“Where are we going to camp? “came the question over the UHF radio. “Not sure” was my reply. “Ask Ron” I suggested. We were following the old Ghan railway line heading north on the Oodnadatta Track south of William Creek.
We travelled in 4 vehicles, four couples, including our friends Jim and Sandy Hynek from Cedar Rapids Iowa, who we worked with in Zambia. We were headed to Nhulunbuy, a mining town and aboriginal settlement at Yirrkala on the western tip of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Jim and Sandy joining us on a visit back to Elcho Island in East Arnhem. The trip planned for some time, Jim and Sandy late arrivals to fulfil a visit to Australia promised some years ago.
Ron was back on the radio. “The railway line crosses a shallow water course about 20 kms down the road. We can camp the night there. It’s about 300 metres off the road and protected by small trees.” It sounded like a plan. 20 minutes later Ron guided us into a sheltered spot. The old railway line elevated above the desert on a steel frame nearby. Each traveller selecting their camp for the night. Tents erected, firewood sorted, camp chairs unfolded, a campfire pit dug in the soft sand. Friends began to drift to the small campfire, the evening cool. Wispy clouds building up in the west, bright red from a setting sun. People gathered around the fire to watch the setting sun.
Jim and Sandy, experienced campers, had been in Australia 4 days. They were still coming to grips with Aussie land. “Man, these flies sure make a man mad” was Jim’s comment as he swatted another fly. Ron stood with a shovel near the fire. “You going to dig a hole in the sand to make damper?” asked Jim. “No.” replied Ron, looked up, smiled, and brushed away a friendly fly. “Men to the right, woman to the left over behind the sand hill. If you need a shovel, then take this one.”
The women began to wander back to their vehicles. The men sat around talking. Jim was keen to get their meal on the fire. “What are you cooking for tea tonight?” I asked. “Spam and pineapple.” his reply. I was surprised. “Never had that before” was my guarded response. “Manso, you have not lived until you’ve had spam and pineapple out of a tin in outback Australia.” I was quiet.
Ron went to find more firewood. Jim was in a hurry to cook his meal. I preferred to linger beside the campfire. It relaxed the mind. I was waiting for sundown, hoping the flies would disappear. Ron came back to put the remains of an old sleeper on the fire. Sparks flew, picked up on a gentle breeze to float up into the night sky. Bill arrived back having checked out a noise coming from under the front driver’s side of his VW combi. Occasional laughter came from the women preparing food.
The sun set, the last rays of light filled the sky. We watched the twilight. One moment mauve, the next purple as darkness lit the stars surrounding us. Jim wandered over. “Not a bad picture you paint over here” he said. Silence, as we sat relaxed around the fire. The night closing in. The flies retired. Time for tea. Sandy arrived, with spam cut into thick slices, pineapple rings and slices of bread.
Ron placed an iron grate on the fire. A billy of water beside the fire. Jim and Sandy full of enthusiasm place their spam, pineapple rings and slices of bread on the grate. The toasted bread removed, the grilled pineapple and spam added to the toast to make a spam sandwich. They sit back and enjoy their meal washed down with coffee made with hot water from the billy. Each couple bringing to the fire their own tea. People come and go from the fire. The night cools. Jumpers and warm blankets appear as the fire dies down inviting the cold to come in.
Jim shares with us their travels with friends through Utah. His desert country. He talks of the excitement of meeting up again with their friends around a campfire. “Where’s the Southern Cross you Aussie’s keep talking about?” asks Jim.
The fire dies down. A plane can be heard in the distance. “Why Manso you could reach out and grab that plane it’s so low.” I smile. We all watch it fly by, going north. So close yet so far away. “It’s the desert Jim” suggests Ron. Small talk continues into the night. Slowly friends wander off. Ron puts the fire out with a couple of shovels full of sand. All is quiet.
Next morning, we are up as dawn breaks across the horizon. Tents folded: breakfast completed: we head for William Creek. Driving out of our campsite we are back on the Oodnadatta Track. Suddenly, Jim is on the radio. “Manso, I’m bogged in sand. This old car’s not going anywhere”. Ron is on the radio. “All ok Jim. Will be there shortly”. We stop and turn around to retrace our steps. Arriving, we find the Falcon bogged in loose sand under the old iron railway bridge.
A tow strap emerges from Ron’s vehicle. The Falcon is hitched to the Range Rover and extracted from its sandy demise. The Falcon, Jim and Sandy are positioned behind the lead vehicle driven by Ron, the Range Rover relegated to Tail End Charley. We continued our drive to William Creek where we stop to have a chat with the barman at the pub. Jim had to buy the last pie.
Strangers came together around a campfire. Sadly, it was the only campfire we shared together on our travels to Arnhem and Darwin. In Darwin, Jim and Sandy met up with our friends Lance and Jenny who had been with us in Zambia. There were no campfires, or a car bogged in sand. There was no spam and pineapple on toast. But there were many shared stories, much laughter, and those silent moments which at times speak louder than words when good friends meet again.