28/04/2014 1.55 PM
Me: Haha going to the retreat hotel
Alana: Woah. Take photos and tell me everything.
Central Queensland doesn’t look like how you think it would. In the west, going out towards Longreach the earth turns a fiery red that sticks to your thongs. But this isn’t the outback you have on your desktop computer, there are trees here. Not skeleton ones, but full branches with leaves of green. Cane toads hang around the toilets like loitering teenagers. I try to kick one but the wrinkled monster is too fast.
At night time the stars nearly swallow the flat earth.
In Sapphire we fossick for gems. The sweat pours off our faces as we sort through the rocks with the willowby. Pour the rocks in the pan, push it into the water. Wash it. Repeat.
The Willowby. Dan likes that word. Our shorts are covered in dirt and it only takes us a few hours until we’re too cranky to be friendly to each other anymore.
I go for a run and I wonder as I do in most places, why people live here. The caretaker at Great Keppel Island says it’s a shithole but there is beauty in ugliness, even the shittiest holes must have some attraction, right?
I get lost on my run as the sun sinks beneath the shadow of the tree-line. I use the camels in the paddock to find my way back. I’d be lying if I said my heart wasn’t thump-thumping as I try to escape the country of rusted, gutted old cars. I could always ask for help, but I don’t want to go to the weather board slums with dug out backyards strewn with prospecting gear. When I get back to our camp-site the sky is purple.
The lady who teaches us how to fossick speaks bitterly of the slums.
Dole-bludgers, pensioners, living off mining land for nothing!
The lady has been living in the gemfields for over thirty years. Her face looks like a vintage bag you’d find in an op-shop.
We leave the gemfields with our small fortune in an eclipse packet that we hide in the glove-box. Our GPS takes us on an obscure route and we pass nothing but country-side with fat cows and grass too green to think you’re in Central Queensland. But the land changes around us, black hills with flat tops appear in the distance. It’s beautiful.
Then the land opens up and drops beneath our feet. The modern gemfields.
Man can destroy the land by digging craters deeper than you can imagine. But at the same time the mechanical wheels of the train over five kilometres long, of the truck the size of a mansion carrying coal, well, it’s a different kind of magic. An ugly kind that still makes you take a second glance back in the rear view mirror.
We have lunch in Moranbah. Wikipedia tells us that it’s the most expensive town in Queensland to live in. The main attraction going for it, as far as we can tell, it the unlimited salad bar at the RSL club. We fill our plates up with three different types of salad. Dan moans, grabbing his full belly when we get back into the car. The town is only 25 years old and you can tell, it’s cement face has been whacked up quickly to accommodate the mining riches. A Red Rooster and a McDonalds do not make a town.
We can’t find anywhere to camp for free in Moranbah so we head back onto the highway and 90 k’s later we pull into The Retreat Hotel.
My friend Alana wrote this amazing piece about this place. In 2009 she worked and lived in the pub for two months. She endured sexism and saw some of the worst aspects of the outback working here, something that you cannot really experience by just staying one night and with a first glance it seems friendlier than staying on the endless highway.
We ask the blonde bartender if we can camp for free?
We set up our tent on the grass, about 200 metres from the hotel. Dan wants a beer so he gets a beer and I take advantage of the free tea served in a styrofoam cup. As I look around the hotel I play I-SPY. I spy hundreds of rooms in portables, for miners hitting the piss. I spy signs promoting a topless waitress night (Thursday!) and another with a cartoon man squeezing a woman’s breast. I-SPY a sleaze hitting on the same blonde bartender. Alana wants me to say hi to the manager, but I don’t see any males in charge, only females running the show, so I stick with my tea and read through a selection of magazines: Mackay Lifestyle (YOUR WEDDING DAY!), Cosmos, Mining Life (DREDGING IS GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT!).
Dan and I use the showers which are also in the portables. My shower smells like someone was sucking on a cigarette while having their daily wash. On the door the sign tells us in a motherly tone, please flush the toilet after use. I tell Dan later that obviously that sign is written up for the dirty males that frequent the pub and don’t have basic toilet manners. Dan says I’m being sexist but he knows I’m right.
The next morning I wake up too early and like an old timer go for a walk. Utes and trucks speed past towards the holes in the earth. I help myself to another complimentary tea and count the caravans in the rest area: three, the number of fat bulls with no necks: six and the number of people in the pub drinking or having breakfast: zero.
There is nothing else to see so I head back to our camp through the wet grass.
I have another three teas and by 10am we are back on the highway, the hot sun burning our necks.