Sydneysider: A personal journey
Some days begin strangely and just get weirder.
Probably the weirdest I ever experienced was sometime in ‘85. At the time I was working as a ‘seasonal ranger’ – a sort of glorified National Parks and Wildlife Service tour guide – at the Quarantine Station historic site on North Head. The station – which had then only recently been opened to the public – is a beautiful spot where hundreds of people died of ugly epidemic diseases that broke out during what was then the long sea voyage to Australia.
On the morning of the Day of the Dead Ranger, I turned up to find the place as deserted as the Mary Celeste. After a while the phone rang. It was the Q Station boss. It seemed that one of the office staff had been arrested for sexually assaulting her next door neighbour with a candle and a large wooden crucifix. The senior ranger had gone to the cop shop to bail her out, so I’d be on my own for a while. And then I found a note from my immediate boss to say that two new seasonal rangers were starting that day. I was to take them with me on a typical tour so they’d get the hang of things.
When the new seasonals arrived, I looked them over. One was a young hippy wearing love beads and a pair of Chinese happy-slappies. She was chain-smoking Indonesian clove cigarettes. The other was a middle-aged lady who had had her new uniform tailored and her hair done for the occasion. She was wearing high-heeled black boots. Happy-Slappies and High Heels.
The booked tour party – elderly Christians from the Yagoona Anabaptist Old Folks Group (or some such) turned out to number about 50, which was double the size of a standard tour and made things very difficult. The coach driver was from Barcelona and his English was only slightly better than my Spanish. Since the tours proceeded downhill to where they finished, we despatched him, in the coach, to the wharf on Quarantine Beach to wait.
With me roaring out the Q Station story to the multitude, we made our way from one point of interest to the next until we reached a spot, half-way down the hill, where the victims of a particularly bad cholera outbreak are buried. I was describing this grisly incident when an elderly gentleman collapsed.
Very fortunately, there was a retired nurse in the party. We dragged the afflicted into the shade and loosened his clothing. I sent High Heels clip-clopping up the hill to ring the ambulance (this was before mobile phones), and Happy-Slappies hurrying off to unlock the station gates.
“It’s his own fault”, one of Christians muttered. “He knew he shouldn’t have come. He had an attack on the plane going to Singapore a couple of weeks ago.”
A longish wait for the ambulance followed. Under the circumstances I decided it would be politic to skip the ghoulish morgue and the bleak Quarantine Hospital.
I’d just started the herd moving towards the wharf when the coach driver came running up the hill. He was in a very agitated state.
“Three men come to wharf in boat. They bring dead ranger. This man was in uniform like you dressed.”
My mind raced. His story made a weird sort of sense. If you find a dead ranger it’s obvious you should deliver him to the nearest national park. The dead guy must surely be the senior ranger who sometimes came over to North Head from Neilson Park by launch. He must have drowned in some ghastly accident.
The important thing was to stay cool and authoritative.
“Where is the body now?” I asked calmly.
“Señor, the men, they try to push dead ranger over the fence, but they cannot push it high and he gets stuck, you know, in barb wire, so they take him away to police in boat”.
If the senior ranger was dead, he was dead.
“Okay, folks”, I said. “The situation is apparently under control, so let’s move right along now…on the left here you’ll see a whole gallery of splendid rock engravings representing ships quarantined…”
I jabbered on. The old folks listened politely, but their hearts were no longer in it. There had been too much death and too many departures from the script. We are all doomed. Every day we slip closer to the grave, but few want to be reminded of it.
I wound up as gracefully as I could, stressing the positives, and shepherded the group aboard the coach. High Heels and Happy-Slappies slipped quietly away, looking distracted and edgy. Clearly, I was very bad karma.
I plodded back up the hill to the office to sort out the dead ranger issue. I found some beers in the fridge, slugged one down, and rang the cops in Manly. The sergeant was of the old school. He hadn’t caught up with recent advances in cultural sensitivity.
“Not to worry mate. All a mistake. Not one of yours. He was some sort of wog. Must have jumped off North Head or maybe he was rock fishing.”
I thanked him and opened another beer. The senior ranger retired years ago. As far as I know, he’s still alive.