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.