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I could hear the fatal thump of rabbits under the wheels of the big Land Cruiser as it hurtled through endless clouds of bulldust, up the Birdsville Track. Jock Makin, the Aussie writer, was driving us the 1,100 kilometers from Adelaid to Birdsville, into the ‘red heart’ of Australia.
In 1860 the explorers Burke & Wills died in the first attempt at this journey. Extremely jetlagged and disoriented, I secretly suspected this might be our fate as well. We did arrive in Birdsville, population 80, where I was welcomed by the entire police force…..Sgt Bob Goad. At the Birdsville Hotel/pub he revived me with the coldest most welcome ‘stubbie’ I ever drank and we remain friends to this day.
It began as a National Geographic story on the Simpson Desert and evolved into The Simpson Outback, life on the cattle stations at the edge of the desert. Once published, this story then led to a later one, Dog Fence. The Dog Fence, or ‘dingo barrier fence, stretches 3,307 miles across Australia’s interior and exists solely to stop dingoes, Australia’s wild dogs, from killing sheep.
Stuart Nunn was the manager of Anna Creek Station, the classic Aussie who, if this were a movie would be played by James Arness of Gunsmoke fame. Anna Creek was the size of Belgium and the last cattle station to muster cattle with horses. It’s all done with helicopters and dirt bikes now. After a huge steak from a freshly killed bullock, the ringers sat quietly around the campfire and talked of horses, cars, girls and dreams of yesterday and maybe tomorrow. I fell asleep in my swag on the desert floor under millions of low hanging stars to the sounds of Dylan’s Blood on The Tracks and Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
Some random thoughts about my great adventure in the outback:
Fred Brophy’s Boxing Troupe was the last of the old time traveling shows and the tent was 30 years old. On the Sandringham muster, John the cook asked me “is Africa in America or Ireland?” I was camped alone by the Rock of Ages waterhole, dinner was pork & pineapple curry and Cognac; and I awoke at 4:00 AM to the screams of a screech owl, so I went for a barefoot moonlight walk in the soft sand of the dried riverbed. Owen Pannycan is an Aboriginal stockman who claims to be 100 years old but admits he doesn’t really know for sure. I gave “Stretch” my new Swiss Army knife. He was the best ringer in the whole outback. I’m getting the ‘wearies’…….the truck won’t start……bad glow plugs…….and another puncture. The satellite phone is down and the story is in trouble back in Washington. Fixed my tripod with Superglue and gaffer tape and wait for a baby to be born in Quilpie but the baby is too slow…….gotta go. Not so happy birthday changing another flat on the Birdsville track.
Bushflies, bulldust and too many blown tires but ‘no worries mate’. The desert is uncluttered solitude and I’m learning to live alone quite well in this “clean well lighted place”. On Christmas Day at dusk on Kangaroo Island, I found a perfect magpie feather.