Mary River Boys: Prelude
“Do you want to go on a Boys Weekend?” Scott pops the question less than a week after I’ve returned from the Darwin-Pine Creek ride. With Rhys? I’d met Rhys briefly in Darwin months before when he delivered the Beast to me at Dingo Moon. Seemed like a decent, perhaps even sensible guy. Sure, why not? It’s not like it’s gonna be a guns and alcohol weekend, unlike the Boys Weekends I’d endured long, long ago in the Wild 80s on the edges of the Great Sandy and Great Victoria Deserts, with, now that I think about it, not an insignificant number in the arid wildernesses of the Western and Central Goldfields areas in Western Australia. Back then it was inconceivable that alcohol and guns were not involved. It terrified me then and it would terrify me even more today.
But that seems a long way from what I know of Scott and his imminently sensible friend Rhys.
“Sure” I answer “I’d love to. At least there’s not going to be alcohol and guns involved” finishing with a laugh.
Scott laughs that mischievous laugh he reserves for moments when he knows something I don’t. “What?” “Rhys’ll be bringing his gun!” Oh Boy. “What kind of gun?” “A 22”. It’s not that a .22 calibre rifle is harmless or anything, but they are a lot less lethal than the meaty 33s or 308s or shotguns that were involved before.
Honestly I think about not going. I think seriously about not going …
Leinster, late 1982, on the edge of the Gibson Desert. A nickel mine, with a closed town built to support it. I was running supplies and dated one of five single women in a town of 1500 single men. The company actually banned me to liberate one more woman to the rapacious appetite of their workers. Before that we had men reach in through the window and hold the curtains aside so they could watch us. Another time I opened the door to the room to investigate a noise and found a huge man standing there with a balaclava on. Intimidating does not quite describe it. After months of harassment and sexual harassment we fled.
Before that I had a Boys Weekend, with alcohol and guns and large bore rifles and shotguns and I was very grateful that everyone actually came back alive and well and uninjured. Guns in one hand, beers in another, much arm waving and gesticulations, beer and guns going everywhere. I made a vow back then that I was not going to put myself through that again. If Australian Mateship and Masculinity demanded such displays and bravado, I will happily be emasculated.
But no matter how exuberant and shear nutty Scott can be he is a world away from those guys. And I’ve no doubt Rhys is too. This is not history repeating, so I relax and think Fuck It! am going to enjoy this, and tell Scott so.
The ostensible justification for the trip is to check out some old mine and prospecting areas, dating back to the halcyon days of yore when the Pine Creek Goldfields were in full swing and prospectors were scouring the region for anything of value. Rumours speak of gold, copper and uranium workings all over the place. Lost now, since Kakadu and Nitmuluk were declared National Parks.
170805 Mary River Boys Day I
Scott’s enormous 79 Series Landcruiser Dualcab is designed for such trips and now fully loaded including Tank the dog we rumble off aiming to meet Rhys with his Hilux at the Moline Mine Junction Road.
Rhys has spent a lot of time researching where we should go. Scott and Rhys have the secret language of Local Heroes, so whilst I understand the English words and know most of what they talk about involves place-names, not being a local means they could be talking about an inner suburb of Taipei for all I know. They know where they are going – more or less – and I’m along for the ride. The target, if you want to call it that, is the old Coronet Copper Mine.
There’s a few false starts, the odd bit of back-tracking but bit by bit we wind deeper and deeper into the wilderness on tracks becoming ever more indistinct.
It’s impossible to tell when the last vehicle drove these tracks. We are the first for a long, long time. Gulleys present a special risk and the battery cage slung under the rear of Rhys’ tray takes a hit. Scott and Rhys ooh and aah about it before concluding it’s not likely to fall off or otherwise compromise the battery’s purpose and function and we continue.
By now the track, whilst still visible, sort of, is little more than an indication where less vegetation grows compared to that alongside it.
The we come across the Mother of All Gulleys. Washed out during innumerable wetseasons the track is badly eroded with half simply washed away leaving an alarming potentially vehicle tipping drop.
A twin-cab Hilux, new, costs about 60 000A$ whilst a 79 series dualcab Landcruiser eases in around 70 000A$ for the base-model. On top of the purchase price the intrepid 4WDriver has to put all the extras needed to deal with Outback Oz. Think protective guards, winches, wider stronger tires, roof racks, roof-top tents (or not), various styles of creative body-works, extra-lights, recovery gear, long-range tanks, water tanks, and on and on and on …
Who in their right mind would spend in excess of a 100 000A$ on a vehicle then risk that investment in the most insane manner by humping over terrain better suited to a mountain bike?
Well, Scott and Rhys are two. Of thousands in Australia.
For that kind of money in Oude Europé the intrepid auto-enthusiast is looking at a Porsche 911, Jaguar F-Type, Mercedes S400, Tesla Model S Performance, Audi RS6, Maserati Quattroporte, BMW 650i, among many other thoroughbreds only the seriously wealthy bother to buy.
Scott’s Landcruiser was bought new (leased, to be precise). Rhys’ Hilux is second-hand. Still, a shit load of money being driven to the finer edge of its engineered capabilities.
I give ‘em their due, they are willing to put their vehicles where the designers say they are designed to go. It’s impressive to watch.
Brake out the spades and quite a bit of shovelling later Scott and Rhys figure it’s not going to work. Either we find a way around or it’s camp here or, more likely, back-track and find another route. Scott figures the drop a few meters away is doable. First goes the Landcruiser, with little problem. Rhys follows in his Hilux, also without a hitch and we continue.
Shortly after we come across unmistakable evidence of past mining activities: a five-stamp battery used long ago for crushing ore, made by Robey & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln, UK. Back in the day when Britain was a global leader in the industrial revolution. Bits of random equip equal in rust-red-brown as the battery dot the area. Rhys declares it to be the Coronet Battery and neither I nor Scott are going to contest him.
Given that the mine is still meant to be kilometres further it’s a bit of a mystery why the battery is here. Conventional wisdom puts them as close to the mine as possible to reduce transporting heavy ore. Did they, or someone, attempt to relocate the battery, then give up? Did they have an efficient transport system for the ore, perhaps narrow-gauge railway?
After a bit of musing and rubber-necking we drive on.
Eventually on a small plateau overlooking a delightful Little Mary River the track ends. This is croc-country but the Little Mary River is too little to host a large saltwater. It does however host a large terrapin which Rhys manages to get hold of. Quite a beast.
It takes but a few tentative wanders in directions hopefull but it’s clear there’s no way forward for man and beast. But there is for Boys. And dogs. Rhys breaks out the maps and he and Scott ooh and aah and point in vague directions sort of east-south-east-south, with a bit of west and north thrown in. Either way, we’re going that way.
Rhys takes out his rifle. “You never know” he says in sardonic style when I ask “What do you hope to shoot?” Here we go. We now have the ‘gun’ part of ‘guns and alcohol’. Unlike 1982 no alcohol has been drunk. We are all stone-cold sober. For which I am greatly grateful.
For the better part of the afternoon we wander into low rolling hills. It’s beautiful country, peaceful and easy on the eye. The spear grass isn’t too long and it’s also not too hot. Woeff, Rhys’ dog, and Tank, Scott’s are well behaved, and keep well with the group.
There’s a hint of an old road. Roads always have a purpose and no-one would have built one out here for no reason. I head up to a promising looking ridge whilst Scott and Rhys continue along the valley.
There’s clear copper alteration in the rocks and prospecting trenches. Following the ridge I come across a deep shaft. I call Scott and Rhys but they are already engrossed in their find of where the ore dug from the shaft ended up. Rhys comes up to check out what I’ve found but is distinctly nervous about getting too close to it. Tossing stones in and counting until we here it hit bottom, we calculate that it’s at least 30m deep.
Back to camp before darkness sets in.
Alcohol. No guns. And BBQ. Great food, produced by dudes who know how to do camping.
170806 Mary River Boys Day II
I find out more of The Plan. Being a non-driver places me in that ‘Needs to Know’ category. It is possible, apparently, to meander our way down towards the Stuart Highway or Pine Creek, or both. Enroute we take in more historic mining sites. No retreat, no surrender.
The tracks are more track-ish than vague impressions through vegetation. There’s more relics from mining days long gone.
An old Ingersoll Rand drilling rig left for reasons our visual autopsy fails to reveal. Imagine the driller … “Err, hey Boss, err, we’ve, we’ve kinda got a, y’know, bit of a problem” “Yeah, like wot?” “Err, they’ve, y’know, released exploration licences in the Timor Sea, and, urr, me and the boys, y’know, have, y’know, well … Hey! That’s my flight. Rig’s just south of Mary River. Godda gooooo …”
Or maybe it was the boss, somewhat incensed … “I don’t #¤%&ing CARE! Those mother&%*^½! can KISS MY A$$. Leave the ½§~¨^* where it is! There’s a new program near Kal! Get yer a$$ out of there!!!”
Either way, there’s an Ingersoll Rand rig abandoned for no particular reason south of Mary River.
Classic cars, random bits of equipment, diggings and prospecting trenches. All long ago and largely forgotten now. Except for people like Rhys who’ve a distinct interest in these legacies.
Along what must be an old railway line, with the tracks long gone, we come across a billabong which very likely is an old dam for some operation or other. Perhaps even water for the steam trains which ran along the abandoned railway.
Non of that matters though. There’s a huge water buffalo on the far bank. Even from a distance it looks impressive and oozes menace. Both Rhys and Scott chip in about the myths, legends and dangers water buffalo represent. How ever majestic they may be they are actually feral and highly destructive to native ecosystems. Regrettable as it may be, they need to be, well, exterminated.
“Well Rhys, here’s your chance. To save the environment. Cement your legend and have a lifetime supply of dogfood”
Funnily enough Rhys laughs his sardonic laugh and utters his usual cryptic “Yeah Nah” and lets the moment pass.
Eventually we come across another old mine, with a large dam and great camp spot. It’s that time of day, so we go about setting up camp.
The usual fire, the usual Scott overkill on Outback Camp skills, the usual – and very delightful – cold beer. It’s great.
Evening comes along and the night comes alive. And with it the sound of kangaroos. And frogs. Rhys’ ears pick up. He does have a rifle afterall. We’re going hunting. Alcohol has been drunk. It’s alcohol and guns …
My fears, drawn from trauma experienced decades ago, has abated. Scott claims to have taught Rhys everything he knows and to have sighted the scope on the 22. This should be fun.
After a bit of a wander it’s clear there’s no kangaroo for us to trouble. Approaching the pond we look for crocs, out of curiousity, not to shoot. We notice no red eyes in the water but we do notice a pair of luminescent eyes staring our way from the edge of the pond. A cat.
How ever much the buffalo may be a destructive feral animal, the cat is orders of magnitude worse. All of us would describe ourselves as nature lovers and none of us can come up with a reason why Rhys shouldn’t try to shoot it.
Headlamps trained upon the cat, Rhys prone of the ground taking aim, subdued strategy, tactic and support between Scott and Rhys. A sharp ‘pang’ and the eyes disappear.
It’s a young cat, exquisitely camouflaged. It’s also dead, felled by a clean shot.
I guess it’s about this time we finally realise there are literally thousands of cane toads littering the area. They are E V E R Y W H E R E.
Cane toads are The Stand Out Example of stupidity thinly disguised as science and cleverness. Another invasive species foolishly let free in Australia for foolish reason and by virtue of their reproductive skills, their adaptability and above all their toxicity they have come to not only dominate tropical Australia, they’ve done it by nearly wiping out all native predators.
If you think cats are bad, no one has anything redeeming to say about cane toads.
Perhaps it’s the alcohol we drank an hour ago. Or maybe it’s just that we all realise simultaneously that if we’re prepared to kill a cat, why not a toad.
Perched on top of a bank several metres above the pond, armed with headlamps and a .22 rifle we search for toads. There are dozens barely metres in front of us.
Rhys takes a shot. Misses. Tries another. Misses. “WTF” he mutters “I could swear I hit it” Scott and I are just as perplexed but it sure seems that he missed. That or the damned toads are a lot tougher than we give them credit for. They are known to being tough but not even a trace of discomfort after being hit by a .22 bullet? They just continue go about their business. Either he missed or they are damned tough.
Scott has a go. Same result. Scott and Rhys turn to me “You’ve godda have a go too”. Kkkkkaaayyy …
So I do. Peering myopically through the scope it’s hard to make out the toad. I blame my eyesight though it’s just as likely the scope is adjusted for Rhys’ eyes. But it’s not impossible and I get one smack in the middle. Squeeze, don’t pull. One pang later and the fucking toad is kool-as. Missed.
“We can’t all have missed”. Not sure who said it but whoever it was he was saying what we all are thinking.
“Time to try the hollow-nose then” concludes Rhys. Until now we’d been shooting with ‘soft’ cartridges. Solid ones. They cause much less damage than hollow-nose. Perhaps the hollow-nose will settle the missed or not missed question.
Rhys again. Pang, again. This time the toad flies metres into the air, to a collective “Whoa”. Scott has ago. More “Whoa”. I have ago. More, you got it, “Whoa”.
It solves the puzzle of earlier. Cane Toads are a lot tougher than we thought they were.
After that it does devolve into a toad-shoot-em-up-fest. No alcohol. But certainly gun. It may be true that we did not solve the cane-toad problem but at least we dented it in a small area.
170807 Mary River Boys Day III
By now the tracks are real tracks, clear, distinct, with the odd decent incline and decline but cause no trouble to either man nor beast.
It’s all pretty uneventful and, to give him his due, Rhys seems to know unerringly which of the many tracks we need to take.
More debris of historical mining activities dot the area, including a series of workings known as the Scotchman Shafts which we spend a few moments checking out.
Eventually we come across the obligatory gate informing The Public that they really shouldn’t be here. Vista Gold in this case has the right to seal off a chunk of Australia because their mine planning did not include rendering their site safe. again I think that Australia’s mining policies are missing an important and essential element.
Whatever mess Vista has left is going to be there for a long, long time. And even now their post-closure safety measure – a fence, a gate and some warning signs – are failing. For one, we came from the north and encountered no such warnings. For another, we didn’t even come across whatever mine Vista are warning us about. Which means that their safe-closure measures lock off a lot more area than the mine site they were responsible for – and I would say are still responsible for. How they get away with it mystifies me. The gate is still locked and sealed yet the intrepid have simply blazed a path around it.
Interestingly it means we have broken some rule or other, placing the burden on us, the Random Public. Not, as it should be, on the company which presumably made a tidy profit from their operations. The authorities go along with this, prioritising corporate profit over public interest.
In development parlance, it is a company (development)-centric approach, rather than a social- or community-development approach. The rights and benefits of the company are prioritised over the community, subsequently they have the right to walk away from a potentially dangerous site with little more than an inadequate and temporary chain-link fence, warning signs and a locked gate as a risk management strategy.
It would be a game-changer to shift the focus from corporate needs (and profit) to social welfare. The mining industry would, rightly, point out the extra cost involved in developing, operating and closing their operations safely and from the perspective of demonstrated and agreed benefits to the local community which has to endure the long-term impacts. But in changing the game’s rules, we all benefit, not just the shareholders. And enormous tracts of land won’t be closed off for indeterminate amounts of time. I mean, when will the warning signs be taken down, the locks, gates and fences removed and people be allowed access to these lands? In five years, ten, fifty? What time frame does the government and the companies have in mind?
Little wonder the mining sector has such difficulties in gaining public and in particular local community support, compromising land access and exasperating NIMBY-ism: Not In My Back Yard.
But we put that behind us as we come across the Mighty Stuart Highway, turn right – north – and make our way to Pine Creek, diesel and lunch under the large trees at the outdoor museum where we poke mild fun at the vaners and their lap-dogs which refuse to be adequately controlled once let out of their vehicles. A tiny bit of defiance in a bid for a dose of doggy delights.
After lunch Rhys points his Hilux north towards Darwin and Scott points his Landcruiser north-east towards Jabiru.
T’was a lot of fun, with the driving, exploring, guns and alcohol, and great company.