The road from Winton to Cloncurry streaks North-South through the landscape, straight and flat across plains of dry grass. Another hot, blue-sky day in western Queensland; I wound Beastie up and we shot through.
There’s not much on the way. I didn’t really need fuel; Beastie will go at least 500km between drinks but I won’t. I stopped for some shade under the awning of the roadhouse at Kynuna.
That’s where I ran into David and Dave. David was roadtripping to Darwin to work for the Chief Minister, and Dave was along for the ride. (I wondered how long David would last in Darwin before he became a Dave, too.)
Now, my next stop is East Timor, and it turned out that Dave had previously spent some time herding dairy cows over there. As you do. We got out the map and started dropping pins on places I should visit.
So the story was that Dave’s father had sent some dairy cows to Timor as part of an aid project, and when the cows failed to thrive, Dave was sent too. By Dave’s own account, the dairy cows didn’t do much better under his encouragement, but he did send me down the road with a few recommendations and some hilarious stories about the old Catholic priest in Timor who’d hated his guts.
Later, I received an email from David saying that he was now set up in the Territory if I needed somewhere to crash when I got to town. What a legend.
By the time I made Cloncurry the heat was getting to me, so I went to the visitor’s centre and stood under a sprinkler. I was also about to ride off the top edge of my map of outback Queensland, but the information lady hooked me up some free cartography of the Gulf country. She reckoned I’d make Burke and Wills Roadhouse easily that day, and maybe just scrape into Gregory before the sun went down.
I got back on the skinny blacktop and headed North, through country that was suddenly full of long, thin wire grass and ant hills. I sweated for an hour or so before Burke and Wills came into view. I fueled up and noticed Beastie’s oil level was slightly low. Oil is cheap and engines are expensive, so I went inside and asked if someone would help me out for thirty seconds by holding the bike straight upright while I topped up the oil. It’s just easier than dropping a fully-loaded bike on your head at the end of a long hot day because you’re trying to stick your head down near the oil window and hold the bike up with one hand. Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve since gotten better at that particular balancing trick and can now check my oil one-handed like a ninja, which is great, because nobody wanted to help me that day. The woman behind the counter looked at me like I had three heads.
Eventually a young backpacker came out and gave me a hand, but she wasn’t exactly cheery about it. I decided that I wouldn’t be staying at Burke & Wills that night.
This may or may not have been a good move, as the sun was not terribly high in the sky anymore. I reckoned I had enough daylight to get to Gregory if I sat on on 100km/h. Theoretically fine – it was a sealed road – but in reality, this was a sealed road in the Gulf. It was skinny and bumpy and snaked through dryish swamps and over rivers and the wallabies were already starting to come out to play.
Forty kilometres out of Gregory, I ran out of day. I knew it was time to camp up, but I was too scared: I was getting into crocodile country. The land was flat and low lying, making it hard to see where the swamps and watercourses lay. Accidentally camping within crocodile distance of a watercourse in the gathering dusk was not a mistake that I was willing to make.
People often say to me, aren’t you scared? And the answer is yes, all the time, of all sorts of different things.
For example, I am scared of a bad death. Being violently killed by a creature that really hasn’t gotten over its dinosaur stage ranks very high in my imaginings of a bad death. Saltwater crocodiles scare the life out of me.
So I didn’t stop and camp by the roadside; I kept going in the gathering dusk, hoping to see the lights of Gregory appear over every rise. It seemed like the longest forty kilometres I’d ridden. As I dodged the wallabies I knew I was courting disaster, tempting fate with an open hand.
I was still looking for the lights of Gregory when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Something living was very close to me. Time slowed down as a massive Brahman cow stepped out of the long grass and into my path.
Grey Brahman in grey-pink dusk: the heifer matched beautifully with the landscape, like a haystack in a Monet. Her shoulders were almost level with mine; I braked, moved to left, held my breath, felt her breathe; she pivoted slightly to face down the road and I brushed past her.
My finger tips were still tingling when I rolled into Gregory: servo, pub, a couple of houses. It took me several minutes to undo my helmet and remove my gloves.
I went into the pub to ask where I might be able to free camp nearby, and whether it would be safe enough to do that. This is a question that I always try to ask a local before I camp; some places have problems with grog, some places have problems with property crime, some places have groups of young people who like to run amok down by the river at night. Most don’t. But if you’ve never been to a particular town, you won’t know, so I always try to make enquiries. Usually this results in a recommendation of a good camping spot and other useful information, but – hot on the heels of my warm welcome at Burke & Wills – it seemed I wasn’t having a good run with middle aged women that day.
The publican was sitting on the front verandah drinking wine, and she was none too pleased when my enquiry was relayed to her by the well-meaning Irish girl behind the bar.
“She can pay for the caravan park or she can sleep down by the river with the rest of them!” she said.
Owner of the caravan park, perhaps?
She did not wish me well. She would not tell me if I’d be safe or not.
As I crossed the bridge on the edge of town I could see campfires flickering on the sandbar in the river bed below. No crocodiles here, then.
There were a few caravans camped on the sandbar under the bridge, and a bunch of local Aboriginal people with cars and tents and a big fire.
It was too dark to see the texture of the sand properly, and I was tired: I knew if I rode into a soft spot this evening, it would probably end horizontally for Beastie and I. So I scouted a patch of firm sand close by and set up camp between the caravans and the locals.
As darkness fell, the people in caravans suddenly packed up and left.