Nerves of steel and dirt

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.

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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.

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A well-earned drink

A well-earned drink

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.

The cavernous confines of this one-time pub now hold litre upon litre of cask wine

The cavernous confines of this one-time pub now hold litre upon litre of cask wine

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.

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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.”

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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…

The fire chief's seat

The fire chief’s seat

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.

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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.

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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.

Hazy shade of bushfire

Hazy shade of bushfire

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.

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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.

It’s all fracked

In breaking news I can report that there are no giant tomatoes in the small Queensland town of Roma.

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And despite widespread confusion in the Italian community, neither does it brings to mind the soaring antiquity, Renaissance glory, post-Byzantine significance and mythological lore of its namesake in northern Italy. Where The Eternal City proudly shuffles upon a shag pile carpet of culture, Roma has to be reminded to scrape its boots on the mat.

What Roma does have is the demonstrable pride of being the birthplace of Ray Meagher, the actor who plays fictional soap opera legend Alf Stewart from Home and Away, whose exquisite lexicon includes, Strike me pink! You flamin’ galah, you let the mongrels escape!

That and a lot of coal seam gas…

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Which is why this well-heeled agricultural centre, the food bowl of the Darling Downs, has suddenly come over all sleek-sneakered gym bunny in the midst of a ‘roid rage incident.

Tired utes bearing rangy mutts, bailer twine belts and empty streets full of remember whens  have been supplanted by a vicious swarm of activity that buzzes frenetically, a fluoro orange aura beating from within it.

This is a boom town, heavy with expectation and the cloying smell of lucre.  High-vis tradies crowd the coffee lounges, pie in hand, while rigs bristle with antenna and reflective striping, an alien colony intent on domination.

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The tired determination of country Australia has been browbeaten by a high octane optimism that is infective. The Santos shop, front and centre on the main drag, reflects gangs of people in its eerily empty glass; utes with flags, stickered tags and flashing lights dance in formation, the numbers on their doors like ball-room dancers’ ID tags, their flags reminiscent of a marauding Korean tourist group hustling to see the sights first.

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Foxtrot specialist

New sites bloom at the edge of town, crammed with drilling equipment, schmick trucks and air-conditioned dongas:

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Halliburton’s heroes

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Carved from dirt

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An army on the move

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and unmanned servos have appeared like a rash over night.

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Unmanned but ruthless

Crammed motels spew guests into the arms of seedy pubs, while concrete bins and shipping containers (complete with matching sheet sets) double as home. Buildings breed before our eyes as motels and caravan parks are carved out of the dirt, row upon row of low-slung shelter crouching close to the ground.

One of five motels under construction

Out of thin air

Out the back of the pub on the way out of town a greying woman sits silently in the dark, smoking a fag and sipping on a can of rum and coke. Her eyes are a lifetime away, lost in a better place, and she makes no attempt to talk but is friendly when we meet in the shower block, a rudely utilitarian place full of clogged drains and virus-like linoleum.

For a moment I consider the possibility her life among the containers is to welcome the workers home, a happy ending to a day streaked with sweat and dirt. The truth is far sadder: her husband, slumped on the bar, spills his fate, “Lost the farm to the bank mate. Had to slaughter all me stock. Bloody mongrels, even took the Mrs’ hair straighteners…”

Half a click out of town and gas flares light the way to the wells, stains of sharp light on a fading horizon:

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While the traffic continues its haul to the east past endless supply stations:

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The burble on the CB is constant, a barrage of instruction, though the chatter is careful not to name names. A couple of crumpled Hitachi mechanics (slaves to the machines) fill in the gaps over a beer at the end of the day:

“There’s no locals mate, none. No-one knows whats going on – they got a policy of not employing anyone with an attachment to the land, so it’s all mob from somewhere else yeah? They got a three-week-on, one-week-off schedule and get this mate, when the boys knock off for the week the whole plant shuts down! They reckon it’s so they only got one crew working on it. It’s scary mate. No-one knows what’ll happen here, ya know?”

According to the ABC’s CSG site, ABC: Coal Seam Gas: By The Numbers, coal seam gas means exports, jobs, revenue, greenhouse gases and land clearing. And while there is undoubted economic benefit, the exploration, extraction and export of coal seam gas comes at a searing environmental and social cost.

The few locals that would talk about the Santos GLNG gas field project spoke of bustling streets and swollen end-of-year figures, of libraries with readers and pools that splash. But many also admitted they didn’t understand the specifics, of facts and figures that sift through fingers like sand.

Perhaps Josh Fox’s film Gasland should be compulsory viewing.

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