AN EXCERPT from Bruce Honeywill's Memoir, The Accidental Truckie.
The concussion shock of the explosion rattles your bones. Physical, thumps through you. Lightning and thunder crack as one, the storm is overhead. Fly-tarp in tatters from the winds driven before the storm. Rain torrential, drops as big as the end of your thumb. This is far beyond the precipitation described in school books on climate, this whole storm is a living, smashing, inescapable thing.
The storm passes, now a black night under the clouds. I lay cold, wet and sleepless in a thin and miserable swag. The humidity is thick.
The night of fear, of one person alone in a vast tropical landscape before a storm of this magnitude changes in an instant as a full moon shines through the dark towering canyons of storm clouds. I sit up, wet and shivering and look. The water of Alligator Hole ripples and shimmers in the blue light. I cannot help but gasp at the beauty, the post-coital, post-storm beauty left behind behind by the menacing power of the storm. A peace lies over this landscape in the remote far north-western corner of the Northern Territory.
Legune Station 1972. The end of the Dry Season, the working season. The time of heat, humidity and storms known in the Territory as the Build Up had all but completed it's angry run across the Top End and the country waited in climatic frustration for the soothing salve of the rain of the monsoons. I lay there I thought that yes, I have left it too late. The rains have come, I will not be able to get out.
I had made preparations. Taken my Toyota tray-back and most of the camp equipment and contracting tools and equipment to the town of Kununurra. Legune Station is in the Northern Territory but the only road access is from the Western Australian town. I was finishing a season of various contracts on the cattle station owned by Hookers Pastoral Company.
In the last weeks of the working year at Alligator Hole, the only vehicle I had was a short wheelbase Toyota stripped of everything unnecessary including roof and doors, equipped with bull-catching armour across the front and fabricated steel half a metre deep along side the vehicle, strong enough to hit and slide around trees when chasing a bull.
The three men who had worked the season with me were gone, headed south. I worked alone on a singular contract now, straining miles of suspension fence crossing the flood plains of Legune. I worked alone, squeezing a few extra weeks of work before being finally driven out by the Wet Season.
Daylight. Clean air. Promise of a clear day when the sun rose. I knew creeks would be running wild with the night's downpour. Swag, tucker box, tools chucked into the back of the bull catcher. Clacker runs up to me, his great beaks clack, clack, clacking. The juvenile Jabiru now stood a metre tall, dressed in the grey downy feathers of adolescence. Orphaned, we raised him in the camp through the working season. Now, clack, clack clack, he was looking for a handout.
"Wet season's here mate, you're going to have to look after yourself. Get through the Wet and you'll be right," and I chucked him a taste of salt beef which he devoured with a clickety clack of that great beak of his.
The catcher did not have the benefit of a muffler and with a growling roar it attacked the track away from Alligator Hole. It made a hellish noise, sliding along the wet track and we turned west on the main access road to Kununurra.
Last night's storm had been heavy and the vehicle slid sideways. I corrected, swinging the steering wheel, the vehicle straightened and kept turning but momentum kept the thing going straight along the track sideways. Straightened it out, over corrected and somehow we ended up facing in the right direction heading down the track. I would have seen my signature written in the mud behind if the catcher had a rear vision mirror.
The track lifted into higher country and seemed to be getting a little drier. Not dry enough to make dust, but dry enough to breed a little hope that maybe I might make Kununurra.
The catcher splashed through creek crossings half a metre deep, drenching me and the gear. Only one possible obstacle now and that was the Keep River. There was some logic in the notion that the big river would take time to run. A notion that turned out to be wishful thinking as I crossed the last scrubby ridge and over the Keep floodplain, through the trees the floodwaters were a half mile wide. A wide surging brown flood.
I stopped at the edge of the river, slipped out over the side armour of the bull catcher. Steam from the creek crossings billowed out from under the engine compartment. I walked down to the edge of the brown water. It was running wide and fast. I had made a gamble and lost.
My only option now was to turn around and head back to Legune, probably a two-hour drive with the condition of the road. Leave the bull catcher and gear there and catch the mail plane out in a week's time.
I was getting used to this idea, even though it would take me over a week to catch the mail plane and then get another plane from Darwin back to Kununurra and then drive south. With the threat that all the roads could be shut down with the Wet Season.
Corellas lifted from a tree on the other side of the rive. A noise. A vehicle. Who on earth would be out and about at this time of year?
A fawn coloured Toyota pulled up at the flood's edge on the other side of the Keep. Two men got out. Waving a greeting across the water. They had an aluminium boat on a trailer towed by the Toyota.
"Oh yeah?" I thought, "what is this?"
They backed the boat into the water, started the outboard and churned across, the boat facing against the flood at about 45° to make the crossing to where I stood ankle deep in the water. They landed, I gave them a hand to pull the bow of the boat up onto the track.
We yarned, they were from Northern Territory Water Resources. They offered to take me and my gear across the Keep and give me a lift back to Kununurra. I agreed that that would be a great idea.
"What are you gonna do with you bull catcher," one of the fellas asked me.
"Just leave it up on the ridge in the scrub," I said, "pick it up next season or get Johnny Griffiths from the station to pick it up, it'll work out."
"Interested in selling it?" One of the Water Resources fellas asked me, "make a great little fishing wagon."
"Reckon I might," I said.
The two men went into a huddle turned to me, "How much?" they asked.
I told them I'd take what I bought it for at the beginning of the season, a few hundred dollars. Back into a huddle they went and walked back to me and said. "Y'got a deal. We've got the money in the Toyota."
So we parked the bull catcher in the scrub on the ridge beyond the reach of any flood, the vehicle now the concern of my new friends. We crossed the river and they drove me to Kununurra. I loaded my swag and tools on top of the already loaded tray-back Toyota and drove the 1500 kilometres to Alice Springs.
Rewind two years
NOVEMBER 1970. I was the manager of Bushy Park Station, a cattle property 120 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.
I had hit the apex of my short Northern Territory career, station manager at 24 years of age.
In my first year at Bushy Park I had met challenges. The property was owned by David Jordan of Capaul in Victoria. With a small stock camp we had built fences, holding paddocks, done up cattle yards, built loading ramps so cattle could be loaded from where we mustered them.
We mustered wild cattle out of the ranges in the south of the 650 square mile stretch of land, great bullocks who had escaped captivity for decades. Trucked a great roan hereford cross shorthorn bullock that made $237 in the Gepps Cross markets in Adelaide, a huge amount for one beast in 1970 when $80 for a steer was considered a good price.
One bullock, old but healthy, with a spread of horns nearly two metres across was killed in Alice Springs abattoir and Murrie Johns the meat inspector reckoned his age at around 26 or 27 years. As old as me.
These range cattle survived the longest recorded drought in Central Australia's history, running wild in the hard stone ranges.
I brought my plant of good horses to Bushy to complement the ageing station workers.
There were good stockmen on Bushy Park, long term residents on their traditional land, Anmatyere people. I brought extra men, Aboriginal stockmen, with whom I had contract mustered and were good with wild cattle.
In the camp there was one white fella other than myself, a young stockman from the Peninsula country of Queensland. Allan Harris was good with a bull and as smart a stockman you could wish for with horses.
We long debated the good points of the Top End of the Northern Territory as opposed to Queensland's Peninsula around the fire.
The first year at Bushy Park was a good one for both me and the station.
My first working years in the Territory were at Roper Valley Station in the Top End.
In 1967 I married the boss's daughter, Kay Heaton. At Bushy Park, Kay seemed settled.
We spent nights playing the Australianised Monopoly off-shoot Squatter and shared sundowners of Bundy rum with raspberry cordial on crushed ice made with a wedding gift. Together we entered horses in the Alice Springs Show, rode at the rodeo, participated in gymkhanas. I broke in hereford heifers and entered them in led classes in the Show.
Yes a good year. Hard work. Participating in the bush community.
But things changed in November.
Night at Mueller's Bore on Bushy Park, on the eastern side of the station on the Alcoota Station boundary. Cattle in the yard. The low moan of the cattle, the glow of the campfire under the desert oaks and hakia. The stockmen sleep curled up in swags, dreaming of whatever was their fancy.
Sam, my big black dog ,asleep next to the Toyota.
A dog who was a match for any bull or kangaroo and aggressively protective of me.
He would never show much affection but in all the years with me until his death, I never could catch him with both eyes shut. One of those deadly yellow eyes was always open, watching over me.
Sam growls. I listen. A vehicle coming fast on the track from the station homestead.
The trees above me light up with headlights on high beam. Our Holden HK Ute, only a year old - coming fast.
Sophie, our purebred bull terrier having trouble giving the expected birth to a litter of pups was my first thought. Must be serious if Kay is coming at this speed in the early hours of the morning.
At that time I had learned to carry out most of the veterinary work that was required to keep our animals alive and maintained.
The ute pulls up in a cloud of dust, driver's window down.
"It's going up, it's going up," Kay calls.
I can't fathom what she means. Out of the swag and running towards the ute.
She says through the window "the house is burning".
I slide into the driver's seat and hammer the ute along the track towards the homestead.
We leave the Mueller's Creek floodplain pass an ironstone ridge that reminded me of the red skeletal backbone of a dinosaur emerging out of the earth, a place we called lightning Ridge. From the elevation I see the glow in the sky.
"I don't know what happened, I don't know what happened. I got out, but everything is gone."
Kay is breathing the words now, shock starting to emerge.
Hear the full chapter and more on the Big Rigs Podcast, downloaded on ITunes or at BigRigs.com