Thursday, June 18, 2015

Day six, another memory dusted off and a new appreciation found

Day six, and this time I have my topic ready and eager to share. I haven’t thought about this in a long time. When I was a child my mother and step-father lived in some unusual places out in the middle of woop woop (which means the middle of nowhere). When I first started visiting them they were living in Sapphire which was a wee town that took its name from the precious stones mined there.

Sapphire at that time had mostly individual miners, not the large conglomerates that took over in later years. Going there was like going to the moon. It was dirt roads without names that disappeared and reappeared without any form or design. There were mounds of dirt everywhere, like termite mounds only bigger, but they were the piles that had been picked over and discarded. Or maybe the piles that were yet to be washed – my child mind didn’t care to find out.

These days the area, which is called The Gemfields, is a tourist destination and set up to cater to visitors. In those days from what I can remember Sapphire consisted of a general store/post office combined. I don’t think there was even a pub but there may have been. The towns all had beautiful names – Sapphire, Rubyvale, Emerald. All of these stones were mined in the area. My stepfather had a small claim, and he worked it with a tractor that had a bucket attached to the front. He would drop a load of dirt onto a conveyor belt and it would travel up the belt, over the top and down to a washing machine – for want of a better word.

 The agitator machine was rectangular in shape and was divided into sections that moved up and down independently of each other. There was a sieve on top I think, with varying grid sizes so that the bigger stones dropped into the first container, and so on down the row until the smaller ones dropped into the end one. The dirt washed out into the dam and the process was repeated. The dam was cleaned out as it filled up with slurry and I would go over those piles searching for the sapphires that got away. There were always some. That’s how I remember it – my mother is probably reading this groaning at my ignorance but I was a child and I’m dredging a child’s memory.

It was a very simple life, they lived in two caravans. One was the bedroom and the other, which had an annex, was the kitchen/lounge/dining area. There was a thunder box toilet (you might know it as a pit toilet), and an outdoor shower. The shower itself consisted of a bucket which was filled with warm water. There was a shower hose on the end and you turned it on to let out the water and get yourself wet. Then you turned it off to wash yourself and turned it on again to rinse. Too bad if you mistimed and ran out of water!
So, that was the first place I visited them. Over the years I would visit them in even more remote areas, all in Central or Northern Queensland. They got into gold after sapphires, and a brief foray into tin. I saw a lot of remote areas and a lot of the wildlife in those areas – too much sometimes given that I had a few much closer than I wanted encounters with snakes. Some of the places they lived had sheds, some were just their caravans.

One of the areas was really lovely. It was called Mt Britton after the gold mining town that used to be there. I think it’s a tourist attraction now too. I loved my time visiting there as there was so much to see. There was the creek for a start, and there was a graveyard, plus old rubbish heaps that would yield treasures like 100 year old glass bottles, and a hill that was covered in fossils (a reminder that millions of years ago it was an inland sea). I learned to pan for gold there and was quite good at it. I was not fond of the toilet even though there actually was one (more on that later) because it was a thunder box that had blue tarpaulin around it for privacy. I was petrified that I would find spiders (which I did) or snakes (which I didn’t) and spent several minutes each time gingerly picking up the edges of the tarp and checking underneath before feeling safe enough to use the toilet.

Sometimes it was just my mother and step-father, sometimes there was a group of people there for various reasons. One place I remember was a huge slab of concrete with a roof and walls on three sides. The caravans were in under the roof, and there was a generator and power for a few hours each day, it was luxurious! I got into strife there a few times though because the generator ran everything and if you turned on a light it turned on the generator which sprang into life with a roar. So at night, after bedtime, if you wanted to use the bathroom you had to remember NOT to turn on the light. It was such a habit with me that I inadvertently turned on the generator a few times and woke up everyone.

They spent quite a long time at one gold claim, with a dam dug out and all, waiting for rain. It never did, I’m not sure if they ever got to work that claim. That place was where the incident that I’ve been leading up to happened. At this place they had a shed that was I believe enclosed on all sides. The caravan was inside (I think there was only one caravan by then?)  but there was no power – at least I remember my step-father squatting on his heels (which he could do for an inhumanly long time) doing something by the light of a kerosene lamp.

To get to this camp you drove along a dirt road forever, through a series of gates. Now this is where it gets interesting. In that area were wild dogs, not pure dingos but ones interbred. They were wild and they were unpredictable, enough so that Ian, my step-father, carried a gun in the truck. All the gates had to be opened and closed behind us and I remember on opening one of those gates seeing a dingo in the distance. I knew then that they were dangerous because Ian got out of the truck with his gun cocked and Ian never did that. The dingo/wild dog ran off and that was that.

So I had a healthy fear of these dogs. Unfortunately their nightly path was right beside the shed where we were camped. Ian told me that they were just passing by on their way out and back again, and not to worry. Of course I did worry. The problem was that at this camp there was no toilet. You got a toilet roll and a shovel and you went outside a reasonable distance and took care of things. For me, this involved checking just about every leaf on the ground for spiders and ants and whatever else, and stressing that every rustle behind me was a snake come to bite me on the you know where. And that was just in the day time.

At night time I went outside with the shovel as late as I could while it was still light. Of course there is no twilight in Queensland, dark comes just as fast in summer as in winter. So as late as I could was about 5pm. Then I would try not to go until the next morning at least at dawn. This meant that I was lying awake, BUSTING to go from about 3am every morning (and I wonder why I am an insomniac). I would hold it in though, giving myself excellent bladder control no doubt for life.

Until one night I realized that I couldn’t hold it in and I was going to have to go. When you’re out in the bush and there’s no moon night time is as black as pitch. There was no moon and it was as black as pitch. I felt around for the torch that I took to bed each night just in case, tiptoed to where the toilet paper and shovel were kept and went outside on shaking legs. I didn’t know if I was more afraid I would step on a snake or step in the path of a dingo.

I walked only as far as was polite from the shed and went behind a bush. My reasoning was that if the dingoes came back while I was incapacitated they would pass right by the bush and not know I was there. Flawed reasoning but it made me feel safer. So there I was, squatting, at the point of no return, the torch shining a reassuring little circle of light onto the ground in front of me. All seemed to be ok. Until, of course, there was a rustle in the grass in front of me.

I was calm, sure that it was nothing. No, I wasn’t, but I told myself that it was nothing. The rustling came closer and I began to panic. Of course, just like in the movies, because I panicked I dropped the torch and it hit a rock or something and turned itself off. I kid you not, it really did. The rustling was coming ever closer and I was groping around on the ground trying to find the damned torch. Finally I grabbed it (all of this from my squatting position because I was well brought up and it never occurred to me to stand up when my pants were down – like a snake or dingo would care) and turned it on.

That torch shook wildly in my hands as I turned it to face the rustling. I had never been more terrified, I was hoping that the light from the torch would scare it off, whatever it was. It took a few wild arcs before I found the cause of the rustling. Was it a dingo come to tear out my throat, or a snake come to eat me? Nope, it was a kangaroo and it looked just as terrified as I felt. It was only about a foot away from me, staring at the torch like at deer at headlights (actually like a kangaroo at headlights, they do that too just before they bound in front of your car).

I must have made a sound because it looked past the torch at me and I swear its eyes widened. We stayed that way for several long, long seconds. Then the kangaroo took off in one direction and I pulled up my pants, grabbed the paper and shovel with one hand since the other hand had a death grip on the torch and ran back to the shed. I lay in my bed shaking from head to foot until I eventually slept. I never felt the need to go in the night again for the rest of my visit there.

All the times that I visited mum and Ian I didn’t give a thought to their unusual lifestyle. They lived in all sorts of places over the years, every one of them unconventional. I guess it had an effect on me in that it made my own wanderlust feel normal. But then my grandfather – my mother’s father not the English one – was also a traveler, and my English grandfather was brought to Australia by his family while my great-grandfather was one of the pioneers of my home town. Perhaps the spirit of adventure, or the drive to find one’s destiny, or whatever it is that compels us to leave our lives and start again, is genetic. I don’t know. Until now I was always a square peg trying to force myself into a round hole. Perhaps all along I have been one of a family of square pegs and my destiny was to wander far and wide to find my niche. 


Uncut sapphires

A kangaroo at night

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