This is the FIFO (fly in, fly out) world I’ve often read about. It was a trip to see it up close.
I was in Darwin to do a show and an old friend from my youth got in touch with me. We knew each other when we were scratching out an idea of a teenage life on the same poor streets as each other. He lived, literally, just up the hill from my corner. We had both known the void – the misery – the mad cravings. He liked to bet and to drink Bundy and yell at his big-screen TV and had a phone betting account since they were available. He used to use ‘dial-a-slab’ in the ‘80s when Melbourne shut down at 10pm every night. I had developed my own strategies for contesting life. He lives in Melbourne but is in Darwin three weeks out of four; working 12 hours a day at a Japanese-funded gas project half-an-hour out of Darwin, towards Humpty Doo, called the Ichthys LNG plant. He couldn’t come to my show, as his day started at 4am and I played at 11pm. He had the next day off so I drove over to see him. He had no transport of his own and the cab ride was expensive. I walked into the Howard Springs Tavern with my partner, Clare Moore, through the smoker’s area. The camp, where my friend lived with 1500 other workers was a decent walk away but was still the closest watering hole available. The camp, run by the Ichthys Project, is built to host 3500 – mostly – men. They all breakfast together in a giant mess hall before their buses leave for the working area. Guys from all over the country are there. My friend said his cabin was a room “five steps by six steps with a bed and a toilet”. They are not allowed to take alcohol to the rooms so the tavern is very popular. It is owned and run by an old Darwin family, going back to the cyclone. The website for the project has very impressive pictures of men on exercise bicycles at the camp gym but I doubt they would be used that much after a 12-hour day on the tools in 30-degree heat. Maybe they’re just for the management? I only had the clothes I wore up to Darwin to perform in: some white chinos, a Boston t-shirt and a denim sports coat and a straw hat. Pretty much leisure gear in my world. When I walked in through that crowd of two-fisted smokers, gamblers and boozing blokes you’d have thought Liberace had just swanned in, flying an ermine cape. “Bloody ‘ell ‘ey!” “Whadda we got ‘ere?” “Turn it up.” These were some of the antique WW2-era phrases I heard whistle past my ears. A general chorus of rising, jeering moans were the notes I detected. My partner saved me. A woman! We walked through to another bar and met with my old friend. Giant TV screens showed both Rugby League and AFL games. It was a Saturday afternoon. In the company of my friend I had assumed the general shape of a regular guy and felt I could look around the room at individuals in the crowd with impunity. There were a few women in the place, some with children in tow. Mostly, it was all men, a long way away from home. A man had set up a vocal PA with an impressive rack of effects and unobtrusively worked his way into a set of the sorts of songs that could survive in this mining camp/Deadwood-type atmosphere. Nothing at all personal in his performance, he was almost one of them. Nothing personal in the playlist either. Rolled gold hits: Hotel California, Cocaine, California Girls, The Walk of Life. He used loops to lay down a guitar chord progression which he could then solo or sing over. He also had a vocal harmoniser with which, at the touch of his foot on the pedal, could get two or three other harmonic intervals of his own voice happening to lift a bridge or a chorus. As he stood at the side of the room playing song after song, people talked, ate and drank. Nobody applauded, each song ended and then after a while, another fl owed into the space. After a couple of hours in our friend’s company, we drove him back to the camp. It’s quite a long walk, in the dark, across vacant fi elds with some burning scrub always off in the distance. We couldn’t go into his crib; we weren’t allowed. We just dropped him at the security gates and he went inside, past the guards. We breathed out as we drove away, both letting out a “whoah!” This is the FIFO (fly in, fly out) world I’ve often read about. It was a trip to see it up close. It made you think of their weird offsite presence just outside of Darwin, spending their money at the solitary pub within walking distance. And you also thought of their absence in all the far-flung places they’d come from. They were being paid well and were all, in their ways, volunteers. Perhaps there weren’t many other options though? My friend had talked of making a big score – a job on a rig off of Weipa where you got paid $7-8000 a week. Only it was dangerous work on a platform out at sea and you shared a bed/cabin with another person, each having access to the bed and toilet for 12 hours while the other worked. One bed, one toilet – two workers. Three weeks on and one week off. He said he and his wife sit and watch TV, holding hands during the one week at home. That’s 12 weeks a year. The boys were growing up, too. He showed us pictures on his phone. @davegraney