Off Season Odyssey – Part 30: A Legend Called Uzz

 

Shortcut, Gladstone.

The road winds, just right, through rolling hills and eucalypts. It’s beautifully empty other than the music in the deck and kilometre long coal trains that weave into and out of riding side-saddle with me. They look as if they were made with everything else: the volcanoes, the rocks. Natural.

I grew up in Melbourne’s West. The only thing I miss about it is the rattle and hum of steel, the rust and industry.

The fifth coal train in an hour passes, heading back towards Gladstone, where a massive container ship and China are waiting. The mining company is charged $8,000 per minute the train is late. Each ride is worth over $90,000 dollars to the railway.

Gradually, the hills give way to flat ground, vast pits, more trains, massive rucks and machinery. Everything is coal. The stuff that lights our streets, and fuels our hair driers. That powers our radio shows on which we protest about coal mining. That chokes the ozone and has replaced the sheep’s back. That starved off a Recession which buggered the rest of the world, and brought down a leader, and almost a Government, who dared ask the magnates to pay the people for it.

The stuff that feeds us, whether we are or aren’t happy about it.

Blackwater.

 

It’s dusk by the time I hit Blackwater. Its roads are a sea of utes. None of them clean, none of them new. Why bother? Everything in the back of each one is tied down, good and proper. We’re in the country, but his isn’t a country town. The cops here have no mercy, it isn’t afforded them. The setting sun is blocked by mountains of turned earth, conveyer belts and spider-like towers.

I’m entering big country.

 

Uzza greets me outside the house the mine’s renting for him and a few others. His crew of about four crush the coal. Everybody wants a job in the mines. It’s the modern gold rush. Every bit of it. To be invited back after leaving Uzza must go damn hard, be bloody good at it.

The drill often doesn’t function, so they get out of the machinery and do a lot of pick work. He’s massive compared to the kid I coached as a skinny 14year old. Uzza  was too young for that level, he never made noise, but never shirked anything. His quietness wasn’t shy, just his way. He always had wide eyes and a crooked grin when you cracked a joke with him.

I worked a lot on the same jobs as his Dad, Geoff, who built roads and bridges and, mostly, anything to do with heavy machinery.

“Old Dog!” Uzza grins. “You remember Chris?” he says of his big brother.

I do. A top bloke. We say g’day.

“You remember Matty?” I do. A mate of Uzza’s. “He’s working but will be back later.”

Matty’s Dad and Mum are out here, too. And another close friend. Apollo Bay was funny like that. One third stayed. One third embraced the transient, coastal attitude, spreading out, via the music festivals, drugs and parties, to take on the world through bands and backpacking. Proud as all hell they were living the dream, breathing adventures. Others, found hanging around the cement yard, the sort defined by work, like this small community, this family, within one of a dozen mining towns in a vast, never-ending mining country, moved to places like Blackwater.

It’s late, so we cut straight to the chase, and drink.

Uzza’s room is a cave. Not dirty, but with every bit of light blacked out, so when he has to sleep, he sleeps. The life of a shift worker.

“Tomorrow, we’ll do something,” I tell him.

 

Uzza!

 

   Next day, Uzza gives me a tour of the region, no real aim or direction, as if time both don’t exist and is perfect.

Nothing’s fancy in Blackwater. The shops are plain, there’s no pool or cinema. The bottle shop offers not one discount. The pizzas are basic. The mugs in Mugtown get paid lots, but rarely show it.

The real estate is stupid. Working class houses rent out at $2,000 a week even though they aren’t worth $200. Uzza tells me the richest person is the caravan park owner. He charges $90 per person, per night, four miners for every cramped little fibro cabin. Camps, they call them.

“I’m on the list. Can’t wait to move into one,” Uzza says.

“You serious?” I protest. “You’ve got your own place. Paid for!”

“Yeah, but in the camps they do your washing and make food for ya!”

I watch him as we drive and talk shit. He digs it, mining. All of it.

“Not many people who come here with the plan to make a fortune and get out, go the distance,” he tells me.

 

We hit the real road as if it’s all lazy and waiting for us, check out the floodwaters, the washed away roads, the mines, each owned by different companies. The scale of it is mindboggling. Some coal shelves go 100s of meters deep, others stretch kilometres.

Queensland floodwaters. Standing on the road.

 

“Is there a local footy team?” I ask.

“Nah! No way! I’d play if there was, but everybody here is from N.S.W., or a Kiwi.”

“You’re solid now, Uzza. Thought about playing Rugby? Is there a club?”

“Yeah, but fuck that! Jut a pack of meatheads!”

I wonder, as I try to crash a mine as if I got lost on a pre-season run and get chased out by security, how scared the other clubs are of playing Blackwater? When I get back to Uzza, waiting by the car, I ask.

He just makes a noise somewhere between a grunt and a laugh.

“There’s nothing but coal out here, Old Dog. Every club is made of miners. Emerald’s operations are huge compared to Blackwater.”

I try to picture it, each team, their players all a long way from home, all muscled out and sexually frustrated.

“Too bad it’s the off season. One of their games would be epic!” I tell him.

Run like you stole it!

 

We hit the Swinger’s Arms after dark with his brother and Matty, who, back on the Victorian Coast, worked in a chemist, processing photos. He was clean shaven, inside and out. Now he’s all stocky, with a beard, and a miner’s belly. It takes getting used to.

He’s shaved his head recently, and looks exactly like the short bloke from that movie, The Hangover.

At the end of each shift the boys are covered, head-to-toe, eyes, nostrils, throats and lungs, in coal powder and sweat. They washed it off before we came out, but it’s still there, in the way they walk and talk to each other. They drink two glasses of Whisky at a time, so I do, too, and we’re hammered.

Uzza can’t be stuffed with mining talk. That’s for work, what’s to say? “We went hard, the day was over.” He don’t bother with the politics of it, there are no women to chat up, apart from cute bargirls with names like Spoonqueen, who have heard it all. We just drink, spin fun shit and drink harder.

My drink’s’ on the right.

 

Someone told Uzza tonight was a pyjamas party theme, so he’s worn a cap shaped like an orange tiger.

“Take it off,” Matty tells him.

“Nah.”

“No-one else in here is dressed up.”

“The chick loved it!” Uzza laughs.

He doesn’t give a shit, and never did. Not even when he was a kid. He’ll do things Uzza’s way. I’m glad I came here.

“How do you cope with no footy?” I ask.

“I was going to play down the road, but that’s an hour and a half away. And that’s just the home games. Add shift work and it just wasn’t worth it.”

I reckon the town’s ripe. Wrong state, wrong people, but so what? Build a team, and they will come. You’d cop shit. The Rugby boys would hate you, but they do already.

I ask why, or, rather, why with such passion?

“Rugby fans are all Collingwood supporters,” Chris tells me.

 

Chris

 

Uzza’s taken to shouting. It’s somewhere between annoying and embarrassing. My 14 year old player, all grown up and carrying me.

“Relax, he does that with everyone,” Chris says.

“He’ll end up with nothing again,” Matty says, like fact.

“You serious?” I turn to Uzza. “At least tell me you’ve put some away?”

Uzza  gives a baffled little shrug.

“Then what do ya do with it?”

“Go places. Stuff. Had a girlfriend on the Gold Coast for a while.”

I shuffle off for a wander, join a few circles. Some blokes put their hard earned away, some are gut-busting family men, many simply seem to be here because it’s Blokesworld. Because here they can be Uzza’s age forever.

Because it’s a hard life, but an adventure. A new, Old School world to live and explore, not one bit less worthy than a backpacker’s. Instead of beach parties they have foam nights, or go bush bashing, make their own amusement.

Like the backpackers, they have their own language.

“Not many people visit Blackwater,” Matty tells me. They know I like it here.

“Why don’t you come work, Old Dog?” Uzza asks.

It’s a good question. When I work, I’d rather go hard, not have a life. Keep it simple.

“There’s no footy team,” I tell him.

“You’d sort that out,” he gives me that crooked grin of his. That ripper grin. He knows I’m a tragedy, that I’ve been thinking it.

 

We leave when they kick us out, tanked to the gills and happy. Mining isn’t hell for everyone. For some, like Uzza, for now at least, it’s a home, an identity.

A spreading of the wings and an adventure.

 

When Uzza, Matty and I stagger back to Uzza’s somewhere near 2am, I drop all the road signs I’ve been ‘collecting’, and shut the gate on them.

“Hey! Woh!” they protest, and I return with the footy. “Oh. Okay,” they wobble.

We lead and kick until we’re on grass somewhere. There’s no lighting. I can’t see the ball until it’s breaking my fingers.

“110%!” Uzza bellows, mimicking one of his later coaches.

“I’m the Sausage-Man!” Matty mimics another.

The ball bounces off my shoulder. I roost it into the dark.

It sounds like the two of them crash into each other. I hear two secondary thuds of hard earth and yelps of pain.

“110%!” thunders Uzza, holding a bleeding knee. “You ain’t going at 110% unless you’re running on a broken leg!!”

“I’m the Sausage-Man!” Matty calls, from the ground, as Uzza staggers to his feet, darting, with the pill, away from him. “Do it for me! It’s me! I’m the Sausage-Man!”

I try to catch Uzza, but all that muscle hasn’t stop him from being lightening quick. Damn, he’s fast!  I have one shot before his gone, so take it, swinging at him.

I miss by two meters.

“110%!” he calls, weaving into the dark again.

I can just make him out, trying to bounce, loosing it, and fumbling so much a nanny could catch him, but my head’s spinning.

“Do it for the Sausage-Man!” Matty wheezes, bashing into Uzza, belly first, like a kamikaze train.

“110%” moans Uzza.

I hear a voice from over one of the fences, say: “Someone’s having a kick?”

It must be 2 or 3am, but the bloke sounds well awake. Bored. There’s no sun underground. The mines never stop, there’s no proper hour for a lot of Blackwater. I notice he must have recognised the sound of a bouncing Aussie Rules football.

“Join in,” I say, on hands and knees. “Hell, replace us! You can have the footy.”

“Go to bed,” a wife’s voice tells us.

 

Next morning, the midgies are out in force. Tiny little bugs that bite any and everything. I sit in their discomfort, the heat and my hangover, looking at all the unkempt lawns. There’s something about that which appeals to me. What’s the point in mowing them? Why bother?

Everything in Blackwater – the mines, the utes, the pubs – is functional. It’s a shame there’s no footy.

 

Hit the showers!

Comments

  1. Skip of Skipton says:

    That waterfall photo is a ripper, Matt. Starman with a football. Eerie.

    Don’t worry about the lack of football (or rugby, soccer etc) in those parts. These blokes are there for the hard work and compensatory coin that is attached, then the piss and assosciated camaraderie, with a glimpse or more of Spoonqueen if they are good enough.

  2. John Harms says:

    Having grown up with rugby league, I reckon the boys are a bit tough on the league culture. I agree that it is blokey, but it wins the same sort of commitment to the common cause, and the game played well is terrific. It has been modified a lot in recent times which has ripped at its heart, but the heart is stil there.

    Another terrific yarn. I hope you just keep driving forever.

  3. Matt Zurbo says:

    Skip, are you saying there’s more than one kind of sport? Haha!

    John, thanks mate. Don’t get me wrong. I am a HUGE fan of Rugby. League more than Union. And any poison is good poison, as long as there is something pumping through your veins. My pioson is Aussie Rules, is all.

  4. Stephen Cooke says:

    Matt, I had 15 months in Emerald, down the road. Had a night out in Blackwater, danced on the dance floor bare foot until the bouncer told me it was unsafe. He was fine when I put my things back on though. The Emerald Saints AFL team closed the season before I got there after the league played 15 a side the year before. I played a season with the Capella Cattledogs rugby union side. Dead last that year, but won the flag last year because the boss of the local mine recruited ex state players to both the mine and the Cattledogs. Your yarn brought back some great memories

  5. Stephen Cooke says:

    Put my thongs back on, that should have said. (damn auto correct)

  6. Matt Zurbo says:

    Now Carrledogs!! There’s a club name!! Thanks Stephen, can picture it, for sure! Love the hard-hat!!! Haha!

  7. pamela sherpa says:

    I feel like I’m on a trip round round Australia going to all these amazing places and meeting these great characters when I read your reports Matt. Love the description of kicking the footy in the dark.

  8. Malby Danlges says:

    Great stuff Matty. enjoy how you always seem to fit in a good description of your kick to kick in your stories. Sherrin have a glow in the dark footy (it was in the papers down here) would be handy if you had one of those seeing that half your kick to kicks are in the dark!

  9. Rocket Nguyen says:

    Used to be a Central Highlands footy league in existence when I was living in Rocky in the early 90s…
    Teams in Emerald, Blackwater, Moranbah, Dysart, Middlemount.

    Recall seeing them play an inter-league game against Capricornia.

    Surprised if wasn’t still going with all the mining activity drawing workers from the south.
    Maybe they’re too busy making a big quid?

  10. Matt Zurbo says:

    Rocket, I am jealous. Would have been some ripper footy to watch. Nah, O asked around. The reason there is no-longer footy up there is the mines are dominated by Kiwis, and Northerners. It’s all rugby. Which is more than fair enough, but frustrating as all hell for people like Uzza. And me!

  11. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Enjoyable read as always love , Malbys idea of a glow in the dark sherrin mind you I have a feeling a few injuries would be a result of plenty of blokes having a kick when pissed . If any 1 could org and start a aussie rules comp up your the man old dog .
    Thanks Matt

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