It wasn't the best of starts, by any standards. If we'd have known that the God of Pig Hunting Trips was looking down, going, 'Sorry, lads, can't help you,' we would have thought twice. Cool, hip and armed with bows we might have been, but clairvoyant we were not.
I used to reckon I knew how to handle long distances; driving between London and Macclesfield every week for almost two years is good training, but nothing prepares you for how mind-bogglingly large Australia is, especially when you drive round it. The three-day trip I made from Sydney to Melbourne gave me an idea, but the pig hunt really drove it home. In outback driving, size is everything.
The place we planned to hunt for pigs is 1111km from Melbourne. It's called Gunnedah, and it's 250km west of the coast from Port Macquarie, which is 300km north of Sydney. The nearest place of merit is Tamworth, the Australian home of country and western music. Yes, it's remote.
We set off early on Boxing Day in two cars. One, Andy's, carried Andy, Rick and me, while the other car, Dave's, carried Dave and Steve. Five of us, two cars, loads of stuff... and lots of kilometres.
At about 9am on Boxing Day, Andy's battery light started flashing, but as his car was pretty old and knackered, he said it was just a dodgy connection. We fixed it by ripping a strip off a cigarette packet, writing 'OK' on it, and sticking it over the light – out of sight, out of mind...
So when Dave pulled over in front of us at 9.30am with smoke billowing out of his bonnet, we thought, 'No worries, we'll fix this.' One of the hoses connecting the engine to the radiator had split, so we did a quick roadside fix by fitting a new hose and refilling the radiator, and set off again.
It started to dawn on us that things were not going according to plan when Dave had to pull over again because the engine was knocking seriously. A quick look under the bonnet, and we'd blown a gasket: oil was dripping out, so we had to sort out a rescue. Luckily Dave was a member of the NRMA – the Aussie equivalent to the AA – so Andy, Rick and I set off for Morundah, the nearest blob on the map, to find a phone.
Just a quick word about the outback. It's empty. The bleak, dry landscape goes on forever, the sun is scorching, and everything is a very, very long way away from everywhere. Morundah is a little place, and everything was shut, it being Boxing Day. Even the pub was shut, as the tumbleweed blew across its porch. Nobody was going to be driving through for a while, it seemed.
At least the public phone worked, which is more than can be said for Andy's car. It was dead; the battery hadn't been charging, and our loud music had obviously drained all the juice out of it. A moral is that sticking 'OK' over your battery light doesn't fix the battery; we had to push start the thing, but thankfully made it back to Dave's wreck.
I say wreck, because when the guy from the NRMA turned up, he had a look at the engine, turned it over, and announced in the blunt way that Australians do, 'It's fucked.' The engine was blown, and it wasn't going anywhere. We put Dave's battery in Andy's car and set off for Narrandera, the nearest place with life in it. Luckily there was room at the local caravan park, so we pitched our tents and resigned ourselves to the Aussie solution to all woes: get pissed down the local pub.
The following day we got to the local wreckers and miraculously found a new alternator for Andy, which he fitted. At least one car was working now, but Dave's wasn't so easy. Yes, the local wrecker could get a new engine by tomorrow, but the garage couldn't fit it until 2nd January. We had lost one car. Luckily there was a travel agent that rented cars, so we booked one to arrive the next day, and settled into life at the campsite, with its crazy swimming pool with huge slide and local Aussie holidaymakers. The people opposite had been coming to the same caravan park for 34 years without a change, and they thought we were a travelling rock group, which was kind of cool.
That night, as we were sitting round the tents – mine, incidentally, I borrowed from Chris, and it had no groundsheet, and didn't even touch the ground in places – one of us spotted this thing in the tree next to us. I went over and it was a possum, this friendly thing about the size of a cat, with big, wide eyes and a mouse-like face. It was so sweet, and even ate a bit of food from us. I did the tourist bit and got some photos... what a cutie!
We also had loads of cicadas around the site, making a racket all the time. These little critters are one of the less desirable creatures you might meet; they're like massive flies, with bodies about an inch-and-a-half long, and huge wings that make masses of noise. As a moth-fearer, for me they're right up there with boring drunks and Barratt homes as things to avoid. They start their lives living in the ground as wingless bugs, and when they emerge they climb the nearest tall thing (normally a tree), shed their outer skin, unfold their wings and fly away. They leave the skin stuck to the tree, so when you get up in the morning, the trees look like they're covered in huge bugs. It isn't particularly pleasant...
By Thursday we were behind schedule, but back on the road. I joined Dave and Steve in the hire car because I had used my visa card to get it and what a difference! It had air conditioning! Power steering! An automatic gearbox! I almost couldn't believe it was a Ford.
The air conditioning was, it turned out, an absolute blessing. It gets incredibly hot in inland Australia, and it got hotter and hotter as we headed north, heading through such delightful places as Dead Bird Lead Creek and Poisoned Waterhole Creek. By the time we got to Gunnedah, well after dark, Andy and Rick were knackered, but we chosen three were saved by the godly gift of air-con.
Those beers in the pub were among the best I've ever had, not because of the beer itself, but because they were cold, wet and hit the spot just right. Little did we care that a sign outside declared that this little pub was proud to be the host for the 1995 New South Wales Billy Boiling Finals1, because the beer was gorgeous. We ended up staying in a field at the back of town, as it was too late to bother with a caravan park, so we pitched our tents by the local river, and got some take-out stubbies from the pub. This field had a good point and a bad point.
The good point was that it was out of town, so the view of the sky at night was incredible. You haven't seen the stars until you've seen them in the middle of nowhere, and from the southern hemisphere you get a great view of the Milky Way stretching across the sky; it's easy to see where it gets its name. We also saw some shooting stars; I loved it.
The bad point was that we weren't alone. Rivers mean bugs, and with my tent being so, well, perfunctory, I got bitten to pieces. In fact, I can't remember ever getting so many bites; on my left foot alone I had 20 itchy blotches in the morning. The others didn't get bitten at all, even Rick who shared my tent; obviously Pom is a delicacy for bugs down here.
On Friday we moved camp to a site called Lake Keepit, and having seen the lake, that's exactly what you could do with it. The brochure showed it as much bluer, but when we went for a swim we found muddy water full of strange little plants. Perfectly healthy and safe, but very strange on the feet, so I decided I needed some thongs (that's flip-flops, or sandals, not sexy underwear, by the way).
Thongs need shops, so Dave and I drove to Gunnedah, with the additional mission of finding out where the best hunting territory would be. Would you believe that at the first petrol station we stopped at (or 'servo' as they're called here) the attendant knew the president of the local bow-hunting club, and in fact he'd just filled up his car there. He suggested the tourist information bureau, where we managed to get this guy's number.
So we rang the number, and got the local police station; the bloke we were after was a policeman, and he would meet us at the station in half an hour. We met him and had a chat about where to go, and found out that, in New South Wales, crossbows are illegal, so we couldn't use the two bows we'd brought, making us one bow short. Then the policeman only offered to lend us his bow so we could all hunt – what a champion! We left for the campsite content in the knowledge that we were well in with the local coppers.
That night we went for real Aussie burgers, cooked in a pan in the dying sunlight. Guess what the secret ingredient of Aussie burgers is? That's right: add beer. Bloody good they were too, but there was a bit of a worry when Dave was cutting up the onions on the barbecue plate, and he spotted a redback spider sitting there, watching him. Redbacks are the second most deadly spider in Australia, and untreated bites can be fatal, so we just let it be. Actually, they only bite if disturbed, but you never know. We're all still alive, so it obviously didn't crawl into the burgers.
Real Aussie burgers were followed by a real Aussie electrical storm. Andy and I sat in the car, watching huge lightning strikes and major rain action. Miraculously my tent survived reasonably intact, but the ants decided to take refuge in my sleeping bag... at least it seemed they did, judging by the number of new bites on my arms and legs in the morning. Remember, the outback has teeth.
Following the policeman's advice, on Saturday we headed off for a place called Dripping Rock, 30km from Gunnedah, near the charmingly named town of Boggabri. Dripping Rock is a hell of a long way from everywhere; we had to travel for an hour down the dirtiest dirt tracks I've ever seen, and eventually we had to give up and stop, as the holes in the road were getting as big as the rocks beside them. Another wicked storm had just started up too, flooding sections of the road and making the fords a little too big for the Ford, but luckily we found a suitable camping spot on a little bug-free stream, and settled in for the night.
Sunday awoke to bright, hot, sticky sunshine. The area we were in was north enough to be sub-tropical, which means they don't have summer and winter, they have the wet season and the dry season, and it's turning wet right about now. Humidity and storms are the order of the day, and boy it's hot. With this in mind we headed for Dripping Rock, which is one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.
Imagine a semi-circular cliff, 50m high, with bush forest covering the area underneath, where a waterfall drops into a little lake at the bottom. Now imagine that this cliff is made of sedimentary rock, so the water seeps through and creates a waterfall all around a portion of the cliff, and that's Dripping Rock. There was even a ledge going all round the cliff, halfway up, which we could easily walk around. It was like a piece of paradise, and was only a couple of minutes walk from our camp; in fact, the pond flowed into the stream that we camped beside.
The ledge proved to be most useful, as it went behind the waterfall and let you climb onto the rocks directly below the water; it formed a natural shower, which we used as much as possible. We would have gone swimming in the lake, but Andy had a go and got a leech on his big toe, so we stuck to showering. What a beautiful place!
As was the countryside around, where we hunted. Hills and valleys stretched as far as the eye could see, with trees everywhere, and spiders and bugs all over the place. The hunting consisted of going out in camouflage gear, armed with bow and quiver of arrows, and stalking animals. Unfortunately we'd lost so much time through breakdowns that we didn't have time for lots of hunts, so we didn't get to scour the area and work out the animals' habits, but I spotted a couple of wallabies that got away, and found another one we stalked for about an hour, before losing it.
Imagine the thrill of walking silently up a four-wheel drive track, and finding a couple of grey wallabies at the top, oblivious to your presence. It's incredible, even if, like me, you're mentally and physically incapable of killing for sport – I was there for the stalking, in much the same way people pretend to be in the army at weekends and then go back to their accountancy jobs on Monday morning. Luckily (from my point of view, anyway) the only kills we got between us was a rabbit under the wheels on the way up, and a couple of budgies in the car radiator on the way back, so I didn't feel too guilty.
New Year's Eve
On New Year's Eve we headed out to Gunnedah to party with the country locals, and party we did. I wish I could tell you more about what happened, but it's all a bit of a blur, like all good parties. I do know that we headed out to Dripping Rock after returning in the wee hours, where the others lit a fire, and I fell asleep. The only reason I know we went to Dripping Rock is that I woke up there at dawn, one of the mellowest ways of waking up to the New Year that I've experienced.
We spent New Year's Day hunting, and again we only spotted wallabies and didn't shoot anything. It also rained like buggery; you've never been soaked until you've been soaked in an Australian forest. We spotted a funnel web spider – the most poisonous spider in Australia – and a whole family of redbacks, complete with baby sacks, all right next to where we'd been sleeping. In the outback, it doesn't pay to be scared of spiders.
Tuesday signalled the end of the hunt, and the start of the long journey back. It was pretty uneventful, except for a huge accident that blocked the freeway for an hour, and we camped at Narrandera for, hopefully, the last time.
The next day we went to pick up Dave's car, only to find that not only had the engine blown, but so had the radiator. Guess what the guy in the radiator shop said about the radiator? 'It's fucked, mate.' And the guy in the wreckers? 'It's totally fucked.' Luckily we found a replacement at the wrecker's, and eventually got home to things like traffic lights, houses, people and other strangely urban concepts. It really was quite a special trip...
1 A billy is a pot of water, and billy boiling is the art of boiling a pot of water. Country folk: they be mighty strange.