Highway to Nowhere: Working with Madmen & Mice

Australia is an expensive country. Getting a job is critical if you really want to enjoy an extended period there, otherwise you’ll never stop worrying about money. We arrived from Asia having overspent, credit card bills loomed and the safety net of my overdraft was no more.

To our horror, there was no hope for our plans of diving straight into harvest work to secure a second year visa, as nothing was in season around Western Australia for another 6-8 weeks.
Many job agencies told us having a car would boost our chances, yet our dwindling bank accounts winced at the notion.It was a risky gamble so early on in the year, but we needed jobs. We would literally do anything.

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We were as close as a thumb-to-a-curled-index-finger away from buying a car when a job offer appeared. The two of us could save about $500 a week working in a roadhouse for the next few months, with food & accommodation provided. Fruit picking for a second year visa was but a distant dream at that time; this was our only option.

That’s how we ended up at The Wedgetail Inn in Cocklebiddy. A roadhouse truck-stop on the Nullarbor Highway – the longest road in Australia, connecting Perth to Melbourne on a stretch of 10 million miles.

Committing to three months before you’ve set foot in one of these places is easy said, but the harsh reality of things can really sink in quick.
Indeed I began to wonder what we were getting ourselves into as we started the long journey from Perth, through mining towns in Kalgoorlie, beyond the desolate and further into nowhere to assemble with a few other lost souls destined for various roadhouses along the highway.

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Confidence in our decision didn’t exactly surge through the roof when the roadhouse boss, Mags, a middle-aged Maori woman filled the void on the straight and narrow by regaling us with the tale of her personal odyssey from her motherland to the great Australian outback on a quest she accepted from her dead grandfather in a dream. Apparently, now her mission was complete, she had resigned to life on the highway. I was never able to figure out exactly why that was the prize she accepted.

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It’s remote, it’s dull, it’s eerily quiet. There isn’t another stop on the highway for an hour in either direction, just sand and bush as far as the eye can see.
There are no other backpackers or like-minded travellers, except for the rare group that might pass through but aside from a quick hello and fleeting look of lust as the young blondes disappear into their camper van and vanish in a cloud of dust, there is nobody else. Of course, there are fellow staff members and occasional customers, but you certainly won’t make too many Facebook friends working in a roadhouse!

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Ostensibly, it’s like revolving doors for staff in these places, which is hardly surprising. Some last just a few days but there are veterans on the scene who move between roadhouses, perfectly content with life in the middle of nowhere, cut off from civilization.

Reduced to three television channels, in a land where internet access is expensive and unreliable and mobile phone reception is but an urban myth, we are off the radar. Like a pregnant teenager, the newspapers and magazines in Cocklebiddy are a few weeks late and even then they still don’t have a clue what’s going on as they are too obsessed with celebrity gossip.

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The staff residences are a complex of mobile homes out the back of the property and on many a dull and dusty afternoon, I pondered upon life with Tammy and Vicky as they enjoyed the sunshine with their huge dog.
The middle-aged lesbian couple with the braided hair and spiritual ambiance radiating from their mobile home offered profound insight into the world amid their tales of hiking through Bolivian jungles and volunteering in war-torn regions.

They were about the only two who didn’t drink, which didn’t matter much as the rest of the staff drank enough for everyone.

As the youngest inhabitants at the roadhouse, we found ourselves hearing tales from old-timers who had walked some very strange paths over the years. One Kiwi man frequented Bali on his time off and was an unapologetic racist and cranky drunk, which was a ticking timebomb whenever a new temporary manager was hired in lieu of Mags’s relocation and had the audacity to show up as an African-American.
The cranky Kiwi was less than impressed on the new arrangement. Luckily, the Alabama native was not only the size of house, but had a history of roughing up drug-dealing gangsters in the name of God and therefore had no qualms about delivering his own gospel truths in the face of drunken vitriol. It only took one drunken argument for people to learn their place.

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Another veteran was estranged from his family and like a lonely grandfather he spent most mornings milling around the yard, tinkering with all manner of objects that needed maintenance before drinking himself to sleep by early afternoon.
In the kitchen, a young Asian woman by the name of Ocean provided some comic relief with her bizarre laugh that could be heard from very far away. Believe me, I tested it and there was no escaping the awkwardness that unsettling avian honk cast over any room.

The head chef, Dave, was embittered about losing his business in a squabble with a former business partner, though after enough beer his story apportioned blame to an earthquake. Then of course there was Mags, the Maori Queen, who could somehow encapsulate an audience with a spooky dark aura as she sucked everyone into a mystical conversation that plunged to depths nobody was ever ready for at 6pm.

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On the journey here, the inimitable Mags informed us that there was a ‘bit of mouse problem’.

The extent of the problem became immediately evident at the sight of six or seven bodies strewn across the front entrance on the night we arrived, as well as the few that were running for their lives to escape the clutches of the wild feline hot on their tails.

Before this, the sight of a mouse in the home was a rare occurrence that inevitably became the talk of the table for about a week as regular updates of the most recent sighting filtered down the family pipeline whenever the lesser-spotted Irish field-mouse dared to pop his head out from behind the skirting board.

The episode would provoke a cleaning frenzy that would see ancient pots and pans arise from the lower depths of the cupboards for the first time in many moons, only to be blitzed with hot water and fairy liquid before being banished back to the far reaches of outer storage. The creature’s eventual demise would signal the end of mouse season and he may even be lucky enough to have a funeral or at least earn a sorrowful look from his captor before being launched seventy foot into the air across the back fields to his final resting place.

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At Cocklebiddy, things couldn’t be more different.The novelty of seeing a mouse wore off quick as we became accustomed to them appearing everywhere; and I mean everywhere! From the bins to the bookshelves, if they could climb it, they were on it or in it.

Chicken wire was no obstacle, proving futile in the defense of the birds, eventually leading to the savage murders of two quails. I would later lose one of the quails while cleaning out the cages. With the mice already suspected, I framed a third murder on them and with no body found for identification, I was quite successful.

The most horrifying sight was seeing hoards of the furry marauders scurry for cover when you walked into the kitchen. The worktops, chopping boards, sinks and cutlery were all tarnished – nothing was sacred to them.

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My first pet was a hamster. I originally wanted a mouse only to learn that hamsters were much better suited as pets, almost like the premier line of domestic rodents. Sadly, they only have a short lifespan so it was quite a shock when I found old FiFi all rigid and motionless one evening.

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At first, I secretly helped the mice by saving a few drowning ones I found swimming in a bucket.But as time wore on, the red mist descended and I became like everyone else; a cold, heartless killer.

Cheekier than the Irish field-mouse, this was a daring breed that knew no bounds and when they invaded my room, I could take no more.

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Yes indeed, when you get rudely awakened by a mouse running over your face once it can test your patience. When they wake you five nights in a row, creeping around your floor, rustling in your bin, crawling up the side of your blanket in the dark and running under your pillow and over your outstretched fingertips, it certainly makes you reconsider your feelings towards the little creatures.

FiFi would have turned in her grave to see me then, smashing her cousin’s skulls in with a flip-flop in a midnight rage. Setting traps to lure live ones to a water bucket and sneaking up on others with a mallet to finish the job the mind-warping poison had started.

In Cocklebiddy, it’s war. It’s Man v Mouse.

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