Desert Dunnies, Redback Spiders & Willy Willies

Desert Dunnies, Redback Spiders & Willy Willies

Our favourite Aussie shares some fascinating stories and memoirs with ovf. This one is no exception. It’s a long read. But worth it.




Desert Dunnies, Redback Spiders & Willy Willies
Before I met my wife Ann my eldest brother had tried several times to get yours truly to go and look after his roadside garage in Menzies, Western Australia. He and his family had left Mount Magnet to take up a managerial position with the government’s gold mining interests in Kalgoorlie. But he was always on the lookout for personal ventures that would stand him in good stead in later years and, of course, generate extra income in the here and now. One of his little ‘ventures’ was in Menzies.

Menzies is 729 kilometres east of Perth and was named after the prospector Robert Menzies who found gold north of Kalgoorlie in 1894. The miners who rushed to the area were so grateful they named the town after him. Its boom period lasted just eleven years between 1894 and 1905. Today Menzies is little more than a main street and memories of past glories. In fact it was a ghost town when yours truly first visited in the early 1960s.

The journey from Perth to Menzies is roughly 9 hours drive from Perth along the Great Eastern Highway – which passes directly through Kalgoorlie. The road to the Goldfields is long and hot. But modern transport takes the pain out of such treks. Back in the early gold rush days it would have taken weeks by horse or on foot.

Menzies has a semi-arid climate and receives little rainfall. It is surrounded by desert, vegetation is in the form of scrubland, and tall trees hard to find. Summer temperatures soar into the 40s and can be very unpleasant if you are not used to it. But at night temperatures can plummet to be very cold. The contrast to the heat of the day does not escape you.

If one travels to the southeast of Menzies you enter the vast Goongarrie National Park with its extensive stands of mulga and mallee. It’s a place you venture into with a combination of the very best of modern day technology and the very best of local knowledge of an experienced Aboriginal tracker because the desert country is both isolated and difficult to access.

When I was finally persuaded to go to check out whether, or not I wanted to look after my brother’s interests in Menzies I was courting a young lady who was looking for a vocational change. She was not content to let me reconnoitre the potential opportunity by myself insisting she join me on the trip. After all, she stressed quite forcibly, it may be the change she was looking for. Her mother was clearly not for the idea. Her father just winked and gave a knowing smile.

In those days my car was a Hillman Mark IV. It was not the best vehicle to travel around outback Australia. But it would, and did do the job. We left Perth late one Friday night and camped around the half way point in a motel resembling the one seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. But when you’re tired almost any pillow will do. Did I say tired? If we weren’t that night, we were next morning. Ahem.

Upon arrival in Menzies we were greeted by my brother and the local publican. It was lunch time and, coincidently, lunch was being served in the pub across the road from my brother’s garage. Anybody and everybody from around the desert country seemed to time their respective journeys’ to be at the Menzies watering hole around noon. There were truckies with huge appetites to feed and monstrous thirsts to quench, local prospectors with smaller appetites and big thirsts, city slickers just in from the big smoke asking for a steak and salad plus G & Ts. Then there was the local constabulary who were pretending to be having lunch. In fact, it was later revealed, they were there to keep a close watch on all newcomers to town.

With the lunchtime repast done and dusted my brother wasted no time in showing us what we would be in for should we decide to make a career change. You know the stuff: inventory; bookkeeping; banking; ordering new stock; and so on.

Talk about culture shock. There was no resemblance whatsoever to garages in Perth. The building was an old colonial house built in the 1890s and consisted of two very small bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, a rear veranda serving as a laundry with a front room converted into the garage shop. The toilet was strategically placed about 50 metres away from the rear of the house and was a lone reminder of what was once referred to as ‘smelly alley’. Basically it was a small wooden framed structure covered with corrugated iron sheeting around the sides and shingles on the roof. Inside this desert dunny, also known as a thunderbox, was a wooden seat with a round hole in the middle which was anchored to either side of the toilet frame. Underneath the wooden seat was a round 20 litre can. The night cart contractor would empty such receptacles daily before daybreak. But during the day he owned and ran the general store.

Besides the daily visits by humans to attend to nature’s call there was, more often than not, other permanent residents in the form of redback spiders – with the female of the species being the most dangerous. Fortunately, no deaths have been recorded since the introduction of antivenene in the mid 1950s. Symptoms of being bitten are severe pain, sweating, particularly in the bite area, muscular weakness, nausea and vomiting. Not a very pleasant experience, to say the least. Some of the old timers would argue that it was not dissimilar to having a hangover.

The trick is to keep an eye out for the little critters.

Where was I? Oh yes, the…erm…garage – lock, stock and barrel.

It was around mid afternoon when a man wandered in from the desert to say he had run out of petrol about thirty kilometres north of town. My brother filled a ten litre jerry can with petrol and, with yours truly and girlfriend, took the man back to where his car was parked on the side of a bush track. The cost of the petrol was around $4, the mileage $60. That’s right folks, $60 – That’s $1 per kilometre return trip. What’s more, the money was paid up front before we left Menzies.

Now, amazing as it may seem, such incidents were not isolated. In fact, this was a big earner for my brother because there were many motorists who simply did not adhere to the golden rule of topping up the tank at each and every outback town or way-station. However, with the introduction of bigger engines the need to stop at such places diminished resulting in most of the smaller way-stations closing down – including my brother’s.

With the sun setting in the west it was time to wander across the road for dinner and drinks at the local watering hole. About four hours later we wobbled back across the road to hit the sack and get some kip. From the east we could hear the late summer thunderstorms getting louder and knew that somewhere in the several deserts Willy Willies would be dancing and skipping all over the place.

Whilst Willy Willies are larger than dust storms – sometimes referred to as dust devils, they are smaller than tornadoes – also known as twisters. Summer and desert thunderstorms go hand in hand with Willy Willies, and although they do not cause as much damage as tornadoes they can, and do cause alarm, fear and damage.

Our bedroom was cramped, the night air was still, hot and stifling. Even with the window open there was no respite. Our pillow talk was going just fine until the bed collapsed to one side. It seems my brother had omitted to mention that one corner of the bed had been propped up with house bricks, that any ‘unusual movement’ would result in its occupants ending up on the floor. Because we were somewhat inebriated it took an eternity to restore the bed by which time my girlfriend wanted to pay a penny. But there was no way she was going ‘out there’ on her own insisting I go with her to check for redback spiders, and to make sure no one else tried to use the dunny whilst she was in there.

So there I was, standing guard by a desert dunny under a clear night sky and full moon rising in the east. It was almost surreal.

My first recollection of that Willy Willie was hearing its familiar whooshing sound in the nearby desert and, like so many times before, casually scanned around to see which direction it was coming from. Then I spotted it coming in from a south easterly direction – a small whirlpool of dust and debris heading away from Menzies. There being no immediate danger to our lives and limbs I went back to my guard duties. But the mistake I made was to take my eye of that Willy Willie.

I did not notice the Willy Willie take a sharp north easterly turn and head straight towards where my girlfriend was…erm…paying a penny. All that I heard was a sharp thump, a lot of clattering and much screaming. By the time I had turned around that pall of dust and debris had lifted the corrugated sheeting and roof shingles from the dunny and was making its destructive way northwards. The timber structure was leaning badly, and my girlfriend was clinging onto the wooden seat for all her worth and screaming so loudly as to awaken my brother and nearby townsfolk.

After I had prised her white knuckled hands from the seat and consoled her as best I could she yelled at me that we were to leave for Perth at first light and that I must not, under the threat of dire consequences, tell anyone outside of Menzies what had happened that night.

So there you go. And if anybody asks, it wasn’t me who told you

See you later…

Barry Edge
Western Australia
November 21, 2003

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