Inland roads scrawl across the bush, a slashed stanza, a curled thought, a trickle of pitted asphalt set against an empty horizon that dies in a dead end constructed entirely of dirt.
The blacktop melts in sweaty anxiety and as temperatures soar into the high 40s, Mary struggles to breath, her fuel lines wheezing and sighing with effort.
Deep into the never-never land of the interior, just left of Chinchilla, a long-distance call to my attorney dispenses cool sun-lounger-savvy advice: “Head east out of Dodge and dip your toes in the drink, my friend, the water’s just fine…”
While our destination is a coastal Arcadia, our precise location has taken to shimmering like a mirage, a false visual economy that pays out in sweat.
Sliding onwards, Mary lumbering slick, the air crackles with static, baked gusts seer and choke, while skin sizzles pink. The thermostat knocks like a hooker on overtime; the fan belt squeals, mortally wounded…
Never has a servo been more aptly named than the Darr Creek Oasis, a sanctuary of unleaded, fresh papers and icy refreshment. And possums that pant like cartoons.
To the east of Murgon, a stunted apology for a town on the Bunya Highway that seethes with disillusion and angry recrimination, a bush fire scours the sky. Angry flames in the distance and a thick pall of smoke drives us to ask if the road ahead is safe. “What fire?” is the response from the pub, where a mob have had their faces eaten by the pokies they are in thrall to. Bleeps, clicks and the clink of change make conversation impossible and as the main street fills with smoke we roll on.
Named after the local Aboriginal word for dingo, nearby Wondai was once a timber town and home to the legendary pacer Wondai’s Mate whose four-legged legacy spills brashly from the door of the pub as the punters howl at nags in the 3.30 at Flemington.
The publican is sitting outside the Cecil as well roll up in a V8 roar. We ask him about the fire and he responds by telling us he’s the fire chief and he knows nothing about it. Reckons we should “head inside for a coldie. Get fires like this every other day.”
Tin Lid in tow, we venture into the cool depths of a grand old dame to a bar clung to by characters. The Cecil’s skin might be lined and peeling, her veneer a patina of age and neglect, but her bones are strong and bear the weight of time well, albeit in a sickening shade of puke. And the characters? There’s a book in that story…
Cold beer and lemonade help us forget the raging inferno that fueled our bat-out-of-hell entrance. Sneaking away from the race-caller’s holler, I find hallways to nowhere and stairs to infinity, the echoes of the past whispering seductively in my ear.
But it is the Tin Lid who discovers this gem – a gaming room for giants with carpeted walls, decked out in musty hope and trailing the promise of a party like lard on a string uncurling beneath the nose of a dog.
A bloke in the beer garden starts to yarn. He’s keen to get out of Wondai and back to Moreton Island so his kid can swim and fish and he can knock the booze on the head.
“That’s the problem with the bush; it’s a small town mate and the only thing to bloody to do is go to the pub or fight the fires. There’s nothing else mate. At least on the Island you can get out and do stuff and not have a beer. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a beer. But I don’t want my little fella just thinking that’s all there is to do.”
Under a hazy sky in a sun-dappled garden with the smell of hops and timber on the air it seems hard to believe anyone would want to leave this tidy country town with its close-knit beery crew and neatly mown edges.
Like he said, there’s work and fires and booze. Keeps you busy.
We leave after one, aware that Arcadia awaits and that the smell of smoke is stronger still. As the Cecil fades from view and we head north, away from the smoke, I wonder at their certainty, at the sheer will of a country community to know, “She’ll be right mate, ‘av another beer will yas!”.
Two days later, from a cyclone-drenched Arcadia, I find a story about the bush fire that roars through the interior at Murgon. Started by dry lightening, it is the start of an inferno that eviscerates vast swathes of bone-dry land.
No lives were lost but the land is now raw and scarred.
Reckon the locals coped well though, what with their cool bar to cling to.