Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 18
The Bush Camp

© Jens Hültman

A Group of Stockmen Mustering Cattle on New Dixie Station, Queensland, Australia

A Group of Stockmen Mustering Cattle

Oliver Strewe—Photographic Print
Buy This at

Further up the Gibb River Road, I stopped at a little roadhouse to fill up with diesel and fuel.

'Is there any liberated territory around here?' I asked Shean (pronounced Sean) in the store of the little roadhouse. I nodded at the group of Germans scavenging among his supplies.

'Well', Shean replied. 'If you want to go a bit out of the way, just relaxing for a few days, then I know a place.' Shean sent me off to the bush camp. I drove toward a cattle station where there was supposed to be a turnoff. I could not find the turnoff, though it was right under my nose, so I drove up to the station to ask for help. A blonde man in his thirties with a friendly smile and a big cowboy hat was helping a middle-aged man who was supposed to be going hunting on their land. The hunter left after lengthy and detailed instructions. The young man in the cowboy hat turned to me and explained how to get to the bush camp. I asked him about hunting. Normally they did not allow it on their land. He told me that feral pigs, the animals that I fear most after the crocs, were not a big problem. He disliked the feral donkeys that run around on their properties. They compete with the cattle for food.

We discussed the decline of the cattle industry and the rise of the tourist industry in the Kimberley. South American canned meat for the North American hamburger industry is much cheaper than the Australian's these days. Fewer and fewer people work with cattle. Their huge cattle station has three employees during the Wet, and six during the Dry. Extra people and helicopters are hired when they are mustering the cattle that roam the bush.

Many station owners and leasers of pastoral land turn to the tourist business instead. He showed me the homestead where tourists can get a room and a dinner. (The Colombian cook was preparing dinner and played salsa music loudly.) They allow people into one of their gorges, but only ten vehicles at a time to protect the nature from Eejits. He showed me where it was on a map. The same maps had other spots marked with pins. I was itching to ask what those other spots were. I asked him about some secret gorges that I had heard about on their land. He regretted that they could not let people into them—the ecosystem is much too fragile.

We talked about the paradox of the beautiful Kimberley and the onslaught of the tourists. On one hand, I would like the whole world to see the beauty of the Kimberley. On the other hand, that would turn it into another Uluru. It is very hard to attract only the right kind of visitors, who don't litter and who respect the locals and the indigenous people. The stockman told me that they constantly had to go out to the gorges and clean up after people. Now they had put up a gate with a lock and required a deposit on the keys, so that they would be returned. The littering by the Eejits had decreased but not disappeared.

'Sometimes I think these people have the impression that we're running a camp ground', he sighed.

If you were required to pass an Eejit test before visiting the Kimberley, then Eejits would probably figure out a way to sneak through anyway. As the Gibb River Road is progressively improved, there would be traffic jams on it, with Eejits honking their horns and driving from fast food restaurant to fast food restaurant. We shuddered at the thought.

'We the leasers are responsible for the land', he said. 'If people come here to litter and destroy it, we will still be the ones who get blamed for the damage done.'

Before I set out on this trip, I had imagined that owners and managers of cattle stations would not be interested in protecting the environment. I found out as I travelled along that many of them are very concerned about environmental issues. Overgrazing by cattle, which used to be a common practise, is now less and less common.

The station owner offered to buy me extra supplies if there was anything I needed. Fidelity was full of stuff. I thanked him and took off. I drove back, found the turn off to the bush camp, then drove south over the plains. Initially the road was good. Then it deteriorated. At the end it was definitely a 4WD track. The track went out into a glade where there was a "building" with a roof of corrugated iron but no walls. The building—or rather the shelter—had a concrete floor, a concrete table and a concrete bar. The chairs were the plastic kind you find at K-Mart. This was the bush camp. It looked like a shelter for graders and bulldozers. I walked up to the people sitting around the concrete table. A big man in a big hat greeted me.

'How yer, boss?' he said to me. 'This is Michael. This is David and Lyn, Cory and Larry. And this boss over here is Jeff, he's a guest. Make yourself at home.'

'Give 'im a tinny, Boss', he said and turned to David. The big man was the owner of the station where the bush camp was situated. This was the second year his station had been open for tourists. He returned to his homestead.

His staff was an odd bunch. Michael was a pilot from Sydney who made scenic flights and flew in guests and supplies. He was the sporty one. He had short, dark hair and a muscular young body. He was the kind of lad who threw the ball too hard at you during sports lessons in school. He and Cory, one of the station hands, were working here for the second year. The man with the big beard and soft eyes was Larry, the new bus driver, who was supposed to drive the ancient Toyota Landcruiser Trooper. He was an ex- gunny in the Army, where his job had been to test terrain vehicles. He was Victorian. You'll find many Southerners and city people out in the bush who have escaped from the busy, bustling city life. The middle-aged couple, David and Lynn, were newly employed. They had had a tuck shop in a small town in New South Wales. They had gone broke and had taken up work as cooks in the outback. David looked like a friendly Labrador with a grey beard. His wife looked like a nice, round-faced pioneer woman.

The open-air showers were operated with a donkey boiler. A donkey is a construction made from old fuel barrels and copper hoses. You burn firewood under the rusty fuel barrel that is filled with water. Water is fed through the twisted copper hoses into the water in the barrel. Out comes surprisingly hot water. The place was a mix of an unrefined cattle camp and a tourist operation, with a bit of nostalgia in the form of the prehistoric Trooper thrown in.

Guests could camp or stay in tents already set up, complete with camp beds. David and Lynn's dinners were included in the price. I opted for the minimum and set up my cot beside the river. Guests had not started to arrive, so the staff had little clue of what to do with me. They put a tinny in my hand and invited me to eat with them. David and Lyn cooked for the others, I cooked a T-bone and potatoes and made a salad for myself. Almost Anglo food, I know. Please, rest assured that no unnecessarily cruelty was applied to that meat.

We used the iron cast stove to cook. David muttered about conditions being too primitive for his taste. One of the fridges had stopped working. He constantly puffed on his pipe filled with Borkum Riff, a Swedish tobacco. My father used to smoke it when I was a kid. The smell of David's pipe reminded me of my father sitting in his library with the walls lined with books, smoking his pipe and writing yet another of his academic papers or yet another grammar.

One of David and Lynn's daughters was married to a young policeman. This is not the ideal son-in-law. The hatred of the police goes back to the early days of this being an English prison colony. It is deeply rooted in the Australian mind. Everyone hummed in sympathy with David and Lyn, when Lyn showed pictures of the young couple. The cops are someone you smile at when they see you, and spit and curse about when they have turned their back on you. To have one in one's own family was a cruel destiny.

That night the rippling river put me to sleep as I lay on my cot. The quarrelling galahs and cockatoos woke me up the next morning, a day that would prove to be one of the ten best days of my life.

Chapter 19 →