Sunday, 19 July 2015

From the outback to The Outback


When I returned to the UK after three years of hostel hopping, I found the country languishing in recession. It took me three months to find myself a job and in order to fill these long days as a member of the vast unemployed, I began transcribing some of my hand scribbled travel journals onto the computer. I worked long and hard and dreamed of one day handing a bound and printed copy of the result to my  then girlfriend (now wife), Katie, as a present.

When a job eventually came, the writing seemed to fall onto the back burner. Then one day, after a particularly nasty shift at the office (I worked in a call centre dealing with queries from job seeker's, mostly regarding the non-payment of their benefits) I decided I needed to escape. I had to get away. So when I got home from work I tried to imagine the one place in the world that I would rather be. The one place in the world that would make me happy. The image that I came up with was the outback. There is no feeling in the world like the one that you get on a clear night in the desert, with the entire universe spread out before you in HD clarity.

Although I was not in the financial position to return to this most beloved of places, that did not mean that I could not go there. I still had my imagination. That night I powered up my laptop and typed the first chapter of what would become my debut novel.

Of course, there is more to a story than just its setting. I needed a plot to go with it. Being new to writing fiction, I decided to stick to that tried and tested rule of writing about what you know. This brought me back to my time working on outback farms and one job in particular. For three weeks I had the dubious privilege of "stick picking". This was quite literally a job that involved walking up and down a field picking up sticks. Perhaps not the most conventional basis for a thriller, but I had my reasons. You see, back on this farm, there was one mystery for me that was unresolved.

My fellow stick pickers were all backpackers, but our boss was a local. To give him is due, although he was certainly a rogue, he appeared mostly harmless. I say mostly, because all of us were pretty sure that there was something he was not telling us. One of my friends on the farm had noticed that our boss smoked the most tightly rolled cigarettes that any of us had ever seen. A habit, that my friend insisted must have come from time spent in prison (tobacco is scarce and therefore used sparingly).

Old Smithy never did tell us whether he had ever "done time" or not, but he did get me thinking. He ultimately became the inspiration behind my novel's villain; Rhett Butler (irony fully intended and woven into the plot). What if an old farmer in charge of a group of young backpackers was hiding a dangerous secret? What if that secret were to get out? What lengths would the old man go to to protect it? And so The Outback was born.

THE OUTBACK

Matt is an English backpacker in Australia. When he signs up to do 3 months of harvest work in the small town of Birribandi, he finds that drink, drugs and sex are just as easy to come by in the outback as they were on the coast. What he does not count on, is his new farm boss.

Rhett is a mean and miserable old Aussie who cares little for those in his charge and he treats the backpackers with the same disdain that he treats all things in life. Hoping to avoid trouble, Matt and his new friends vow to try and stay out of the old man’s way.

What these young travellers do not realise, is that Rhett is hiding a terrible secret and unless they can discover what that secret is, they may never escape the outback alive...

The Outback is currently on sale at $0.99/£0.99 for Kindle. It is also available in paperback.



Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Don't P*** In Your Wetsuit

It was the part of the tour I had been most excited about and most dreading in equal measure. My journey down the Eastern coast of Australia was coming to an end and I had arrived at Surf Camp, just a few hours drive south of Byron Bay.

I have never been a natural in the ocean. It took me 27 years just to learn how to tread water and even then I was unsure if I was not still sinking, just at a slower rate. So the idea of squeezing into a wetsuit and spending the day trying to balance on a plank of wood in deep water was more than a little intimidating. But this was Australia - how could I not give surfing a go?

Our group was unusually small with only 6 of us on the bus including our driver, Dale, himself a former surfing instructing. There were also two instructors at camp. I forget their names, so let's just call them Sheila and Bruce. Sheila was obviously in charge, and of all the orders she doled out during the course there was one that kept cropping up again and again, though it was never explained - "don't piss in your wetsuit" she would say, as regular as the tides.

The first session did not go too badly. I did not manage to stand up on the board, but the most important thing was that I did not drown and the experience was still fun, largely due to Dale entertaining us with his headstands performed mid wave. By the time we got back to camp for drinks around the fire, everyone was in high spirits. Everyone that is, except for Sheila and Bruce.

Bruce had only just returned from an extended vacation in the 'Top End' and I caught the tail of a conversation he shared with Sheila when they thought none of us backpackers were within earshot.

'Are those two dolphins still hanging around?' asked Bruce. 'There's no better feeling than sharing a wave with nature's best swimmers snapping at your heels.'

Sheila went pale. It was the first time I'd seen spirit dip all day.

'They've gone,' she told him. 'They left when the pointer moved in. I haven't seen them since.'

Bruce's eyes widened.

'You've told them about the wetsuits, haven't you?'

'It was the first thing I told them,' she replied.

'Well, we better remind them. You know, to be safe.'

They then both turned to the 5 of us gathered around the campfire and said in unison; 'Guys, whatever you do, don't piss in your wetsuits.'

The next morning I was sat on my board about 20 metres from shore with Sheila next to me. I desperately needed to relieve myself. I was tempted to defy the rule just go then and there, but something about that conversation I overhead the night before was niggling at my brain.

'What's a pointer?' I asked. The term was completely alien to me. I thought maybe it was a type of boat. If fishermen were throwing down nets close by, I could understand why the dolphins weren't hanging around.

'Why do you ask?' replied Shelia, glancing nervously over her shoulder.

'It's something I heard you and Bruce talking about last night. Just before you reminded us for the one hundredth time not to piss in our wetsuits. I should warn you that I may be close to breaking that rule if a wave doesn't come along soon.'

I laughed. Sheila didn't.

'DO NOT PISS IN YOUR WETSUIT,' she said, much more firmly than usual. 'I cannot stress how important this is.'

'Are you that worried about hygiene?' I asked, 'because we're in the water and we rinse the suits thoroughly when we get back anyway.'

'A pointer is what you will know as a Great White Shark,' she said.

This time I was the one looking nervously over my shoulder, searching the depths below for that tell tale shadow. The shore had never seemed further away.

'There's a great white shark here?' I asked, incredulously.

'Yes, and it can detect just one drop of bodily fluid in the ocean from miles away. Blood or piss, it really doesn't matter.'

I felt like throwing up. No doubt it would smell that too. Why had they let us put ourselves in such danger? It seemed that dolphins really are smarter than humans.

'Where's this shark now?' My biggest fear was that it was between myself and the shore. If that was the case, I had no chance.

'Sleeping,' said Sheila. 'It's feeding territory stretches out about 30km along the cost and it's unlikely to come in closer than 3km to the shore. Best not to tempt it though. It could cover that distance quicker than you could swim to the beach.'

Thirty seconds later, the wave came and I rode it all the way to the sand standing on my feet.

If there is a moral to this tale, then I guess it is to never ignore advice that has been given. You do not necessarily have to follow said advice, but always find out the reason for the advice before deciding if it is worth following. That and never, under any circumstances, should you ever piss in your wetsuit.


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