The lad had caught the bus from Queenstown to Zeehan to join the Westcoaster, the mixed passenger/freight service run by the Emu Bay Railway Company between Zeeehan and Burnie on Tasmania’s North Coast.
The sixteen year old had stayed the night before in Queenstown. Now very short of money at the end of his trip, he had found the cheapest hotel that he could. It was an odd place; the first floor room was small with a rickety old bed, while the bathroom and toilet for the floor actually stuck out at the back of the hotel with large gaps in the wall between the planks providing an expectedly panoramic view of the town.
Queenstown had fascinated him. The raw buildings, the moonlike landscape created by tree felling and pollution, the very sights and sounds of the town, had all exercised a powerful attraction. While he couldn’t afford it, he had spent some of his last money on a guided tour of the Mount Lyell mine workings, one of Australia’s best known mines.
The bus run to Zeehan and Zeehan itself had also interested the lad. Zeehan was like a faded lady whose better times were marked by some grand old buildings now separated by empty paddocks and decay. He found out later that the town had once had a population of 10,000, then rivaling Launceston and Hobart in size.
The lad had grown up in a mining area, and was used to mining ghost towns such as Hillgrove. There he and his brother had clambered all over the workings and played with the old mining equipment. However, West Coast Tasmania was different because of the scale of the remains.
Hillgrove had been quite a big place and for some time. More than 3,000 people had lived there. There had been four churches, six hotels, two schools, a school of arts, a hospital, several banks, a stock exchange, a court house, police station, a technical college, debating society, a temperance league and a cordial factory. The town had its own local paper and was lit by the first hydro-electric plant in Australia.
All that had long gone when the boys first visited Hillgrove, leaving mainly the decaying mining workings and treatment plants. Hillgrove’s closeness to nearby Armidale was part of the reason for the town’s disappearance. Houses had been picked up holus bolus and shipped to Armidale, while other buildings had provided building materials for a growing Armidale.
The lad had wanted to travel on the Emu Bay Railway for some time. Earlier he had acquired a fascination with the stock exchange and its companies. One of those was the Emu Bay Railway, Australia’s only listed private railway. The lad had even tried to buy shares in the company, lured in some way by the notion of the US railway barons that had featured so strongly in some of the books that he had read. Ideas of taking over the railway and in some way building a personal railway empire had toyed with his imagination.
The lad was excited when he joined the train, looking forward to the trip and the wild country that could only then be seen by train. Sadly, lack of sleep from the night before caught up with him, and in the warmth of the train he slept most of the way.
Burnie was a much bigger place than the lad had expected. He decided to sleep out to save money, and found a place in a park near the water. There he put his pack against a tree and got out his sleeping bag to sit on. “You can’t sleep there, dear,” a woman walking her dog in the late afternoon told him. “The police patrol this park, and you will be arrested. There is a camping area just down the road.”
“Bloody civilization”, the lad thought. He put his sleeping bag and groundsheet back in his pack, and decided to wait until dark. In a way, that (waiting) had been a feature of his trip; waiting for lifts, waiting for youth hostels to open, sometimes just waiting for something to happen.
Carrying his pack along the back roads waiting for the next car, he had taken to singing songs from his childhood. “I will go a wandering” was somehow especially satisfying. On those roads, the issues of loneliness or where to stay weren’t so bad. Even though he didn’t have a tent, he had his sleeping bag and knew how to light a fire.
Ideas such as stranger danger and the whole paraphernalia of risk avoidance still lay well in the future. The lad wasn’t oblivious to personal danger – he had taken some pretty hairy hitches – but here in Burnie he wasn’t worried about personal safety at all beyond any risk posed by the police. It was more that he could neither sing nor light a fire. He just had to wait.
With dark, he picked up his pack and walked down the road to find the camping area. He could see no-one, so stepped over the low hedge and found a spot to camp. After the long day, he went to sleep immediately.
It was only waking in the grey light of dawn that the lad realised that he actually had done something silly. Even though the park was largely deserted, it was a caravan park. He had slept on green grass near a green hedge in a green sleeping bag. If a car or van had arrived, they would never have seen him.
Looking around in the dawn light, there was non-one stirring. Quickly re-packing his gear, the lad left the caravan park to find a public toilet he had seen the day before. There he cleaned himself up and started along the road out of town. He was very hungry, but decided to keep the remaining food in his pack until he could find a place to camp.