It was late afternoon and we had been riding our bikes over unsealed roads into a powerful headwind for most of the day. The wind was far stronger than the weather report had indicated. Along with the wind, we also had to battle the dust. We knew we weren’t going to reach our destination, a town where we had planned to stay the night at a caravan park.
We desperately needed to stop. But we were surrounded by undulating crop land as far as the eye could see. It was autumn and everything was barren and dry. There was nowhere we could pitch our tent and our water was low.
I was in a bad mood. The grievances piled up.
When we had arrived in Australia that January, our plan was to leave in March/April, fly to Beijing, and then take the train to North Korea. Now thanks to Covid-19, international travel was impossible and who knew when – and if – the world would ever return to what it once was. I had this uncomfortable feeling that a viral Frankenstein was on the rampage. Former irritations – e.g., crowded airports, endless cues and long flights – were now reasons for nostalgia.
So here we were, plan B, making the best of our situation by …riding our bikes into a vortex of dust and wind with no water, no prospect of stopping for the night, surrounded on all sides by a great nothingness.
Then it appeared in the distance, like a mirage…..
A long galvanised-iron building and nearby some old Norfolk pines – on its own in the midst of that dry, dead barren land.
We fought the wind down a long gentle slope and stopped to take a closer look.
The building was roughly 5 metres high and 20 metres long. It was very old and its white paint was faded and peeling. Along the sides there were narrow windows.
As we walked around the building with our helmets on, we noticed that on one side there was no wind. Being the height and length it was, it made it a perfect wind break. At one end of the building was an old rainwater tank. The tank was leaking, but it had a tap and it worked and the water was good to drink. The tank meant that we could drink as much as we liked and fill our bottles – and rinse the sweat off our bodies with a face washer too.
We unloaded our bikes and pitched our small tunnel tent and then took turns to wash ourselves at the tap.
Near sunset, as the temperature plummeted, we started a fire. At the end of the building opposite the rainwater tank were the remains of a toilet/bathroom – a separate structure – which had been dismantled. There was a pile of galvanised iron, glass and wood. We undertook several escapades into the wind and gathered up the manageable pieces of wood and by the time it was dark, had a good fire going.
As we stood there gazing into the flames and listening to the sound of the wind in the pines, night fell.
The first stars appeared.
The wind eased.
The fire cast an orange-yellow light on the galvanized iron side of the hall behind us.
Strange distorted shadows danced across the corrugations.
We started wondering about this place. It was odd: an old shed with windows and doors on a small area of land, in the midst of nowhere.
Possibly an abandoned church or shearing shed.
But why here?
Headlights appeared on the road.
They slowed down and then turned and drove up towards us.
The lights were turned off and an old man got out of a Japanese pick up and came over and introduced himself.
Tom Fallers was dressed in grey overalls; he looked like a mechanic. He was slender with a crop of brown hair. We made small talk for a while. He was on his way home when he saw our fire. He was a retired farmer. He had sold most of his land except for a few hectares of land around his home which he and his wife were revegetating.
He was curious about why we had picked this place to stop for the night.
When we told him we were on a bike trip, he wanted to see our bikes. He asked a lot of questions and at one point remarked:
‘If was young again that’s what I’d like to do! But ah! You only get one shot at this journey called life…’
And he had had a very long shot at it.
We guessed he was in his late 70’s /early ‘80’s.
He was 93.
We didn’t ask him his age, he told us.
He was proud of it.
Well, why wouldn’t he be?
He was exuberant and intelligent and physically active. He knew a lot about politics and what was happening in the world.
A remarkable man (genes, lifestyle or luck?).
His wife was 91 and besides helping him planting native trees and shrubs, she was still playing the piano.
‘First time I’ve seen anyone at the hall in years’ he said.
The community hall.
‘What? But there aren’t any people.’
‘Used to be. It’s 120 years old the hall, it’s even older than me!’
When was the last time it was used then?
‘When was hall used for the last time?’
‘Ah, it went gradually. The holdings got bigger and farming became mechanised. I’d say that by the 1980’s, the hall was pretty well dead…’
‘You mean its been standing here for almost 40 years unused?’
By way of answer he offered: ‘Would you like to look inside?’
Of course we did.
He went to his utility and came back with a long, silver torch.
‘We’ll need this’ he explained, the council’s cut the wires’
‘Cut the wires?’
‘The hall’s going to be demolished soon.’
How would it be to be 93 and to have that much history behind you?
It might be ok if you could remember it, as Tom Fullers obviously could.
But if it meant not remembering anything, living in a delusional world like my parents did before they died, then this was a life which was not worth living.
We’d never met anyone like Tom Fullers. Never met anyone of that age in that kind of physical and mental condition.
He was 93 and very much alive, but as he wryly commented:
‘When you’re young, your live in the future, when you’re old, you live in the past.’
And that was our destination on this night.
The past, when there was such a thing as a community.
The battle against the dust and wind during the day seemed like it belonged to another life.
A precursor to the real journey. Like standing around in a crowded airport waiting for your flight.
An old farmer was going to take us back into the past and a country he knew well but had long vanished off the map.
Suddenly we were wide awake, the day’s tribulations a memory…..