John Borthwick

Way back then, the late 1960s, I believed with all the earnestness that only age 20 can summon that my life in Sydney was dead, karked. I was already too old to succeed, but too young to officially fail. I borrowed ten pounds to flee the academic, economic and romantic corpses strewn (I imagined) behind me. I would take to the roads, disappear forever. Or at least hitchhike right around Australia, the circumference of my knowable world.

The tourniquets that stifle a city — mortgage belt, industrial belt, car yard wastelands — soon fell away. A “rabbito” named Ernie piloting an old Vanguard stops and we head west over the Blue Mountains and out past Bathurst to where I join him on a three-day rabbit-trapping safari, using nets and Mitzi, his cute, blood-lusting ferret. Out there on the western plains of the Great Divide, the wheat fields ripple like ground-swell and sulphur-crested cockatoos cartwheel down the sky, screeching away through the stringy barks. Mobs of galahs. Wallabies. I nearly overdose on bunny stew. And when I start hitching again, not too many cars.

Somewhere near Cowra, my ride passes a semi-trailer that’s overturned, spilling a cargo of cowboy boots and licorice candies. I ditch the lift and grab a pair of boots and a face-full of Choo-Choo Bars just before the insurance agents torch the lot. I figure that now, in my boots, no one’s going to spot me as a city boy.

Across the Murrumbidgee plains, dawn and dusk suns flicker like strobes through the windbreak poplars. At Hay, I help a trucker change eight of the 18 tires on his bone-rattling rig. “I’ve been at the wheel for 20 hours,” he says, “And since I was starting to talk to myself, I figured I oughter pick up someone to listen to me.” He lives like a gypsy, criss-crossing the country for weeks on end, at odds with log books, cops and savage schedules. He complains, “The bloody mermaids are after us truckies.”

“Mermaids?” I query.

“My oath. Mermaids everywhere. Weighbridge inspectors. Cunts with scales.”

New South Wales becomes Victoria, becomes South Australia, each one vanishing in the infinite regress of the side mirror. The big one, the Nullarbor Plain soon lies ahead of me. By now, there isn’t much left of my ten quid and so when a driver says that he’s an abalone diver working out of Ceduna and, do I want a job as a “shucker”, you bet I do. God knows what a shucker does.

Next morning I’m racing out to sea in an “ab boat”, heading for the Nuyts Archipelago about 40 miles off Ceduna. The head diver, Rodney Fox had achieved fame a few years back when a huge white pointer clamped him in its apocalyptic jaws. He struggled so fiercely that the Noah let him go but left the perfect imprint of its dental chart puncturing his torso fore and aft. Hundreds of stitches later — a zipper would have been quicker — plus a brief convalescence, Rodney got straight back on the seahorse and resumed diving for lucrative abalone.

Shucking means that you’re up on deck tending the air-compressor, making sure the diver’s air-line doesn’t kink and shelling — “shucking” — the abalone that you’ve winched to the surface. Oh, yes, and watching for sharks. The pay, about eight pounds a day. The one, big shucking drawback — seasickness.

Beyond Ceduna, the Nullarbor Plain stretches to infinity across the Great Australian Bight. During my gig as a shucker I notice a glum-looking kid camped near the last roadhouse. Teddy, an Aucklander, is having no luck in hitching to Perth. For a week he’s stood beside the agricultural inspection gate from nine to five, waggling his thumb in vain. A thousand miles of desert ahead and he can’t get out of town.

My problem is that he’s at the head of the hitching queue — yes, there is etiquette among bums — and I’m ready to hit the road, too. Come the morning of my departure, there’s Teddy already out by the tick gate. At the roadhouse café, I fall into conversation with a dog-collared gentleman who is breakfasting beside me. Who announces he is heading to Perth.

“Now? I mean, today?” I ask.

“That’s right.”

“Could I, um … get a ride with you?”

Suddenly, I’ve scored a ride across the Nullarbor without even raising my thumb! In jubilation and in shame, I sail through that gate. And cannot look at Teddy.

The Nullarbor, the No Tree Plain, is a ribbon of unreal, unsealed images. So wide and empty you can almost see the curve of the earth. Like the wake of a ghostly boat, the highway rises and falls, straight as death across the spinifex ocean. Heat miasmas shred the vanishing point and leave it flapping between heaven and the horizon. A sign says “Last Petrol”. Another warns, “Last Water” and then, ominously, “Last Beer”. After that, the husks of blown-out tires, shattered beer bottles and dead kangaroos are the only pointers to life before death.

Nonchalant Aborigines walk from seemingly nowhere to specifically somewhere else. A mission. A cattle station. Miles from anywhere, two wild-eyed hitchers gesticulating like crazed windmills beside their midnight bonfire. The West Australia border is marked by a bullet-peppered sign: “First Beer”. The old telegraph station at Eucla appears then disappears, engulfed in shifting coastal dunes. It’s almost 1200 miles to Perth, or more correctly, 2000 kilometres. Australia’s been “metric” for a few years but we’ll still talk in miles for decades.

Whatever the figure, after thirty-six hours of pot-holed, bull-dusted highway, I bid farewell to the terrifically decent Rev. Trev Brown, London Missionary Society, late of Mount Hagen. I teeter, sleepless, speechless, stuffed, onto King George’s Terrace, Perth. Wrecked, but there.

“In the midst of life, we are in Perth”, said Sydney bohemian writer Harry Hooton. I think I get what he meant. One night in the Salvo’s flophouse and quick look around — and it’s clear that I won’t be making my fortune here. I sign up as a mine labourer at Mount Tom Price, far, far north in the Pilbara’s Hamersley Range. Which means another thousand-mile hitch, up the Indian Ocean coast to the job on time.

The whole mountain — more like a range — of almost solid iron ore is being shipped chunk by chunk to Japan. My seven-days-a-week job is to run an Air-Track, a compressor-driven drill mounted on crawler tracks, boring holes in giant boulders so they can be blown to smithereens. Work all day, save every cent, sleep in a cell and eat in the mess. Get up and do it again, amen.

The town has 500 single men and six single women. Extraordinarily, one of the girls kissed me, once. Even more extraordinary — I can’t recall why. Hamersley Mining had sunk $300 million into this open-cut abyss but for all the state-of-the-art crushers and conveyors, things still kept jamming. After six hours of shovelling overflowed ore that had flooded the train loading-bays, Duggy the Drunk bellowed: “Three hundred million bucks worth of alternating oscillators and oscillating fuckn’ alternators, and it still takes a dozen blokes on pick n’ shovel to make the bastard work.” That we were doing it all on emergency, triple-time rates eased the pain.

I moved up to offsider on a big mobile drill rig that trundled over the mine site day and night sinking sixty-foot holes with its rotating tungsten bit. The powder crew followed, filling the drill pattern with nitropril explosive and then blasting the hillside to Mitsubishi. On night shifts, while Irish Frank the driller eased the bit down into the earth with the skill of a surgeon — and sutured himself against the desert cold with belts of vodka — I had time aplenty to watch the giant sky and the spokes of its star-wheels turning, and to wonder where, for me, real life lay?

Marooned — OK, voluntarily — in this burning, freezing, boring, mateless doldrum of saltbush and red dirt, was this the horse latitudes of my life? After ten weeks with the outside world leaking-in only through two day-old newspapers (over breakfast I learn that Bobby Kennedy has been assassinated), I’ve saved a thousand bucks and grown a beard. A bulldozer driver yells, “What are ya, mate? An armpit with eyes or an ear‘ole with teeth?” and I jump an ore train to the coast.

Port Hedland is a culture cut-up — old horse hitching-rails outside new supermarkets, giant ore carriers offshore from feral camels. The next port, Broome is quieter, with its pearling luggers careened on the tidal flats like elephants drunk in the sun. There’s an exemplary swirl of Japanese-Malay-Chinese-Aboriginal-European genes.

The roads are rough and the rides are few but they’re long. Up here a hundred miles is not much more than “next door.” Derby. Fitzroy Crossing. Hall’s Creek. The road leaves the ocean, curves east then north. The sky turns turquoise at the edges. Whistling, whip-cracking Aboriginal stockmen dressed like fantastic gauchos in bandanas, cowboy boots and Akubras just let the traffic sit and wait, and wait, while their huge mobs of cattle amble by.

One morning I wake beneath a fat old boab tree outside Kununurra and wish myself “Happy Birthday.” I’m twenty-one. Ignoring homelessness and joblessness as portents of a fucked future, but still pissed-off at being stuck here for three days, I celebrate with a beer, a can of smoked oysters and a decision. Stuff Kununurra’s parched mercies. Next morning I’m on a TAA plane to Darwin. Having blown $25 on my escape, I compensate by wolfing down three breakfasts before we land. Chokka on the Fokker.

Darwin. The Top-End. The Territory. Everything steeped in sweat and alcohol, and it’s only ten a.m. I luck out when two flash, high-spirited girls of imprecise occupation — “Don’t ask, darling” — in a big, black, bat-winged Chevy whisk me down the track to Rum Jungle.

“The Track”, the Stuart Highway, bisects the continent from north to south. Harry, an old-timer who had spent 30 years working on the Overland Telegraph took me all the way from Mataranka to Three Ways, five hundred miles. “I seen you hitch-hiking like I used to back in the Depression. I’ve been reading we might be having another one, a Depression, so I thought I better give yer a lift.”

This is about his longest speech during our two-day drive. Come dark, he pulls his old Holden ute off the road, we build a fire and he heats-up dinner — in the middle of a million square miles of Australian beef country, it’s a can of Paraguayan beef. We eat. Harry rolls out his swag and beds down. After 15 minutes he belches: “Struth. That stuff tasted more like the Paraguayan hisself, eh?”

Just north of Tennant Creek is a sand-whipped crossroads known as Three Ways, a dark fork on life’s path where a traveler must choose between deserts to the south, mulga and Queensland to the east, or to flee back north, to soused, troppo Darwin. The Three Ways signpost is twisted so it points perversely west to Alice, east to Darwin, south to Mt Isa. A corrugated iron hut calls itself “Cafeteria.” The gimlet-eyed customers, too wise to their own violence don’t risk much speech with a stranger. Very expensive Mars Bars. “If ya don’t like the price, try the fuckin’ shop next door,” drawls the old hard-case harridan behind the counter.

“Welcome to Three Days,” says Bobby, an Aboriginal bloke.

“Three Days?”

“Yeah, that’s about the average wait for a ride here.”


An hour later another hitcher arrives. An old hand, heading for Sydney, he’s done time here before. After a warm Coke, a piss and a stink-eye glare in my direction he growls that two hitchers is one too many, and heads off the other way, south across the desert to Alice and Coober Pedy. And so it is that when a battered Land Rover pulls up after only three hours I leap in the back with near-jubilation. There are two jackaroos up front.

“We’re just going for a Sund’y drive.”

“Great, where?”


Some Sunday drive. Camooweal is almost 300 miles east, in Queensland. Elated as I am to be heading there, I have no desire to actually be in Camooweal. The town has a reputation born of stories about stir-crazy ringers and boundary riders hitting town to blow their cheques after months of isolation on over-the-horizon cattle stations. Their best joke is supposed to go, “Hey, mate, ‘Blue’s’ lookin’ for you.”

”Huh? ‘Blue’ who?” answers the newly arrived, unwitting, longhaired, bearded stranger.

“Blue Gillette! Let’s shear him, fellers!”

The boys drop me right outside the Camooweal pub. Shit. Thanks. I turn up my collar and hoof it straight out of town, way past the “Welcome” sign that’s shot-gunned to resemble a colander. I lurk in the mulga, praying that some sane ride, please Jesus, arrives soon. Half an hour later it does — a perfectly sober shearer.

More rear-view highway hypnosis from the back of trucks and utes. The endless Black Soil Plains slip behind on a rhythm of ruts and posts, clouds and curves. Days later, something blue tilts up to fill half the sky. The sea, at last! Townsville, dense with palms, reeking of blossom and salt tang. Colonial pubs with lace iron balconies face the Coral Sea, waiting for whoever gets there first, discovery by Nostalgia or demolition by Progress.

Stuck south of Mackay, I shelter for a night in a road-gang’s camp. Most of the crew are in town for the weekend rodeo. As I leave in the morning one guy asks, “Jack. I see you’re wearin’ cowboy boots. You a dark horse headin’ for the rodeo?” Feeling almost credible, I hit the track for one last haul south.

The highway picks up speed. The gravity rings of Brisbane and Sydney suck everything down the map towards them. The cane fields flare against the night sky as farmers fire their crops before the harvest — the world smells like a giant vat of molasses. At Surfers Paradise, I flop onto the beach and then bodysurf my first waves since forever.

If the dust on my boots and stains on my pack are badges of the road, I’ll claim them. It’s taken 10,000 miles and three months.New South Wales again. Almost back, Jack. Shelter from a cyclone near Mullumbimby. Screw the thumb to the track one last time. All the rites and wrongs of passage now done, complete. I’m on the home run to the Big Smoke. Hey, Ma! Hey, Sydney! I’ve actually done something.

Words and photos John Borthwick ©2018



Lightning Ridge, Australia

When they take the census out at Lightning Ridge, the forms are distributed as they are everywhere else in the wide brown land that is Australia. They even arrive at a figure, though you wouldn’t want to put much store in it. There are always those who’d rather not be found and there’s more than a few of these out in the Black Opal fields of the charismatically quirky town up near the Queensland border. As the quite formal sign on the outskirts declares, almost proudly: Lightning Ridge Population ? 

Over the years, they’ve come to make their fortune; drifted in and drifted out, set up camps and convoluted constructions, dug deep, altered the landscape, run themselves ragged, told tales, generated some themselves, and abided by few dictums apart from their own. There’s been names on mining leases more likely to be found inscribed on a collar than entered on a birth certificate. That’s when there’s actually been mining leases. 

All frontier towns celebrate their outlaws and outcasts and on the Ridge, where it seems everyone’s a blow-in – you don’t get born there, you just show up one day and maybe stick around – there’s far less mention of ocker actor Paul Hogan (who was actually born there) than of the infamous One Bucket Bob from down south who scooped up a million bucks worth of opal in his first scoop then, when he’d squandered it foolishly (is there any other way?) came back to town and did the same thing again.

Lightning Ridge 4

If he’s mythical then I suppose the tourist who plucked a twenty grand stone out of a slag pile outside the Visitors Centre is as well but, the longer you’re in town, the more credence you’re inclined to give the legend and lore of the place. Indeed you’re inclined to wonder just what hasn’t been handed down in a community that keeps much of its business close to its chest. As one long-term resident said of the opal rush that exploded in the early 1900s and put the town on the map: “People came here to disappear. You rarely knew anybody’s name, and those names you knew were probably fake nicknames in any case. You didn’t ask much about somebody, and they didn’t tell too much either.”

It was where they came from that had particular impact on the tone of the settlement, which was named after a shepherd who had most of his flock wiped out by a lightning strike one tempestuous night. Not just from all around the wide brown land but parts of old Europe much given to ancient tales and mythology. Today, the biggest church in town is the Serbian Orthodox of St. George and unquestionably the most compelling structure is an unfinished astronomer’s castle, with walls crammed with diagrams and verse. Many of the miners who left their mark so indelibly upon Lightning Ridge were learned, curious souls who found it difficult to exist in too close a proximity to others. They would have been hermits wherever they ended up. As you can read in your Lonely Planet guide: “The streets are trodden by eccentric artisans, true-blue bushies and the general unconventional collective. And that’s all ridgy-didge in the Ridge.”

Equidistant from Sydney and Brisbane – about 750 kilometres to both (with Dubbo, more than 350 kilometres away, the closest “big smoke”) – Lightning Ridge is not really in the trajectory of anywhere in particular, except perhaps the sleepy little outpost of Walgett, the shire’s seat. As a long-time resident called Christine has put it: “You have to really want to come here. We aren’t on the way to or from anywhere and we’re a full day’s drive from the nearest major airport. Even a quick visit can take days of travelling each way. Not a lot of people have that kind of time these days.”


And when you do arrive, the bush panorama you have been accustomed to for so very long seems to belong to someplace else again. What greets you is a haphazard landscape, or a sci-fi moonscape, almost Dali-esque.  One description has been a post-apocalyptic Mad Max junkyard. But there is more sense to it than is initially apparent. It’s a terrain scattered with Day of the Triffids-type contraptions, no two seemingly alike. Very little seems purpose-built, with some clumsy devices adapted from the drive shafts of old flat-bed trucks and pick-ups. You see, a registered vehicle isn’t necessary for you to work on your mining claim so, as it has been oft said, many a truck and car comes to the Ridge to not so much die as be reborn for a more dignified life. The role of each is essentially the same – shift soil, filter its contents and tuck it all away somewhere in piles.

The most industrious examples of endeavour are not in Lightning Ridge itself, which has become almost gentrified, with a score of opal shops, a John Murray Art Gallery, modern housing, a large air-conditioned bowling club with artificial-grass bowling greens, a huge Olympic pool complex and an outdoor steaming mineral bath in use even during the 45-plus degree height of summer, but a short drive away at Grawin Field. Here a couple of hundred hardy folk survive, welcoming visitors to their ‘Club In The Scrub’ and ‘Glengarry Hilton’ – watering-holes-cum-community-centres, libraries and internet cafes that seem to have been crafted in classic fiction, or perhaps built for a film set.

It’s out around Grawin that your camera never seems to leave your eye. This is a world dominated by people who feel as comfortable living under the ground than above it, who build Chambers of the Black Hand stacked with surreal subterranean art, who put together houses made from bottles, cans, sheets of iron, old furniture and whatever else comes to hand. You find your way to much of it through an ingenious network of colour-coded and numbered car doors taken from rusting hulks (whose moving parts may well have been otherwise harvested) – a perfect system in an otherwise confusing realm devoid of street names and house numbers.


But not devoid of fairly strict codes of conduct. While it has been legal to fossick since 1992 and the large tourist intake residing in caravan parks, camping grounds and motels during the cooler months does just that (with One Bucket Bobs a distant memory), few words are spoken with the dripping disdain or unbridled anger of “ratter” – the unspeakable curs who sneak onto leases and mining sites under cover of darkness and make away with the precious and rare stones. A strong seller in its day was The Ratters of Lightning Ridge, a novel by Richard W. Holmes that touched upon the rich and ribald tales of rough justice that involve deep mine shafts and dynamite.

The opal miners were not the first to scratch hopefully in the dirt, not by a long shot. For this is a land where dinosaurs once roamed. It is a key paleontological site on our ancient continent, with fossils from the Cretaceous period some 110 million years ago occasionally opalised in the sandstone rock that once formed the bottom of a shallow inland sea. The remains of aquatic plants and animals – small creatures living in a world dominated by dinosaurs – add to the treasures beneath the surface, with archaeologists scrabbling away with miners and fossickers.

All told, the place is quirky, whimsical and, for all the tales of shadowy wealth acquisition, friendly and accommodating. Though it’s a haul to get there, an awful lot do, gleefully participating in the “self-drive tours” upon arrival. They’ll follow the green car doors to the end to check out Charlie Nettleton’s first hand-sunk shaft, and they’ll swap notes at night in the Dig In – an outdoor eatery famed for camp oven roasts – about an 18-hole golf course touting dusty brown “greens” and rock-strewn fairways, a cactus nursery with supposedly more cacti on display than anywhere else in our hemisphere, crazy crenulated concrete monuments, Amigo’s Castle, an incomplete observatory, massive Tuscan compound and other monumental constructions said to be a testament to Lightning Ridge’s self-taught architects and builders. If they arrive at Easter, they’ll be out on the sides of the wide Morilla Street cheering on a favourite in the annual Goat Race, where the ornery beasts are harnessed and driven by local kids. If they’ve still got a voice left, they’ll front up the next day for the wheelie bin race and perhaps some more rudimentary competitions involving horses.

You know, that census, when they did take it last, seemed to say that the population of Lightning Ridge was a couple of thousand. Only thing is, traders in the town seem to think they offload enough provisions for twice that, and the wiry citizens certainly don’t look as if they consume significantly more than their fellow countrymen. So, you work it out.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker.