“adventure is just hardship with an inflated sense of self”

Emerald is “the town next door” in outback Queensland terms, which is to say that it’s only 168km away as the galah flies. It’s also the closest thing that rates a proper supermarket, and unless they fancy being gouged absolutely ragged by the twin claws of the Gateway or the local mini-market (run by an admittedly lovely moustachioed local bloke), it’s where the average Alphite needs to do their shopping.

Unfortunately, it’s proven rather more complicated than expected getting there; one kindly-offered lift after another has fallen right through (and one I was offered on the spot, annoyingly, coincided with my first morning at V’s – I don’t really regret it, because getting into his good books may be the best thing I’ve done in Alpha so far, but it’s annoying). Yesterday morning I went into the Gateway to take out some cash and grumble to Coworker K about the latest frustration (my driver had suddenly got tonsillitis) and a visiting ear specialist doing checkups in the local schools told me she was headed to Clermont anyway and volunteered on the spot to take me to Emerald. I was so sick of missed opportunities by that point the fact that I hadn’t got any return trip lined up didn’t give me pause (“what the hell, I’ll hitch from a truckie”); nor, when she was significantly delayed in picking me up (meaning Cole’s supermarket wouldn’t be open when we arrived), did I feel like turning her down (“what the hell, I’ll find a motel for the night and pick the stuff up in the morning.”)

The ear specialist’s name was Cherie, and she was great fun to talk to, interested in history and architecture and law and amenable to hearing about the Moscow metro and the Naxalite insurgency, although a side comment about Indians being “less highly evolved” sort of came out of nowhere. The drive along the Capricorn Highway is several different kinds of stunning, in a way neither the staggering number of dead roos down the side of the road (many already dried and crow-picked into parched bags of bones) or the regular oncoming road trains (“you’ve got to pull over for ‘em or they plough right through you; and watch you don’t get sucked across the road in their wake, a cousin of mine died that way”) could detract from. She couldn’t do enough for me when I arrived, and happily drove her ute “Big Betsy” from one side of town to the other (admittedly, it’s not a big town) for the best putdown point. I gave her my heartfelt thanks as she cruised off to Clermont.

Cole’s, of course, was closed, so I wandered through the gloaming in search of food and potential better-job opportunities. I had my first kebab in far too long, and asked in a variety of bars, motels and food outlets about employment prospects, to repeated (albeit varied) refusals, though lots of encouragement. It would have been a lot more upsetting if I’d actually been seriously looking, rather than wanting to trade up my existing employment, though a backpacker who can only stay six weeks isn’t exactly a winning prospect, and from what I gathered Emerald is in that slow decline of a boom town when the boom’s gone away.

To my considerable surprise and upset, a motel room could not be had for less than $90 anywhere in all of the town; I’d heard suggestions that the caravan park was cheap, but having traipsed a couple of kilometres across town, they wanted $110 for a cabin. Since the entire point of going to Emerald was not to have my hard-earned going to price-gouging bogans, and since it was a warm night, I went down to the Botanical Gardens (near the Nogoa River, which is, unusually for these parts, full of water) looking for a promising patch of grass; even better, I found that there was a free campsite, which didn’t upgrade my sleeping conditions but did have free loos and a lit-up area where I could read (having brought the Kindle on a sensible last-minute hunch.) I sat rereading The Last Continent, actually getting the Banjo Paterson references this time, and watching the huge shieldbugs and cockroaches and crickets ambling around on the concrete, the fat green frogs sticking complacently to the shack’s ceiling, and two ants murdering each other, very slowly, under the flickering light. (I was rooting for the one who nabbed the other’s antennae in her jaws early on and kept spraying formic into the other’s face, but after about half an hour of brutal-but-gradually-more-listless grappling, they both expired.)

As I sat reading, an old man with sunken eyes and a large white beard showed up; he wore the blue-and-day-glo overalls which are common on workmen in these parts, though looked very much like he could have been a beggar. He got out a couple of bags of bread, a bottle of cola and a few plastic bowls of random food-related matter, some of which smelled of bin, and, after playing with and eating some of it, seemed to notice me, and we got to chatting. His name was Harry, and he had a strong German accent (when I asked if he was he asked if I was an Aussie; I said no, and he told me that Aussies sometimes react badly to Germans and that he usually tells them he’s Mexican.) He was born in Munich in 1941, and came to Australia in ’82, for reasons that weren’t made quite clear but involved leaving a wife behind; he’s been there ever since as a sort of half-employed half-hobo occasional worker, gardening and fruit-picking. A real swagman.

We chatted for ages about everything, starting with Australian racism and leading into a wider contempt for nationalism and group psychology; about how Australia is surVing by selling its resources off to the rest of the world, which led to talking about the economic downturn, which led into a debate about “Capitalismus” and “Communismus”, and which was ascendant in modern China. We talked about Life in the Universe, in a way that I’m only used to with other massive sci-fi geeks; the “bacteria of the cosmos”, in his words, the inevitability of life elsewhere, the marvel of evolution and the possibilities of different forms of life optimised for different worlds, the various wonders of nature, the (to him) folly of human exceptionalism (especially religion-based). He had a huge chip on his shoulder about Christianity, a rather hippie-ish habit of referring continually to “nature”, and an insistent belief that energy may be a pure form of life that we can’t perceive (expressed through a rather nice metaphor involving ants) but to my surprise we actually agreed on just about everything else, which almost never happens when I talk to strange-smelling bearded men late at night. He was disdainful of the effects of technik on the human mind; I told him my one about the Polynesian navigators, and it had the usual interested effect. It was all wonderful, and even though he had a rather large knife and a slightly deranged look in his eyes, I wasn’t ever even slightly afraid.
Although at multiple points he referred to himself as a “silly old man,” he was (as far as I could tell) very clued up on his astrophysics, plate tectonics, molecular biology, world history, current events and evolutionary theory, for someone who self-professedly only had eight years of education in a “very poor Volksschule”, although his English was occasionally halting and had a wonderful smattering of Germanisms.
Then, we saw a troop of possums wandering across the darkened gardens, and he tore his bread into pieces and showed me how to approach them (slowly) and feed them (carefully) and then stroke them (they’re really soft!). He stuck the remaining bread onto a “special” set of seven tree trunks, in some sort of odd but harmless possum-themed food sacrifice ritual, and talked about liking nature and trying to do no harm.

Then he let me use some of his (extremely pungent) mosquito spray, and wandered off into the night. I tried a bench, but I was too tall and it was too hard; I moved to a sheltered-looking patch of grass, with my backpack for a pillow, and it was alright. I didn’t sleep that well (after 3am it got very cold, and putting my hands in the insulated cooler-bag I’d brought didn’t help much), but better than nothing, and there was a curious joy to lying back and seeing bats and kookaburras whirling against the sky.

(…and at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars…)

I gave up on sleeping at dawn, amazed to find myself entirely unbitten, and wandered around Emerald, finding a roadhouse which had been recommended to me by a truckie as a better place than the Gateway; I had a long chat with the proprietor, which led to no offers but some optimistic suggestions, bought a meat pie breakfast at a bakery, killed half an hour in an early-to-rise coffee shop by having a caramel milkshake (and took the opportunity to charge my phone). Then, at 8am sharp I hit Coles and fully, thoroughly enjoyed the paradise of limitless consumerism and food-themed excess that is a functioning first-world supermarket. God I’ve missed this.

Trying to hitch in the middle of town felt both foolish and impractical, and while targeting truckies at a service station seemed logical, the main station was on the exact opposite side of town to Alpha, and peak truckie hours (6am) had long passed. So I hauled my huge hoard of shopping (weighing it back in Alpha, it summed 36kg) a couple of kilometres out to the edge of town, where all traffic would be Alpha-bound, put it under the shade of a bush, stood on a kerb covered in huge excited ants and waved my thumb and little homemade ALPHA sign at oncoming traffic. Having so many people acknowledge and then deny you would be dispiriting if there were any other option, but since there wasn’t I just kept waving and smiling, and I definitely couldn’t begrudge them not wanting to give some random straw-hatted tosser their seat space.

After perhaps an hour a navy-blue ute pulled up and a cheerful Australian lady named Lyn told me she could take me to the Anakie crossroads, about two-fifths of the way to Alpha. I eagerly took her up on it, and while the topic of conversation got rather right-wing rather quickly (her daughter still being traumatised from her rape by an Aborigine boy who got off scot-free appeared to have given her a fairly uncompromising outlook on “the blackfellows” and things like the death penalty). Still, she helped a stranger in need (and told me that if I was still at that junction when she came back two hours later, she’d run me right the way down to Alpha – a 200km round trip from that point, so a hell of an offer), so I wasn’t going to complain.

I waited at the Anakie crossroads, extremely thankful that it was a cloudy day, thumbing at the much sparser traffic; many of the people in the utes and trucks going other directions gave me thumbs ups and shouts of “good luck”, and I started doffing my hat cheerfully in return. After about forty-five minutes of waiting in the wilderness, a car pulled over, and a bloke in his middle ages called Don volunteered to take me to Alpha. He was great fun, and conversation spanned HBO telly, military history, the Aboriginal issue (his being a rather more nuanced view than Lyn’s), Australians’ fondness for their genealogy (himself a proud descendant of convicts) and incredible horror stories about working for the railway as a middle manager in the bad old days of union dominance; I got him a coffee when we reached the Gateway, and he gave me his mobile number and told me to hit him up if I was heading back through Rockhampton.

All in all, it turned out pretty well, and while next time I need groceries I’ll be making damn sure I have a same-day return journey, it’s one for the List of Life Experiences I’m jolly glad I’ve had out here.

Now, I’m going to go and make myself some long-awaited Thai chicken curry…

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there’s a hole in the ladder, a fence we can climb

So, my second somewhat-physical short-notice cash-in-hand job was as much an unmitigated success as my first one was an unmitigated disaster! I’m getting to know the regulars at the Gateway now, none of whom have anything nice to say about C (it is a bit worrying – and a bit tragic, really – how universally despised my boss seems to be; admittedly he’s not paying me properly, but he doesn’t seem that bad a bloke overall). One of these regulars is a lady I’ll call J, with two young daughters who come round in the evenings to buy enormous piles of ice cream, and who, when the conversation turned to me not earning much, asked if I’d be interested in doing some odd jobs for her and her friends. (She is also able to give me lifts to and from Emerald! Hurrah!)

She called saying that her friend V had a gardening job, and was I available; I said well, I have the evening shift, but the morning free, when do you want me? She said how about 6am; I was keen to make a good impression, so agreed, even if it did mean fifteen hours of work in one day, and she picked me up outside the Gateway (in an air-conditioned car! the luxury!)

V is a bloke in his forties or fifties who appears to own or run: a hardware business, a sawmill, a cement works, numerous real estate concerns and, like everyone else around here, a large herd of cattle. Given that I’ve met several people in Alpha who seem to run three or four businesses, this shocked me less than it should. He also appears to have built basically everything on his large (primary) estate with his own hands, including most of the house I met him in (a lovely little compound featuring a cage full of parrots, huge rainwater tanks, and an under-construction barbecue porch. As well as about four other barbies. The stereotypes are true). Next to Chez V was a considerably less attractive house, run-down and empty-eyed, which he’s doing up with the intention of selling. My job was to clear its overgrown porch and the long grass all around it, using an enormous old petrol mower that screamed and coughed out huge clouds of white smoke, then load the resulting piles of hay and dead leaves, as well as the dried-up ruins of a banana tree behind, onto a trailer and haul them away to a dumpsite a few kilometres away.

“Of course, you’ll need something to pull the trailer. Ever driven a motorbike before?”
“…I’m afraid I haven’t, no.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine, mate, it’s not hard. Right, here we are…”
“Ah. Four wheels. Good. Difficult to tip over.” It was with enormous relief that I learned “motorbike” embraces “quad” in Oz.
“That’s the spirit! This button starts it, that there’s the throttle, the pedal here – see, it goes up and down – is gears, and if you need to reverse pull this all the way back. Right, I’ll leave you to it.”

This continues the theme of being left unsupervised with unfamiliar and potentially lethal equipment, but amazingly, I picked it up just fine, and didn’t crash into anything. There was a terrific feeling of speed and solitude as I roared down the dusty earth road towards the dump; though I probably wasn’t actually going that fast (not that the thing was fitted with a speedo), I think felt speed is doubled by the lack of a windscreen. The dump was a weird place, a desolate ash-black landscape surrounded by burnt trees, and home to a wrecked car and scatters of strange old flotsam and jetsam.

After a couple of hours of weed-whacking, V invited me in for tea and muffins, and we had a nice old chat. He asked if I was available for more work, and I said definitely; pay is a third as good again as the Gateway, and the work is far more interesting and satisfying (plus, quad bikes, and no oppressive feeling of being watched; being mostly unsupervised is actually the best way to get me to work as hard as I can). He has loads of stuff to do maintaining the place, and listed half a dozen interesting jobs and machine-themed things I’d love to learn how to do. I spent the next hour vigorously pruning one of the huge pink bougainvilleas outside his office, and finished at 12, returning home for a shower, lunch, a thankfully slow evening shift at the Gateway, and some very well-earned sleep.

This is very heartening: I have a second income to earn on my days off (or even alongside my shifts if I’m feeling masochistic, though I definitely won’t be repeating that day), and a safety net to fall back on if anything goes wrong at the Gateway. If it all goes well and I get along with V, I might even try to quit the Gateway and go over to his full-time; there are only so many hours in the week, and I’d rather spend them on his work at his rates. I’m going round tomorrow at 9, before my evening shift, to see how exhausting that sort of work pattern will be.

However, the Gateway is becoming less oppressive; G came up to Alpha for a change, and she’s much easier to deal with than C (although the bit where she described me helping Coworker J with her tribunal stuff as “a way to pass the time, stave off boredom” was taking the piss a bit; I’m still doing it, because Coworker J is an utter sweetheart and makes me cookies, but it’s something I’d want money for if G asked me rather than me volunteering) After some negotiation, I’ve been able to move out of the shoebox and into the room next door, which is considerably larger, has a carpet floor rather than lino (so doesn’t constantly feel dusty) and a single normal window rather than being lined with the odd glass slats (so is significantly less porous to dust and insects). It’s also a bit warmer in the mornings, being on the east wall, and I’ll need to procure an extension lead to get a fan set up properly, but none of that’s unbearable.

Hell, maybe they’ll even start paying me properly soon…

the gateway to nowhere

The Alpha Gateway (which sounds, yes, like a pulp space opera) is owned by a company called “Alpha Elites” (which, yes, sounds like a game about space marines) and seems to consist of my bosses, their Emerald print shop, their Alpha health & beauty joint which never seems to be open, and the Gateway itself, a service station attached to a defunct cafe. The Gateway is a funny old place: the behind-the-scenes part of it where we keep supplies used to be a hardware shop, and there are old fan-belts, bicycle tyres and miscellaneous dusty packets of Hardware hanging from the pegboard walls and ceiling beams. This is about a third of the building; another third is occupied by the semi-abandoned “Bean West” cafe, a slightly spooky place where the boss and a lovely old sheila (they actually say that here!) called Wendy make up the sandwiches and muffins. The last third comprises the shop itself, with its shelves and fridges stocked with cold drinks, hot drinks, snacks, confectionary, pies, ice cream, ice, auto supplies, groceries, clothes, slingshots, cigarettes, fishing gear, cow hides, mobile phones and ammunition. All except the clothes (and possibly the cigarettes, I’m not sure) are grotesquely marked up from supermarket prices, on the basis that the nearest supermarket is at least a hundred miles away. A battered, cobwebbed hog’s head and lopsided stag trophy hang above the till, and look like they’ve been there for a very long time. Outside, we have a set of antique-looking fuel bowsers, pumping diesel, unleaded, and a fancy high-octane unleaded called “Vortex”.

Work consists of manning the counter and maintaining the store, several hundred small menial jobs flying in close formation. The work cycle is nine days: three morning shifts, three evening shifts, and three days off. The morning shift runs from about 5:40am to about 1:50pm (although he only pays us from 6-1:30) and the afternoon one from 1:20-9:45 (although, again, we only get seven and a half hours of just-above-minimum wages). Morning shifts are a bleary-eyed panic to get everything working – unlocking the fuel pumps, heating the pies, readying the drinks and so on – followed by a long slow drag towards noon, while the evening shift is that in reverse, starting slowly but increasing to nonstop activity from 7:30pm onwards, as most of the critical jobs need to be done towards the end to reduce the number of pesky customers coming in and messing up your nicely cleaned toilets and neatly arranged drink fridges. It’s mundane, but not numbingly boring, and while there’s always something to do none of the work is particularly hard or disgusting (although trying to read the diesel dipstick in the weak morning light is a special kind of frustration). The only real problem with morale is the attitude of my boss, who always needs to let you know he’s in charge, is never happy with anything, and treats us all like mouth-breathing idiots for being desperate enough to work for him. Since he’s also paying us less than the minimum he can legally get away with, the temptation to give him what he’s paying for is high.

Our clientele is divided about equally between locals, tourists, and truckers/railway workers; all of them want copious drinks, smokes, pies and petrochemicals. The top seller by far is some form of (apparently highly addictive) cold coffee called “Ice Break”, which gets two shelves to itself in one of the large drink fridges, and the pies/bacon muffins/nasty frozen chicken wings we heat up and keep in a cabinet. The turnover is absurd – we clock ten to fifteen thousand dollars most days – though I have no idea what the margins are like. So far, I haven’t had any really bad customers; about the worst was the woman who spent ten minutes insistently telling me what a good idea it would be to have an ATM put in, with a queue behind her, as if that would magically give me cash to sell her. Aussies, especially out here, seem fairly chilled out, and many’s the time when I’ve ended up having a happy five-minute chat with a random truckie which ends in me wishing them a good day and actually meaning it.

Since most of my entertaining work experiences and anecdotes get posted as-and-when to Facebook, I think I’ll just c&p them here rather than mess around trying to rewrite things:
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zdes’ nichego net

Alpha is a township of about 400 which, as far as I’m aware, exists because navvies needed somewhere to stay as they built the Great Northern Railway from Rockhampton to Longreach. The line is finished, yet the town inexplicably remains. It has a grocery store, a pub, a pharmacy, a butcher, a baker, a tourist information centre, and a railway station which gets two cattle trains a day and two passenger trains a week.

The town takes the form of a ## of roads lined intermittently with bungalows, bounded to the north by the railway and to the east by the Alpha Creek. Almost all the buildings are raised about a metre and a half off the ground on stilts, to aid airflow in the pitiless summers. They’re mostly bungalows; only a couple of buildings here have two storeys, and you wonder why they even bothered. The only tall things in town are the mobile masts and a couple of silent, well-oiled aermotors. The Capricorn Highway bisects the town, running east to west; there’s a road headed north to Clermont, but we tell people not to go down it.

While fly-speck tiny in terms of population and (to be blunt) substance, in actual geographical terms Alpha is disproportionately huge and sprawling. The roads, named after various British writers, are staggeringly, gratuitously wide. The high street, which I’ve not seen more than one vehicle moving on at a time, is as broad as a four-lane motorway back home, and Milton and Dryden streets, the other east-west passages, are even wider; you could easily land a plane on either. There’s a shed on the west side of town marked Alpha Airport, with no runway, so I suspect they may do exactly that.

The place is as dusty and forlorn as the Oklahoma panhandle in the mid-30s, which is an interesting coincidence because “the mid-30s” is also what the thermometer says most of the time. The sunlight is pitilessly bright and heats all exposed metal to a fingerprint-removing degree, but it’s at least a dry heat; a fan, a bottle of water and a house on stilts have kept me fairly comfortable, though I need to buy a hat for outside ventures.

The house, which is right by the Gateway and which I share with two other foreign workers (Coworker J from Hong Kong and Coworker K from England), is on the corner of Shakespeare Street and Capricorn Highway; it’s large, dilapidated and filthy, in the fashion of many buildings whose occupants know they’re only there temporarily; there’s an ant road outside the front door you have to walk over, and the kitchen is full of another, smaller breed of ants. Annoyingly from an ant-nerd perspective but quite fortunately from a living perspective, both are small, boring, inoffensive non-stinging types. Down the front door steps and over the ants, there’s a trellis-lined ground-level porch area, which holds the (apparently violently truculent) washing machine and a table surrounded by sofas, most of which have been wrecked beyond any sort of comfortable sitting.

There are three good-sized bedrooms and a fourth mini-bedroom which is basically a shoebox lined with linoleum, dust and fluff; I’ve been put there, though I imagine (and hope) this is a temporary measure while they make sure I’m not going to ditch them and run away for actual employment. I call it a shoebox, but only relative to the rest; it’s not much smaller than my room back in Mason, though considerably less lavishly furnished. The windows are odd green-tinted glass-Venetian-blind things which seem designed to allow in determined arthropods, and there’s a fist-sized hole in the wall by the bed which has been honest to god taped over, with sellotape. Mosquito coils and a fan borrowed from the next room have so far protected me from bites. The place also has a small kitchen/living room, and a bathroom with a drain that’s literally a hole in the middle of the floor.

The “town water” that comes out of the taps is alright for washing, but not potable, so we get rainwater from a special tap in the garden in big plastic tanks. The kitchen has the necessaries: toaster, kettle, microwave, fridge/freezer and, best of all, a real gas stove, although it burns bluer and hotter than I’m used to and obtaining groceries is going to be either difficult, expensive or both. But I can, thankfully, cook for myself, although I seem to have no appetite in this heat.

Overall, Alpha is everything I expected, and perfectly exemplifies the main selling point of outback roadhouse job postings all over Gumtree: you can save up a lot of money here, because it’s not like there’s anything to spend it on.

insert L. Frank Baum reference here

On Tuesday morning, I got up at 4:45am and headed to the airport on one of the huge, double-decker, invertible-chair-equipped mass-transit-done-right trains which serve the Sydney metropolitan area. At the terminal, past the cheery security types, I sat watching the airport in the morning light; the wonderfully sci-fi feeling I always get from airports was improved further still when, looking down at the next-gen 737 that would take me to Brisbane, I saw the pilot open a cockpit window, lean out, and wipe down the plane’s windscreen with a rag. I didn’t know those things even opened! The plane, about three quarters full and fitted with benches rather than bucket seats, hauled me swiftly to Brisbane, where I sat in the terminal reading Nevil Shute and yawning occasionally, and it wasn’t long before I got to board a little high-wing turboprop job out to the back of beyond.

Beyond Brisbane’s loosely-patterned seaside suburbia, the terrain turned to lumpy, sparsely forested hills patterned with occasional fields, some centrally-irrigated and circular, some square and contour-stepped (rice paddies?); flying high over a small river, the angle of the sunlight was such that the sun itself was reflected perfectly, and appeared to squirm down its meanders and flash in oxbow lakes for a while. The treelines grew scrappier, the signs of habitation fewer, and halfway through the journey I saw a great strange mottled-gold ribbon which I realised was a dried-up riverbed. At another point, a great ragged line of green-black on one side and tan on the other made for a dramatic “you are now entering Proper Desert” boundary, spoiled only by how the trees started up again in dribs and drabs a few dozen kilometres later. More dry creeks appeared, tiny golden threads of sand and silt winding through the darker hills and hardpan, but as we began to descend towards Emerald the land was almost all mottled dark tan, cut up into geometric shapes by pale dirt roads.

Emerald is named for the gem mining industry (nearby towns include Sapphire and Rubyvale), but arriving from the air you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise; the fields around it, both square and circular, shine a brilliant green in the drab bush, bounded by jade-coloured irrigation canals so sharply delineated they look unreal. Emerald Airport was basically a shack with delusions of grandeur, although they’d put the conveyor of a luggage carousel through the wall facing the tarmac and various rent-a-ute businesses had established forlorn-looking cubicles at one end. I was picked up by my new boss, C, in a huge snarling pickup with an air intake like an elephant’s trunk wound back up above the cab. We bought groceries and a sushi lunch (not the first meal I expected in the outback, but delicious and far from overpriced) at a nearby shopping strip. Emerald is full of cowboy hats and gigantic lorries; I espied triple-trailer road trains and a vast double-decker articulated cattle truck with nine axles and lord only knows how many bemused steer inside.

C took me to meet G, his wife and the lady who’d hired me over the phone; we had our sushi and a cup of tea, and I was advised to buy groceries and anti-mosquito chemical weapons while in Emerald, as they’re cheaper; as I was arriving in Queensland skint they gave me a $100 advance on the week’s pay, and I loaded thirty dollars’ worth of pasta, veg and cheap meat into the “eskimo” (a huge coolbox on the back of the ute, next to a couple of haybales). Hanging around in a car park while C picked up wholesale bacon and cheese, I watched a huge orange hornet-looking thing buzzing around; when he came out, I asked him what it was. “Mud wasp. It’ll sting you if you grab hold of it, but not otherwise.”

Alpha, my new home, is “just down the road” from Emerald; 168 kilometres, to be precise. The road is broad, mostly unmarked but well-surfaced; for most of the journey it runs parallel to a single-track railway, though I didn’t see any trains. At one point, we passed through a range of large hills (or small mountains; I’m not perfectly sure of what qualifies, especially in a country which really does dramatic mountains), and the views from halfway up were stunning. Although unremarkably hill-shaped from a distance, they were very humpy and hummocky in their detail, and the long fluffy grass that covers them made them look like piles of gigantic moss tussocks dried yellow. But on either side of the range the land is mostly flat, riven by the occasional dry creek and tufted with long grass; occasional cattle graze in khaki fields, but most of it is scrub, bare earth, or trees. The trees are all wispy, nervous-looking little things, with very thin, wavy trunks (which often split in two halfway up) sprouting tufty vertical branches. I saw a big kangaroo drinking at a waterhole; it looked up at me, turned, and bounced away into the bush.

That evening, as I learned my way around my new workplace (more on that soon), we had what they apparently consider a storm in these parts – a few gusts, which blew leaves and dust into the store for me to sweep away, and a low-intensity spatter of big, heavy raindrops that smacked into the dust like bullets. At 10pm, I brushed the dust and dead insects out of my new bed, stuffed the lumps of vaguely pillow- and duvet-shaped wool lying on it into some covers, lit a mosquito coil, and slept a long, deep sleep.