Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 23
Rescue Operations

© Jens Hültman

Little Merten's Falls

Little Merten's Falls on the Way to Mitchell Falls, WA

The party from King Edward River had managed to get the starter motor back on the ladies’ Landcruiser and had arrived at the camp ground. They invited me to cook with them. They carried plenty of equipment and set up a virtual living room in the bush. My own camps had a more bachelor type of feel to them, with a cot, a stool and not much else. I prepared food in Fidelity’s back and cooked on their campfire.

John worked as a contractor in the mining industry. He was a tall man in his fifties with a beard and little hair on his head. His second wife, Gail from Queensland, was of Danish origin. She complained about her looks, but she looked just like a typical Danish countrywoman to me. The two elderly ladies were of Dutch origin. I told them how I almost had been lost as we had a quiet mug of wine around the campfire. Everybody realised that sleeping in the grass would not have been a life-threatening experience, but would not have been very comfortable either. I shrugged my shoulders and told them we had slept outside in wind shelters during the winter when I did national service. John thought this was a great experience for a young man. Young men in Australia should do national service as well.

That would be a morale boost for the country, he told me. The elderly ladies, sisters, spent their retirement by travelling in the bush in their Landcruiser. They had done the Gunbarrel and many other outback tracks where many a young man from the city would fear to tread. One of them had back problems, so they had mounted a specially dampened chair in the passenger’s seat. The younger sister was the more courageous one who drove when conditions got tough. ‘See son’, she told me, ‘the trick is to drive with a bit of aggression, you gotta attack the bloody bush or it will attack you.’ She illustrated ‘driving with aggression’ by putting her shoulders up and pretending she was taking on a reluctant bush track. ‘She doesn’t understand that’, she added and pointed to her sixty-five-year-old sister, who looked slightly annoyed at the description of herself as a softie.

A man in a Mitsubishi Pajero had filmed the incident at the river crossing with a video camera. We watched the rescue operation through the video camera’s little playback LCD screen. Getting the vehicle out of the river had been a long process. We couldn't hear the cursing, but it didn’t take a vivid imagination to imagine a plethora of 'bloodies' and 'buggers'. We discussed towing around the campfire that night. Hartmut had told me never to use shackles; he claimed they could break, fly away and kill an unsuspecting bystander. We use shackles all the times on the yachts that are exposed to tons of pressure from the rigging and the sails. John agreed that Hartmut talked a lot of bull. He had two spare shackles that he gave to me. I tried to pay him. He refused. I felt slightly embarrassed. Could I really accept this? It’s a social no-no in my culture to accept gifts from strangers. John insisted that I should have them and hoped that I would never have to use them. Later I used them on two occasions, so they were an appreciated gift.

This is the Anglo-Australian. They are capable of the most altruistic acts, such as giving away their equipment to complete strangers. They are kind people. Gail and the ladies pampered me with tea and offered cookies and cakes. It was like camping with your grandmother. I spent the next day in my hammock reading Len Beadell’s Too Long in the Bush, trying to avoid the heat. It was a hot, windy day.

Two vehicles drove into the camp area in the evening. One was an old Trooper driven by a young blonde man. The Trooper was loaded with a bunch of fat, pale people in their twenties. It must have been a nightmare to bump along the rough road down to the King Edward, over the crossing and on up to the falls. Poor, bloody bastards. The other vehicle was one of those luxurious camper vans, driven by a man with grey hair in his fifties. I told the blonde young man about a nice camp a few metres up the road, meant for bigger parties. He thanked me and took off. The camper van was supposed to follow but they got the rear shaft caught on a rock. The driver got redder and redder in the face as the bus continued not to budge. The blonde boy returned and offered in German to tow him off the stone. The whole camping area had gathered to watch the scene. ‘We need to jack him off the stone', John concluded. A man from Darwin had a tall lift jack. John had a special gadget that you attach around a hub to lift a vehicle with a tall lift jack. I brought along my Magic Plank that I put under my trolley jack. Jacking up a Landcruiser is hard and sweaty work. We got it up and managed to put stones and wood under the wheel so that the man could get off.

Do you think he stopped to thank us? Do you think he offered us a beer? Do you think he even waved to us as thanks? The answer is No. The bastard just drove off. We never saw him again. The blonde boy looked embarrassed and invited me for a beer later that evening. He was a tour guide who arranged independent tours in Alaska and in Australia. We chatted for a while. He spoke good English, was very nice and quite sympathetic. The other bastard apparently presumed that we were some obedient serfs from a lowly race, put there for his service. We could have just left him on that stone. We could have sat laughing at him, but you just don't do that in the bush. You help each other out.

Speaking of tours, some paramilitaries turned up with a line of troops that were being marched down to Merten’s Falls. Much the same procedure as I had seen at Windjana Gorge. Suddenly I saw a familiar face. ‘Focking hell! It’s Del! But where’s Lance?’ To my malicious pleasure, I saw him lurking along at the back of the row, with a very unhappy face. I had mistaken him for one of the paramilitaries. He had gone one step further in his assimilation to the bush. The hat, the beard, the military style of shirt and shorts and the boots had fooled me into thinking he was a tour guide. ‘Lance baby!’ I shouted to him. ‘How are ya?’ He gave me a sad look. He was under the command of some paramilitaries and he obviously didn't like it. And it didn't lift his mood when someone he knew discovered him in his shame and humiliation.

Lance returned after their little excursion to Merten’s Falls. He had a coffee and watched me prepare dinner in my camp oven. He and Del had continued from Windjana Gorge down to Fitzroy Crossing and then to Kununurra where they had rented a small 4WD to drive up to the Drysdale River Station. There they had joined the tour. The most snakelike of the paramilitaries passed by and flung a reptile smile at us: ‘How are ya? Good!’ ‘That one looked vicious’, I remarked to Lance. He agreed. ‘They are absolutely atrocious’, he complained to me. ‘You should see how much firewood they’ve collected. It’s enough for weeks, and they're gonna burn all of it tonight.’ He sighed. We talked about the destruction of the environment these people cause. To take some firewood is OK. But if an area is totally scavenged, then all the small animals and insects will have nowhere to live, which means that there will be no birds nor bigger animals to feed on them. Which means nature is more boring.

Lance looked at my camp, which had a more untidy bachelor feel to it than usual. I excused myself for the disarray. ‘You should bring a missus’, Lance suggested. ‘Del is great with neatening up things.’ Lance did not like to talk about his job as a teacher. The school system in Australia is suffering from heavy cuts. The middle and upper classes and the ambitious migrants are paying expensive school fees to get their children into private schools, while the working class sends their children to the decaying public schools. Being a teacher in a public school was no fun.

Many things in Australia are entertaining, however. One fine morning at the office I worked in ten years ago, I was reading The Age in anticipation of lunchtime when we could go down to the pub and have a beer. I read about an investigation into how children of different national and ethnic backgrounds made it in school. The intention of the investigation appeared to have been to find out if migrant kids needed support in the school system. However, it turned out that the Chinese and Vietnamese students were the ones with the highest grades. Then came Greeks, Jews and Italians. English, Dutch, German, and assorted North and East European children came jogging along. Third from the bottom were the Polish boys and girls. Second last were the true-blue-fair-dinkum-what-d’ya-reckan Aussie kids and last of all, the Irish offspring. As I remember it, I needed help to get back up from the floor to my office chair and that I had to be hushed down. Loud noises could attract the attention of our supervisors, something no one in our corner of the office wanted.

I invited Lance and Del to come over for coffees or a mug of wine later that evening, but they didn't come. That was the last I saw of them. I hope Lance has found something more useful to do with his life than teaching kids in Sydney. But if he is still there, I hope that he at least gets the chance to teach the Chinese and Vietnamese pupils, instead of true-blue-fair-dinkum-what-d’ya-reckan Anglo kids.