Just before my 20th birthday I started travelling around Australia on a 3 month trip bus trip, and never went home.
Instead I worked in a pub in the middle of the desert for a couple of months, spent the shortest number of hours possible in Mount Isa, then headed for Cairns in the Queensland tropics.
I planned to stay 2 weeks. I stayed almost 12 years. (That’s another story.)
After I’d been living in Cairns for a few months a mate of the guy I was dating invited us to go to a music festival at Helenvale, a tiny town a few hundred kilometres north of Cairns and just south of Cooktown, in the lower section of Cape York.
The legendary CREB Track: not suitable for idiots
The only way to get to Helenvale in the early 1980s was on the rough-as-guts CREB Track.
Originally cut into the Cape York wilderness as a service access track for the Cairns Regional Electricity Board, these days it’s only used by experienced 4WD enthusiasts keen to test themselves on the track’s treacherous and often slippery terrain.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get yourself into real trouble.
Bad news: the driver was an idiot
The first clue I had our trip up the CREB Track might not go so well was when Larry, the driver, started drinking beer as soon as we left the main road.
The second clue was when his girlfriend said, ‘Larry, you really need to put it into 4WD now.’
By this stage we’d started a climb up a steep hill into the rainforest.
‘Nah,’ Larry said. ‘She’s right.’
About ¾ way up the hill Larry lost control of the vehicle. I’m not sure if he panicked and tried to put it into 4WD when it was too late, or what exactly happened.
Down the slippery slope we go
All I know is we were sliding backwards, out of control, down a hill that had a steep drop on one side.
There was nothing I could do, nothing anyone could do. I don’t remember shouting or swearing, though I’m sure that was all happening, just the sheer terror of being helplessly out of control.
By pure luck (it sure wasn’t brains) Larry managed to wrench the steering wheel so we hit the side of the hill. The vehicle tipped over, the windows smashed into small chunks of glass, and maybe a dozen of them got embedded my knee.
Not a great outcome but better than tumbling down the side and crashing.
I have a vague memory of sitting on the grass by the side of the track and pulling the chunks of green glass, one by one, out of my knee.
I assume someone had a first aid kit and fixed me up, but I don’t remember. Maybe I just wiped the blood away and hoped for the best.
Why drive with an idiot when you can walk?
Meanwhile, with the help of others heading up to the festival, the 4WD was put upright and Larry and the others were ready to keep going.
I was not.
I refused to get back into the vehicle with them. I wanted to go back to Cairns. They wanted to keep going. And every other vehicle on the track was heading north to the festival.
Eventually they convinced me I had no other choice but to continue with them to Helenvale.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t trust Larry or his crappy driving skills. So I walked up the hill. And when we got to another hill I got out and walked up that one too.
I did this a few times until at some point the others convinced me to get in the vehicle and stay in it.
But walking that red clay track surrounded by rainforest, jittery from what could have been a much worse accident, embedded the landscape into my mind and body in a visceral way.
Many years later it emerged in the landscape of Dirt Circus League.
Walking the landscape into my bones
Like many of Australia’s remote places, Cape York is both beautiful and unforgiving. It’s an easy place to die if you don’t respect its power.
Apart from the dangers of getting lost there are crocodiles in the water, cassowaries protecting their territory, not to mention a variety of poisonous snakes.
I’ve been back there a few times since that first trip, and each time I go the landscape draws me in, and settles in my bones.
In setting Dirt Circus League in that landscape I wanted to capture its ferocity and wildness, its beauty and tranquillity, its ability to both nurture you and kill you.
I could not have set the novel anywhere else.