Mean machines and chicky babes

With smoke pluming in lewd balloons from every steel orifice, the fetid flowery sweetness of methanol – a lingering promise of speed – and a vitriolic V8 Armageddon, a battle of sound that clangs righteously as it rides the cooling air, the speedway tangles itself into my subconscious. It feeds a memory as liquor feeds oblivion, of hot nights in a faraway land, my Dad and his mates drinking tinnies beneath the bonnet of a hot rod, 10CC bawling from the 8-track stereo at full bore.

The cowboy’s got the scent too… he knows his way around these events. No matter the class or race, he comes from a long line of hot-rodders, spending taper-thin tar-filled days on the quarter-mile at Eastern Creek, racing, rigging and living life at high velocity, a shortened diff snug between his thighs.

The cowboy's old man and his trusty steed

The cowboy’s old man and his trusty steed

It’s as if we have been called in, slotting seamlessly into a world of metal and fuel, rubber and gas…

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Arriving in Broome from the dirt tracks of the Kimberley, we have been doing a lot of this:

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and plenty of that:

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Our playground is a turquoise coastline fringed in Pindan – the rust red dirt of the Kimberley – sunbaked days knee-deep in rockpools, hot chips, cold beer and salty nights beneath endless skies bivouacked around the fire.

But let’s be honest, in the face of such wholesome wholesomeness the consensus was that a little balance was in order…

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The speedway is the abject celebration of man vs machine, the blast of speed, hollering testosterone, the wanton release and the final ignominy of being dragged through the dirt on a chain. It sparks with cultural references, alight with the high-pitched rumble of AC/DC, of Swan in crumply cans, of hot fireys dolled up in neon reflectives and a full face of makeup – it is the speedway after all…

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Barb’s running commentary crests the whump whump of the centrifugal track, spruiking everything from Auto One to Clarke Rubber, the bain-marie and Broome Cemetary; I can’t help but question if there is a correlation.

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She is excited: rapid-fire annunciation spills from the tannoy and the fireys start making a beeline for the track, schnitzy burgers tucked into deep pockets.

The throaty roar of a V8 snaps our heads up in anticipation and the tension is palpable. The dirt puffs into the air, a choking fog that adds taste to the putrid gas of the burnout cloud that hovers balefully over the track…

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Shiny wrecks howl around the track bucking and butting each other in a parody of Darwinism – here, only the headlong maniacs with ‘real good drivin’ skills, eh?’ and a car that doesn’t fold into pieces survive. Little tuckers are next, knee-high rev-heads slotted into souped-up billycarts that peel in and out of formation on the quarter track, proud parents jockeying for position on the hurricane fencing.

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The Tin Lid has wangled a bright blue Zoopa Doopa and stops his wholesale demolition of it to tell me the bain-marie lady told him the family meal includes:

  • 2 x cheeseburgers
  • 2 x chips
  • 2 x nuggets (of unknown origin)
  • 2 x Zoopa Doopas

We’ll be having hot chips then and pretending we are not really a family…

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A toddler bowls up and down the concrete in the shed pushing a Tonka. He is utterly absorbed, oblivious to the tonnes of metal being flogged through the dirt just metres away, fire flashing from bellies, smoke pouring from arseholes…

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There are tin lids on the prowl everywhere, from nappy-straddling tots to leering teens, stalking the lolly jar while sizing up the beer fridges and each other:

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Ours, though, is more interested in second place and the misappropriation of a Double Diggity Dog cooker. This leads to a confusing moment as I realise he has no idea what a ‘dimmy simmy’ is. This is quickly rectified, in theory rather than in practice.

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The official (the one calling the shots, or at least the tow truck) up there in the box with Barb, is wrapped in shiny black, a motorcross-hatcheted cap pulled down tight over black wraparound sunnies and a mid-shoulder length grey rat’s tail. His shirt reads: Official. 2013. Perhaps the other one is in the wash? Or maybe he’s just a fan of Barb.

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It is he, however, who announces the lolly storm. Pint-sized punters pour towards the track as a lumbering effie – the rescue truck – barrels onto centre-stage. From the back of the tray a couple of young fellas are hurling white paper lolly bags into the crowd that seethes and boils in anticipation, breaking left to curl around the track in hot pursuit. The Tin Lid can hardly believe his little sugared-up eyes and beseeches the Cowboy to assist him. The reward is greater that he could imagine, two paper bags crammed with teeth and milk bottles and snakes, and a stolen moment to gorge himself.

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As the rumble dies down, the children suddenly quiet, Burnout Billy is back. For Billy, the aim is to spin doughnuts in his low-slung not-ever-gonna-be-street-legal mean machine –in a fetching shade of lime – until the tyre pops. Billy is a legend though, and the crowd chew on his smoke as they bellow him on. He gets not one but two, and drags his whooping arse out through the dirt on sparking rims.

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The speedway has a viscous seam of Australiana pulsing through it. As the big guns roll out, throbbing to a bass line that can be heard 10kms away, mobs of spectators flock to their eskies atop utes and trucks decked out in lawn furniture, and parked trackside for your viewing pleasure. This is a passion, a shared love with something for everyone. Kids roam free in the dark, high on lollies, adults lounge in precise formation and the sharp whine of speed continues deep into the night.

Shrouded in smoke, the speedway is a neon-coated sugar-filled beery wonderland.

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The last resort

Scabby-kneed little sister of the cheap hotel, the motel is generally a masterpiece in peeling paint, clogged sinks, cigarette-burned nylon bed covers and cat-sized roaches.

Cast in the pall of a flickering neon light, with seedy characters skulking in corners, motels wear their atmosphere like a moth-eaten velour death shroud – horror, crime, sex, violence, losers, misfits and hapless humour stains of life in a rundown joint that time has forgotten.

It is the scene for lusty teens charging experimental fumblings to their parent’s credit card and hapless hookers leading their johns back to fake pine laminate and a buzzing lightbulb; it can be the tatty home of resolute despair, a dank weariness infecting all who sleep there. Perhaps even the last resort.


Tip-top spot to take the Tin Lid then.

Decked out in trakky daks and sun hats, boardies, rashies, a smear of zinc and a stash of sunnies in varying degrees of able-bodiedness, we hit Thirroul, a lazy stretch of surf just south of the Royal National Park between Austinmer and Bulli, and its infamous beach motel. Once known as the Oral Eagle Motel (though why is unknown), the joint is the last resting place of Brett Whiteley, who slipped from this mortal realm in the smooth yet unrelenting grip of a heroin overdose on 15 June 1992, aged 53.

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Much was reported at the time:

 His squalid death in room four of the Beach Hotel

The coroner’s verdict was ‘death due to self-administered substances’

But this is my favourite – it seems to say so much more than the others, that perhaps the end was well-flavoured:

On the bedside table is a near-empty bottle of Lang’s Supreme Whiskey…

And as luck would have it, we are in room four. There are no ghosts. No Lang’s Supreme by the bed. Just some unprepossessing art and ‘contemporary’ finishes. I take a picture of a picture of a 4WD raging up a beach for the Cowboy, deep in the knowledge he will appreciate this.

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And then we hit the sand in a flurry of small feet, the Tin Lid joined for the jaunt by his besties, two dark-haired beauties whose sisterly bond has stretched to include him. There is a requirement for chocolate Paddle Pops, accompanied by deep sighs of patient waiting:


The crackling, squeaking sand shifts with impatience, enticing us down to the edge, where the world falls away in a plume of spray.


Slung between the steep foothills of the Illawarra Escarpment and the surging Pacific, Thirroul is an exposed beach and reef break shafted with rips and thumpingly reliable surf. It also has rocks, sharks and bluebottles, quicksand, drop-offs and a pool-pipe outlet. 


The Tin Lids play safe, back from the edge, happy to watch mobs of neon-suited surf lifesavers cresting waves in rubber duckies, exhilaration foaming in their wake, and the laden bulk of a container ship as it hauls itself towards a distant horizon.


The beach is a glorious indictment of Australiana, rich in a raw pride that is wreathed in a sense of weathered gratitude. An old fella sits up from his sandy slumber and calls out to the Tin Lids: “Youse ‘aven a good time kids? Good beach ‘eh? You tell ’em, come to Thirroul, it’s a good place. Right?”

Flocks of gulls soar and dive, stiffening less-than-hot chips their object of affection. The lazy M-A-T-E  M-A-T-E of their call to arms hangs in the air, feathers drifting on the breeze like snow. Miss Woo points out that the seagulls are not listening to her. The Tin Lid replies, “that’s ‘cos they don’t have ears…”

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But best of all, the southern end of the sands are home to this:


and this:


and these:


Rusting into dereliction, flakes of iron burnt black by the tide, the pipes strain to be free of the pastel pumphouse that stands sentinel over craggy rocks. Like aging arteries, the pipes funnel water, that clangs impatiently at its enforcement, to and fro from the ocean to the pool, a salty circulatory system that booms and hisses like a caged beast.

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But it is the striated rocks, striped with ochre, that hold magic for the little people, an adventure waiting to happen. Bottle tops, nets, sand crabs and bailer twine, stones, sticks, shells and sand are soon treasure to be claimed and bartered, the highest rocky pinnacles a crows nest that gazes out to a stormy sea full of marauding pirates…

It takes some time to entice them from their realm…

But promises of hot chips of icy cold lemonade sift through the myopia, and the tribe are on the move again, hot-footing it up a cooling beach, long shadows damp underfoot.

In changing rooms that sigh nostalgically of the past, wet swimmers slap on the floor and hot-chip eating attire is shrugged on over wet shoulders.


And after a cursory glance at the ocean pool, a still-life in dappled light, we hit the street with sun-tight skin.



The pub is mottled in neon candy – screeching peach, lime soda and acid lemon float around perma-tanned bodies atop towering heels that stab the worn boards with staccato precision. It’s a girls’ night out, stiff with perfume and high-pitched crescendo. The surfers are looking up though, faces bright with anticipation of the chase…

But sated at last, the little people are finally in need of a little motel dreaming, so we weave our way past an eclectic rabble of consumerism, including these little gems:


The Tin Lid’s Nana remembers Thirroul in 1945, a day-tripper’s delight; “bowling down the Bulli Pass in a ’39 Chev with seven people, picnic baskets, blankets, soggy salad sarnies and homemade ginger beer that popped in the bag in the boot”.

His memories will be of the motel, with its sachets of sauce, sprinkles of sugar in a pushed-together bed and jam sandwiches in the middle of the night. Of waking to find his mother slouched out the front of the darkened room, sipping a glass of blood-red wine on the forecourt. Of sand in the shower, a bright-eyed dawn and hot concrete.


With my back to the still-warm wall of room four, the Beach Motel gives me a deep sense of comfort as it cradles my boy back to sleep. Its retro facade and lurid tales lend a sense of the macabre, of a joint that time forgot. But time is here; it is languid and slow, and stretched gossamer thin as the light dies.


RIP Mr Whiteley.

Home of the brave

In an effort to maintain my frenetic search for Australiana, and in a fit of wild-eyed idealism, I packed the Tin Lid and the Cowboy into the Holden and pointed her nose to Soviet wastes of Homebush and the Royal Easter Show.


What better environment to bear witness to the deranged mania of our cultural psyche than an oversized paddock swarming with small humans high on sugar and roaring with adrenalin, mobs of cattle lowing with good health, outlaw clowns, balls of fluff that careen into ankles with squeaking abandon, roustabouts clutching half-crushed cans of brew and harried parents with fairy floss smeared across their peripheral vision?


This raging maelstrom is the crucible of Australiana: a small child coos lovingly at a helium-filled bunny snared to her wrist; an old bushie adjusts his hat to better see the young stags riding stallions in the rodeo; working dogs yip and holler, tucking sheep into corners as neatly as cobwebs. A stock whip cracks the air like a rifle, quivering knees or hearts depending on your view, and a sheep-handler sings a Kylie song out of key.

Here Chiko rolls and Dagwood dogs parry for supremacy, the doughnut stand puffs cinnamon into the air to attract its prey and pizza comes in cones. Here apples are juiced in front of you, offering a tart taste of the highlands, slabs of meat roast in the open and you get to have a beer with Duncan…


The stark truth though is it is the cheese-on-a-stick stall that they queue for, lines snaking with sinuous indecency. A small sign in each booth reads; Hold on to Hope, a gentle message for those struggling with life. It’s a curious marriage, cheese-on-a-stick and hope. Perhaps the message is reassurance that if you can get cheese to stick on a stick anything is possible.


Here ugg boots mate with flannelette in broad daylight and merry-go-rounds have heritage orders. Sensible shoes carry middle-aged knitters to the wool display passing Kermit and Miss Piggy, who hang suspended from their feet and, though clearly indisposed and eager to clamber down, are impossible to win.


The wooden monkey racetrack tests the Cowboy’s prowess and his dismal failure does not go unnoticed, however a rapid retreat into the arms of a horse named Stan lessens the blow:


Beneath a big-wheel shadow too small for its owner we find what we have come for, a barn that smells of the crush of fresh straw and the acrid smell of urine. It is fat with infants – human, poultry, bovine, ovine and swine – and life burgeons from the seams like jam from a well-held sandwich.

Obeying strict stroller parking instructions we duck to enter, and the Tin Lid hurls himself  in the teeming melee – he has found his mob…



The public order riot squad lingers outside twiddling its thumbs, anxious to quell expected carnage. The bawking, squawking, bleating oink of the animal sheds does little to rearrange stultified expressions of derision, though a lone oik attracts attention, low-slung dacks and a tattoo of a Chinese symbol on his upper arm (which may or may not read #66 chicken chow mein) a dead giveaway of his criminal intent.

In the dairy shed a bored ringer cruises Facebook, a beer at his feet, his stock oblivious to his distraction;


While in the poultry shed the art section cuddles up close to the Pigeon Fanciers Association. This little gem says it all really:


In a quiet corner there is evidence of fowl play – a paper plate despoiled by sauce and sticky fingerprints, tiny bones littering the straw bale next to it, serve to remind of the tenuous nature of this show and tell…


The Country Women’s Association beckons. A nice sit down and a cuppa is the ticket, before a stroll through the cake decorating pavilion, a shrine to iced invention and the dark arts.


Closely followed by the fruit cake display…


The necessary deliverance from this atavistic alchemy comes in the form of cold beer and a leather-carcassed biker slouched against a temporary bar discussing the drought out west with a mob of weathered stockmen, weary after a week in the city.

And as the sun melts from the sky smearing gold and crimson across the horizon the show comes into its own. The fading light sparks a flurry of fluorescence, neon flares stab and fizz and a cast of carnies loom from the darkened reaches of churning machines.


Rides emit a shrill pitch, lights flash and sparkle and the tension mounts, an amplified unease that heralds the birth of night.


Sideshow alley is the Apocalypse Now in this twisted grimace of entertainment, where life bellows in angry rebellion, strobe-lit in hot pink and lurid green. It is a giant step from fluffy bunnies to this greased oblivion, but the Tin Lid takes the steep learning curve in his stride, howling back his appreciation, slicing the air with a whirling blur of light that shrieks the opening chords to Waltzing Matilda.


It is the revelry of fools, a poisoned spurt of excess gilded by feel-good fantasy, yet I cannot wipe the grin from my face and the boys know no limits, cramming hot chips slathered in chicken salt into mouths sluiced with saliva.

This is the home of the brave, an unmanned crossroads deep in the heart of Australiana.

Eat, drink and leave

It’s the most easterly point on the Australian mainland, yet Byron Bay has a certain West-side vibe, a gangsta authority over all things karmic and crown-chakra related.


Daily ocean dips and deep Ashram-inspired devotion, spirulina smoothies and tantric touching all deliver the vibe in spades, with astral travelling, the Crystal Castle, mediums, infrared saunas and dandelion tea ensuring a good all-round blanketing of spiritual bliss.

The Bay speaks to people. It is a place etched in lore, a rite of passage and initiation chiselled into the backpacker tracks that span the coastline of Australia, paths worn shiny with overuse and the drag and splatter of banged-up vans.


For this little travelling tribe, Byron was a Mecca – a refuge for the alternative and a haven for the strange. Smoky trails of nag champa and pot streamed from the emerald hills that ring the bay, the Echo ran ads for tofu welders and yoghurt-weaving workshops while straggly dogs tied to trees howled into the night. Fire twirlers lit up the sky with shafts of light and the acrid burn of kero, pubs thronged with bushies, bikers and birds, and bare feet padded hot sand into cooled milk bars.


Radical, alternative, flecked with tie-dye and crowned with raggedy dreads stiff with salt, the Bay was a form of scruffy redemption with its off-beat counter-cultured charm, colonics and sticky chai.


Located in the slumped gut of a long-dead volcano, this lush sea-fringed hinterland is a meeting place, a one-time corroboree site and hunting ground and the magnet that attracts the filings of life. You come, you heal, you leave. Or so they say.

But today we skirt the edge of a new scene, a brander, newer world, glossy with money and power. Muscled 4WDs leaking ice-cold aircon stalk car-parking spaces on the sea front, while the clip clip of spiked heels from those cooled interiors mark a trail to generic shops brandishing tat and tap-and-go convenience.


Black Mary causes a stir with her rattly growl, hurling her bulk onto the pavement, prime position on the beach. With the evening wrapping its soft shroud around us we head to the pub for a cold beer. Thumping FM beats throb to a crowd of well-dressed dollies clutching lolly-bright Breezers, who natter of plush rooms in exclusive retreats and the health benefits of kale. We watch from the shadows as shards of laser light clatter through the sweating dark. Glittering eyes follow our movements, curious as to the luggage in the trolley. Emanating from them is patent PC displeasure at the Tin Lid’s presence outside of daylight hours, though he is unperturbed.

Silent censure seems to filter through this once culturally promiscuous town – where once ideals and dreams fucked in the open, now mere suggestion of a life outside the box is best sheathed, while alternative has become a brand.

Like the bloodied aftermath of a bad prom, torn and regurgitated, inappropriate, something to be ashamed of in the morning, Byron struggles with its image. The phalanxes of bashed-up HiAces littering two-minute noodle flavouring and financial despair are easily shunted to the edge of the dream, and increasingly the salacious soul of this one time hipster is sidling west in sympathy, replaced by a plastic fantastic futility.

Market forces have driven out the quirky character of the town, which has long been its drawcard. Salons still offer colonic irrigation as casually as a manicure, but on the main street the offbeat is nowhere to be seen… Byron Bay may have resisted McDonald’s but now you can buy a Subway sandwich, a Domino’s pizza and a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream. “Drunks’ tucker”, as the local police call it, has replaced alfalfa salad.

Sydney Morning Herald


A one-time working-man’s town, with a legacy that includes sand-mining, whaling and a stinking meatworks with a bloodline that spewed offal straight into the bay, Byron has become a playground that resounds with pitched battles, superiority complexes and the squall of entitlement:

There can be few towns in Australia with a more contradictory identity than Byron Bay. On one hand it has, historically, been associated with the alternative lifestyle movement of the 1970s and seen as a kind of interesting hippie retreat in northern NSW. On another level it has been seen as a very upmarket get-away-from-it-all retreat for wealthy southerners not wanting to mix with the hoi polloi who inhabit more vulgar coastal townships like Coolangatta and Tweed Heads. And over the past thirty years it has acquired a reputation as the residence of the rich and famous…

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, 2009


But the early morning beach brings some respite and ripples with life. Surfers share waves with pods of dolphins, backpackers slump, passed out on the sand, and families tag-team in the shallows. Byron is a holiday place and the wafts of Hawaiian Tropic and hot chips that sidle by on a gentle easterly temper misgivings of luxury resorts with million-dollar price tags, street brawls and a shadowy underground that reeks of the old school.


Needless to say, the Tin Lid takes to the idea of a summer holiday with toddler-streaked verve:


And we embrace a week in situ, with Mr Whippys that slip slide down hot skin, 22

fish tacos that promise peace,


and the company of a baby alpaca, who peruses the Japanese fusion menu from the comfort of her washing basket.


And in this eccentric, eclectic and, these days, exclusive place, we find a peace from the long haul of the open road. The exquisite beauty of the bay is undeniable, a torrid affair of verdant tropical green and violent turquoise, and the sense of the metaphysical is novel. The emphasis on fresh food, alternative therapy and health is a diversion from the Australiana road show, where green veg is hoarded, stashed and eked out until replenished, and salad sandwiches from the servo must suffice.

A hotbed for creativity, the wider area beams with a wholesome originality, a unique vibrancy that allows you to shut out the sense of malignant decay that feeds on itself. Beyond the bay, the cool depths of the interior hold a deep fascination, not least because of the things you overhear:

With thanks to Overheard in Byron Bay

“It’s her housewarming. I’ve already given her an eagle feather but I feel like i should get her something else, too.”


Facilitated Thematic Soirees: covering inner voice dialogue to the tantra. Only if your single and over 40, please email a photo. Namaste…                                Personal ad, The Echo

“Hey, you look familiar. Were you in court the other day?”

“I need to get some beef bones for Ganesh”

“I’m very sensitive to the socks I wear – I tend to absorb the spirit of the animal they’ve come from quite strongly.”

“Do I need to bring anything?”
“No… oh – actually, just your favourite cushion. And some cacao.”

“I’m a private person. I don’t put my smoothies on Instagram.”

“Got much work on at the moment?”
“No, I’m really just focusing on getting yarn-bombing up and running in Lismore.”

“What do you do?”
“I’m a mystic. I also work in construction. Everyone needs a disguise.”

“Do you mind if I keep these aioli containers?”
“Sure, why?”
“I’m sleeping in a cave tomorrow night with seven men and I’ll use them for candles.”

“Why aren’t you seeing India any more?”
“She’s still eating sugar.”

“Look, I’ve got a boat and a bong, what else do I need?”

“I only use organic moisturiser – it seals your aura better.”

“I’m feeling very scattered. I need to eat some root vegetables.”

“Well you could go and work in Brisbane, but you’d have to wear shoes.”

“It’s very damp in here – have you been tribal belly dancing?”

“I’m not answering to ‘Avocado’ since I started eating meat again…”
“How did you put your back out?
I fell asleep on my crystal…”

Any port in a storm

Evacuated from Fraser Island, the storm pressing down on us, bedraggled and rattled we flee south, covering barely 80 clicks before Mary hauls her dripping tailgate into Maryborough and skids to an ungainly halt.


And. So. It. Starts.

Howling Valkyries vent squalling funnels of rain at the truck. The KD (our knock-down shelter) buckles and sinks to its knees, a watery death with sodden mourners. As Mary slews to the left, rocking on her axles like a troubled child, the streets slide away, coursing, surging downstream in a flood of despair. Tangled limbs skewer deep drains that choke and overflow and the maelstrom spins into a whorl of hate, lashing all in its path with malevolent fury.

This is the prelude to the devastation wrought by ex-tropical cyclone Oswald, a storm cell of unprecedented force that slammed into the southern Queensland coast in January 2013.

The morning is a slate grey shroud, bruised-bellied clouds skud across an invisible horizon and water pelts from the sky, caught in a vortex of angry air.  Towns submerge before our eyes, all roads to the coast are closed and the highway is our final retreat.

In full flight and surfing a latent frill of fear, we let Mary off her leash…

It feels like this

It feels like this.

Russell Island is the largest of the Southern Moreton Bay Islands, a mob of curly coasted land snippets that wallow just off the coast of Brisbane. Funny place to take shelter you might think, but Russell lies in the lee of North Stradbroke Island, which promises protection from the elements. That and an open-hearted saltie, the indomitable Captain Dave, catcher of crays, who offers a port in the storm.

The car ferry rolls like a bitch; while the Tin Lid and I pitch queasily from side to side the Cowboy spends the hour at sea boning up on local info. According to the storyteller Karragarra is the gay island, a mere four kilometres of rainbow-hued hubris and a Ferrari owner who drives his pride and joy along the 300m of tarmac twice a day in a squeal of glory. Macleay is the site of a recent murder, an elderly woman robbed of not only her hidden fortune but her life. When we were there no-one was talking, a wall of silence that buffeted the police barge moored stubbornly in the ferry lane. The culprit, a ‘junk-mail deliverer’ has since been arrested. On Lamb Island there is much discussion as to how the mainlanders cope with ‘Australia’, that distant country just 20 minutes to the west.

Russell Island does not rate a mention.

As we wait out the storm at Captain Dave’s all hell breaks loose, a bellicose virago that scolds the landscape with her hysteria.


The power fails on the first day, the pier is inoperable and the ferries stymied; there are food and water shortages, produce rots in the darkened island store and the threat of structural collapse keeps people shuttered inside. Isolation takes on new meaning here, as visibility drops to a few feet and the long life milk the Tin Lid has stashed dwindles to a trickle.

For five days we are stranded. It’s all very Robinson Crusoe – with mango moonshine and board games for ten.

A quick game of mango bowls

A quick game of mango bowls

In the aftermath the IGA is the place to be. It is eerily empty, shelves bare, save for a few hollow-eyed souls stocking up on Black and Gold.

A grey lady sporting grey mullet, teeth and skin, plus a dim outlook on life, is bereft in the biscuit section:

“We’ve ‘ad no power for four fucken days, no food, no help. No bugger came to see if we was alright or nuffink. We moved from bloody Gympie to get away from the water but me, I’d rahver be flooded there – at least there people come and check on yers. Drive through flooded roads and everythink. And some fuckers had power! So I didn’t have to throw all me bloody food away after all. Fuck ’em. No-one even offered to help.”

Distraught and dejected she slides out into the rain carrying her yellow-and-black-hued treasure: cat litter, chicken soup, dunny roll and a ratty pack of Milk Arrowroots.

A disaster management plan is in place and flashing lights illuminate the damage. Finally we escape the confines of our isolation into an island that thrives on, well, isolation.



Kibbinkibbinwa Point and Ooncooncoo Bay, Turtle Swamp, Whistling Kite Wetlands and Wet Mouse, the island trails intrigue in its wake. With all the inherent issues of island life, Russell is a weathered soul, lines of frustration worn deep on a sunburnt face.

Once an Aboriginal hunting ground for shellfish, fish and turtles, the island was only settled recently. The local mob believe that the eerie searching sob of the curlews that stalk the corners are the souls of children who have died, “the call of the young ones”.

They left well alone, save for a crossing point from the northeast tip across across the passage to Stradbroke Island.


The whitefellas have no such quandaries, spreading out, kit homes in tow, like an unexplained rash. According to the Brisbane Times,

“The population is small, the views are priceless and the facilities are reasonably good  considering most things have to be shipped in. But the wide-spread land scam that dogs Russell’s reputation has likely kept many away from this spot in the past. During the early 1970s, large parcels of farmland were divided and heavily promoted by investors. Many unwary buyers found the blocks of land they had bought were not where they thought, and media reports at the time documented how some were even underwater at high tide.”

Moving house, island-style

Moving house, island-style


A house with no stairs


True blue hidehole

This place has a healthy seam of blood-red Australiana running richly through it, a sticky viscosity of retro dagginess. A sulky teen butt-scoots along on a skateboard down a dirt track. A heavily mustached, tattooed and muscle-bound bloke leers from a Commodore, his vowels exorcised into an ocker drawl. His moll is a picture of suburban necessity, unscrunching her Aussie emblazoned boxers with an expert finger, uggs schlepping on wet concrete despite the tropical heat.


Island necessity breeds innovation in the sweetest style:


And a Sandman lolls insolently on a pebbledash drive:


The whisper of a dope-dealing mafia outpost that is protected “by a pit bull with aids” meets a tangle of rusted metal that marks the final resting place for a burnt-out ute, eaten alive by the sand. A man arrives home carrying an esky and a car battery, his stubbies rumpled from the ferry.


A scrabble of discarded fridges, rusted car bodies, old shoes and plasterboard stamp a heavy urban footprint. It is testament to Russell’s status as a human hideaway, a bolthole for artists, retirees and thieves. Million-dollar properties with waterfront views are lapped by a stain of underprivilege, a greasy scum that floats on the surface of paradise.



But despite the palpable pall of inequity that scents a wary breeze, there is a rich weave of society on Russell island and social debris and the clutter of commonality aside, nature has a way of burgeoning before your eyes, rampant, verdant and wealthy.


Precious wetlands, an abundance of woodlands, mangroves and tall trees, Russell is a conservation locus. It is here, among the whispering grasses, or knee-deep in a rock pool where liquid life churns between cool-skinned bones that this inscrutable curl of isolation truly exists.

Dirt tracks straight and true peter out with a sigh as the bush reclaims its own. Vacant lots have an air of resignation, plots with no plot. While humans challenge and develop and clutter, Russell Island strikes the sound of perfect silence all on it’s own.

And Captain Dave took the Tin Lid crabbing. Which made his little life…


Rollin’ Stock

My attorney advised me not to get sick. She patted my fevered brow and told me to lay off the synonyms, put down the allegory and retreat from this cataloguing of quirk.

Ignoring her advice, as one is wont to do in the face of a rampaging word habit, my verbal strength failed me. I found myself surfing a wordless wasteland, devoid of Australiana, though certainly not culture-less: I discovered hot purple lint beneath the bed, a significant crack in my favourite liquor jug and a preoccupation with gossip of the lewdest nature. The Tin Lid and the Cowboy learnt to approach bestowing Who magazines and gin, with caution flickering in the whites of their eyes. And we have run out of cheese.

But fear not. The search is back on, laced with vim and promising Australiana in spades.  The Secretary is braced for intrepid retrieval; she has purchased new pointy pencils for her scribblings and is wearing double band aids on her potential bunion blisters. My attorney is relaxing on a beach with a molotov cocktail, grooming herself with a small Spanish man.

All is good in the world.

I have found a dinosaur, kitted out in kitten heels, a behemoth whose wears its continued relevance as a shiny badge of pride on the latest Prada sleeve.

Straddling the criss-cross of tracks at Redfern Station, Carriageworks to the north, loco yards to the south, Eveleigh is a flirting anachronism that melds past, present and future.

The Eveleigh Locomotive Workshop is decked out in pop-bright flags that herald Innovation, Heritage, Sustainability, and Community, the tenets of a modern reincarnation. Once the powerhouse of a vibrant steam industry, Eveleigh has evolved into a paradox; it is an industrial museum, threaded with memory and steeped with the souls of the past, while at the same time a bright-eyed bustle of innovation, the Australian Technology Centre, chock full of businesses with names like elcom; ac3; and thoughtweb.

The Tin Lid taking it all in

The most recent arrivals are flouncing fashionistas and doe-eyed interns who traipse across a landscape once reserved for hardened men, in teetering heels attached to smartphones. The media has arrived…

Built in 1887, Eveleigh championed the power of steam, forging, stamping, pressing and bolting metal into the rolling stock that powered the halcyon days of Victorian industrial development.

Rows of pounding machine shops lined up to be fed from the fires of the foundry, the hammer and press of the forge clamouring long into the dark. It was a place of fire and pain, steel and sorrow.

Remembered in black and white, courtesy of our perspective on the past and the pitch of the coal that coated everything, the characters that brought Eveleigh to life are long lost to our modern world. Cloaked in navvies humour and clad in flat caps, steel boots and itchy wool, these men embodied the grind and grist of non-automated workforce. They were the face of the headlong hurtle to the six o’clock swill, a flutter on the nags and a meat pie ‘n’ sauce on a Sunday.

It’s a long way from iPad-clutching cashmere suits and dolly-birds in vermillion sipping double-shot-skinny-soy-caramel-lattes (“hold the sugar, I’m watching my weight”).

Contemporary buildings peer out suspiciously at the heritage-listed loco shops from behind fortified slatted fronts, their eyes narrowed in distrust..

Or is it envy? The incidental architecture jars painfully, with sharp lines that jut, a scope that is stingy, and a lack of wildlife in the lobby. The arches at Eveleigh are vast, arcing high above me, the space filled with sound and memory, scrabbling birds and thick cobwebs.

In the blacksmiths bay a working smith, thick dreads snaking down his back, is busy striking metal into shards of russet and gold before thrusting molten steel into icy water and disappearing behind a curtain of steam. The Tin Lid is most impressed, casting his Charlie and Lola book onto the ground over and over in sheer admiration of this worthy skill.

This is a place where three worlds overlay each other, a shadowy resonance beneath a glossy facade stapled onto an arresting history. Naturally that includes CCTV…

The dross of over a hundred years of operation has been carefully scraped away to reveal a sterile, staid beauty, yet still present within the glossy corporate facade are elements of the past, a reminder of a previous life, though ATMs crouch expectantly in corners once reserved for the gaffer’s office:

Vast bolted pieces of the obsolete sit redundant in the windows, as if gazing curiously into the present. The trundling beep of cherry pickers and scissor lifts, the clink of a teaspoon and the sharp bite of Ajax serves to remind me of the prosaic nature of Eveleigh now. The cranes and hydraulics lie idle, the tracks no longer lead anywhere, and there is a eerie calm, interspersed with busy cutlery and whirring cash machines…

The strict Victorian austerity of this era is smoothed out, softened by the buildings’ evolution, but in places the past peeps through, a stark reminder of the brutality of Eveleigh’s history:

In memory of the fallen

As you wander further away from Innovation Plaza, an air of desolation and dereliction lingers, somnolent workshops lie empty and dark, their windows smashed, the small information signs have become extinct and there is barbed wire to deter.

It is here that the past is closest to the surface. Here you can smell and taste another world and best understand the proud history of Eveleigh and then men who worked here.

The path from past to future is never easy. Eveleigh manages to maintain a sense of pride and purpose and though the innovative adaptive reuse program is far from the gristly origins of the loco yards, it is also a long way from any further encroachment by the developers and the concrete crawl that typifies them.

Come in Spinner!

ANZAC day dawns with an aching clarity and it makes me think. In this world of nuanced meaning, confused subtext and clouded intent, when the world is finally still, when the planes stop for a brief moment and birdsong is the only tinkling sound, the veil lifts and allows us perspective, a shifting recognition of what came before in sharp contrast to today.

On this day the silence is a fragile thing that helps me to remember:

ANZAC dawn

Suffused with pride, nostalgia and quiet remembrance, ANZAC Day is my favourite day of the year and I realised (late in the piece) that it is the ultimate symbol of Australiana. Heroic, courageous and steeped in dignity this is a day that celebrates not only the lives lost in every terrible conflict and the legacy of bravery, but the stalwart social mores of Australia: mateship, the love of a legend, larrikinism, proud irreverence and sharing a beer with a mate to remember the diggers.

I didn’t make the dawn service. And I didn’t march down streets, though I would have. Instead I made my way to the pub for a game of two-up, the very best way to share the moment once the ceremony is over. With bouncers guarding the doors the mob seeths through the guts of the place. A sea of plastic cups crackle angrily underfoot and jostled chants to fallen heroes promise a slick yeasty film on everything.

The scent of crushed rosemary is delicious, spiky sprigs wedged into lapels and inevitably drowned in drinks.

The cowboy queues patiently at the bar while I watch the crowd spill its secrets.

A patient cowboy

It is an eclectic mix. A couple of wizened old boys prop up the bar, gazing rheumy-eyed at the mob; a vet studded with anti-war badges has a faraway look, the taint of horror barely concealed. Towering above the crowd a serviceman waits patiently for a break in the sea of bodies, his face betraying both his amusement and his pride, his chest heavy with medals.

A table of squeaky-clean teens gawp as the more seasoned two-uppers hurl themselves into the crush for another plastic jug of Coopers and the cry “Come in Spinner!” grows louder, the energy building for another swoop of noise as the coins are hurled into the air. Strangely it then goes completely silent, a gasped hush as fate takes over… before the raucous yowling begins again.

The throng is ten-deep around the spinner;

the boxer holds court and the crowd is a frenzy of head-tapping, cash-hollering exuberance. Fair go spinner! Up and do ’em! Heads are right! I got ten on tails! – this is a language almost lost to warfare, a language quickly mastered when you are hemmed in by the crowd, butterfly-coloured currency fluttering between the outstretched hands of strangers all around you.

The crush surges as players call out for an opponent and the sound reaches a crescendo, then a lull, then a soaring cheer. There is no authority here, no banker, no rules. You hand your money to a line of people you have never met and they hand it back, bright smiles on their faces. A nod, a wink, a shrug of the shoulders, the shared experience rakes through us all.

Two-up speaks a language we all understand. It is the language of mateship. The language of a shared experience, the language of memory. It speaks of adversity and the strength of those who overcame it, made the best of it.

Many decry ANZAC day as brash jingoism, condemning swarms of backpackers shrouded in sleeping bags who sleep, sprawled on the ground at Gallipoli until The Last Post wakes them, and claiming the true purpose of the day is lost to gambling and alcohol.

But ANZAC day is about remembering the fallen. It is the memory of the trenches and the spirit of young men lost to a callous war. It is the shared understanding of an old game that bonds people together and helps them to remember.

We will remember.


Term Meaning
Spinner The person who throws the coins up in the air. Each person in the group takes turns at being the spinner.
Boxer Person who manages the game and the betting, and doesn’t participate in betting.
Ringkeeper (Ringy) Person who looks after the coins after each toss (to avoid loss or interference).
Kip A small piece of wood on which the coins are placed before being tossed. One coin is placed heads up, the other tails up.
Heads Both coins land with the ‘head’ side facing up. (Probability 25%)
Tails Both coins land with the ‘tails’ side facing up. (Probability 25%)
Odding Out To spin five “One Head – One Tail” in a row.
Odds or “One Them” One coin lands with the ‘head’ side up, and the other lands with the ‘tails’ side up. (Probability 50%)
Come in Spinner The call given by the boxer when all bets are placed and the coins are now ready to be tossed.
Cockatoo Only used in the 1800s to late 1930s (Due to legalisation of Two-Up on ANZAC Day) it was the nickname of the look-out who warned players of incoming police raids.

Auburn’s got my back

In an effort-soaked quest to stick curious fingers in Sydney’s darkest recesses I find myself rifling through her secrets, tiny sparkling gems of Australiana my prize.

Equipped with an obliging stub of pencil, a crumpled notepad scoured with unintelligible marks, the tin lid (on occasion) and my trusty secretary, her aura of advice billowing gently, I am armed with inspiration and a tousled map from 1974.

As the crow flies, Auburn’s got my back, standing firm at the ever-shifting front between east and west. Just a dead-man’s hand from Rookwood, calm in the lee of the snarled western city arteries, Auburn is named after Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village, which describes the English version as the “loveliest village of the plain”. 

First impressions are less kind. No plains. No villages. But the threads of humanity have woven an exquisite pattern here, a tapestry of colour, creed and custom that sparks life into the air around me. I know that feeling. It’s the feeling of being able to breathe life, taste life and touch life in a single sensory moment.

The scent of sharp, earthy coffee snaps around my nose, fresh mint, cigarettes and scorched meats smear together in a smoky pall and the streets thrum with noise. Old men cluster around tables laden with thimble-full glasses stained with grounds, their prayer beads jostled in time with the conversation; a giggle of head-scarved girls peeps out from a milk-bar intent on attracting the boys’ attention; and statuesque African women, the bodies and hair swathed in peacock-bright tribal print, are silently, strikingly, beautiful. Joining the throng we eat and drink:

and jolted with caffeine spin out further into the streets. Our search is over before it has begun: the secretary, exhibiting a distinctly un-secretary-like intent, has barrelled into the Hot Sale furniture warehouse and is enthroned upon a glam-rock bed ensemble from the late 1970s. A quick flick of the peripherals and it is clear that we are in the heart of Australiana. Plasticky covers crackle with promise, shiny pvc glimmers in the dust and the air is stained with nostalgia:

Hot Sale furniture

Glam rock bed throne

Nostalgia mirror

Nearby a jewellery shop is gilded in light, the bright glint of yellow gold visible from a distance. Invited to “look, try” this is as close as I get:

All that glitters...

Though closer inspection was required for this message, a homily I am sad I cannot understand:

Cursive beauty

Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Somali, Bosnian, Iraqi, Iranian, Afghani, Pakistani and Sudanese communities call Auburn home and the taste of these cultures is rich and diverse. Cardamom, clove and cinnamon marries with the crisp sourness of cherries and delicate rosewater. Rank meat sweats in the open, unidentified greens are an array of shades from Persian to pistachio and the aromatic elegance of earl grey tea swirls in the mix. In a deliciously retro supermarket shelves of products line up for inspection and include these such childhood stalwarts:

Gima supermarket

While the Wing Fat Meat Market spruiked lesser known fare:

In this Persian inspired wonderland complete with accents of Middle-Eastern devotion, Asian diligence and African pride, the backstreets tell a different story. A lost space between the comforting human chaos of the strip and the genuine peace of the burbs, the roads we found all lead to the highway and were teeming with lost 4WDs.  Here there are jargon-juggled “medium-density housing solutions”, tired facades and stereotypes. Sheets stretched taught across windows are poor substitutes for curtains:

This is another Australiana, borne of necessity. It is a suburban paradise choked in skeins of diesel and tangled in expectation. A world of tacky stereotypes and wary glances, the rumble of our fast-paced world is just metres away, belching, farting and stinking. Residential backstreets should be peaceful, full of the sound of children laughing, their indulgent parents watching from the step – this a modern suburbia that challenges its very self, encroached by storming six-lane highways, shopping malls and strip lights.

Yet I left Auburn with a bright smile courtesy of this,

a monument to the weatherboard revolution of the 1920s, wishing well front and centre; and this:

a poor-man’s mansion with a shroud of shade.

Auburn is a surprise. Abayas abound and I sense my alienation from a culture I am yet to understand in full, yet I am made so welcome and the language of the streets is hypnotic, the soft cadence of sofra, burke, baba fuat, birfazla enveloping me in another world.

I will be pursuing my secretary for the following expenses:

Mountain tea: $2.70
Earl grey tea (in tin): $2.40
Cool op-shop shoes: $2
Sour cherry juice:  $1.50
An almost excessive yet utterly delicious lunch: $12

Adventures in Sydney-Panania

Back home in Sydney, a long way from those sighing sands and the halcyon days of my summer holiday. My attorney has been busy and I am wearing her advice like a jewel.

Buy the ticket, take the ride

she said.

Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used

she said.

So here goes. Here’s to freedom. Here’s to scratching the surface and sniffing what’s beneath, delving deep into the decay of urban life and filling my fingernails with tiny sparkled glimpses of Australiana.

First up: Panania with my secretary, the most organised creature I have ever met, an apparition of systematic accuracy to keep me on the straight and narrow, sharpen my pencil and remind me not to forget the baby.

I looked up Panania before we left. I discovered little. It has a Digger’s Association (renowned for its expansive and family orientated alfresco entertaining, dining and function area), a number of churches, a vet, a hotel and a school.

Venturing no further than the Panania cafe for a restorative cuppa we were delivered buttered toast and the story of the day Tony Abbott came to Panania. This set the tone well for the fibro gran-land that unleashed itself just metres from the scurry of tired shops that marked the centre.

The party wasn’t here

In a place where Gloria Jean’s is considered exotic, where the political spectrum narrows to a pinpoint – “You don’t name a park after yourself till yer dead, right? Bunch of monrgels that lot. That Tony, he was lovely” –  and where the cafe owner suggested we should have had our drinks at the amusement arcade because the baby would have liked the flashing lights, it was a relief to escape to the wide, tree-lined residential streets behind.

Home to the archetypal quarter-acre block, each a patch of personal glory, these streets are a chorus of contentment, the ultimate expression of residential suburbia. Picture perfect, shaded by hundred-year-old gums, the houses are complacently normal with shorn concrete paths, sugar-soaped walls and neatly potted geraniums.

The quarter-acre block

The sun beats down on our backs,  the birds squawk and carol from every tree and the thrum of a lawn mower adds a bass line. It is an 80s idyll, complete with legions of cortinas, toranas and geminis, lined up, freshly polished and ready to race. It is a nostalgic utopia.

The Panania Hotel is a behemoth, slunk low beneath the railway lines. It too adds to the bygone scent that lingers in the air, with loud billboards spruiking the Mental as Anything gig in late February. The Mental’s salad years capture the lost paradigm that is Panania, heady days hanging on sunbaked streets, billycarts at dawn, longnecks at dusk, batwing jumpers and cruising the streets with souped-up-gemini-driving boys. Heaven.

I can picture the late-night park-ups

Those torana kids are kids no more. The few people we see stand proud and true, but there is a sense of tired resignation. The young have moved on, the older generation left to mow the lawns and adjust the tarp on the kids’ cars. The place is kept perfect of course, for when the family visits. Not a contemporary square concrete plant pot footing a spiky succulent in sight. Begonias, azaleas and agapanthas rule the borders here.

Heading home caught up in our memories,  we slipped through Revesby. Sliding inelegantly in an abrupt summer rain storm, this filled my vision from the fugged-up window of the Holden:

Blue Light Disco

Yesteryear is alive and well.

In search of Australiana…

My attorney advised me to take a break. Forget about some stuff. Cut loose. Take the baby.

So I did. Packed up, shipped out, left town trailing an 18-month old tin lid, the cowboy and a litany of broken promises, the most significant of which was to return (with the baby).

I taste freedom on the breeze, a salty breath of release, and the smell of unleaded brings on a headache to mark the moment.

Our steed is a 6WD ex-Hammersley Iron fire truck called Black Betty; once rusting disconsolately in Kalgoorlie, she is now 4.8 tonnes of rolling stock, a flatbed loaded high with our travelling home, a growling bitch yip-yipping with the call of the road.

Our journey into the hinterland to prove a point about good coffee only existing in the metropolis starts here. It is the search for Australiana, the hunt for all things bogan and the heart and soul of this wide brown land.

(Note to self. When planning far-reaching escapes in search of bodgy Australiana consider options well. Avoca Beach, it turns out, is not a promising start.)

 Over and out.

Black Betty