It was summer time and the jeep club were gathered at the Green Door to sample a hamburger and recall experiences in army boot camp. That experience was now two years old, but we were still obliged to take drill exercises on weekends as part of reserve training.
It was in the years when military service was still an obligation in the aftermath of World War II, and the more recent Korean defence experience. We were all reservists in the transport wing of the army and it was there we’d developed a taste for light and heavy machinery. On release from intensive training and return to our respective professions during the week we’d all traded cars for jeeps.
Of course this was a phase that would eventually pass as an awareness of the opposite sex took control and we sought to impress with a vehicle more comfortable to shepherd the cherub of choice around. In the meantime, boys will be boys and we had to get the army experience behind us. The jeeps were our medium of transition.
Weekends were taken up crashing through densely wooded coastland in convey looking for the elusive black crab favouring briny swamplands close to the ocean. Little did we realize fifty years beyond our playground would be a concrete and high rise jungle as developers greedily absorbed this former desolate wasteland.
Sometimes of an evening jeeps were jam packed with marching girls after their evening practice to race in convey around forest tracks. In the dark one of the jeeps would miscalculate and end up trapped in a hole or straddle a fallen log nimbly avoided by the rest fitted with powerful spotlights but a hazard for the inattentive driver without those lights. This was a chance to impress the girls with techniques learned in the army for hauling entrapped vehicles out of inescapable situations with the help of a winch and steel towing cable. The girls appeared to be more interested in the thrill of the chase however.
Stories of army experiences were repeated at all these evening meetings at the Green Door and while oft told they were still received with appreciation. But new stories were emerging to join this folklore. Max was the constant butt of jokes, to use a play on words, as we recalled each evening the day we were hunting black crabs on coastal plains and had accumulated a rich harvest. These were deposited in sacks. Most carried their sack with caution held to the front knowing the power of that gigantic claw, but Max decided to toss his sack over his shoulder and head for his jeep. There was a yelp of pain and looking around we could see the sack dangling while indignant crabs crawled to safety. But one was still attached to Max’s butt and holding on fiercely. It took some jeep tools to prise that claw loose as the rest of us scampered to retrieve escaping crabs. Max adopted an interesting side tilt driving painfully on the thirty mile bush tracks home.
Perhaps it was to divert us from a repeat of that story that Max suddenly dropped his bombshell at the Green Door.
“Anyone want to join me in a trip to Cairns? How about you Prickle Head?”
Now Prickle Head was the name given me after one of those disastrous hair cut sessions during army training. It had started out as short back and sides the favoured army cut of the day, but my friend Donk had paused half way through the free haircut to examine his handiwork and shouted a curse word which got my immediate attention. He handed me a mirror.
“Cut too much off one side of the top so I’ll have to give you a crew.” He grunted with irritation then without waiting for any comment ran the clippers over the top of my head.
From that point onward I was referred to as Prickle Head, and that name stuck through the long hair phase of my growing up years.
Now Max’s question needed to be pondered and we sat deep in thought nibbling on our hamburgers as we examined the offer. Yes we could take a holiday from work; no we didn’t have access to much money. So a decision was made. Six of us would pile into Max’s jeep for the one thousand mile journey to tropical Cairns. Those were the days before seatbelts. We’d take one change of clothes and pool our money for gas along the way. The rest of the gang shook their heads. They decided it was too far to go without money enough for emergencies and a place to stay along the way.
Max borrowed a 22 rifle in case we decided to roast a rabbit or other unsuspecting beast along the way and our fishing gear was packed for the trip. Not having been that far north before we had no idea about the road situation but jeeps can go anywhere we reasoned and Max was a mechanic by trade. As for accommodation we expected to sleep on the verandas of school houses empty on vacation and school restrooms would be our toilet and washroom facilities.
We were at the end of our first day north and quite exhausted as roads were sometimes challenging and a jeep not the most comfortable vehicle to travel in. We began to search for an empty country school house. We’d been passing them with great frequency all through our day but now when our need arose we travelled mile after mile without sighting one. Then at last one came into view and we hastened to wash up and relieve our tired bones.
Next morning we were awakened by a police officer and the local teacher who informed us we were trespassing and needed to be on our way quickly before it became necessary to detain us at the local police station. We folded our sleeping bags quickly and were on our way grateful for our narrow escape from the law.
From that time forward we made do without school houses and looked for appropriate camping spots for sleeping arrangements. There were major rivers to cross on the way north so that would take care of our bathing needs until we reached a line beyond which bathing in the river would be risky because of the possibility of crocodiles. We were never far from the coast so frequently decided to detour to enjoy sleeping on the sand and an ocean swim.
The journey began to unravel as we made it to within a hundred miles of Cairns. This was now sugarcane and coconut country and the scenery was glorious, particularly on our now frequent diversions to the coast with islands in the distance and the Great Barrier Reef beyond.
On one of those diversions we came upon an unclaimed cluster of coconuts and prepared for a feast. However one tossed at me in fun had obviously rotted. That was probably the reason for throwing it! The coconut came apart as I caught it and foul smelling liquid spilled on my clothing. The episode was a hilarious joke to all but me. No amount of washing seemed to get that smell out of my clothes. Laughter subsided when we returned to the jeep and I sat among them. There were ugly suggestions for a while that Prickle Head should consider walking home.
Comradery had vanished with that coconut episode and all of a sudden that gorgeous scenery was eclipsed by the thought we were far from home. Our nights had largely been spent in uncomfortable circumstances and we longed for a good hot shower and a diet of wholesome food instead of our occasional encounters with the junk foods of those times. We realized this trip had reminded us of the uncomfortable aspects of army life with its lack of sleep and discomforts of the day. The trip had weaned us back to a yearning for civilian life and trips to the Green Door in future would find us engaged in different pursuits.
By the time we reached home again unshaven, sore and tired we were all friends again. Soon after our jeeps were traded for more comfortable conventional cars and we settled down to civilian life and the pursuit of more immediate interests.
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