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To Oz and Back

To Oz and Back. Australian Outback adventure

Larry Garner

Mine worker-cum-author Larry Garner has turned his adventures in Australia’s mining boom into this hilarious new book.

From Buderim on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Larry arrived in Australia from England in 1973 as a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ – eager to ply his trade as a fitter and seek his fortune. He never dreamed he’d soon be living in rough and ready mining settlements across Australia, working 18-hour shifts in searing temperatures.

Read how he lived through a riot, a strike, a cyclone, a gold rush in the Tanami desert, met a python in Papua New Guinea – and bought a camel a beer in the outback. Hell-raising escapades with the characters he worked and traveled with are intercut with affectionate anecdotes of the father who inspired him to make the most of himself.

Excerpt: A strange coincidence

T

he next morning, after breakfast, we caught the night shift bus down to the coast making for Pub Island. We first stopped at Arawa, the main town on the coast, to do a few errands. Like most blokes, I don’t like shopping, but once in a while it’s nice to buy something you really need like soap, or in my case a cassette player and half a dozen cassettes. As I was seriously thinking about staying in Bougainville for a while I decided a bit of music would help to make me comfortable.

We needed transport too, as became obvious when we wanted to continue to the town of Kieta. With a poor bus service and taxis few and far between we started walking but Seb, who must have been in his 60s, soon tired of that so we eventually waved down a passing taxi to take us the six kilometres to Kieta.

The town had been the working port of Bougainville long before the mine was even thought of, since the turn of the century in fact. The same was true of the Chinese general store that sold everything from anchors to ice. What an interesting place-I could have spent the day in there. After visiting the general store we headed up the street to the Kieta Hotel.

It was hot down on the coast. Living up in Panguna we weren’t used to the heat and it didn’t take long to feel the bite of the sun. Even before lunchtime it was sweltering out there.

Burgess had worked for the company during the construction of the mine. He told us they had built a resort just out from Kieta on Aropa Island, now commonly known as Pub Island.

The ferry to the island left from the Kieta Hotel so, while Burgess and Seb went looking for the ferry master, Rommel and I bought the beers. What a location it was, right down on the water with a splendid view out over the South Pacific. Rommel and I sat at a table on deck. If we had sat there all day I would have been quite happy.

When Burgess and Seb returned after a few they announced that, sitting on deck where we were, might be as close as we were going to get to Pub Island.

‘The engine has thrown a bearing,’ Seb told us. ’They’re waiting for parts from Moresby.’ He said the ferry might be ready in a couple of days, but it wouldn’t be running out to the island today.

‘No other boats?’ Rommel asked.

‘Don’t know, didn’t ask.’

‘I could live here,’ I said, gazing out over the ocean.

‘You’ve only been here five minutes,’ Seb said.

‘I could buy a boat, run charters and sail around the islands. I could work up at the mine during shutdowns and spend the rest of my time down here on the water.’

‘You’d be bored out of your mind in no time,’ said Burgess.

‘No, no I wouldn’t. There are a million things to do when you have a boat like fishing, diving, maintenance, women I wouldn’t find time to get bored.’

No-one offered any more arguments.

‘Might join you ’ Rommel conceded.

We spent an hour in the pub, enjoyed a good lunch, and just when we seemed to be settling in for the afternoon, Burgess suggested a walk along the esplanade.

There were all sorts of craft moored along the quay, including a couple of yachts, a small coaster and the Meadowbank, the big ship from Liverpool that was docked here the day I arrived.

‘I wonder if we can go aboard,’ I said absently as we approached the ship and noticed a bit of life.

‘Any chance of a look around?’ Seb asked a guy coming down the gang plank.

‘Shouldn’t be a problem. Wait here, I’ll be back in a minute after I’ve just mailed these letters and I’ll take you aboard myself,’ he said in a very cut glass English accent.

When he returned he gave us a quick tour of the ship. I had always entertained ideas of going to sea when I was growing up. I thought romantic thoughts of travelling to the South Seas but my dad told me that most of the people who went to sea were ’a sad bunch of drunks’. Our guide gave no indication at all that he was sad or drunk.

We ended up in the galley where we met the first mate, chief engineer and purser, and when it became known that there were guests aboard, the skipper joined us. I feared they might have thought us intrusive or just downright nosey for almost inviting ourselves aboard, but apparently it was not unusual in foreign ports and we were made quite welcome. The skipper, Les Toogood from Liverpool, was an older man, probably the same vintage as Seb.

‘Have you been at sea all of your life?’ I asked.

‘Not yet,’ came his well-used reply. We politely laughed.

‘I’ve been at sea nearly 40 years, most of it with the Bank Line, but I did a few years with the Blue Flu and the Blue Funnel.’

As he filled his pipe and the beers were passed around Les continued, ’I joined up as a cadet in 1937 and sailed the North Atlantic run from New York to Liverpool and back.’

‘Did you ever run up to Archangel and Murmansk?’ I asked.

He nodded. ’During the war, we were seriously damaged on one of our runs up there.’

He was good at telling stories and we warmed to him as he set the scene.

‘One bitterly cold afternoon in late November it was getting dark although it was only about three o’clock. I was on watch looking for U Boats, but visibility was too poor to see any tell-tale tales signs. All of a sudden, without warning, a tanker way off our port beam erupted. We saw just a massive flash at first and then the boom reached us a few seconds later.

‘The tanker only burned for a couple of minutes before she went down: there would have been no survivors. Less than 10 minutes later another tanker off our port beam, closer than the first, was hit by one torpedo and then a second. We were about to manoeuvre to pick up survivors but our escort told us to maintain course. If you slowed down, they believed, you became an easier target.

‘The skipper wasn’t keen on leaving possible survivors behind and he was seriously considering ignoring the order when we were hit ourselves. It felt like the whole ship leapt out of the water.’

‘What were you carrying?’ I asked.

‘We were a refrigerator/freezer ship carrying frozen food. The first torpedo blew our engine room to bits and everyone in there: the second tore a hole in our bow so that we immediately started to take on water and list.’

‘Were you on the Empire Glade?’ Seb asked.

There was a stone cold silence as the two men looked at each other. Les had never mentioned the name of the ship so there was only one way Seb could have known.

‘You sank us?’ Les asked.

‘I think so. The tanker was an American ship, the Hector Valley, and the ship we hit before yours was .’

‘ our sister ship the Empire Lea. My brother went down with that ship.’

The silence lingered. ’I’m sorry,’ Seb said finally. ’Would you like me to leave?’

‘No, no. All of this happened a long time ago and it’s about time it was put to bed.’ He was really very casual about it.

‘Tell us about your war Seb. Were you ever sunk?’ Les asked.

‘Oh yes.’ He described the terror of sitting at his station listening to the depth charges exploding all around and wondering if the next one might just be the one to hit their U Boat.

‘But we were on the surface charging our batteries when our boat was sunk. We were in the Sargasso Sea, not far from Bermuda, on a beautiful afternoon and I was on watch with two others taking in the sunshine when we were hit by dive bombers. Two direct strikes blew the boat into the next century and blew me about a hundred metres.’ Seb’s German accent was perfect for his story.

‘We survived in the water for three days and three nights. Sharks came close on a few occasions but fortunately never touched us. We were in the shipping lanes and a U Boat supply ship eventually picked us up and brought us back to Bremen.

‘When I next went to sea we were sunk again. It was a year later in the Mediterranean and depth charges hit us. We managed to reach the surface where we fought a gun battle with a destroyer. We came second, but luckily managed to avoid capture because they shot at us in the water and left us for dead . Not very pleasant times, Les.’

‘You’re right.’

‘Whose gonna top that?’ Burgess asked looking at Rommel and me.

We could both tell a fairly good story, but Les and Seb were in a different class.

Our time aboard came to an end as our sailor friends had to sail with the afternoon tide, so we thanked them for their hospitality and wished them good luck. We waved as they slipped their moorings, promising them a tour of the mine and plant next time around, but I never saw Les again.

We headed back up the hill to Panguna. My little adventure seemed to pale compared to Seb’s. Back in my room with the light out, I thought of Seb listening to the depth charges and wondering if the next charge would end it all. No, I thought, Seb could have his adventure. I was quite happy with mine.

 

2012©Larry Garner

About the author

When he is not writing, Larry Garner still works as a mining supervisor in the industry where he has spent most of his adult life, most recently on projects in Laos, China and Papua New Guinea.

 

This book was designed and published by Bramley Press
Cover photo: Jeremy Virag