An incident during my research into Angels Don't Go Droving occurred on Sunday 15 July 2001. I was heading for Charters Towers to conduct another interview with Dick Scobie, but had taken a side trip to Macumba Cattle Station on the Saturday, to watch a bronco branding competition. Macumba is about fifty-five kilometres to the north of Oodnadatta. Bronco branding is an old fashioned method of marking cattle, which entails a great deal of physical effort and can be dangerous. It's much quicker than the modern method of trapping them in a crush placed in a race, but it would be frowned upon by modern Health and Safety Regulations and, almost certainly, by animal cruelty organisations. It's now an Outback sport with paintbrushes replacing branding irons.
The competition lasted all day and continued well into the evening. Most people who had been watching camped at Macumba overnight. During the night we had fifty-seven millimetres of rain and, as the tracks were all clay, by morning they were like skating rinks. As we drove out most people were being responsible and taking it easy, but one clown was forcing his way past everyone. He came up behind me as I reached a section where the track had been widened to form an airstrip. He was too impatient to wait for me to pull over and smashed into the corner of my camper. After we'd sorted out the details I was able to drive on, but he wasn't.
The rain had stopped by the time I reached Oodnadatta, but the sky promised more. It made sense to check road conditions with the police.
When I reported the accident, the constable made a note of the details, then said, 'He doesn't live there. He lives at Hamilton Station, not Mount Sarah. I'll have him for giving wrong information after an accident. He's an arrogant bugger. Because his father owns six stations he thinks he can get away with whatevert he likes.'
'When he gets here you might find he's still over the limit.'
'Thanks for the information.'
The police had closed most of the roads because the rain had made them dangerous. Oodnadatta is a small town and was unable to cope with over three hundred and fifty people who had been at Macumba so they'd left a couple of escape routes open.
'We should have closed all the roads, but with all these people in the town, we thought we'd do the right thing so they can get away,' the constable said. 'We've left the Oodnadatta Track to Marla and the road to Coober Pedy open, but how long they'll remain open I've no idea.' When I asked about the track to Marree he was less enthusiastic.
'You might get to Marree, but there's a lot of weather coming through. You'll be stuck for a week, maybe more.'
I mentally rearranged my trip. When told him I'd put my trip in reverse and head for Marla he relaxed.
It was nine-thirty when I left the town. That was the end of the bitumen and where the excitement started. Despite keeping the speed down, my heavy duty 4WD was slipping and sliding, in constant danger of visiting the soft shoulders. Even at my low speed the wheels sprayed a uniform film of red ochre over my white duco. The standing water merged with the muddy surface and occasionally the vehicle would lurch into a deep hole so that mud thickened fluid swamped the windscreen. At times such as these drivers appreciate the wide roads.
Two and a half hours later I came across a family with a sedan. The car was sitting on the floor pan in the mud at the shoulder of the road. Two frightened children occupied the back seat. A man and woman were plastered in red ooze as they tried to free their vehicle, but they were going nowhere. We were seventy-five kilometres from Oodnadatta.
Surprise was strong in my reaction. 'How the hell did you get here?'
'We came up from Oodnadatta. It wasn't easy. We were sliding all over the place.'
'Why didn't you turn round when you saw what the road was like?'
'The sign said it was open,' the man said.
'Open for 4WD. Did you check with the police?'
'No. Why would I do that?'
'It would have saved you a lot of bother.'
'We thought the road would get better. We've accommodation booked at Marla and we didn't want to lose it. Can you give me a tow?' he asked.
'No way will I give you a tow in these conditions. I can take your wife and one child, both at a pinch, but you'll have to stay with your vehicle.'
The boy was five and the girl was eight. I couldn't leave them marooned in the mud, and that meant taking their mother too. He had food and water so was in no danger. Before the children could be loaded into the cab of my utility another 4WD pulled up. They could squeeze the girl in by reorganising their packed vehicle, but that was safer than four across my cab.
As we were about to pull away yet another 4WD arrived. 'The police closed the road as we came through,' they said. 'It's too dangerous.'
'Can you take me to Marla?' the stranded man asked.
'You'll be better staying with your vehicle,' I told him. 'If you don't, it may be stripped when you get back.'
'Who'd do that?' he asked.
'I can't give you a name and address, but…' I let the words hang.
'I want to get to Marla. We've accommodation booked.'
He locked his car and set off with his rescuers, the other 4WD and his daughter following. We were tail-end Charlie and soon left behind. We introduced ourselves. The woman was Mary and the little boy was Brian.
'My husband and I are teachers from Sydney. Some of out friends have 4WDs, but they're expensive to run,' she said. 'We don't think they're necessary.'
I smiled and said, 'They're not in Sydney, but this ain't Sydney.'
She continued, 'We thought the road would get better. We'd done the right thing. We had plenty of food and water, and the road was open.'
'Open for 4WD,' I said. 'And you didn't do the right thing. You placed your lives in jeopardy, and the lives of your children. It was ridiculous to continue in these conditions.'
'We had to get to Marla. We've accommodation booked.'
'Having accommodation booked is no reason for stupidity. You put the lives of your children at risk.'
Mary repeated the comments that they had done the right thing and about the accommodation several times during the rest of the journey. No doubt it was reaction to her worry and I kept my counsel. She must have realised they'd been foolish without me ramming it down her throat.
The track became worse and the sliding more erratic. From time to time, slow as I was, a slurry of mud surged across my bonnet and windscreen. The creeks we crossed were deep. 'You'll need a piggy-back truck to get your car out, or at least a suspended tow. This water won't do your engine any good.'
'Is that why you wouldn't tow us?' Mary asked.
'One of the reasons, but think about it. In this mud you'd have no brakes and I've had one clown run into my back end already this morning.'
At mid-day I shared my meagre lunch. One bread roll doesn't go far between three, but it was better than nothing and I had plenty of hot water for coffee.'
It was late in the afternoon before we rolled into Marla. It had taken seven and a half hours to cover the two hundred and ten kilometres from Oodnadatta.
Mary's husband was waiting. 'I've been here for hours. I was worried.'
'Have you been to the police?' I asked.
What would I want to go to the police for?'
'You've left a vehicle unattended. They'll be looking for you.'
'Surely they wouldn't do that.'
Mary was still in my cab. 'Stay where you are,' I said. It's several hundred metres from the road-house to the police station at Marla. I sent Mary in to report while I made a few notes in my diary.
When I joined her a police woman was saying, 'Thanks for letting us know you're safe. We'd have been looking for you otherwise.'
'Really,' Mary said.
'Yes, really. And a search in this country is not cheap.'
'He made me come,' Mary said, pointing to me. 'He brought me out. Where can we organise a tow?'
The police woman glanced at me and rolled her eyes. 'The garage is up at the road-house, but they can't do anything until the road's open.'
'When will that be?' Mary asked.
I took Mary back to her husband. How long it was before they could recover their car, or what condition it would be in when they did, I had no idea.
They were lucky. If the police had closed the road a few minutes earlier none of the 4WDs would have been along to help. They'd have been stranded. I can only hope that next time they are more sensible and do the right thing.
I turned onto the Stuart Highway and headed north. I camped for the night and the next morning I found a police roadblock at the Northern Territory border.
'Can you tell us where you were on Saturday night?' I was asked.
So I told them.
'Can you prove that?'
'If you contact the Oodnadatta police on your radio they'll confirm where I was. I reported that damage to my bodywork yesterday morning.' I pointed to the crumpled corner of my camper.
The policeman set off to his vehicle to make the call. A few minutes later he returned with a big smile on his face. 'You know why we have this road block?'
'On Saturday night an English tourist was murdered farther along the highway by a bloke driving a white Toyota Landcruiser with a modified back.' I looked at my camper and could see why he was smiling. A white Toyota Landcruiser with a modified back. 'That's a bugger. I'm going to have hassles all the way up the highway.'
'Which way are you going?'
'Up to Three Ways then across to Charters Towers.'
'I'll radio ahead and let them know your number,' the officer said. 'They'll relay the information. That'll save you a bit of bother.'
'Thanks, mate. That'll be a big help.'
It was a peculiar tale. A bloke called Bradley John Murdock had murdered Peter Falconio, a young British tourist, who had been driving up the Stuart Highway with his girl friend, Joanne Lees. Murdock had convictions for drug smuggling, but why he murdered Falconio is not known. It happened on a remote stretch of road near Barrow Creek. Joanne Lees managed to elude Murdock and flag down a passing truck on the highway and raise the alarm. Now the hunt was on for Murdock. So in a way it was fortuitous that that young clown had been "Late for Lunch" and modified my bodywork.
But that wasn't the end of the matter.
I spent several days with the Scobies and Dick related his life story once again. One result of his medical problems was that his speech was slurred and difficult to understand so I recorded his stories every time I visited and gradually was able to interpret everything. Before I left Charters Towers I bought groceries to replenished my stores for the return home. My camper was parked in the main street outside a small café and I was loading the groceries into the day-use-fridge when two blokes came up to me. One was dressed in tatty jeans and the other could have found a use for a razor
'Who are you and what are you doing?'
'What business is that of yours?'
They fumbled in their pockets and produced their identifications, which they flashed at me and withdrew before I'd chance to check them.
'We're police officers,' the one in jeans said. They were both very aggressive.
'Can I see those IDs again, and this time give me time to read them.'
They did this with reluctance. Their identification appeared to be in order, but I was getting irritated with their attitude. The one in jeans was a detective sergeant.
'How do I know these are genuine? Anyone could have printed them off a computer.' The unshaven one was fumbling through his pockets, searching for something.
'They're signed by the Commissioner of Police,' the sergeant said. 'You can see his signature.'
'As I have no idea who the Commissioner of Police is in Queensland, that's proof of nothing. And look at the state of you. You're a pair of scruffs in civilian clothes. It's no wonder I'm suspicious about your claim to be police officers. I'm not impressed if that's how the Queensland police approach their duties.'
The sergeant turned to his partner. 'Where's you notebook?'
'I can't find it. I'll get something from the café.'
'See what I mean? You're like a pair of amateurs.'
'We've only just come on duty,' the sergeant said. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
'All the more reason you should each have a notebook.'
His partner was still in the café and the sergeant said, 'If you're not careful I'll arrest you.'
'On suspicion of the murder on the Stuart Highway last Saturday night. You're driving a Toyota Landcruiser with a modified back. That's what we're looking for. Now answer the question. Where were you on Saturday night?' His mate had returned and was making notes on a paper napkin.
'I was at Macumba Cattle Station.'
'Where the devil's that?'
'A little north of Oodnadatta.'
'Can you prove that?'
'Check with the police at Oodnadatta.' I fished my wallet out and showed them the confirmation of the accident report with the number.
The sergeant glared at me. 'We'll do that,' he said, 'but if it's incorrect we've got your number.'
I fastened the locker with my day-use-fridge, glanced at my watch and said, 'I've had enough of this. I'm away. I've a long journey ahead.' I moved to the rear of the camper and they started back towards the police station. It was about twenty yards away.
As they passed me I heard the sergeant saying, 'We'd better get some notebooks.'
Although Falconio's body has never been found, Murdock was convicted of his murder and is still serving a life sentence in Darwin.
© Jim Ditchfield