ON A MISSION
The first rays of sun peeped over the horizon. Dad woke us as he attacked the pot of porridge, beating the oats and water into submission. When we refused to rise, he stomped around the campsite. There was no choice but to get up and line up for breakfast.
Dad dumped the sloppy oats on our metal plates and then darted around the site as if still charged by hyperactivity from the night before.
Mr. B had a sour expression on his face as he sipped his porridge. He finished a mouthful and then remarked, ‘I dare say, ol’ chap, what’s all this running around?’
‘I want us to get to Ernabella today,’ Dad said.
‘Can’t we just take it easy? I’m still adjusting to the inferior sleeping arrangements.’ Mr. B massaged his back as if emphasising the pains that he endured.
‘We only have two and a half weeks and a full schedule,’ Dad replied. ‘We have to keep moving if we want to fit everything in.’
‘I mean to say, when you invited us on this camp, I didn’t think it’d be a boot camp.’
Dad ignored Mr. B’s comment and continued to collect the plates and utensils on the tarpaulin.
With Dad’s urging, we packed up, piled into the Rover and then flew out onto the bumpy road by 7.20am. In that part of the outback of South Australia, all roads seemed unsealed and just wide ruts in the red sand.
As we approached Oodnadatta, Dad said, ‘I think we’ll get petrol here. It’s a long way still to Ernabella, and then when we go to Mt. Woodroffe, so we need supplies. We don’t know if we can get petrol at Ernabella or how much it’ll cost.’
We rolled into Oodnadatta, a town where its handful of houses and the hotel lined the main road. Dad parked the Rover by the petrol pumps near the hotel where we climbed out of our vehicle’s comfort zone and into the heat. I blew my nose. Red dirt stained my handkerchief. I stretched my legs that ached from sitting cramped in the back of the Rover.
While Dad pumped petrol into the tanks, Richard and I walked across the road. The few people we saw loitered in the shade. An emaciated dog sauntered out of the bushes.
‘I really feel like we’re out in the desert here,’ I said.
‘Yeah, the people look exhausted,’ Richard said.
Dad yelled, ‘We’re ready to go!’
‘Can’t we get a drink?’ Richard asked.
‘It’ll be dear, here,’ Dad said. ‘We have cordial.’
As Dad, Richard and I sipped cordial from our plastic cups, Mr. B and his son stepped out from the hotel. They each clutched a can of soft drink. They slurped their drinks with relish.
‘I finalised the bill,’ Mr. B said.
‘Thank you,’ Dad replied.
Again we raced along the highway boldly going where too many trucks had gone before. The graded road was a sea of corrugations. As we travelled along the road at high speed, our Land Rover juddered over the sand waves. Dad was on a mission to reach Ernabella and not even corrugations on the unsurfaced road were going to get in his way.
We paused at Indulkana, an Indigenous settlement, where we topped up the tank with petrol from one of the Gerry cans.
‘Only fifty miles or so to go to Ernabella,’ Dad sniffed the air and said. He could smell his Holy Grail, and he was bent on reaching his destination.
Mr. B spread out the map on the bonnet of the Rover. He adjusted his glasses on his nose and then pointed at Indulkana. ‘Are you sure it’s only fifty miles, David?’
Dad cleared his throat and then glanced at the map. ‘Er, um, I think so.’
‘It looks a damn lot further to me. Are you sure we’ll get there? I mean to say, it’s past one o’clock and we still have to have lunch.’
‘We’ll eat when we get there.’
‘Really.’ Mr. B gazed at the fibro houses scattered like abandoned blocks in the red landscape. ‘Damn! No place to shop in this shanty town.’
I gazed at the mirage shimmering, reflecting the khaki bushes on the horizon of ochre. This tiny Indigenous settlement seemed more heat-affected and miserable than Oodnadatta. A dingo skulked across the road in search of shade. The town seemed empty—except for the flies.
I swished several of the pests from my eyes and searched for a toilet block. We had stopped, so I considered it timely to make a comfort stop. ‘Where’s the loos?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Dad said.
As far as we could see, public toilets didn’t exist in Indulkana.
A kangaroo hopped through the spinifex. Richard grabbed his rifle and aimed.
‘Hoy,’ Dad said, ‘stop! You can’t be shooting so close to the town.’
Richard lowered his gun.
‘I say,’ Mr. B said. ‘Why don’t we go down the road a bit. We can find a few accommodating bushes for our business and the boys can do a spot of shooting. Besides, we need a break and some lunch.’
Dad sighed. ‘Very well, then.’
We piled back into the Rover and trundled several miles down the road where some trees and bushes were clumped close to the road. We all made use of the improvised “bush” facilities. Then Dad pulled out the tucker box and made a simple lunch of peanut butter sandwiches.
‘Do you want to have a go shooting?’ Richard asked me.
‘Okay,’ I replied.
My brother handed me the .22 rifle and we walked into the scrub.
Dad called after us. ‘Shoot away from the Rover, we don’t want anyone getting hurt.’
‘What do I shoot?’ I asked Richard.
‘Rabbits. Kangaroos. Birds.’
I looked at the lemon-coloured grasses dotting the red sands. ‘Where are they?’
Matt aimed his rifle at a stump of a mulga tree. A galah had settled there. But not for long. Matt pulled the trigger and at the sound of the bullet hitting the sand, the bird fluttered into the air.
Some white cockatoos decorated the skeleton of a dead tree. I aimed and pulled the trigger. ‘Bang!’ The butt hit my shoulder and knocked me to the ground. ‘Ouch!’ I cried.
The flock of parrots squawked and scattered.
‘I wasn’t expecting that to happen,’ I said rubbing my bottom.
Richard grabbed the rifle off me. ‘Watch where you point that thing.’
Richard and Matt stalked further into the scrub in search of more shooting prey. I was glad my hunting time was over as it was not as much fun as I thought it would be. At least no one was hurt.
As a consequence of the break and the lads’ fruitless hunting foray, night caught up with us. We camped near Mimili. A hill close by served as adventure for us young ones in this otherwise flat desert. I climbed the small rise and explored, while the boys went shooting as usual. The hill was little more than an outcrop of rocks and something of a smaller version of Uluru. From the top, I scanned the terrain. The setting sun’s rays caused the grasses in the plain to sparkle like gold glitter and a cool breeze hinted at the freezing night ahead. I climbed down from my vantage point and ambled back to camp. As darkness descended upon us and stars flooded the night sky, the boys returned empty-handed, except for their rifles.
While Dad stirred a billy can of stew, Mr. B warmed his idle hands by the fire and his mouth busy whining at the prospect of sleeping on a bed of stones.
Dad tapped the wooden spoon on the edge of the billy can and said, ‘We are camping in the desert, aboriginal style. What we do is make up one fire for cooking, and then have our individual fires.’
So in the nights to follow on our camping trip, although we all had blow-up mattresses and cotton sleeping bags, we still hunted for the softer ground, and prepared it for the bedding by clearing the area of rocks. Each of us would scout around for sticks and logs in preparation for our personal fires. By bedtime our fires were crackling away, and we only woke from our slumber to poke the coals to keep the small flame going. Still, I slept fully clothed, as the clear nights were freezing.
But did this arrangement satisfy Mr. B? Apparently not. Every night he complained of his unsatisfactory sleeping arrangements. And his back, oh, the pain in his back. Oh, for a decent bed and a warm night’s sleep. And oh, the pain, oh, the discomfort! And then, just as he sank into a deep slumber, dawn broke with Dad clattering around the campsite preparing breakfast once again.
‘Why do we have to get up so early?’ Mr. B would ask each morning.
‘It’s my mission to get…somewhere,’ Dad would reply.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016
Photo from slide: The Road We Travelled—Musgrave Ranges © C.D. Trudinger 1981