Sunday, April 22, 2012


( On the Renner Springs-Elliot-Dunmarra-Timber Creek stretch , intrepid Bulldust Diary columnist/illustrator, Peter Burleigh, experiences the Territory’s massive alcohol abuse problem. )

The Buchanan Highway was clearly named in jest by a vengeful employee of a Northern Territory council. Goat track it is, highway it ain’t. The grass changes to low, spiky scrub more accurately described as stubble, as if the land has been shaved by a hung-over abattoir worker who leaves cuts and grooves for floodwater.

Other desolate roads encourage introspection, but this road demands your attention stay exclusively in the real world. The talking book about the British Navy mutters under its breath and is left to its own devices; all your concentration switches to the road. It’s a tyre-shredder. It threatens to tear the wings off your metal fly, if you know what I mean. It’s sad, useless country. I can’t tell what treasure might lie underneath it, but you wouldn’t choose to stay on top of it like we are, driving as fast as metal fatigue allows.

The village of Elliot lies half-way to the Kununurra road. It’s built around the gas station. To get fuel you must go into the office and ask for the key to the pump but first they size you up; it doesn’t matter if you’re a minister of God or an axe-murderer, if you fit the profile of a pump-absconder you can whistle for it. All the windows and the door of the Roadhouse are covered in metal security mesh. The pale young man running the place is alone. He sells unidentifiable fried things so wrinkled by time that plastic surgery couldn’t help. (Fuel: $2.25 per litre –a new record). Here you can buy beer where you buy your petrol, but there are rules restricting what strength you can buy and when. Aboriginals sit in knots around the few trees, themselves waiting to be refuelled.

The settlements become fewer, and these not-even-villages are mere punctuation marks in the very long paragraph of the Buchanan Highway. The Top Springs Roadhouse is more extreme. New laws severely curtail the sale of grog. Big signs along the remote road shout: “Proscribed Area–no alcohol”. Unfortunately they should say “Watch Out for drunk Aboriginals”, because that’s what you get. Several men take it in turns to stagger over to my car. They try the doors, attempting to get in with me. They struggle to keep their cans from spilling.

“Hey Boss, take me down the road.”
“Boss, I need to see my brothers at the bridge.”

I wouldn’t give a lift to myself if I was drooling drunk; not only that, I have no wish to drive alone into an Aboriginal community. This is sad and dispiriting and it’s happening in our own country. If I feel alienated, how do they feel?

How you relieve the despair of Aboriginal people I don’t know. My feeling of Helplessness is unpleasant. It is part of the modern Australian experience and I wouldn’t avoid it – but I wouldn’t deliberately go out of my way to see it either. I do know for sure that we have as much of an idea of how to help them as they have about helping themselves.

Mickey, our token white Rhodesian, announces that he’s on a “pie quest” to find Australia’s best pie. It’s no good looking for such an example of the pastrycook’s art out here. You want a pie, you buy a Mrs Mac’s pre-packaged, pre-digested, de-flavoured cookie-cut handheld, sauce extra. The filling is mystery meat. The mere idea triggers my gag reflex so I won’t be going deeper into the details. My own quest to find the cleanest toilet in the country has taken a step forward. It began as a child when I was told I could catch leukaemia, elephantiasis, cholera and scurvy from toilets. In Longreach I found a toilet with a colourful paper sash across it saying that it had been ‘Hygienically cleaned and sealed for my protection’ so I knew my vulnerabilities had been addressed and I was safe.

We pass the homestead of Victoria River Downs, one of the biggest cattle stations in Australia. There are three choppers parked near the house.

LITTLE DARWIN FOOTNOTE: At last month’s sittings of the NT Legislative Council , during a CLP Matter of Public Importance debate over alcohol consumption and related problems , the member for Sanderson, Peter Styles, a former policeman , said he had recently driven from Darwin to Alice Springs . At Elliott , where there used to be four service stations, there was now one . After speaking to locals and travellers, some said they stopped coming to towns because of humbugging for money, cigarettes and alcohol , up and down the track . Many grey nomads travelling on their own or with children did not like stopping in towns, staying in caravan camps instead , to avoid being humbugged .

Another MLA , also a former police officer , Willem Westra van Holthe , of Katherine , spoke of the frustration the police force has picking up the same drunks . “. They take them to the cells at the police stations ; they take them to sobering up centres ; they take them home and leave them where they can be left at home with a responsible person who can look after them. That is frustrating, and it is annoying because you just become a street cleaner, cleaning up what is a mess on the street.”