06 August 2016
Heading towards Kununurra after three days in Purnululu with Scott and Evelyn I realise I’ve no idea where I’ll stay once we reach the town. Once we have telecommunications capacity again I start the task of working out where I’ll stay. There are three caravan parks. I call each in turn. An unpowered site starts at 17$ per night on grass but with no shade at the Town Caravan Park to a kool 39$ at the Big 4 Discovery Lake Kununurra caravan park. I phone Kununurra’s YHA and find I can have a bed in an airconditioned dorm plus instant social life for 27$ per night smack in the middle of town. I go for the YHA.
Kununurra’s prices stem from the town being at the northern end of the popular Gibb River Road, the Great Northern Highway and the western end of the Victoria Highway which heads east to Katherine in the Northern Territory. It is peak season too.
The YHA is damned near full and I’m lucky to get a bed. There are lots of Japanese, Chinese and the odd Korean backpackers here. Apparently Kununurra is well known in these countries as a good place to score seasonal work and earn the all important farm-days necessary under Australia’s innovative tourism-work visa system. Completing the mix are the usual suspects from half a dozen European countries. An entertaining multi-cultural melting pot overseen by Nick, an archetypical completely non-politically correct but charmingly charismatic Aussie of indeterminate vintage who is perfect for the place.
I am here to organise riding the Gibb River Road. The last truly challenging road of my Epic. At least until I find something further south as I wind my way through Western Australia’s awesome outback. Six hundred and sixty kilometres of former stock-route and another iconic slice of dirt road. It bisects various ranges – meaning hills and inclines, crosses countless rivers and floodways some infested by (wo)man-eating crocodiles, with a wide range of stunning scenery and gorges to visit and enjoy. The Derby Visitor Centre produce a small guide called the ‘Gibb River and Kalumburu Roads’ (http://www.derbytourism.com.au/about-the-area/gibb-river-road). Browsing it, it is immediately apparent that this is not some isolated lonely stretch of Australia whereby I’ll need to be in full survival mode. There are forty-seven pages of attractions, resorts (some costing 1000$ per night. El Questro “Homestead is an exclusive retreat cantilevered over the magnificent Chamberlin Gorge [with the] highest standards of service and cuisine [for] 18 discerning guest looking or relaxation and luxury in the spectacular Kimberly outback”), roadhouses, campsites, homesteads and so on.
The road itself will no doubt provide the usual outback gravel road joy, especially when I have to crawl up through them ranges. But I am kinda used to this by now. If I have a concern it is that my Mighty Schwalbe Mondial Marathons are a kool 7500 km worn by now with well over half of that on tire-chewing gravel roads. I have to contemplate a failure and make sure I can deal with it.
I am also in Kununurra to pick up three parcels with spares: bag clips from Ortliebs, spokes from Santos in the Netherlands, and a new seat from Helinox for my Ground Chair. Non of which are show-stoppers but all of which are dead handy. That said, if the Gibb hammers my wheels really hard I may well need the odd new spoke. Or two.
Helinox arrives first. At Nyarna I made a small campfire. I set my Helinox on the down-smoke side of it. I start to prepare food. I leave it for a moment to get something from my stuff. I return to find the wind had blown it into the fire. Not entirely destroyed but seriously compromised, the material burnt and brittle, tearing easily. It will fail soon enough.
Whilst in Halls Creek I write to Helinox’s customers service:
“Hi, my Helinox ground chair suffered a terrible injury. It got blown into my fire and, well, kinda got burnt. Is it possible to get a new seat material? The frame is fine, but not the seat itself.
It is a key comfort factor during my Epic. Check out cycloaustralis.wordpress.com
Please lemme know.
Convenient post destination:
Max Nigel Smith
C/- Kununurra Post Office
89 Coolibah Dr,
Kununurra WA 6743
Cheers … Max”
The next day Helinox Australia Customer Service writes back”
We’ll send you a new seat. I think we can cover this under warranty 😉
Customer Service Helinox Australia Pty Ltd”
“Under warranty”! You godda admit, that’s not only really kool it is also truly the sign of outstanding customer service!
But the days tick past and there’s no sign of the other two packages. The one from Santos I can understand. Sent by snail-mail from the Netherlands I expect it to take forever to get here and consider that perhaps I leave and get the parcel forwarded on to me.
Sure, the Kununurra post office can do that. Simply fill in a mail-forwarding form, fork over 25$ and all my mail will be forwarded. Errr … I don’t have an abode here at which the usual mail arrives. I am awaiting but a single parcel and all other post-offices have happily offered to forward it on for no cost.
What to do?
Go for a sunset walk with some others from the YHA to Kelly’s Knob, the local landmark which overlooks the town. Take a bunch of photos and return before it gets too dark to see the way.
Connect with Totti from Japan. A charming guy who really wants to improve his English. Every night we spend an hour working on his English. I really enjoy it, so too does Totti who tends to lie back on the bench arms stretched above his head huge smile plastered across his face going “So difficult, so difficult” after an hour. Yet his ability to pronounce words with ‘l’ in it improves dramatically: “Say lollipop” I tell him, or “I love you, I like you” and “usually” and bit by bit he’s getting it. The word ‘please’ rolls out of his mouth with barely a trace of accent now.
An advert at the YHA catches my eye. The only one among the seventy brochures that does: Eco-noeing (http://www.gowild.com.au) “Canoeing and comping cruises for a day or a week on the magnificent Ord River”. Particularly their three-day self-guided trip. I phone them up on a Wednesday and are booked in for a Friday pick-up.
Friday 12 August 2016
Just after 0600 Brent picks me up in the koolest stretched Troopy I’ve ever seen. Twenty minutes later we pick up the three other canoeists, friends from Katherine soon to tick-off a Bucket List item of one of them.
An hour later we are at the Lake Argyle dam where our adventure begins.
In a brief moment when Brent and I are alone he apologises, for my three companions, all women, talk “incessantly” as Clem confessed with full unabridged command of Aussie Outback slang, colloquialisms and abundant use of swear-words all wonderfully combined to create the still alien concept of Aussie ‘humour’ I’ve encountered countless times during my Epic.
Gliding silently down the Ord immersed in the scale of the ancient landscape, enthralled by the abundant nature, countless birds, (re-)confirming the essential connection people have to the environment which spawned them? Errr … gonna be a challenge.
They also have an enormous about of stuff. Brent keeps muttering “So glad you packed light so glad you packed light so glad you packed light” comparing my meagre provisions to theirs. It is clear he’s struggling with how to get it all into two canoes and one kayak.
Personally I’d have preferred a canoe. I’m much more familiar with them and have never felt comfortable in a kayak despite having a kayak course in my early twenties and another in 2010 in Sweden. They wobble, even small waves make them take on water very easily and simply make me very, very nervous. Now it looks like I’m going to have to spend three days in one and take on several rapids in the first ten kilometres of the 56 km trip. Oh Boy!
Kayaking. My first long exposure to kayaking. As Brent is running us through the trip and safety aspects I am uncharacteristically subdued, quiet. I am nervous.
Experience up to now has shown me than kayaks are nervous fractious things as predictable as a stressed out horse. When in one I’d find it wobbling, twitching and shaking, preparing to dump me in the water for no particular reason at the first opportunity.
Now I am going to spend THREE WHOLE DAYS in one AND have to negotiate no less than three howling spitting rapids.
Nervous, I am contemplating my fate. Not too late to back out …
My main concern is not the capsizing. After all I’ll have a life-vest on, I’m a good swimmer and I’m not prone to panic.
My main concern is losing gear. The Ord River is hardly a large raging torrent. But it is also not a small cute creek either. Hundreds of metres wide in place, (tens of) meters deep with sharp drop-offs right at the water’s edge, and powerful. Add rapids. Should me and my stuff become separated I doubt I’ll see it again.
I’ve been tacked on to a group of three late-twenties-early-thirties women from Katherine. They are imports into Katherine but now they fiercely identify with being Katherinians.
Brent quietly apologises to me again as we are assailed by the relentless incessant babbling by the women. “Perhaps” he muses “Macka (the boss) wouldn’t have taken your booking” under the circumstances. However, Steph took my call and I am not only booked but about to embark.
I know quite a bit about the technique of kayaking from the courses and limited experience I’ve done. Only I’ve never really followed up on my interest, for I am really interested in kayaking. Seems like a cool way to see a land from the different perspective of the water.
It’s a possession thing up there with sky-diving, hang-gliding, kite surfing/boarding/buggying. A lot of equipment, money and time is needed. Equipment is a particular challenge for it needs to be stored, maintained, updated, cleaned and, of course, used.
After demonstrating basic paddling techniques, we have to repeat the instructions for the first day:
1st rapid: powerlines, keep to the middle.
2nd rapid: mud cliff, keep to the left.
3rd rapid: v-form cliffs, keep to the right.
The chatterboxes rattle off the answers for which I am grateful for such important information seems to have entered one ear and immediately exited the other.
Then we’re off.
“Incessant” hardly does the women’s chatter justice. As there are three there is no break no taking of breath no pause. One ends, another picks up. It rolls across the water bounces off the spectacular cliffs, rolls down the hills, zig-zags across the front of the ranges and spreads out across the blues sky as if orchestrated.
Quite in contrast to the stillness and quiet promoted in the brochures.
I’m not excluded nor ignored. I just don’t belong. It is their weekend, a Bucket List for the boisterous Clem and they are going for it in a classic Australian Big Way. I can appreciate why Macka would hesitate before adding a single male to a Hens’ Week End. Still, I am here and we make the most of it. There’s Clem: overweight, the roughest, most derogatory. Something to prove or a thick wall. Crystal: originally from South Africa, swears hard, less derogatory than Clem but matches her for boisterousness, proud of her bargaining successes recently against impoverished Balinese whereby she shaved meagre dollars off items she bought. Tales of what it’s like growing up with a ‘stage-name’ suggestive of the world’s oldest profession for a name. Charley: the quietest, not matching the others blow for blow, named after the son her mother desperately wanted but never got.
I’m finding a little over done this Female-Mateship camaraderie thing. It’s not banter, there’s an edge to it. Semi- and full-on insults, derogatory humour, “piss-taking” as it’s explained to me. A bit too much testosterone among the oestrogen. It’s very Ocker.
Their canoes are heavily overloaded but they take to them without a second thought and I can’t detect even a trace of nervousness. I envy their fearlessness.
Their lives and background prepare them well for such a trip. They and their partners encapsulate Ocker-dome: tales of fantastic outback trips in huge 4WDs, camping, fishing, eating and drinking. In abundance. Clem turned up the previous weekend for a child’s first birthday so hung-over from a day/night at the Katherine Rodeo she threw-up multiple times in multiple places. They also critically analysed the rodeo and the participants’ performance including the animals at a technical level I never knew existed.
They’ve asked so little about me that Clem answered “I didn’t know they did rodeos in Sweden” when I mentioned Cobb, my inestimable brother, used to ride rodeo. Until then the only question they’d asked was “Where are you from?”.
Clem is also utterly unable to cope with the concept of riding a bike, firing off a range of questions following immediately by a range of answers rather than letting me respond. “Why would you do that?” she asks. “Because I enjoy it” I answer, mindful of what the French MC rider said in Oodnadatta “Australian’s do not understand that people ride for pleasure”.
Later, after we’ve survived the large wash from one of the big fast Triple-J tourist boats Clem comments that we, as canoeists, have the better deal with the silence and the experience. I chuckle and point out that if she likes the canoe experience she may well like cycle-touring.
We remain as a group as recommended by Brent “For the first part of the trip” to “Keep an eye on each other”. Them rapids are approaching. I watch with awe as Crystal and Charley fearlessly approach Rapid One where the water is channelled through a row of large trees where the original Ord River flowed before being turned into an outwash channel for the Ord River irrigation and hydro-power scheme. Their canoe is dangerously low in the water and looks phenomenally top heavy. They don’t bat an eye and race through the rapids without trouble. Embolden I take on the rapids too. In comparison to the rapids I fish along in Scandinavia these are a bit of a non-event, with only one or two white-water sections where submerged rocks resist the flow and which are easy to avoid.
Taking strength from my fearless travel companions I approach Rapids Two and Three with greater confidence. Rapid Three sees the bow of my kayak disappear under the waves, the water pushed away from the cockpit by the large lip which surrounds it. It’s fun and I enjoy it, rapidly becoming more confident the longer I spend in the kayak.
After lunch on Sandy Beach and with the rapids now behind us we kinda split up and no longer am I assailed by their voices echoing off the water and the cliffs. I’m having a go at fishing by handline with a large hook and small sinker. Not a simple task from a wobbly kayak.
Catching fish is easy. Catfish. Only they have three huge spines, one of the dorsal fin and one each on the lateral fin behind the head. Whilst not poisonous per se they can inflict a nasty wound that hurts for hours afterwards.
I land a large two kilogramme catfish. It takes quite a bit of manoeuvring to bring it in the kayak, and to kill it. It’s made of armour. Am sure Giger drew inspiration for his design of the alien in the Alien-movies franchise. The only place to put it is in the kayak in the tiny space between my legs where it thrashes around and I watch in horror as them spines whizz past my exposed legs with millimetres to spare. They are slimy too, making it hard to hold.
Learning from experience I begin a catch and release program.
In a large open area of the river I hook a small one and are bringing it in when it suddenly becomes a very large one. My kayak gets pulled around in all manner of different directions. It goes under the kayak which tilts alarmingly and I must release line or be tipped over. For twenty minutes I’m pulled in one direct then another then spun around pulled backwards then forwards and each time I recover some line I must release it again as it the fish dives deep fast and powerful.
Eventually I lodge the kayak deep in the pervasive reeds which line the river and prepare for battle. Shortly after whatever it is lets go and I pull in a small well beaten catfish, its fins destroyed, its skin marked and its mouth bloody.
No idea what got it: larger catfish, large barramundi, crocodile? All are possible. I doubt the crocodile though because there are no puncture marks in the hapless fish.
Once through the gorges and deep V-form cliffs the river broadens significantly and the flow decreases. Cooliman Camp, our first, turns up, hidden deep among large trees. The camp is well appointed with fireplace and firewood, a shower toilet gas cooker and BBQ, and platforms upon which to set up the mozzy-domes in which we shall sleep. Everyone is tired after using our arms to move our weight and luggage twenty-three kilometres.
Following advice from Clem I wrap the catfish’s fillets in alfoil with some black-pepper, lemon and olive oil and place in to the plate above the fire. It takes ages to cook as the fillets are nice and fat. So long in fact that I fall asleep and don’t even eat any. The women enjoyed it apparently.
Saturday 13 August 16
Day Two I don’t spend any time in the company of the women although I see them at a distance every now and then. I check out various small creeks and tributaries and walk along one until I get to Herman’s Hideaway. A small pool surrounded by cliffs 65 m high.
There are numerous lagoons hidden behind walls of reeds which I paddle into. Some are dead-ends. I must back track for it is impossible to force a way through the reeds. Birds are in abundance and are not particularly fazed by a primate in a kayak paddling past them enabling me to get really close.
There are crocodiles too. Johnson or Freshwater Crocodiles. Although they reach three meters they are not considered dangerous to people. Most disappear in a swirl of water before I get a clear view of them. Others are just a pair of eyes and nostrils poking out of the water keeping a wary eye on me before disappearing beneath the surface. A small one is languishing on a mat or reeds and I pass it within arms’ reach. Even though my mind is going “Hey, that is a crocodile” it is so still it looks like porcelain. I turn around for another look and get within a metre before it races across the reed mat and dives into the safety of the water.
Fish are abundant too in the shallower water-plant rich areas. I can see them shooting off in different directions as I glide over the top of them.
White-breasted sea-eagles glide imposingly overhead. One stops in a tree enabling me to get some grainy photos of it.
It took me quite a while to work out how to take photos whilst perched in my wobbly kayak with a layer of water on the bottom and my hands permanently wet from water flowing down the paddle. Normal cameras and water do not mix. Although there was probably no real need to wear a life-vest I did for the entire trip reasoning should something go horribly, horribly wrong it should ensure that at least I should be OK. I place the camera in a water-proof bag (OK, full disclosure: water repellent as a year in a pannier has resulted in a tiny hole or two) which I then clip to the life-vest. In order to take a photo I stop the kayak facing what I want to photo, dry my hands as best I can remove the camera then struggle to re-orientate the kayak back into position since it seems to have a life of its own and drifts all over the place, then snap away.
Camp Two is Stonewall Creek Camp but nine kilometres from Cooliman Camp. Now, I may have gained quite a bit of confidence in my kayak handling skills but getting in and out of it remains a challenge. I need a firm surface some twenty centimetres under the kayak in order to put both feet down whilst I stabilise the kayak with my hands and gingerly lift myself out.
Only the jetty at Stonewall Creek Camp sits atop deep water, well deeper than the length of the paddle. Oh Boy.
Nothing for it. Am going to have to somehow levitate myself out of the kayak and onto the jetty without any support from a firm bottom. If I am going to tip over it shall be here.
One hand on the centre of the kayak just behind the cockpit, another on the jetty, left leg draped over the river side of the kayak, right foot on the jetty. Lift. A wobble or two but I manage to shift my butt from the cockpit to the jetty and nothing ends up in the water. Goed gedaan, JWD! I am relieved.
The women join sometime later but I crash pretty early and leave them to their evening.
Sunday 14 August 16
Brent, Our Man of Knowledge told us “Day one is pretty easy, the current will carry you along (skipping the deadly risk of raging rapids). Day two is really easy, just nine kilometres. It is your sight-seeing and explore day. Day three you should have a tailwind to help you along”. Which is good given we’ve a 23 km paddle on a wide placid river to Kununurra from Stillwater Camp.
Setting off early in the morning it’s pretty clear that cyclists have a totally different definition of ‘tailwind’ from kayakers coz, unless I am sorely mistaken, that is a wind coming straight at me, at my head as in a headwind. And it is not a mild one either. The river is choppy and waves break over the bow of my kayak bathing me in bow-spit.
I take on a creek hidden from the main river by dense foliage much of which has large sharp hooks along the length of their leaves. It doesn’t go far and shortly after I’m back battling the wind.
Predictably my all-important fluorescent yellow sun-protection headgear gets caught by the wind and flies off my head. No matter how much I try I can’t control the kayak enough to turn it around and reach my headgear before it sinks mournfully below the waves. And I can’t simply dive out of the kayak and retrieve it. I swear and curse my frustration but it disappears nonetheless. Fuck!
The river is several hundred meters wide here and I power across to the eastern side seeking the wind break of the trees and plants along the shore.
I need a piss and could do with a break to eat something. Walls of thick vegetation means finding a place is tricky. Hugging the vegetation I can see the bank through a thin wall of reeds. Forcing my way through I find the perfect place to disembark, with a rocky base just under the kayak. I’ve done just over nine kilometres and are averaging five kilometres per hour. I realise I’ve about three hours paddling and don’t have to bust my balls to make it to Kununurra.
An hour later I’m back on the water. Since it’s a Sunday boat traffic has picked up. Along with wind-swell I’ve also got to contend with boats flying past and the swell they create. I wish among the smiles, waving of hands and photos that they’d also slow down a bit in consideration but they don’t. By now I’m feeling very confident in my little Green Kayak. It doesn’t wobble anymore and the tilts and rolling no longer send shivers of dread down my spine. I’m getting the hang of this.
Civilisation starts to turn up, the vegetation cleared for property owners to get access to the river. Pumps and boat, BBQs and kids’ play things strewn around. Farms and large tracks of cleared land.
Opposite the large pump station for the Ord River Irrigation Scheme is a boat ramp – OK a dirt track which leads to the water – where I stop for lunch. I’ve eight kilometres to go.
A dull roar incessantly gets louder until a flurry of teenage boys arrive on small motor-cross bikes and a quad. And one brave soul on a bicycle. They hang around, take a swim and throw stones at a buoy in the water which they are spectacularly poor at hitting, making me despair for their cricket coach.
Then they depart, roaring off in cloud of noise and much dust. Except the poor kid on the bicycle. I feel like consoling him by telling him I think he’s the koolest coz it is a brave soul who tries to be part of a motor-based gang with a bicycle. But I don’t and watch him negotiate the steep little hill leading away from the boat-ramp engulfed by the dust from the others.
The women finally catch-up and we share a moan about the headwind as they paddle past. They plan to call it quits at the Zebra Rock Gallery about six kilometres short of Kununurra. If I think the headwind is a bitch in a low streamlined kayak they will have a far harder time of in their bulkier canoes. I can understand why they’d quite earlier.
Back on the water I swiftly catch up with them as we try to work out exactly where the Zebra Rock Gallery is. I paddle on and paddle straight past the Zebra Rock Gallery’s jetty according to a family splashing in the water. Bummer, but I am not backtracking and keep going past the imposing Elephant Rock outcrops. I continue to explore what creeks lie to one side or another but there aren’t many.
By three o’clock I’m working my way along Lily Creek and into Lily Creek Lagoon at Kununurra where the boat ramp lies, my final destination.
Forty-five minutes later Brent picks me up. In the meantime I’ve been entertained by a gaggle of kids splashing in the water at the boat ramp and countless kites skimming the surface picking unidentifiable things from the water.
I’m hooked! I like kayaking. Given that The Plan is to return to Sweden and settle around Kiruna where there are countless rivers and lakes to explore I figure it’s worth the risk of acquiring the equipment necessary to continue to master kayaking this time in Scandinavia.
Back at the Youth Hostel my waiting game continues.
Australia Post’s Express Post service has caught me again. The packet I am awaiting from Melbourne, sent by express post on the 9th August has not arrived. It should take but four days. Well over a week later there’s no sign of it. The tracking number provided by Ortlieb’s Austalian distributer Diggari isn’t even in the system, which can’t be good. All I can do according to Kununurra’s Post Office is lodge a complaint. Great! But it won’t get me my clips. The clips or, more precisely, the non-clips are hardly a show stopper but they are dead handy for keeping my Ortlieb panniers well-closed. Spare clips from camping shops are not compatible with Ortlieb’s system which I why I am awaiting spares from Diggari rather than buy replacements from camping shops here in Kununurra.
Nick approaches me Monday evening “You have a job tomorrow! A couple of hours. With that older German guy”. “Really?” I answer. “Doing anything in particular?” “Loading old tires into a container. Shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours. You get one hundred bucks. Whether it takes you two hours or all day, you get a hundred bucks”
Tuesday morning 0630 Karsten, who is actually one year younger than I, and I wander down to the Bridgestone depot where Tony shows us a yard full of tires ranging from immense tractor to tiny motor-cycle tires. “Only the car and truck tires” we are instructed. A fork-lift truck is at our disposal. Last I drove a fork-lift was in 1981. Karsten however reckons he knows how. Division of labour sorted I climb on the long trailer and he starts bringing me tires.
Two and half hours later I, we, are thoroughly dirty, the yard a little bit empty, the trailer full and we both 100$ richer. T’was kinda fun to throw tires around. Mind you the larger truck tires were fucking heavy and needed both of us to stack in a pile.
Back to the post office, after a shower of course. No package. Back to the YHA. Back to waiting. Back to wondering the best course of action.
Wednesday 17 August
I had hoped to leave today. I’ll hang around till Saturday and leave regardless. The Post Office hands me a packet. Eagerly I open it. Spokes from Santos Bikes in Nieuwe Vennep. Let me get this straight, a parcel sent snail-mail makes its way from the other side of the world to Halls Creek in less time than express post from Melbourne? Hmmm …
I spend the afternoon doing bike maintenance things. Replace the weaker spoke Biker’s Best provided with the sturdier one from Santos Bikes, de-wobble the wheel, applying judicious use of a tie-wrap/cable-tie to better secure Zi-Biddi’s flag, re-align the Mighty Magura brakes, wander down to Mitre 10 (hardware shop) and get a short M5 hexagonal screw to replace the inadequate screw on one of Zi-Biddi’s coupling arms (damaged by a termite mound north of Mulan), source replacement headgear which proved more a challenge than I thought, and generally go over everything. All I need now are my clips.
Thursday 18 August
Diggari, Ortlieb’s distributor in Australia send me a photo of the trace and tracking number label. The post office worker takes all of 0.5 seconds to recognise that far from being express post, my parcel is snail-mailing its way to Halls Creek. “Earliest it could be here is four pm Friday. Latest by four pm Tuesday”.
Back to the YHA, back to Nick and tell him I may need a bed until Wednesday next week!
Friday 19 August
The YHA is full of seasonal workers contributing to the Australian economy by working jobs few Australian’s would ever dare consider: pruning Sandalwood trees and picking melons the two top occupations.
One such worker is Ante. A tall powerful man with a propensity to wander around shirtless with his boardshorts only just high enough to avoid be arrested for indecent exposure. I doubt there’s a gram of fat on him and his huge shoulders are quite imposing. Upon first meeting him I was, frankly, intimidated. His face is large and brooding with a stern look. His voice rumbles up from caverns and grottoes deep in his chest and throat, the words falling out slowly and hesitantly with an accent and tone which would honour any Death or Thrash Metal lead singer. He gives off the impression of vast amounts of kinetic energy just, just barely contained. And his hands are several dinner plates glued together. A Croat born on his grandfather’s vineyard he’s been working the land all his life.
First impressions suck. He’s a charming and very charismatic man. The stern brooding look vapourises into a massive smile as his eyes squint into easy laughter. Everyone loves Ante and if he’s got a nasty bone in his body no one has any tales of it. He is also a young and somewhat reckless man. His world is drink, food, smokes, drugs, music, parties. Work hard play hard.
A lifetime of hard work (he’s only 28) made him supervisor of a sandalwood pruning team. Each day he drives his team out to the fields, sometimes an hour’s drive away, and cuts more trees than the next three best pruners combined. The company is happy to keep him there.
Big mistake. Ante has a Masters in Horticulture and has more experience and education than most of the people above him in the company he works for. It’s not that he’s frustrated by being ‘only’ a pruner and the company’s best one by a L A R G E margin, and not given the opportunity for more serious tasks, it’s that they have failed to keep their promises. Not only is his salary 10% less than they promised before he made his way up to Kununurra, every week several hours of work are missing from his paycheck. And frankly, after three months of not being able to resolve this, he’s had enough.
Today he quit. I had hoped to complete some bureaucracy today. You know, update Facebook, write emails, complete this post. Ante is hard to ignore at the best of times and whatever I thought I may want to accomplish this afternoon evaporated the moment he plonked a full case of Coopers Indian Pale Ale on the table, sat down arms raised well above his head and shouted “I QUIT” with that smile showing what he felt about it.
The entire YHA gets involved mostly coz all the other people who work for the same company are now severely traumatised. What the fuck are they gonna do without Ante! The table expands to several, case one becomes case two, I chip in a bottle of vodka, sobriety becomes a very scarce commodity as collective lamentations flow in abundance. Everyone understands why he quits, no-one wants him to and even fewer want him to leave. Ante is heading to Perth and the fear is he won’t return.
Saturday 20 August
I have no idea what time I crashed last night. People tell me tales of things we were talking about, about which I have no memory. Ante’s face is creased up in a smile not possible on a person who’s not under the influence of one of a myriad of mind-altering substances. He does not look drunk.
Upon awaking early Ante had a tablet of acid for breakfast. Looking at the other young guys I get the feeling he’s not the only one either.
A headache follows me as I head towards the Post Office.
The parcel from Ortliebs has arrived! Overjoyed, albeit in a sort of subdued head-pained way, I return to the YHA haul out one of the panniers release the clips from their packets and set about putting them on the webbing.
The clip seamlessly smoothly flawlessly couples with the female housing. Next I look to remove the broken male clip and replace it. The replacement clip has an arm at its rear which can be opened. It does not, however, have two arms enabling the webbing to be threaded through enabling tension to be applied. My new clips are the perfect size and the wrong shape. I have waited two weeks for parts that will not solve the problem I face. It is the second time I’ve suffered such a setback from Diggari. You’d think I’d learn wouldn’t you. Back to square one.
Fortunately Diggari thought to send me two strips of webbing with bog-standard clips attached to them. Looks like they are cannibalised from panniers no longer needed. I cut the stitching which ensures the clips can’t inadvertently fall off (I’ve never experienced this problem with any clip on any bag so am not really sure why manufacturers actually do this), remove the clips, repeat the process on the webbing on the panniers, slide the clips on and re-stitch them.
My omnipresent headache makes this slow methodical work conducted with grim determination. But I do it.
The pool is humming with noise and music. The Boys + the odd girl and getting right into that Saturday-After-I-Quit mood, in support of Ante. Who’s now had a second tab of acid for lunch.
However, I now have to deal with my new fluorescent sun-protection head-gear. It’s a hat-thing with a large safari skirt which shall protect my ears, neck and upper shoulders. But I wear a helmet. If I put the hat on I can’t clip the helmet. Wearing a hat on AND a helmet will stew my head very nicely.
It also has two large flaps which can be closed around the face to protect the front of my neck and face. Great idea but not particularly when riding a bike. They godda go. I also would like to remove the material from the top of the hat to allow better air circulation and cooling. Then there are a weird array of Velcro patches and straps, to allow the user to reign in the various flapping bits of material which make up the skirt. Experience has shown me that these bits hang up on pretty much everything and become a pain.
I contact Floss who does clothing alterations. We discuss what I need. When I get it back all she’s managed to accomplish is removing the frontal flaps and cutting a couple of slits rather inelegantly in the side flaps so I can poke my helmet straps through them. The top piece of material she didn’t remove as she reckoned it’ll ruin it.
So I sat down along with my headache and methodically unpicked all the Velcro bits, the retaining strap and the pieces of material which covered netted areas. Not sure why the designers put some netting on the hat then covered it with material. I contemplate cutting away the top material but think I’ll road-test it first to make sure I actually know which bits really need removing.
Defeated by sustained concentration whilst a team of malicious hammer and chisel wielding maniacs ensure my headache remains in full force, I head for a snooze.
It’s just shy of six by the time I re-emerge. The pool party has ramped up several notches. Ante had two tabs of acid for dinner. And it shows. Most of the boys are now well beyond acts of simple communication. I’ve yet to have a beer and pop two aspirin to kill them hammer and chisel dudes.
I buy a bottle of wine and a six pack of Coopers Vintage.
I cook fried rice with shiitake mushrooms and prawns on the BBQ. Ferocious carnivores turn up, a Pavlovian response to the BBQ being fired up. BBQs mean meat, hopefully lots of it. Then they encounter my paltry tray of food with the luscious green of the Pak Soi dominating. “Where’s the meat?” asks one hopefully. “No meat” I laugh. They stare at my ingredients trying to work out what it all means. LSD and food stuffs they’ve never encountered before defeat them and they return to the party.
It is impossible to not be part of the party, a cloud of good-spirited noise floats around the courtyard. I do though have to choose which party. The pool party is dominated by seriously stoned high and drunk men + the odd woman from Europe. The terrace group is dominated by Japanese each with white wine in front of them which they are drinking straight from the bottle. My Japanese is worse than my bad English so I join the pool party with a glass of wine which I nurse carefully not wanting to provide any excuse for them hammer and chisel dudes to return to my head.
It’s all lighthearted and quite mild. The music isn’t too loud coming from a small bluetooth speaker. Some people are in the pool chilling, others prostrate on deckchairs as the acid turns each into a jellyfish.
Until Ante turns up. Ante, who is also the YHA night manager, whose job it is to keep the natural boisterousness of hard working young backpackers within a range of acceptability. Right, so much for theory.
Them tabs have taken their toll, modified over time by the relentless consumption of beer. He does one of his signature forward roles into the pool. Ante is a big man. A big man entering a small pool in a heavy way creates a LOT of noise and water.
Within seconds everyone around the pool has either jumped in it or been thrown in. Except me and a wasted French guy who raises his hands and goes “No no no no no no no … ” which oddly they respect. Me they just leave alone.
Victims around the pool exhausted they head out to the terrace grab some Japanese guy who doesn’t really resist being thrown in.
The Japanese think this is a Great Idea. Within seconds the whole Japanese contingent is in the water and teams fan out to track down the last remaining one.
The pool is now full, laughter echoes all over the place. The remaining French dude is between me and the pool. Fuck it! I think. Time to join in, grab the French guy and we’re both in the water.
Well, the rules state that the pool shall not be used after sunset. The night manager’s role is to ensure the rules are respected. Only I am a meter away from the night manager in the pool.
When I notice a small black object sail majestically over my head, music emanating from it until it hits the water. And I’m thinking “This is a game changer” when the nasal voice of the highly irate Hostel manager screeches in outrage at the debauchery and careless abandonment of ALL rules …
She looks me right in the eye and snaps “Your older! I expect you to know better!” before racing off to round everyone up and make sure The Party Stops RIGHT NOW!
The poor Japanese are terrified. The stoned Europeans can’t seem to give a shit. I head to bed.
Sunday 21 August 2016
I awake at a reasonable time, no nasty headache-makers at work, and head down stairs to the courtyard. The core of the European group is around. They have yet to go to bed. Ante has not only been fired from his role as Night Manager, he’s also been kicked out of the hostel. Lisa, the fiery manager, told Nick the day manager that she couldn’t really ignore the fact that the “night manager was in the thick of it all”. Ante already has a ticket booked to Perth for Monday. “If I’d known I would have driven to Perth and never come back” his smile never shrinking.
I’ll see how I go at final preparations tomorrow. Feel good and I leave Tuesday. Feel for one more night and I leave Wednesday. But I will leave. I hope …
Kununurra, still, forever always … 21 Aug. 16