Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

13. Victors and Losers, Possums and Paradise

I first saw Victor on television sometime in 1994 on a current affairs show which I think was Real Life, but it might have been Sixty Minutes or even something else. I remember Victor being interviewed on the side of a road somewhere in Victoria, his dual claims to fame firstly being that he was walking around Australia, and second, that he was mostly doing it naked. A heck of a way to get an all over tan. In the interview he explained that when he was away from civilisation he would walk unclad, only wrapping some cloth around himself like a sarong or skirt when passing through towns or when in full public view. It was just another human interest story, interesting for a day or two, but quickly forgotten in the hurly-burly of everyday life. It was not until I saw a half-clad nomad walking along the railway tracks south of Proserpine that my memory of that TV program returned.

The day had started out much like any other. Cape Hillsborough had been wonderful, every bit as good as we remembered. We had loved our four days there, but the time had come for us to move on again. We managed an early start for us, around 8:15am, and had taken a shortcut from Seaforth back to the highway along eleven kilometres of awful dirt road. Sharp stones and a build-up of gravel near the side of the road was making the going difficult. Karen was riding in front, as usual, and as I watched, her front wheel dug into a deep section of gravel and she lost control of the bike. Down she went.

I had been dreading this moment ever since leaving Sydney, as I firmly believed that the first time Karen crashed she would spit the dummy, cry her eyes out, swear about the injuries she had sustained, and decide then and there that our cycling trip was over. But she didn't do any of that! Instead, she executed a neat shoulder roll and was up on her feet almost immediately. She picked the bike up, dusted herself off, said "That wasn't so bad", remounted and continued down the awful gravel road as if nothing had happened. I just stood there with my mouth open, totally incredulous.

We had morning tea on the highway at Mount Ossa, at a table outside a roadhouse with the biggest dog we had ever seen, a female Great Dane easily as big as Karen's bike and probably able to carry a heavier load. Lunch was at a small town named Bloomsbury, which I am sure is a lovely little town, but for the life of me I cannot remember it. I seem to have a faint recollection in my mind of some old houses and stands of bougainvillea, but I could be thinking of an entirely different place, because the only thing I can positively remember about Bloomsbury is that it was the town north of which we saw Victor. Long grass at the side of the road partially obscured my view of the naked figure as we rode past, so it was not until I cast a glance backwards that I could confirm the sighting. He saw me looking at him and gave a friendly wave, with his hand.

"Did you see that?" I called out to Karen as we rode on.
"No. What?"
"A naked man."
"Walking along the railway tracks, just back there. You didn't see him?"
"No, so can we go back for another look?"

Shortly after this, Karen and I passed a construction gang working on the tracks. I wondered how they would react to the sight that was about to greet their eyes. We continued on to Proserpine, logging one hundred and six kilometres for the day, and celebrating with a beer and a counter meal at a local pub, where I told Karen about having seen Victor on the TV before. Perhaps it was visions of naked men that caused her to start walking in the wrong direction when we departed the pub.

The next morning I awoke to a truly putrid stench. For a change, it was not my wife, but a smell like blood and bone fertiliser. Maybe it had been applied to the gardens of the caravan park, or maybe it was a by-product of the sugar refining process. Either way, Karen and I were not going to hang around to find out. We brushed a coating of ash - Proserpine snow - from the outside of the tent, and quickly packed up and headed out of town towards the coast at Airlie Beach.

We had been hoping to camp for a few days on one of the Whitsunday Islands, but inquiries at the NPWS and with local tour operators soon dashed these hopes. A water taxi service which had specialised in dropping campers at deserted islands had recently ceased operation, forced to close by a conspiracy between vested interests within the tourism industry, or so it was popularly believed. Destined to stay on the mainland and take day-trips out to the islands, Karen and I booked into the Shute Harbour caravan park - the cheapest in the area - and considered all of our alternatives. Whichever way we looked at it, we needed food, so we walked the three kilometres into town to do some shopping. I chose to go barefoot, thinking my feet were as tough as they were when I was a kid, but that had been thirty years ago and despite a history of shoelessness, I was regretting my decision two-thirds of the way into town. Food in Airlie Beach was expensive, which helped to take my mind off the pain in my feet as I hobbled my way back out to the caravan park.

I cooked an excellent dinner of steak and red wine in the equally excellent campers kitchen of the caravan park. Karen and I spoke with an interesting collection of backpackers and campers, and we were all entertained by the antics of a couple of possums who descended on the kitchen at dusk. Within a couple of nights, however, the possums had become pests.

Mother and baby possum at Shute Harbour

We had thought them so charming at first, a mother possum and her half grown offspring clambering around the camp kitchen at the Shute Harbour Caravan Park just outside of Airlie Beach. They would hang onto the lattice-work with their prehensile tails, grip on with their back feet, and lean out horizontally towards the campers, their cute little hands grasping for any food that came within reach. Food on its way from an unsuspecting camper's plate to his mouth was considered fair game by the possums, as was anything left unattended on a table for a split second. They would even climb up next to the gas barbecue while cooking was in progress and plunder half cooked sausages or pieces of bacon from the hotplate.

The possums would grudgingly allow an occasional pat, providing they were rewarded with a morsel of food for their acquiescence. Photographs were taken, flashbulbs were popped, fingers were pointed, mischief was laughed at. The appearance on the scene of a rival possum brought forth much hissing and snarling, leading to a short sharp tussle, small pieces of flying fur, and a hasty retreat. Then it was back to the scrounging. Once the offerings of food disappeared, so did the possums, waddling across the lawn towards the glow of another group of campers across the way. With the entertainment over, people would begin drifting away to their tents or vans, although other hardy souls stayed up reading and talking with us until lights out around ten o'clock. Eventually we retired to our own tent, settled comfortably into our sleeping bags and looked forward to a good night's sleep to complement the day and evening.

And then came the sound we would come to detest more than any other, the scratch-scratch-scratch of tiny claws against the panniers on our bikes. I groped around for the torch, unzipped the tent, unzipped the fly and shone a light towards the bikes. There sat a cute little bundle of fur, its big, round eyes blinking its innocence. I waved my hands around, and said psst, and whispered go away, all totally inappropriate and ridiculous. The possum regarded me with contempt and carried on its quest for food. Scratch-scratch-scratch. I tried to reason with it, explaining that rice and lentils, muesli and milk powder, dried peas and instant mashed potato were not worth the effort, but the possum pretended it did not understand. Scratch-scratch-scratch. I ducked back into the tent and donned a pair of pants, then went outside to do battle with the enemy. When she (only a woman would go to such lengths to get at food) saw me approaching, she stopped the attack on our panniers, but defiantly stood her ground. I picked up a small stick and gave her a little prod in the rump. She took the hint and ambled away into the bushes, pausing occasionally to glare back at me. I returned to the tent to boast of my victory and return to the land of nod.

Five minutes later, scratch-scratch-scratch. My eyelids snapped open. Scratch-scratch-scratch again. Oh no! I went through the pants, torch, tent and fly routine, and sure enough, the culprit was back. I jumped out of the tent, picked up my stick and prodded the possum again, a bit harder this time, hoping it would recognise that it was dealing with a superior being, with a vastly greater intellect and a massive advantage in body weight. It took a swing at me with its sharp little claws and I realised the contest was a lot more even than I had thought. I backed off and went looking for a bigger stick.

I soon returned to the fray, wielding the bigger stick like a rapier. The possum retired to the bushes again but she would not fool me this time. Although I could not follow, I picked up a selection of stones, and every time the possum paused I lightly tossed one in her direction. She seemed to realise the danger and disappeared into thicker scrub further up the slope. When I returned to the tent I stacked my projectiles just outside the entrance in case of further forays by my furry friend. I also kept my pants on.

I had actually drifted off to sleep when the familiar scratch-scratch-scratch sounded again. This meant war! As silently as possible I unzipped the tent and fly, picking up my weapons as I circled around behind the cover of the tent. I slowly lifted my head, peeking over the top of the tent at the enemy only a couple of metres away. I waited until she turned broadside on to me, then I let fly with a barrage of stones. The possum jumped about a metre into the air and took off like a stoned possum, and I peppered the bushes with more shrapnel as she made a lightning escape. I was confident that the possum would realise it had been defeated. Surely she would not risk a repeat engagement.

And so to bed. Around midnight Karen grabbed my arm and woke me up. Scratch-scratch-scratch was coming from just outside the tent. I tried to go back to sleep but Karen kept shaking me awake.
"Aren't you going to do something?" she whispered.
"Are the panniers with the food in them all tied up?" I asked.
I think Karen must have nodded, but as it was dark I didn't see, so I asked the question again.
"Are the panniers with the food in them all tied up?"
"I said yes!" she snapped. She was annoyed. I can tell these things.
"When it realises that it can't get in, it will go away", I replied, and promptly went back to sleep.

Karen must have lay there in the dark, listening, for about fifteen minutes before the scratch-scratch-scratch finally became more than she could stand. I woke to the sound of the zippers on the tent being opened. Karen was sitting in the doorway, putting on her shoes. The torch beam came on as she scrambled out of the tent. I heard the familiar sound of her determined walk as she made her way over to the bikes. I said a silent prayer for the poor possum. Then came a dull thud, and another sound, like a possum whistling through the air, closely followed by another dull thud, and the rapid patter of little feet disappearing into the distance. Karen returned to the tent.

"What happened?" I asked.
"I booted it."
"You booted it?"
"Yep. I booted it."

We didn't have any more problems with that particular possum after that.

The caravan park had offered seven days accommodation for the price of six, so we took advantage of the offer. During the week spent in Airlie Beach we did three different day-trips out to the Whitsunday Islands. The first was meant to go to Whitehaven Beach, but adverse winds and rough seas forced a change of plans once we were under way and the alternative arrangements were rather disappointing.

Two days later we took a similar cruise in idyllic conditions and enjoyed a brilliant day. Karen instantly fell in love with Whitehaven Beach and wants to buy it from the Commonwealth Government and build her dream house at its southern end. We saw two new birds, snorkelled at Manta Ray Bay amongst some of the best coral either of us had ever seen, and watched a Maori wrasse named Fat Albert make bread rolls disappear in nothing flat.

Karen on Whitehaven Beach

Karen in Paradise

Our third day trip was to South Molle Island. One of the first resort islands in the Whitsundays, South Molle is showing its age but is still a terrific day out, especially if one is prepared to get out of the resort and walk around the island. Karen and I walked all over the island, from the resort up to Spion Kop and the Horn, then across and up to Mount Jeffries and Balancing Rock. The views over the rest of the Whitsunday islands were wonderful. Even the high-rises on Hamilton Island looked acceptable from South Molle. We stopped off at Daydream Island on the way home, but Karen and I had spent an hour there on a previous trip, which even then had been about forty minutes more than we needed.

North Molle Island

After reluctantly departing Airlie Beach, a day of eighty six kilometres brought us to Bowen, an unexceptional town except for its murals and the number of caravan parks at which we could not find accommodation. The surrounding area is a mosaic of fields, and we rolled into town at the height of the picking season. Almost every caravan park site was occupied by itinerant workers. After being rejected by the first three we tried, Karen and I managed to find the last site in the last caravan park in town.

Our next door neighbours were Mark and his dog Misty. The dog was okay but the guy was really strange. He told us that he too did bicycle touring, preferring to do it without panniers by living off the land, hunting rabbits with ferrets and nets, or with a bow and arrow. However, he could not explain how he carried the nets, ferrets, bow and arrows without panniers. He did give us a couple of tomatoes to accompany our barbecue dinner, but we skipped town the next day before he could get too friendly.

A headwind for the final thirty kilometres limited us to ninety three kilometres and brought us to a caravan park at the back of the Inkerman Caltex service station. We bought and soon devoured a six dollar tub of gourmet ice-cream to replenish the sugars in our leg muscles. This day had been the most boring of our first three months on the road, worse even than the stretch between Rockhampton and Mackay. It did, however, have one thing going for it - we saw four new birds during the day. Two were very common - the zebra finch and the brown falcon, while the other two are reasonably unusual - the banded lapwing plover and the kori bustard.

With only a thirty kilometre day to Ayr ahead of us, Karen and I slept in until 7:30am the next morning. We left the tent set up, and stored our panniers inside while we rode up Mount Inkerman, directly behind the service station. The road was steep! So steep, in fact, that even without any extra weight on the bike, I had to get off and push Elle up the final fifty metres to the summit lookout. There have not been too many hills in Australia that have defeated me, especially on sealed roads, but Mount Inkerman won this battle easily. Still, the views from the top were well worth the effort, with a patchwork of fields of various shades of green and brown stretching from horizon to horizon.

The view from Mount Inkerman

Our morning sight-seeing meant a late start to our riding for the day, but a lunch stop at Home Hill was only a dozen kilometres away and Ayr, our planned overnight stopping place, was only a similar distance further on.

The Silverlink Caravan Park at Ayr seemed okay at first. It had nice grounds, a lovely pool, a wonderful heated spa, a good campers kitchen surprisingly situated right next to the camping area (which did not happen too often), and flat tent sites. Like Bowen, Ayr was in the middle of its harvesting period, but this time we had no trouble finding a site. It was still fairly crowded, due to the annual influx of seasonal workers, fruit pickers, itinerants, vagrants, touring cyclists and bastards. In the evening, during dinner, the conversations around us were the usual mix of been-there-done-that travel stories. After dinner, when the six packs appeared and people started to arrive back from the pub, the standard of conversation deteriorated somewhat. One guy in particular was dominating an entire table with the loudness of his voice and the narrowness of his mind, trying to impress upon his spellbound audience the depth of his knowledge, gained in prison, on how to beat people up, especially "coons". His IQ was about the same as the percentage of his skin not decorated with tattoos - close to zero.

Karen and I spoke to a pommy back-packer named Stuart, who seemed a cut above most of the low-life scum around us, but even he was a heavy smoker, and not just of tobacco. He had also overstayed his three month visa by about two months, and was paranoid about being caught and sent home. At 9:57pm, the campers kitchen lights went out, operated by a switch somewhere within the caravan park office. With the drinking, talking and smoking carrying on regardless, despite the darkness, Karen and I retired to our tent. Shortly afterwards, a long haired girl wearing the standard hippie uniform of shapeless dress, beads and bare feet, began practising on her guitar. She really needed the practice, but luckily she gave up after about ten minutes.

Later that night, at around two in the morning, people were still coming home from the pub. I heard one guy stumbling around looking for his tent, and the sound of a tent zip being opened as he apparently found it. A minute later we heard the guy throwing up. I could not tell whether he was inside or outside his tent at the time. I remember smiling to myself and thinking - "Are you having a good time tonight, arsehole?"

At 4:30am Karen and I were awakened by the sound of people banging on the doors of the cabins adjacent to the camping area. A quick peek outside the tent revealed very little, but we were gradually able to piece together enough information to work out that a police raid was in progress. Good, I thought, hoping that everybody got exactly what they deserved, while at the same time having no idea what any of them had done. At one point Karen swears she heard someone say "He shoved his hand up his arse!", but she could not tell if it had been said by a policeman or by someone looking on. For some reason, our tent was not searched.

The police finally left after about an hour, but they were replaced by a variety of cars, utes and trucks arriving to pick up workers for the day. Apparently some people were missing, because we heard a couple of calls like - "There's a day's work going right now if anybody wants it."

Over breakfast, we picked up various bits of eyewitness accounts, gossip and hearsay, which generally agreed that the police had been searching for immigration transgressors and also for drugs, using sniffer dogs. Stuart had bolted when he had realised a police raid was in progress, and had spent the next two hours hiding in a cubicle in the men's toilet. He would be leaving town as fast as his thumb could take him.

Despite all of the overnight activity, or perhaps because of it, Karen and I were out of the caravan park by 8:10am. A north-westerly wind made the going tough, limiting our average speed to about fifteen kilometres per hour. Thirty one kilometres north of Ayr we were approaching a roadhouse where we planned to stop for morning tea, when we saw two guys and a dog standing by the side of the road. We recognised both the guys immediately. One was Stuart, who had only been partially successful in getting out of town and was now trying to hitch another lift. The guy with the dog was Victor.

He was no longer naked, but instead was covered by a sarong that would not have looked out of place on the wizened Indian pilgrims we had seen trekking to sacred Muktinath in the wilds of the Nepalese Himalayas. He was probably in his forties, though it was difficult to tell. He had unkempt, greying hair and a long, grizzly beard, his skin sunburnt and wrinkled from prolonged exposure. His head and feet were bare, and he carried a cloth sack which held a few simple belongings, some food, a cup and bowl, and a bottle of water. If there had been a film crew nearby, you would have sworn they were making a movie about Jesus Christ, with Victor in the leading role. He had walked well over two hundred kilometres in the eleven days since we had last seen him!

We stopped for a chat, and during a short conversation discovered that the dog's name was Rainbow, and he had been with Victor during all of his wanderings. We invited them all across the road to the shade of the roadhouse for morning tea. Victor and Rainbow took us up on the offer, but Stuart declined, preferring to continue his wait for a ride. We boiled a cup of tea while Victor and Rainbow had some water, and all four of us shared a bag of mixed nuts. The story they had to tell was fascinating, and we found ourselves asking the same questions that had been asked of us so many times. Victor answered them patiently, a softly spoken man who seemed totally at peace within himself.

"Where are you headed?"
"Cape York, and then New Guinea, maybe Indonesia, maybe further."
"Where are you from?"
"We left Perth a couple of years ago. I had a property, and a wife, but we went our separate ways, and I became disillusioned with the way that farming monocultures (he waved his hand at the fields of sugar cane around us) were destroying the land and the environment. Eventually I gave it all away and decided to look for something better."
"So you walked across the Nullarbor?"
"No. I actually walked up the Western Australian coast to the Kimberley, then down the Tanami Track to Alice Springs, south to Adelaide, then right around the coast to here, avoiding the big cities of course."
"How did you carry food and water on the Tanami?"
"I didn't. If I needed water, when a car came by I would hold out my water-bottle, upside down with the cap off and obviously empty. Usually the car would stop."
"And food?"
"The same story, except I used an empty bowl, or I would point to the bowl and then to my mouth."
"Where do you sleep?"
"At the end of the day I find a nice spot in the bush somewhere."
"You don't have a tent?"
"No. I find some grass, or some bracken if I can. Sometimes there isn't any."
"I notice you are not wearing a hat."
Victor touched his reddened nose ruefully. "No. I thought that my skin would gradually adapt to the sunlight, but I have been travelling for a while now and it has not happened yet. I might use a cap if I find one."
"And no shoes?"
"No, my feet are pretty tough now, though it's hard on Rainbow sometimes."
"Do you have any money?"
"No, I don't use money. Most people are kind. I get by."
"How many kilometres do you walk in a day?"
"About twenty to thirty. I started off doing more, but it was too tough on the dog, and it really wasn't necessary anyhow."

Across the road, Stuart finally picked up a lift with a couple of blonde Swedish girls - the lucky bastard - and we waved him goodbye. Karen and I asked many more questions of Victor, mostly about his lifestyle, and not the motives or beliefs behind it. We thought that we had been doing it fairly tough, but at least we had three square meals a day and a roof over our heads every night. I suppose that some people felt the same way about us as we did about Victor, but we really could not relate to his situation at all. We could picture ourselves living a similar lifestyle to him, but only for a few days, or perhaps even a week, and only with the knowledge that it was all just for the experience, strictly temporary to see what it was like, and then it would be back to the comforts of civilisation. To have left civilisation behind forever was beyond imagining.

In many ways Victor was like some of the deeply religious people we have met. No matter what the arguments thrown at them, no matter how much they may be laughed at, or hated, or persecuted, their belief that they are right in what they think and do remains absolute. Yet their view of reality is just as valid to them as my view of reality is to me, and Victor's to him, and often so different that there is little chance of true understanding amongst any of us. Isn't it wonderful that we can live in a country where everyone is free to pursue their own dreams, to live their own lives, and to believe in their own realities? Isn't is wonderful that we can have people with such disparate views on life, and to have none of them trying to force their beliefs on the others?

After talking with Victor and Rainbow for half an hour, it was time for Karen and I to continue on. We bade farewell to this strange man, never expecting to see him again, but given the number of coincidences we had experienced so far on the trip, including seeing Victor again today, it was almost inevitable that one day we would meet up with him again.

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