For me it’ll always associate with memories of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and particularly memories of the spinifex and grassy scrub around Waverley Creek south of Mount Isa; it was my first job and P.C. Zanen Pty. Ltd’s last. It was the years of the ‘Development Roads‘ when most of Queensland ‘s dirt roads were being upgraded to bitumen highway 12’ wide. Our camp was beside Waverley Creek; there was a bridge built by Steelcon and Zanen had contracted to build thirty miles of road with all the pipes and culverts. Work had commenced before I left school. I remember going out there on what must have been the school holiday season of ’68 because I started work there in ’69 and I must have turned sixteen there at the end of ’69.
I bunked in with the men, some of whom were only boys from England a bit older than me; £10 Poms they were. Others, Greek and Slavs, couldn’t speak English well; a couple of older men were WW2 Veterans; some were extremely damaged; an Englishman, an ex artillery officer told me more about ballistics than I could ever learn at a University; he was our Surveyor, but totally unhinged. My first actual work was chiseling out the numbers on hardwood 12″X6″ flood gauge posts.
I drove my first truck, a Leyland Comet with no starter and no brakes at the crushing plant and found I had a gift for operating equipment, mastering the Cat 922 end loader. Floods took out a whole set of Armco Pipes. One day at a gravel pit a cloud passed over and I looked up; it was a single flock of around 100,000 Budgerigars, looping and wheeling.
The Massy Huts were erected on thin slabs of hand mixed concrete that are still there forty-five years later. There was a big Mess Hall and a couple of Ablution Blocks with canvas showers on ropes and thunderbox toilets. If you wanted a hot shower you had to boil the water yourself in a big ‘copper’. Same for laundry. Clothes were worn until they became rags; Levis and riding boots. I’d hitch into Mount Isa some weekends, catting around; I bought a portable Sanyo Record Player with money I’d saved and set it up in my corner of the hut. A ration Truck would do a run into ‘Isa once a week for supplies, a big Ford F350; it’d go in on a Friday morning and come home late that evening. I knew the distinctive V8 burble and I’d mill around with the others for my special stuff when I heard it come in. The driver would take up lists from everybody, and envelopes stuffed with cash. He’d do the town over shop by shop, order by order and bring it all home in the evening; it was a responsible job, not trusted to idiots; if you fucked it up you got a transfer to a shitty labouring job. Married couples had special needs. My orders were always the same; vinyl records that had to be ordered in. I’d wait weeks for them to arrive; it became like a lottery; sometimes the driver had nothing for me but there was always excitement when they came in.
One day the ‘Stones album ‘Beggars‘s Banquet’ came in and I put it on the Sanyo; I still remember being blown away that first listening. How can I convey these memories aurally, physically, geographically, and emotionally; that distinctive performance of Mick Jagger belting out thinly on a Japanese record player beside a dry creek bed of outback Australia; the incongruity of it didn’t strike me at the time. There was no radio coverage except for ABC National giving rainfall figures; every album was a blind order. Some of what I ordered was shit and other stuff was classic. Ginger Baker’s Air Force, Cream, the Woodstock Festival triple album, Hendrix ‘Electric Ladyland’, Stones ‘Let it Bleed’, Beatles ‘White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’; then I hit on Chicago Transit Authority. I ended up with hundreds of vinyl records; most ended up so scratched by the needle raking through the red dust that one day years later I put them all in a suitcase and took them to the dump. I threw the whole case on the tip face and drove away; I never looked back; the experience couldn’t be repeated, the vinyl couldn’t be saved. Life is a highway, dirty and long; keep on moving.