That whole town was just one block. We were on the eastern side, in a hostel near the
school, and around the other side was the bakery, the police station, CWA hall and the
pub. One warm summer evening I wandered around that block. Past the doctor’s place
next door, one street light, and he left the Mercedes parked in the drive, unlocked, doors
open. If he was in, well it was likely he was sleeping. The post office and exchange were
on the corner. Another light and three public phones stood outside, all working under a
red roof, and Jenny worked inside. ‘No don’t hang up, they’re bloody at home, they just
won’t answer their bloody phone.’ I could hear her saying as I walked by, turning left into
the adjacent street.
The sky was clear and up there was a moon too, among the stars that city folk like me
didn’t know existed, and I certainly didn’t know their names. No footpath, just dirt, but it
was raised above the level of the road and when was there ever a car at that time of
evening anyway? Down the desolate northern block I walked, past the bank, two rooms
in a fibro building. I neared the pub on the corner. The pub was the only building in town
with more than one story. A magnificent place. The balcony upstairs wrapped around like
a real one and made a shady corner in the daytime. Wooden walls and doors at street
level, now shaded me just from the moon. A light inside, one or two patrons at the bar,
shearers in bedrooms upstairs no doubt with Rhodesian ridgebacks to keep them safe.
Not a big night.
I again turned left. Now in the main street. Sticking to the footpath I walked on. Over the
road was the CWA and a little further back the picture show. Through the vacant blocks
on the left I could see back across the common, to the hostel, its tin roof reflecting the
moon. Past the bakery and its shop was closed of course. Louis and Maria watching
television. At the bakery I crossed the road and headed into the police station. I
wondered: how many people had been escorted this way? I know there was one who’d
spent at least two hundred days in gaol there in one year. He let himself out when he
needed to go to the store for tea and tobacco, then let himself back in again after that.
The police station is a large weatherboard house, with garages and a separate block for
cells. In the centre is a normal house door and I knocked and entered. ‘When one
policemen laughs in the police station, all the policemen laugh in the police station’ I said
to myself. It sounds funny when you say it in French.
There’s just two policemen here. The sergeant, who everyone is leery of, is in some room
nearby, but it’s the constable, Rod, I’ve come to see. He’s there and not doing much and
I’ve just come over to get my bore cleaner back. The one I’ve loaned to him. The
telephone rings and the scary sergeant answers. Low tones in another room, I can’t hear
what’s being said. Then the sergeant comes through the door and Rod is attentive. ‘No
worries.’ he says. ‘Can Errol come, we might see a pig?’ ‘Yeah sure.’ It seems we are
Toyota land cruisers were the vehicle of choice then, at least for police transport in the
back country. We called them ‘bull wagons’. Hip-like fenders and a bulbar at the front
and a flat windscreen. Just one bench seat and a sparse interior. A wheel, a floor shift, a
glove compartment called a ‘pocket’ and Louis’ pie crusts on the floor. Behind the cabin
ran a large box-like personnel carrier. A tin box it was, with tin seats and weldmeshguarded
windows, leather strappy window covers and a louvered door at the back,
secured on the outside with a bolt and a padlock. The personnel carrier was a gaol. The
bull wagon was a gaol on wheels. We climbed into the front and Rod leisurely drove back
around the block to the hostel. There I fetched the rifle and a clip and settled into the
Toyota for an easy evening.
Out that way the roads are either manufactured hills of red clay, two cars wide and built
up on both sides from table drains, or they’re black and single track. The black ones are
rarely graded and usually retain their vehicle tracks as ruts, with a tall centre piece left
there from when the road was last travelled wet. Black soil is dusty when it’s dry and
smooth and quiet too. When the rain comes it starts to turn. First it flakes to slivers on
the top, and if your on it you can sometimes skate home, but as the rain continues it gets
more pliable. When it’s really wet, and the rain is still falling, you can still slowly make
some way. If you’re out there and on that road when the rain stops, well then, you’re up
to your armpits in plasticine. The blackness rises up and clogs your wheel arch. If you
step out into it, it sticks to your boots and you become really tall. Sticky and gluey. Black
goo. Zero progress. I’d overheard Noel in the pub. When his wife would ring up the
publican asking if Noel was coming home, I’d hear him say ‘Tell her that the road is wet’.
Given the choice, the black is preferred when the weather is dry but the red is more
reliable even though it’s hard and noisy and covered in stones the size of your fist.
That night we were on the single track black road to a village. Rod drove sedately out of
town and we trundled on, looking out into timber and the saltbush left and right, among
the shadows, for a pig. I was unaware of why we were going, or more accurately, I
avoided knowing. After twenty minutes we took a left. The road was still black and
smooth and quiet but looking to the sides we saw nothing but bare plains, drenched in
moonlight. A fence here or there, otherwise nothing. After about an hour we tuned left
again, this time onto a made-up road. A red one. Hard and noisy. Fifteen minutes later
we were there. Somewhere off the road down a track we came to a bunch of tents and
campfires. Some figures darted away, but most just stood aside as we walked the vehicle
down the slope. We stopped. I stayed in the cabin, but I could hear voices, not raised but
resigned and serious. The creak of the metal door and the bull wagon was occupied.
Another creak and that door wad closed. Click, and it was locked. Rod climbed in again
and we slowly turned around and beetled out, up the hill again and onto that made red
road. We turned left again, Rod said ‘We might as well do the round trip eh, since we’ve
come this far.’ Fine by me, I was just there for the ride.
Up on the road we made good progress and passed over several grids. One normally
drove on the top of the road but it could be used by two vehicles if required, one each
side of the dome on top. The grids were only wide enough for one car passage, and in
the middle of the road. As you approached a grid you could see reflectors on the posts, if
you were lucky, and you aimed for dead centre and bumped over. The manoeuvre
required little extra work.
Well ahead, we saw some headlights. Coming towards us was a vehicle of some kind. It
was impossible to tell what it was beyond its lights. We each reached the grid at the
same time. Someone had to give way. We stopped, they proceeded. As they passed next
to us, bumping over the grid as we stood by, Rod looked down into their vehicle. It was a
ute, in the back were three kangaroo carcases. ‘Roo shooters!’ he exclaimed. At that
moment, in the moonlight of that quiet night, they would have seen our vehicle too, a
bull wagon. We saw theirs, a ute with three thousand dollars worth of illegal kangaroos in
it. They took off. A pawl of red dusk billowed up behind them. We were facing the other
way. We had no choice but to continue over that grid. Bump. Over. We wheeled around
and retook the grid, this time at some speed. Bump again, over it. Their dust was like a
wall in our lights. The engine of the bull wagon roared and we accelerated, past 70, then
100, then 135. The ute was faster. It took off and was disappearing fast. We could see
only its taillights through the dust. I thought the wagon’s engine was going to burst. The
ute was certainly disappearing. Rod hit the throttle even harder and temporarily lost
control. Our rear almost came around, and for moments we were sideways, our front
wheels, turned to the left, were heading along the crown of the road but our tail was
down the side, near the table drain. Our vehicle twitched and flicked itself over the crest,
we lost all weight momentarily, then we were on opposite lock, steering right, our front
again on top of the road and our rear fishtailing again down the slope behind us. Rod
buttoned off, we straightened, then shot ahead again. This time, over the fist sized rocks,
bumping, roaring. What happened to that easy night?
The taillights were getting smaller ahead, Rod drew his service revolver from the holster
on his belt, driving at 150 on that red soil road with one hand on the wheel, and handed
the revolver to me. ‘Load this’ he ordered. ‘Bullets in the pocket’. ‘Oh no’ I thought, but I
took it. I’d never handled one before, or since for that matter, but I figured how it
worked. Out flopped the cylinder. After two tries I managed to open the pocket. Sure
enough, there was .38 ammunition in there. I poked each cartridge in. I was thinking
about the roo shooters. They were excellent shots. They carried high powered rifles.
Their sights were professional. There was no way I was going to shoot, so we had one
.38 service pistol. Those blokes faced a crippling fine if caught, they were shooting
kangaroos for a living. They would shoot their way out of trouble! I am not supposed to
be here. This is not the life I wanted. We drove on as fast as that truck would bear. The
back hung out several times in the next 15 minutes. We were sideways more than we
were straight. The ute had gone. Somewhere over the horizon or off the planet, or off
into the timber.
Eventually, we stopped. Rod switched the engine and the lights off and we stood on the
roadside, listening and looking. In the dark, even with the moon, we saw and could hear
nothing. No sound, no engine. We could see no lights. Empty. They had run away. With
three thousand dollars worth of cargo it was worth their while to run. If they had
stopped, well we didn’t know where they were, and I didn’t want to catch them. There
was no hope now. Wordless, we piled in and headed home the way we had come. We’d
done a 180 at the grid. We turned right onto the black soil road again and eventually
turned right again and onto the road back to town.
When we arrived back I wondered again how many people had been escorted this way,
to the large weatherboard house, with its garages and separate block for cells. ‘When
one policemen laughs in the police station, all the policemen laugh in the police station’ I
said to myself again. We pulled up outside. Still wordless, until Rod said ‘Oh, I forgot,
there’s a bloke in the back’. I’d forgotten too. When the padlock clicked and the door
swung open, he was pretty dazed. He stumbled out into the early morning silence of the
main street. ‘That was some ride’ he said. I had to agree.