‘Hi..yeh..erm im going to Tambo which bus am I getting?’
'Tambo..?’ She took my ticket off me and studied it. ‘Hey Dan – you know where ‘Tambo’ is?’
‘Dan’ walked over and let out a small ‘ha!’ I already did not like Dan.
‘I’m not sure but wherever you’re going, you’re not coming back!’’ They both laughed merrily. Great. Thanks.
He typed it into the computer and brought up the bus number. They both directed me to Bay B and wished me good luck a little too enthusiastically. It seemed the idea of a ‘pomme bird’ venturing off to live in the outback was the most hilarious thing they had come across in a while.
I was hungover, sunburnt, and sweating boxed wine. Our last night at the ranch had been a big one with some very fond farewells, but now it was time for us to part ways and I was absolutely terrified. I’d had no idea what it would feel like when the time came to actually start the travelling alone part - and now I was off to live with a man I’d spoken to only twice on the phone, who apparently lived on a farm 100km (the distance from Manchester to Birmingham), from the nearest pint of milk. Oh Lord.
The journey would take around 18 hours and John would meet me at the bus stop in Tambo at around 6:30am. Just to further add to my fear, Tambo was a ‘request stop’ which meant I had to tell the driver I wanted to be dropped off there in order for him to actually stop. Apparently this place was so tiny and remote, no one ever really left or arrived. Wonderful - maybe Dan was right.
My coach left Queen Street bus station in Brisbane at around midday. A hour inland, I lost all signal completely on my phone. I had an old Nokia. It had a colour screen, could take a fuzzy photo and had the most high-tech version of Snake to date - I was very high tech for 2007. After a few frantic exchanges with my parents and friends; my mum had sent me message reminding me (and this is good advice from Mother Kelly), ‘If you feel crap, look after yourself and get a good night’s sleep – most things look better after you’ve had a good sleep - including you.’ and my Dad had advised ‘just keep your eyes and ears open’ – something I suspected was in response to the unsettling knowledge of how dopey his children could be. Then the signal was gone and that was it, I was speeding into the outback and there was no going back.
I woke up to find it was now dark outside. The coach hadn’t been full so I had two seats, and after flopping down onto my bag, had somehow managed to fall asleep. It was quiet except for the humming of the engine - and I felt horrendous. I was dehydrated and hot. The driver announced we would be making a stop at a place I didn’t catch the name of but it sounded like ‘wooblmgong’ and someone walked down the coach past my seat . He had spurs on the back of his boots. Spurs. Are they actually a thing?! Those massive spiky things you see on the back of the boots in cowboy films - and look sort of brutal – were now walking up and down my coach like it was the most normal thing in the world. He had a long waxed coat, a bit like a cloak, along with a real cowboy hat and walked slowly down the aisle ; clunk clunk clunk, looking around at me as he went by.
This was all becoming so alien and I was suddenly struck by the stark reality of being 10,000 miles away from home. There was a lump rising in my throat and I decided to stay on the coach. I was now completely alone, in the middle of the night at a service station somewhere in the Australian outback, with no way of communicating with anyone other than who was in front of me. It’s hard to imagine a situation now where there is no available phone signal or where you can’t access the internet and snapchat or insta-story everything that happens to you, but back then, being out of the city meant we were all completely cut off. This actually sounds like heaven these days, but in a pre-smart phone addiction era, my 18 year old self found it very scary.
There are some moments in life which we never forget; some of them are obvious (births, deaths, marriages) and then some of them are just moments of stark, scary realisation. At 18 I was a little arrogant and very naive. With a super stable and secure upbringing in middle class suburbia, the most I had ever had to worry about was my exam results. I was incredibly lucky, but the past couple of years had been one big mix of exam stress, fake tan, underage clubbing, bulimia, trying to survive the politics of an all-girls school and of course, dodging the ever present parental confusion of being the kid not diving head first into a degree. I had loathed school and been so bored by it. I couldn’t wait to escape and go on some great big adventure as soon as I could. Now here I was, on my grand Australian adventure, and completely and utterley unprepared for how small, scared and alone I could feel. Lurching about in the Australian sunshine from happiness to happiness - this was not. I had been so excited to go, the possibility of being homesick had never even crossed my mind. It was an entirely new emotion -and in the end it took me about 4 months of living in Australia to move past it.
Everyone re-boarded the coach and there was a quiet murmur of chatter and activity as we continued to speed into the night. I re-arranged myself so I could lean on my neck pillow and gaze out of the window. There wasn’t much to see but there was no light other than from the stars – and I had never seen so many stars in my life! It was amazing! The sky was like a huge twinkly dome of lights stretching as far as the eye could see. Then in a moment of relaxation, the floodgates opened and the silent tears began to fall.
In that moment looking out of the window, wide eyed and hugging my backpack, with floods of scared tears silently falling down my cheeks, I realised I knew nothing about life. Absolutely nothing – and I had no idea what I was doing or where the hell I was going.
It’s easy when you’re young (or older even!) to think you know it all; you know yourself, you can handle anything, I mean you’ve seen Australia on the T.V. right? They speak English – how hard can it be? Well, it was proving to be much harder than I had imagined, and in that moment, I had to face finding out I was not nearly as tough - or as worldly - as I had previously assumed.
Then a face popped up between the seats in front of me.
‘You wanna a tissue doll?’.
‘Erm yeh..yeh please’
‘Where you from?’
‘Oh, you travelling here?’
‘Yeh..im going to work on a farm..a jillaroo I think its called…?’
‘Oh yeh, they do that don’t they? You can get a job out on a property and live there – I’ve heard it’s pretty variable though and the ones out on the Territory can be pretty rough if you’re not careful.’
I nodded, still hugging my backpack. Phew, thank god I was staying in Queensland then.
She was slim, had short dark hair, was wearing 'dangly' earrings and ‘normal clothes’ (by normal I mean no Spurs!). By the look of her, she could have been one of my Mums’ friends and to this day I wish I could remember her name. She never directly acknowledged that I had tears constantly streaming down my face through our entire conversation, or had even asked me what was wrong, but it wasn’t necessary. This lovely woman just spent the rest of our journey intermittently handing me tissues and bottles of water and it was just what I needed.
The night went on until I eventually got to watch the sunrise over the Australian outback for the very first time. I was still wide eyed, sleep deprived and scared, but the tears had passed and I was feeling some level of emotional stability again. Never had so much barrenness looked so beautiful, and I could feel a flicker of excitement in me being re-ignited.
“Tambo! – the lady who wanted Tambo – this is you!” The broad Australian accent of the coach driver rang out over the microphone.
Shit! That’s me. ‘Yes! I’m here!’ – I started to get up as the coach slowed down, still unable to see very much out of the window. There were no buildings or people in sight. I shuffled with my things, said a hurried goodbye and thank you to the tissue lady and made my way to the front of the coach.
Up ahead I could see about 4 or 5 buildings coming into view. It was dusty and incredibly bright. I had forgotten coach windows are usually tinted and the morning sunlight was blinding. The coach came to a halt at a small white shed – this was the bus stop. I hopped off and the heat hit came over me like an invisible blanket. Squinting into the sunlight and grappling around with my bags, I said goodbye to the coach driver and looked around. Where the hell was I!? And where was this John guy? Had I got the right bus stop? Don’t panic. Don’t panic. My phone battery had died, not that it would have been much use anyway but oh shit.
The bus stop stood a few hundred meters from the small collection of buildings, beyond that there was nothing. All around I could only see miles and miles of bushland. The whole town seemed to fit into one line of vision and there was a Post office, a Gas station and a Supermarket. Then I saw a sign; ‘Welcome to Tambo, Pop: 348’Wow.This was less than half the population of my entire secondary school.
The sun was incredibly hot and I was in heavy boots, jeans and a thick safari shirt, the advised attire from the outback training programme. What should I do? Maybe he was just late. As quickly as the thought had entered my head I could see a vehicle shimmering in the distance. Two minutes later an enormous silver Toyota Hilux pulled up next to me and a man got out.
He was wearing flip flops, or ‘thongs’, (I would later learn after a few incidents of embarrassing confusion, this word is not only used to refer to an uncomfortable design of ladies underwear, but is also Australian for ‘flipflops’), a pair of navy blue shorts and a short sleeve blue checked shirt. He was about mid-40s, wore a cap over some unruly greying hair and had his front teeth missing. Not smiling, he put his hand out to shake mine and said: ‘Jack Squire, nice to meet you. Shall we go?’
His forearm was the size of my right thigh. Right. I had come to outback for a big, grand, exciting adventure - and now I was just going to be murdered. Great. Excellent.