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.


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