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‘I don’t want you to watch me die’: the last words my father said before sending me away | Family

‘I don’t want you to watch me die’: the last words my father said before sending me away | Family

The red earth of Northwest Queensland is tough country to get rough news. Full of copper, lead, zinc and gold, it supports little other than snappy gum, turpentine, buffel grass and a cassia capable of piercing car tyres, or your shoes.

In February 1990, I was standing on that red dirt crying. A coltish boy of 20, I was surrounded by the detritus of an exploratory mining camp: accommodation block, humming aircons, tricked-out Jeeps and, somewhere, my boss in his beloved T-shirt showing a crouching man with the caption: “I’m so happy I could shit”. Next to me was Yvonne, a geologist a few years older than me on whom I had a crush. A second geologist wandered over, a rangy fellow in his 30s. He asked what was up. When I didn’t reply, Yvonne told him I’d just heard my father had died, half a world away in Scotland. The man thought about this, then said: “Don’t worry, death is just nature’s way of telling you to slow down.”

Three and a half decades on, mining may not have emotionally matured, but it’s certainly slicker. It’s September 2023, and I’m in Brisbane, about to return to that scene. I have become a father, at the somewhat advanced age of 52, so of course I’ve been thinking about my relationship with my own. Brisbane airport is like the set of a dystopian movie where Schwarzenegger is off to mine the Andromeda: passengers march about in name-tagged red overalls, while the Tannoy thanks us for complying to airport rules.

The plane to Mount Isa is an airbus to the pithead. After three hours we descend over a scarred landscape. On the ground, the owner of the car-rental company hands over a Toyota Land Cruiser with bullbars, numeric decals and a yellow rooftop light. “We don’t get many recreational clients,” he says. The 75 miles to Cloncurry takes me past the old Mary Kathleen uranium mine that once gave Britain’s nuclear arsenal its zing. I turn north and after 30 more miles pull up at the Quamby, a self-styled “pub in the scrub”. Despite having closed for a decade between my visits, it’s returned to life virtually unchanged. A barn of a place, it has a corrugated iron roof, a mural of a sleeping roustabout and plenty of cold beer. A rancher at the bar asks if I am passing through and when I tell him I worked nearby back in the 90s, he says: “Aw yeah? Did they have the pig tied to the front porch then?”

The idea of…

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