Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

22. Lawn Hill

After a dawn climb up to Island Stack to watch the sunrise, and a walk around the top for views of the lower and middle gorges, Kevin, Barbara, Karen and I spent the rest of the morning unpacking the car, removing the bikes from the roof rack and sorting through all of our gear to determine what we needed to keep with us and what could go back to Sydney with Kevin and Barbara. Afterwards, the car and the roof rack had to be repacked and the bikes securely tied to the top once more.

Never shy in coming forward, Colin called around mid-morning to demonstrate how he wanted the lawn sprinklers positioned and how often he wanted them moved. That would be our job for the next couple of days, starting right now. The next morning, the last day of September, Kevin and Barbara packed their tent and sleeping gear into the car and bid us farewell. Karen was not so teary for this goodbye, perhaps because she was getting accustomed to it, or maybe because she knew we would be back in Sydney in a couple of months.

We moved our tent and all of our gear into some temporary accommodation behind the ranger station. Eventually we would be moving into a three room donga - a prefabricated shack - which was still occupied by Geoff. He would be leaving the next day, but so would we. We had to drive into Mount Isa and buy two month's worth of food.

Apart from a very basic store at Adel's Grove just outside the park, and a roadhouse at the Gregory River about one hundred kilometres away, the nearest supermarket to Lawn Hill is in Mount Isa - three hundred and forty kilometres away via roads of corrugated dirt, gravel and sand. Luckily for us, the ranger at Lawn Hill needed to pick up some materials at the district office in town. To kill two birds with one stone, he let us borrow a national park vehicle - a four wheel drive Landcruiser - to get the supplies, and also to buy our two months worth of food at the same time.

Cheryl and Bindi-Lee, John and Trisha, Colin and me

The rangers at Lawn Hill (Colin and Cheryl and their daughter Bindi-Lee, and John and Trisha) gave us some advice on the best places to shop in Mount Isa, and the best methods of getting the food back to the park intact, but after that we were on our own. We left the park at midday, and after a hot, dusty, and bumpy trip we arrived in the Isa just before dusk. We spent the evening at a caravan park, working out what we would need to buy to sustain us for the months ahead. We eventually decided to calculate what we would need for a week - seven different dinners, lunches based on sandwiches and a variety of breakfasts - and then multiply it by eight.

Shopping at a country town was an eye-opener for city folk like us. Mount Isa is the biggest town for almost a thousand kilometres in every direction, and according to the Guinness Book of Records it is actually the biggest city in the world too, in terms of area. There are a lot of people on properties in the surrounding districts that can only get into town once a week, or once a month, or even once every six months, and the town is geared to supplying this market.

Our first day in town was spent running around like headless chooks - from the office to the greengrocer to buy packaged and canned food, to Peter's Ice to place an order for frozen food, to a bakery to order bread, to Telecom to get the national park gold phone fixed, to a spare parts supplier and to an auto electrician for the car radio, to lunch at the Pizza Hut, to a safety equipment shop for work boots, to a produce supplier for molasses to be used in feral animal eradication, to a hardware store and to K-mart, to an airline office to check flights to Sydney or Brisbane, to two travel agents to get advice on bus travel, to Woolworths, to the railway station to check on train timetables and fares, back to Peter's, and then back to the office again, before heading back towards the caravan park in the afternoon to work on removing the Landcruiser's radio. We made one unscheduled stop, however, before we got back to the caravan park.

Karen had not known that there was a Coca-Cola bottling outlet in Mount Isa until we had driven past it the previous evening. Armed with her letter of introduction, Karen walked right in and asked to see the manager. On our visit to the bottler north of Townsville, Karen and I had been riding bikes and could only carry away a large bottle of drink each. On this occasion, however, we came much better prepared - with a four wheel drive tray top! A short time later we were driving away with six cartons of soft drink in the back of the truck.

We arrived back at the caravan park in the heat of the late afternoon and immediately hit the pool for a much deserved swim. Soon after, a short but violent south-westerly squall had us running to cover the groceries in the back of the truck with a tarpaulin, and to peg down the tent before it blew apart. The wind soon died down, but the rain continued off and on all night.

In the morning we picked up our bread and delivered it to Peters to be packed with the frozen food which we would be taking away the next day. Then it was off to the office to pack the truck with the park supplies, which amongst other things included three metal "C" sections to be used in national park signs. Each was ten metres long and I had to cut them into three pieces using an angle grinder before it was loaded. Possibly the most important items we packed onto the truck were a dozen cartons of toilet paper. Just as we finished packing the truck, Karen and I were confronted by Brad, the district ranger.

"Have you guys got a driver's licence?" he asked.
"Sure," I said, pulling out my wallet and showing Brad my licence.
"This is a New South Wales driver's licence," he said.
"That's right. Is that a problem?"
"I'm afraid so. Regulations state that only holders of Queensland driver's licences are allowed to drive Queensland state government vehicles."
"You're kidding." He shook his head. He was not kidding.
"So what happens now?" I asked.
"One of us here at the office will have to drive you back to Lawn Hill in the truck. They will then fly back here."
"You mean just because I have a NSW driver's licence, I can't drive the truck, and the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service will have to pay for someone to drive us back to the park, and then pay to fly them back to Mount Isa?"
"That's right."
"Isn't there any alternative?"
"Well, you could stay here in Mount Isa for a day or two while we fly one of the rangers down from the park first, and they could drive you back."
"Would you reimburse us for the costs of our forced stay here?"
"No, sorry. We don't have a budget for that."
"We're staying in a caravan park. It'd only be about ten dollars a night. You could take it out of petty cash."
Brad shook his head.
"Well, how about you look the other way and we take the truck before you can stop us?"
"Sorry, but now that I know about it, I have to follow the rules."
"This is ridiculous!"
"Maybe, but it's probably because of regulations covering worker's compensation and insurance. If you don't have a licence, you're not covered, and if you are injured in an accident, the QNPWS would have to pay any claim you have against us."
"Okay, " I said, slowly. "How about I go to the registry and swap my NSW licence for a Queensland one?"
"That'd be okay."
"Can I use your phone?"

I phoned the registry and found it was a simple matter of filling out a form, and paying about fifty dollars to have my five year NSW licence converted to a five year Queensland licence. I also learned that I would walk out of the registry with a finished licence, complete with photograph and lamination! I was impressed. In Sydney a finished licence had always come through the post sometime in the following six weeks.

"It's all set," I said. "Fifty dollars and I'll have a Queensland licence. I can go there right away."
"I'll get someone to drive you," said Brad.
"Any chance of getting compensated for the expense of the licence?" I asked, not expecting a positive answer.
"Sorry, but we don't have a budget for that either."
"So we are prepared to work for the national park for nothing for two months, which has got to be worth at least a few thousand dollars, and the department will not compensate us for a fifty dollar expense, even when it will save hundreds of dollars in time and airfares for the ranger who would have had to drive us back to Lawn Hill?"
"That's right."
"None of your volunteers stay around for long, do they?" I asked.

I was driven to the Department of Transport, where I handed in my five year New South Wales licence and paid ten dollars for a one year Queensland licence. I figured that I would be able to claim a refund for the unused time on my old licence when I returned to Sydney in December and changed everything back again, but I was not looking forward to fighting that particular battle.

Would you buy a used car from this man?

After the trouble we had trying to get safety boots, I should have realised that there would be other red-tape problems in working for a government department. Brad had been caught between two conflicting regulations in that situation. On the one hand, the office did not have a budget for boots for volunteers, but on the other hand, it had a legal responsibility to supply suitable safety footwear for all employees in the field. We got the boots, but only after a great deal of mumbling and grumbling.

The delay caused by the licence farce meant that Karen and I were forced to stay in Mount Isa for an extra night. We took advantage of a free afternoon by having another Pizza Hut lunch and by later visiting a display about Riversleigh, one of the richest fossil sites in the world. We had passed the actual site, about halfway between Lawn Hill and Mount Isa, a couple of days earlier.

Back at the office, it looked like we would have to unpack the truck and leave all the park supplies locked safely in the NPWS warehouse while we stayed at the caravan park for the night, but one of the other rangers, a girl named Adrien, took pity on us and invited us to spend the night at her home. We left the fully packed truck in the warehouse and drove home with her. Adrien turned out to be a kindred spirit, having trekked in Nepal before the birth of her two kids, Ketra and Ronan. We stopped off at a bottle shop on the way home, bought her a couple of bottles of wine to thank her for her trouble, and spent most of the evening looking through the photo albums of her treks.

In the morning we dropped Karen at a fruit and vegetable place while I continued on to the office to get the truck. After picking up Karen I drove to Peter's to collect our frozen produce, where we also received a complimentary ice-cream. The food was placed into insulated cardboard and foam boxes with a couple of bricks of dry ice to keep it cool during the five or six hours drive back to Lawn Hill.

We had spent about two hundred and twenty dollars on grocery items from Woolworths, and nearly two hundred dollars on frozen vegetables, crumbed fish, chicken pieces and ice-cream from Peter's. Combined with the bread and the fresh fruit and vegetables, plus other odds and ends, our total food bill came to about five hundred dollars.

When we arrived back at the park, we quickly checked that the frozen produce was still viable, and packed it into the chest freezer in our donga, hoping that it would stay frozen in the hot weeks ahead. The freezer was okay - it was the electricity that was the problem. Although supplied free of charge, power was available only for the twelve hours a day when the diesel generator was running. Between nine o'clock at night and nine in the morning when the generator lay idle, we avoided opening the freezer or the fridge. Still, it could have been worse. It had been only recently that the park budget had extended the generator's running time to twelve hours. A few months before it had only been eight!

The freezer needed to be good. During our two months at Lawn Hill the daily average temperature was about thirty five degrees. One day it was over forty. There was a fortnight when it never got below thirty six. There was also a day when the mercury barely made it to twenty five. The locals were wearing jumpers that day! Overnight temperatures were usually in the mid to low twenties, with one particularly chilly night getting down to nineteen, but a few nights over thirty soon made up for the cold snap. Despite the heat, and the intermittent power, the freezer performed superbly. Surprisingly, so did our calculations of the amount of food to buy. When the time came to leave, we had virtually no food left.

It taught us a valuable lesson in how to live cheaply. We have never bought food in bulk before, or dealt directly with wholesalers, and it was surprising how inexpensive our food proved to be. Five hundred dollars in two months works out at a little over four dollars per day each - eight dollars for the both of us. Even on our limited budget we were saving over one hundred and fifty dollars a week! When and if we finally settle down, I feel certain we will put into practice the lessons in economising we learned in Mount Isa.

Economising, however, was not the only lesson Karen and I learned in Mount Isa. When we left Sydney, we were searching for a change from the rat-race of city living and hoping to find both employment and a lifestyle that we could enjoy for the rest of our lives. We had always believed that with our backgrounds in hiking and fitness, and our love for the natural world, working as a ranger in a national park would be ideal for us. Two days in Mount Isa convinced us otherwise. We could never tolerate the ridiculous constraints imposed by the public service system. We have worked for multinational corporations for most of our lives, and although money was not freely available, if there was ample justification, the finance for a worthy project could usually be found, especially if it involved spending a little bit of money to save a lot. The red tape we encountered in our brief stint working for a government department would not be tolerated in any business out to make a quid.

Perhaps that is why the government is a non-profit organisation.

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