Harvey had just turned 70 and was getting ready to head out on his own across hundreds of kilometres of sand dunes to a fabled wartime airstrip.
Leslie the 70-year-old retired Cockney carpenter was in a Cougar with Barbara waiting for a biopsy report on a skin cancer and getting ready to take few more steps and hormones in his transformation to a woman.
The Oasis Outback Caravan Park in Carnarvon turned up trumps when we popped in for a couple of nights for a bit of a scrub down. Vivacious Jackie greeted us, the grounds were lovely and the amenities better than many hotels.
Jackie and partner Gerard hooked up a few years back in NSW and 18 months later Gerard, from Thames in New Zealand, mentioned he wouldn’t mind travelling around Australia. Six weeks later they were on their way on a working tour they expected to take two years.
They worked a bit in a caravan park in Darwin, travelled to Tom Price and saw an advertisement for a caravan park manager job in Carnarvon.
“We had never heard of the place but we got the job and four years later here we still are,” said Jackie. “We love the place. The climate, the lifestyle, the people. And the job. We fly home every year – our kids can’t understand what we are doing still here. We’ll move on one day but we are happy enough now.”
An African twang is detectable in Jackie’s accent. She was raised in Zambia where her father was in the North Rhodesia police force. He was targeted during the Congo uprising, advised to leave the country and brought his family to Australia when Jackie was 11.
Staying in one of the park cabins was burly Harvey Mader, a WA farm boy who says he has been earth-moving mainly on beef roads since he was 11. He just hd his 70th birthday. He has been working for 14 months on the levee banks being built around Carnarvon to prevent the Gascoyne River gushing out in a repeat of the floods four years ago that almost wiped Gascoyne Junction off the map.
We had come through the Gascoyne Valley Road soon after and had been startled at the damage. The Gascoyne can generate the biggest stream of water in Australia when it rages as it did then, smashing into Carnarvon’s west and sweeping away the crops that make Carnarvon a rich WA salad bowl.
About 18 months of work remains on the $60 million levee project but Harvey is heading off in autumn on his regular retreat to the abandoned Swindell air field , travelling along the Telfer road west from Port Hedland. In WWII the camouflaged airfield was a tightly guarded secret: mothballed Willys jeeps and other military hardware are still resting in the desert, preserved “as good as new” in the dry heat.
Harvey became acquainted with the place 45 years ago when he was planting explosives for a French exploration company. He discovered water sources, “some beautiful billabongs and fish – it’s all about the fish”. He released marron out there 10 years ago and now supplements the eels, mullet and barramundi with the little crays.
He’s a bit annoyed with the idiots in the Carnarvon council who ordered date palms to be taken out in a park east of the town. They were planted in the 1890s by Afghan camel drivers and are heritage in their own right, he says.
When you are going through the desert you can keep your eye out for date palms and be pretty sure permanent water will be around them.
Harvey takes two weeks to get to Swindell. “You got to take it slow and know what you are doing. You see a lot of vehicles, new ones too, that haven’t made it. All that computer gear doesn’t stand up out there.
“People go there but not very often. And they don’t stay long.”
He stays three months. “I like my own company. Out there there’s no one to bother me.”
Like the ex or anything, although he does have a current woman in his life. She works in a federal security arm so we had better not say too much about her.
As well as a wife, Harvey used to have his own earthmoving machinery. “Sold it. Just do subbying now.”
He tried retirement but that didn’t work. “There’s only so many games of golf you can play.” He’s a bit worried about his weight, hasn’t had a beer for 12 months, does 200 daily push-ups and walks 5km.
I took a photo of Harvey with his fat-tyred Nissan rigged up rugged for the coming trip but I didn’t have a card in the camera. I had to be satisfied with a pic of the trailer he tows.
Across the park, Leslie and Barbara tow a fine Cougar fifth-wheeler they imported from America earlier this year. The roomy living area and bedroom expanded by slide-outs have all comforts plus dozens of large plush toys tucked on shelves, pelmets, chairs and the bed.
Leslie used to be Robin, a London bloke who worked as a builder in Australia and had a wife and family. Now his licence says she is a woman, she uses the women's toilet block and hormones have given her a couple of shapes to augment her slender body, although the balding head under the cap is a bit disconcerting.
Cardigans cover builder-arm muscles. Doing the transgender thing is not easy at 70 and he is happy to settle with living as a woman without going the whole hog.
“He knew when he was eight that he should have been born a woman,” said Barbara. “His wife and kids didn’t handle it too well when he finally said he had to do something about it.’
Barbara, 67, and Leslie met in 1998 at a bowling night for singles in Logan City. Barbara, a nurse, was sympathetic about the transgender conundrum. They moved to Nambucca Heads and she encouraged him to dress as a woman.
“He had beautiful male clothes but now he can be what he has always needed to be he’s much more contented in himself.”
As partners they enjoyed rock ‘n’ roll and camping. A trip to Tasmania in a Jayco convinced them to buy the Cougar, sell the Nambucca Heads house and head off around Australia, probably for five years. The Cougar tows well behind the 3 litre Iveco and they explore on mountain bikes when they pull up. Good luck to them.