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…