“Why are you lying on my couch?” I ask the attractive young woman who is prone across the sofa in the Homestead. She does not look good and I’ve a nasty suspicion as to why she’s taken to it. An attractive young man hovers around unsure what to do.
“Sorry, is it your couch?” she asks, looking uncomfortable. It’s not every day someone decides to lie across a sofa in the main area of a hotel or motel, or any public place. I know there has to be a story.
“You don’t mind if I ask you some questions” as I sit on the coffee table and study her closely.
The symptoms she describes: sweating, nausea, cramps, fatigue, dizziness, disoriented suggest the onset or even the arrival of heat exhaustion.
But a week previously I’d read a horror story in the paper where a father giving testimony against the failure of emergency services, tells of a hike northern Western Australia during which his 14 year old son describes similar symptoms and isn’t able to walk back to the car. The father is so concerned he leaves his son, returns to the car, calls emergency services who don’t record the call as an emergency partly because they can barely understand his Scottish accent.
The call takes forever and it’s only after a second call that emergency services respond. They don’t bring a stretcher and it takes them a long time to carry the 14 year old back to the carpark, but 400 meters away. The boy dies in hospital later in the day.
Key message: time IS of the essence and once heat exhaustion has progressed too far it’s damned hard to recover.
I don’t know how long the woman’s been lying on the sofa but I notice that little is being done for her. The staff in the homestead are largely Brits, they know fuck-all about heat exhaustion. I’ve just spent the better part of three months trying to avoid it.
I get ice packs: ice + water in a plastic bag wrapped in a tea-towel and tell Marten, her boyfriend to rub her face, head and body with it.
It’s hot in the homestead and boiling outside, high 40s. There is no such thing as cold water in the taps for a shower. It’s easily +30 C.
We’re expecting a large lunch crowd and pallid fading body on a sofa may be too much of a reminder of the risks of travel in outback Australia. It’s also hardly a calm cool comforting environment for a person to try to chill-down.
I put her in room 10 with the airconditioner cranked as low as it’ll go.
Returning to the homestead deep in thought the staff tell me “That couple had water and Gatorade and didn’t pay”. Stupefied I stare at him. We have a potential life-threatening situation and he’s worried about ten bucks in liquids! Fuck!
Ignoring him I start calling. The local ranger station at Ormiston don’t answer. I go for the big guns and call 000 – the national emergency number and explain what I need to the operator on the phone. I get the number to emergency services in Darwin who cut me off within three minutes of talking to them. Someone will call me back.
Within 60 seconds I get a call from emergency services in Port Augusta and we go through my tale. But there’s two important questions I can’t really answer: the history of the couple and how long since symptoms really began. Marten is needed.
So far I’ve done pretty much the right things: get her prone, get her fluids, get her out of the heat. I’m told to remove her outer clothing and to apply the ice-pack liberally across her body.
She’s already down to sports-bra and shorts. I don’t think she needs to take off more clothes. Marten heads to the phone whilst I remain with her, quietly terrified of what could happen if she were alone.
There’s one more trick up my sleeve: lie her on the tiled floor in the bathroom cover her in a cotton sheet, soak her in water then direct a fan over her. Evaporative airconditioning. It’s also a fairly awful sensation to experience.
By now there’s talk of ambulances. She may be stable but she’s not improving. Jasmin is a para-medic back in Switzerland and is deeply embarrassed that this is happening to her of all people. To get an ambulance to travel 130 km to and from Alice Springs would take hours and cost an almost unimaginable fortune. Roger is dead-set against the idea, they take forever. It’s clear though she’s godda go to hospital.
That story is going around and around in my head. At one point the 14 year old made a partial recovery only to die anyway. How much time do I have? How do I read the signs? What is the right thing to do? Get her to the fucking hospital.
Roger volunteers to drive her. He’s a professional driver and has driven the Namatjira Drive countless times. If we use the Prado she could lie on the back seat, cooled by the efficient airconditioner. The alternative, their rental Hi-Ace camper van would be damned painful damned slow and damned hot in comparison.
“Go for it” I say, committing the company. I’ll fight any backlash from the bosses later for not charging a 350$ transfer fee. “Just get her to the hospital fast”
Jasmin claims she’s feeling a bit better. Emergency Services are not so sure. Nor am I. She returns to the Homestead as Roger prepares the Prado. She is looking much worse with deep black holes for eyes and skin verging on yellow.
I grab pillows from the camper, plastic bags in case she needs to throw-up, and cover the windows using towels. And watch them drive away.
Initially my boss is almost critical of me for not charging a transfer fee. I push my point. In a life-threatening situation I am not going to pester strung-out stressed-out foreign visitors for some inconsequential amount of money. My boss then unequivocally supports me. No backlash.
Marten offers to pay for the room, the ride, the drinks, everything. “Pay for the drinks. For the rest, there will come a time when you can help a total stranger in need. And you will.” He gives 30$ for 20$ of drinks. “If you’re going give a tip, give it to Roger, he’s the one who’s really going out of his way.”
A week later an email arrives. It took a day but Jasmin recovered fully and they continued their trip in Australia without incident. And they are very, very thankful.
As I am I, as am I.
Frying an egg
The days are hot. Each one a clear searing blue. Not a cloud. The deep rich blues of softer climes evaporate to a pale remnant by an intense sun that no one ever sees. It is simply too bright to catch even a glimpse of through dark sunglasses. Roger is staring at the rock butte the architects in all their wisdom thought suitable to place in a sea of gravel and surrounded by islands of tiles which are to support ecosystems of tables, chairs and people.
“How hot do you think it is?” he asks in an almost rhetorical manner.
“Dunno, 44, 45. Something like that” I answer.
“D’ya reckon we could fry an egg?”
I stare at the stone. It’s past 1500 and the intensity of the day has passed. “Not sure, maybe a bit too late”
“I reckon we could. Shall I get an egg?”
Roger likes someone to verify his hair-brained schemes.
“Sure, get an egg. And a pan, can’t cook an egg direct on the stone.”
We leave the pan in the sun for half an hour before cracking the egg. It sits there, looking uncomfortable but certainly not bubbling.
An hour later it looks pretty desiccated but I’m not sure you’d want to serve it up in that state with bacon and toast in the morning.
Neither of us are inclined to eat it.
“Damn” says Roger, “I thought it’d cook”
“I reckon you were a couple of hours too late. Next time do it earlier”
One of the more common frogs in the West MacDonnell Ranges is Spencer’s Burrowing Frog.
If it rains enough they make their way out of their burrows, find a puddle, find a mate and do their thing. Spencer, encouraged by 13 ml of rain in the last 48 hours has decided it’s enough. Only he’s also decided the pool is really just a very large pond. I decide to recue the hapless Romeo and using the leaf-rake extract him from the pool. The Finke just opposite the homestead is now a sizeable body of water and I figure that’d be a more suitable romance location.
I figure I’ll give Spencer a decent chance and so head well away from the cormorant drying its wings on the bank.
Squatting by the Finke I release Spencer who valiantly swims away from me under the water only to be immediately gobbled up by Bony The Bream who swims away with Spencer’s legs splayed out each side of its mouth in a parody of a grotesque moustache.
I am as mortified as I am helpless. It is a Fish Eat Frog world in the Finke.
55 ml downpour
The rain starts around midnight, waking me up. A compelling drumming on the roof accompanying spectacular lightening and debilitating thunder. I have to close my window to keep the deluge out and beat a hasty retreat when I open the door to take a photo, the wall of water fully desirous to enter my donga. I return to bed to experience the theatrics from the safety of being indoors.
Ten minutes later Roger’s knocking on my door shouting “Do you know where the sandbags are?”
The deluge is so compelling that a muddy sea of water is running off the tiny hill behind the staff accommodation and trying to flood Roger and Steve’s houses.
For a brief insane moment I consider a rain coat. It’d be as useful giving a fish a bicycle.
We check out where sandbag bags may be found and find non. By now the water is a solid curtain flowing over the retaining wall of both Roger’s and Steve’s verandas. I end up digging a trench on the upper side of the wall along Steve’s veranda (“Where is Steve?” I ask Roger. “Dunno” he replies “I knocked on his door but he simply went back inside!”). It places me under the full-bodied waterfall pouring over gutters utterly incapable of dealing with the deluge.
As Roger deals with his flood I remove obstacles and barriers to the free movement of water away from the at-risk houses. And win.
I, and Roger, are utterly, utterly soaked. And we are enjoying ourselves.
A brief tour of the rest of the buildings reveal no flooding, apart from two centimetres in the kitchen.
The next morning the rain meter tells me we got 55 ml of rain in two hours. Impressive.
Tubbing down the Finke.
The next day, unsurprisingly, the Finke is quite the raging torrent, forcing closure of the Namatjira Drive. It’s not possible to drive over the floodway.
What does one do with a full-bodied Finke in flood? Simple … get some car-tire inner-tubes and tube down from 2 mile, which is, as the name suggests 3.2 kilometres upstream of the floodway and perhaps four kilometres from the homestead.
Dave, Gabbo and I plus three well inflated inner-tubes and three beers get dropped off by Roger, wade into the swollen Finke until we can’t wade no more and make our way rather inelegantly into or is it onto the tubes.
Dave and I had done a trip earlier and so know the lie of the river and what to expect. We’ve a good 15 minutes to enjoy our beers before the first rapid.
Gabbo, as Gabriel is affectionately known, is a new arrivee in Australia. We caution him about brown snakes in the water, enjoying his concerns until he realises we are having him on. Only, there is a risk of brown snakes in the water …
The Finke is not a permanent river so there are endless obstacles: large clumps of reeds, random trees, shallow rocky cascades and whatever the river has brought down with it during the flood. As the current takes hold approaching the rapids there’s a flurry of arm-waving thinly disguised as paddling as each of us tries valiantly to avoid such obstacles.
As we cross over the floodway we humorously enjoy the bemused and somewhat stunned looks of car drivers who’ve waded into the torrent hoping to discover some hidden but doable passage over the floodway.
It was truly undeniable fun. Brilliant.
Steve, victorious after the departure of Michael, can’t keep the smile off his face. Tension abates among the staff. For a week. Steve, a near-to-or-at-but-can’t-quite-afford-to-retire cranky old man with countless ailments and attitude to match. A man accustomed to and needing conflict.
A week after Michael left he focusses his vitriol towards Brad, a mid-20s Englishman who must be one of the least confrontational people I’ve ever met.
Chef’s rule their kitchens. It’s their right. Only a fool would dispute that. Steve begins to put more and more restrictions on under what circumstances staff can enter his fiefdom. I am requested to write a ‘gentle reminder’ to everyone, but Steve’s key target is Brad. Roger, the longest working member of staff at Glen Helen is highly dubious. I explain I’m complying with Steve’s request in order to mollify him. It doesn’t work.
The vitriol increases, Steve wanders into the office where I and Nathen, another key staff member, keep the bureaucratic wheels turning, and states there’s too many staff rostered on and demands that a casual such as Brad or his partner Shiobhán be sent home. Although I thank him for his input I don’t do as he demands.
A day or so later on a Saturday, one of our busiest days it does appear as if there’s too many people rostered on. It is dead quiet, there’s more staff than clientele. It is 0915. I mention this to Shiobhán. She points out it is one of the busiest of days and in but an hour or so the hordes are expected and there’s a lot to be done. I have my doubts but decide to give her the benefit of it. Steve comes in again, mutters something under his breath and disappears.
I head out to check on the Yardy I’ve employed to see how he’s getting on. An hour later I return to find Shiobhán gone, a perturbed Brad and a defensive Nathen. Steve had done his appearing act and demanded Nathen send Shiobhán home. Nathen dutifully if dubiously agreed.
Roger turns up and is as furious as Roger can ever get.
Casuals only get paid when they work. Little point in being a casual if you don’t have work. Too many short days and they’ll leave for more consistent money elsewhere. Add a sense of persecution by, in this case, the head chef and there’s even more incentive to leave. Roger’s terrified we’ll lose two important staff right before the Easter weekend and the beginning of high season. He’s also stupefied that staff numbers have been downgraded on “ … one of the busiest days of the week!”
I’m not happy either. What to do? Brad and Shiobhán want to work and we need bodies for the lunchtime crush. How to undo what has been done?
As Gabbo, the new yardy, and I will service the 70 kwh WO4 generator tomorrow, on his day off, I send him home early knowing he’ll pick up hours later, put Brad on yard work and bring Shiobhán back to the café. Roger is still not happy: “It’s one of the busiest days of the week” he explains, exasperated, “We’ll get hammered. You can’t send off someone on the busiest day of the week”. Brad should also be in the café, not doing yard work.
Then the wave breaks and the hordes turn up seemingly in their thousands and I am sucked out of my refuge in the office by the vacuum created by the hordes flowing past and end up working flat out on the floor for two solid hours and are busy for a further hour. Telephones got ignored, vouchers and invoices neglected. Just food and drink orders, serving food, clearing tables, answering questions. Three solid hours.
“I told you so” says Roger. Nathen is beside himself too, explaining he felt compelled to do Steve’s bidding.
To mollify them I show them my contract. It clearly states: Oversight of staff hours’ allocations/Rostering (other staff can complete roster but it must be approved by you). Ensuring staff are deployed at the minimum levels to keep them busy.
“I am responsible for the roster. You guys can create them, you are afterall far more suitable at doing the roster, but I am ultimately responsible. If Steve, or anyone, wants a change to a roster that’s been authorised, please ask them to see me. Do not do as they request until they have spoken to me”
I swiftly find out why Roger, Brad and Shiobhán are perplexed and a tad distant from me. They believe I authorised or played a role in Shiobhán being sent home.
Things are accelerating fast. As I, Brad and Shiobhán sit out on one of the benches overlooking the Wall, I find out they are feeling picked on. The relief on their faces when I explain I did not send Shiobhán home is palpable, as is it when I explain I am responsible for the roster. Steve has basically threatened Brad “ … you talk back to me you’ll regret it”, as well as used language and behaviour akin to abuse and workplace harassment.
A pattern is emerging. Even Roger is pissed and Nathen fed up. Basically I’ve a repeat of my earlier drama with Michael: only everyone has a Steve story this time.
Then I find out Steve has unilaterally changed the roster, slicing Brad and Shiobhán’s hours in half for the following weekend. Roger’s face goes an alarming shade of red “You CAN’T cut staff hours on the weekend!!!” with a tint of terror in his voice. I know that. Now. I have to do something.
The only place I know Steve cannot avoid me is in the kitchen and so just before dinner really hits I enter it. He makes no effort to talk with me, simply continuing his work.
I acknowledge and respect he is Lord and Master of the kitchen, but I politely and firmly tell him he cannot alter the roster of other staff members doing work outside of the kitchen, nor make judgement calls on what other staff are doing. My competence as a manager is questioned, and he flatly rejects my authority. But I have made my point.
I call Shelagh, the boss, who’s in Europe and explain the rapidly deteriorating situation and that we risk losing key staff because a confrontational Head Chef has taken it upon himself to decide other people’s work. The Elephant in the Room is sulking at the rear … I may be faced with having to dismiss another one!
Steve’s reputation precedes him and Shelagh supports my decision to keep him in his kitchen, and will write a letter to him to the same effect.
It doesn’t work though. Steve is deeply offended by the letter and promptly resigns. He’ll leave a week before the Easter weekend crush.
I never speak with Steve again, he simply closes and locks his door when I try to talk him into giving the full month’s notice as required in his contract. He leaves Friday and the tension in the team eases once more.
Now I have to find a new head chef, and fast.
Roma & Tnorala
My plans to be active during my time at Glen Helen evaporated in the first week. Long, long days amid the endless trial and tribulations of a small intense place.
And then, one day, Monday, the bosses return and it all changes. The yard has a full time and far more competent yardy than I’ll ever be. Nothing for me to do there anymore.
And the office has the architect of the entire process sitting on what was my seat at my computer. No room and no need for me to be there either.
I return to thinking: what can I do in my last days here? I’d really like to go Roma Gorge where ancient aboriginal petroglyphs are carved into the stones. As it’s not a site promoted by Tourism NT few go there. I’d also like to visit Tnorala, the remains of what a 600 meter-wide comet does to a place when it hits.
Only, to do both I need a 4WD.
Not much point in beating about the bush “Colin, we going to Roma Gorge on Wednesday?”
“We can do that” he replies without hesitation.
Wednesday morning Colin, Dave (who ran the kitchen after Steve fled), Gabbo and I pile into Colin’s Toyota Landcruiser and awwwwaaaayyyy we go.
Now, it has to be said, that Colin is a terrifying driver. Waaay tooo fast and he’s all over the place.
Roma Gorge turn-off is but 30 kilometres west of Glen Helen and then an hour’s 4Wdriving along the river that leads to the gorge. Colin may be terrifying on the asphalt but he’s great on the tracks.
Roma Gorge is one of the lesser Gorges in the West MacDonnell ranges. The pool of water barely large enough to swim in, the cliffs lacking the overwhelming grandeur of Ormiston or Ellery Big Hole and there’s no challenge in swimming and climbing your way through to the other side as with Redbank.
It is however very special. Unlike the other Gorges Roma is where ancient Aborigines decided to carve their story into the same hard Quartzite that Mother Nature hasn’t managed to wear away in 150 million years.
Whatever the story is must have been important. Chipping away only with stones it would have taken substantial effort to record them.
If someone, an Aboriginal Elder perhaps, knows what the story is, they are not telling. We can only speculate and for sure we do. There appears to be a sun, or a moon, within which and next to are boomerang motives. It’s a fair enough interpretation. But what the artist really meant by them remains a mystery.
This is not the same as the story-boards and learning-walls used on Uluru to teach transient lessons which can be covered over by a new generation of spray-painted ochre.
The pool is full of frogs. Tadpoles and teenagers.
Zebra Finches swirl and chirp in abundance enjoying the water, eternally wary and watchful should one of us move they flitter away to the safety of the thorn bushes.
Zebra Finches need water every day. If there are Zebra Finches there must be water.
Mesmerised by the water and the finches I tear my eyes away to check out the cliffs. Movement catches my eye. A rock-wallaby. Unusual to see during the day and increasingly rare anyway.
It’s lunch time but there’s little shade in the gorge. We pile back into the Prado and head further west along a station track until under the shade of a stand of Cyprus Pine in a dry river bed we stop to eat. Cyprus Pine is common in the Flinders Ranges perhaps some 1500 km south. It is unusual to find them in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
It is here that Colin drops the proverbial bomb, at least for me.
“If you continue along this track where does it lead?” I ask.
“It winds its way back to the road near Tnorala”
“Really!” Interesting. “D’ya reckon we can go to Tnorala?” I ask hopefully.
“I reckon so” he answers. “It is the plan”
I never knew that I was going to get both of my most coveted destinations ticked off in the same day before I leave. I thought I may get a chance when I return in mid-May. Colin clearly has other ideas.
We bounce and grind our way over the station track with runs along Glen Helen Station’s boundary fence with the West MacDonnell National Park. Good to be in a good 4WD.
Briefly we stop at Tyler’s Pass Lookout where in mid December I too stopped. In the distance is Tnorala only this time a lot, lot closer with a large Landcruiser than with a robust but small Santos bike.
In typical White Australian fashion the track into Tnorala, which is a sacred place for the Aborigines, goes straight in, right smack into the middle. A large carpark exists. Pathways and notice boards. Cultural sensitivity is not a strong point among white Australia.
In a curious juxtaposition of knowledge both Western Science and Aboriginal Dreaming have a celestial origin for Tnorala, both involving a round(-ish) object and both involving their object falling from the heavens and striking the earth.
In the Aboriginal Dreaming, a bunch of women were dancing in the heavens, all them twinkling stars shows they are still dancing, when out of the grasp of one fell a baby in a basket which falls to earth. Tnorala is the result of the impact.
Science reckons a 600 metre wide comet exploded above the site and Gosse Bluff is the result.
Although the Aboriginal one does smack a bit of gross maternal negligence, it is intriguing they came up with an impact from the heavens to explain the site.
Canus lupus dingo
Canus lupus dingo is a migrant, a refugee. One brought by Asian seafarers less than 4000 years ago, though some suggest they may have been introduced up to 18 000 years ago. I was taught that they came as companions to Aborigines millennium ago. Apparently not. This makes them Boat Dogs, a feared entity sure to destroy the social and cultural fabric of Australia, necessitating a brutal draconian immigration policy which treats refugees as vermin and places them in deplorable condition in concentration camps on some tiny fucking island without access to any social aspect necessary for the mental and physical wellbeing of a strung-out intelligent Primate called Homo sapiens. Which probably explains why White Australians, who, incidentally, started out as political, social and cultural prisoners and refugees, like to kill them. The dingoes that is. Though, one can’t be too sure that that is not the plan for the modern refugees, given how Australia treats them.
The most I’ve seen together were two, at Watarrka where the male out-psyched me and stole my sandal from right next to me and the two of them ganged up to steal my dried milk powder from Ziflex. Cheeky Buggas!
The photos were taken at a now defunct bore on Glen Helen Station some 30 km west along the West MacDonnell Ranges. I’ve seen them at several places over the last few weeks. Mostly at Glen Helen where they raided our rubbish bins.
Ever since the Nullarbor pretty much every premium tourist locality has flights available. Some are fixed wings, like on the Nullarbor. Since the Flinders Ranges all have been by helicopter.
Glen Helen is no exception and tourist flights started about three weeks ago. The pilots rotate out. The experienced Adam, who started the season gave way to Corey a relative new-comer eager to knock up some hours. He’s not too sure of the loops and even less of what a tourist will see when they peer out the window.
He sticks his head in the office and asks Nathen if he’d like to tag along on his first flight, to give some commentary and to name the sights. Nathen is waaay tooo busy, apparently, and I, who is quite possibly the least useful person on the floor, are not.
Eventually I get three free flights on the 15 minute Ormiston loop.
Talk about fun and it is amazing to see the vast landscape of the West MacDonnell ranges from less than a 1000 metres.
And finally … spares and repairs
Shortly after arriving at Glen Helen I set about organising spares and replacements for equipment which had or was rapidly reaching End of Life.
Bit by bit they turned up. Therm-a Rest was already waiting when I arrived. Led Lenser replaced the H7R.2 headlamp which died just after arriving at Glen Helen. The Ortlieb handlebar bag + accessories arrived from the Netherlands. And a large box full of groovy new spares to replace those on Ziflex which have worn out over 6500 rough Australian kilometres including a new pivot bolt with bushing, shock-absorber, quick-release mechanisms for both trailer and bike, and mudguard. It was only after I took off the old shock-absorber I realised how beaten it is.
I did enjoy replacing the old parts and setting up the new. Ready to go now.
Only Supanova’s Plug did not arrive, nor was there any information from them. I write an email. I get a reply. The did not receive my faulty Plug. Regardless, they are going to replace it anyway. All I need is to give them an address. Not an easy thing for a nomad to give. Not quite sure how to solve this one. Since I have to return to Glen Helen to pick up Ziflex and the rest of the equipment in May, it is an obvious place although I could well do with in Indonesia. Am still working on this one.
Tomorrow, 27 of March I catch a 1715 flight to Darwin. Then at 0035 on the 28th I fly to Denpasar arriving at the ungodly hour of 0150. Tez said he’d pick me up. I get the feeling though I’ll be riding Dreamer to Tez’s house as he’s likely to arrive on a scooter. Should be fun.
Six weeks in Indonesia. I look forward to it, especially since Ram has bought a ticket and wants to join me for a couple of weeks.
Alice Springs, 26 March 2016.