In rural Queensland the police deal with matters like this, so on a Monday morning I made the long and dusty journey from Cockatoo Creek to Carlington in the Mazda, and it was Sergeant Gayle who dealt with my enquiry in the small, air conditioned police station just off Carlington’s main street.
Sergeant Gayle is a big, heavily built, middle aged man with a reassuring air
of calm competence that comes from thirty years of dealing with everything
from the drunk shot dead by his own wife while climbing in through his bedroom window at two in the morning, to multiple highway pile-ups.
He didn’t see any problems with transferring my driving accreditation from the UK to Queensland. He handed me a form and a ballpoint, and got on with his own paperwork on his side of the counter while I filled in the form on the other side. In silence broken only by the hum of the air conditioning unit and the occasional rustle of Sergeant Gayle’s papers, I completed the section on personal details, and then read down the list of licence categories, each of which had a tick box next to it.
I skipped the provisional or learner driver category and ticked the box for the basic full licence for a car.
The next box down the list was for a motorbike. I had owned and ridden a motorbike in England, but never taken my test. But there was no harm in asking.
“Excuse me,” I said.
Sergeant Gayle looked up from his papers. “What can I do you for?” he asked.
I gave him my best attempt at an ingratiating/apologetic/baffled smile.
“Well, there’s a category here for motorbikes, and we sometimes need to take the station bike along the Beef Road, so I was wondering if I should tick that box?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” he said without hesitation, and looked back down at his work.
This was great. With a tick in a box I had just acquired a full motorbike licence.
I looked down at the next category, which was fixed axle truck of no more than five tonnes. That was the Cockatoo Creek Dodge, then. I coughed apologetically, and when Sergeant Gayle looked up again I pointed to the truck box and explained that I sometimes had to truck horses or cattle along the Beef Road as well.
“OK, son,” he said casually, “stick a tick in that one.”
Fantastic. I looked down the list again. There were only two more categories, and the next one covered the big old articulated semi that the Campbells and Daniel Barr shared between them. I had driven this semi approximately twenty metres, once, attempting to back it up square to the Cockatoo Creek loading ramp. But this was too good an opportunity to miss.
I coughed again, and Sergeant Gayle’s eyes narrowed perceptibly when he looked up.
“Another problem?” he asked.
I stammered something about the same thing applying to the station semi, trucking cattle and that sort of thing, and I fully expected him to turn me down flat. But he didn’t. He raised his eyebrows and inhaled deeply, and then he nodded!
“OK, then. Put her on the pile.”
In the space of about five minutes I had acquired a full motorbike, truck and semi licence, all of which I imagined - wrongly - I would be able to transfer eventually onto my UK licence back home. More immediately, in the space of a few seconds I had been given a whole new range of job opportunities if I stayed on in Australia. It might mean I could earn a fortune driving trucks at Mount Isa, or hauling sheep across the endless miles of the Nullabor. The fact that I couldn’t actually drive a semi was neither here nor there.
There was one more empty box on the form. Taxis, coaches and all road vehicles used for public passenger transportation. I could see myself piloting a coachload of admiring tourists along the coastal highway. Go for it, I thought, and looked up to find Sergeant Gayle already looking me right in the eye and shaking his head gently.
“You got to learn to quit when you’re ahead, son,” he said. “Sign the form and get along. Stan’ll bring your licence out to Yeramba on the next mail run.”
I signed and skedaddled out of Carlington as fast as the Mazda would carry me, still not quite believing my luck.
The Mazda is a great little pick-up, and there isn't a job it can't do on the station, but it isn’t very fast, and it isn’t in the first flush of youth either. I would imagine it must be well over ten years old and it’s had a hard life, every day of which has added another scratch, dent or deformity to its long-suffering, once-white bodywork.
Maintained by Kevin at the Bimbimbie Star Cafe and Service Station just ten miles down the road from us, the little 1600 cc engine still runs beautifully, but quite a lot of the peripherals don’t work properly anymore. The rear brake and indicator lights on the driver’s side are smashed, the driver’s window will only wind down about half way, and if you hit a bump in the middle of a right hand turn the passenger door is liable to fly open.
Out on the station these cosmetic trifles are not considered worth fixing.
However, even when I drove back exultantly to Cockatoo Creek from Sergeant Gayle’s police station that day, it was obvious that a couple more serious problems were developing. The clutch was getting pretty dodgy, and the exhaust system had a hole somewhere that was beginning to make the poor old Mazda sound like a souped up dirt racer.
Neither of these two problems had been sorted three weeks later when Fred asked Ben if he could borrow the Mazda to take his driving test. This was an urgent request made on the Saturday before the Monday when Fred was due to take his test.
To gain a full licence he had to take the test in a car with a floor mounted, manual stick shift. For family transport, Ross and Ben have identical, barge sized, Ford stationwagons with automatic column shifts. Clive has his own very cool vintage 1954 Holden saloon, but this also has a semi automatic column shift. So Fred had been planning to take his test in the Straight Creek Land Rover, which is about twenty years older than Fred but the only option with the required gear shift on their station.
However, on the Friday before Fred’s test, Ross took the Land Rover to mend one of the bore hole wind pumps on Straight Creek, and walked back a few hours later to report that one of the Landie’s front wheels had come off, which meant that Fred’s test vehicle was stranded about six miles away out in the middle of a 20,000 acre paddock until Dalgety’s could rustle up the spares that Ross would need to fix it.
So the only other possible option at that short notice was the Mazda.
Fred came over with Clive on the Sunday to collect it, and listened glumly as we ran through the long list of faults. By that time the worn clutch was making it difficult to get the Mazda into first and reverse gears, and the hole in the exhaust system was so bad that it was interfering with the engine’s compression. Ben, Jonathon and I explained the delicate balance of techniques we had developed to overcome these drawbacks as the problems had gradually worsened.
In order to get it into first or reverse gear, you had to blip the throttle, let the revs die off and then crash it into gear, at the same time pressing the accelerator hard enough so that the Mazda didn’t stall, but not so hard that you took off like a shot rabbit - and then stalled.
If you didn’t get this complicated balance right, the poor bloody Mazda would either stall violently or lurch forward in a series of kangaroo hops, accompanied by deafening farting noises and shattering backfires from the perforated exhaust.
Jonathon and I found this side-splittingly funny, and if we didn’t overindulge it we could reduce Ben to weeping hysterics by blipping the engine and hopping down the airstrip, complete with the full bag of puerile sound effects.
When Fred tried his luck driving the Mazda for the first time, he didn’t come even close, and after the Mazda had stalled twice he sat miserably in the driver’s seat watching through the half open window as the four of us heartless spectators staggered about, howling with laughter.
“Come on you guys, it’s not bloody funny. I got to take my bloody test in this tomorrow.”
“You’re right, Fred,” said Ben. He stood upright, wiping his eyes, and then looked at Fred sitting mournfully in the Mazda's cab, and doubled over again, gasping for breath.
Fred drove away with as much dignity as he could muster in the raspberry blowing Mazda, with Clive following in his Holden, and it wasn’t until we saw the same convoy coming back again on the Tuesday that we heard what had happened.
To give him his full due, Fred told most of the story against himself and loved every minute, and Clive added details from an onlooker's point of view.
On the Monday morning, Clive went with him to Carlington both as the necessary qualified driver and more importantly to lend moral support, and during the hundred mile trip Fred got to grips a little better with the Mazda’s idiosyncracies.
Carlington has got to be one of the easier places in the world to take a driving test. There are only about six streets, and during the day there are hardly any other vehicles moving about on them. The area is so flat that in order to include a ‘hill start’ element to the test, a special ramp of hard packed earth has been bulldozed up on an unused plot at the edge of the road that leads out of the town.
However, passing his test was a very big deal to Fred, and he was shaking with nerves when he presented himself at the same counter where I had struck licence gold a few weeks earlier. Like all true outback hands, he kept his hat on in the police station and at all times during the proceedings that followed.
Sergeant Gayle filled in Fred's particulars on the driving test form and they walked outside to the test vehicle. The Mazda was parked beside the kerb right outside the police station, and for a few seconds Sergeant Gayle refused to believe that this was really the vehicle that Fred was planning to take his test in.
Between them, Fred and Clive explained about the Straight Creek Land Rover and how they had had no alternative except the Mazda, and they tried to prepare Sergeant Gayle for the deficiencies he was about to experience.
In any other town than Carlington the Mazda would probably have been cordoned off and blown up in a controlled explosion by the bomb squad. As it was, it looked even shabbier in these surroundings than it did on the station, and Sergeant Gayle pointedly swept the dust off his side of the bench seat with his hand before lowering himself gingerly into the cab.
Standing on the sidewalk determined not to miss a second of this, Clive said the expression on the Sergeant’s face when Fred started the engine was worth every second of the horrible six hour journey to Carlington and back again. The main street was filled with the fruity crackle of the punctured exhaust system, and when Fred stalled at his first attempt to move off, a couple of earsplitting backfires richocetted off the main street buildings like gunshots.
Behind the steering wheel, Fred was almost crying with mortification, and after he had recovered from the initial shock Sergeant Gayle told him not to worry, and to move away in his own time.
He succeeded in moving off at the second attempt, but Clive said he clearly didn’t get the balance quite right, and after lurching loudly up the street for about fifty metres, the Mazda stalled again.
Fred said that at this point he was ready to give up, catch the bus to Townsville and join his brother in the army, and Sergeant Gayle nearly clinched the decision when he told Fred sternly that he would take a very dim view if Fred was by any chance trying to pull his bloody leg. But Fred is clearly not the leg pulling sort, and the agony of his embarrassment was obviously sincere. So Sergeant Gayle took a firmer grip on his clipboard and suggested they try once again.
Clive watched the Mazda make a better start on this third attempt, and he said that if you stuck your fingers in your ears it looked almost as if Fred and Sergeant Gayle made something close to normal progress right the way to the ‘T’ junction at the top of the main street.
It all went a bit pear shaped again up there, said Fred, because
Sergeant Gayle told him to turn right.
Fred explained that the indicator at the back was smashed, and owing to some highly ignorant DIY repairs to the electrics carried out some time previously, the front left indicator and the horn were on the same circuit, which meant that if you pushed the indicator stalk up for a right turn the horn sounded and the left front indicator started flashing. So Sergeant Gayle told him to wind the driver’s window down fully and make the appropriate handsignals for the rest of the test instead. Crimson with shame, Fred explained that the window would only open half way, but managed nevertheless to get his arm through the opening to signal the turn.
In order to do this he had to lean sideways towards Sergeant Gayle, who also leant sideways against the passenger door to give Fred more room. Cranked over in this awkward positon, coordinating the process of engaging first gear, balancing the throttle and turning the steering wheel proved too tricky for Fred, and Clive saw the Mazda lurch wildly across the junction, farting and backfiring, with Fred’s arm sticking out of the partial opening as though he was waving for help. Halfway through this turn the combination of the kangaroo hopping and Sergeant Gayle's weight jolted the passenger door open, and the Mazda shot up the side road with Sergeant Gayle frantically trying to stop himself sliding out through the open door with one hand while fending himself off the bucking dashboard with the other.
“For Christ’s sake pull over and stop the bloody engine,” he shouted above the din of the exhaust.
By the time Fred stopped the Mazda, Sergeant Gayle was shaking too.
They gave up on the three point turn after three unsuccessful attempts to get the Mazda into reverse, and Sergeant Gayle said that just the thought of trying a hill start on the ramp was enough to give him the shits, so they abandoned that too.
So after about ten minutes, Clive saw the Mazda trundle slowly and raucously back down the main street and stall abruptly outside the police station again.
After a minute’s deafening silence, Sergeant Gayle ran Fred through a few of the mandatory questions on the highway code, which Fred nailed perfectly. He said he wasn’t nervous anymore because he knew he couldn’t have passed his test after that performance, and he sat resigned to his failure as Sergeant Gayle ticked boxes, scribbled notes in several places, and finally looked across at the aspiring driver.
Both of them were pouring with sweat by this time in the furnace heat of the Mazda’s un-airconditioned cab, and a drop of sweat ran down the Sergeant’s nose and plipped onto the driving test form.
Sergeant Gayle wiped his hand across his face and took a deep breath. “Well, son,” he said. “I’ve never been through a test like that before and I sincerely hope I never will again.”
“Strictly speaking this thing shouldn’t be on the public highway at all, but that isn’t your fault, and I’ll have a word with Mr Campbell about that when I can.” He paused and wrote again on the form.
“Anyway, God alone knows how but you managed to drive this pile of scrap all the way here and you got all the questions right…” he looked down at the form again and ticked a box, “… so I’m going to pass you.”
He signed the bottom of the form, tore off the top sheet and handed it to a stunned and delighted Fred.
Sergeant Gayle opened the passenger door and swung a leg out, then turned back and looked at Fred again.
“How far is it back to Straight Creek, son?”
“About a hundred miles,” said Fred, beaming.
A look of pain crossed the Sergeant’s face. “Strewth. Well, good on yer, son."
He heaved himself out and onto his feet.
"If it was me, I’d bloody well walk.”