Yarn spinning is the telling of Australian stories as per the idiom of our forebears from the city and the bush. They are often called tall stories.

Yarn spinning is not a connected line of jokes, nor is it rhyming verse.

Many bush poetry competitions have a yarn spinning category and it is a natural add-on for performers to develop in addition to their poetry performances.

Travelling Abroad

Frank Daniel

© 1997 the late Frank Daniel, Canowindra NSW

In September 1979, I was part of a contract-harvesting group from Central Western New South Wales working in the Moura district of central Queensland.

The wheat harvest was about to get under way. Work should have started weeks earlier, but with rain falling every two or three days the grain’s moisture content remained just above the acceptable maximum of 12 per cent. Whenever we thought it was right to put the headers into the crops, down came another ten points to dampen our enthusiasm and give us another day off — sometimes two or three.

The majority of the harvesting and cartage contractors were camping at the Moura Caravan Park. At one stage there was as many as fifty trucks and half a dozen headers waiting at the park for fine weather, not counting those standing idle on farms. All the trucks and machines had been serviced, greased and checked over a couple of times in readiness for the big event, but by the end of the third week, still nothing was happening. Most of the blokes were bored to tears; they’d had enough of the weather, the grog and the counter lunches at the Coal and Cattle Hotel and were, to put it mildly, sick and tired of the delays. There was no money in sitting around. The usual thing was to walk everywhere in the town just to fill in the day, there was no need to rush.

One morning as I walked from the shops back to camp, one of my younger mates, Phillip, drew up alongside me in his WB Holden utility. He had two other fellows with him, Steve who was about Phillip’s age and Brownie who was about my vintage.

“Jump in!” they shouted. “Jump in!” There seemed an air of excitement! “Where are you going?” I asked. “Just get in!” was the order.

Steve, the larger of the three, climbed onto Brownies lap, as I squeezed in and pulled the door shut, again asking what was going on! “We’re off to Rocky!” said Steve as Philip dropped the clutch and chucked a wheelie throwing gravel behind as he spun the ute back onto the bitumen.

“Hang on!” I shouted above the noise of the radio and the laughing from the younger blokes. “Hang on! — hang on a bit! I’m only wearing a pair of shorts! I’ll need to get my shirt or something else to wear!” my protests only creating more laughter as the WB hit the Moura town limits at very close to 120 kays per hour with four-up in the front and only two bucket seats.

We rolled into Rockhampton about mid-day, and the first thing the young fellows wanted was ‘a good feed’. They decided on a counter-lunch at the pub. After buying a shirt from the local men’s-wear store I joined them — we had lunch and then took in a bit of window-shopping. Coming across a Real Estate agency, Brownie compared values in ‘Rocky’ with Cowra, and other southern towns, while Phillip rummaged through a stand full of travel brochures. ‘Great Keppel Island’ was featured on the one that took his eye. “I’ve heard of that place, eh!” he said. “It’s way up north in Queensland!”

“We are in bloody Queensland, ya dope!” said Steve as he reminded our chauffeur that we were no longer home in New South Wales. This was a common fault whenever we related to areas in the northern state. We always talked as if we were still fifteen hundred kilometers to the south. The lady in the office told us that if we hurried we could catch the ferry at half past two from Yeppoon, a few miles up the coastline.

The two younger blokes thought it was a great idea and were all for it, though Brownie and I had no real ambitions to leave our native shore.

Leaving the utility at the Yeppoon wharf, we set sail on our first ever Great Ocean voyage. It was the first time any of us had ever been outside Australia. The journey of twenty-six miles took about an hour, during which time Brownie struck up an ‘argument’, as he called all conversations, with a member of the crew, talking horsepower, torque ratios and fuel consumption etc. relative to the big Gardner Diesel installed below decks. Before we knew it we were being led on a fascinating guided tour of the engine room, thanks to Brownie and his new cobber.

Australia was well out of sight when we berthed about one hundred yards off-shore from Great Keppel Island. There was no wharf. Passengers and luggage and other goods were transported ashore via a smaller flat-bottomed boat.

Walking up the sandy beach towards the ‘action’, the ever-hungry Phil and Steve were only interested in quenching their thirsts, and getting some more to eat from the first thing they saw on the island, a Kodak emblazoned, weatherboard Kiosk. A small number of visitors were sunning themselves on the sands, and a few windsurfers were plying the calmer waters to the north. It didn’t look a very active place to me and, not being a holiday person in the true sense, I had no further interests other than to have a good sticky-beak and then get out of the place. Brownie was in the same frame of mind, always thinking of the work we were missing out on. We walked for miles and miles taking in the sameness of the place before we noticed it turning a little chilly. Darkness was well upon us before we made it back to the kiosk.

From the kiosk proprietor we made the shocking discovery that the boat that brought us out from Yeppoon had returned to the mainland within half an hour of our arrival. We were marooned on the island.

‘Dumped’ as Phil put it. “They’ve pissed off without us?” said Steve. “Cripes! I’m starvin’, where can we get a feed, mate?”

An even greater shock was in store. The shopkeeper informed us that the next ferry would be leaving at 10am the following day, and that there was no more tucker available because it was Wednesday, the Island’s ‘day off’, and he was closing shop. This probably explained why there were so few people on the island that day. We could however, stock up on Smith’s Chips, Cadbury’s chocolates and soft drinks to get us through the night. It was suggested that if we waited till morning we could have hamburgers for breakfast at half past seven.

“Bloody lovely! Ain’t it? You’re a nice pair of mongrels, you are!” whinged Brownie. “Now look what you’ve done. Got us stuck on a bloody island with no flamin’ grub to eat, and now we have to wait all damned night to go back! A bloke’s mad for listening to you in the first place!”

I was beginning to have second thoughts about it too, but there was little we could do. We were stuck.

“Where can we get a bed, then?” asked Brownie. The reticent, but helpful, Kiosk proprietor informed us that we could try the Hostel, but thought it would be booked out. Otherwise we could opt for a campsite and stay the night.

“What do we need a campsite for?” asked Brownie, “we haven’t got a tent!”

Here we discovered that if we didn’t have a tent we couldn’t have a campsite, but, to overcome this problem we could hire a tent from the Kiosk at a discounted rate, “seeing it was the island’s day off!” Sleeping on the beach was against the rules, but if we wanted to stay we had to hire a tent and pay a camping fee to use the tent site, otherwise leave. There was no option.

“Struth!” from Brownie, ever watchful when it came to expenses. “It’s gunna cost us three dollars to hire their tent; and it’s gunna cost another five dollars to stay overnight — in their tent — on their island — on their day off. Bloody beautiful — ain’t it?”

Our tent was number twenty-three. “Just follow your noses up the gully behind the shop” said the bloke, “until you find your number nailed to a post beside a blue tent. That’s your tent! O.K!” As soon as we removed ourselves from the building we heard the door close hurriedly behind us and a bolt slam home. Armed with chips, peanuts and chocolates we were on our own, left to our own resources on a deserted island. “I hope it doesn’t rain,” I said. “Ah shut up, Joe!” from the others. “What’s this hostel he was talking about, eh?” asked Phil, “lets take a look at it and see what’s going on there, eh?” Phil nearly always added an ‘eh’ to the end of every sentence.

Most of the resort was in darkness, except for the glow of the hostel, which was becoming more attractive by the minute. It was a multi-storied building, which fitted in with the surroundings rather nicely, or as nicely as we could tell in the dark.

We met no opposition at the front door, and worked our way in amongst the dinner-suited gentlemen and their refined ladies. It was an early evening dinner show; a magician had just finished his act and a band was setting the mood for the eager dancers.

“Poshy joint this one, eh?” from Phil, “we won’t last long in here!” — class distinction being one of Phil’s favourite subjects.

We weren’t overly concerned but I suppose we looked a little out of place in our working clobber. I don’t think T-shirts, shorts and thongs would have passed as evening-wear. Without consultation, it appeared we were all of the same idea — lose ourselves in the crowd before someone decided we were not wanted.

With Brownie close behind, I quickly wormed my way through the six-deep crowd to the bar and bought a couple of beers. I gave Brownie his beer and wondered where the other two characters had ended up, Brownie and I had lost track of them.

Before we were half way through our beers, a little Malaysian looking joker, dressed in white, came up to my mate and I heard him ask if Brownie was a guest of the hostel.

“Bloody oath, mate!” came his quick reply. “I’m in room number two hundred and ten, been here for days!”

I nearly choked at his response, then retreated towards the bar shortening my height considerably in order to avoid detection. I didn’t know if the little bloke had seen me or not.

Time passed slowly as I cautiously avoided ‘arrest’. I couldn’t see hide nor hair of my mates; I hadn’t a clue what happened to them. Brownie had disappeared too. The life of a fugitive is a lonely one.

Not feeling too comfortable, I advanced towards a section of the room which was tastefully decorated with tropical indoor plants and palms, thinking that I could shelter there until a familiar face came along.

Moving with all due caution, I suddenly found myself flanked and overshadowed by two whopping big front-row forwards, both at least six foot four inches tall. I felt myself floating towards the exit door. My feet weren’t exactly carrying me, and neither were my two new mates, they hadn’t laid a hand on me, I was more or less sandwiched between the pair of them as they moved towards the door. Although my mind told me to resist; put up a bit of a struggle for the sake of all the battlers in the world, a much greater force propelled me. There seemed no point in arguing, I had already accepted that I wasn’t wanted.

Outside, my bouncers politely informed me that the party was for houseguests only and that I would be better advised to return to my own digs. Nice blokes really! I still had half a glass of beer left in my hand and, not feeling thirsty all of a sudden, I poured it into a flowerpot at the gateway, leaving my glass on the gatepost as I left.

I found my mates waiting in the bar of a disco joint that we had overlooked on our way to the hostel. Not being lit up, on account of it ‘being the island’s day off’, it was not easily detected in the darkness. The boys were enjoying a stubby of Four-ex and having a bit of a laugh. Being Wednesday night there was no action there either, but the ‘cleaner bloke’ managed to find a few rounds of drinks for them after hearing their tale of woe. There was a stubby waiting for me as well.

Laughing over our experiences, and hearing each other’s views on the matter, Steve asked, “What name did you tell ’em Joe?”

I told them that my bouncers didn’t want to know who I was, and they laughed again, but my being ‘chucked out’ seemed a much better story than their being ‘asked to leave’. Brownie had used my name and the other two, both captured ‘individually’ by the ‘Viet Cong’, as they were now calling the Malaysian, had each used Brownie’s name.

With nothing else to do we decided to call it an early night and headed back to our tent. Brownie led the way counting tents in the darkened sandy gully among the trees, aided by the filtered moonlight coming through the foliage overhead. Brownie got caught in a darker spot at one stage and walked fair up the wall of a three-man tent, losing his feet momentarily as they slipped back from under him. Suspended by his neck across the top of the tent, no manner of trying allowed him to regain his feet. He couldn’t get a grip with either hands or feet, and the more he tried to stand the more his feet kept slipping out from under him. A voice from inside muttered something rude as we picked our mate up. Brownie apologized to the occupant of the tent, only to hear a tired reply, “That’s all right mate, every body else does the same thing!”

Tent number twenty-three turned out to be a two-man pup tent. “Ripped off again!” cried Brownie.

We used the tent as a ground sheet and lay back beneath a canopy of leaves and stars, recalling the day’s a dventure. It was a laughable, memorable occasion. Being sheltered by the contour banks of sand and shrubs, we had a warmish night, and slept some of the time between yarns and, or, being told to shut up by other campers.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of tea and hamburgers while Brownie reckoned we should have told the bloke to ‘stick it’ due to his lousy accommodation, but the hunger pangs outweighed any such thoughts.

‘Touring’ the island on foot to the north, we came across a cove hiring out wind-surfers. Phil had been bursting to have a go on one of these and forked out a couple of dollars for the hire, a two-minute lesson, and away he went. With a few minor hiccups, and only falling off the board two or three times, he soon mastered the art of staying upright. An easy breeze pushed him slowly out to sea, until we eventually noticed that Phil had almost disappeared, and was barely a speck on the horizon. Steve, who had been having a swim, became worried and told the bloke in charge of our mate’s plight, and that we had to have him back in time to board the ferry at ten o’clock.

Phil and his ski were picked up in a small runabout and returned to the beach. He had a rather inane smile on his face as he walked to where we were waiting. Apparently his rescuer had made some unsavory comment about bushwhackers not knowing what they were doing. Phil’s only complaint was that he hadn’t been shown how to turn the damned thing around to come back. The wind just kept blowing him away. We found the boat ride back to Australia full of surprises as we cruised the islands and bays with a surprise stopover at what looked like a lighthouse sunk in the ocean. It was an underwater observatory. While supplies were being unloaded, Brownie and I joined other passengers who were allowed to go down below to ‘observe’ the fish that were supposed to be ‘observing’ us from the other side of thick glass panels. No fish!

“Ripped off again!” from Brownie.

I saw no need for complaint and, being a non-swimmer, I thought it was a great bonus being sixty foot under water and still able to breath. “Just like everywhere you go,” said Brownie; “it’s just another bloody tourist shop, full of souvenirs and bloody rubbish! Look at this boomerang, will ya? The Dog on the bloody Tucker Box!”

Disappointed in not seeing any fish we thought it better to return to the top deck, the two younger blokes hadn’t followed us below. When we reached the metal parapet that encircled the building just above water level, we discovered plenty of fish; Phil and Steve had tossed half the days order of fresh bread overboard to feed them. No wonder we didn’t see any below decks.

“Bloody Hell!” exclaimed Brownie dropping his head and bolting back on board the ferry. “They’ll get a bloke hanged, they will! They’ll get us all hanged! I knew I shouldn’t have come!”

The trip home is another story, but that defies telling at this time. The sun shone for the next four weeks and we had our heads down and our tails up carrying a bumper crop into the local silos. It was a good harvest after all.

Yarns to Read