COULD THE STORY of Australia be told under a Primus lamp at a small-town caravan park? “This is the best caravan park, no, the best place, I’ve ever seen,” said Jim, age fifty-something – a big man with a goofy grin and a firmly planted caravan.
“I’ve lived here for a year now.” Where else had Jim been? “Nowhere, really. Just drove straight here from Perth. Oh, I went to Dubbo once, years ago. Didn’t like that.”
A sprinkler fed the lush, greedy grass. It went tic tic tic from side to side, drawing water from Broken Creek, which curled gently round the caravan park like a cat’s tail. A group fished on its bank until bad light stopped play. Jim said, “Those Asians have been here a week now. They come for the fruit picking. They’re okay – pretty quiet.”
Numurkah had been on our travel wish-list for at least four hours. We ran our fingers over the map at home and said, “There”. The Newell Highway beckoned. Writer John Harms romanticises the Newell: connector of musty pubs and dusty train stations, the inland route to Queensland, the way to – and mercifully out of – Dubbo. Tomorrow we would make for Narrandera in the Riverina. I would work on a story set there; tonight I was working on pasta. The camp kitchen plonked itself in the middle of the caravan park. It had the bright lights of the CBD and the sweet smell of sizzling onion and garlic. Such perfect languorousness.
The summer rush had been and gone; there were just a few tents and caravans around the perimeter of the park, glowing softly like pie warmers. Another long-termer emerged from one and made his way to the kitchen. Brian had lived here for 18 months, having moved from Frankston, in outer Melbourne, to be closer to his daughter.
“She was in a bad way when she lived with me in Frankston. Getting into trouble. Hated school. But she got an award last week – one of the highest marks in the state. I went along. I had tears streaming down my face.”
Brian had arrived in Numurkah via everywhere. My six-year-old son sat next to him at the camp table and announced, with considerable exaggeration, “I can speak Japanese.”
Brian said, “Can you speak Pitjantjatjara? I can.” He then talked in plain English of his years in remote communities; even more remote than Numurkah with its one bakery and half-a-dozen grass tennis courts. He walked to his caravan and returned with a photograph. “This kid here is six, too.” The Aboriginal kid was photographed on a school mat and had blazing, white teeth. “Got taken by a croc,” said Brian. “They have this swimming race where the kids swim across the river. He got about a third of the way...”
Something scurried down a tree. “Ah,” said Brian, “that’s one of the little ones,” as the possum mooched on the grass. “There’s a family that live in that tree. You got any fruit?” We didn’t, but the possum was happy to chew on my knuckle. “You might want to wash that,” advised Brian, “they’re not the cleanest animals.” Neither were the cockatoos, apparently, who stripped the trees mercilessly and launched ferocious morning sorties in their thousands over the still, frozen caravan park as three city folk lay on an inflatable mattress and rubbed their eyes.
The night before, Brian had said, “Here, take my fishing rod, try ya luck in the morning.” It was luck, alright: my son had been asking to go fishing for most of his six years. We baited tasty cheese to the hook and I taught him how to fix a good line into Broken Creek. He said, “This is great, Dad.”
I watched him, then turned to see his mother returning from the bakery with two coffees and a warm treat in a brown paper bag. Tears very nearly streamed down my own face. It was the end of summer; the middle of March. March 15. My birthday.
By Ricky French (@frenchricky)
Want to read more of our columnist Ricky's outdoor adventures? We're sharing a collection of them as part of the countdown to our 20th Birthday. Click here for the next instalment.
This article first appeared in Ed#456 of The Big Issue.