We had been down to Bribie Island for Christmas and were heading home to Mataranka.  Taking it slowly after leaving Kay’s Bribie home we headed north until we came to Calliope where we stayed in this beautiful camping ground for nearly a week until we heard there was a cyclone coming in off the Queensland coast roughly about where we were so we thought it was probably a good time to head inland.  There was fruit and vegetables in abundance on which we had been feasting for this time and we took enough with us to last the journey which, at our pace, was about three or four days or maybe longer.

The weather was hot and the Shuttle van in which we travelled was only a four cylinder so that we couldn’t use the air con most of the time.  Ras sat in the middle and we tootled along the Capricorn Highway heading in the first place for Emerald.  On the way down we had stopped there with friends who had lived in Mataranka and not long moved down.  Lars was working for the National Parks and Sally had been a teacher’s aide at the Mataranka School.  I took her place there.

While on holidays we had spent most of our money and just before we left we went to a garage sale and bought a car fridge (we’d never had one before and thought we were pretty flash) and a small hand winch so that we could winch ourselves out of trouble if need be.  You know how it is, these things become necessities.

This particular day was so hot we decided to find some shade and have a bit of a kip before moving on in the late afternoon.  As you know, in the tropics, trees have their leaves side on to the sun so they don’t lose too much moisture and therefore provide little, if any, real shade.  However, on coming across a big, high bridge across a tiny creek but one which no doubt floods at certain times of the year, we decided to go down into the dense shade cast by the structure.  There was a detour road down at the side left there from when the construction of the bridge had taken place and a small ford over the creek at the bottom but we just followed the little road a short way down and then turned in under the bridge proper where it was obvious other people had taken shelter from time to time.

The cool of the brige shadow was beautiful and we all went to sleep almost immediately, waking after a couple of hours.  Getting set to move back up onto the highway we discovered to our horror that, because we were unused to having a car fridge, we had left it on and the battery was flat.  Not to worry, there was the odd bit of traffic on the road and I suggested we (or one of us) should go up, wave someone down and they would give us a jump start and we would be on our way.  No, no, no.  Not to be.  We have a winch which we want to use and by heck we are going to use it. come what may.

So, the van was winched back out from under the bridge (plenty of saplings around to hook onto) and then up the detour road nearly to the top and we tried to do a clutch start down the incline.  It was bitumen by the way and really should have worked.  It didn’t.  Burble, burble, blub, blub, burble, burble, stop.  I was doing the clutch starting and have to say that I was pretty good at it, even if I do say so myself, having had plenty of experience of it over the years.  However, it didn’t happen.  “Let’s go up to the highway and get someone to jump start us” I said.  What?  Give up?  Never.  Have you ever seen the cartoon where a stork is trying to swallow a frog and the frog has his arms round the stork’s neck cutting of the swallowing part and the caption says “Never give up”?  Well, that’s my man.  That’s what he does best.  In the face of adversity he is the one you want on your side believe me.  At this particular time I wasn’t so sure about that.  I would have preferred someone, anyone, from the highway.

We began the laborious task of winching the van up the hill again.  As I said, it was a little hand winch that you wind up and when I think of it, he must have been exhausted.  Well, an hour or so later with the sun going down, we had another go.  Goof run, reasonable speed but burble, burble, burble, burble, blub, blub, burble, burble, stop.

Okay, so now it’s dark and he finally gives in and suggests that we go and stop someone on the road and get them to come and jump start us.  “Who’s going to stop for us in the dark and come down under the bridge with us?”  We had been camping for a week.  It had been so hot travelling that we had fallen into any bit of water along the way, all three of us, and then driven on dripping wet hoping that the hot wind would cool us down a bit until we dried and then spied another bit of muddy water near the side of the road into which we could flop.  The water we had with us couldn’t be used because we needed that to drink.   Looking like hobos to say the least, one look at us in the headlights would have only made any driver seeing us, put their foot down harder on the accelerator.

So, the van was winched halfway up the road again then we pushed it back over to where we had been before, under the bridge where it was on flat ground and we could sleep in it for the night.  As I said before, the bridge was over a small creek but this had just about dried up and as dusk arrived we realised that there was enough water there to breed mosquitoes by the thousand, maybe the tens of thousands.

By this time we were not speaking but as we became aware of the mossies, we organised ourselves pretty quickly to shut all the windows, get in the van, pull the back down and kill all the mossies inside, mainly by shining a torch onto the ceiling and they would go up to the light where they woud get squashed.  We never could get the blood off the roof.  It took a little while but eventually we were mossieless inside.  However, the heat was excurciating.  It was one or the other, heat or mossies and the heat won.

The worst night’s sleep ever was had by all three.  The van wasn’t big enough, the sweat poured out of us and the mossies kept banging on the windows to be let in.  They hadn’t had such a banquet for years.  

After sleeping fitfully we were up on the road in the relative cool of the morning and stopped a couple of young lads on their way to work at the mine.  Within five minutes we were on our way, thanking them profusely.  They probably thought we were weird.  They were probably right.

It is difficult to talk to friends when you are not speaking to each other so we by-passed Emerald and headed on, determined to reach our destination as quickly as possible but unfortunately, it was still days away.  The dog wasn’t talking to either of us.  He hadn’t had much of a sleep either and his mood was morose.  We did catch up with those friends years later after they moved to Mildura.  They had moved to Tibooburra  from Emerald but we didn’t get to call in while they were there.

We passed the Blue Heeler Hotel at Kynuna, thinking we would stop for a beer but it was 45 degrees inside so we headed on to camp somewhere that was only 44 degrees further along the way.  They didn’t have much in the way of aircon at that stage either.  Aircon then wasn’t what it is now.

Getting nearer to Mt Isa I must have been feeling magnanimous. (magnanimous: adj.  Courageously noble in mind and heart.  2.  Generous in forgiving; eschewing resentment or revenge.)   I had that warm, fuzzy, short-lived emotion which amazingly I can still remember after knowing what transpired later.   There were wonderful thoughts of a cool thick shake in my head.  Cool, with ice in it and so thick so it would give me a headache.  Breaking the silence of the last couple of days I said “I’m going to have a thickshake when I get to Mt Isa.”  There was silence for a few minutes then “No you’re not.”  What?  Did I just hear right?  Magnanimity flew out the window.  “Why not?” said with more bristles than a porcupine.  Another slight silence then, quietly “Because we don’t have enough money.”  

Well, I’ve always been bad with figures and worse with money itself.  I don’t think about money except when it’s not there and suddenly it was not there.   Not even for a thick shake?  You’ve got to be kidding me!!!

Money still doesn’t come into my thoughts except like then when there is none around, available.  Only a couple of weeks ago Sara and I were in Dubbo and discussing a cheque that wasn’t going to be presented and she was horrified “But it will always remain an unpresented cheque.  You will never be able to balance your books!!!”  Blank look from me.  “You won’t be able to balance your cheque book!!!”  Blank look still there but trying to look halfway intelligent.  Andrew understood, he laughed.  At the back of my mind though I had a thought “This girl is good.  When I’m rich I’m going to employ her.”

Back on the Capricorn Highway, Himself explained “We don’t have any money left and we have 50 litres of fuel in the back.”  The agile mind sprang into action “50 litres would be lucky to get us to the border, let alone across the Barclay Tableland and then from Three Ways up to Mataranka.”  So what had happened to the money, we had eaten it and drunk it and bought a car fridge and a winch!!!  Right, we can sell them.  I might even try selling Himself but who would want to buy him?  My Dad always had a saying “When poverty comes in the door love flies out the window” and that’s where it went alright, following magnanimity.

We finally pulled up in the main street of Mt Isa, bleak and unfriendly and hot as hell.  The odd tree or two along the pavement already had cars parked beneath their scanty shade even though there were not many cars around.  It could have been a Saturday and in any case The Mall was the place where everyone shopped in the air conditioning, not the main street.  The heat was unimaginable with the sun reflecting back from the treeless, grassless, ore-covered earh.  The houses were hunkered down and looked as though they had melded with that same earth. that the ore had melted around their edges and soldered them into it and over all was that huge mountain of stuff they had dug out of the ground, dominating everything. I don’t think I have ever come across a town I liked less and there we were, stuck in the middle of it with no money.

The dog and I sat in the car, morose, windows down, hoping for a breeze of some kind to dry the sweat a bit while Himself decided to go to the ATM and just check the bank accounts again and see if the fairies had been.

At this time I had been working as a teacher’s aide at the one-teacher school at Mataranka for four hours a day and this had been going on for six months.  It took thirteen weeks for them to pay me my first pay but since then the NT government had paid a regular wage into my account each fortnight. Of course we weren’t paid holiday pay as such, just the same wage going in all the time over the holidays.  He hadn’t even bothered to check that account while we were having fun on the coast (just as well as it would have been gone also) and he came back to the van with a look of wonder on his face.  The fairies had been.  “We have seven hundred dollars in the bank!!!”

The heat had melted my brain around the edges like the houses and it took a few minutes to sink in.  We were millionaires.  We were millionaires!!!

We couldn’t leave the dog in the car and we discovered they didn’t have boarding kennels in the town (at that stage anyway) but we did find a vet who would take him for the afternoon.  In our haste we handed Ras over to the girl there without telling him we were coming back for him, that he wasn’t being abandoned, just rushed outside, heading for The Mall.

We hit Mt Isa Mall like the millionaires we were, dressed like tramps to avoid being mugged.  I can still remember the taste of that chocolate thick shake.  Barry had a slush puppy and we sat there, savouring the the coolness of The Mall, the iciness of our drinks and the relative comfort of chairs instead of the van.  We talked about what we would do, get fuel of course, but then maybe a motel, a beautiful bed with clean sheets, the possibilities were endless.

Going into K-Mart we took a trolley each and spent half an hour filling them up with things that we might need or that we wanted.  Meeting back at the checkout we surveyed each other’s trolleys then turned around and put most of the stuff back.  We didn’t want it at all but we could have bought it if we wanted to.  On leaving there we just had a few food necessities and a couple of treats, filled up with fuel and water, diced the idea of the motel and returned to the vet to pick up Ras. He came out in the arms of the girl, sitting quietly with a faraway look in his eyes,  She had bathed and trimmed him a bit so he was all white and fluffy with tiny bows on his ears and he wasn’t jumping all over us so I thought he was probably sulking.  He did sulk occasionally when we had disagreements.   Anyway, we sat him in the middle in his usual place and headed off out of town towards the Idyllic little town of Camooweal.

The first time we had been to Camooweal we pulled up for fuel where we saw it was one dollar a litre.  This was unheard of down south and even across the rest of Queensland at that time but here it was a dollar a litre.  Himself was in a state “I’m not paying that!!!”  So I sat there, waiting for his excitement to abate and imagining a lifetime in Camooweal.  Well, we paid it of course.  There was only one service station there and they could charge what they bloody well liked.

This time we sailed through the town mentally giving the finger to the service station as we passed.  You can’t give the real finger as you never know when you might need them.

Finally we came to the NT border.  We knew there was a snug little camping area not much further along where we had camped on that first trip after the Camooweal incident.  Out came the shower bag where it had been heating up in the back of the van and all was well except for Ras.  He showed no emotion at all, just sat there.  We finally realised that the vet had given him a shot of something or other to calm him down because he thought we had left him for good and he had stacked on a turn, a big turn apparently.  He didn’t become normal again for a couple of days, would eat a bit and drink and sleep at night and in the day just sit and gaze out the front window.  No emotion whatever.  We had a stuffed dog.