I’ll tell you something you might not know about the Australian Outback – it’s peopled by young Irish! The subtle charm of saltbush and red earth does not account for the numbers in which they arrive: behind every counter, every laminate benchtop in every kitchen, pub, petrol station, cafe and caravan park between Darwin and Mt Isa there’s a Galway or Pipe lilt-a-lurking.
Whatever the Outback lacks in emerald green it makes up for in gold: the solid gold of a hard-earned wage – the kind it’s hard to come by in Ireland. Italians and French are drawn here too, for work, but not in the same numbers as the Irish – nowhere near.
At the Mataranka Caravan Park, at the end of a long day of hitchhiking, I inquire at reception about the cost of renting a tent pitch for the night: $36! It’s terrible news but pleasing nonetheless to hear it delivered in a running-stitch of tender Leinster tones! Battling to reconcile myself with parting with $36 for a patch of earth, I inquire whether management might have a spare tent they can throw into the bargain. To which she kindly responds, ‘No’.
That night, lying under the stars, part-way-under a shared sleeping bag, with the sound of mob politics in the background, I ponder what it might be like, as a youth from an Irish village, to find yourself, suddenly, in the Australian Outback. I feel baffled by what might draw someone this far across the earth to take up residence in a landscape only marginally less alien than the moon, to a culture as quixotic, contradictory and idiosyncratic as a pink bus called ‘Priscilla’. Surely it’s not just the money?
On the second night of our hitch-hike across the Outback we’re saved by the kindness of the Irish. Tess, Mike and Lee are on a road trip that will take them from Sydney to Cairns. They’ve drawn up at the Barkly Homestead in their dusty blue station wagon and are happy enough to have their tents up, cans of beer in their hands and a good part of the driving behind them.
It’s cold. As they hug their coats closer about their shoulders their attention is drawn to the two weirdos (us!) who have wandered in off the road, under cover of darkness, and are spreading a layer of cardboard on the ground in order to shield themselves from the rising damp that would otherwise cost them a night of sleep.
‘We ha a tarpaulin if ya waaant it’, one of them offers, shouting over from the comfort of his canvas camping chair. He looks appalled to be witnessing our performance of voluntary impoverishment.
‘We got mar than we neeeed,’ he elaborates, indicating it’s no skin off his nose if we use the plastic ground sheet. Richie takes the proferred sheet with a show of gratitude that would be out of place except for the fact we’ve just been spared a night of damp shivering under the stars. Once our rustic swagman’s boudoir is arranged we wander over to join the group, squatting beside their chairs, warming our hands around the collective flame of their humanity.
‘You’re doing what?’, the red-headed one called Lee yelps when he learns what we’re doing. His show of disbelief makes me laugh. He wants to get this right:
‘So yoo’ve cam from England, ovurrland – witha flying,’ he glances our way to confirm this detail, ‘and yaa on yaa wee from Darrrwin to Brrrisbane, hitch-hiking! Jesus!’ He shakes his head in wonder. ‘That’s whaa?’ He looks up at the mess of stars above his head, trying to do the maths.
‘3, 800 kilometres’, Richie announces.
‘Yoo two err fuckin’ maaad’, he tells us, grinning appreciatively. He hasn’t heard this good-a yarn in weeks, and no one loves a yarn more than the Irish, no one, except perhaps a swagman and his missus (perhaps that’s what the Irish have in common with the residents of the Outback!). We grin ruefully back at Lee because he’s right. We are mad!
The following day, the Irish storm past us in their grotty blue station wagon, tearing toward the sea. They would have taken us with them but their car is loaded to the rafters. Besides, we’re with Norm, and despite doing 80 in a 130 zone, we’re content to be in a vehicle, inching our way east to Townsville, where a Couch Surf host with a soft bed and a hot shower is waiting.
Watching as the station wagon peels off into the distance, I am reminded just how much of a hurry Tess, Mike and Lee are in to put the Outback behind them.
‘We waarked noin manths ‘n Sydney ta save up enuh munee fa thi trip,’ Mike confided last night. ‘Noin manths! There’s notin’ out here,’ he cried. His upward-inflected squark of bewilderment made me smile. I looked about me at the ‘nothin’ and understand his frustration; nine months is a long time to work in order to see ‘nothing’.
Later that night, as I lay down to sleep, I carried my smile to bed, and wondered faintly, if the two sleek cows grazing metres from our heads would show any interest, during the night, in munching on an enormous Richie, Nina and tarpaulin sandwich, and though my opinion of the Outback was not quite as low as Mike’s, I shared his wonder, his expectancy and his befuddlement. The Outback is a big place. We’re small. And the cost of fuel is high!
It’s a long way to Tipperary…