Clouds of red dust drift across the workshop site as the last of the construction equipment is parked for the weekend. A small mobile crane noisily loads empty metal gas bottles into the back of a dusty white 4wd pickup parked near an open-sided corrugated iron workshop, supervised by the head mechanic, an Italian, his wild beard streaked darker with a week's layer of grease and caked dust. A tall, slim easy moving man, dark hair tinged with grey under his dark blue hard-hat, Jean Rosset, project engineer, steps out of the mobile pre-fab office at the opposite end of the workshop area, adjusts his sunglasses and looks up at the huge bowl of darkening sky, turning to the build up of high red-tinted clouds away in the purpling distance to the east.
The wet season is on its way, but that storm is still a few days off. No rain this weekend.
On his way to the pickup, he checks his pockets for the necessities for the long trip through the bush to the project head office; cigarettes, Zippo, night glasses, gum and a couple of ChupaChups, a minor indulgence but good for long drives alone. And his Swiss Army pocket knife, money and personal papers. At the pickup he opens his brief case on the bonnet of the vehicle, checks that the weekly reports of construction progress and his lists of supplies and materials for the coming week are all included. He looks in the back, the dozen or so long metal bottles are stacked against the cabin wall, a spare wheel wedged in behind. At the front he kicks the tyres, checks the still dripping water bag on the bull-bar, exchanges a few words with Alain, the head mechanic and climbs inside, tosses his hard hat on the passenger side floor, checks the fuel level, then checks that the survey map is tucked into the sun-visor. The GPS is off, and he leaves it so. Not needed today. He thinks about plugging his mobile into the high-gain antenna but does not. He switches the two-way radio to ON, hears only the crackle of static. No traffic, it's Saturday afternoon, late, and no one is on station. He turns it to OFF and starts the engine, listens for problems, hears only the sweet rumble of a well-cared for piece of equipment.
"Thanks Alain", he waves. "See you Monday".
Pushing the gear lever into reverse, the big vehicle backs across the compound. Changing gears, he heads out towards the compound gates, past the parked rows of dusty yellow-and-blue painted heavy construction equipment. The perimeter track leads to the small town's main road, a strip of bitumen only several hundred meters long, a pub at the east end to the left, opposite the general store and the water tower, behind which are the temporary huts and caravans housing the construction crew. There is a single house at the other end of the main road, at the cross-road leading north to the remote farms on the huge expanse of the northern Downs Country; the rolling landscape a dusty yellow grey, thin grass thirsty for the coming rain. He turns right, accelerates slowly to the end of the strip. At the cross-roads he turns left, heading south a few hundred meters to the rail track and the crossing leading to the town's airstrip where its new terminal, a small prefab concrete and glass box, reflects the late afternoon redness, waiting for Monday and the next flights, one each way, daily, Monday to Friday.
The turn-off he needs is to the right, just before the rail track, heading west into the sun; the track is just a set of tyre-tracks ploughed into the rough earth by his concrete trucks and cranes on their way to the several bridge sites he has under his control, replacing almost derelict bridges on the rail track that primarily serves the huge copper mine at Mount Isa, three hundred kilometers to the west. His destination is the cattle town of Cloncurry, about half way, once a rail-head for the cattle industry but now little more than the company's project headquarters for the duration of the reconstruction project. Also where he has a room at the Post Office Hotel, a classic Federation-style building, two-storeyed, elegant, a wide verandah at first floor level on to which each room opens. The public bar has the coldest beer in the country. He smiles at the thought.
Just a couple of hours, well three, a shower and several beers with the guys before a big dinner on a white table cloth with silver service in the elegant dining room, the two local but very attractive waitresses serving the tables under ceiling fans moving the chilled air quietly, comfortably. A bottle of Cabernet Shiraz and a bottle of chilled Perrier ... can't wait.
Moving up through the gears, he guides the vehicle over the roughness for a kilometer or so to where the construction vehicles cross the rails to the south, leaving him on the old road west, much smoother if only because it carries very little traffic. It too is still only a set of tyre tracks through the rolling countryside, running roughly parallel to the railway but a few hundred meters distant. The new highway, recently constructed to serve the growing tourism in this part of the country, is way off to the south, through larger and more picturesque towns, nearer to the sight-seeing attractions being discovered and opened throughout the Central Downs country. He glances across to his left, where the railway runs through thinly spaced trees, sees only the dark shadow of the earthworks and the glint of sunlight on the rails. No trains.
He wonders at the countryside, huge, empty. And the sky. Limitless, even at this level he can see perhaps fifty kilometers in every direction. The town behind, now already some distance away, is still clearly outlined against the darker sky in the east. To his right the rolling plains of the Black-Soil Country burning red yellow with the lowering sunlight, sloping slowly down to the Gulf of Carpentaria a couple of hundred kilometers to the north, crossed by huge waterways, the Flinders River, a dry channel twenty or thirty meters wide for most of the year, a raging sea of flood waters up to twenty five kilometers wide and thirty or more meters deep at the height of the Wet. To the south, the Downs country rising still, the source of myriad tributaries, dry river-beds, draining north into the Flinders from low hills now out of sight. The same river-beds over which he is constructing new bridges for the railway. Beyond those hills, rough country running south for hundreds of kilometers, crossed only by the new tourist highway, then the vast plains draining into the infamous Coopers Creek that wanders south into Lake Eyre. Or a little to the west, the rocky country, draining into the Leichhardt River that turns north and almost joins the Flinders where they empty into the Gulf. When they run. Ahead, the glare of the setting sun through the dust-caked windshield is blinding. He pulls the visor down, notes that he'll have to stop sometime soon to clean the glass; he'll do that when he reaches the tree line, a few k's ahead.
He remembers his baptism into this country, seemingly several life-times ago, arriving in an impossibly hot and humid Townsville from the South, met by his new boss, Boris Klaus.
My Dear Mr Jean Rosset, my friend, you will learn to love this heat. And you will learn to love the flies. And the mosquitos. I do, they are my friends, this heat, these flies. You have a big job to do and these things must become your friends too. You will learn to love them. If you want to be successful.
He didn't learn to love them but as a young engineer he did do a half-way reasonable job on the contract, already half finished at the time he started. And survived a Wet. The Wet Season, that tropical phenomenon where the rain falls throughout the hottest summer months. Immense storms, sometimes a tropical cyclone. For several months before the roads were bitumenised the whole black-soil country would come to a standstill. No vehicular movement at all. Impassable mud, rivers so wide, so deep.
He stops the vehicle at the tree line, long shadows creeping out from under the trees as he splashes water on the windshield, scrubs with paper towels several times to remove the yellow grime. Satisfied, he checks the load in the back, lights a cigarette and strides some distance away from the 4wd to where he has a clear view. Again he wonders at the sheer emptiness. Not a living thing in sight, no movement, the only sounds the raucous buzzing of cicadas coming in waves, welling and falling, the rustle of something small and fast in the thin grass and twigs at his feet. And the buzzing of flies around his face, drawn by the perspiration. No air movement at all.
The girls would like this. Perfect for horse-riding, their passion. They could ride forever here, no fences, no roads, no traffic. Sheer space, endless.
The girls; yes ladies, this is where I am. Where are you? Probably just getting out of bed, and freezing. Germany is no place to be in winter. Well, that's not true either. It's fine, really. If you're cold then you're not dressed properly, simple as that. Just dress well girls, do you have to walk to school or do you get a bus? or does your mother drive you? I guess you walk, Alli would have selected a house close to the school specifically so that you can walk, right? Yes, Alli. And where are you? Is it because of you that I'm here? So practical, so dedicated to making life work for you. I've cried so much over us, what we had and what we've lost. What I've lost anyway, and what the Girls have lost too. A Dad. Good that we have emails Girls. And good that you stay in touch. I'll get it together here sometime soon I hope. And then I'll get you out here, you'll love it. And the flies. Joke. Boris, you have a lot to answer for. And here I am, back in my old stamping ground, repairing what I built all those years ago. What am I doing here? Why am I here? Where else?