“Terror on the Roper…”
During the monsoon rains that drenched the Northern Territory, our speedboat became our sole mode of transportation. The wet season, from December through February, caused dirt roads to become impassable and brought with it an obligatory time of leisure at Outback cattle stations.
One beautiful, sunny morning during this forced vacation, four of us, including my seven-month-old son, Philip, set out to visit the policeman and his family at Roper Bar. My husband played “captain” while Manolo, a young Mexican man that worked on the station, decided to ski all the way to the policeman’s place, thirty-five miles. The Roper River, a tidal river, was very navigable during high tide. At low tide, boats had to avoid rock formations hidden below the surface of the murky water. If hit, the rocks posed a serious danger even to small boats like ours.
On our way to Roper Bar, we passed a small island with the skeleton remains of a small barge that had hit a rock bar by the island several years before. The wreckage looked like a scene from The Flying Dutchman.
We arrived at Roper Bar around noon. The men went on the grog, even before we ate a late lunch.
The men continued on the grog until it was time to leave around 6:00 pm. Then Manolo and my husband stumbled into the speedboat. Wondering if Philip and I would be safe, I offered to steer the boat home, but was quickly rebuked. On the riverbank, the policeman, leaning heavily on his wife, slurred his words while yelling, “With low tide, remember the rocks at Wrecked Barge Island. Left. Left.”
Feeling apprehensive, I held Philip tightly in my arms. Within twenty minutes, the island came into view. The two men debated if the policeman meant left was the side to take or the side to avoid. Manolo, the more sober one, suggested slowing down the boat, just in case.
The island, fast approaching, gave but one opportunity to maneuver – the right side.
With a loud bang, the boat went airborne, bounced, and almost capsized when we hit the rocks again. The men, both at the front, lost their balance and fell. I was knocked off my seat. Still holding my son tightly, I pulled myself to the edge and looked over the side. We’d landed on jagged rocks.
The outboard motor had taken a huge hit. Still attached to the back of the boat, it stretched out horizontally about two feet above the water.
Manolo grabbed the half roof covering the front and pulled himself up to survey the damage. Our captain slowly stood and looked at the rocks the boat had come to rest on.
“Take a look at the motor,” I said.
Both men walked to the back, and with their shifting weight the boat groaned as the metal bottom was displaced on the rocks beneath us. The boat rocked before settling again. The thought that we’d have to abandon ship and swim to shore terrified me, and I imagined crocodiles waiting for us just beneath the murky surface, like the rock bar had.
The men worked on the motor for what seemed like an eternity. My son became impatient and I spoke to him in as soothing a voice as I could muster. Both men climbed out onto the rocks slipping, sliding, and cussing. Holding onto the frame, they managed to get to the front where they pushed the boat backwards, disentangling us from the rocks. The whole time, I could feel the level of water slowly creeping up to my ankles. It was dark now, making everything scarier.
They climbed in and miraculously started the motor. It sounded tinny, as if the motor was missing, but it was working. Our captain maneuvered us safely around the left side of the island. Everyone was somber and quiet. When I told them the water level inside the boat was increasing, Manolo took a bucket and started filling it to throw the water over the side.
We continued our trip home without speaking. Even my son, perhaps sensing the mood, remained quiet. As for the men, the incident had sobered them up.
Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving!
If your book club enjoys either in-person or Zoom visits from authors, I am always pleased to join your club for a chat about one of my books, my life in the Outback, or a history on the development of the novel (with emphasis on the mystery novel). You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 609-439-2509. Most presentations are 30-35 minutes in length and each one is tailored to the audience.
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All photographs are used in an editorial or educational manner.
“Tropical River Landscape by Home For The Harvest” is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Adrift on a sea of grass” -15 by Plbmak is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
My blog on Australia is based on recollections of my life in the Outback as a young adult.
My own photographs of Australia are not only limited, but they are also old 35mm film in dismal condition. To make the series more appealing to the reader, I supplement with photographs that are similar to the experiences and locations I’ve described. I’m often dependent on pictures from the public domain and Creative Commons.
Note: Names of some people have been changed to protect their identity since this is not a memoir, but merely my recollections of Australia. The name of the cattle station where I lived was known as either St. Vidgeon’s or St. Vigeons. I use the first spelling in most cases, but on occasion, the second one comes in handy.