Southern Riverina and Northern Victoria Conservation and Environment Site

True Bush Stories

by Keith Stockwell



"Mate, I hate this job, I'd rathering be out musterin' cattle"
One day in mid 2003, when travelling between Tibooburra and Mutawintje in north-western New South Wales, my fellow travellers and I were unsure of the location of a track turnoff because the maps we had disagreed. So we called in to a remote roadhouse for fuel and to seek directions. We were served by a guy wearing a huge 10 gallon hat. After battling to work out how much to charge us for the fuel ~ he'd forgotten to return the pump metre to zero ~ the guy was baffled when we produced our plastic cards. "Mate, can't you pay cash?!". Using the EFTPOS machine seemed all too hard. And when we asked for directions, he muttered, "Mate, I hate this job; I'd rather be out musterin' cattle". Or was it mustering sheep? He'd only been there a few weeks and didn't have a clue which track went where.

So most of us determined to take the first substantial track to the east. That was fine until the track divided about five ways at a remote homestead. A couple of guys were there, preparing to go out mustering. So I asked them the way. "Mate, we're just in from Renmark to muster sheep. Mate, we wouldn't have a clue. Gosh, we'd rather be back home in the office". So we drove back to the highway and went the long way.

Meantime, three participants in our safari elected to camp in the grounds of the roadhouse over night. The guy in the 10-gallon hat invited them to camp anywhere. "Here, in front of the pumps will do". It was pointed out that it might not be a good place in case someone calls in for fuel during the night. They pitched the tent out the back but received little sleep that night. A kangaroo spent most of the night trying to get into their tents. One lady was forced out of her tent and out of her sleeping bag by the kangaroo. She spent most of the night sitting in her car whilst the kangaroo enjoyed the sleeping bag and the tent!

When we arrived at Broken Hill, one of our group called in at the national parks office for some information. The girl there complained, "Mate, I don't like this new job much; I'd rather be back at (a sanctuary) looking after the Bilbies.

Subsequently we arrived at that sanctuary only to be greeted by the newly-arrived manager who didn't seemed to be too keen feeding bilbies. He kept reminiscing about the good times he had back running a roadhouse before his partnership broke up and he was forced to leave. Yes, it was the very same roadhouse! ©

The gateway to hell
There is, along an outback track in the Gawler Ranges of South Australia, an old wooden sign which points to "Hell". Over the years, weathering has made the sign a little hard to read. Alongside the sign is a rusty farm gate; the sign on the gate reads "Gateway to Hell".

A small group of travellers, of whom I was a member, came across the sign, and gate, late one afternoon, when darkness was setting in, and when dark clouds were blowing our way. Our driver had travelled the dusty outback tracks for hours, so he was keen to set up camp, and somewhere through that gate seemed to be the go, off the road. No one in their right mind would venture through such a gate.

We did. No sooner had we closed the gate behind us, but a storm closed in. There was thunder and lightning, hail and blustery winds. In buckets came the rain. The wipers of our Toyota were hard-pressed to keep the screen clear enough for the driver to see. I was sitting alongside him. I don't know how he found his way for I could see only blackness punctuated by flashes of lightning.

The driver, Ian, a South Australian naturalist, somehow found a camping spot and we set up our tents in the heavy rain. After a soggy meal, we soon retired for the night.

Storms always seem worse when you're camping. When you're lying in a tent, light drizzle sounds like heavy rain, and a light breeze sounds like a hurricane. Many a camper fears his tent will soon blow away and be torn to shreds. (That's only happened to me once, at a caravan park near Ulladulla on the south coast of NSW.)

The fact is that next morning we awoke to a most wonderful dawn bird chorus. Not a cloud in the sky. Warm sunshine. Water cascaded down some falls just near the tents. Wallabies grazed. Frogs croaked. The shrubs and everlastings were in full bloom. Good colours; good sounds; good vibes. "Hell" was Heaven. © 

The never-ending track
Returning home after a camping safari in the South Australia's Bookmark Biosphere, some members of our group decided to return via Murray-Sunset National Park in north-western Victoria.

Our party of three 4WD vehicles had to travel along several unsealed tracks through farming country before entering the park at a designated camping area. It was dusk and, after a very long drive, I was pleased that it was time to make camp.

But no, one of our group was not satisfied. "Lots of people have camped here", she said, "and there's no timber lying around on the ground". Because the best birding spots are usually bushy areas with lots of fallen timber, this member demanded we move on to a more secluded camp site just a few kilometres away.

At this time we must have lost our presence of mind, for we let her lead the way. And a good navigator she was not. The secluded camp site lay south but she led us north and along a narrow, winding, seldom-used track which ended at a deserted wind pump by which time it was very dark.

Realising that we had been led astray, my passenger offered to take over the navigation and assured us all that we needed to drive south along a narrow track for just a few kilometres. As branches scraped the sides and top of our vehicle, I kept an eye on the odometer. Five, 10, 15, kilometres; in the dark and on a sandy track.

Eventually I realized that the map scale had to be in miles rather than kilometres. On and on until at last a T junction was reached. "Now drive about three kilometres east and the camp site is on your right", Five, 10, 15 kilometres. The scale was not in kilometres, or miles but some type of measurement best known to the national parks service.

Eventually, a fireplace and toilet were observed in the headlights. We set up camp in the dark. No one was a very happy little vegemite.

Early next morning, one couple were out birding around dawn. When I scrambled out of the sleeping bag around 7.30, they were still out there, in mallee shrub just a few metres high. The rest of us observed lots of different birds, including some uncommon ones. By 9 we were very concerned about the missing couple and set out to track them down, noting carefully footprints on a sandy track. There they were, just ahead, still bird watching. What took them so long? Southern scrub robin sitting on a dead branch, loudly calling. Chestnut-rumped thornbills. Chestnut quail thrush scratching about on the ground. Gilberts whistler calling in the scrub. Chestnut crowned babblers flying about. Red-lored whistler alongside the track. New bird, new bird, new bird.

Thank goodness we let ourselves be bullied into moving to this spot. Needless to say, several days were spent here, a birders heaven. We arrived home as the perfect sunny winter weather broke.

The traffic ticket
Only twice have I received a parking infringement notice.

Bowls kept my father alive for years. Bowlers have to have their bowls approved, and stamped, once every so many years. The time had come. So I drove dad into Melbourne and found a parking spot close to a lawn bowls shop which was authorized to test bowls. I parked, past where the yellow paint ended, near a pedestrian crossing outside Melbourne University. When we returned, a parking sticker was on the window. My uni friends thought it a huge joke. Seems the yellow paint extended for less that the statutory distance as some sort of a revenue-raising exercise. Every day people who thought they were parking legally were booked here. Ha ha. I was not impressed and still don't see the joke.

The second infringement notice came in the mail. It was just after I returned from the Nullarbor, where I had been caving. At the very time we had been rafting in a cave under the Nullarbor, my green four-wheel drive was booked in Parramatta. Bit unlikely ~ I had a blue Peugeot. I'd owned the Pug for years, had never owned a 4 wheel drive and had never been to Parramatta.

Furious, I rang the Parramatta Police Station, and complained to the lady officer who was the unfortunate bunny who answered the phone. "I was rafting under the Nullarbor at the time and my vehicle was in a donga." I suppose the excuse must have sounded rather far fetched.

"I've a right nutter here" I heard her say to a colleague. Trouble is she didn't put her hand over the mouthpiece properly. Boy did I give here a serve. I didn't ask for an apology, I demanded one, and in writing. She was also heard to comment on the large number of complaints being made that morning: seems their computer was malfunctioning.

Upon checking, the officer found that the booked car was certainly not mine. I actually received a written apology! ©

Big John
Some years ago, before it became popular and before the road was upgraded, I decided to book on a 4WD safari from Cairns up Cape York Peninsula and across to Thursday Island.

When I was picked up at the hotel I wondered why the courtesy bus driver picked up all the luggage in the foyer. I had just one bag. I thought others must have left the baggage and be waiting in the courtesy bus. It's only later that the driver realized his mistake and had to arrange for all that luggage to find its way to the rightful owners. Apparently he couldn't understand why I had so much luggage but was too polite to comment.

We set off from Cairns in a Toyota. We drove north along the coast road and past a settlement where the singer Peter Allan had a holiday house. The road rose higher as it started to cross the Great Divide, leaving the Pacific waters and holiday houses behind. Great views. Great weather. Cane farms. Bushland.

Eventually we reached the Wenlock River and set up camp for the night on sand beneath some large Melaleuca trees. The trees were covered in white blossom and the scent was quite sweet. Soon after we had eaten, a convey of four-wheel drive vehicles arrived. It was a tag-a-long mob, follow-the-pilot-vehicle sort of thing. Most vehicles had mum and dad and a kid or two. They set up camp for the night on another patch of sand across the shallow river. One big guy stood out. He was the type of guy you wouldn't want to encounter in a back lane of Paddington on a Saturday night. He sported tattoos, huge muscles and a leather jacket.

If I remember rightly, there were six of us: the driver (I quickly deducted that he was a mechanic rather than a naturalist), an accountant and his son, a Wimmera wheat farmer and his wife (a cookery teacher), and myself. The cookery teacher soon realized the driver was a mechanic rather than a chef and took over responsibility for meals.

After dinner we set the table for breakfast. Clean dishes, clean tablecloth.

Just after dusk, flying foxes decided to feed on the nectar of the Melaleuca trees.

Next morning the tablecloth and dishes were covered with bat juice. So we had to wash up and set the table again.

At every lunch spot and every camp spot, bar one, we encountered the tag-along mob. It was as if they were following us because they realized our driver knew where the good swimming holes, good camp spots and good lunch spots were. And at every stop we spotted this "Hercules" in the leather jacket.

Late one afternoon, our driver made sure the tag along mob were not in sight, left the track and drove along the rocky bed of a beautiful creek. About a kilometre upstream, at the base of a waterfall, he drove up the bank to a delightful camp site. There was a fireplace and even a clothes line which our driver had left it there on his previous trip. This delightful spot was on top of a delightful day travelling through colourful heathy country. Grevillea was but one plant in full bloom. I was pleased to hear later that much of the area through which we travelled has been added to the Parks system.

Next morning it was back on the road again ~ but we soon encountered that tagalong mob again. The road was badly corrugated in places. At lunch time we saw the big man approaching us. We almost quivered in fear. He looked angry. He introduced himself as John and wished us a happy holiday.

We forded several creeks. The driver had to use the winch more than a few times on the eroded, unmaintained track. Eventually we tried to push the vehicle across the Jardine so we didn't have to pay to use the ferry. Later we realized a big croc had been lurking in the reeds a few metres away from where we'd been. We camped on the other side and dared to swim only in bits of the river that had a sandy bottom that could be seen. Big John and the tag-a-long mob crossed on the ferry and set up camp nearby.

Upon reaching the tip of Cape York, Australia's most northerly point. The tag-a-long mob soon arrived and Big John was the first to reach us. Someone suggested our group have its photo taken, and so it was that Big John collected all our cameras. I was reluctant to give him mine. Would we ever see them again? He took a shot and threw down a camera. All shots taken, and swoosh, the cameras came whizzing back.

Then we crossed Torres Strait to Thursday Island. The tag-a-long mob was on the same launch. Would we ever escape from them? The sea was very calm. Big John approached and asked us if we could give him some pills to ease travel-sickness. "Not for me, you understand, but for my boy". Someone found one. His boy ran up. He didn't look queasy. Then we realized the big man was looking yellow around the gills. "Could you make it two?" he asked. As he sat we saw him swallow. Then the big man dozed off, as you are want when you feel crook.

Whilst walking from the launch's galley to the back of the vessel with a cup of coffee, the cookery teacher inadvertently brushed past Big John. He awoke with a start, looked like a madman possessed and tried to throw the cookery teacher overboard. He had to be restrained. Then he was very apologetic. "I dreamt I was being attacked by a bogy man" he declared. It was obvious that he was very upset at what had happened. He was quite concerned at the shock he had caused the teacher. He offered to buy her a new cup of coffee. Then he became quite ill.

Big John was the only one sea sick on that crossing.

We were shown around the island by a bus driver who was also the undertaker, hotelier, storekeeper, postmaster, magistrate and, it seems, de facto ruler.

When the time came to return, the seas were huge. We thought of Big John as we sat on the balcony of the hotel enjoying a few beers. He said that he feared his boy might be a bit sick and asked for a few more tablets.

Re the photos John took, we expected out-of-focus crooked shots with heads missing. When the film was developed, my photo was perfect. So was everyone else's. I should paste it here as proof!

Big John had been misjudged. He was a gentle giant and a gentleman.

The day after returning to Cairns, I went one of those touristy bus trips. At lunch time I struck up a conversation with the coach captain (never call one a "driver"). Told him I'd been to Cape York. He asked lots of questions about our driver. I gave favourable responses. "What about the meals" he asked. "They were fantastic... pumpkin bread, lovely soups, camp roasts." The driver was shocked. He declared that he owned the little company we went with and employed that driver with some reservations. He was so pleased to know he had found a good driver/cook. Maybe the driver was employed again but betcha no one would ever again give such praise about the meals! ©

The principal and the one-legged water-skier
For a while I taught under the principalship of a congenial chap who had a property alongside the Murray, some miles downstream of the school. When the river was in flood, "Casper" (as I thought of him ~ because he was rarely at school) sometimes drove his boat to work and tied it up to a tree close by his office.

Casper lived alongside the Murray and had his own boat ramp.

'twas one of my old uni mates who heard the story and told it to me, all the time brimming, a smile from ear to ear, for the two had never seen eye to eye.

One hot summer's day, Casper had spent several hours in his boat and decided it was time to return home. He drove the boat straight at the boat ramp in the hope that the boat would fly up onto the trailer . His aim was to make the boat's retrieval relatively easy. The boat trailer was partly in the water. It was attached to the back of the boss's Holden. The car windows were wound down, such was the heat of the day. A brick behind one of the back tyres of the car ensured the boat wouldn't roll down into the mighty Murray.

Unfortunately, the boat didn't go too far onto the trailer, so the boss jumped out of the boat and decided to jump up and down on the trailer. This seemed a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, the vibration somehow dislodged the brick, and both the trailer and the Holden rolled downwards into river.

Not all was lost. The car was afloat and the attached trailer was floating along behind it.

Whilst the boss was busy securing the boat to a large River Red Gum by way of a rope, a paddle steamer whistled around the bend. Sighting the floating car was somewhat of a novelty to the captain, who summoned his passengers, by means of a loud PA system, to look at the strange sight to the port side of the vessel.

At about the same time, a power boat sped around the bend, towing behind it a one-legged water-skier. The speed boat had to swerve to avoid hitting the paddle steamer and the floating Holden (with a trailer attached). Unfortunately, this manoeuvre caused the one-legged water-skier to lose balance and fall. Quickly, the fast boat turned, causing a bow wave as it sped back to pick up the dumped skier.

Now, the car windows were open. That was fine until the bow wave broke upon the car, or should I say in it. Glug glug!

That was in the days before privatization when we still had a State government Insurance Office (which granted teachers a nice discount). The boss went into the head office to tell his story once and once only, so all the staff from floors above and below gathered for the tale. A cheque was written on the spot.

The irony is that Casper had for some time been trying to sell his car and the asking price in the local rag was considerably less than the payout received from the insurance office. ©

Novice boaters
Ando, who lives inland, has a good friend, Duncan, who lives in Warrnambool. Ando persuaded his family to travel there one weekend. Duncan lives alongside the Hopkins River, within sight of the sea. Duncan suggested Ando and his family take his boat and do a spot of fishing. Duncan had other commitments and couldn't come.

The first problem facing them was how to start the vessel. Ando tugged at a rope and the motor started sure enough. Trouble is the rope didn't rewound and started quickly spinning around at an appropriate height to decapitate the occupants. Everyone ducked for cover, beneath the vicious rope that was rotating at a terrible speed. With Ando and his family huddling on the bottom, the boat took off.

An elderly gent was fishing from the jetty. The boat sped past, cutting off the end of his rod and taking the line with it. The angler was left in stunned silence.

Onlookers could hardly contain their mirth as the boat sped in circles past the jetty, (with the starting rope whizzing around just above the heads of Ando and his family), down the river and out to sea.

Huge waves were encountered as the boat sped seawards. Batten down the hatches! Son Loch was sternly told off by his brother when he opened a hatch from below to see what all the commotion was aboard. Stay below you blothead, he was told. Wife Judy was beside herself. Then the craft ran out of petrol and it was a hard row back.

That's the last time Ando's family has gone away together. ©

Balgo and the navy's 44 gallon drum
Balgo is an aboriginal settlement a long way south of Halls Creek in the Tanami Desert. That I arrived here one day is somewhat remarkable.

A group of us had booked to go on a 4WD safari down the Canning Stockroute. We flew together to Broome, expecting to be met by a convey of Toyota Saharas. Instead we were met by a guy with an old mini bus.

For legal reasons I can't mention the name of the operator or tour organiser. Nor shall I document all the things which went wrong. Suffice to say we had a lot of time for strolling around Halls Creek, for climbing hills along the Tanami Track, for recalling past experiences and for sitting in the desert sun reading come-what-may waiting for repairs to be undertaken.

Anyway, on occasions, some of us walked ahead of the broken-down vehicle, waiting for the vehicle to catch up. It rarely did. Sometimes we had to walk all the way back lest it get dark and it's just as well we did for some of the delays really were rather lengthy.

It was during these times that the naturalist accompanying us, Ian, recalled stories from the past. During his uni days, he'd taken a series of landscape photos for the Women's Weekly (when it was still a weekly; was women's Day ever a daily?). upon finishing the uni course, the naturalist applied for a job on one of the Pacific Islands. A condition was that he start on a Monday. It was a Friday and there was a long queue at the passport office. The window was reached when they were about to close for lunch and the public servant laughed at the naivety of someone wanting an instantaneous passport. "You can only get a passport on the same day if you have the signature of someone famous!".

Ian strolled along Pitt Street, wondering how he could get an influential famous person to witness his application. Past the Bulletin Office. Now the Bulletin is one of Australia's oldest magazines. It's then editor, David McNichol, had been at the Women's Weekly some years before when Ian worked on the series of weekly landscape photographs. Ian had met the editor once, fleetingly, at a staff party. The old guy probably wouldn't remember...

Ian talked his way past the office secretary but had trouble penetrating past Mr McNichol's personal secretary.

Eventually having his way, our naturalist entered the great newspaper man's office and explained how he desperately wanted a signature.

What did the great man say? "Life's too short for signing forms, boy. Tell me a story."

So Ian told how he had been studying tiger snakes, heard that they were really plentiful around the shores of Lake George near Canberra, travelled to the lake, located a local landholder and asked if he could catch some tiger snakes.

"Go ahead, boy. Catch as many of the bloody critters as you can. No problems. Go for it!'

Ian had spent all day catching, weighing and measuring the venomous snakes when the elderly property owner rode up on his stallion and inquired as to how many tiger snakes had been captured.

"631" was the reply. Well it wasn't 631. I can't remember how many snakes. But it was a hell of a lot!

"Where are they now?" inquired the farmer. "Where did you put the carcasses?"

"Carcasses? I haven't killed them. I just caught them, weighed and measured them and let them go."

"You W H A T ? ! ?" roared the farmer, reaching for his rifle. Ian sped off.

"Ho Ho Ho". The old newspaper man rolled in his seat with mirth and signed the passport application.

Ian made it to the passport office just a few minutes before closing time but managed to get the passport and start his new job on the Monday morning.

We climbed a hill that was close to our broken down vehicle to survey the land around. We sat at the top. The naturalist recalled the time he was employed by a well-known conservationist on as birding trip up the top end. It wasn't until the trip was getting under way that Ian saw the advertising brochure and discovered that most participants had joined because of a promise that a long list of birds would be seen, including Gouldian Finch. This caused him much concern. It only the brochure had stated that some of the birds might be seen. As it turned out, all were seen bar the finch. As the group set up camp one evening, he went off overland on foot to a roadhouse some kilometres away and inquired if anyone could help locate the finch. "There's a hermit who lives in a hut not far from your camp, he might know" came the reply. So Ian set out in the dark and found the hermit's hut. "Bring your tourists down here at sunrise and I'll show them Gouldian Finches, son!" At dawn Ian and the travellers arrived at the hermit's hut and were delighted to see a flock of finches sitting on the roof of the hermit's shack. Before they could even get the binoculars to their eyes so this most magnificent of birds could be observed, the tour leader gruffly bawled, "There they are, Gouldian Finches. Porridge is ready, everybody back to camp NOW!"

Eventually, the vehicle managed to get us into the aboriginal settlement of Balgo. Beautiful country Balgo. But beautiful the settlement was not. This community of around a thousand had no sealed roads, no footpaths, no bike tracks, no garbage collection service, no parks, no piped water, no electricity, no shop. It probably still doesn't. But there was a lovely catholic church. And some think we spend too much on improving the living standards of aborigines!

We tried to get a mechanic to carry out urgent repairs. We felt a bit ill at ease, all of us, except Ian, who worked with aboriginal communities throughout the top end. He soon made friends with some locals and arranged for the mechanic to return from a football match that was being played at another "nearby" community. In this area "nearby' means hundreds of kilometres and none of the roads is sealed. So we visited a shed used as an art studio and gained pleasure from looking at paintings which were priced cheaply here but which would later fetch big money in the posy art galleries of Melbourne or Sydney. A young lady straight from art school and who was "tutoring local artists" was the only person in the studio.

Then it was story time again. Maybe it was here and maybe it was somewhere else that Ian told me how he worked with aboriginal marksmen to eradicate buffalo and other feral animals using helicopters. One day, whilst they were airborne, a call came through from the navy. They wanted a naturalist to identify species of fish being illegally caught in Australian waters off Broome. As time was of the essence, the chopper flew straight to Darwin airport and there was no time to return the aboriginal sharp shooter to his community in Arnhem land. So the buffalo hunter boarded a Broome-bound jet plane with Ian, and even accompanied him onto the naval vessel.

Out at sea, waiting for illegal anglers to appear, the captain decreed that it was time for target practice. Now the same old 44-gallon drum had been used as a target for years. Maybe it predated World War Two. It had served the navy well and no sailor had ever manage to puncture it. How could you when it looked like a full stop bobbing up and down in the waves, often out of sight. Anyway, the drum was dumped at sea, the vessel sailed a kilometre or so and all the sailors took their turn to fire at it. This practice was the same as all the others and still that old 44 gallon drum survived.

The Arnhemlander, who was too shy to stay on board, preferred the security of his cabin and ignored all requests to take a shot at that old drum. Eventually, however, he was persuaded to come on deck and fire at the target. Glug glug first time.

A new target was found. A rather new metric-sized drum! The vessel sailed the mandatory kilometre. Again Ian's colleague needed only one shot to sink it. The aborigine was the hero of the sailors now.

After finding a mechanic, and accompanied by a support crew in two Toyotas, we drove out of Balgo along a dry creek, the valley of which widened and deepened. Mesas and buttes appeared within this big wadi or whatever it was. Reminded me of the wild west. I looked in vain for a stagecoach being chased by a pose of Indians.

We set up camp by a beautiful water hole. Ian and I sat there at dusk, watching flocks of different birds come in to drink. There were flocks of doves, finches, cockatiels and budgerigars. That night we met Arfa the dog, who'd had no trouble helping his owners (who lived in Sydney) travel north up the Canning. It was bad enough that a long-distance walker, Drew Kettle, and his faithful dog Laddie had shuffled past us. And now we'd been shown up by another dog.

Next day the vehicle broke down again and the driver sent out an ambiguous radio message to the Flying Doctor. And so it was that we rated a mention on ABC news, "a group of elderly tourists is stranded along the Canning Stock Route". Elderly indeed: you can't have confidence in the media these days!

It was then that the support crew revolted. They'd agreed to accompany us in case we met trouble as they were travelling the route. But they wouldn't be part of this any longer. We still hadn't reached the Canning, and there were thousands of kilometres ahead. Clearly, this vehicle would never do it. So we headed back to the water hole near Balgo, where we met up with Arfa again, and then back to Halls Creek, where we met up with Arfa again.

One of our group, who shared the name of a well-known poet, decided to leave at Halls Creek and hitch a ride to Broome or Darwin on a passing passenger coach. She felt that "enough is enough"!

Someone stole the headlights at Halls Creek. I can tell you anything you want to know about Halls Creek. Some gardens were full of Sturt Desert Peas in full flower. There were six holes in the walls of the third house from the main garage. There's a tiny building used as a radio station. Apart from walking the streets, we took a flight over the Bungle Bungles whilst the vehicle was repaired.

We headed back to Broome (via some of the beautiful gorges along the Gibb River Road), with someone prodding the driver to keep him awake as Carbon Monoxide filled the bus. We watched the hot fountain of water gushing up inside the bus and we wondered how come the windscreen didn't break when it fell out.

While we explored the Kimberly and the Hammersley, Ian not only helped us appreciate the natural environment but told story after story, about the time he was chased through the Indian jungle by tribesmen with bows and axes, about how he was taking pictures and making CD ROMs for use in Northern Territory Schools, about the reaction when he attacked cats during his weekly radio broadcast, and about how he persuaded the harbour master at Broome to recall a naval vessel which was disappearing over the horizon because someone with his name had boarded it by mistake...

Ian and Arfa turned a disastrous trip into a memorable experience. ©

The apologetic tour guide
"I'm sorry about the ugly mudflats. We're hoping to replace them with a marina and import sand", the tour guide explained as she greeted the visitors to Cairns.

"Don't apologise" a friend exclaimed. "Bird observers come from all over the world to observe migratory waders on your mud flats!"

"Oh, you like birds, do you?" the tour guide retorted. "We've a great bird aviary up the road. There's lots of interesting caged birds there".

"I don't want to see birds in cages. I want to observe them in their natural habitat."

"We're camping in a lovely camp ground. There's lovely green grass lawns, a pool, lighting on all night, a high fence to keep out intruders, a bar and a disco." Campers were jammed together like sardines. Someone was using a chain saw to cut wood. Some dogs were barking. And an angle grinder could be clearly heard.

My friends groaned, arranged to hire a car and drove off to a secluded bush site where there were no discos, no street lights, no neighbours and no caged birds.

Some people just don't understand. ©

Guardian angel
A few years ago I decided to spend the Easter break at Carnarvon Gorge in central western Queensland.

On the way up the Newell Highway was closed due to flooding, but, having a Peugeot 505 with a rather high clearance, I talked the guy with the stop sign into letting me through. A motor cyclist who accompanied me disappeared down a pothole never to be seen again, but I avoided the hole and made it through safely.

Somewhere between Surat and Roma, the sides of the road were like pea soup and the bitumen was only the width of a car. So when a vehicle came along from the other direction it was necessary to back into a ford with a wide concrete apron so we could pass. Unfortunately, my car stalled and I couldn't restart it. After making a cup of tea, I tied my car to a tree and waited for about an hour until two cars came by. The occupants pushed my car out of the ford just as it was starting to float away. Then my car was push-started and I was told not to stop for any reason. The other two cars followed me along the road to Roma. A few fords later, however, the second of the following cars, a little mini, floated away down a creek. The driver of the following car yelled out "Don't stop. He's a local and knows the way home!" I still don't know what happened to that car and its unfortunate driver.

Beyond Injune, I ignored a road closed sign and took a dirt track to Carnarvon Gorge. This was not a wise decision. The car snaked sits way along and left not only wheel marks but the impression of the bottom part of my car's sump! If I stopped and tried to turn around I could be bogged in the outback along a track which had clearly not been used for at least a week. Thinking the track could only improve, I snaked on at slow speed in second gear. A couple of times the car spun a full 360 degrees but there could be no turning back.

Eventually I reached the lodge. It was devoid of guests that Easter and the staff wondered how I made it. "You must have taken the long way round" they said. I thought it wise to agree, for no motorist would like to pay the cost of repairing a 50 kilometre stretch of ruined road.

Some years later, I decided to return to Carnarvon. This time I was driving a new Peugeot 405. It had never left the bitumen. About 100km north of Injune, beyond a sign that reads "End RACQ Road Service. Proceed at Own Risk", the bitumen ended. Not long afterwards, after successfully negotiating several kilometres of corrugations and bull dust, I went to change gear and the car rolled to a stop. There were no warning lights and the engine was idling. But it was impossible to engage any gear and the joy stick was inoperative.

Before I had time to make a cup of tea or wonder what to do next, a car appeared from the other direction. The driver jumped out and said words to this effect:

"Are you in trouble? Can I help you? I'm a rally car mechanic with all my tools. I'm a Christian and have been attending a religious conference in Townsville. God told me to come home to Brisbane on this road as someone would need help."

After tinkering about on my car for about an hour, the bearded character, who had a wife, Mary (?), and baby sitting in his car, announced that there was a broken gear shift bolt. He wired the car into top. I started the car and did a U turn in fourth! The saviour then followed me all the way to the RACQ garage in Injune, where he disappeared!

The mechanic and his apprentice worked on my car from 10am until after 6pm. They had to take out the steering column, take off the front wheels and dismantle much of the engine in order to replace the broken bolt.

The charge was $70 plus 20 cents for a new bolt.

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction! ©

The eclectic cricketer
One day I picked I stopped off at a local school to give their computer teacher a lift to a computer conference at Swan Hill. On the return journey I was so engrossed in a story he told me that I missed the turn off for Echuca and drove on for about 30km before realising my error.

When in Tasmania, Michael was invited to play cricket for a team that was a player short. The scorer, not knowing the name of this eleventh player, chose the name of a former cricketer from a cricket almanac which he had handy. Michael batted and bowled particularly well, impressing the Tasmanian selectors who happened to be watching. They noted the name from the scoresheet and invited him to play for Tasmania.

Michael, under the "erroneous" name, played well for Tasmania. Several members of the Australian team happened to be present and were impressed. One of them checked "his" statistics. Goodness, they were terrific. This guy was obviously a champion with a wonderful record.

Some years later, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of those Australian players was a commentator for a TV channel. When this ex-Australian captain saw Michael in the crowd, he invited him into the commentary box and subsequently introduced him to the current Australian players. Michael is still treated as a hero when he goes to cricket matches at the MCG. But few ex-cricketers call him by his real name!

I don't usually miss highway turn-offs, but you now understand why I missed one that day on the way back from Swan Hill. ©

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Keith Stockwell, April 1997 "One Legged Water Skier" and "Balgo" added June 1997, the Apologetic Tour Guide added August 1997; Guardian Angel added September 1997; The Cricketer added February 1998. "Mate I hate this job..." added December 2003. Please respect copyright on above stories.