A few decades ago, I flew up to Darwin with a couple of mates to do a trip around the Top End with another mate who lived up there. For reasons which will become obvious, I christened him Fitzcarraldo, in homage to the Klaus Kinski character in the eponymous 1982 movie.
As we drove into Darwin, I was struck by the fact that every single hotel had big signs advertising “Topless barmaids”, “Nude barmaids”, “Miss Nude Australia here this Saturday”. I enquired of Fitzcarraldo whether every pub in Darwin had topless or naked barmaids. He looked at me as if I was stupid and said “Yeah. You know what a Darwin lunch is, don’t you?”
“A beer and a blowjob.”
Right. OK. We continued into town, and went to the Darwin Yacht Club, at the curiously named Fannie Bay, for lunch. Well, fish and chips. As we walked back to the car, we passed a fellow sleeping it off in the middle of the car park.
“Looks like he’s had a hard night.”
“Yeah,” said Fitzcarraldo, “but it could have been worse.”
“How?” I enquired innocently.
“Well,” he replied, “ I woke up here one morning face down on the bitumen, with one arm stretched out towards the door of my car, with the key in my hand.”
“Yep, that’s bad,” I agreed.
“Not as bad as waking up with a sore arse and two bob (twenty cents) in your hand,” said Fitzcaraldo.
We stayed the night at Fitzcarraldo’s house, and enjoyed a wonderful meal, cooked by his long-suffering, but remarkably blasé wife. (She left him, to his astonishment, a couple of years after.)
Next morning, bright and early, we loaded up Fitzcarraldo’s four-wheel-drive. It was a tight squeeze, despite our having brought only an overnight bag each. The entire luggage compartment was taken up by two huge refrigerators, one for food and one for beer, as Fitzcarraldo explained. Our swags went on the roof.
Heading south, we passed the mining town of Pine Creek. Fitzcarraldo informed us that, to alleviate the problem of foxes and feral cats killing wildlife, the good people of Pine Creek held an annual Fox and Pussy Hunt, with prizes for Hairiest Pussy, Skankiest Fox and such.
It was a typically hot October day, and a bit further on, Fitzcarraldo turned off the highway along an un-signposted road that led to a beautiful lake. The name escapes me now. On the far side of the lake a naked couple was cavorting under a little waterfall.
“You wouldn’t believe it, would you?” said Fitzcarraldo. “You take your sheila way out here in the bush, down a dirt track to a quiet little spot like this to have a nookie, and a carload of old pervs turns up!”
To make the unfortunate couple feel less self conscious, and to convey the impression that we weren’t just there to perv on them, we stripped off and had a swim, then made a discreet exit.
We spent the night at Katherine. In the motel restaurant we dined on camel, very tasty. Then we adjourned to the bar outside. Here Fitzcarraldo bumped into a female acquaintance, Deb, who made a living driving around the territory selling souvenir knick-knacks to petrol stations, pubs and small town shops. We expressed some concern that an attractive young woman like Deb might be at some risk in those remote parts, but she allayed our fears and proceeded to drink us under the table. Fitzcarraldo confided when she went off to the loo that he was pretty sure the last man standing would be on a good thing with Deb, but I wouldn’t know, since I was the first to totter off to bed, and no one admitted next day to having had any romantic success.
After a scenic cruise at Katherine Gorge, we proceeded down the road to Mataranka, immortalised in the book “We of the Never-Never” by Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn, published in 1907.
Just as an aside, my grandfather, in the 1930s, was head stockman on nearby Elsie Station, the cattle property where the book is set and, while working alone on an outstation, survived an ambush by aborigines.
When we arrived at Mataranka, a very touristy location, Fitzcarraldo apologised for the buses, and led us down a path through an oasis of palm trees and tropical flowers. Soon we could hear running water. Fitzcarraldo, stopped, theatrically cocked his ear and exclaimed “Hark! The peal of girlish laughter!”
Sure enough, we rounded the next bend to arrive at a sun-dappled clearing, in which lay a crystal-clear bubbling pool fed by a thermal spring, and in the pool was a bevy of teenage girls, apparently on a school excursion. Fitzcarraldo, clad only in a disreputable pair of shorts, threw his arms into the air and shouted “Virgins!”
A horrified silence descended in this Eden, and the school-teacher herded her flushed and tittering charges to the far end of the pool. We immersed ourselves, luxuriating in the warm water for as long as we felt that we decently could, watched over sternly by the teacher, and peeked at, shyly and slyly, by the girls, then beat a dignified retreat.
Fitzcarraldo then drove us down to the bank of the Roper River to camp, rather than spend the night in the company of uncouth tourists. As we rolled out our swags, he suggested that we have a dingo’s breakfast the next morning and hit the road early.
“I give up,” I said. “What’s a dingo’s breakfast?”
“A piss and a look around,” he replied. “And if you go down to the river’s edge, by the way, just keep a bit of an eye out for crocodiles.” I wasn’t sure if he was serious, but gave the river a wide berth. There are crocodiles, I found out later, generally not the man-eating kind, but they have been found there in the wet season.
Our destination next day was Daly Waters, which was hosting its annual rodeo. By some extraordinary feat of logistics, Fitzcarraldo had secured for us one of only three motel rooms in the town. The other two rooms were booked by the police and ambulance officers attending the rodeo.
The Daly Waters rodeo is one of the biggest events on the Northern Territory calendar. Territorians drive many hundreds of kilometres to attend. The buckjumping and bull-riding was spectacular and the beer plentiful. It was thirsty weather, so bladders filled up fast. Most of the spectators, though, male and female alike, chose to relieve themselves against a tree, rather than to enter the less than salubrious dunnies.
At one stage, while perched on the rail of the arena with my telephoto lens, photographing the action, I was accosted by a rather inebriated aboriginal woman, who said to me “Geez, mister! You sure got a biggun!” It took me a moment to realise she was referring to my camera lens.
After the rodeo, everyone adjourned to the Daly Waters pub, which is a rather unique establishment. It’s basically built without walls, and the roof is adorned with panties and brassieres removed from, or donated by female patrons.
By the time we arrived the festivities were in full swing, with not one, but two rock bands down from Darwin for the occasion, playing in competition with each other. It was a very loud, disorderly affair. Late in the evening, we three city-slickers, having had well and truly enough, went in search of Fitzcarraldo, who hadn’t been seen for some time. I eventually found him, sound asleep and snoring, on the floor in front of the juke box, right next to the men’s toilet, in fact obstructing the doorway. A procession of staggering drunks was stepping over him, as they stumbled in and out.
Next morning, nursing sore heads, we convened around a laminex table in the service station which owned the motel rooms. When the proprietor came to take our orders for coffee, bacon and eggs, which were all that was on the menu, I ventured the comment, “Big night!”
“You don’t know how big!” he said, with a mischievous grin. “There was a car smash down the road a bit. Somebody radioed it in, but the policeman and policewoman were too drunk to attend, and the ambulance guy was shagging the ambulance girl in the back of the ambulance with the radio turned off. Plenty of trouble coming their way!”
Fortified with greasy calories and well caffeinated, we headed along a dirt road to our next stop-over, Timber Creek. There’s not much to it, we discovered at the end of a long dusty drive, a National Park rangers’s compound, a little pub, a service station / store / post office and half a dozen houses. Oh, and a race track.
We refreshed ourselves with a cold ale at the pub, then went out to look at the race track, which was just dirt of course, with a wooden fence around it. There was a large concrete block building with a tin roof, into which we ambled for a bit of shade.
We were confronted by a scene from a horror movie. There was a sea of blood all over the floor, and three or four horse carcasses hanging from the roof beams. In the middle of this carnage, wielding a wicked knife and a chain saw was a fearsome figure, wearing tattered, blood-drenched, cut-off jeans. He was covered from head to toe in horse blood and was engaged in butchering these wild horses (brumbies), which he’d shot to feed his crocodiles. He had a crocodile farm a few miles out of town, which we later visited. Mr Dundee, or whatever his name was, paused for a beer, then apologised saying he’d better get on with the job and then hose the place down, because the Timber Creek Ball was on the following night, and hundreds of people were expected, from as far afield as Darwin.
We returned to the rangers’ compound where Fitzcarraldo had arranged for us to camp. I had a yarn with the ranger, Barra, enquiring whether he’d ever seen a Gouldian finch, since, as a bit of a bird fancier, I happened to know that they have a very small distribution, only in that part of the world.
“Yes”, he replied, “every evening, over there on the tap.”
He may have been bullshitting me, I don’t know. I staked out the tap with my camera primed, but no finches turned up, one of life’s great disappointments.
We’d just rolled out our swags when a huge low-loader with an excavator on the back drove into the compound. The burly, red-faced driver emerged and had a chat with Barra. It seemed that he too had an arrangement. We were headed towards the ablution block, bemoaning our loss of privacy, when the grimy, corpulent intruder called out “Do youse blokes like ribs?”
“What? Yeah. Why?”
“I got a big lot a’ ribs in me fridge,” he replied. “Just put in a phone line on a station down the road, and the manager gave ‘em to me. I’ll get a fire goin’ ’n’ break ‘em up.”
By the time we emerged from the showers, the telephone guy had a roaring fire going in a 44 gallon drum. There was about half a steer on a nearby concrete slab, and he was laying into it with an axe. In short order it was reduced to a collection of ribs, each as long as his arm. Soon the rich aroma of barbecued beef was in the air, and our taste buds were beginning to tingle.
“Do youse like red wine?” he enquired.
“Yeees” we replied in unison, hesitantly, a bit disbelievingly.
“Right,”, he said. “ I don’t drink anymore. Used to be a big drinker. Not any more. But me old man was a big plonk drinker, and when he died he left me his wine cellar, so I always carry a few bottles around. Never know who ya might bump into.” He rummaged about in the cabin and emerged with two bottles of twenty-year-old cabernet sauvignon!
As we chatted over charred ribs and fine wine, we mentioned that we’d just been to the Day Waters rodeo.
“Oh yeah,” said our benefactor. “Used to go there every year when I was a young feller. Used to bull-ride. Six hundred kilometres we used to drive, me and me mate to get there. I remember one time, I was drinkin’ then, both of us pissed as parrots, headed home. We hit this bloody great beast with me truck. Just standin’ there in the middle of the road it was. It flew through the air, and landed a couple of yards off the road. I looked at me mate, and he looked me, and we both said “Ribs!” So we pulled the truck off the road and built a fire around the beast. Three days we sat there, eatin’ ribs and drinkin’ warm beer. Tourist buses were stoppin’ to take our photo!”
After dinner our new-found friend tucked himself into bed and we strolled down the road to the pub. There were only ourselves, a couple of other hard-bitten locals, the ranger, Barra, and his young offsider, but it was a fairly congenial atmosphere. One of my mates thought to ask the young ranger, a bloke about twenty-five years old, how come he chose to live in a lonely place like Timber Creek.
“See that barmaid over there?” he replied.
Our heads all swivelled to take in the pretty blonde barmaid, an English lass, as I recall.
“Do you know how many barmaids there’s been here in the last year?” he continued. “Fifteen. Backpacker chicks. Drift in, work a few days, drift out. And I’m the only bloke in town! Straight after work, it’s grab a cheap bottle of bubbly and up the road to the look-out. I’m never leavin’ !”
The low-loader rubbed out before light next morning. Soon after sun-up we had another dingo’s breakfast and prepared for our next adventure. Fishing rods and trolling lures materialised out of Fitzcarraldo’s car. Barra was taking us barramundi fishing on the mighty Victoria River. We put in a hard day’s fishing, but never got a strike. Crestfallen, Barra got on the phone, back in town, to another ranger, down the road at Keep River National Park. He promised us faithfully that we’d catch some barramundi there.
After another pleasant evening at the Timber Creek pub, we packed up and headed west. As we drove through downtown Timber Creek, we passed a Land Rover which had veered off the road and come to rest with its nose two or three feet up a tree.
“Oh dear!” one of us commented.
“Poor bastard,” said Fitzcarraldo. “You wouldn’t believe what he did though. Jumped out of the car and did a runner. Like everyone doesn’t know whose car it is, and that he was in the pub all night!”
Some way down the road, we found the dirt road to Keep River National Park, population four, the ranger, his wife and two little kids. No Gouldian finches, but seemingly millions of zebra finches, blood finches, budgerigars and cockatoos. The ranger directed us to a particular waterhole, where he assured us we’d catch fish.
“You’ll know you’re at the right place,” he said. “There’s a big sign at the end of the track, saying ‘No Entry’ and another sign saying watch out for crocodiles. You better watch out, too. There’s a twenty-footer lives in there. Anyway, there’s a boat under a tree right where you finish up. You might have to drag a few fallen branches off it. No one’s been there for a year or so.
So it transpired. We stopped the car at the end of the track. There was a deafening din from roosting fruit bats in the trees overhanging a dark, mysterious stretch of river. It was like the Valley That Time Forgot. There was the little boat, as promised. We crept forward, eyes peeled for crocodiles, turned the boat over, fitted the oars and launched ourselves trepidatiously onto the still water.
No more than twenty feet from shore, with his first cast, Fitzcarraldo hooked a huge barramundi, which put up a spectacular battle before finally being dragged into the little boat. We were terrified, of course that all this commotion would attract the big crocodile about which we’d been warned. Exhausted by his titanic struggle, Fitzcarraldo insisted on being taken back to shore with his fish to have a cold beer. We others rowed a total of maybe a hundred metres and all caught lovely big barramundi, which we released. After all, how much barramundi, though it’s the best fish in the world, could four blokes eat?
We dragged the boat back under the tree and drove out, stopping to thank the ranger very much, then set course into the afternoon sun, towards Kununurra.
Kununurra is a pleasant, well-to-do town in a very out of the way place, because of the nearby Argyle diamond mine, famous for its coloured diamonds and because of a prosperous agricultural industry, sustained by the massive dam on the Ord River, Lake Argyle. The cotton industry originally planned, however, was a very expensive failure.
Flushed with our fishing success, we headed straight for the most impressive-looking accomodation facility in town. We strode inside and my mate, Al asked the reception girl “Is this a good place to stay?”
“I wouldn’t stay here.”
“Right,” said Al. “Is it a good place to eat?”
“”I wouldn’t eat here.”
“So let me get this straight,” said Al. “You wouldn’t stay here, and you wouldn’t eat here?”
“So where would you stay?”
“The Gumtree*. Very comfy.”
“And where would you eat?”
“The Travelodge*. Great chef.”
“Well, thanks very much,” said Al.
“No worries,” she replied.
We drove back down the hill to the motel with all the tourist buses and hefted our big esky to the reception desk, the barra’s tail dangling out of it, dripping some sort of fishy excrescence.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” enquired the man behind the desk.
“Yeah,” said Al. “We don’t want to stay here, but we want to eat here, and we’ve brought our own fish, and we need to talk to your chef.”
“Certainly,” he said. “Follow me.”
He led us to a kitchen like an aircraft-hangar and introduced us to the chef, a very substantial fellow in a starched white apron and one of those big starched white hats.
“Nice fish!” said the chef.
“Can you cook it whole?” asked Al.
“No worries,” said the chef. “I’ll bung it in the bread oven. Come back about eight.”
So we went and checked in at the Gumtree, scrubbed up, put on our best jeans and had a couple of cold beers in the shade. At eight o’clock we entered a vast dining room at the Travelodge, packed with patrons. In the middle was a table set for four with a “RESERVED” sign on it. The head waiter conveyed the chef’s apologies, for the fish not being ready and said to have a drink at the bar, on the house!
A little while later we got a tap on the shoulder and were ushered to the reserved table. When were seated, two waiters entered carrying aloft our majestic fish, sizzling aromatically and splendidly garnished. Spontaneous applause erupted! The chef himself came out to serve us, and to ascertain if the fish was done to our liking, which it most certainly was.
“Would you mind if the others had a try of it?” he asked
With our acquiescence, every single one of our fellow diners filed past with a fork, to taste our beautiful barra, making suitably laudatory comments about both the catching and the cooking of it. Fitzcarraldo basked in the adulation. We four adventurers ate as much as we could, washed down with some nice wine, but we had to leave a fair slab behind.
We slept the sleep of the just, then headed north early next morning, towards Wyndham.
“So, what’s at Wyndham?” I asked Fitzcarraldo.
“Bloody nuthin’!” he replied. “Well, there’s a croc farm, and there used to be an abattoir, but there’s not much else.”
“So why are we going there?”
“Well, you know, there’s nothing like it. You’ve just got to see it. So you can say you’ve been there. What they say up here in the north is the Cambridge Gulf’s the arsehole of the earth, and Wyndham’s sixty miles up it!”
Fitzcarraldo was right in all respects. We did see some big crocodiles and a sad, lonely cemetery, but not much else. The most amazing thing about the place is that it has tides of up to nine metres. We didn’t stay to watch though. We turned around and headed back towards Darwin, via Kakadu, but that’s another whole story.