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The night I fondled the detective sergeant’s piece

Ranger with a captured bushrock poacher's truck, November 1989. Photo: supplied

Sydneysider: A personal journey

Back in the late 1980s and early 90s there was a big trend toward native gardens. Sydneysiders were trying to get away from water-hungry landscaping featuring exotic plants. There was, however, a dark side to this otherwise laudable trend, and this was the fashion for strewing ‘bushrock’ around gardens.

Bushrock was the landscape industry term for beautifully weathered and lichen-encrusted sandstone rocks from the forest ridges surrounding Sydney. As the native garden trend took off, poaching bushrock from national parks turned into a minor industry. With the rocks retailing for $40 a square metre, poachers could make big tax-free profits.

Removing the rock had serious impacts on the ecology of the sandstone country because the rocks provided shelter for reptiles, small mammals and insects, particularly during and after bushfires. And many native plants depended on the moisture trapped under bushrocks to create the microclimate necessary for germination and survival.

To get at the rock, the poachers created whole networks of destructive trails into the bush and often increased their profits by carting rubbish into the bush and backloading rock out. The National Parks and Wildlife Service declared war on the poachers and I was right there in the front line.

In 1989 after high-level liaison with the police we set up a series of joint operations codenamed ‘Hotrock’ to catch the thieves operating in Yengo and Wollemi national parks.

In Hotrock I, the plan was to stake out the Putty Road at Colo Heights, watch for known bushrock thieves going north, and then nab them when they were on their way out. The trouble was that when bushrockers passed the stake-out, they’d see a police operation was going on and get cold feet. The solution was to set up an ostentatious, but fake, radar trap. Truck drivers would spread the news of the trap on their two-way radio and the bad guys, listening in, wouldn’t suspect they were in the gun.

Hotrock I was to run over a weekend and I was there to do the media. Things quite accidentally got off to a flying start on the Friday night, before the op was officially due to start. A couple of Highway Patrol cops who’d only heard about it on the grapevine tailed a flatbed loaded with rock. The licence plate was on the Police Intelligence list of suspects and they pulled it over, booked the blokes and impounded the truck.

The Colo Heights stakeout started on the Saturday. Trouble was, the police team assigned to the job obviously regarded bushrock theft as a victimless crime of interest only to greenies and wouldn’t take the operation seriously. Not only did they not set up the radar trap, but relations between the national parks rangers and the cops were edgy.

By Sunday evening, things had turned Saturnalian in the police camp. At nightfall, they lit a blazing campfire by the road and sat around it, yarning. The detective sergeant in charge was a short, very fat man. He wore a grubby pair of cheap tracksuit pants and a teeshirt advertising an auto spares business. After a big meal from the Scottish restaurant he fell asleep in the drivers seat of a patrol car, snoring loudly.

Every now and then one of the cops around the fire would saunter over to the open boot of a patrol car and fill his styrofoam cup from a flagon-sized bottle in a brown paper bag.

“Would you like a Ribena, Gavin?” one of them eventually asked.

So that’s what they drink on long stakeouts. They must fortify themselves with vitamin C, I thought. He filled a cup and passed it to me. I took a long hard swig and nearly gagged. It was port. They’d been drinking cheap port for hours.

Suddenly, a 4WD utility pulling a large trailer sped past, heading south. Four cops and I rushed for a patrol car and I wedged myself, with my camera, in the middle rear seat, hoping to get a shot of the trailer as we approached.

The road down from Colo Heights is steep, narrow and very scary, switching from side to side of a razorback ridge. The driver poured on the turps. I thought I was going to die. Eventually we caught up with the suspect. Our driver came up to within about 5 metres and threw on high beam.

There was a spontaneous howl of laughter. The trailer was full of sheep. The cops cracked up, going “baaa-baaa! baaa-baaa!”

We drove back up the hill and the cops all fell asleep in their cars, except the fat detective sergeant, who had woken up and was warming himself at the fire. An awkward conversation followed.

“Did you go to university?” he asked. I admitted I had.

“Are you married?” Actually, my, ah, companion and I weren’t, I admitted.

“Do you have kids?” We, no we didn’t. I was developing a weird feeling about where this conversation might be headed. There was a long awkward silence.

“Would you like to see my piece?” he asked.

I froze in horror. The sergeant bent down, pulled up the right cuff of his tracksuit pants, and pulled a snub-nosed .38 revolver out of an ankle holster. He swung the cylinder open and knocked the six cartridges out into the palm of his hand, then he flipped the cylinder back in place and handed me the gun.

I fondled it as reverently as I could and tried out the approved two-handed ‘combat stance’.

“Hey, it’s great! Thanks, mate!” I said and I handed it back.

It was just about as homoerotic as things could get between two straight men. After that we got on like a house on fire.

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