‘We are not flash, but we are f’n frienly’.
So is the greeting to the Olary pub, scrawled on a chair by the front door. Olary is a glimpse of a railway station, a house built of eternal desert stone and of dubious occupancy, and the pub. It lies on the edge of the Eyre Basin in central Australia, in one of the driest regions on earth. A couple of carefully watered trees stand out front, beacons in the midst of the saltbush and red earth.
Tentatively we pull up, tentatively we walk in.
The publican – Sam is his name – sports a greying black and curly mullet, a beer gut and limp. His days of motorcycle sidecar racing are well behind him, the fading photos and trophies proudly displayed.
‘Have you got a room?’ I ask.
‘Double?’ he says.
He looks me up and down, as if to ascertain how much I would cough up without too much complaint. ‘75 dollars’.
‘OK, sounds good’, I say uncharacteristically. It would be worth every cent and more.
We are led through a door that sticks, past a dog blanket and feed bowl and a sign on a small cupboard full of electrical matters that reads, ‘Leave this f—n alone. Staff only!’ Obviously a theme here, linguistically speaking.
We come into a small courtyard, with drooping, leaking roof and tables festooned with ashtrays. From the courtyard, low doors lead into the rooms. The honeymoon suite is ours, so named due to the rare double bed. Once upon a time the carpet had been vacuumed, the bedside table wiped. At least the sheets are cleanish. And after a long, weary journey, the bed would turn out to be more comfortable than some obnoxious penthouse in a five-star city hotel.
A key? Hardly. Doors remain unlocked, open in fact.
Our fellow lodgers include a miner who emerges from the shower, grasping a towel around his waist and bellowing about the absent hot water. Beside him dwells a German backpacker, a young woman here for three month’s work and experiences away from the usual. She works the bar, assists in the kitchen, bumps and grinds to the music with a very buxom Marge, Sam’s partner.
Out the back are the obligatory dogs who love to bark threateningly.
‘They’ll lick you to death’, says Sam.
And there is Wally the galah.
‘He can swear in Ukrainian, Korean and he’s learning to swear in German’, says Sam. ‘Fell out of a tree out the front 18 months ago’.
Wally also bites, dances and coughs gingerly while turning his head away. We try to teach him a few Danish swear words.
Back at the bar a few locals nurse their drinks. Two wizened bikie types, all grey pony tails and beards and worn leather jackets, talk endlessly and twinkle. A quiet, somewhat solid couple are perched on stools at the end of the bar, she with massive glasses and lipstick, he with some decent stubble and impressive lower lip.
A woman impossible to describe walks – no jingles – her way through the front door. From every conceivable loop of her ‘youthful’ clothes hang all manner of items: chains, keys, lighters, small fluffy toys, satchels, pieces of brightly-coloured cloth, cigarette packets … Framed by red hair plaited in all manner of patterns is a worn face that speaks of impressive devotion to all manner of substances against doctors constantly warn us. Well known to all, she chatters, pokes the wood fire, flits here and there. A perpetual motion machine.
A truck full of young people arrives, three young men and a woman. By now my doubts about how a pub like this makes a living have well and truly dissipated. People are prepared to come from far and wide, although it helps that the pub is about all there is in a wide radius.
A family of half a dozen or more enter. The centre of attention is a baby barely born. Obviously rules about children at the bar are relaxed a little here. They are here to celebrate the birth, with wider family visiting from afar.
Soon the baby goes ‘on the tit’, as his father observes poetically. Everyone is suddenly reminded of hunger. Automatically repressing the urge to follow the baby’s example, the kitchen is suddenly inundated with orders. Over the next while, they produce culinary masterpieces such as fish and chips, massive steaks, veal or chicken schnitzel, surrounded by chips, vegies or even salad.
The father asks us of our journey, whither and whence. Boots planted wide, beer perched on impressive barrel chest, hair slightly greying, he towers above us as we sit on the worn couch. But I am more interested in how they make a living.
‘Sheep’, he says. ‘Won’t make you rich’. It is indeed on the edge of remotely viable agricultural land.
‘Are you born and bred local’, I ask.
‘Nah’, he says. ‘From over Wilcannia way, where I’ve got friends. But I always dreamed of owning my own sheep farm, from when I was a kid. Worked on farms here and there for a few years, doing the same thing’.
‘What about roos?’ I ask.
‘Professional cullers with quotas deal with some of those’, he says. ‘They export a lot of roo meat’.
‘Export?’ I say. ‘Where?’
‘They love it in China’, he says. ‘Can’t figure than one out. But if the orders stop, we get heaps of roos. Buggers’.
‘How do you manage all the goats,’ I ask. ‘Noticed them last time I was through, but not before’.
‘The ferals?’ He says. ‘We round ‘em up, stick ‘em on a ship. Last time we got about 1200. Good prices too. They’re pretty versatile buggers. Can survive on nothin’ much. Not like sheep’.
Assuming he is still speaking of goats and not some right-wing political types, I ask: ‘Who buys feral goats?’
‘Saudi Arabia’, he says. ‘We send shiploads of live goats to Saudi Arabia. They must like them, since it’s not cheap to ship a live goat half way around the world’.
From one desert to another.
But deserts are cold in winter, with decent frosts overnight. A warm bed beckons.