Reaching the Barkly highway, we were out of opal and gems and into copper/zinc-lead-silver mining country, headed for Mt Isa where Rotary invented the Southern Hemispheres largest rodeo. Offering a side of Mardi Gras and ute muster with your bull riders, I was disappointed we would miss such heady goings-on. Fighting the urge to pick up a couple of R.M. Williams longhorn seat covers, I sought out coffee at a gorgeous restored building. Packed to the ceiling with horse, outback, and mining paraphernalia, warm scones on offer to the refrains of ‘A pub with no beer’ performed live out the back, a genuine Cobb & Co mail-coach, and stabled horses drew me out. The barista had stepped out for lunch, taking with her all knowledge of coffee production. Itineraries and spreadsheets wait for no barista to return, so W set his jaw, and we rolled on.
It was 5pm. Marvelling at the diminishing light falling on Gregory National Park, my driver had the crazed stare one gets after 900km of white lines, and around eight hours of talking-book about time travel and Highlanders in the 1700s. The Widower’s words came back to us as we flew by a sign mentioning a dam. Constructed in 1959, Corella Dam supplied water to the Mary Kathleen Uranium mine. Now decommissioned, it allegedly has a hole in the wall which means it never fills. A largely unoccupied park, free campers spaced themselves 500m from each other, and we felt most when we snagged a spot near the water with a ready-made rock fireplace. “I cannot believe this spot is free!”, I exclaimed excitedly. As the arctic gale blew down the small valley through our campsite toward the water, my chicken dance against flying ember ignition in the parched grass surrounding us, kept me warm. From the house bus perched on the Ridge, Johnny Cash warned of a burning Ring of Fire, and two hardy souls hunkered down in sleeping bags, next to their fishing rods, leaned into the blast that threatened to transform their protective tarp into a magic carpet. I imagined fish caught here would prompt a geiger counter to play Verdi’s Requiem, Dies Irae, but presumably that was the least of their worries.
5am could not arrive sooner. The flappity flap of unsecured tent bits deprived all but the permanently rested of slumber. Alessi came through with a single origin colombian heart starter, and we got the hell out of Dodge.
Renner Springs presented itself in the manner of all roadhouses, at about the time when you have truly reached the limit of your ability to sit contained in a sardine tin, no music in your 1200 strong playlist hits the right note, and crumbed potato and cheese mash with gravy sounds like a well-rounded end to the day. Warmly welcomed at the Roadhouse, we threw up the Taj on the banks of an ornamental pond, eschewing pesky pegs, and paused briefly to admire the craftily silent flotilla of geese. We longed for someone to cook us a meal, and the pub, lined with caps and other clothing items fresh from years of unwashed love, looked like it would make an honest fist of a steak. When the meals arrived, they looked frightened. The seven chips on my plate attempted to conceal themselves under the small grey wedge of barramundi impersonating a jandel*. The slice of tomato, carrot shred, and tablespoon of lettuce spelt a story of eviction from their happy place at the back of the freezer. While these kitchen antics ensued, it was clear W’s steak had been stewing itself silly incorrectly sensing reprieve. It was another beautiful clear night in the Outback.
* also known as thong or flip flop