Eyes follow Tony Toia as he settles below the night sky and lifts his guitar.
He is hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town, beyond the back of Laverton in Western Australia’s remote outback.
He has been alone for weeks.
But tonight, he welcomes the company.
The dingoes are a familiar sight at his nightly gigs, watching him through the flickering flames of the campfire.
Perhaps they agree with Mr Toia’s key rule for desert living: there has to be music.
Life on the road
Mr Toia is the only remote grader operator working on the most far-flung roads of the Shire of Laverton, which cover about 4,500 kilometres.
His area of responsibility is enormous — out to the Tjukayirla Roadhouse on the Great Central Road and to even more isolated parts of the shire, such as Bandya Road.
“Out that way, it’s really remote,” Mr Toia said.
He works two weeks on, one week off, and drags a trailer behind his grader at the start of each fortnightly stint.
It carries a generator, 1,000 litres of water, 10,000 litres of fuel, fridges, a television, a washing machine and enough food to sustain his gargantuan appetite.
Music for company
But most importantly, he has his guitar and headphones, which fill his days with the sounds of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix despite the constant rumble of the grader.
“I usually have the blues playing or whatever is on.”
Occasionally, his twilight guitar jams attract more than dingoes.
“Now and again you’ll get campers come through,” Mr Toia said.
“They’ll see my camp set up in the bush. I think it’s the fire that attracts them.
“People who have guitars would jam round the fire. It was really good.”
Other drivers ‘fly past’
But when he is on the tools, Mr Toia can be wary of others.
He describes much of the driving he sees as “reckless”, particularly given the dirt roads and the distance to medical help.
“People don’t slow down, even when it’s raining,” he said.
“And they fly past the grader, their dust, stones, flying up.
He believed people should stick to 80 kilometres per hour, or 60kph if they were towing a van.
Bogged in the mud
Mr Toia has at times found himself in trouble as well.
One day, he became bogged and spent three days in the pouring rain crab-walking the grader out.
But even then he did not feel lonely.
“I love it,” Mr Toia said.
“I think it’s just because I like being on my own.
He has spent a lot of time in the outback, working previous jobs in the mines and as a road train driver — before he grew sick of changing tyres.
But he still looks forward to the end of the fortnight when he heads back to Laverton for a week.
He spends the first few days crashed on the couch, watching television and “getting his head straight”, before setting off on an 800-kilometre round trip to Kalgoorlie to get groceries.
Mr Toia said it could be a shock climbing into a fast car after spending so long in a grader, in which he travels only about 20 kilomteres a day.
It is ‘something else’
But despite his love of the outback — and the peace and space it gives him to enjoy his music — Mr Toia will not be doing the job forever.
Lately, as he sits on the grader, perhaps after pulling lunch from the pie-warmer he keeps to the left of his driver’s seat, he has been making plans for another adventure — retirement.
Mr Toia believes he only has about one more year left in him grading roads, before he is off.
“I’m going to travel across east, go right down, [and] around Tasmania,” he said.
“Then go to New Zealand, where I come from, and go right around. I’ve been over here for 37 years.”
When that time comes, he suspects the Shire of Laverton may struggle to find a replacement.
“Honestly, I know a few people out there say, ‘Oh, yes I can’.”
“But [when] you come out here and do it, it’s something else.”
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