I recall last Monday and that scene at Swan Reach as I strolled along the river bank. It was in the late twilight when every tree and twig was Violet Black against the amber sky. The birds were chattering having saved their loudest voices until the end of the day. Every one of them trying to outdo the other before the silence of darkness took over. They created a very noisy chorus of tones and inflections that seemed to have no uniform pattern to distinguish the important matters from those of less significance. Or maybe everything that they proclaimed was as important as the other and had to be chirped today because it could not wait until tomorrow. It was, it seemed, their job to herald to all that were not deaf that night was about to fall. And in the background the Murray rippled and murmured a haunting duet with the evening breeze providing the bass tones that gave the whole symphony body.
I met an unknown friend but a few words and pleasantries fixed all that. It is a wonderful countryside that humanity does not make more impressive but merely blends in and becomes an intricate part.
They are a curious collection of human bric-a-brac these people that pass through this landscape and they are especially grateful for any kindness you may show them. Their language is colourful and basic and preserves many of the picturesque traits of our race which are now so rapidly vanishing. But still they are able to travel within our land because of the sheer vastness of this continent. There are still thousands of acres of wild land, deep ravines and rocky corners where the man of the road can boil his billy and pitch his tent undisturbed by tourists, sightseers and civilization and find solitude in so many wide open spaces.
Steve is such a man. He has led a checked career what with a couple of failed marriages which, with a shaky voice, he admits where of his own doing and has in his estimation has spent more than half his adult life at Her Majesty’s Convenience. On one occasion after a heavy drinking session he got into a fight with another drunk. Steve won the fight. He did 15 years for manslaughter. He doesn’t drink any more and by living the way that he does he can stay away from trouble and temptation and appreciate what this world has to offer. He has found peace in isolation. A big man who through the years has spent a great deal of money on cultivating a gut so large it seems that an oak cask is strapped around his middle. His hair is long, past his shoulders and unruly just like his beard which comes down to his chest. What teeth he has are blackened from lack of proper dental care. Steve is an ex bikie and his appearance is every bit of what we have grown to expect the appearance of one should be. I noticed that other people at the campsite stayed well clear of him.
He had come upon hard times. With all those heavy winds that come up from the Southern Ocean, South Australia can be a bitter cold place to be at this time of the year. His tent had blown over in the fierce wind and broken his tent poles. We tried to fix things by substituting my spare poles but that didn’t work. The tent had sustained a tear as well so it was a useless exercise. As I said, this was on Monday and his pension money was not going to be in the bank until Thursday. He was down to his last couple of eggs, some coffee and a packet of dried biscuits and to make matters worse the closest ANZ bank was in Mannum some 70ks away. Steve’s plan was to hitch-hike into town on Thursday, collect his money, buy a little food then hitch-hike back to his campsite and sleep in his car that night. Then on Friday morning, fill up his car with petrol, go back into Mannum and get some more food and then try to buy a new second hand tent. Goodness knows where he would sleep if he were unable to thumb a ride back from Mannum to his car on the Thursday afternoon. The nights are bitter cold, usually getting down below 4 degrees and with a southerly and no protection a man could easily die of exposure. So I gave him a packet of my dried pasta. The No Frills one that I eat. Just add water and boil it. A packet lasts me four days so that should keep him going. I also gave him $10 so that he could buy gas; enough to get him into Mannum and get his money on Thursday. Having the car also afforded him somewhere to sleep if it took him a little while to find another suitable tent. Since we were both headed the same way we agreed to meet at Plush Bend on Friday and he would repay the loan. But Friday has come and gone and he hasn’t turned up. He may have lost track of what day it is or figured when he gets here is the right time. Such is the way on the road but I have no doubt that if I ever see Steve again he will not have forgotten the $10 and you can bet your house on the fact that if he ever comes across someone else in the same situation as he was in he will do exactly the same thing as I did and be eternally grateful because he was able to help another traveller. Such is the way of the road.