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Hunting 'Crocodile Harry'
• John M. Edwards
“Ovah thah is a secret American base,” the Mad Max speed-demon driver drawled, sounding a little like Racer X from “Speed Racer,” pointing out at nothing at all, not even a domed animé mirage, under a cauliflower-colored sky. He stuck his tongue out, showing off his tattoo which resembled a cattle ranch brand of “F---- Off!”


We were laughing up a storm and racing across one of the largest (inland) beaches in the world: The Australian Outback. Racer X added, “The secret base? We’ve been hired to paint it!”
Secret? Not anymore, I figured.
The other two workmen cobbers, blotto before noon, pulled the tabs of their Emus and laughed like their beds were burning.

My galpal and I were catching a ride with this motley crew of Aussies on our way to Coober Pedy, one of the largest opal-mining towns in the world. There, most residents live underground, in caves, to avoid dying of heatstroke: the number-one killer in this Spinifex-grass-fringed emptiness. Our goal was to hitchhike the 518 miles from Adelaide to Coober Pedy in only one day—across one of the island-continent’s harshest Outback landscapes. Running low on funds, we planned to pick up fire opals to sell in Sydney. At the speed we were going we would get there in no time.

Turning off onto a “metal road” (gravel path), the Ozzies dropped us off at a road station made up of a hotel and petrol pump. They also handed us vegemite sandwiches: soggy-looking things, much worse than Wonder Bread, with a yeasty midnight- oil filling resembling spread tar, and tasting like it too. Landing at this oasis for autos was surely better than languishing roadside in the hellish blistering sun.

Entering the bar filled with tattooed road warriors, miners, truckies, drifters, and prozzies, we asked around for rides.
No dice.
Then we waited outside on the off chance that a passing “road train” would take us the rest of the way.

A couple of hours later, wild-eyed Bruce and Sheila (not their real names) emerged towing two toddlers and two cases of Queensland XXXX beer--(even though we were way out in South Australia: sacrilege!)--over to their Holden station wagon.
“Please, are you going to Coober Pedy? We’re stu-uck here!?” I asked with a quaver.
“Ya need a lift? No worries, mate, hop in!”
Off we went.

Clearly, Bruce ran on heavy fuel, guzzling beer after beer after beer. Once, I looked over and Bruce was no longer there—or at least his head was not. It was buried under the dashboard, while he rummaged around for party tapes.
“I-I-I’ll get those, which tape do you want?!” I intercepted, trying to keep Bruce’s eyes on the road and hands on the rubbery wheel.
“She’ll be roit!” Bruce replied, seeming to enjoy my discomfort. Aussies delight in messing with SEPOs (Australian slang for “Septic Tank Yanks"). “At least you are not a bloody POM!” This is slang for anyone British.

Darkness set in.
The bunged-up automobile’s headlights only worked when Bruce held down the lever. With the BeeGees blasting, and Sheila singing along--“Oh, the night fevah, night fevah-ha!”--the headlights flashed on and off like disco strobes.
Worse, there was no “roo bar” to protect the front end of the auto, much less we. Maybe we would hit a Big Red kangaroo—a major cause of crashes out here in the Outback.

Hence, it soon unfolded that Bruce was rescuing Shelia from a violent dolebludger boyfriend to hide out in Darwin, a safe haven for obvious criminals throughout Australia. (What do you expect from a continent that started out as a prison colony?) The breaking news that Sheila was also a hopeless substance abuser didn’t bolster my confidence in Bruce’s driving.

Hours passed, with the beer cans adding up, as well as the fear of crashing. We wanted out, but there was nowhere to go.
Then, lights in the distance. Coober Pedy, at last!

We mumbled a quick goodbye without shaking hands, and then off we rushed to the strange youth hostel, located underground and in a cave.

Underground hostel In Coober Pedy, there are no houses per se, let alone regular hotels. Unearthed, I set off to not only discover underground residents who keep a steady room temperature against the blazing sun but also a character or three.

Hunting down the legendary Crocodile Harry, upon whom the Paul Hogan character “Crocodile Dundee” is loosely based, I find is not easy. It’s like trying to track down a cliché in an outdated dictionary of slang. But after asking around in the local restaurants--(mostly run by expat Greek and Yugoslav miners, one of whom told me that he would kill his own son if he found him using “narkles”)--I am introduced to, instead of a crazed genius, a pleasant and ordinary-seeming man.

Crocodile Harry is ready to let me sightsee his unique labyrinthine “dugout,” filled with strange passageways and apocalyptic carvings. The painted graffiti names and addresses of women he may or may not have seduced decorate the cavern walls.

Noticing the healed gash on his shoulder, “a bite from an Aboriginal woman,” though, I would guess that not all of his dates have been successful. Nor can all of his stories be believed.

Crocodile Harry claims his real name was Arvid Von Blumentals and that he was a Latvian baron who was forced out of his country by the Soviets after World War II. He captured the adventurous nickname when he worked as a crocodile hunter in Northern Australia, wrestling reptiles instead of athletic backpackers, before arriving in Coober Pedy in 1975.

Harry’s Cave House was used during the filming of “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” which includes a sculpture made of metallic trash called “The Orchestra.” During the surreal tour of statues and bric-a-brac I lost track of my girlfriend. But anyway, I took out my digital Canon and went click, click, click. After that, we wandered around an area pretty much empty, aside from a linguine of electric lines, laughing at our stupidity in coming here in the first place. Still, we shopped around and decided not to buy any fierce fire opals. Instead we found some very cheap sperm-colored opals, which would be easier to sell.

It is possible to occasionally find a big one just lying around, but on this trip we were unlikely to find any by “fossicking” (which I believe, but I’m not sure, is the term for looking around rocks lying on the ground).

Finally, on the morning of our due-date departure, we pulled on our backpacks and walked with equipoise and equilibrium towards the expensive bus that was to rescue us from this Mars-colored hellhole. We were as antsy as envelopes carrying cable bill without stamps on them. But then in the swirling red gust of Spinifex grass, resembling an algebraic equation or cloud of chromosomes, we spotted Bruce, Sheila, and the wan children wandering towards us on a dusty street.
We hid.

© John M. Edwards, March 2013

BIO: John M. Edwards is an NATJA award-winning writer.
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