he Mitchell Highway from Nyngan to Bourke is so flat and straight it’s like someone drew it on the map with a ruler – about 200 kilometres of dead flat straight. Here, even at dangerously high speeds, travellers feel like they are standing perfectly still – an optical illusion that has cost many dearly over the years.
Rod Conway eased back on the throttle of his Kawasaki Mach III. He’d really wanted to let her rip along the empty outback highway, craving for the raw thrust of the bike’s 60 horsepower 500cc triple cylinder motor and thrill of its exhilarating top speed, but the weather was just way too damn hot. The piston in the middle cylinder of that model was notoriously prone to jam, seizing up the motor. Rod shuddered as he imagined a 190-kilometre-per-hour rear-wheel lock up, sending the bike into a violent tailspin and smearing him all over the road. Besides a stray kangaroo, or a galah in the face, at those kinds of speeds would spell certain death.
The countryside was dead flat and monotonous with grey-blue salt bush and drab gidgee scrub stretching endlessly from horizon to horizon. The day had been heating up steadily, like the inside of a slow cooker, since Rod crossed the Great Dividing Range early that morning and pushed north-westwards, via Dubbo, towards the great Australian Outback. He was boiling in his black leathers. Even the tar of the road itself seemed to melt upward into a shimmering afternoon heat haze.
Rod had just finished his second year of geology at Macquarie University, passing with A-grades, and was heading out to Bourke to meet his cousin René Schellekens, project geologist with a mining company working the district. René had organized a summer vacation job for him as field hand on the Doradilla Copper Project. Although Rod had never been that far inland before, he recalled what he’d read about the history of the area in an encyclopaedia before leaving:
Bourke, situated on the Darling River - part of the spidery network of navigable inland waterways that opened up the Australian interior to trade and commerce during the late 1800’s. The Murray-Darling system with some 6,700 km of navigable waterways, carried paddle steamers laden with cargo from the Murray Mouth near Adelaide as far upstream as the Queensland border. The town, named after the then colonial governor Sir Richard Bourke, was surveyed in 1869, starting life as a garrison, Fort Bourke, set up to deal with the region’s troublesome indigenous inhabitants. By the 1880’s Bourke had grown to host a Cobb & Co. Coach terminus, several paddle boat companies running the Murray-Darling river trade, and an Afghan overland camel transport hub. By 1885 the Great Western Railway Line reached Bourke…
Before now he’d barely had his nose out of his text books, his family home, or the humdrum existence of his daily life on Sydney’s leafy North Shore. The topical news events of the day; Aboriginal rights struggles sparked by the Gurindji people’s walk off at Wave Hill Walk; the Whitlam era reforms ending with the unprecedented sacking of an Australian Prime Minister; the hanging of Ronald Ryan; the Vietnam Draft; even the murder of Beatle John Lennon or the assassination of President JFK; all these events, one after the other, had drifted like vague shadows through the empty space between Rod Conway’s ears, completely unnoticed. There was nothing much at all going on inside his head really, his mind a blank page waiting for life’s experiences to imprint themselves upon it. Besides, there were far more important things for a young bloke of eighteen on his journey to manhood to think about – like girls for one thing, and motorbikes for another.
Rod swept around the final bend, where the highway snaked its way across the railway level crossing, past the looming abattoirs, an ugly complex of grey tin buildings, and along the final straight into town. Greeted by the first buildings of town, he scanned the signs; ‘Welcome to Bourke’, ‘Lions Club’, ‘Rotary Club’, Speed limit 60 kph’; ‘Bourke Population 2,530.’
Relieved to be nearing his long journey’s end, tired and thirsty from the dry dusty heat, he slowed his bike, thinking gratefully, ‘well now, let’s make that 2,531!’
Rod hung a right at the Central Australian Hotel and headed through the centre of town towards Darling Street, where his cousin was renting a house by the river to serve as company office and accommodation.
Pulling into the driveway at number seven, Rod took off his full face helmet and pushed back his long curly brown hair. His cousin, who had been in the backyard splitting drill core from the company’s copper project, came out front to greet him, wearing stubbies and a green short-sleeve work shirt, and sporting a full black beard.
René’s beard creased into a broad open smile.
“Hi Rod, how was the trip up? Hot enough for you? It’s been over forty since lunchtime.”
He wiped away the sweat running from under the brim of his leather hat.
“Bring your bike round the back. You can park it in the shade beside the shed, and then we’ll head inside for a cold drink.”
René led the way through the side gate and Rod followed, pushing his bike past a yellow Land Rover work ute bristling with gear, parked in the driveway. René stopped to unpeg his field clothes, hanging stiffly, like flat cardboard, from the wires of the Hills Hoist.
“Would y’ look at that! I only hung those out to dry about ten minutes ago,” he noted incredulously.
“What’s the long mound of earth over behind the back fence, René?’ Rod asked his cousin.
“That’s the famous Darling River. Come and take a look Rod.”
René led the way, pushing underneath the loose wire strands of the back fence, climbing up amongst the tufts of dry grass onto the low grey earthen bank.
“The paddle wheelers once travelled the Darling on their way from Adelaide to Brewarrina. They’d pull in at the Port of Bourke right about here, along this broad bend in the river,” Rene pointed with a stick he’d picked up, ”and tie up at one of the wooden wharves at the end of Sturt Street to unload and load their cargo. Those wharves have long since rotted away now.”
Rod cast his eyes down at the sluggish strand of muddy brown water lying in its bare dirt channel, trying to imagine how it might have looked back then. He wondered how any kind of boat at all could have ever travelled in that river, let alone the cargo-laden paddle wheelers of old.
“What happened to the river, René?”
“It died I guess Rod. Once sheep and cattle grazing, and farming, took off in the district the Darling began to silt up, dry out bit by bit, season after season. Eventually it became too shallow for the big paddle wheelers and the river route closed. The railway line and the highway took over. Most of the water that once flowed down the main channel was diverted for irrigation. The big cotton farms just out of town use a hell of a lot of water, Rod. Sometimes, these days, the old river even stops running completely.”
“What’s the bank of earth for then? What’s the use of it?”
“It’s called a levee, Rod. This old river still frightens a lot of people. It can rise quickly when it rains a lot, believe you me. This bank is part of the levee system built along the river and right around the town of Bourke to protect it from the flood waters.”
René climbed down off the levee and walked through the yard to the back door, still sweating from his afternoon’s labour.
“Come In out of the hot sun Rod. It must’ve been a long day for you.”
Rene made his way into the small linoleum-tiled kitchen, grabbing a cold bottle out of the fridge. He flipped off its cap with a bottle opener hanging on a nail in the wall, in a smooth single-action movement that only comes with years of practice, and raised the bottle to his lips.
“Ahhh……. that sure hits the spot! Would you like a cold beer, Rod?”
“Er… No thanks. I’m fine René”.
His gaze swept over the classic fibro-sheet design house. Faded floral-print curtains hung over the windows, keeping the fierce heat of the westerly afternoon sun out of the large lounge room, and over in one corner there was a forest of what must have been several dozen potted plastic palms.
“Well there’s some orange juice or soft drink in the refrigerator, grab a glass and help yourself. Then go bring in your swag. Your bedroom’s the one at the end of the lounge room, right next to the bathroom.”
René sat down on the comfortable couch facing the windows and took another long swig from his bottle of beer.
After you’ve settled in, Rod, would you mind helping me take some rubbish down to the tip in the Land Rover? It’s only five minutes away and I can show you Bourke at the same time.”
Rod was impressed by the picturesque town with its neat little houses and well maintained gardens, his interest heightened by the sounds of watery play, laughter, and glimpses of colourful bikinis as René drove by Bourke Olympic Pool on Mertin Street. They continued past the modern district hospital and high school, and then back along Oxley Street, past Central Park with its well-watered flower beds, cross paths and pretty rotunda. The main block of Oxley Street was lined with old-fashioned glass-fronted shops, while an impressive colonial courthouse stood on the corner, its tall roofed watch tower overlooking the greenery of Central Park.
“It’s one of my favourite buildings.” René said, slowing the vehicle so Rod could take a closer look at the historic courthouse.
“Take a walk down here sometime and go inside. Its rooms all face into a garden courtyard.”
He drove on a little further.
“There’s the grand old Post Office Hotel, and on the right, the art deco Elysian Café, complete with original booth seating. I reckon you’ll like the milkshakes they serve in there, Rod,” René added with a broad smile,”They use a steel cup and plenty of ice cream. You can see for yourself how popular it is with the locals.”
At the end of the shopping precinct Rene turned down a street on the left.
There’s the open-air cinema,” he pointed, “Mrs Randall’s Wonderland Picture Garden. Nothing beats a movie under the stars on a fine night. You really want to try that out one evening, Rod; it’s open all summer.”
Presently they passed out of the town centre and after a few blocks Rod noticed the houses looking more and more run down, tired and old, with broken window panes, sad sagging fences and leaning gateposts, their gardens unkempt and overgrown. Here and there, further along, the rusted shells of burnt-out cars lay strewn about in drunken disorder, surrounded by smashed beer-bottle glass.
“What’s happened here, René? It looks like a bomb shell hit the place!” Rod asked, surprised by the stark contrast of these streets with the rest of the town?
“This is where the aborigines live, Rod.” René answered, speaking in a matter of fact tone. “Nobody ever comes through here, except to dump their rubbish.”
“Aborigines?” Rod’s interest was suddenly piqued. He remembered what he had learnt about the Australian Aborigines in history classes at school, about Captain Cook discovering them, spears raised in defiance, when he rowed ashore in Botany Bay, about how they were hunted and shot, or poisoned completely out of existence.
“I didn’t think there were any more of them left, René? I’ve never seen one before.”
“You’ll never see them around where you come from, Rod. Nobody talks about it much, but I think the townsfolk are embarrassed by what happens down this end of Bourke and try their best to put it out of sight and out of mind. It can be very dangerous down here. ” René explained, looking across at his cousin.
“ I wouldn’t go walking around these parts, Rod, especially on pay day.”
Rod was silent for the rest of the journey to the tip and back, but René’s comments, playing about in his mind, were like a red rag to a bull. He was thirsting to know more about these people, why they all lived in the one part of town, why they were dangerous, and what had happened to their houses and cars. He craned his neck around looking to see if he could spot anyone, but there was nobody at all about on the streets on that scorching Saturday afternoon. Rod knew that, somehow, despite what René said, he’d have to find a way to return to this part of town.
Later, René prepared a simple dinner, and while they were sitting at the dining room table enjoying their steak, potatoes and vegetables, he explained his plans to Rod.
“Tomorrow I’m going out to the project area to see the drillers, so you can come out for a bit of a look around and meet them. I’ve got some local field hands ready to start next week. You’ll be working in the bush with them.”
“What are they like René?”
“Local lads, either in their last year of high school, or just a bit older — they were really keen for the work. The only other place around town is the abattoirs, and that’s a bit hit-and-miss as nobody ever knows what’s happening there from day to day. Otherwise you’ve got to go out of town to the stations for work. I reckon they’ll be smart enough for the job and looked like they’d be willing to put in the effort.”
René noted his cousin’s interest, so he counted them off.
“There’s Mark whose grandfather worked in the town fire brigade, Tony the station master’s son, and the two schoolmates Ricky and Dan. Dan’s brother’s got a bit of a reputation around town, but Dan’s OK. I think you’ll get on well with them all, no problems. Anyway, Rod, it’s been a long day for you,” René concluded.
“Why don’t you get some rest now and tomorrow I’ll show you over the Doradilla prospect and the old mine.”