Remote control

Featured in

  • Published 20130305
  • ISBN: 9781922079961
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

Some get it yoga-ing; some get it fighting; some get it dancing; some get it jungle-ing. I get it sucking schooners in transit lounges. Felt it coming on about four. Lovely liminality.

Transit lounges: my favourite non-places.


THE FREEZING DRIZZLE made a little meandering creek down the 737 window as I slid in next to it, crossed my fingers hoping no one would sit next to me and opened The Monthly. The first paragraph my eyes fell on bleated:

We don’t want what happened in the Pilbara to occur here. Rents…can be as much as $1500 or $2000 per week or, in Karratha, $3000 per week. If you own a café, how are you going to employ someone to serve a cup of coffee, because they can’t afford to live in the town? Tourism in Pilbara towns has virtually died…because fly-in, fly-out workers occupy all the beds.

I was feeling the glow from a couple of Moo Pils in the Hobart transit lounge; the glow of a full wallet for the first time in years; the glow of escape from over-education, underemployment and a ditched PhD, three failed relationships with associated guilt and grief; escape from the worry of not being able to contribute adequately towards my children; escape from the syrupy cling and disciplining gaze of village life; the feeling of being an outsider knowing that this island culture has shaped me and its beauty inspired me, while some dark force from its history has me by the throat. My life was a mess. I desperately needed a change, so I had got a job with an exploration company looking for gold in Queensland’s Gulf Country. Objections to FIFO in a bleeding-heart rag just didn’t rate. A fat, middle-aged man and his mate, both in work clothes, sat down roughly next to me. Between mindless patter about AFL games I found out that they were roofers from Triabunna going to do a job in Melbourne. Suddenly serious, his mouth hard and barely moving, he said: ‘She’s fucked mate – no work. Died in the arse when they shut the chipper.’ So, I wasn’t on my own.

Nothing could have been more different for a damp, disappointed Tasmanian than landing in Townsville:

It’s 29 degrees. The air is moist and the night heavy with exotic sounds and smells.

The air is heavy – the atmosphere is light. Women with metallic hair and big sunnies move indolently – like the outlandish bugs that hit the strip lights. Almost invisible in metallic cars with dark tinted windows: their souls impenetrable behind dark tinted glasses, uniform smiles and freshness. The air is thick with the smell of rotting fruit, graft and hypocrisy: it floats lightly; foetid but fecund; Catholic not Calvinist; like the lines of rotting mangoes by the road leaving Townsville; productive – aerobic – not the cold anaerobic tang I’m used to. The big men are fat with sad eyes; wear tans and big hats; cultivate sport and bad taste; move slowly sweating possibility.

The job was two hours north of Richmond, half way between Townsville and Mount Isa. Getting there involved two flights and an eight-hour drive, every three-week swing. On the way in I’d overnight in Townsville. On the way out I’d spend a night in Sydney or Melbourne. Delays were frequent. With time to kill or sleepless disoriented nights, there were many opportunities to reflect on Tasmania and my new experiences; posting impressions on social media to keep my connection with home.

Hmm off again. What to do. Push factors and pull factors. Lots of push and lots of pull – not much pull back at the moment.

Apart from the need for escape and adventure, what was this nagging resentment about this place that helped form my character – a place to which I’m profoundly attached? How do you make a living in a place without stuffing it up?

There is a brash, anti-authoritarian spirit deep in the culture of many Tasmanians, particularly in rural areas. Some have called this the ‘Van Demonian’ spirit: a quiet passion for their way of life acted out on the landscape. They are what they do –­ farmers or foresters or scratchers. They may love hunting or trout fishing or hanging around in the shack. They have made ­ and are made by ­ the landscape; and they are disappearing. The charming sense of manana – she’ll be right, let’s go and grab a cray or two and a handful of abs. Perhaps all this is peasant, or pre-modern? Whatever the label, it lies at the heart of my love for Tasmania. And in today’s political debates surrounding development and conservation, heritage and jobs, this spirit is invisible.

Indeed Pete. What about this bloody great fishing boat that’s been given the nod. Even if the resource could take it (a lot of seasonal variation), what about policing? Surely given that the fish are part of the ‘commonwealth’ it is important to maximise community return. Multiplier effects would be enhanced not to mention fishing communities enlivened through promoting many owner-operated small boats for the same TAC [total allowable catch]. Why do pollies and bureaucrats go for over capitalisation: forestry, irrigation, Hydro-industrialisation? My old chestnut. Greetings from the outback, Pete.

Tasmania has a full government apparatus to administer a population the size of a Melbourne suburb, keen to justify its existence though corporate and civic boosterism. Hydro- Industrialisation, the creation of the Hydro Electric Commission and the building of a huge scheme of dams to generate cheap power to attract heavy industry was the chief expression of this impulse of government for much of the twentieth century. Profound environmental problems often resulted. Local academic and writer Peter Hay has described Tasmania as an ‘economy devoid of dynamism with a persistent cargo cult mind-set that yearns for a single whopper industry that will turn sleepy hollow into a thrumming engine of industry’. The latest fad is ‘Tasmania, the new food bowl’ involving large irrigation projects and largely ignoring concerns about environmental costs, but history is littered with them, from forestry to fish-farming.

The rise to prominence of Green politics with the Franklin Dam campaign cracked the hegemony of Hydro-industrialisation but not the cargo-cult mentality. ‘Tourism’, ‘clean, green and clever economy’ became the buzz-words replacing forestry, fishing, factories, mining and dams, yes, but perhaps replacing too the Van Demonian spirit or putting it on a plinth for tourists to look at: a Disneyfied version of life rather than lived reality. What a way to die. I can’t go to Strahan any more.

There are something like two hundred signs between the pub in Strahan and the headland where we fished as children. The town has been reconstructed like a showbiz film set in approved heritage fashion, to earn for its shareholders. The small-time fishing boats and selective timber harvesting of the huon piners are now just exhibits. Government policy has encouraged capital intensive industries, so the few boats now hanging rusting at the wharves are owned by investors, not the owner-built-and-operated boats that were as much a part of this landscape as the huon and celery top pines that make up their hulls and decks. Forestry long ago expanded, industrialised, politicised, and finally finished up in a preservationist land grab. This was too hard and bitter a fight for many environmentalists to be able to look to the past, to the scratchers, the old Van Demonian types – who could have provided inspiration for a sustainable industry. In Macquarie Harbour, out from the town, the shit from countless thousands of Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout now sloshes for years before it flushes. Successive Tasmanian governments continue to encourage massive expansion of the capital-intensive aquaculture industry.

When I walk down the waterfront at Strahan, around the interpretation signs and the ticket offices selling boat or seaplane rides ­– where the only fish I can buy is grenadier from the Melbourne market, and the huon pine comes shredded in little calico bags ‘to kill moths’ (a Dutch back-packer informs me) ­– all I feel is that the characters, and the character, is dead. This place has been destroyed as surely as in a clearfell.

And still Tasmania has 34 per cent of its families dependent on welfare and close to 60 per cent of its workers are employed in the government sector, compared to 25 per cent for Victoria or New South Wales. Now, on with my travels.

Awake lying listening to the sounds. Locomotives, livestock, rollingstock. Cattle sounds like the distant dopplered prime movers dragging the empty road-trains back towards Isa: jake breaks; hitches banging. A drunk slurring at a donga window –’come and have some fun –don’t be a tight arse’. Placatory sounds from pretty German guestworker/ backpacker. Heavy gravel footfall.

It’s over five hours along straight roads through Hughenden and Charters Towers from Townsville to Richmond, the nearest town to camp. It’s a rural service town mainly; good store for fresh food, hardware and post office. There are a couple of pubs, steel, hydraulics, fuel and mechanical supplies and services are available. Company policy is to buy whatever you can locally: ‘keeps everything sweet’. As long as you are not affecting the cost of accommodation you are welcomed because exploration spending is a huge boost to local businesses. If you live in a camp or company town, you’re fine. Resentment comes when companies pay whatever it takes to secure accommodation in established towns. To complicate matters, local councillors are always looking to increase their rate-base via a swag of company-built houses. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of retail labour, either. There is a steady turnover of European back-backers to work the tills and delight the lonely ringers. When I asked an ex-ringer turned driller about farm-worker shortages, he said: ‘It’s complicated. If you work for the cocky they pay fuck all and your way better off drillin’ or minin’. You can make good money ay –contract-ringin’ and its fun but – ay.’

It’s much more Sunday Too Far Away than Wake in Fright out here, to my great relief. I’ll have to work on my best Jack Thompson.

It’s a good couple of hours from Richmond to the camp at ‘the Woolgar prospect’. The tracks are rough with bulldust, deep ruts, washouts and waterways that can be dry one day and running the next. The camp is in a valley between low hills in contrast to the vast plains that surround it. There is a small flowing creek someway off with a shady red gorge and waterhole. When I first arrived the place was trashed, by human neglect and the resumption of nature. It took weeks to get it properly habitable. All you have by way of privacy is a three by three metre donga with a creaky cot and rattly air conditioner, but after a twelve-hour day, starting at five, you sleep like a baby.

Hey Verity. Glad to see you’re looking after the old boy. How’s his foot? 43 degrees here today and some bush fires about so just preparing the camp for potential evacuation. Fixing generators, putting in alternative water supplies and pegging out new mine leases. Just had good assay results: the drill rig turned up some gold basically and the company is pleased – share price doubled. Crazy game – cowboys and sharks everywhere. I often smile when I see of your antics on Facebook. Ciao cuz, J x.

We were looking for gold, mainly. My boss (the head geo) was a Territory woman with vast experience and inspiring diplomatic skills. There was a driller, a young man of extraordinary personal power, commanding his two off-siders, one, a middle-weight boxer, the other a fine arts graduate from New Zealand, with quiet words and gestures. There was a Nepalese geologist who was (in exasperated Kiwi) ‘good at his rocks but you can’t understand him and he’s a fuckin’ vego!’ There were two jaffas (just another fuckin’ field assistant), formally known as field technicians. One was experienced and knew the details of getting samples from the rig to the lab in Townsville, the other was me. Apart from the usual field work, I filled in for the offsiders when one was injured, did the building and maintenance around the camp, mapping and cooking until we finally got a cook. I had a go at everything, but some days were just too much. As the season progressed, heat and fatigue took its toll; on people and machines.

Hmm…the rig exploded, I ruptured a diesel tank, had a couple of flats, an eclipse and a blue with the cook. It was 44 degrees. What a day it was…

There is an element of danger in the work but a sound safety culture minimises accidents. They do happen though, and in the heat with pressure to complete the program, you can make serious errors of judgment. An experienced worker a few hundred kilometres down the road, just next door in Queensland terms, died of heat exhaustion, and an offsider with us caught a drill rod in the face. But hey, a bit of danger keeps you interested.

Thirsty: I’ve never known thirst. Water bottle, packed with ice and a can of coke – five litres is usually enough –forgotten on the bench. Stupid but don’t turn around. By eleven I am dry but the boys are coming from the ‘Curry; fitter, auxiliary truck and a couple of utes. By two the top is off the stuffed compressor; a dozen 1 and 1/16 nuts and bolts lying on oily rags; the rig littered with spanners andStillsons that are too hot from the sun to put away; a hundred litres of flashed, burnt hydraulic oil in twenty litre drums. ‘Hmm I might be fucked here’ –smirking at my increasing use of the expletive: the culture.

It’s so hot I can’t touch my hair. My once sweat-wet clothes are dry. I’ve got a headache and the maddening scream of the cicadas seems to be coming from inside my head. No shade and the dirt white sans serif caps high on the mast beat out the word SCHRAMM, SCHRAMM over and over while the lifeless broken drill rod sways from the jib in the searing wind.

‘Mate can I have a drink’ ‘Thirsty mate?’ –smiling overfed face of the fitter out the ‘Cruiser window. ‘Fuck you Scotty give me that thing.’ The blue Willow cooler snatched from the tray: the ice-cold chlorinated Cloncurry water burning into my skull.

The season went from June to December: the last swing extending out to nearly five weeks. Everyone was starting to feel the pinch. To avoid being stranded by rain from the increasing tropical storms, indicating the approach of the wet season, it was decided not to take a break and to keep going until the drilling program was finished. The heat was intense and the crew became testy and withdrawn. We could see Christmas, home, loved ones and ‘just wanted to be out of there.’

Seems like a long swing. Buggered. Home soon. Miss my boy.

Now that I could see the end, I started to reflect more on the nature of the job.

Yes of course Pete – will make time – delighted. Working up here isa revelation on many fronts. The social and environmental stuff is quite confronting – coming to terms with my own contradictions more so. A driller, said to me, but aimed just as much at his mates the other drillers, after a great meal under the stars ‘there are only two states to be in mate – Queensland and pissed.’ His leer and the ironic laughter were deeply satisfying…

No matter how stimulating and rewarding, the job is associated with mining and involves environmental damage.

It’s amazing how plastic the environment is when you’ve got a D-8 at your disposal. Each tree hollow or clump of spinifex is a decision: a balance between environmental values and economic or instrumental imperatives.

Most importantly, I started to question whether FIFO could damage relationships and distort the culture of the places where the workers live.

Two empty Crownies and one in his hand: half-eaten packet of cheese and crackers: empty wine glass with a crimson ring. Lap top case, steel rims, cropped white hair and full beard. Fake wood formica furniture, fawn polar fleece. Piercing synthetic arpeggio: final call.
Are you okay mate?
Watery, crimson-rimmed eyes.
Yeah, going home.
Me too, Tassie – home.
Drained the Crownie, pushed passed me, got a scotch and cola and walked slowly to gate four.

Alchoholism is widespread in the industry no matter how much the companies try to police it with drug testing. Isolation gets to people: their behaviour changes for the worse towards the end of each swing. I’m sure that there are many problems for workers, but for me the alternative was being bored or broke. I thought I had the best of both worlds: money and real time off to enjoy it and the stimulation of new places and people. In the end it comes down to money. Even at the bottom of the food chain you can earn $300 a day and with experience this will increase quickly.

Which brings me back to the question posed at the beginning: can you make a living in a place without stuffing it up? Well maybe not, but you can live in a place gleaning some money from somewhere else. Echoing the spirit of the old Van Demonians you can live in the clearings and get cash for rum and tobacco from the bush or knocking off the cocky’s sheep.

Perhaps contemporary Van Demonians are the ones mounting their computers or flying to work.

Hey Sid, I’ve been thinking that the distinction between cultural and natural heritage is a false one. When faced with a, shall we say, an era of environmental philistinism, our heritage, cultural and natural, has been degraded. The forestry debate was a lost opportunity to address such issues. After years of getting the rough end of the pineapple, green sentiment was manifested in a land grab rather than reform of forestry practices: sad but understandable. And what are we left with – a corrupt self-serving bureaucracy, a heap of next to useless plantations and no silverculture to speak of. A country sawmiller I know had to close and I can’t get a stick of celery, so to speak.

Tasmania can be frustrating. Government is all-pervasive, well it is the economic base, and powerful people have undue influence: same old, same old. Little saw millers and forestry workers were the baby thrown out with the industrial forestry bath water; small fishermen have gone, replaced by industrial fishing; heavy industry is hanging on by the skin of its teeth; tourism is turning the place into a theme park but it is still my home: everything I love is here; my identity was formed here.

Wow, Hobart looks fantastic. I’ve been missing it and not realising. My swing up in the Gulf finishes soon so I hope it’s still like that when I arrive. Ciao JB

I’m still moved by Tasmania’s physical beauty. There some places associated with stories or people from the past that are achingly poignant.

Two places, their stories and people, stick with me forever. In the D’Entrecasteaux Channel sailing from Woodbridge, a squall blew out of North West Bay from the southern ocean nearly capsizing my boat. My baby daughter was wedged in a capsule in the cockpit. After rounding the corner at Tinderbox, under the light, the sea abated but the wind stayed high. An amazing feeling of relief entering the estuary, of feeling at home, and safe:

The Tinderbox light at dusk. Can see it for 14 miles. Occulting. Seven second period I think. Very beautiful – lonely cold and yet welcoming.

The second place grounds me in my life with my son, and an indefinable sense that Tasmania will always make me what and who I am, will always be in conversation with my identity. This isn’t really a place, not how most people understand it. It’s a liminal space, a journey, a movement between ­– it’s crossing the Tasman Bridge on the highway to town from the airport. Like crossing the River Styx.

And in Tasmania, too, there’s the contact with friends, with nature and the bush: the game and produce you can buy or forage for.

Hmmm. Scallops in butter with a splash of Sophia Chardonnay and lemon zest: mop up with crusty bread. Drink the wine. Perfect Tasmanian boatshed breakfast.

But you have to fund it.

So could I drag myself away from Tasmania to work in some remote dangerous back water? Hell yeah! Can’t wait.

Share article

About the author

Julian Barraclough

Julian Barraclough BA. M. Env Mngt currently divides his time between mineral exploration in North Queensland and building things in Tasmania. He has taught in...

More from this edition

Tasmanian gothic

EssaySOME DARK SECRETS run so deep that they slip from view. The hole left in our collective conscience is gradually plugged, with shallow distractions...


FictionPATRICK SWIMS THROUGH the mountains. The eddies waver them. They're the colour of oil slick. The light blushes his cheeks. He's swimming breaststroke. It's...

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.