I spent a lot of time in the outback, during the bicentenary, researching Around the Pubs for ABC-2CR. About 100 kilometres from Bourke there is a distinct change in the road noise. It reaches levels compatible with the output of the local radio station. Passengers think it is engine failure at illegal speeds.
At the Tilpa pub, Lizard McGinnis, last of Australia’s professional goanna drovers, accepted a beer and told me how the noise came about.

Back in the 1970s there was a big demand for goanna oil. The Chinese couldn’t get enough of it. The price was good. This was before the greenies got in and pushed for Tea Tree Oil.

Two blokes from Byrock drove a small mob of goannas to the Bourke Meatworks during one of its regular closures. They got a special licence to process them there and made big money. Shortly afterwards Old Dad Walsh and his sons, Tadpole and Frog, were rounding up the goannas around Coolabah. They spent weeks camping out in the mulga. It was mid summer, the best time to find goannas.

While building up the mob they held them in the old shearing shed at Rocky Tank. They fattened them on egg powder, Whiskas Dry and pacified them with Valium. Old Dad spent every cent of the boys’ pocket money, the money in Dot’s cake tin and most of his pension on those goannas.

On the big day, Tad and Frog had trouble moving the mob. The Valium made the goannas slow and stupid. They tended to circle. The boys had motorbikes, sheep dogs, fox terriers, daschunds – even ferrets, to get them out of burrows and cats, to frighten them out of trees, but the goannas just circled. Old Dad swore terrible swears – at the dogs, the goannas and his offspring.

That did it. Tadpole tore off and came back in his ute with a chook crate full of his mother’s laying hens. At the sound of a cackle the goannas steadied, flicked their tongues and followed the chook crate.

They were on the move at last, but the goannas started to dehydrate. Valium dried them out. Their tongues were dragging in the dust. The boys had to get them to water or all was lost. The closest was Red Tank, on the other side of the Highway between Coolabah and Byrock.

It was a terrible hot summer that year. The bitumen melted. It was all right to drive over but the goanna’s claws (which make very good back scratchers for Oriental gentlemen) stuck. Old Dad and his crew, found themselves in a very sticky situation, with over a thousand perishing goannas leapfrogging over each other and bogging in the Mitchell Highway.

Thankfully, not much has been heard of this goanna drive because the army was in the middle of Operation Mulga. A column of lost tanks and personnel carriers roared out through the dust haze. The highway, which they were not allowed to cross, was completely camouflaged by yellow and black goannas – and they flattened the lot.

The highway was a mess. Vehicles slipped off and a detour had to be graded around the area. Dad, Tad and Frog slipped back into the mulga and spent a couple of weeks living on egg powder, Whiskas Dry and Valium.

Lizard said that it was impossible to remove the goanna oil, forcing the Department of Main Roads to resurface with heavy metal to give tyre grip.

That’s what causes the noise.

© Peter Dargin – 1998