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AS RECENTLY AS THE EARLY YEARS OF THE EVEN TWENTIETH CENTURY, VAST SWATHES OF AUSTRALIA'S SIMPSON DESERT OR BIG RED AS IT WAS CALLED WERE VIRTUALLY UNKNOWN AND UNMAPPED. THAT DIDN'T DETER THOSE GREEDY OR DESPERATE ENOUGH TO RISK ALL IN SEARCH OF THE GOLD AND OTHER PRECIOUS METALS THAT LAY THERE. INEVITABLY, SOME NEVER MADE IT OUT AGAIN ALIVE.

STORY ALAN HEBDEN ART OLIVERA COVER JANEK MATYSIAK


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A SEARCH PARTY ORGANISED BY THE LOCAL CONSTABLE HAD BEEN LOOKING FOR A PAIR OF MISSING MEN, PROSPECTORS FROM RUSSIA KNOWN AS THE TWO IVANS. LOCAL GOSSIP HAD IT THAT ONE OF THEM WAS A RUSSIAN NOBLEMAN WHO HAD FALLEN ON HARD TIMES, THE OTHER HIS SERVANT.

THEY CAME HERE IN SEARCH OF A NEW FORTUNE. INSTEAD THEY RAN OUT OF WATER AND DIED OF THIRST, POOR DEVILS. HMM, THIS SATCHEL WEIGHS A TON. DON'T TELL ME THEY STRUCK GOLD AFTER ALL?

IT WASN'T GOLD IN THE SATCHEL, BUT SOMETHING THAT WAS JUST AS VALUABLE IN ITS OWN WAY.

STREWTH, BLACK OPALS! THERE MUST BE A KING'S RANSOM HERE, BUT WHERE DID THEY FIND THEM?


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`MANY SOUGHT THE ANSWER TO THAT BUT NONE SUCCEEDED, BEATEN BY THE UNFORGIVING DESERT, AND BY THE EARLY 1950S THE BLACK OPALS WERE JUST ANOTHER OUTBACK LEGEND. YET A FEW DETERMINED MEN KEPT LOOKING. AMONG THEM WAS STU MCBRIDE, A PART-TIME OPAL PROSPECTOR, OR FOSSICKER, FOR WHOM THE SOURCE OF THE FABULOUS STONES WAS HIS PERSONAL HOLY GRAIL. THEY MAY HAVE FOUND THE TWO IVANS OUT HERE ON THE DRY LAKE BED, BUT THEY WERE COMING FROM THOSE HILLS UP THERE. IT ALL POINTS TO THE WILUNGA RANGE, KURU.

JUST ONE SMALL PROBLEM WITH THAT, BOSS!

THE PROBLEM, AS STU'S AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINE SIDEKICK KURU POINTED OUT, WAS THAT THE ENTIRE WILUNGA RANGE WAS INSIDE A HUGE ANGLO-AUSTRALIAN BASE SET UP SHORTLY AFTER THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, AND WHERE TRESPASSERS WERE DEFINITELY NOT WELCOMED. LOOK, THE WHOLE PLACE IS AS BIG AS ENGLAND WITH JUST ONE SMALL TOWN A HUNDRED MILES AWAY! WE'VE GOT AS MUCH CHANCE OF BEING SPOTTED AS WE HAVE OF BEING STRUCK BY LIGHTNING. DRIVE ON, MACDUFF!

YEAH, THAT'S WHAT I THOUGHT YOU'D SAY!


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JUST AS SOON AS WE FIND THOSE OPALS, KURU. NOW STOP GASSING AND CHANGE THE WHEEL!

I KEEP TELLING YOU WE NEED NEW TYRES, OR EVEN OLD ONES THAT HAVE GOT MORE TREAD THAN THESE MUSEUM PIECES.

STU'S VEHICLE, A WAR SURPLUS CHEVROLET TRUCK, HAD SEEN BETTER DAYS, SO IT WAS NO SURPRISE WHEN IT PICKED UP A PUNCTURE A FEW MILES FURTHER ON ACROSS THE DRIED UP LAKE BED. GRUMBLING SOFTLY, KURU GOT TO WORK. STANDING CLOSE BY, STU GAZED AT THE HILLS AS IF HE THOUGHT HE COULD SOMEHOW SPOT THE ELUSIVE OPALS.

THEY'RE IN THERE SOMEPLACE, THEY'VE GOT TO BE. WAIT, WHAT WAS THAT?

HE HAD SEEN SUNLIGHT REFLECTING OFF WHAT MIGHT BE A VEHICLE WINDSCREEN…


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…AND, WORRIED IT MIGHT BE A SECURITY PATROL, HE FOCUSSED HIS BINOCULARS ON THE SPOT. HE WAS SURPRISED TO SEE ANOTHER WAR SURPLUS VEHICLE, A MORRIS 4X4 ARTILLERY TRACTOR, BETTER KNOWN AS A QUAD, DRIVING OUT OF SIGHT ROUND A BEND.

A QUAD? WHAT THE DEVIL'S THAT DOING IN THE PROHIBITED ZONE?

BY THIS TIME, KURU HAD CHANGED THE WHEEL.

THERE’S SOMEONE UP IN THE HILLS DRIVING AN OLD QUAD. IT COULD BE ANOTHER FOSSICKER, WHICH MEANS WE’VE GOT COMPETITION. LET'S FIND OUT.

A MOMENT LATER A VICKERS VALIANT JET BOMBER SEEMED TO COME OUT OF NOWHERE TO THUNDER OVER THEM AT PRACTICALLY ZERO FEET.

STREWTH!


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AS THE JET NOISE FADED, KURU SUGGESTED TURNING BACK.

SO STU OVERRODE THE YOUNGSTER’S OBJECTIONS AND THEY DROVE ON INTO THE HILLS. AFTER A WHILE THEY SPOTTED A GIVEAWAY SIGN.

IT PROBABLY SPOTTED US.

NAH, IT WAS GOING TOO FAST. BESIDES, WHAT WAS IT DOING THAT LOW? IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE A HIGH-FLYING BOMBER!

THERE’S DUST OVER THERE BEING KICKED UP BY A VEHICLE. THAT’LL BE THE COMPETITION. LET'S CHECK IT OUT.

HE WAS WRONG ABOUT IT BEING ONLY ONE VEHICLE. THERE WERE ACTUALLY TWO OF THEM, AND EVEN WORSE THEY WERE ONE OF THE AUSTRALIAN ARMY'S SECURITY PATROLS THAT CRISS-CROSSED THE PROHIBITED ZONE. STOP RIGHT THERE!

HECK!


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THE PATROL WAS LED BY A YOUNG LIEUTENANT, KERRY DOBSON, WHO ORDERED THEM OUT OF THE TRUCK WHILE IT WAS SEARCHED.

TOLD YOU SO, BOSS! HEY, LOOK AT THIS! I GUESS WE RAN OUT OF LUCK.

NOT REALLY. YOU WERE SPOTTED BY THE VALIANT WHICH RELAYED YOUR POSITION TO H.Q. WHO PASSED IT ON TO US.

THE SOLDIER HAD FOUND A POWERFUL HUNTING RIFLE EQUIPPED WITH TELESCOPIC SIGHTS. STU WAS READY FOR KERRY'S QUESTION ALMOST BEFORE HE ASKED IT.

NICE PIECE OF WORK. I HOPE YOU'VE GOT A PERMIT FOR IT.

YEAH, HERE IT IS AND ALL IN ORDER. I RUN A RANCH ON THE EDGE OF THE BIG RED WHEN I'M NOT LOOKING FOR OPALS AND I NEED TO KEEP THE RABBIT NUMBERS DOWN.


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KERRY SATISFIED HIMSELF THAT THE PERMIT WAS UP TO DATE AND GAVE IT BACK, BUT PLEAS FOR LENIENCY FELL ON DEAF EARS. IT SEEMED THEY COULDN'T HAVE CHOSEN A WORSE TIME TO TRESPASS IN THE PROHIBITED ZONE.

THERE ARE TOP SECRET TESTS ABOUT TO BEGIN AND WE'VE BEEN ORDERED TO BEEF UP SECURITY. YOU'RE COMING BACK WITH US TO WILUNGA VILLAGE. I'LL RIDE WITH YOU.

IT WAS A TWO-HOUR DRIVE TO WILUNGA VILLAGE PART-MILITARY BASE, PART-TOWNSHIP THAT LAY AT THE HEART OF THE PROVING GROUNDS. AS THEY APPROACHED IT KERRY TOLD THEM SOMETHING WHICH WAS SUPPOSED TO WORRY THEM BUT INSTEAD RAISED STU'S SPIRITS CONSIDERABLY.

BE WARNED, OUR HEAD OF SECURITY DOESN'T LIKE TRESPASSERS. YOU MAY HAVE HEARD OF HIM, THE KOREAN WAR HERO COLONEL MIKE MADDEN.

HARD TO IMAGINE ANYONE FORGETTING YOU, BOSS!

‘MAD MIKE’ MADDEN! I HAVEN'T JUST HEARD OF HIM, WE SERVED IN THE SAME OUTFIT IN NORTH AFRICA BACK WHEN HE WAS JUST A GREEN LOOEY! I HOPE HE REMEMBERS ME.



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