In the main street, standing beside Beastie in the midday sun. I’m looking for something in my pannier when a white ute pulls up beside me.
A man leans out the passenger-side window. “I’ve been following you,” he says.
“Well, that’s not creepy at all!” I say. I’m laughing, but I’m thinking, what the fuck? Who knows I’m here? Who have I pissed off?
I’m mentally cataloguing recent sins when I suddenly recognise the face. Joshua Johnson, fellow motorcyclist and intending overlander. He’s been following my misadventures since last year, when he got in touch to say that he was jealous that my overlanding plans were a few months ahead of his. Well, that was before either of us knew how slowly my travels would unfold.
“Joshua!” I say. “What’s going on!”
* * *
I already knew that Joshua was due to be putting his bike on the ferry from Darwin to East Timor, but I also knew that the rear wheel of his BMW R1200 GSA had dramatically disintegrated a few weeks ago, mid-ride. The bike was a write-off.
I’d been wondering what would happen next for Joshua, here was the answer: a mad dash to the East Coast for a replacement bike. The also-overlanding Stefan Kipp had parked up his KTM to share the driving, and they were on their way to Brisbane to pick up an almost-new Africa Twin. If all went to plan, it would be on the boat to Dili within a couple of weeks.
We stood in the main street and had a good chinwag. I loved the coincidence of running into a familiar stranger in the main street of a small country town thousands of kilometres from where either of us were expecting be.
By the time they hit the road again, the winter sun had burnt outlines of my singlet straps into my white shoulders.
I went back to the artesian hot springs that afternoon, and could feel the heat beginning to emerge in the burnt skin.
When the spa eventually closed at six o’clock, I was so relaxed that I was bordering on comatose. Time to find a camp spot, and do some more napping. I was considering going back out to the weir – a perfectly good free camp the previous night – but got talking again to the lovely local ladies working at the spa.
‘Oh, you should go to Fisherman’s Rest!’ One of them told me. ‘It’s so nice out there that we go and camp there all the time – and we live here!’
The other lady was a little bit hesitant – ‘Are you sure?’ She said. ‘You know, she’s on her own.’ It was Friday night and it seemed that Fisherman’s was a popular spot for locals to camp and perhaps let their hair down a little.
The first lady wasn’t worried though. ‘Oh, there’ll be a few people out there tonight, yes,’ she said, ‘But there’ll be good people.’
So I thanked them for the recommendation and headed out of town again, looking for the small sign pointing out to Fisherman’s Rest. Riding directly into the setting sun, and I missed the dull brown signage in the orange glare. By the time I’d done a u-turn and come back up the highway, the kangaroos were thick and it was almost dark.
I followed a gravel track across the paddock and down towards the river; it was a big tree-lined, mud-banked river that reminded me of the Murrumbidgee down south. The banks were steep and I could barely see in the gloom; my stock headlight is like a candle, romantic and atmospheric but not very useful.
So I didn’t venture too far along the river bank; just made for the first good flat-looking spot by the river. On one side of me, a local family was camped. The kids were running around and swinging off ropes in the river, and Dad was dinking each of them in turns on the front of an old dirt bike.
Camped on the other side – well, this mob looked like they were about to invade a small Balkan country. They had a Unimog – a massive six-wheel-drive offroading military vehicle – with a small shiny building on the back of the truck and another small shiny building on an articulated trailer behind it. The wheels were taller than me, and they dwarfed the two Landcruisers towing trailers with boats and quad bikes.
Well hello, I thought, these people are serious.
The ground was soft but dry so I put a paperback novel under my sidestand and set up my hobo tent quickly, before it got too dark. The dad from the family group came over and offered to light my camp fire for me, real quick: he had a 2-litre coke bottle full of what I assume was diesel, and a cigarette lighter. It was a very kind offer, but I declined. I was a little wary of igniting flammable liquids in the vicinity of my tent, so thought I’d go for a more conservative sticks-and-tinder approach in due course.
I hadn’t quite finished setting up camp one of the blokes came over from the seriously-equipped camp. They had a generator running, and old mate had come over to assure me that they’d turn it off by 10pm so it wouldn’t keep me awake all night. I thought that was very civilised of him.
I was back to setting up camp when another bloke wandered over to say hello. Grey haired and friendly, he introduced himself as Kevin and we had a good chat. He wanted to know where I was going – Paris, I said – he thought that was pretty interesting. He asked me if I had food sorted – yes, I said, I had some sort of preserved curry situation somewhere in my pannier – but he invited me over for something to eat anyway. Kevin found my female aloneness notable; he went to trouble to assure me, ‘You are safe here.’
It was kindly meant and I appreciated it. Once my camp was sorted, I wandered over and say hello – their fire was roaring and I wanted to know the story behind this group of very polite, wildly well-equipped gentlemen.
The answer was, fishing. This was one serious fishing expedition: starting near Sydney, they were headed all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria to catch some barramundi. In a couple of days they would be at the Northern edge of Australia, camped on the edge of a salt pan by a tidal creek, dodging the crocodiles and man-eating midges to haul home some of those magnificent white-fleshed fish.
I soon had a place by the fire and a glass of wine in hand.
It turned out that this annual fishing trip to the Gulf was a long-standing institution, firmly engineered each year by the quietly-spoken Ross. They were a group of nine middle-aged blokes, and degrees of fishing passion varied: Ross’ focus on the fish was unswerving, whereas Roy was there for the cigars and whiskey and Rod was there to cook.
I also got to check out the impressive set-up on the back of the truck. The first building was a fully-equipped air-conditioned galley, complete with espresso machine, freezers and a tastefully stocked liquor cabinet. The second building was an air-conditioned bunk house; apparently the character building appeal of heat, humidity and midges had worn off over the years.
The galley was Rod’s domain, and before I knew it he’d cooked me a steak with and olive and fetta salad. I couldn’t believe my luck. What could I contribute to the evening? I notice Roy smoking a sweet-smelling cigar and offered my last couple of Nicaraguans in honour of the evening; but my offer was declined and soon I was smoking the fine tobacco of my hosts. Slim cigars, with a sweet vanilla-flavoured wood filter; I’d never had anything like it.
So we settled into an evening around the fire, and I got to know a little about each of my new friends. The connections between them emerged slowly: some had been friends for decades, others had only recently met. All were married, all had interesting and illustrious life stories; most of them belonged to the same Baptist denomination. They were very kind to one another.
There was discussion of Jesus, into which topic I tend not to frequently delve; but faith had clearly shaped the stories of many of these men, and I was very interested in their stories. I also very much believe in kindness, and a great deal of that was shown to me that night.
They sent me on my way with gifts and blessings, and two invitations. The first invitation: there will be flat whites at daybreak. Oh yes, I said, if there’s espresso on offer, I’ll be there.
The second invitation was even better. If you’re not on a schedule, they said, you should drop by Burketown and try some barra fishing.
Barramundi are magnificent fish and they fight hard; I’d never caught a fish like that before, and the idea of stalking barra through the mangroves sounded like adventure to me.
Yes, I will, I said. How do I get there?
So Ross got out the road atlas and we traced my route North. Call us when you get to Burketown, he said, and someone will come and show you the way across the salt pan.
I’m not sure than many of them believed me: 1,500km North, amongst the midges and the crocodiles? Would I show? Of course I would.
Sounds like my idea of a good time.