The Vanished

“Run around and get in the passenger seat.  I’ve got food in there for you.  We’ll talk later.”

“Wait!” Jonas said.  “Where are those shorts?”

His friend handed him the shorts, and Jonas quickly changed and ran to the laundry with the jeans he had borrowed.  He returned shirtless, having buried his prison T-shirt in a garbage can, and climbed in on the passenger side.  Marty backed out of the campsite, as his fugitive friend buckled his seat belt.  As the pickup moved slowly toward the exit, Jonas looked in the cooler by his feet and retrieved and devoured a pottle of yoghurt.  He then retrieved two slices of wholemeal bread and made a cheese sandwich, as his friend pulled onto the highway and headed east.

Travelling a little over the speed limit on the wide open highway, Marty said, “I can drive as far as Cloncurry, I think, but we’ll either have to stop there or you’ll have to drive.”

“I’ve napped most of the day, so I’ll prob’ly be good for a few hours.  Maybe I can get us to Charters Towers—at least to Julia Creek or Hughenden.”

“It’s shorter through Normanton—but, wait!  Where do you want to go?”

Hungry as he was, Jonas stopped eating in mid-bite.  “Hell, Marty, I hadn’t even thought about that.  I just wanted to get someplace safe.”

“Huh!  Yeah, that’s important.  But where’s safe?  Ecuador?  Cuba?  Russia?”

“I hadn’t even thought about going outside the country, but, yeah, maybe I’ll have to.  You don’t think we could get the ABC to do an exposé and blow up their little gulag?”

“I wouldn’t want to have to count on it, but maybe.”

“I don’t have a passport, of course, or any money or anything.”

“You have friends, so money’s no problem.  A passport’s a little harder—but if you’re a refugee you prob’ly don’t need one.”

“Mmmm...  Do I need to find somebody with a yacht?  And Ecuador’s a huge trip, Cuba’s even longer.”

“We can sort out a yacht, if we need to.  The main thing is to keep you hidden, until we figure out what’s the best strategy.”

“Yes.”  Jonas took another bite of his sandwich, and the two men rode in silence for several minutes.  Over the course of the next hour, Jonas told his friend about his detention—the authorities detained him, they never arrested him—life at the Warenda compound, a few individuals they both knew who remained imprisoned there, and Bernie.

“So, he’s still out there somewhere.”

“May be.  He might’ve got there before I did.  He might’ve died on the way.  They might’ve caught up with ’im and taken him back—or shot ’im.  We discussed everything and agreed that at least one of us had to get through and blow the whistle, that each of us had to keep pushing on, no matter what.”

“And rightly so.”  Marty paused and then added, “I’m sure glad you got through.”

“So far.”

As they approached the side road to the compound, Jonas said, “It’s about twenty-five or thirty miles down that road there, in case I don’t survive to tell other people about it.”

The driver picked up his cellphone and checked the time, then said, “OK.  Now, at least two of us know where it is.”

In Cloncurry, Jonas remained in the pickup with a hat pulled down over his face, while Marty filled the tank with diesel.  A few miles north of town, they swapped places.  Jonas drove, and they brainstormed strategies part of the time, but Marty mostly slept so he could resume driving later.  In Normanton, after four hours of driving, Jonas found an all-night truckstop, and Marty again filled the tank.  Jonas drove a few miles east, and the men swapped places again.  Jonas dozed a few times, but stayed awake most of the time to brainstorm with his friend.

As they approached the Highway 62 junction and Forty Mile Scrub, the rescue driver said, “Mate, I’m buggered.  It isn’t safe for me to drive any further.”

“That’s OK.  I’ve just had a little kip.  I can get us home.  Shall we go to your place?”

“I’d thought we would, but it might be safer to go to Rolf and Eva’s—since I’ve just made this potentially suspicious trip, and the campground has all my details and all.”

“Mmmm . . . yeah, better to be safe than sorry.”

“Shall I ring ’em,” Marty asked, “to let ’em know we’re coming?”

“Negative!” Jonas said.  “In case your ’phone is compromised, we don’t want to talk on it to anyone about where I am or where I’m going.  What time is it?”

“Almost eight.”

“So, we can’t get there before ten-thirty or eleven anyway, so we’re not gonna wake ’em up or anything.  Do we need fuel?”

“We might make it, but let’s top up in Ravenshoe.”

They stopped on a wide part of the shoulder, and Jonas ran around to the driver’s seat and drove to Ravenshoe.  He again stayed in the pickup, while Marty filled the tank.  Marty slept the hard-earned sleep of the righteous, until Jonas pulled the pickup into the driveway of the Peace and Health Retreat at ten minutes to eleven Australian Eastern Standard Time.  Jonas said, “I’ll wait out here, in case there’s somebody else inside,” and Marty walked into the lodge to check and to talk with Rolf and Eva.

As the three walked down the front steps together, Jonas heard Marty say, “I’ve brought you a guest, but not a paying guest,” then call toward the pickup, “No guests here today.”

The fugitive stepped out of the pickup, and both Rolf and Eva ran the last few steps and enveloped him in a three-way hug.  Eva had tears in her eyes, and Rolf’s voice caught as he said, “We were afraid you were d-dead.”

The four activist colleagues and friends walked into the main living room area of the lodge, and Jonas told the whole story, from his “detention” after a concert in Adelaide to his rendezvous with Marty in Mount Isa.  So it was that a penniless Jonas Robb became a guest at an upmarket boutique resort featuring organic food and large doses of peace and quiet and nature’s beauty.  Over the next three days, the four of them along with another friend and activist colleague, Barney, a rollicking, hard-partying Irish immigrant who called the dances whenever Jonas played for a dance in the region, talked strategy, brainstormed, gave thanks for Jonas’s safe return, and kept mainly to themselves without letting anyone else know the good news.

“Papua New Guinea’s easy,” Barney said, “you could damn near swim from Thursday Island.  But their government is under the thumb of the Australian government, so they’d prob’ly hand you over straightaway.”

“Yeah, same with the Kiwis,” Jonas said.

Many such exchanges took place without finding a resolution.  At one point, Barney suggested, “François’s daughter Brigitte would probably be happy to sail their yacht to Ecuador or maybe even to Cuba.”

“Yeah,” Jonas replied, “but isn’t her husband a rich dude who’s prob’ly on Scotty’s side?”

The whole group discussed the possibilities and put that option on hold.  Each and all continued offering suggestions and objections.  Early on the third day, one of their hosts asked, “Couldn’t we get the ABC to do a special, including an interview with Jonas taped at a secret location?”

“Risky,” Marty and Barney said in unison, as Jonas said, “I mentioned that idea to Marty, while we were driving, but do y’really think we could?”

“Shall we check and see if it’s even possible?” Eva asked.

“Maybe,” Barney said, then added, “But we would have to get them to agree to travel in our vehicles.”

“And to change clothes and also to use cameras and audio gear we supply.”

“Oh, yeah,” Barney said.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“It’s a long shot,” Marty said.  “I doubt they’d go for that, but some young reporter, eager to make a name for himself—”

“Or herself,” Jonas interjected, winning him a smile from Eva.

“Or herself,” Marty added, “might just be willing to go for it.  It isn’t as if they’d be in any danger or anything.”

“At least not until after the story aired,” Jonas said.

“No point in going after ’em then,” Barney said.  “Once the word is out, taking any sort of action against the press or a whistleblower would just make the goons look worse.  I don’t think they’d bother.”

“They’re a pretty vindictive lot,” Jonas said.

“True, but the eyes of the whole country—the whole world—will be on them,” Barney replied.

Nods and muttered agreements met that remark, and the five began discussing how they could approach the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  Marty, who served as official spokesperson for one of the environmental groups with which all five were involved, had several contacts among the network’s news staff and began making discreet enquiries.  In spite of his discretion, that led to visits from ASIO and other government agents to both his farm and Rolf and Eva’s resort.  Anticipating such an occurrence, Barney had earlier made arrangements for Jonas to disappear with a close friend and sympathizer.

While the others worked tirelessly, albeit silently and under the radar insofar as possible, Jonas relaxed almost incommunicado in primitive—but, as he himself said, “more than adequate and generously given”—accommodations in Portland Roads.  The community closed ranks, and not one person ever mentioned to anyone outside that Jonas was there or had ever been there.  In the meantime, two ABC reporters agreed to work together on the story and began by reading a statement Jonas had typed, outlining his experiences at the hands of the Morrison government.

The original four—five minus Jonas—effected a liaison with the ABC reporters and their technicians and even persuaded the technical staff, cameramen and sound engineers and the like, to submit to two blindfolded trips to sessions in which they inspected and tried and ultimately approved the equipment they would  use in the course of the actual interview.  Barney managed to pass the news to Jonas, who felt both surprised and delighted.

On the appointed day, friends of the core group ushered the TV crew into a rented van and stood in the street impeding the flow of traffic as the van drove away.  One of the helping friends got struck by a blind-registered ASIO car, but she had anticipated that and jumped aside in time to receive no more than a bruise and a string of curses.  Coincidentally, or not, both a city bus and a large truck pulled out into the traffic at the same moment as the van disappeared up the street.

Following a flurry of frantic radio exchanges, the two—as our heroes discovered later—government helicopters managed to pick up the trail of the van, but by then the TV reporters and crew had already changed vehicles twice and clothes once.  Heavily armed government forces raided the building in Toowoomba, where the van disgorged its passengers, but found only a group of innocent and frightened schoolteachers who had come for a workshop on environmental education.

Meanwhile, the ABC employees, in two station wagons a mile apart and accompanied by eight satellite vehicles looking for and prepared to intercept government surveillance teams, arrived at an undisclosed location and found themselves in an unlikely building with all the conveniences of a modern audio-visual studio, provided with equipment identical to that which they had approved, and with a willing subject for their interviewing skills.  He didn’t even insist on being filmed only from behind or in deep shadow.  “Hell, they know who I am and what I look like,” he said, “so film away,” and they did.

The two reporters made a pact between themselves and with a producer they both trusted.  With the producer’s help, they would take the program to air without seeking the approval of a senior producer or anyone else, even if one or all of them got fired.  They honored their pact, the show aired in prime time, and heads began to roll.  The two reporters, the producer, and the entire support crew got fired immediately.  The justice minister and the attorney-general fell on their swords, but the rising tide of outrage forced the Prime Minister and the Minister for Broadcasting and the Arts out a few days later along with the ABC’s Managing Director.

The show aired to a huge audience, and the existence and nature of the “processing centre” became public knowledge.  Less than twenty-four hours after television stations across the country broadcast the story and interview, almost the entire staff of the Warenda facility failed to show up for work.  Queensland police moved in and took over the compound and released all the detainees.

A mob of lawyers, offering their services pro bono, rushed to represent those illegally detained, both individually and in class action suits.  The interim government offered substantial compensation to all the former inmates and the family of the man who was shot by the guards.

Popular outrage forced the new prime minister to call an early election with unexpected but not entirely surprising results.  The episode so eroded trust in both major parties that the Green Party polled even with the Coalition at thirty-two per cent.  The Greens joined a government in which Labour was often forced to act as if it were the junior partner.

A party of hunters from the Kalkadoon people discovered Bernie, exhausted, badly sunburnt, dehydrated, and beginning to display symptoms of heatstroke, about fifteen miles south of the hill with the cell tower site Jonas had used as a vantage point.  They buried him up to his neck for three days to get his temperature down and trickled water into his mouth until he recovered enough to feed himself.  By the time he caught a ride into Mount Isa with a couple of his benefactors, Jonas’s revelations dominated the news.

Bernie, once his identity became known, found himself treated like royalty.  The new management of the ABC flew him to Brisbane for a joint interview and joyful reunion with Jonas before returning the veteran activist to his home in Melbourne.  His high profile allowed him to win a seat in parliament, which he held for three terms.  Name recognition similarly benefited Jonas, when he resumed his performing career a few months later.



Educated as a scientist, graduated as a mathematician, Cora Tate has earned her living as a full-time professional entertainer most of her life, including a stint as a regular performer on the prestigious Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Cora’s repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city planner, among other occupations. Cora has written five novels, three novellas (two published), three novelettes (two published), and about sixty short stories, of which forty-two have been published by forty-six literary journals in seven countries. Cora recommends Earth First!


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, April 14, 2022 - 22:02