I had a last chat with Nola, said a few goodbyes and got a last meat pie from Snow’s excellent bakery; as I walked across the high street to the bus in the gentle drizzle, sipping my tea, it was like being home already. I was, for various reasons, terrified that certain parties would try to stop me getting away (for no better reason than to screw with me), and the feeling of relief as the rail replacement coach took off into the grey rain was like how Atlas must have felt when Heracles took a turn.
I’d booked a ticket on the “Spirit of the Outback” train, but due to engineering work the first leg of the journey was on a coach instead; as compensation for the inconvenience (not that there was any, really) they were going to buy us dinner at a service station in Dingo. The conductor was Bristol-born, having gone to a now-defunct and apparently very rough Knowle West school before coming to Oz in the eighties, and the couple who boarded at Emerald and who I quickly became cheerful friends with were a sparklingly funny ex-Pom (and ex-squaddie, who had tales of service in Germany) and his lovely Filipino wife, also bound for Brisbane. They must have been in their late sixties, and were fantastic conversation.
The rain came down steadily for the entire journey, turning the stunning drive to Emerald into streaky grey monotony and the subsequent night into a blur of swishing blackness and catseye reflections punctuated by the switch from high to low beams and back again as traffic came by the other way, the headlights of utes and road trains alike casting blooms of light on the shining asphalt below like backwards comets. At each station stop, blasts of cool damp air came through the door, filling the coach with the smell of rain. I felt the corners of my mouth tugging up from the relief of freedom and the feeling of being on the road again.
We went through a series of little towns: Blackwater, sporting coal-themed welcome signs, a coal museum with giant mine hoppers, and gigantic stacks of coal beside the road; Bluff, too small to even be worth stopping at; and Dingo, by now so dark that all I really saw was a grain elevator and the service station where we had dinner. I and my fellow Englishman, of course, had fish and chips, and I left a message for a truckie I’d talked to in a rainstorm at the Gateway once, a regular in those parts, telling him thanks for all the advice he’d given me.
At Rockhampton, the evening an unfamiliar combination of rain-slick darkness and warm air, the bus at last unloaded us onto the train. The Spirit took the form of a long silver sleeper service, and felt to me like a huge empty hotel on wheels; there can’t have been more than thirty or forty people in its twenty or so carriages (a mix of sleeper cars, regular carriages with reclining seats, and various miscellaneous carriages like a lounge, dining car, crew quarters and luggage van). I found a power socket in the “club car”, furnished like a diner, and sat down to read stories alone on my laptop late into the night, before tiptoeing back to my seat to recline it and sleep in my hoodie for a few hours. Dawn saw us rolling through an eerie mist, the countryside outside shrouded in heavy grey; the green woods and fields were much more lush and alive than the outback, though nothing at all like England. At Brisbane I hauled my luggage up the hill from the station to a place called “Aussie Ways”, a cheap and well-reviewed hostel full of horrendously hunky French and German backpackers, and had a nap before heading out to explore.
From my day in Brisbane, it seems a lovely city; it’s very modern, in a way that would feel plastic and soulless back home, but here it works through scale, eclecticism and sheer production values. It has that open, broad-streeted Designed feeling, but it doesn’t detract; it feels like one of those idyllic architects’ mock-ups that somehow survived the translation to reality, untouched by piss and graffiti.
On either side of the broad, curly river, there are broad raised thoroughfares for pedestrians and cyclists, and I walked down one to the maritime museum, which was about the best volunteer-run museum I’ve ever seen. The centrepiece was a small WW2 frigate, HMAS Diamanta, that they’ve restored in beautiful detail; unusually for these things, it’s very hands-on and you can actually play with the dials on the ASDIC and ding the engine command wheel thing and traverse the 4” turret and so on. The enjoyment was magnified by the place being staffed by a set of wonderful volunteer war-nerds, including one who left Finchley five years before I was born, to chat with about it all. Restoring a complete WW2 frigate from scratch is a job which throws up a lot of amusing anecdotes – the ship was refitted in the fifties for hydrography, so all the wartime equipment was thrown out then and has had to be re-acquired; they have a bunch of volunteer mechanics who rebuilt the gun shield for the four-inch turret and are currently creating a complete pom-pom power traverse system from old blueprints. The onboard radio sets actually work, and while the museum managed to get a working set of period accurate 20mm Oerlikons from New Zealand, it took a year to clear the paperwork. (Honestly, I think it’s entirely reasonable for the government to have a say in someone getting their hands on a truckload of anti-aircraft autocannon, but I wasn’t going to say anything.) Even more amusing were pictures from the flooding Brisbane experienced a few years ago – they just battened down the hatches, threw on a lot of mooring ropes and watched as the dry dock became a wet dock and the ship rose eight metres…
I fed myself both days for $10 (a $1 loaf of bread, $8 of budget burgers and $1 of onions) – so even counting hostel, museum, food and the train out to the jet that would fly me to Cairns I managed two days in Brisbane for only slightly over $60.
I’m done with Alpha, and I strongly doubt I’ll return. I’ll miss the galahs with their funny walks and the kookaburras laughing at dawn and dusk, the miles-high thunderheads lit from within by lightning bursts, the broad, baking roads, the ant mounds and the wispy trees, the silhouettes of hawks and aermotors slowly turning in the sky, the smell of sap and flowers in the warm evening air. I’ll miss a sadly diminished list of people. I won’t exactly miss the furnace heat or the mosquitoes, but I’ll remember them. Besides that, I’m happy to be done with the place.