I stood by the side of the road, watching Con as he sucked petrol through a plastic tube. He’d done it before, so he knew when the moment came to stop sucking and put his thumb over the end of the tube to stop any air from getting in, then quickly push the tube into the car’s petrol tank.
He was syphoning from a five-gallon petrol can balanced on the boot of the car, with another one in reserve.
When he was fifteen, Con’s older brother Jim had taught told him how to go about it, in their father’s Shell depot in Innisfail.
“You have to judge it just right. If it doesn’t work the first time and you have to do it again, you’ll end up with a mouthful of petrol.”
He did end up with a mouthful of petrol, the first time he tried it. Jim took him next door to the “Goondi Hill” and bought him a beer.
“That’s only one thing that’ll get rid of the taste of petrol. Beer. Get into it.”
The petrol tank of our second-hand Holden sedan didn’t hold enough to get us the 476 kilometres from Burketown to Julia Creek. We’d drive south from Burketown on the gravel road and take a left-hand turn at Augustus Downs, past Talawanta Station, to meet the bitumen at Donor’s Hill, on the Normanton road. From there the road would take us southeast to Julia Creek. In all that distance there was no roadhouse or petrol station: just a few tracks disappearing off into the bush to cattle stations.
Gulf of Carpentaria cattle stations are vast places, famous in the north west: Armraynald, Floraville, Augustus Downs, Talawanta, Donor’s Hill. It’s these stations, often over a thousand square kilometres in area, that appear on the road map, rather than towns or localities. The stations are small towns in themselves, with the big homestead, staff accommodation, stores, sheds, workshops, yards, trucks and machinery and an airstrip with the inevitable windsock flying. On the roof of the largest shed, the name of the station is painted in large block letters to guide the Flying Doctor and the other planes and helicopters that are so vital to life out here.
Sometimes the planes buzz the homestead to let the staff know that they need to drive out and chase cattle off the landing strip.
In our day, Lawn Hill station, further west, kept a full-time pilot, with his own cottage. To locals, this is nothing unusual; but to outsiders like us, extraordinary.
The people in the Gulf were generous with their assistance and their time when we came to grief on these rough and isolated roads. We were twice rescued by local passers-by. Once, it happened on the road north of Julia Creek. Con had been given a ride down from Burketown at the end of the wet season to pick up our car, which we’d left in the Julia Creek school yard. On his way home, up the Normanton road, the car stopped and refused to start again.
Luckily, along came a couple of blokes, father and son, who towed the Holden to their fencing camp, off the road in the bush.
“Where are you heading, mate?” asked the father.
“Burketown”, said Con.
“Well, you’d better camp out here with us,” said the father. “We’ll cook you a couple of steaks over the fire.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind a trip to Burketown,” said the son. “We’ll drive you home, have a few drinks at the pub and spend the night there.”
They covered our car with leafy branches to keep it out of sight and drove Con home: almost two hundred kilometres. A few days later, the local mechanic drove out in his truck to collect the car and bring it to Burketown for repair.
The following year, when on the way east after the Wet season, we got bogged at the Talawanta waterhole, west of Donor’s Hill Station. We tried to dig ourselves out of the mud, but couldn’t manage it. We needed help. With two little kids in the car, we had no choice but to wait for someone to come along.
After an hour or so, a couple of stockmen appeared in a Holden ute, avoiding the bog, and they tried to tow us out. The tow rope broke. They offered to drive Con the thirty-odd kilometres to Donor’s Hill to get help. It was late in the afternoon, and watching them disappear down the dusty road, I realised the kids and I might be in for a long, lonely wait.
A few metres off the road, in the edge of the bush, I swept a patch of earth clear of leaf litter and branches and spread out a blanket for little Matt and Lizzie to play on. I gave them some toys from the car and something to eat. In the far west, no one travels without water and basic food supplies. Before dark fell, I lit a fire and put a billy on for tea.
It was fun, setting up that little camp, soon with no light but for a torch and the firelight. Eventually, headlights appeared to the West, and a Toyota, seeing our bogged car and the light of the campfire, pulled up. Two men got out, and I watched a little nervously as they approached.
I’d met one of them in Burketown – the representative of a Stock and Station agency. I told them I’d be okay by myself until Con came back with help, but they stayed to keep me company. They had some prawns, and a cold carton of VB beer, so we had a little picnic together, and I was grateful.
Con, meanwhile, had been dropped off at Donor’s Hill, and waited for the manager to come in from working with the cattle. The manager wanted his dinner, but instead he and his wife, people we’d never met and certainly had no claim on, brought Con back in their 4WD to pull us out of the bog.
This happened years ago. These days, the road from Burketown to Julia Creek and Cloncurry is more direct, going south past Nardoo and missing Donors’ Hill. Halfway to Julia Creek, where the modern-day Wills Developmental Road crosses the Burke Developmental Road leading north to Normanton, you can buy petrol, and even a hot meal, at the Burke and Wills Roadhouse.
But life can still be brutal out here. Both Donor’s Hill Station and Burke and Wills Junction lie within the western section of the Flinders River catchment; and in January 2019, record rainfall caused the river to flood across its wide, flat plains. It rained for a week, and the cattle that didn’t drown had nowhere to go.
Across that vast catchment, an estimated 500,000 cattle died of drowning, exposure and starvation, with station people unable to get out to save them. After the waters went down, the stink of rotting carcasses was appalling, flies and other insects swarmed, and the station people worked through it all in the heat, burying their animals in huge pits while grieving for prize herds.
We lived in the Gulf for only three years, but we came away with an appreciation for the generosity and toughness of the people who live and work there that will never leave us.
And if we lived there now, we wouldn’t attempt those muddy, post-wet-season roads in a Holden sedan. We’d drive a big, powerful, air-conditioned four-wheel drive.