Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The terror legends of the Australian outback

I've never been anywhere quite like the Australian outback. Even going back 30 years ago, before the phrase 'backpacker murders' was ever uttered, there was a fear, a mythology, a set of folk horror tales that tainted any trip through the great expanse. 

Over the last couple of weeks I've watched the Channel 4 True Crime documentary Murder in the Outback, the Peter Falconio mystery, and the questions over the guilt of Bradley Murdoch, the man who two trials have concluded was the murderer, of which more will follow. I've also watched two series of gory horror fest Wolf Creek, which claims to be based on the real story of Ivan Milat, and dangles the fact that 38,000 people go missing in Australia every year. They do, but all but a couple of hundred are found almost immediately, and of those missing, most are in cites. 

But first I wanted to capture something of the atmosphere and the relationship with the vast unknown expanse and what it does to you. 

Basically, you have this overwhelming feeling that you are in terrain so very different to anything you are familiar with. On each and every occasion, good or ill, I was always at the mercy of strangers to navigate me through even the relatively minor challenges that can befall you. And if that was to go wrong? You're stuffed basically.

In 1984 I spent time on a cattle ranch and settlement in central Queensland, where the address was "Old Gordon, via Dingo" and despite the basic amenities, the fact it was in the middle of nowhere, it was still 150 kilometres by road from the coastal town of Rockhampton, on the Tropic of Capricorn. Compared to what I later experienced in the red centre, it was practically a seaside town. Even the nearest actual town, Biloela (population 5000), had a bank, even if they lost my money for a few days. Life was so different and pretty sparse, because the houses were so isolated, runs for supplies were infrequent and you relied on tins and frozen food. More than anything though, the work was hard and it was always very hot. 

When I lived in Perth a few years later, some of the fondest memories are of weekend jaunts 'down south' to some glorious countryside, complete with gorgeous isolated beaches and stylish old hotels. It didn't take long before you were out of Perth on the road to Bunbury or Busselton and the sky stretched out in front of you, there was desert and scrub as far as the eye can see, and you had to keep a careful eye out for two hazards, kangaroos and road trains. Oh, and running out of petrol, which we'll come to later.

But if down south held an allure, up north was a different kettle of fish, or shark. Me and Samantha, an old girlfriend from Manchester who was passing through, rented a car and headed up towards a legendary spot called Monkey Mia. It's now a UN World Heritage Site, and the attraction is that dolphins come right up to the shallow shore and rub up to you. Being there was awesome, but getting there wasn't without it's trials. The first overnight spot was in possibly the grimmest town I've ever stayed in, Geraldton. It literally had nothing to commend it, except possibly that it wasn't as grim as Northampton, 80 miles north, where we stopped for fuel, and was the birthplace of murderer Bradley Murdoch. I'm sure now they've developed a heritage museum to follow the trail of Gerald, a pioneer of the outback, or they've discovered gold and cobalt somewhere. Anyway, we were 22 and didn't care to look back. We did however stop to look at Shell Beach, the world's only beach made of, well, shells. There wasn't a sign saying don't take your car on it, but there wasn't one marking a road either. We made it off the beach, but not much further. It wasn't long before a passing car pulled over and offered to give us a lift to the next town so we could complain to the hire company about our faulty car (*innocent face*). All I remember about the mechanics of the rescue was the overwhelming kindness from the local people, how we got a tow out to our ceased up rental, and that the hire firm brought us a new rental car up from Perth, and gave us a lift to our basic quarters near to the dolphins. And looking at the distances now, that's quite some service, to be fair. No, what I remember so vividly were the people who gave us a lift. Within five minutes of picking up two poms at the side of a deserted desolate road, these 1970s migrants from Essex wanted to know if Britain was "still really bad, you know, with the blacks and everything". I was shocked, even then racism was more of a polite thing amongst English people, but I was also a cowardly pragmatist and keen to get out of the midday sun. God love her though, Sam wasn't having it, turning the conversation towards the problem being racists who can't handle change. On telling the story back in Perth a few days later, you'd get a handle on a cultural divide and a social pecking order where "£10 poms" were mocked and sneered at for their lack of graces and general ignorance. 

In retrospect it was a lucky escape that we only had Essex man and his racist missus. The bloke at the garage was keen to tell us how fortunate we were to have been rescued by such nice people, and that a much worse fate could have befallen us. The peril of meeting a real outback folk devil was genuinely rooted in supposed friend-of-a-friend tales of robbery, rape and violence. 

That fear probably motivated me to pick a relatively deluxe backpacker option to explore the wilds of the Northern Territory, some months later. I paid up front for a bargain $33 for three nights for a single room (not a dorm) in the Backpackers hostel next to Darwin coach station for the week and decided to embrace all that the capital of the rural north had to offer. I took a bi-plane to Bathurst Island, a raw and fascinating jungle island off the coast, and a pretty harsh place to live if you were a native Australian. I was determined to learn more about their lives, to spend time seeing their country as much as the one that was pretty familiar to me. That said, I checked out of my breeze block cell after just a night, as Jarvis Cocker later said - "watching roaches climb the walls" - wasn't much fun. In so doing I nearly missed my coach tour to Kakadu National Park the next day, because they literally round up the bus passengers from where you said you were when we booked and needed to set off early because of a rain forecast. This is when I encountered, for the second time, the ludicrously generous extent to which rural Australians would go out of their way to make sure you have a good experience (the first was the mechanic in Shark Bay). A bloke from the tour company radioed the coach and chased after it in his Ute. Magic. Another evening I went to the cinema to see the "Territory Premiere" of Mississippi Burning, and chatting to locals (white, obviously) drew plenty of historical parallels with life in the Territory.

I had a published travel piece in a magazine about my enjoyable climb up Uluru (Ayers Rock, as it was then), something in retrospect I really shouldn't have done and would have been better placed understanding its cultural significance from afar. But they were different times. Alice Springs, deep in the red centre, was a sleepy, hot old town, with not much going on. But I was firmly inside a backpacker bubble, which almost as a mark of being in my own bubble within that bubble, I railed against it. I met nice people, including a character actor who had a small role in Silence of the Lambs, but the guided tour made me feel pampered and inadequate, defeated by the fear of the land, which of course I was. Maybe I'd been spoiled by more authentic encounters and felt distant from the real Australia, but I still absorbed the vast, glorious red centre, the endless landscapes and the sense of magic in the air. 

It was such a sharp contrast to city life, even in an isolated and relatively comfortable city like Perth, which I never experienced as an edgy and urban environment at all. I worked at weekends, as my jobs were either in journalism or club promotion, and I was into the club scene, so these were a treat, a contrast and a release. They were also an unfamiliar challenge. One weekend three of us jumped into our mate Bruce's old car and headed out on a whim to Nick's parents weekend bolt hole somewhere near Margaret River, a beautiful town surrounded by vineyards, I'm pretty sure our directions were no more precise than that. It wasn't until we were a couple of hours down the Kwinana Freeway towards the Forrest Freeway and Busselton when we realised we'd need petrol for the next leg of the journey. It was a quirk of licensing and regulation that we couldn't find a petrol station that was open on a Friday night, so we had to stay overnight in a truckers motel (an A frame) with fold down beds and not really designed for three. We certainly didn't risk going in the pubs and trucker bars of the south west, not quite fitting in with our fancy city ways, and feeling slightly out of place, even with our checked shirts. It was the first time I experienced the raw hostility of country folk to city types, as opposed to just flat out dislike of poms (my pals were proper Aussies). By the time we got to our destination the next day we also realised we didn't really have much in the way of food, drink or any means to find any. In the house all I found to pass the time was a Jeffrey Archer novel, but we scavenged for wood and lit up a stove, another use for Archer. It was the closest I've had to Withnail's immortal lamentation that we had 'gone on holiday by mistake'. Somehow though, that weekend gave me some fond memories and great photos.

The experiences of going south and north in WA convinced me I'd seen enough without a pressing need to head east across the Nullaboor plain along the Eyre Highway. There's nothing much there except a vastness, between mining towns like Coolgardie, which didn't get the best PR from a recent documentary, Coolgardie Hotel, about the tough time two Finnish girls had there. None of my friends recommended it, and it existed like a barrier to fly over, rather than a land to explore.

So, to the Peter Falconio mystery. I thought the Channel 4 documentary, frankly, was a pretty crude hatchet job on Joanne Lees. For me, the basic premise was that she became a media property, precisely because she didn't react the way the media, especially the British media, expect people to react. It reminded me of another desperately tragic murder, that of Meredith Kercher, and how the eccentric behaviour of her flatmate, Amanda Knox, led to her wrongful conviction and trial by media. In his new book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the way we fail to compute people and I thought that in the sequences where she faced the public, or made a reconstruction video, Joanne Lees behaved as she thought she should, faking tears. All their decisions were scrutinised, why were they on that road at that time? why did they leave Alice Springs in the late afternoon? It doesn't matter. You don't think logically, or like a country person out there, you put yourself at the mercy of the land.

Then there's Bradley Murdoch. It is the job of any defence lawyer to pick a hole in a prosecution, but I found the case mounted by his lawyer, a rum character called Andrew Fraser, unconvincing. Having now spent far too long reading all of the court documents from the dismissal of Murdoch's appeal, the TV show (steered by Fraser) was selective in how the flaws of the prosecution were presented. The other witnesses made claims wholly without substance. The wider mystery is why poor Peter's body was never found, or details of what he was doing in Sydney, prior to them travelling north in a VW camper van along a 3000 mile highway. But it got me thinking, the very character we had come to fear in the wilds of Australia fitted the type that Murdoch matched so well. Aside from the DNA, the CCTV, and some circumstantial evidence, he ticked all the archetypes too. And from that you have the fictional persona of, ahem, Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek, the most terrifying horror film character since Hannibal Lecter and himself based on Ivan Milat, the serial murderer who preyed on backpackers until he was convicted in 1996.

These encounters are remarkably tame in the greater scheme of things. There is nothing heroic or courageous about breaking down in the middle of nowhere and dying of thirst, but the added threat of a predatory killer provides the lurking alibi for that soft core fear. 

Would I go back? Yes, I'd love to travel the long distances, in something sturdier than a compact rental, and staying in the kind of places that I can now afford. I can't quite imagine getting on a plane again in current circumstances, but there is a lure of the wilds of deepest Australia, and of the glorious south west of WA and The Triffids' Wide Open Road playing loudly. You just have to prepare yourself and trust that most people are there to help you.

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