How to nearly tear your foot off. Outback Queensland, Australia 1974

This is part one in a two part chapter in my all the dumb things series.

In late January 1974, when I was 17 years old, I decided to go travelling in Asia. From Sydney I hitch hiked north hoping to get rides all the way to Darwin. Unfortunately there had been an exceptionally wet summer up north and Cyclone Wanda had pushed the wet season rains further south than normal, causing floods in Brisbane and much of outback Queensland. I arrived in Brisbane about two days after the floods. There was an eerie quietness to the city as I passed through and high water marks could be seen as high as 3 or 4m (9 or 12ft) on many buildings downtown and the Brisbane River banks were littered with the flotsam of  destroyed houses and anything else that got swept away by the flood. There were bundles of grass draped over the power lines that had been left by the receding flood waters. The skies were still cloudy and it looked like it would rain at any time so I didn’t linger in Brisbane and hitched out west to Dalby.


I got to just past Dalby by nightfall and I was dropped off in the middle of night by the highway. I kept on hitching into the night and then it started to rain. Hitching at night while it is raining is not a winning combination. It’s hard enough to get someone to stop when it’s pitch black, let alone allow you to get into their vehicle when you are dripping wet. Back in those days it never occurred to me to carry a small tent, so I spent the night trudging along with my backpack, while wearing a flimsy plastic poncho. After many hours, I was picked up by a truck driver in the wee hours of the morning. The truck was a Mac pulling an empty three level cattle trailer. Macs in those days didn’t have very big cabs so the driver said I had to put my pack in the cattle trailer. In the pouring rain we tied the pack up, out of all the sloppy cow dung on the floor, by its straps to the top of the second level.  Cold and drenched I was happy to have the ride but I was exhausted because I hadn’t slept properly for three days. Truck driver was none to happy with me every time I drifted off to sleep and he kept on waking me up by slapping me on the nearest arm. “I picked you up to keep me awake” he’d say. By daylight, we had reached the truck driver’s turn off and  I was dropped off with my soaking wet, cow manure impregnated backpack in the middle of nowhere. The pack reeked of dung and urine and everything in the pack was a soggy fetid mess. Oh well, at least it had stopped raining.

When I hitch hike I usually walk backwards, wearing my pack,  facing the oncoming traffic. The only relatively clean clothes I now had were the ones I was wearing and they quickly soaked up the stench from my pack. Usually when people pick you up they open up the door and with a smile ask you where you’re going, you answer and then they open the boot (trunk) of their car to load the back pack and then, in you hop into the front with the driver.  In the Outback most people drive pick up trucks of one kind or another so they just tell you to toss the pack in the back and then you get into the cab with them. Once you get into the vehicle, greetings and handshakes are exchanged and conversation begins. In my experience, hitch hiking has been a great way to meet the generous and gregarious members of society. It’s a very sociable way to travel. That is usually how things go, but when one is covered in cow manure things aren’t so friendly.

The outback is peopled by farmers and as such you’d think that they’d have some kind of inured tolerance to the excremental odours of their bovines. Nah!  “Cow-Cockies” (what we affectionately call our cattle farmers here in Australia) don’t like the smell of cattle crap any more than city people. My host’s smiles for the next two days would quickly convert to a shocked rictus as they got a whiff of me. To their credit, no-one kicked me out of their vehicles, but they did wind down the windows and one occasion I was put in the back with the scary pig-dogs. “What’s a pig dog?” I hear you ask. Imagine the dogs one would get if you crossed a mastiff with a bull terrier that are used to drag down wounded wild pigs that have huge tusks. Big headed, broad chested, muscular bodied and covered in scars. Not the sort of dogs you would want to pat or let near children.

Most towns in the outback back then were just crossroads that had a pub on three of the corners and a general store on the other. The pubs were places you could go for a cold beer or a fight. The accommodation offered at these establishments was Spartan to say the least. They weren’t really hotel rooms as most people would expect, but rather places to pass out when you were too drunk to fight or drive. By the time I got to Charleville I’d hadn’t slept properly for five days and I stank like an abattoir. I was really looking forward to washing my clothes and having a shower.


 Charleville didn’t have a laundromat and the pub I stayed at, only had bore water in the shared bathroom.  Usually bore water can smell a little and be a bit brown but the water on offer at the pub glooped out of the tap as a thick tar like sludge that smelled of rotten eggs. No cleaning up for me. Not much rest either as my room didn’t have a handle or lock and few times in the evening drunks came in and tried to go to sleep. It was a nightmare.

The next morning after a greasy tepid breakfast that could only be described as a crime against nature, I continued hitching in the rain to Longreach. By the time I got to Longreach the rain was pouring down and it was getting dark. The road out of town had been closed due to the floods and all the truck drivers and travellers who had arrived before me had booked out all the accommodation in town. At first I was at a loss as to where I was going to stay until one of the pub patrons told me to go and sleep on the platform at the railway station. Soaked and putrid I walked through the red mud to the train station. Surprisingly the train station platform wasn’t locked up and all the next day’s freight was piled into a mountain on the platform. The two benches on the platform were already occupied by snoring drunks.  In the middle of the mountain of freight, like a dream come true, was a stack of about ten plastic covered mattresses. I didn’t even think twice and I climbed to the top of the mattresses and had the best sleep that I’d had for days.

Part 2 

On a technical note the pictures above were taken on Agfachrome (should’ve been named Agfacrap) which is a substative film (unlike Kodachrome which is non-substantive). Substantive films are much more prone to colour shift due to heat damage and the dyes fade much faster over time than the dyes in non-substantive films. I’ve tried to fix up the images in PhotoShop but the colours are a little too far gone.

3 thoughts on “How to nearly tear your foot off. Outback Queensland, Australia 1974”

  1. We arrived in brisbane in jan 1976 en route to darwin,looking for work rebuilding darwin after the cyclone.
    There were terrible floods that year as well and after leaving brissie in an HD wagon we had bought for $400 we ran into huge floodwaters at newcastle waters.we pushed the HD through the flood way but later had to put the car on the train from hughenden to cloncurry.A diabloical trip in an ancient carriage.

  2. The…. Mark Latham?

    Pushing a car is always a drag, never mind through water.

    It wasn’t until I’d been travelling for a while did I realise how backward the rail system was here in Australia. The only difference between us and Thailand at the time was that at least we’d moved on from steam locomotion. Even now I think that the government is being so short sighted in not spending more money on rail. If we had a better system, more people would use it and the more people who use it, the cheaper it is to run and the less cars on the road. On that note, if the areas irrigated by the Ord scheme has better access to markets by rail we could stop irrigating the Riverina and give the Murry a break.

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