching the poo in a tissue. I was perfectly happy to feed one, but swiftly passed him to Jo, who was studying to be a vet, to deal with the poo and urination. Animals are cute, but I have limits. This was educational for Jo. I had been worried that the girls would be depressed and would want to leave, but I underestimated them. They had youth on their side, and they embraced the experience they found themselves in. I followed their example.
After the first week, I felt like I had been there for several months. Talking to the locals and the grey nomads (retired Australians who travel around the country in caravans) never failed to cheer me up.
On my first shift, I met the person I would see the most, Freck. He owned a gas station across the road, but spent every day in the bar. His family name was Freckleson. Coincidentally, he was ginger, and covered in freckles. He was small, with a large beer gut, and tufts of hair at either side of a balding head. He never hurried anywhere, and constantly slouched. The only place I ever saw him go was from the gas station across the road to the pub and back again. He looked like he ate well, but I never once saw him eat. The thing he hated the most, was when a customer pulled up to his gas station. That meant he had to go across the road and serve them, disturbing his reverie at the bar. He had deliberately woven a reputation as being mean and miserable, but in truth, I think he was perfectly happy. His rudeness had even warranted an article in a major Australian newspaper entitled: “The rudest man in Queensland.” He was delighted about it. He was a dedicated sardonic drunk. He came out regularly with oxymoronic comments typical of Australia such as: “Is that the time? I can’t believe it got so late so early”. He was poor of hearing and couldn’t understand my accent, but that didn’t stop him asking questions. I was one of the few people in the town who liked him.
I did not stay for three months, but for eight weeks. In that time, I met many locals. There was ‘the singing cowboy,’ a tall skinny man with Aboriginal parentage on one side. His skin was as rough as cattle hide, and he had more lines on his face than I had seen yet (but that was before I met Jeff, the drover). He wore a Stetson hat, chequered shirt and jeans. He called me Jimmy, because he had worked with a Scotsman who told him stories about policemen in Glasgow who were eight feet tall who would walk into the bar with truncheons shouting: “Would ye be comin quietly Jimmy or wid ye be lookin for lashins ae truncheons.” I didn’t dispel any of these rumours.
Graham was a retired tennis coach who managed the caravan park and worked in the bar during the day. He was from New Zealand, and had a very dry sense of humour. He also thought he could read your personality by feeling your head. He said I had a good head, and was creative. He told me I should be a writer.
Jeff had been a drover, an experienced stockman, who helped move livestock over long distances. He was the guide at an old drovers camp in Camooweal that was now a museum. I went there to do the tour. Of all of the relics in the museum, Jeff was the most interesting. He was small and slight, with an impressive and beautiful face. It had deep lines all over it, and his eyes were almost covered with his eyelids and skin. Yet still, he was handsome. His speech and movements were laboured. This was a man who had worked hard in his life. He still slept in a swag (a rollout bed covered in waterproof canvas) in the back of his Ute. I never tired of hearing his stories. He was a little sexist but felt he was protecting us ‘soft’ women. He told us a story about a barmaid who had worked at the Post Office Motel when he was young (the motel had been open since the 1800s). He said she was very beautiful and that most of the drovers who came to the bar were in love with her. Two men were especially mad about her: one a drover and one a local cowboy. One walked in on the other making moves on her, and started shooting his gun all over the place. The guy at the bar was not killed. He stepped outside and shot the other guy in the face; he did 18 months for attempted murder.
There were several tradesmen who stayed at the motel – they were renovating the houses of the local Aboriginal people. One of the workers, Chris, was an old cowboy who had competed in rodeos. He was in Camooweal painting with his brother. They were originally from Holland. He took us to the Mount Isa Rodeo. He was muscular, tanned and covered in tattoos. He explained to us all about the rodeo. It is a showcase for talented cowboys (and girls) riding horses and bulls and roping calves. There is bareback riding, bucking broncos and show riding. For the bronc riding, they tie a rope around or just in front of the horse or bull’s hind leg, which irritates a nerve that makes them buck, throwing off the rider. The point is to stay on the animal for as long as possible.
All of the ringers (the young people who worked on cattle stations) from the surrounding areas were at the rodeo. I recognised some of the ones that came into the bar from time to time. They were all dressed in their finest boots and buckles. They spent hundreds of dollars on their hats, boots and belts. Like anything that was different, they fascinated me. They were tough like the animals they broke-in. They drank a lot of rum. They could be crude, but generally they were just boisterous.
It was strange living in such a remote place. Everything was amplified. I didn’t particularly enjoy working in the bar, there was not always a lot to do but I was expected to keep constantly busy. The owner was very critical. I was wary when I was heading back to my room at night, but I was distracted by the sky. There were very rarely any clouds. We were in such a remote part of the world that there was no light pollution. A short distance from the pub, and you could turn around in every direction and see nothing but billions and billions of stars. They seemed within reach. Very little I have ever seen comes close to matching the beauty of it. Late at night, I would look at the stars and laugh to myself at how I had managed to end up there.
I became very fond of a lot of the local people there, and some of them arranged a BBQ for me leaving. We had it at the drover’s camp. The sunset that night was like many in Camooweal: slow, dramatic and red. It dipped into the dirt as though it were all a mirage, waves of red and orange light flickering above the horizon.
The next day I was headed to a cattle station. A governess (a live-in teacher) I met in the bar put me in touch with the family she worked for who offered me a job. I would be cooking and cleaning for cowboys and miners at a cattle station 70 miles from Camooweal.
Yelvertoft was a family-owned station, they had several kids, and they loved horses. Those few weeks in Camooweal had toughened me up so I was expecting something rugged and bare. But after we drove the 20km from the highway to the station across a small creek, I was shocked. There were gardens and red-leaved trees, and horses everywhere. I met the family in the homestead and was shown to the little caravan at the end of the garden I was to stay in. After I had unpacked my backpack and had dinner, I sat on the step and looked out to the sun setting, and laughed at the row of turkeys that had perched themselves on a fence to do the same thing. I felt safe and that the road to Camooweal was always supposed to lead me here.