I camped up in the bed of the Gregory River sometime after sunset. A group of indigenous locals were camped a little bit upstream and I’d said hello to them earlier while I scouted a firm patch of sand for Beastie.
As darkness fell, clapped-out four wheel drives churned through the sand, up the hill, across the bridge and into town then back again, ferrying out more people to join the huge circle of chairs around the fire.
When I’d first arrived, there had also been two flash caravans camped nearby, on my downstream side. While I pitched my tent, they packed up in the dusk and left. A strange time to be moving camp, I thought.
I’d just about finished sorting out my camp when one of the four wheel drives stopped on its way back to the big fire. There were two women in it – a younger woman driving, and an older woman in the passenger seat. The older woman was evidently a respected elder; she seemed used to running the show.
She asked me where I was from, if I was just travelling around to see the country; yes, I said, just travelling around on my own. She welcomed me, and invited me to come and sit by their fire. She said that if I ‘had any trouble’, to come and see her.
It felt pretty special to be welcomed to a place like this by people who had been custodians of this land for millennia.
I accepted the invitation and went and joined them by the fire later on. It was quiet; there were perhaps thirty people sitting on chairs and stretchers around the fire. Some were talking, others were just sitting. There were half a dozen kids running around in the dark outside the light of the fire, but it wasn’t really that dark. Once your eyes adjusted, the starlight was bright.
I asked whether there were any crocodiles in the river. One of the women told me that there weren’t any in this section of the river, although there might be some downstream. She said, ‘When you get a bit further North, just make sure you only swim in pools where you can see the bottom.’
About this time, a white guy rolled up to the camp with his ute and a good sized motor boat on a trailer behind it. He greeted the others as old friends, pulled up a seat near the fire, offered me a beer. He’d already had a few himself.
He told me that he’d sort of grown up with this mob: when he was fourteen, down in the city, he he’d gotten into trouble so his mum had sent him up this way to work on one of the stations and keep out of trouble. He said the local indigenous community had looked out for him; they were good people. But then he told me that I was camped in a ‘bad spot’ and that some of the older kids were ‘trouble’: they would steal my stuff. He told me I should move my camp, like the people in the caravans had; I should follow him and camp further along the road to Burketown where there’d be no hassles, he knew a good place.
He made me uneasy. I declined: I said no, I couldn’t see well enough to ride at night. It was unsafe. I wouldn’t be moving my camp in the dark. He insisted; he said one of the older kids was ‘bad news’, that he’d been ‘in juvie’. He implied that they might somehow harm me.
He made me uneasy. The people around the fire didn’t. I declined again.
I honestly don’t know if he was actually concerned for my welfare at all, or purely trying to scare me and set himself up as a knight in shining armour in order to get into my pants.
On one hand, the kids were definitely curious about my bike and my gear, and they came around Beastie and asked me questions and turned all the switches on and off again. They played with the fasteners on the panniers, their hands were everywhere, touching gear, motorbike, tools, in tactile exploration. I think they might have had a snoop in my tent, because I found one of the zips undone. On the other hand, they took nothing. There were plenty of valuables sitting around my camp for light fingers to take, and nothing disappeared.
Then again, old mate – my self-appointed great white knight – made a point of standing over my camp and telling the kids, after a while, to bugger off.
Having been assured of the absence of crocodiles, I went for a swim later on, in the moonlight. The water of the Gregory River is fast flowing and warm and soft – surprisingly warm, much warmer than the night. You had to hold onto a rope to stop yourself from floating off downstream. It was paradise.
Old mate kept working his way through his case of beer over the course of the evening. He clearly thought I was alright, which was a compliment I suppose, but I wasn’t having any of it. ‘No funny business, okay?’ I told him, early on. I felt embarrassed about having to be so blunt about it, but there’s no room for misunderstandings on a dark night at a remote camp with a bloke who’s been drinking. Okay, he said.
After I came back from swimming, he grabbed my arse. That pissed me off. How clear do I need to be? ‘I’ve already told you!’ I said. ‘You can’t put your hand on my arse. Take your hand off my arse!’ He looked disappointed and said sorry, that he hadn’t realised he was doing it. A likely story.
Now, this is a classic catch-22 of the solo woman. You’re in a situation where you think someone might potentially pose a threat to you, but you also know that telling them unequivocally to fuck off (as I would dearly have liked to do) might escalate the situation. If the situation escalated and became confrontational, I didn’t like my chances: the guy was at least twice my size, probably three times my strength. I didn’t want it to get to a point where I would have to scream or reach for a weapon or otherwise make a dangerous scene leading to paperwork.
On the other hand, if I kept up a dialogue, then maybe he would not choose to offend or harm me. Sometimes your best strategy in a bad situation is keeping the guy convinced that your good opinion is worth having, that not offending you is in his interests. So I kept on being polite. After all, I’d rather not have to take steps to defend myself if it can possibly be avoided. (All that blood and paperwork, you know.)
Now I’m just going to pause for a moment and clarify, because there seems to be some confusion among certain members of my readership as to whether I was enjoying being sexually harassed by this bloke. The answer is no. If a woman’s already said ‘no’ to sexual advances, that is not merely a non-serious obstacle to be overcome through pressure and persistence. It’s not a game. Moreover, if further inappropriateness is met with politeness, that also doesn’t mean she likes it; it probably means that she thinks you might be dangerous.
I shouldn’t have to spell this out, and I shouldn’t have to physically defend myself either. I can if I have to, but nobody’s going to enjoy that.
Anyway, back to old mate. He said that he had been going to camp further down the road, but that he didn’t want to leave me camped there on my own in my ‘bad spot’. He pulled his car and boat right in beside my camp – two feet from my tent – in a sort of circling-the-wagons configuration.
He rolled out his swag on the rocky ground at the entrance to my tent. He propped himself up on his elbow and asked me if I would ‘like some company’.
No, I would not like some company.
I slept with my big knife.
* * *
In the morning, my camp and my person were unmolested. Old mate rolled his swag and took off up the road early, to try and catch a barra in the river on the way to Burketown. He invited me to catch up with him there for some fishing and some breakfast if I felt like it, and disappeared.
So. Another day, another white knight who acts like he’s being a nice guy by keeping me ‘safe’ whilst copping a feel; another great Australian male who warns me about the bad men overseas without any apparent sense of irony.
It was a sunny and beautiful day. I packed up, took one last look at the river and turned to go.
My motorbike wouldn’t start.