The kangaroo looked up and cocked its head, possibly considering suicide under the front wheel of my F 750 GS. As I drew level with it, the brilliant colours of the setting sun behind it turned it into an ominous silhouette.
Why was the sun setting behind the big ‘roo, off to my right? I mean, it is generally conceded that the sun sets in the west. That meant I was headed, roughly, south. Which made me, equally roughly, some 180 degrees off course. I had realized some time ago that I was lost in the featureless flat and darkling plain of the upper Kinchega National Park, but I had not previously figured out that I was going so thoroughly the wrong way. Put it down to my natural and entirely reasonable fear of suicidal kangaroos, which absorbed most of my attention in the low light. They seem to have some kind of ceremonial obsession with ending their – I would have thought – entirely satisfactory existence then. It’s easy to lose track of other concerns when the ‘large marsupial’ synapses keep firing in your brain.
I braked and turned around on the sand track, noting that my original macropod buddy had been joined by two others. Indeed, as my vision adapted there seemed to be, oh, dozens of them. I took off slowly, hoping I was leaving them to their cogitations, and continued slowly, trying to stay ready to react to any other ‘roos tempted to tackle the bike in the darkness.
The trouble with this was that I couldn’t adjust the speed of the bike to the corrugations of the sandy track. It had been some time since I had been able to see the corrugations, anyway – the tracks out there are blade cuts, with the dozer establishing the surface a foot or so below the level of the land. As a result, this surface is wrapped in shadow well before the rest of the scenery. But seeing the track and its irregularities is pointless anyway; all you need to do is to accelerate when one of the bike’s wheels steps out.
Sure. But you can’t accelerate too much or you can’t slow down in time to avoid any kangaroos in your path. It seemed like a very long time until a directing arrow appeared and offered reassurance that I was, indeed, now headed for the small township of Menindee and one of my favourite pubs, Maiden’s Hotel. When I pulled up outside, my shoulder muscles were so tense that you could have struck a note off them with a tuning fork.
No actual maidens were involved in the naming of the pub, as far as I know; Maiden was the surname of the family which built the place a very long time (by Australian standards) past. Forty years ago I got to be tentative friends with Jim Maiden, the last of the family who was the publican here. It would be nice to be able to say that I heard the stories of the town and the pub from him, but he was a taciturn bloke and I had to ask around instead.
Maiden’s major claim to fame is that Burke and Wills stayed here on their last night in civilization before setting off on their ill-fated expedition. You won’t know who Burke and Wills were, but if you are American you might like to think of them as unsuccessful versions of Lewis and Clark. It’s hard to blame them; they were not heading into the incredibly bountiful Pacific North-West but into unforgiving drought, deadly heat, and endless nothingness.
On that night at the pub when I like to think they at least had a couple of decent beers, the pub was 180 degrees the other way around too. These days it faces the road; then, its door and front veranda were turned to the river, and it served the boatmen. The Darling River was the lifeline of this country in many ways, not least as a transport artery that carried barges loaded with wool and towed by paddle steamers down to the bigger Murray River. Not the mighty vessels of the Mississippi, but smaller tugs.
One of these stopped at Maiden’s on the evening of the 16th of November 1872. The crew of the hopefully-named PS Providence ‘got into the turps’ as the local saying goes, and failed to fill the boiler properly when they cast off with their towed barge to head for Wentworth, downstream. At 3.00am on the 17th, the boiler exploded.
“The scene of the disaster was horrific as fragments of the Providence were hurled in all directions. Upon the bank, high in the trees pieces of timber, bedding and rugs had lodged. A sledgehammer and anvil were sent over the top of the gum trees, landing a full 100 feet from the bank of the river,” reported the Wentworth newspaper.
The crew of five died; four, who were perhaps lucky, straight away while another succumbed to dreadful burns a while later. Two bodies were never found. The only survivor was the bargeman, relatively safe on his towed vessel, whose hair was said to have turned white.
The boiler of the Providence was a navigation hazard, so it was snigged from the river and lies rusting on the bank to this day. Makes an encounter with a kangaroo seem somewhat… mild, doesn’t it?