I’m alive and nobody is more surprised and happy than I am. I’ll only mention one (out of many) reason: Road Trains. Any Australian who has driven outback knows what a Road Train is. Think very big semi-trailer with another one or two stuck on the back. You’ve got the hang of driving fantastically fast, gradually, over the course of five days. The legal limit is 110kph. You’ll be overtaken frequently if you drive at 120. But trucks, “lorries” (UK Speak) more or less confine themselves to the limit. There are now average-speed cameras. Truckies have always known where the cops are and where the cameras are. But this device has them beat, for their own good, sure! It automatically identifies vehicles over 4.5 tonnes weight – that is, NOT a van – and calculates the driver’s average speed over, what? 100 kilometers? So, no good speeding up between cameras. This means for the common ute/pickup voyager that, sooner or later, you will find yourself overtaking a road train. The roads are good. Straight and flat and my fotos give little impression of the fact that you can see to a 30k horizon and sometimes get a hint of further if the terrain permits it. You can on the larger version but I couldn’t send them.) The engineers were Romans. A road train coming towards you usually appears as a water tower in the distance. You’re seeing the white fibreglass wind streamliner that leads the air blast up and over the one-story-high trailers behind the prime mover. The body of the prime mover is hidden in the road’s “mirage effect” at a certain distance. Gradually it begins to make itself visible. First it gets two black legs then it forms itself into a recognisable object and then you start preparing yourself to stay real nice and steady on your side of the road. Of course, if you did do a head-on with one it would be over very quickly and with little damage, including psychological, to the road train or driver. Your engine would pass out through the back of your treasured transport/home with you a hard to-identify something in between One of the many little games you play over these great distances is to start counting the seconds from first sighting to the passage of the vehicle. Then you start trying to work out how far away it was when you first saw it. I found about 30 seconds was common. So, closing at about 220kph, you saw it about 2k up the track.
Anyway, passing an approaching road train is a thrilling but only a brief flirtation with death – the road is just wide enough for two of them to pass each other without going for a wander. Overtaking takes more planning. I overtook 2 in the past 2,300k which I concluded last evening here in Port Augusta. (About 560k to go… that has worked out about 400k further than I expected.) The last one was a bit of a worry. I came up behind it and stayed well back. The first one was a gentleman and perhaps realising how nervous I was, eventually gave his indicators a little flash to say – well, I don’t know what in truckie speak? “OK buddy you can f###ing GO now!” The second, on the 200k dead-straight stretch coming out of Broken Hill troubled me. He had to negociate an approaching Road Train himself while I was behind and he put himself half a metre onto the gravel shoulder. The entire back half, with some 32 wheels whose tyres cost about $1000 each (nothing like my friend who has a gold mine in the Klondike who pays for his earth moving gear $20,000 per tyre – second-hand!) well, the entire back half of the road train was drifting as if to overtake the first half. The driver pulled this off a couple of times and I can’t say if he was alarmed or not. I would guess not. He was down to about 100 and I had, days earlier shocked myself by realising that I had gone up to 130 on overtaking. So I got set to go. No worries about oncoming traffic – the road is empty to the horizon. So you take to the ‘wrong side of the road’ and go. To keep your wheels on the tarmac you have about 300m to your right and – for safety’s sake – about 500-1000mm on your left. It is like driving down a city block in height and extent and the sky does go dark. This is when you really hope the driver next to you does not go skateboarding on the gravel. Actually fear only comes into it before and after. At the time surgical concentration is the mode. Phew, my heart is racing just thinking about it. Hey, if you’ve got a Volvo or a great powerful 4WD that’s another thing. You go fast and steady and you’re by in quite a long! moment. But when you’re navigating your home, 3 surfboards, and a box with enough weight in it on the roof to need a lot of air in your rear tyres to keep them round… different story.
Anyway, let’s get off dicing with death and onto dealing it out: road kill. When I drove with the ex-wife and Jonno to NW Queensland, out past Longreach to Carisbrooke station 3 years ago, there was so much road kill you could go the whole way stepping from one dead animal to the next. Nearly all Kangaroos. Wedge-tail eagles more or less set up shop in groups of 20 or 30. Chatting as they gorged. For some reason, the roads were largely clear of road kill down here, farther south. In the first 1,500k I counted just 2, albeit fat, wallabies or small kangaroos… not sure which. Bit of a mess. I have not seen a single living one in 2,400k. (Had they all gone north and been run over?) However, and this surprised me, I counted no less than six dead European foxes. You’d think they’d be smarter having survived being imported expressly to be hunted. (What did Oscar Wilde say in reference to fox hunting? “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”). Just as I was giving up on wildlife in general, I saw a flock of emus, with their lovely brown tail feather drooping quite delicately. Had they been fluffier and a little more erect I could have mistaken them for Ostriches, which my two English surfing friends & I often saw when we cycled along the Garden Route some 1000k to Cape Town. Hmmm, funny how these adventures occur at the end of a relationship! Still, this time round I am not waking every morning miserable. Au contraire!
Of course, I wrote this as I drove, in my head. Or rather, this is precisely NOT what I wrote in my head as I drove. I surrender abjectly before the task of putting into a few paragraphs an impression of the really big bigness of the outback. And that is the impression when driving, almost flying, over it. God knows what the single cyclist I passed was thinking! He shamed me. I had been having thoughts like, “Oh F###. If the beast breaks down, I’m done out here.” Not dead, but I have no money for a tow and, pray tell me, what does a 100k tow cost? Then the repairs? I’d say to myself, Look, it’s done 181,000k There’s every chance it’ll do another 5 or 6, no? The outback passes your eyes hour after hour, day after day. But I should remark that this particular version of the outback trip has been beautiful, rather than bleak and desiccated. At no time was there not water standing somewhere. Thousands upon thousands of square kilometres passed with green as far as the eye could see. Indeed, it only got a little dry as I drove into South Australia yesterday, within 50k of the Spencer Gulf. I passed a farm at Wilmington some 20k from the gulf waters where some Charolais cattle were feeding on hay. I drove past millions of hectares of green without a domestic animal upon any one of them. I was shocked to come upon the actual Darling River in full flood. The colour of Rudyard Kipling’s “Great grey-green greasy Limpopo river”. That’d be the one that tells how the elephant got his trunk, if memory serves. In fact, leaving Gilgandra, at a petrol station, a Kiwi (the national, not the bird) told me that, seeing the surfboards on my roof, he’d guess I was heading to South Australia. I said I was. He told me that a bridge was down past Broken Hill which meant I would be unable to drive directly to Port Augusta, but would have to take a 400k detour via Mildura. Looking at the map I was almost tempted to head directly down that way and perhaps save a couple hundred klicks. As I was driving away it hit me how much pleasure he had in imparting that (bad) news. Schadenfreude is alive and well in the breast of the feral Kiwi. A couple hundred k up the road – I had decided to go the Broken Hill road as it was so straight and good and resigned myself to the long detour – I pulled in for a coffee. A fat girl (the girls are fat, the men are rake-thin outback. Strong arms but no bums, no idea why) a fat girls told me that No, the South Australian engineers were way better than the NSW ones gave them credit for. They had filled the then flooded, now dry, creek and built a road around the bridge. They just didn’t understand, she said, how quickly it floods and how quickly it dries round here. No more the feral Kiwi. The busted bridge was at a small settlement called Cockburn. The locals, (and what gives me any right to bicker?) pronounce the name not as the Scots and English, nor for that matter the Actor, James Co’burn, who chopped out the offending consonants. They pronounce it more as a male venereal complaint. The bridge hardly merited the description. (Of ‘bridge’, I mean of course…) A couple of concrete slabs set up like dominoes both horizontally and vertically which was no match for 2M of rushing mud. But the staunch SA engineers had filled it and faired it and we all drove round the bridge in a cloud of red-brown dust and with nary a care. But still a tad worried about the pronunciation. I did cry something lusty and rude to the Kiwi.
I won’t do the travel guide here but I have to thank Danika for the tip to take the Waterfall Way across the Great Dividing Range. Although the last 5 k uphill to the point where the rivers change direction tried the beast mortally in second and third gears. I realised then how loaded she is. When I took the foto of the tiny Newell falls she was pissing water and coolant all over the road as the radiator boiled fit to blow. After that, brave thing, she has run cool – even at 130kph. Phew. If I can attach it, the picture of the Ebor Falls, does no justice to it. Or the dodgey viewing platform that tenuously held the nervous writer above a 200M drop. Note the camera shake.
Oh just one pleasing note: I knew I was in the outback when truckies started to raise the hand to salute you. There is that sense of being “out there together”. The salute takes a number of different forms from different types of driver. The Common Trucky salute is the right index finger raised (print toward you). It is the Parisian demand for service too: “Service! Garcon…” I found mine was more along the lines of the night owl’s pinion feathers. The left hand, fingers slightly spread in a spiral. (In the bird it works to maintain laminar flow and avoid (noisy, hence warning the about to be dead rabbit) detachment of air as the wing terminates. You know how a pigeon’s wing whistles?) I don’t think mine was so functional but it did serve to express the pleasure I felt in being recognised as being fully “out there”. In all senses. Women were ambivalent about waving but when they did it was frequently the “High Four”. The thumb remained attached to the wheel for very good reasons. I never saw a child in a car. Perhaps they were all in the back working over an XBox 360. Or watching a video. God, speaking of toys! I saw huge rolling homes that actually towed a CAR behind! And I worried about (and finally had to concede I could not bring) my mountain bike.
Last night I took a sleep in a Motel run by a Sikh called Gorinda, here in Port Augusta. Charged the MAC, the camera and the phone. Spoke to Danika who may have been cooking for Sam. I was too amazed to catch her to take it in. Every other night has been by the side of the road in the bush. I got my guitar out at Tamworth in honour of the coming Country Music Festival. I had a good coffee and charming service (made to feel reelly welcome) in Gilgandra at the Jolly Cauli. The six foot transvestite who ran the business proved that hospitality trumps gender perceptions, for me anyway – hands-down. She was not exactly Priscilla Queen of the Desert, nor was she the Lebanese one who gave Danika her lift up this way all those year ago. But the tradition is strong. In Willcania, next to the Darling river, a nice Country Women’s Association type gave me coffee and a home-made cake. The shop was called the Elliott sisters. When I enquired about the sepia print of two very beautiful young women – although the adjective ‘handsome’ contends with ‘beautiful’, she told me they were the original sisters. She told me this story. The older sister Isabel had been engaged to a local farmer for 18 years. One day she took her courage in both hands and said,
“Fred, have you thought about marriage?”
“Yes, but who’d have us?”
And on that bombshell, Luvya,