Tall stories, short boabs, bitey crocs and peculiar ways to die in the Aussie Outback. South Africans can’t travel too far internationally at the moment, but we can revel in stories from years gone by and dream about the day we can take to the skies again.
Words: Chris Marais
The year is 2004. I find myself in a motel in a tiny flat-roofed village in Kununurra, Western Australia. This is the Kimberley – the sparsely populated northern region of Western Australia – where they mine pink diamonds and drink Victoria Bitters like it’s going out of stock.
When you think of said Kimberley, think Zimbabwe with short baobabs. It’s a bit like a reunion with a bunch of pot-bellied friends from home. Old time chroniclers in the Kimberley had this to say about their chubby succulent:
‘A Caliban of a tree, a grizzled, distorted old goblin with the girth of a giant, the hide of a rhinoceros, twiggy fingers clutching at empty air, and the disposition of a guardian angel – such is the Kimberley baobab, friendly ogre of the great north-west.’
I can hear the road trains rumble past the motel. Huge, four-trailer beasts, they are the transport backbone of the Outback. Their oddly-assembled drivers are Australian legends who cross a seriously bleak stretch of the planet, mostly in the dead of night.
The next morning after breakfast, I meet a dinkum road train man, Honest John Catchlove, just outside Kununurra at a fuel depot. Catchlove is lanky, wears a Merv Hughes moustache and does the 3 000km east-west run on a regular basis.
He’s a retired professional crocodile trapper who shows me how it’s done: ‘You keep the nose under your arm like this, on top of the water, and then you hold on tight. Put your fingers in his nostrils and cling on for dear life. You can suffocate the little bugger in 20 minutes. And when he starts rolling around, remember to roll with him. And breathe whenever he does. I was quite the catcher but my mate back in Wyndham, he’s miles better at this lark than me.’
Honest John Catchlove also used to be a champion Barramundi fisherman in his youth, and a stockman who mustered cattle on most of the major stations in the district.
To this day, I still don’t know if Honest John Catchlove was completely above board, or if he was just trying to make a foreign travel writer’s day. My spies in Australia tell me Honest John later became a ‘fashion advisor to the ladies of the Kimberley’ and still lives just north of here in the town of Wyndham.
From the very same Wyndham comes the story of a publican who died on a Sunday morning with the key to his bar in his pocket. They buried him that day (because of the terrible humidity) and then had to dig him up on the Monday morning to retrieve that valuable key.
One year, at the end of The Dry, stockmen and drivers from all around came to the pub to celebrate before hunkering down for the rainy season. Unfortunately, the supply ship that brought in the regular booze consignment had run aground on a sandbank off Derby. There was nothing in the Wyndham pub but cherry brandy.
So Bill Flinders leapt into his truck and set out for Derby to retrieve the grog. He drove 800km on his glory mission. As he was loading the beer and whiskey onto his truck at Derby, the monsoon bearing down upon him.
In storm and stress, driving on threadbare tyres, he whizzed back to Wyndham with a black thundercloud behind him and made it to the pub, just as the heavens opened up in dramatic fashion. Everyone in the crowded bar went a little bonkers that night.
The legends tell of many Outback travellers who have perished from lack of water. Foghorn Foley was found completely mummified under a tree at Rosewood.
Paddy Kearney perished within half a mile of a pool. Another anonymous traveller was found by a mounted trooper sitting on his swag, naked as the day he was born, with a scattering of cheap paperback novels around him. One was still in his hand, he had elected to go out in a Penny Dreadful manner.
Mailman Dave Edgar had half his foot bitten off by a crocodile. He bandaged what was left of it in a saddle cloth and kept the dismembered toes wrapped up in a piece of newspaper. Edgar then rode 250km to the nearest doctor to see what could be done about his foot.
No one can tell me if Dave Edgar ever had his foot fixed. But right there and then, I decide to stick to the Outback highways. Who wants to end up walking in circles around the Never-Never, dry as a bone and reading cheap novels to death?
Chris Marais is a storyteller at karoospace.co.za