In the Australian outback, 40 kilometres from Cloncurry, there is a rough, stony track that leaves the highway and winds raggedly up through the Sawback Ranges.
My stomach churned as the vehicle jolted over the iron-red dirt. Granite boulders, their topsoil-cover washed away by flood, protruded at impossible angles from the road; I winced as the Toyota scraped over them. Sometimes, one or even two wheels lifted off the ground. As the vehicle tilted, I gazed nervously at the 60 meter drop down the side of the mountain. I felt sure, at any moment, the vehicle was going to tip, then slide sluggishly down the incline.
It was 1988, and we were driving to Bagman’s Rest, the home of an old prospector who scratched a living from a small copper mine nearby. Friends of Mr Catch had heard about the old-timer and, being mining engineers in a large company, they were fascinated by a sole operator. Mr Catch was fascinated by the extreme 4-wheel driving required; he took years off my life that day.
After many twists and turns, we arrived at a lean-to shack. Ancient mining equipment lay rusting; broken furniture was stacked haphazardly along a wall. The Bagman, as he was known, came out to greet us. He was an elderly, white-haired gentleman with rheumy eyes, cloudy with cataracts. A battered felt hat sat crookedly on his head, and his clothes were thin with wear. He offered us tea from his billy, then settled himself into a broken office chair to begin business.
‘Business’, apart from his mine, was selling Maltese Crosses to visitors. I have long lost the ones we bought that day, but here’s a picture from Google University to show you what they’re like.
The crosses occur naturally. They are formed of staurolite, a mineral that commonly crystallises in a twin prism shape, forming a cross. The Bagman collected them, cleaned them up, and set them out for sale on his ‘display’ table. You can see him seated, as we fossick through his piles of rocks.
Of course, the engineers had to investigate the mine. It was a hole in the earth that seemed barely big enough to fit a child, let alone a man. The vertical tunnel dropped off rapidly into black nothingness. I could not imagine having to enter it every day, yet, apart from the pittance he made selling the crosses, the Bagman’s entire livelihood depended on exactly that.
He was what was called a ‘gouger’. After a mine began to play out, it would became uneconomical for a large mining company to operate. Independent miners (aka ‘gougers’) would then lease the mine for a pittance and work the left-overs. Sometimes, they were lucky; mostly, they were not.
There was a conversation about extraction processes, but the Bagman tired quickly, and had to return to sit. He had survived out here in the wilderness for many, many years and it showed in the rough redness of his skin, the dirt thickly ingrained under his nails. His camp had few of the comforts and conveniences we take for granted, and from what I could see of his packing-case pantry, he subsisted on tea, corn meat, damper, biscuits and a good dash of rum. Vegetables and fresh fruit were non-existent.
The area is dotted with graves of miners. It’s a dangerous life. The photo below shows the resting place of Thomas Tame, a 37-year-old miner who emigrated from Berkshire, England. The story is that explosives were set off while everyone was having ‘smoko’ (tea break). Afterwards, the miners came back to work the rubble, thinking the air below had cleared. Thomas went down first, but there was still gas around and all attempts to save him failed. He had been in Queensland for 4 years.
Traditionally, the graves of miners are marked with a shovel. You can still see Thomas’s, nailed to the tree beside his headstone.
The Bagman would be long dead now too. I wonder what happened when he died. Did he just lie down in his camp bed one night and not get up again? Did someone come to buy his crosses and find him slumped in his chair? Or, maybe he was down in his tunnel and never surfaced.
He lived such a hard life, yet that day, despite his age and obvious associated discomforts, he looked happy. He sat, urging us to drink countless pannikins of his billy tea, chewing gummily on Arnotts ‘Nice’ biscuits, and chatting to us. Sometimes he fell silent, and gazed sightlessly into the distant hills. I wonder what he was thinking.
It is incomprehensible to me that an individual would choose to spend their life in such a harsh and unforgiving environment. I wish I had thought to ask the Bagman why he stayed. I wish I had taken his photo, or written down some of the stories that he told us. Even why he was known as the ‘Bagman’.
When you’re young, you often don’t recognise unique opportunities.
Such a shame.