So my first three blogs end up being on the ‘driving’ theme. But I thought I might as well get it out of my system before moving on, next instalment.
PHOTO: Corporal Brian Hartigan, about 1997
One awesome drive I will never forget was during my Army days.
It was Exercise Kangaroo ’95 – one of the big ones, when large parts of the Australian Army came out to play once every two years.
I was an aircraft fitter (helicopter mechanic) back then and my unit, 162 Recce Sqn (162nd Reconnaissance Squadron), was deployed from Townsville in north Queensland, to the Northern Territory for a month or more.
Our first ‘area of operations’ was an Aboriginal settlement where special permission – an actual license – was required for a white man to enter. It was magnificent country and we all felt very privileged to see it.
One of our observation points where we did gun picket was on top of a water tower, which was on top of an escarpment. The view was simply breathtaking. If you’ve ever seen ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and the bit where he first shows the American journalist the view over ‘Never Never Land’ – then you have a fair idea what I’m talking about.
After a week or so scanning that view, we were ordered to move our camp to a place about 20km north of a town called Mataranka. This town was a ‘normal’ town, known for its hot springs bubbling up from the ground, in which hundreds of tourists bathed daily.
Of course, we were told that the town was ‘in enemy hands’ and we had to avoid contact with the enemy at all costs.
So, to get to our new camp, we had to travel in the middle of the night, on a circuitous route that turned an otherwise 150km drive into about 400kms – about half of which was cross country with no road at all. On top of that, we had to travel with no lights at all, lest ‘enemy’ scouts see us.
As best I can remember, back in 1995 only pilots had individual night-vision goggles. The ground elements had just one set per section. So on this drive, with no lights and no moon, only the lead driver in our convoy could actually see – sort of (because the NVG technology was pretty primitive back then). The rest of us had to peer into the darkness to watch for enemy.
Anyway, being a keen shooter and being the biggest bloke in our unit, I was my section’s machine gunner. So, for this move, I was tasked to lie on the roof of the first vehicle, with the machine gun, to act as a scout for our convoy.
It was quite comfortable up there because our camouflage nets were rolled up and tied to the roof as standard – easy for storage and easy to unroll them quickly with the vehicle already underneath.
But, given that there was no moon and I had no night-vision goggles, the task of looking for enemy was a complete waste of time. If there were any ‘enemy’ out there, the first any of us would know would be when we saw their rifles flash as they fired their blank ammunition at us.
Of course, it was all just an exercise anyway – a game – just like we played in the quarries and fields and ditches and castles around the little Irish village where I grew up many moons ago.
As an adult, with blank ammo, real machine guns, real helicopters and real ‘soldier outfits’, this was almost as much fun. But let me just say as an aside here that it could also be just as frustrating in so far as the ‘enemy’ would nearly always say “No I’m not” when I said “Bang, bang, you’re dead”.
Anyway, with no hope of seeing anything in the dark, and with a comfortable ‘bed’ of camouflage nets below me and the most magnificent star fields above, I did the only sensible thing and rolled over on my back to take in the majesty of the night sky, with the odd “Nothing to report, Sergeant” yelled above the noise of the engine sufficient to keep my esteemed leader happy.
About seven hours later (because you don’t speed when traveling cross country with no lights on), we arrived at our new camp just as the sun came up – and tucked in to a full day of helicopter maintenance.
Speaking of helicopters and a lack of sleep – another story I like to tell is about how you can train yourself to ignore the things you really don’t need to hear, and thus get a good night’s sleep in any circumstance.
And, no, I’m not talking about selective hearing of the sort most husbands become expert at over many years 🙂
One night out bush, I was scheduled to go on picket at midnight, so I went to bed as soon as it got dark, which was about 9pm, and slept well until a few minutes before midnight when I heard the anticipated footsteps-on-dry-leaves of the man coming to wake me for my turn on guard.
An hour later with picket duty finished and knowing that I didn’t need to worry about any other noise until dawn, I went back to bed and completely switched my brain off.
At dawn, when it was time to get up and start another long day, I awoke to find my swag (a common RAEME preference over the simple hutchie the army issued us) covered in dust, leaves, twigs and other debris – and a helicopter parked not more than 20m away, where it had landed during the night – and I never heard it.
That kind of deep-sleep discipline comes in very handy in a house full of pets and a neighbourhood full of kids and lawnmowers!