Blessed to be a witness

Tuesday, 9th August

This is getting ridiculous

I am having so much fun

"Where you headed, mate?" asked a petrol station worker, one of the few friendly people we have encountered in the more-than-a-week we've been here (the others included a waitress and the town alcoholic).

"Southwards. Maybe Rockhampton tonight?" I replied tentatively.

"Ah mate, don't go to Rocky, head to Yeppoon, there's a lot more going on there." So, fearing that our adrenal glands might just explode if we ventured into the Beef Capital again, we avoided its blistering excitement, took our garage attendant's advice, and diverted to the nearby coastal town of Yeppoon, billed as a "charming seafront collection of cafés and restaurants."

No it wasn't. It was a charmless collection of launderettes and motels, with a takeaway, a "posh" sailing club restaurant that did some really unpleasant and horrendously overpriced food, as we learned to our cost, and a big barn of a pub lined with formica tables. On the way from the beachfront campsite, we did have some excitement when I stubbed my toe on a snake. It was black with whitish diamonds on it, and about a metre long. I don't know what it was doing on the sand - perhaps it was ill - but I wasn't going to find out if it was one of the infamously poisonous varieties. I retreated to about ten metres away and threw a pebble to rouse it. Unfortunately the pebble smacked it right on the spine, and it didn't move, so maybe it was dead. Or maybe I killed it.

On the subject of dead animals, one feature of driving here has been the exoticism of the roadkill. On the sides of the highways I've seen a dead wombat, a very large dead python, what might or might not have been a koala, and about twenty or thirty dead kangaroos. I didn't expect there to be so many, but they really are out there in abundance. On the third or fourth day I actually saw a live one hop towards the road to be confronted by a huge lorry, whereupon it rapidly turned tail and hopped off, hopefully teaching its joeys to do the same.

The dead roo-strewn highway led us the next day to Childers, a small town in the fertile vegetable-picking part of Australia's east coast. A large number of transient workers come to the town to pick fruit, and at times, 50% of the population is made up of fruit-pickers, most of them backpackers working their way around the country.

In 2000, a nutter with a chip on his shoulder about backpackers wrote two suicide notes, then set fire to a wheely bin and pushed it inside the kitchen of the Palace Backpackers hostel. The resulting fire killed fifteen of the young residents, who were unable to get out of the inadequate emergency exits, including two Irish and seven British people. The perpetrator went to ground, living off lunchboxes stolen from building sites, before being cornered, shot, and captured alive by the police.

We had passed through Childers on our way north, so on the way south we stopped to visit the memorial to those who died, in the now-restored Palace building, originally a Victorian hotel, that now doubles as a tourism information centre. The memorial was very small, but had a book of moving tributes to those murdered, as well as an art installation that pictorially records their lives, as well as unrelated local art pieces.

Before paying our respects, we had had a lovely Devonshire cream tea with some fantastic scones (and bear in mind I don't really even like scones), and Childers seemed such a nice little spot that we decided to stay the night. We found a caravan site/trailer park full of shifty looking characters, no doubt there as part of the fruit-picking crew, and walked back into town, where we found a hotel that had a pool table. We were delighted.

We played a game or two of pool, then decided that since we were already in town that we'd treat ourselves and grab a bite to eat at a takeaway. We enquired at the bar as to the availability of fast food. "There's a couple of places, but you'd better hurry," said the rather unfriendly barmaid. It was seven pm. We headed out into the darkened street, and after about five minutes' walking, found a chip shop. We walked in and noticed an air of urgency - "can we order?" I asked. "You'd better be quick, and only deep-fried stuff."

We got our food by about 7.15, at which time a very angry woman crashed in, stomping around heavily, her footsteps shaking the wooden floor, sighing, hoovering up very deliberately under our table. She muttered sniffily under her breath "We're meant to be closed at seven, but we're not doing too well, are we?" Lady, I wanted to say to her, we're your customers. We provide you with a living. Be civil. Treat us with respect. We were then told that, though we were leaving, we couldn't use the chipper's outdoor chairs and tables as "the place is officially closed", and so ate the fish and chips (I can report that the fish was great, the chips shoddy, and the tartare sauce and ketchup 20c extra per sachet) on a bench in the otherwise deserted street.

There is ample parking in Childers, and this food outlet is on the main north-south highway. A slow but decent trade could be made from passing traffic all night long if desired. Not just that, but a large proportion of the population is transient and foreign, and used to amenities that exist relatively late into the night. I simply cannot understand where the profit motive has gone.

In retrospect, I think perhaps we're being a bit harsh on this aspect of Australia - not as forgiving of its culture as those of more 'exotic' countries, because the culture is so similar to our own. Despite the place looking and sounding like the bastard offspring of America and Britain, it has its own independent culture. Back in the First World War, there were laws that decreed pubs shut at six, and to my knowledge this law wasn't repealed until relatively recently, but its legacy remains: everything shuts damn early. The issue I have, I suppose, is that this isn't made clear in big capital letters on the front of all the guidebooks:


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