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All-clear signal

Belele Camp — 2000-09-12

I have a bad night’s sleep and find myself constantly waking up to listen to the wind. The silence outside fills me with relief, no wind means that the fire is not being fed and that it will have a hard time jumping the fire breaks. We get up at 5:00 a.m. as usual and begin the perpetual routine of pulling down camp and loading the camels. A strong wind springs up from the north west at 9:00 a.m. and I glance nervously at the spinning wheel of the windmill. ‘The wind is pushing the fire straight at us,’ I remark in an undertone. ‘Let’s get out of here!’ Tanja replies calmly. At 9:30 a.m. we are back on the track and heading for Belele Station. We can’t make out any smoke in the sky, which raises our hopes that the fire has been extinguished in the night. It is a very hot day with temperatures of more than 35°C in the shade. A hot unpleasant wind blows in our faces and we sink in deep sand when crossing the numerous dried creek beds. Suddenly a jeep approaches. The driver stops and waits for us to reach him. I bring the caravan to a halt and watch as a weather beaten man emerges. ‘My name’s Jon,’ he says and sticks his hand out. ‘Ah, Jon. You must be the Belele Station manager,’ I answer in a friendly voice. ‘Yes, I was expecting you today. Jo called me and told me you were coming. The shoes are on the way, I’ll go into Meekathara tomorrow and pick them up from the post office.’ ‘How’s the fire situation? Does it still pose a threat to the region?’ I ask. ‘I don’t think so, it’s under control. Did you see anyone on the grader this morning or is it still standing at the Jingia Bore?’ ‘No-one’s there yet,’ I reply. ‘Then the fire’s probably gone out in the night. I presume the smaller fires stopped it,’ the man says in a quiet and friendly voice. We talk for a while and he tells us where the station is and where we can sleep there. Then he takes a few photos of us and drives back in the direction from which he came.


We reach Belele Station at 12:45 and find it looking rather dilapidated and deserted. Numerous buildings are scattered over the farm and not a person can be seen. I stop the caravan at a sandy spot and give Tanja the line, ‘I’ll go and check out the farm house.’ The sun beats relentlessly down from the cloudless sky and the thermometer hanging on Sebastian’s saddle reads 48°C in the sun. I walk toward the house and am greeted in the front yard by two Aboriginal women, one holding a small child. They smile and say ‘Jon told us about you, he’s not here right now, he’s gone to help someone that had a motor bike accident.’ Another woman emerges from the house and comes to greet us, she is about fifty years old and looks whiter than the others. It turns out that she is Jon’s defacto wife, here for a few day’s visit. ‘I live in Alice Springs but was born here,’ she says. ‘I was told that Belele Station is owned by Aborigines. How come Jon is the manager here?’ I am interested to know. ‘That’s right, the Station belongs to us now. Both my mother and grandmother were born here. We weren’t able to buy the place until a few years ago, and now it’s ours. Jon is here helping us out while the real manager is away on holiday,’ she explains in her very likeable way. The conversation pauses for a moment and I think feverishly about where to set up camp and to put the camels on this sun-dried farm. ‘It’s quite special, crossing our country with camels,’ her soft voice interrupts. ‘Yes, it’s very difficult but beautiful at the same time, for the most part. It’s the best way for us to make contact with the land,’ I explain. ‘Oh yes, it’s wonderful to live one’s dream,’ she replies with a soft laugh. ‘I have to get back to Tanja. She’s waiting for me with the camels,’ I excuse myself. Back at the camels, we decide to set our camp up behind the farm and have just started to move as Jon appears. He recommends a good spot in one of the creek beds, ‘There’s plenty of food there for the camels and if you need anything else then just let me know.’ Minutes later we are herding the tired and sweaty animals down into the creek bed.


We unload the animals and pull the equipment into the shade. Then we tie Sebastian, Hardie, Goola, Jafar and Istan to a tree. By this time, all of them are suffering from hip problems which makes us despair. We did everything we could to make this journey a good one, in the year and half of preparation for this trip, and the last thing we want is to injure the animals with the saddles or load. We have now reached the third saddle generation, which is better than the catastrophes of before but still no good for a trip of these dimensions. Jo and Tom intend on finding us in the bush in about six weeks time, they’ll be bringing supplies and the first two Afghan saddles with them. We’ll just have to manage until then. Unfortunately, the journey is getting more and more difficult every day, with temperatures soaring. They are speaking of an early summer and saying that these temperatures are not normal for this time of year. But it’s no surprise, since our arrival in Australia the weather has been crazy. The last summer was the wettest in decades, cyclones have flattened towns and flooded huge stretches of land. Now it’s getting hot, and too early at that. We are now two months behind schedule and haven’t even passed the half-way mark of the first third of the journey. We should be celebrating at having reached Belele Station and putting 1000 km behind us, but we’re depressed instead. I poke Hardie’s hip carefully and he shies away when I put pressure on his hip bones. We have put a few kilos more in his saddle these last few days in an attempt to relieve Goola somewhat and since then he’s been suffering from pain too. ‘We’ll have to think of something to do with the equipment!’ Tanja says in exasperation. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘ I mean we should leave some of it here at the station and lessen the camel’s loads. Maybe Jo and Tom can drive by and pick it up when they come with the supplies.’ ‘Good idea. We’ll call Jo and Tom and talk to them about it. And anyway, we could probably lose a few items without endangering ourselves,’ I reply.

After giving our five mates a thorough going over, we sit ourselves down in the shade of a nearby bush with barely enough energy to move. The last few days have been as hard as ever, especially the indescribable psychological pressure of the bush fire. The only way to comprehend our thoughts and fears would be to be threatened by a bush fire yourself, to sweat and be so exhausted that you can hardly walk let alone find a way through the endlessly dangerous terrain. Of course I cannot know how the readers feel about our adventures, I only know that it bloody hurts when I hit myself on the finger with the hammer. The rest is just theory, in any case this is one of those days on which our dispositions take a hard fall onto the stony ground. We sit without speaking in the shade of the bush for more than an hour, each asking ourselves ‘what’s the use?’ It hasn’t been much fun lately and every second of every day we’re faced with what we’ve got ourselves into with this expedition. Tanja and I have survived many great and dangerous expeditions in the past but I have to admit that this Australian crossing has turned out to be the hardest yet. Especially the race against time. If we only had to walk to Broome, ‘only’ 2400 kilometres, then I think it would be easier to handle, but knowing that we have to march 7000 km across this wild country is beginning to appear unrealistic even to me.

I sit there and my thoughts spin, the more I think about this project the more scared I become. Just one mistake, one kick from the camels, a bite, a cyclone, a wrong step on the sharp rocks, a bite from a spider, snake or any other of the innumerable poisonous animals here, would change our lives dramatically or even kill us. We have another 6000 km to go, that’s at least 32 months or in other words 2 ½ years. To be honest, I feel like throwing in the towel, but then could I ever look at myself in the face again? Would I regret this decision? I shake my head in an attempt to free it from these thoughts and catch Tanja’s eye. ‘Do you think we’ll make it?’ I ask her in a depressed tone. ‘I don’t know, I don’t want to think about it too much.’


Suddenly Jon drives up in his jeep and joins us in the shade, wiping the destructive thoughts from our minds as he starts to tell us about his life in the bush. ‘On the way over from Alice Springs, I was threatened by a dingo in my very first camp. I could see the eyes glowing in the dark around the camp but took no notice at first. After dinner I threw the steak bones into the fire and left another two up on the roof of the jeep. The next morning there were two dingoes fighting over the bones in the ashes and my thoughts turned to the two steaks up on the roof of the car. When I went to get them they were gone, I’ve no idea how the dingoes managed to get up on top of the jeep. I was fairly peeved of course and stormed back to the camp as suddenly one of the beasts was standing before me baring his teeth. Slowly and carefully I backed myself toward the jeep, keeping my eyes on the dingo the whole time. I opened the passenger side door and got my gun out. I gave the dingo a chance to retreat but he came menacingly toward me and so I put a bullet right between his eyes. The next day at my second camp, I awoke to find a wild camel bull before me. He was very aggressive and broke the radio antenna off the front of my car without warning. I crept to the passenger door again and pulled the gun out, then I shot him dead. But unfortunately the body of the bull was lying in the middle of the road and I had to pull him off with the car winch.’ Tanja and I sit and stare at our host, he is 67 years old and has probably seen a lot of things in his life. He obviously enjoys having company and doesn’t pause to take a breath between stories of deadly black scorpions and green centipedes. ‘You have to know where to set up camp. Some places are just crawling with black scorpions and I know a few men that have died from the bite. ‘In any case, you have to give the female red back spider a wide birth, her bite is deadly too,’ he carries on importantly.

Some of his tales don’t completely correspond with my research but I listen intently nevertheless. It’s always better to be warned. ‘It’s hot today,’ I try to change the subject. ‘Oh this isn’t hot. The real heat’s going to hit us in a couple of weeks time. I always say, if you see a bangara crossing the road with a water bottle around it’s neck, then it’s hot.’ ‘How hot will it get?’ I ask. ‘This region is one of the hottest in Australia, I’ve experienced temperatures of 54°C in the shade.’ Tanja and I cast worried glances to one another, this is exactly what we don’t want to hear right now and it doesn’t help to build our confidence. As the sun slowly sets and the air cools a little, Jon offers to let us take a shower in his house. We accept with thanks as the last shower was two weeks ago at Jim Price’s place.

Day: 124






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