At Kingoonya, all that’s left are the pub and a single block of dented, corrugated-iron bungalows, islanded by the ochre dirt of Outback Australia. A stand of gum trees shades the high gables of the pub roof and the veranda remains cool even in the hot crotch of the afternoon.
We have arrived from the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy, after driving down the Stuart Highway, then a further 40 klicks on dirt roads. On the phone last night, the landlord, having secured my name for the booking, signed off: “See ya, Self.” When I enquired about food, he assured me, “We’ll give you the best goddam feed you’ve ever had” – a proud boast for someone running a business in what is, in effect, a ghost town. It transpires that John and Julie are the third generation of Bretts to hold the licence at Kingoonya. His grandmother Eileen moved in when the pub was built in 1937.
At that time, Kingoonya was, if not exactly populous, a thriving Outback township. Built to house maintenance workers on the railway, which ran as far north as Alice Springs, it once had many more houses – including a row directly alongside the track.
After darkness has fallen, with equatorial speed, John and Julie invite us to join them round their fire, a great blaze of mulga wood in an oblong brazier, welded together out of old railway spikes and plates. John recalls his childhood in Kingoonya: from the age of eight, he was allowed to drive the old Holden pickup that now sits out front, painted bright red and white. “I’d unload the grog from the train and put it in the cellar.” Everything came by rail, including retail opportunities, which took the form of the “tea-and-sugar train”: a mobile mall comprising a butcher, a grocery, a library and a post office.
The Indian Pacific and Ghan services still pass through Kingoonya and you can even hail one if you have booked ahead and are ready waiting with your car positioned at right angles to the track, with its headlights on. All through the night, lying in one of the musty, motel-style cabins, I hear the grumble-groan of the great transcontinental trains. It’s not surprising that my sleep is uneasy. Before sunset, I took a stroll round the remains of the settlement and discovered a fantastical car graveyard, where crumpled steel rusted behind still more corrugated iron. Over it all arced the crystalline dome of the sky, with a horned moon rising in the north-east, and once I’d got a kilometre or so away from the settlement the impression it gave of being a tiny island surrounded by an ocean of bush only intensified. It’s a mistake, I think, to conceive of Australia as a land mass at all, so vast is its desert interior, so attenuated and sketchy is its human habitation.
There are, perhaps, 20 houses still standing at Kingoonya and the corrugated-iron water tanks in their yards, linked by sections of piping to the corrugated-iron roofs, bear witness to the scarcity of water. One particularly Heath Robinson water tank caught my attention, and when we’re yarning by the fire I hear its story: Dot and Rowley are up from the south to visit Rowley’s father, who has spent the past two decades here, journeying each day to his private gold mine 40 klicks away, where he fruitlessly fossicks. Evidently Rowley, Sr is a creature of habit, because despite his convolvulus of plastic piping it still takes him an entire day to fill a bath. “I thought it was a general problem here,” Rowley laughs, “but everyone else’s water pressure is fine.”
I gently observe that Rowley, Sr’s failings as a gold miner may be related to his lapses as a plumber and the assembled company agree, before moving on to tell anecdotes about “king brown” snake encounters and car crashes involving emus.
Dot grew up in the bush, entirely under canvas until she was 12. Her father was a rabbit shooter and there were ten children. “There’s nothing much to do out here, so every 12 months another one of us would appear.” One day, they were driving in their own Holden pickup when Dot’s six-year-old brother spotted a king brown curled up on the floor. The kids shot out of the car every which way while their dad remained behind and shot it dead. I’ve been visiting the Outback for 30 years and I’m used to Australians telling these stories. It’s not that I doubt their veracity; it’s just that they have the feel of shibboleths, recounted to show that their tellers are members of the tribe.
Even so, when I plod to the bathroom in the small hours, I can’t help checking the bowl and the cistern (both featured in anecdotes as king brown hidey-holes) before lifting the seat. I don’t mind the frisson of fear – without it, I might relapse into Kingoonya altogether. It’s wintertime now but I suspect that the strange, corrugated-iron island comes into its own in October, when the temperature is in the fifties and people hold a charity cricket match to raise money for the Flying Doctor Service. Not, you appreciate, that there’s a blade of grass in sight. Instead, the wickets are dug into the ochre earth, and the players cool themselves with John’s plentiful grog.
Next week: Lives of Others
This article appears in the 02 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses