The Boab Sentinels
It seemed like writer Mark Piggott had found paradise: a luxury resort near Broome on Australia’s northern coast. But when stranded in Cable Beach with his family, a series of unexpected events would drive him to the edge of madness…
Perth, WA. Pronounced: “wah!” Thousands of cars shimmer in the mid-thirties heat. The only parking space large enough for a tank like a Holden Commodore is a sweaty hike from the domestic airport, and as I pull our 30-kilogram suitcase behind me with one hand, pushing a pram with the other, flies descend. Unable to fend them off I curse loudly in a Yorkshire twang and shake my head like a BSE-addled cow.
Emma and Sean are sitting pretty, riding fine, their prams encased in black netting that keeps hazards out and screams in. Lynda and I on the other hand are easy targets, an easy feast that is four parts perspiration and one part tears. By the time we reach our terminal (clusters of passengers smoking outdoors like out-patients, chuckling as we pass in our black cloud) I’m cursing this whole continent and dreaming of distant London: home.
Perth’s domestic airport is the size of Boots in Camden Town, its one pub full of miners flying back to work somewhere outrageous with a Mount- prefix. They stand (never sit) up at the humdrum bar, joshing, drinking in measured gulps: polite, firm, sure of themselves, using matey conversations as pins to pry into each other’s sexuality. In WA even the gay bars have signs on the door saying “no poofters”. Obliquely threatened by these primary-coloured, in their checked shirts and steelies, I address Emma and Sean in such a way that the miners understand these children are mine: I made them.
As we queue to board and the sun begins to set over Perth’s fake skyline an ancient Greek grandmother kisses her tiny grand-daughter, tears down the deep gulleys of her face before this, her final goodbye. The baby’s mother, pleasantly plump and pretty, seems relieves when security separates her from her mother’s melodramas. She smiles at us and we smile back. People do: travelling alone is one thing, as a couple quite another, and with kids it’s a whole new world of smiles and nappy crises and jetlag – even when you haven’t been anywhere yet.
You only really get the idea about Australia – about Perth in particular – from the air. The world’s most isolated city, closer to Jakarta than Sydney, hemmed in by water on one side and a lack of it on the other. At six miles up you appear to be passing slowly across a vast lake of weathered gold paint; orderly ripples, sun-cracks, occasional dramatic cuts in the earth that serve as roads between non-places: between road-houses, settlements, mines and difficulties.
There’s a name on a map that always makes me shudder, conjure gasping Victorians with empty flasks: Lake Disappointment. But of course we’re above and past all that now, sitting pretty with cold tinnies of VB. The children howl themselves to sleep with Bananas in Pyjamas. Just as we hit the north coast the sun plummets beneath the waves to be nibbled by crocs.
The front entrance of the rudimentary complex is grand: gravel, a twenty-foot sign, and a row of fat boab trees with their Tyrannosaur’s arms chain-linked, standing guard. The Blue Seas resort is spookily deserted – a beached Marie Celeste. After wheeling sleepy Sean into the apartment we strip, run out and dive in the luminous blue jelly of the pool. There’s a beetle in the water the size of a car. I throw it out before Emma can see it and her screams shatter the tranquillity of dusk, but it hops back in as if on death watch.
There’s nowhere on site to buy milk or beer so I blunder out into the night, hacking through a loaded hedge towards the neon light and boisterous noise from the neighbouring hostel’s open-air bar: a row of beards glower. A separate race, these hirsute back-packers, with their shaggy hair cuts and tie-dyed minds. I was like you, once: now I have responsibilities.
So here I am, walking through this emptiness, this harshness. The tropical moon sucks all the light out of the sky but not the heat, the moisture: as I walk down the empty road, alone, lost in the dark, damp oozes from forgotten crevices. Every 100 yards or so I pass some juxtaposed 5-star resort, lit up like a UFO on the raw red sand of the sissy-named Kimberley. No flies or mozzies – odd. End of the world stuff. Rainy Soho a world away – again. Just as it was those frosty mornings carrying newspapers around my Northern hills.
As I walk, I hear water: I think I hear crocodiles, the 25-foot salties of my dreams. When I told a Perth builder we were heading to Broome he told me about his outback experience:“I was up there fishing,” he said, laconically as you’d expect. “Walking beside this river. Suddenly this saltie pounced. They can see you from underwater: you never see them till it’s too late. And they can jump the length of their own bodies. Lucky for me there was a big fence and it hit that. Boosh. I ran.”
Some deep, dark part of my psyche wants it to be so: wants this rustling bush to contain a croc, that great smile as he opens his spiky gob. Do wonders for book sales: author eaten alive. Family provided for even (especially) in death.
Knowing my luck I’ll be ambushed and sucked to death by leeches.
Finally I find my beer and milk in some drive-in grog shop behind leery Divers Tavern. Young men roar and women sit outside, laughing and smoking, despite (or because of?) this freaky isolation. I return to my family, bags in hand: triumphant. Kids excited by the rustic sleeping arrangements trampling on cushions.
When the kids are finally submerged beneath sleep-waves Lynda and I watch TV. The local ads are for sofa showrooms in Albany, 1500 miles south. The ads in hickland are admirably blunt and to the point: “buy our new laxative – you’ll shit a brick, mate!” For weeks the build-up to the Federal election has been building up to some sort of climax and the political advertising is no more subtle, footage of striking dockers and hifalutin’ lawyers, depending on viewpoint, a statutory blur of 6-point words over a black screen at the end:
“Words and voices JL Union-basher Liberal Party Canberra.”
Morning finds us in a passable resort: low-rise, Med-themed, high-ceilinged, tiled apartments, swimming pools surrounded by balconies on which Australian flags are draped to dry, brown, spontaneously combust. The car-sized beetle bobs up and down on splintering water.
According to our tourist guide, the only attraction within safe walking distance is a four-metre tall crystal Buddha. We take a risky detour down a side street in the sun (the kids swarmed by flies, gasping), and it’s closed. We retread our path, cursing one another and the sun all around, and just about make it to the bus shelter. The sun hammers home its authority; the heat turns my brain to jelly. Lynda asks me something like, “shall we get on this bus?” and I begin to cry, unable to compute.
The family-owned coach buses us from Cable Beach to Broome proper, four k’s hence: high bleached grass on both sides, scarlet sand undermining. On the edge of town stunning purple flowers riot in suburban gardens flown in from civilisation.
How to sketch a portrait of Broome? Take a palette containing some copper reds, some luminous blues, a few brown sticks and green palm leaves, smudge them across an achingly vivid raw rock on the edge of this island continent: don’t forget that unnatural yellow, the sun here shapeless, omnipresent as we slog round empty fly-blown streets, shutters down, cafes closed, looking for food for our protesting children.
In the middle of downtown an ancient VW combi parks up: doors slide open and assorted deadheads fall out, blinking with the smoke, puzzled as to why it’s no longer 1973. But they make good smoothies at the Shady Lane Café and at least, unlike London, you can cross the street: there are no traffic lights in Broome, therefore none for 500 miles – a pub quiz question (Kimberley region only).
If you’re here at the right time of the month and you’re that way inclined you can go watch the staircase to the moon – zillions of dollars to watch the lunar loon sink into the sea with a soft old sizzle. Being allergic to mangos and too tight for pearls bar those of wisdom I struggle for reference here.
The tourist information centre is the shape of a plane’s wing. Wishful thinking, methinks. The place is so giddily remote I get vertigo. I grew up in a town the size of Broome but with twenty million people a hard hike over the hill. How does it affect your mentality, knowing if you blow it here its two day’s ride to the next town?
The centre of town is small, low-rise, empty: just a few bewildered tourists and a line of motionless men in ancient pearl diving suits – iron, as it turns out. The famous Roey is full of locals dressed up to the nines for the distant Melbourne Cup, stems of champagne teetering at Sean’s eye level. We go in and come out again, under-dressed, underwhelmed, still hungry. Then we see the golden arches.
The construction is of Perspex and acts like a Venus fly trap for kids: Emma gets stuck at its infernal centre in oven temperatures, and as Lynda tries to coax her out and Sean drowses sorrowfully I munch on a cold tikka baguette. At least McDonalds has fans here.
I never expected the heat to take such a toll: not on my body, necessarily, but on my mind. I’m not big on heat: I suspect that I suffer from anti-SAD. I’d like to find a lake the size of Australia. The sun kills: the insects scour clean. The heat is apocalyptic.
THIS IS NOT MY NATURAL ELEMENT.
My natural element used to be the moors under snow: now it’s Soho under water. In a few weeks time I’ll be having lunch with Ian Hislop, quaffing fine wines with Francis Wheen. So vast the chasms between us.
On leaving the apartment this morning we left tiny human traces on the kitchen tiles: a leak of milk, a blot of biscuit; by the time we return from town each has been gerrymandered by ant lines spelling out lassos and monocles on the wine-red ceramics. I boil a kettle and (as Lynda shields the kids) wash them away. They make crackling noises: death seems instant. Then we swim.
The pool, as usual, is empty: in our complex cleaners outnumber holidaymakers five to one. As you try to prevent the kids from going under they march round the balconies like a scene from The Wall, except its hot and they push cleaning carts. I try and work out the economics of it, concluding Marx was wrong: who’ll clean their apartments while the cleaners swim?
For lunch we do a barbie, or try to: I burn everything, scared by the scorching aluminium. Two ancient Catholic sisters from Freo give us some fruit cake which comes with more health warnings than an Australian tourist guide.
I go to make tea to drink with the cake but it doesn’t work: ant karma. When I explain to the camp commandant about the kettle, he stares at me with a slack-jowled mix that is 50% astonishment, 50% disbelief and 50% malevolence. Arithmetic never was my strong point. Sean’s spots, for instance: I would have sworn he only had seven across his torso just now, so where did these other trillion or so come from?
Two weeks back, far south in Freo, Emma’s chicken pox was a brief and glorious illness that left no mark. Something tells me this will be different. Sean’s pox is hatching nicely. Even as I write this they’re multiplying, spreading up his arms and down to his toes. Mustn’t count ‘em. My granddad has a theory about the origins of our name: French artisans, hounded out of France for being Protestants, the French for pock-mark being Picot. Not a theory to cling to.
Suppose Lewis Carroll had started off at Domino’s, maybe he’d have created something like Sean’s poxy smile: a Cheshire cat deep crust, smiling lips hovering like tomatoes above a volcanic surface: molten eruptions, scabs and pus. Cheshire pus. Back to Broome to the chemist in the cool dark mall. Christmas trees give us the gaudy finger. The girl behind the counter is from Southport, 20 kms from Kirkby. Big world.
Moustachioed Mal the crinkle-cut cabbie says Christmas gets pretty hot. Shifting my sweaty crack on the seat beside him I admit the hottest it’s ever been in the UK is 38 degrees. He laughs, knowingly.
They do that a lot, here, country folk – like they know something you don’t. Hey, bud: you know this landscape but it don’t faze me. Bring on the sand flies, the salties and the melanoma – I can take it. I mastered Calcutta’s markets, New York’s hoods, Todmorden – how about yourself?
Instead of the diatribe that’s been brewing inside me I squint out at the lifeless scrub and remark to Mal on the absence of roos.
“They all hang out on the golf course. Water. Green. Go for a Barbie, take your own steaks. Great, mate.” I see supremacists clubbing balls round sand dunes pursued by freak insects. Anyroad roos are typical Australians: bullies. The way they lounge around, propping themselves up on one arm, chewing, Westside Story on acid.
That night Sean’s temperature skyrockets and I rush to the open lobby to call a cab. Geckos watch me disinterestedly from the ceiling: we’ve been here 200 million years, pal, what’s your problem? Lynda rushes him to hospital where they give him drugs. His pox keeps us off our flight back to the city. There are now more dots on his pockmarked torso than in this pregnant tropical sky. Until they disappear we’re stuck here: that or we take a 36-hour bus ride – or drive. Just in case, we hire a car.
Nothing has prepared me for Cable Beach: the dinosaur layers, the vicious reds, the camel trains and 4WDs leaving temporary signatures on hard wet sand – the perfect sun, slipping into the ocean, the fucking SCALE. So awesome your heart hurts – I taste blood, tears form unbidden, my throat betrays me. It’s like Mars underwater. We go driving across the Martian sand (because we’re not allowed): it’s like skippering a hovercraft, afloat but not quite in control.
The sand is so perfect for the making of castles that I begin to construct a scale model of Lausanne, Switzerland: spotty Sean tramples all over it before I’ve completed the federal court of appeal. Tiny birds skim the sand, legs invisible: stop dead, jab blurring beaks, change direction like rain beads on a train window.
Cable Beach reminds me of Richard Adams’s theory of infinity – its best represented by something very large. In much the same way the apparent timelessness of the beach reinforces our own mortality with every wave – Dickens’ fingers on coffin lids. On the bus to the resort from the airport I found a skin tag in my neck. This morning the evidence of what appears to be piles. My teeth hurt, my spots won’t heal. But out here on the beach I’m at peace.
I’d be tempted to paddle, except there are warnings everywhere saying don’t swim. Salties haul themselves out of the mangroves and up the beach for a sunbather. Box jellyfish the size of coins zap you from afar. Lynda reaches down to pick up a pebble then stops, comprehending that transparent pebbles are uncommon even here in space. In the medical centre there are great posters with illustrated guides to wheals. Hard to see how Broome can truly compete as a five star resort when it’s too dangerous to take off your sandals. We resort to the pub.
The Sunset Bar has possibly the best aspect of any watering hole in the world: huge open terraces look out on the ocean and this eternal beach. Pity its sunny disposition isn’t quite shared by the bar staff: there seems to be a sliding scale of antipathy, from indifference, through surliness, to open hostility, all depending on the prettiness of the bar-thing in question. When we try and sit outside with our drinks to watch the sunset we’re surrounded by barmaids, seagulls round fish: “you can’t sit here! Wrong! 20,000 bucks!”
After a desultory swing in a sandy playground we drive home.
Already I’m imagining the vast slog south. You should never rely for your life on something about which you know very little. If a gasket blew out there we’d all be dead in a day. Watching Sean sleep in the car, 42 degrees, blisters weeping, flies closing in for a feed from his pus, I feel an immense surge of guilt: how could I bring them here? How could I bring ME here?
Still – now we have a car we can finally see the crystal Buddha. Grimly I take a detour.
The afternoons are too hot to walk, sunbathe or swim with ill toddlers, so you ending up watching Lazytown beneath the fan in your apartment. But it isn’t the same: Ziggy has an American accent. I turn off the TV and soon I’m getting drubbed at pairs by my 3-year-old daughter. To pass the time I’m teaching Emma Strine. Whereas in Tokyo we encouraged her to say “thanks” in Japanese, here we’re reduced to getting her to shout at anyone daring to toe-dip in “our” pool: “bugger off you bloody bludgers!”
Worse places to be stuck, I guess. Cold pool, sun, beer… I’m going insane. I’m so bored of Australians I’m even happy when a German family turn up for a swim. Before you know it I’m extolling the virtues of Wagner. Ah, Berlin. Civilisation…
The Australian Tourist Board is marketing a CON!!! Check out the postcard in which they superimpose Australia on Europe, full of tedious details like it’s the same distance from Perth to Sydney as it is from London to Moscow! You know what the Europeans should do? The exact same postcard… which would you rather? Visit the great cities, with their 4,000 years of culture, the opera houses, theatres, palaces, Hard Rock Cafes – or drive through 4,000 miles of radioactive sand?
The more TV I watch, the more it becomes apparent that Australia wants to be the US. In England the ads are all about dreams, themes, ideals: invisibility; here they’re for hardware – cranes, diggers, plots of land.
“Words and voices Barry Bludger Labor Party Canberra.”
The pool is full of smoking Australians. Revelation: I hate them all – the vest-wearing, scowling, insecure men; the pretty, cynical, know-it-all women; the hucksters with their world-weary shrugs; and the townies, labouring under the impression they’re cosmopolitans, big city types, rather than sad, weird, smalltown arseholes.
And what’s with the fucking beards? I mean – we’re talking about a race of men whose sexual insecurity has a capital I so big you could land an A380 on it. If they won’t let me on that plane I’ll be stuck here with these weirdy beardies when I should be in Soho quaffing fine wines with Francis Wheen!
Thankfully, on seeing we are pockmarked (and thus to be avoided) the assorted bikies, molls and hoons vacate the pool and we left are alone: the pariah Poms.
Brief tropical rain, drops warm and large as grapefruits: we swim, glad to be wet, knowing their eyes are upon us. Australians don’t understand. This is our element.
There’s a power cut right across town. Our fridge has packed up, the food has rotted, reincarnated ants file through invisible cracks to get at the melting muck seepage and I can’t boil a kettle. We need: beer and food.
Cable Beach stores are extortionate. In the camp shop a paper and bread will set you back around £16,000. The owner and bread-baker, naturally, is a smiling hippie. So we drive to Coles in town, with its own generator and aircon. I’m still amazed by the variety in Oz supermarkets – hummus with walnut, obscure cheese. What happened to the meat and milk farmers? All pushing pints in London?
Oz is just like England, except you can shop barefoot. And lots of wasted Abos – but also plenty driving cars, shopping in Coles. They wander round the malls in stupors, chucked out of Fitzroy and unable to buy liquor.
In the grog shop: “Hey mate!” says the hearty counterman, beefcake, alert. “Back in the pub eh?” “No boss!” says the cowering local. “Haven’t been in pub for long time!”
By the natty mall an Abo sleeps in the shadows, drunk or dead, unheeded. Two local women walk towards the mall through the long grass: a part of me expects them to walk right through it.
At 3am this morning, consoling Sean as he played buckets and spades, I peeked through the front window to find a load of locals wandering through camp looking surly, chanting incantations to Jimmy Blacksmith. The boabs never kept them out.
And then it all comes to an end: Sean’s spots fade, the doctor says we can fly and its goodbye Broome. Goodbye pool, beach, Barbie, cold cheap beer oh, lordy.
Apart from the people, obviously, I must admit down under has plenty going for it. So many reasons to move to Oz, all trumped by one cold fact: not one good song, let alone band, ever came out of the place. Not one.
Go on. Name one.
The airport is at the centre of town – planes boom in over the high street every few days. This cute little airport of bamboo and stars: one rickety bar, Abo art on the walls, fans whirring. The smokers and drinkers congregate out by the last plane out of town. I raise my glass: see you, Broome.
Till next time.
As the plane takes off the airport’s lights go off.
* Mark Piggott made it to Soho and his engagement with Francis Wheen, but the wine wasn’t all that.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 18th, 2008.