Pete Barker | May 30, 2018
Gordonvale, Far North Queensland, July 1984
SO this old school bus painted in psychedelic rainbow stripes pulls up at the diesel pump out front of the servo. “Rainforest Warriors” is daubed across a peace symbol on the grille. From under the bonnet of the Holden I’m working on in the service bay I watch a tribe of hippies get off, stretching and yawning. Hippies! At least a dozen of them, men and women. Long hair. Beads. Sarongs. Patchouli oil. Bob Marley blaring from a loudspeaker on the bus roof. I know the song: Who the Cap Fit, Let them Wear It.
“Going far in this old beast?” I ask the driver as I clank the diesel nozzle into the bus’s filler. He’s a wiry young bloke, about my age, with stringy blond hair below his shoulders and a beard halfway down his chest, which is bare above the floral sarong wrapped around his waist. A green velvet top hat shades his oversized eyes. He’s introduced himself as Frog.
“Up to the Daintree Blockade to stop the road going any further into the rainforest,” he says. “Meeting up with a bunch of activists already dug in up there. Hopefully we can get past the coppers.”
I’ve seen the protestors on the TV news and on the front page of the newspaper. Muddy hippies chaining themselves to trees, others burying themselves up to their necks in front of the bulldozers. Politicians talking about progress and prosperity and jobs. Environmentalists talking about saving the last patch of pristine rainforest, heritage. Cops talking about cracking down. Hippies making a stand, digging in on the frontline. Doing something.
The diesel pump remains silent behind its Ampol emblem as I click the nozzle’s trigger a couple of times.
“Hey, Dad, turn on the bowser,” I yell at my old man, who’s inside by his cash register.
“Tell them bloody hippies to bugger off,” he shouts back. “We got no fuel for greenies and university wankers from down south coming up here trying to stop progress,” he shouts.
“We can’t go anywhere; she’s running way past empty,” Frog tells him. “So you’ll be stuck with us here if we can’t go away.”
“I’ll call the cops if youse don’t bugger off, bloody beardos. You need to wake up to yourself and get a job – and a haircut.”
I leave the nozzle sticking out of the bus and chat in the shade of a fig tree with Frog and a shirtless rotund giant with a shaved head they call Buddha. “You should come with us, man,” Buddha says. “They got a camp kitchen with free food, killer dope and all the hippy chicks you can poke a stick at.” One of the girls kicks him and they all laugh. “Seriously, man. In this life, you’re either on the bus, or off the bus.”
When The Old Man goes out to serve another customer, I saunter into the office and flip the pump switch on. I take $150 cash, my week’s pay, from the register and step back into the service bay. Peeling off my blue twill work shirt, the one with my name, Danny, stitched over one pocket and the Ampol logo over the other, I slip on the orange Bob Marley T-shirt out of my locker.
The diesel pump is running noisily as I lug my toolbox across to the bus and heave it up the steps. “You guys are going to need a mechanic to get this old beast up that road,” I say to Frog.
The Old Man shouts at me as I get on the bus and sit next to a girl who says her name is Moon Glow.
“Hey, where the hell do you think you are going?” he bawls. “You need to finish that cylinder head this arvo.”
Buddha replies: “The only head he is going to be working on now is his own, man.”
“Danny boy, get back here right now.”
I look around at Gordonvale. Rainforest riots up the side of the distant Gillies Range. Closer to the single-lane highway, paddocks of sugar cane reach for the sun above. Each stalk of cane exactly the same as its neighbour, all uniform size, same golden brown stalk, same green top, all going into flower, ready to be cut down for the crush. Across this side of the highway the old wooden mill workers’ cottages squat on their stumps in uniform rows, each streaked with the same tropical mould. I know every one of their inhabitants, almost like family. Mill workers, council workers, road workers, truckies, cane harvester drivers, a few small shopkeepers, school teachers, even the local member of parliament. Good people, but…
I’ve lived here all my life, 20 years, but I feel a long way from home. I reckon the rainbow bus might not take me all the way there, but I know it’s headed in the right direction.