After visiting Digger in Kalgoorlie, I drove his old ute across Australia. In Australia, ute is short for utility vehicle — or what we Poms call a pick-up truck. Digger had recently bought himself a secondhand Toyota Landcruiser, with double fuel tanks and an extended cab to accommodate a massive fridge behind the seat to keep his beers cold. So he had no further use for his faithful old workhorse. I was to drive it across the continent to his home in Wandiligong, Victoria, an old gold miner’s cottage that he abandoned after his marriage failed, and leave it there.
The ute was a 3.8 litre diesel Toyota Hilux, sun-bleached beige, originally used for herding cattle. Steer-sized dents in the door panels gave it character. Digger bought it 18 years ago from a Wondiligong notable called James Fraser. Since then it has been across Australia and back several times.
Before I set out across the outback, did I harbour anxieties that the ute might be feeling its age and break down? That it might fail, for example, on the Nullarbor— a treeless, waterless plain uninhabited except for a dingo-infested roadhouse (in Aussie parlance, a ‘chew and spew’) every 50 or 100 miles? Or that it might leave me high and dry on the desolate, baking slopes around Iron Knob?
I did not. Digger is a long-haired old biker. All his engines are lovingly tended. When I lifted the bonnet of the ute, underneath was a picture of order and cleanliness. The 400,000 kilometres on the clock didn’t mention that the ute was on its second engine. The battery was brand spanking new. The morning I left, I caught him looking wistfully after his old ute, as if he was seeing off a favourite son.
It took four days of nothing but driving and sleeping to reach Wondiligong. To the occasional vehicle coming the other way I showed a friendly palm, which was acknowledged by anything from a reciprocal palm to a horizontal fascist salute. In the roadhouses, the battered appearance of the ute, plus my workman’s clothing, my nubuck leather boots, and my Essex accent convinced the less discriminating of the ‘servos’ that I was an Australian farmer.
At journey’s end in Wandiligong, and in neighbouring Bright, the appearance of the ute caused a stir. ‘Is that Jim Fraser’s old ute!’ said a woman in astonishment as I parked and got out beside one of Bright’s shopping arcades. ‘Yes it is!’ I said, affectionately, patting the bonnet of my new home. And the second I pulled up outside Digger’s house in Wandiligong, a wild-looking man came running out, shouting, ‘I’d recognise that f***ing ute anywhere!”
This was Terry, a brickie-cum-gold miner who camps in Digger’s house in a kind of caretaker role. Terry had long hair, no teeth and swore angrily at himself constantly, in a kind of scathing commentary on his own actions. He was glad of somebody to talk to. He hadn’t had sex for five years, he said. From the age of 14 until the age of 58 he’d been drunk, he said, then he gave up alcohol overnight after observing that arterial blood was occurring in his urine. (‘Pissing orange’ was how Terry actually put it.) The people of Wandiligong are so impressed by the transformation in his character that they still stop him on the street and formally congratulate him. He was also a misogynist, he told me proudly.
Then he drove me down to the pub in Bright to introduce me to the crew. About halfway through a fantastically convivial evening, this elderly man with a crutch, which seemed to be more of a hindrance than a help, came wobbling violently up to the bar. His face wore the vivid pallor and deadly seriousness of a silent comic. ‘Jim Fraser!’ whispered Terry. ‘The bloke Rob bought the ute off.’ I went right over. Like everyone else around there, I was by now in love with Jim Fraser’s old ute, and by association I was keen to shake Jim Fraser’s hand.
Unfortunately he was in the terminal stage of advanced alcoholism and unable to speak. He tried to speak, but no words came, or maybe there were simply no coherent thoughts to attach words to. But he turned his unnaturally bright eyes on me and looked at me kindly. There was a spiritual, all-bridges-burnt quality about Jim Fraser that I noticed immediately and admired unreservedly. And the exceptional courtesy shown in that rough pub to this frail wreck of a man suggested that everybody else saw it too.
I grabbed his limp hand and shook it anyway. And the smile that gradually replaced his confusion, then lit up his saintly face was one of the highlights of my stay in Australia.