Two Caterpillars in the desert

Part one—going north

Going to Alice Springs was my first big adventure without my family. It was April 1964, I was just 17, in my first few months at University in Adelaide; a country boy who hardly knew anybody, feeling well out of my depth. My one new friend, Paul, was 20, which seemed very mature to me. He had been working for three years at odd jobs in another area of rural South Australia, then signed on as a ‘cadet’ social worker which meant that the government was paying his fees in exchange for him agreeing to work for them for three years when he finished his degree. He had quite a bit of money, he’d had several girlfriends with whom he’d gone ‘all the way’, and he had a car. All things I wanted desperately. I tagged along, in his thrall. So when Paul asked me if I was interested in joining him on a car trip to Alice Springs, I couldn’t agree fast enough.

First step was to meet Paul’s landlord, Peter, who in addition to owning a couple of blocks of flats, was an earthmoving contractor. He had just finished a big job at a mine near Alice Springs, and needed his Caterpillar grader and front-end loader back in Adelaide as soon as possible. Paul, with his usual chutzpah, had suggested he get a mate from University, and the three of drive to Alice Springs then drive the two heavy vehicles and the car back. We would do it for free food and drink only, in exchange for a chance to see the real outback. Peter, always keen to save money, went for it, and so we met at a milk bar (no cafes in Adelaide then) to hear his plans.

It was going to take at least 10 days; three days up, three to four coming back at slower speeds, and two to three days in Alice Springs to build two connecting ‘A-frames’ so that we could have one big road train pulled from the front by the grader. This would save on petrol and diesel, and allow us to keep moving 24 hours a day, by rotating drivers. Looking back now, it’s hard to describe how excited I was. It felt like the beginning of being an adult. I rang my mother, and airily told her I wouldn’t be coming home for the University holidays, because I was going to Alice Springs to pick up a grader and front-end loader. There was silence for a few moments. She asked how far away Alice Springs was. I told her—a 1000 miles (1600 kilometres). More silence. ‘How long will you be gone?’ When I told her, more silence. Then she said quietly ‘Do you need any money?’ I didn’t, because I had been working to pay my fees, and that was that. As I write, it hits me for the first time what that call might have felt like for her.

Two days later, Peter Paul and I put our bags in the boot of Peter’s old Holden sedan and drove out of Adelaide. I had purchased a leather travel bag, a duffel coat with ‘real elk-horn’ toggles, and I brought along my brand new, very expensive German shoes. My thinking was that I wanted to look as cool as possible when we went out on the town in Alice Springs. Duffel coat, shiny shoes, studying arts at University, what could go wrong? I was buzzing—with any luck, the days of my virginity were numbered.

In those days, the road was bitumen only until Port Augusta; the first 300; with 1300 more of dirt to come. The plan was to reach somewhere near Coober Pedy, then camp out. In April, it was still warm and mainly sunny in the daytime, so it was a pleasant enough trip, although very bumpy after Port Augusta. But once we had set up our camp that evening, I found out a basic fact about deserts—they tend to be freezing at night. By ten o’clock it was about 6C, and the slight breeze cut through my fashionable but totally inadequate duffel coat. For the rest of the trip, I slept in all the clothes I had in my bag, including two pairs of socks, trying to get back to sleep when I woke up shivering, and delaying as long as I could before going out for a life-threatening pee.

After Coober Pedy, the opal mining town, the real outback began. The ‘road’ became an ephemeral thing, a choice between several tracks made by previous drivers trying to avoid areas churned into impassability by road trains. Mount Willoughby, our next stop, was somewhere about 250 kilometres north of us. Peter had a compass, and if a track seemed to heading too far east, he would go left for a while, hoping to pick up the main track again. This area is criss-crossed by river beds, empty most of the time, but occasionally raging with floods that can carry large boulders and whole gum trees until the water dissipates into inland lakes which fill only every twenty years or so. Luckily there was no rain forecast, but the deep valleys made by the rivers were often spectacularly wide, with a rocky riverbed at their deepest point. If we were on the wrong track when we came to one of these, we had to work our way along until we found an established track that allowed us to go down, across and up safely.

That night was even colder, which made me very miserable later, but it was a clear black sky in the desert; my first. Paul knew all the main constellations and galaxies and so on, and kept us entertained with star-gazing stories of the aboriginal dreamtime he had heard as a boy growing up in the country. I saw several shooting stars, and even a couple of satellites, which were rare in 1964. Paul’s guide to the stars actually impressed Peter, who by now I was beginning to realise assumed that he was across everything a real man needed to know, while we were a pair of soft students who knew not much. He wasn’t far wrong about me.

At Mount Willoughby we filled the tanks with petrol. The station-owner told us he was amazed at how busy the road was getting. We were the tenth car through that day. ‘Like Rundle Street in Adelaide out here’. He’d seen a tourist bus the day before, with about 40 people on board. ‘They weren’t too pleased when I told them we didn’t have toilets here—told them they were going to have to wait till they got to Kulgera before they could have a shit, a shower and a schnitzel.’

Kulgera is right on the South Australian/Northern Territory border, and we pulled in that evening. In the road-house, we were greeted by two astonishingly pretty young women behind the counter. Peter had forewarned us not to look at them for long, or try to be flirty in any way. There was no risk of that from this shrinking violet, but Paul might otherwise have tried his charming and funny best. Peter explained that the father, a large Greek-Australian man who was making hamburgers as we came in, was bringing the girls up on his own, his wife having left for parts unknown. His basic premise was that any man who got familiar with either of his girls would marry them or he would kill them. He kept a shotgun beneath the bar for this and related purposes. Knowing Paul quite well by now, I was very much on edge until we got out of there. A typical patter from him, such as ‘Hello darling, what’s happening around here tonight—you look like you know what’s going on’ and it could have all ended right there.

It was on to Alice Springs the next morning. But matters were about to get complicated. A fireside chat went very wrong that night

Part two –into Alice Springs

At sunrise, it was teeth-chatteringly cold in Kulgera. We had a chat with two police officers in their patrol car. They had been sent from Alice Springs to catch two bank-robbers who were coming north from Adelaide. This is before GPS, mobile phones and all the other ways that people can be tracked. Because all people driving north had to go through Kulgera to get fuel, all the police had to do was wait. They estimated they had about an hour to kill. What a poorly-conceived escape plan. Probably the huge, isolated outback seemed like a great place to hide, but it was exactly the opposite. As duly reported in the news that night, they stepped out of the car into the waiting arms of the constables right on cue.

But that morning, Peter and I were not talking about bank robbbers, or anything at all. The night before, he began to tell us about some of his sexual conquests, more bombastically with each beer. Initially it was OK, but as his contempt for women became ever more obvious, I tried to opt out of the conversation. He got aggressive, and I should have known you can’t argue with a drunk. ‘What’s the matter, David, you don’t want to fuck women?’ I asked him how many women he had slept with, and he said it would have been about 50. I sailed on into danger, asking him if he had considered marrying any of them. He said no, because they were sluts, and he wanted to marry a virgin. It was 1964, and Peter was a very conservative Italian-Australian man in his mid-30’s, but I was still angry enough to ask him if having sex with so many women made him a slut.

Quickly he was on his feet and in my face, jabbing my chest with his finger. He was beetroot-red and he was spitting and slurring with each word. ‘In this world pal, there are the hunters and the hunted. If you don’t know that you know nothing’. I stood my ground, legs trembling, and then he turned away, threw his beer-bottle into the night and yelled over his shoulder at me to shut up and speak only when spoken to from now on. Paul told me later that he fully expected Peter to punch me at least, if not produce the knife he often mentioned. I didn’t sleep at all that night, convinced he might attack me again. The memory of that fear is so sharp: fifty four years later my pulse is racing as I write this.

So it was a quiet, tense scene at breakfast. After speaking with the police patrol, we packed up and drove into Alice Springs.

If you haven’t been there, the country is stunning. Dust as red as cayenne pepper, mountains rising purple out of the desert, huge gum trees lining creek-beds, and flocks of birds, mainly brightly coloured parrots, wheeling around in a perfectly blue desert sky. The route into Alice itself is via a gorge—it feels as if you are entering another world through a magic door. We went to a river bed known as Todd River and set up camp, near encampments of aboriginal families. Peter left us, to check out the current whereabouts of his earthmoving machines, and Paul and I had a quiet morning to write letters, explore near the camp, and, in my case, catch up on lost sleep.

Peter returned late in the day, and announced we were going into town to have a meal. I considered my lovely new shoes, and my earlier optimism about such opportunities, but I was still shaken after the previous night, so my old boots stayed on. The pub we went to served a great steak and chips, and the beer was cold. A guy Peter knew joined us, and started to tell us about ‘the boongs’—the local aboriginal people. I don’t want to repeat most of the things he said—suffice to say it was raw, corrosive, hateful racism of a type I had never experienced firsthand. This was before 1967, and the referendum that gave aboriginal people Australian citizenship, when the practice known in Alice Springs as ‘nigger farming’ was still widespread. This consisted of collecting the pension payments for all the aboriginal people on your property, then giving them some food—flour, sugar, beans and so on—and having them work for the cattle station without a wage. It was said that with about 50 such pensioners on your land, you got more income than you could from the cattle.

After the events of the night before, I decided to shut up. I felt dirtied somehow, stuck in a space I hated, but not saying anything. Paul was feeling the same, and back in the tent we whispered long into the night about what to do with our feelings. Over the years, both of us went on to work that tried to redress aboriginal disadvantage and marginalisation, I think Paul to greater effect than me.

Peter was in his element for the next two days—wheeling and dealing for parts for the two vehicles, the steel for the horizontal connecting A-frames and the welding equipment. I saw a different side of him—the completely uneducated man who was naturally brilliant at mechanical tasks, and most at peace when he was doing them. I acted as unskilled assistant, not speaking unless I had to, and we got the A-frames built and attached to the vehicles in exactly the time he had predicted. The result was awesome—a 25-metre long road train; the grader in front, the front-end loader next, and the car on the back. I can see the A-frame on the front of the car in my mind, but I can’t remember how it was attached to the chassis.

By the middle of the second day in Alice, Peter and I were talking fairly freely, which was a huge relief. As long as we avoided any discussion of women or aboriginal people we were OK. We even had a friendly debate about religion (I know, I know, I couldn’t help myself risking it) in which he said he had stopped believing in God when his mum died young. We were almost on the same page on that one. Anyway, we got the jobs done without any obvious rancour, and the whole caravan was ready to leave. That night we went to the pub again. I felt much better, so I decided to wear my best gear, including the new shoes. Disaster! One was missing. I looked everywhere, but it has not been seen since to my knowledge. I had one perfect, unused, fine leather German shoe. Probably a week’s wages for a young man down the drain which in today’s terms means at least $400. What can you do with the other one? Certainly not look cool enough to attract the right sort of attention from the young women in Alice Springs. I left Alice Springs astride a Cat 12 grader, with one shoe and none of the sensual memories I had hoped for. I kept that shoe for a couple of years, then gave in to the obvious and put out in the rubbish.

Part 3 the return trip

Outside a service station, where Peter was farewelling his business partner, a dog wandered up to me, wagging its tail. As I walked to pet it, Peter appeared and told me to back off. I looked up to see a man on a motorbike with sidecar looking at me intently. I froze, the dog looked disappointed, then trotted back and jumped into the sidecar. The man was wearing an old army greatcoat, and had a long beard. As he drove off, he threw me a glare that suggested I was right to back off. Peter explained that this was a lone prospector, and the dog was his only companion in the desert. Such men could get very upset if their dog received affection from anybody else.

Driving out of the town, people looked in amazement at our enormous road train, waving and calling out, ‘Where are you guys off to?’ Up in the cabin, with Peter driving, I felt pretty special, with us passing out of the entrance gorge and returning to the desert in such grand style. Peter told Paul and I about the grader’s controls, emphasising that ‘The hand-brake is useless—never rely on it, you have to be able to come to a smooth halt without brakes.’ More on that later. He also showed us how the gearbox had no synchromesh, which meant the only way to change down when in motion was to double-declutch. Best not to try was his advice; if in doubt, we should put it in neutral and coast to a stop. I wish I had listened.

It was about 25C when we left. By midday I had stripped to a T-Shirt and shorts. But by early evening, when Peter surprised me by saying, ‘Alright David, you take over’, it was cooling rapidly. Paul and Peter retired to the car at the back, and I drove on at a stately top speed of 30 kilometres an hour. By 9 o’clock at night, I was wearing all the clothes I had. The night was freezing, and I leaned close to the exhaust pipes to get some heat. Then I heard the car horn tooting. I stopped, and Peter told me they were taking the car off the A-frame, so that they could sleep, and I could go a bit faster. 40 kilometres an hour! But soon after, a new problem. I had to leave the main track because it was impassable, and then found myself lost in the dark. I stopped, and turned off the motor, to see if I could get my bearings. Of course the lights went off as well. As I climbed off, I realised it was a pitch-black cloudy night, and I could see very little. I spotted ghostly shapes, probably small trees, and heard animal noises. I felt the silence closing in on me, and without warning, I got into a state of panic—I had to get the grader going and get out of here.

After a tense minute with the starter motor groaning, I actually cheered as the diesel roared into life, the lights came on, and the grader started to move. The relief was immense, and I started singing ‘Hit the road Jack’ as loud as I could. Soon after, I found the main track, and drove along in good cheer until Peter and Paul drew alongside in the car, around 2AM. Peter congratulated me on making good speed and not getting lost. I said nothing, happy to go back to the car and get some sleep.

Late the next day, all this satisfaction and companionship came to a sticky end, and it was all my fault. I was driving alone again, with the other two back in the car, when I came to a deep river bed. I had been timing the five-mile markers, and knew I was averaging 40 with the car on the back. I was chuffed, so when I saw this valley coming up, I decided to put my foot to the floor and get down and up without having to change gear. I so nearly made it. About 50 metres to go uphill, as the whole rig slowed to a crawl, I tried to double de-clutch into a lower gear. I missed it with a noisy grinding of gear teeth, so I went for the hand-brake. No effect, as so rightly forecast by Peter. A moment of stillness, then we started to roll backwards. When we reached the bottom, I jumped down and ran back, to find Peter and Paul scrambling out of the car, which had jack-knifed to a crazy angle, but seemed undamaged.

Peter was furious of course, but so was Paul, who had feared for his life moments before. Peter got into the grader, said ‘Get in the car now’ and started driving. After about an hour, during which nothing was said between Paul and I, we came to the outskirts of a town called Kingoonya. Peter stopped, came back to the car, and said ‘David, out, take your bag and start walking.’ Paul asked if I had any money. I said yes, although I knew I only had about $5. I waited at the side of the road as they drove away, in abject misery. It was a long walk into town, and I feeling quite desperate just before I got there, when a farm ute pulled up alongside, and a guy said ‘Get in mate.’ He took me to the pub with no questions, other than where I was going to.

The publican looked at me, curiously dressed in a duffel coat, with the longer hair of a student, and said ’Have you got any money?’ I told him the truth, and a couple of other drinkers said “Get him a beer—it’s on us’. Then the publican fed me at no cost, and suggested I take a shower. Once that was done, the business of me getting back to Adelaide became the priority, with all involved making suggestions. The best idea was the train that was due in an hour or so. While the driver was in the pub, I could board one of the empty passenger cars, and hitch a ride back to Port Augusta. With the driver duly distracted by my co-conspirators, I scampered around to the far side of the train and climbed on. I hid on the floor until the train was under way, then made myself comfortable on a seat. I was exultant for a while, but soon the adrenaline ran out, and I slept for eight hours without waking.

I woke to the sound of a whistle, and realised the train was stationary. The whistle was from a man checking around the carriages in the Port Augusta railyards. As soon as he was past my carriage, I jumped out and walked as casually as I could across the tracks to the highway. I’d done it. I was back within hitch-hiking distance of home, and I still had my $5. Two truck-rides later, I was in the northern suburbs of Adelaide.

I got on a bus, which cost me about 50 cents in those days, and slumped into a seat. It all felt a bit surreal, but it hit me right then that this was exactly what I’d hoped it would be. A real adventure, without any help from my family; one I would be talking about for years to come. Of course it was only a tiny step on the road to growing up, a journey I think is still far from finished, but I did feel a different person to the one who set out only ten days before.

Next day, on the front page of the newspaper, there was a headline and picture, without me in it, about the ‘75-foot road train from Alice Springs that made it to Adelaide. ’ Looking at Peter and Paul, dwarfed by those muddy giant machines made me feel very alone, but I was proud that I made it home on my own. Writing this, I feel a surge of affection for that boy that turned into me. Impatient, naive and sometimes very foolish, but brave and resourceful when it counted. A deep sense that I could take big risks and survive was being forged. Along with a hunch that my next major fuck-up would never be too far away.

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