Sunday, 22 July 2012

Northern Territory Trip 2012

My winter holidays were spent on the mainland, quad biking and dune boarding, eating bush tomatoes on the back of a horse, narrowly escaping death on a scooter, sleeping outside in the desert, climbing the highest peak in the Flinders Ranges, swimming in thermal springs under starlight, wandering around sculptures in the middle of an outback paddock, climbing rusted, rickety water towers, nailing my footwear to trees, painting dot art in a little Aboriginal community, visiting pubs festooned with old bras, hand-feeding enormous fish and just generally having the time of my life.

Be warned: you do not want to read this unless you are my grandmother, or somebody else who changed my nappies. I favour metaphors more flowery than the gardens of Buckingham Palace, and I’m long-winded enough to put Scheherazade to shame. 

23/6: Day 1 – Spirit of Tasmania

After months of counting down, finally it was no more sleeps and we were on our way. After stopping in Launceston so Mum could remind me (for the sixty-third time) not to get eaten by a crocodile, that is.

We had to pass through quarantine to get on the boat, and the officer ran through the usual checklist then asked Lawrence “do you have any Vegemite?” Of course, he was ready to fight to the death to protect his Vegemite and walnut sandwiches and lied through his teeth, saying we only had peanut butter. Note to self, Lawrence – don’t lie about things you have stored in clear plastic containers, especially when they’re not even contraband anyway.

We stood on the deck and watched the boat leave the shore, and I told Lawrence it was too late to turn back now – he was stuck with me. He pointed out he could always wait at the wharf and catch the boat back tomorrow.

Still suffering post-traumatic stress from the boat trip to Flinders, I chewed some sea sickness gum Dad had given me. It should have come with a warning label, or a warning label written in English, anyway. After a couple of minutes, my tongue felt tingly and swollen and my throat felt like it was closing up. I concede that yes, it’s probably an effective way of stopping vomit coming up it, but arguably excessive, like cutting off your limbs to avoid sunburn. To add insult to injury, not only did I feel like I’d had a back-alley root canal, but I then had to attempt to sleep in a dentist’s chair that was apparently designed by yoga practitioners. The foot rest barely raised at all, so if you tried to lie back it was like being on a waterslide without a welcoming pool of water to splash into at the end.

Four hours of attempting to twist my body into a Downward Dog later, I gave up, went downstairs to the lounge with Lawrence and, against regulations, drooled on their couches until morning.

24/6: Day 2 – Overland Corner

I started the morning with bum frostbite down at Port Melbourne beach. Stainless steel toilets are a godless abomination.

After fondling every jacket at Victoria Market and leaving jam donut stains on at least half of them, we hit the road. Well, Lawrence hit the road while I snored. After an unsuccessful few minutes of trying to keep my eyes open, he pulled over in front of a SORE EYES? HAVE A POWER NAP sign to help lay my seat back – I did point out that it was probably aimed at the driver, not the passenger, but as usual he ignored me.

To start with, we could have been in Tasmania still – in fact, as we went sailing gaily over railroad tracks I had to remind myself that I should probably look to see if anything was coming, since they might actually have the occasional train running over here. As the hours ticked by, though, the verges of the road grew steadily more and more orange.

We passed a huge sign sternly admonishing us to STOP CREEPING, and I did my best to obey its cryptic command, but completely ignored the signs telling us to throw out all fruit – until we reached the checking station. Lawrence had learnt his lesson about lying about food in clear containers, so we lost the bananas and grapes, but the cunningly secreted oranges and apples we kept. As we sailed off into the distance, fugitives from justice, I felt like a smuggler or pirate. I briefly considered putting on the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack to punctuate the moment, but I decided it might be overkill.

We passed into South Australia, and I greeted it cordially, this being our first introduction. Night had fallen, and we were still looking for a campsite. It briefly looked like I might have to sleep in a briar patch Brer Rabbit-style, but we kept moving. Lawrence told me to be on the lookout for B52 road, so obviously Love Shack played on repeat in my head for the next fifty kilometres.

And now I’m by a fire so warm my cheeks are flushed, with a heavily sugared cup of tea and a whole fridge of Kit Kats at my disposal, and I don’t have to worry about choking on my own saliva tonight. What more could anyone wish for?

25/6: Day 3 – Mambray Creek

I bounded out of bed cheerfully at 7:30, fresh as a daisy in the same clothes I’d been wearing and sleeping in for the past three days. Lawrence greeted me with porridge, but I was slightly concerned when he poured some milk into it, paused then cautiously sniffed the container. As it turned out, it wasn’t lumpy for the usual reason – it had frozen overnight.

We stopped briefly in Morgan to watch the ferry on the Darling River, and Lawrence admired the houseboats awfully wistfully for a man who didn’t bother to pack a fishing rod for the trip.

I’ve seen coconut trees, and lemon trees, and almond trees, but today was my first encounter with a shoe tree. There must have been almost a hundred of them festooning this middle-of-nowhere tree, many of them marked with the names and addresses of their previous owners. I wished I’d brought the aqua shoes Mum gave me, so I could have made my own offering to the desert.
A packet of liquorice and two date scones later, we made it to Mambray Creek by midday and set about the important business of the day – showering. After shivering and vainly waiting for the water to rise above lukewarm, I was about to curse fate and demand a refund of my campsite fee, when suddenly it got almost hot enough to leave blisters to remember it by. By the time I got out, I felt human again.

We went on a brief stroll, during which I attempted to befriend some emus and was resoundingly snubbed. Call that a beak?, their snooty stares seemed to say, and just where are your feathers, human child? Perhaps I would have met with a better reception if I hadn’t bothered to shave my legs before we came.

We relaxed around the campfire for the rest of the day – well, I rested and Lawrence dutifully did our laundry. I finished the Tall Man, an amazing book but, as I was sadly reminded, non-fiction doesn’t always have a happy ending. During subsequent conversation I formed a genius plan to create stylish yet rugged furniture out of old sleepers from the abandoned Ghan railway, but my bubble was abruptly burst by Lawrence’s reminder that you can’t take any plant material into Tasmania. Sadly, I feel that my smuggling skills probably aren’t up to the task.

This was one of Elli’s favourite spots, where Lawrence scattered her ashes (just below where my underwear is now hanging, oddly enough). It’s a nice place to sit around the campfire and look at the stars, and think of her.

26/6: Day Four – Parachilna Gorge

Today I walked the highest peak in the Flinders Ranges in $4 Kmart shoes, and it’s the closest I’ll ever come to doing it barefoot.

I thought Lawrence had, with uncharacteristic generosity, let me sleep in until 8 rather than 7:30, but he was honest enough to inform me that my clock was still running on Tasmanian time, half an hour ahead. We drove into Port Augusta to stock up on groceries before starting the Oodnadatta track, which meant half an hour of passing through the kind of shrouding fog usually only experienced in gothic Victorian novels and cheap Bigfoot movies. I visited the Outback Centre while Lawrence did the shopping, and even though I didn’t have time to go through the exhibition itself, it didn’t stop me buying a water bottle holder patterned with gorgeous dot art and a couple of postcard paintings. After studying the copyright infringements of the Darwin shops, I’d much rather buy them from community-controlled places like this.

With his typical flair for understatement, Lawrence had described Wilpena Pound as “oh, about a three hour walk”. And it was – one way. We arrived at midday, and I dragged myself up, cursing $2 double cheeseburgers with every step. At the beginning of the walk, there were soft spines scattered everywhere, and I was distressed at what was apparently the site of a horrific echidna massacre, until I realised they were the fallen trunks of the Yeti trees that grow everywhere here.

It must have been National Get Off The Couch Day, or possibly Embrace Your Local Environment! Day, because there were at least half a dozen school groups walking the same track. As I was finally nearing the summit, one of the teenage boys on the return trip informed me sagely “Don’t bother – it’s a vertical climb and it’s shit anyway”.

I beg to differ. It was cold at the peak, but the virtuous cold of drying sweat and mountain breeze, and I didn’t mind. The view was amazing, not only for the aesthetics but for the history and the struggles of the people who farmed it, rebuilding the road every time it flooded.

After the toil of the ascent, my adrenaline was still pumping, and once we’d navigated the slippery steep angles and reached the flat, I jogged until I was puffing again. With three kilometres still to go, when I was starting to get bored and wishing for the car, I came across a smiley face scratched in the red dirt, and I couldn’t help but reciprocate.

It wasn’t far off dark when we finally made it back, with an hour’s drive ahead before we reached our destination for the night. The dark itself doesn’t bother me, but the animals flooding the road at dusk do. The smaller animals scuttle frantic and panicked, but the kangaroos hop unhurriedly and even sit in the road, with the casual air of those who believe they are masters of their domain.

We set up camp in the dark again, and even after walking fifteen kilometres with no lunch, the first priority was starting the campfire. We’ll be as stiff and footsore as geriatric camels tomorrow, but it was worth it.

27/6: Day Five – Beresford

On the road out this morning, there was a sign with pictures of kangaroos, evidently warning drivers to be wary, and above it someone had strung a banner proclaiming ‘Eat some today!’ Perhaps the Roadkill Café will soon be franchising to Parachilna.

The coal mines might not seem to be the most exciting tourist destination, but they were astounding beautiful, not scattered craters as I expected, but enormous ragged cliffs. There wasn’t any coal visible from the lookout, but on the sides of the mounds as we drove out there were great piles of it, enough to fill every naughty child’s stocking for the next hundred years and still have enough left to light your fire.

So here I am, just driving along, minding my own business, when all of a sudden I’m not so much driving as sort of coasting, and by sort of coasting I mean coasting to a standstill. Five days in, and the new petrol pump had packed it in. Nothing daunts a Jack of All Trades, though, and we were soon on our way, after I carefully but efficiently ate biscuits while Lawrence replaced it. When I wasn’t reading, I did spare a moment to hope that none of the passing caravans would run over his sticking-out legs.

I’d been anticipating our next stop for over a year, ever since Lawrence first showed me photos. Australia’s answer to Stonehenge: Planehenge. This is not the kind of place with billboards and a turnstile and a smiling attendant waiting to take your money: the enormous sculptures are literally just sitting in a paddock on the side of the road, waiting for you to come and find them. The most prominent was obviously the two planes stuck tail-end in the ground like a landing gone horribly wrong. My favourite, though, was the Ghan Hover Bus Library, housed in an old weather-beaten suitcase that was its only protection from the rain, given that the bus no longer had any windows. Briefly, I also toyed with the notion of creating my own hubcaps-tied-to-a-ladder-with-mattress-springs drum kit, then I remembered that our landlord lives next door.

Lawrence says that in his seventy-two years, he’s never seen water in Lake Eyre, and that he probably never will again. From the distance we were at, it was barely a glimmer.

Having stopped at the Mound Springs and swooned at their glorious warmth, I bounded optimistically down to the water at Beresford and stuck my fingers in, only to immediately draw them back as if they’d been bitten – which, if frostbite counts, they had. I settled for reading in the sunshine instead, perched on a log by the water’s edge.

But before long the sun was setting, and since the view was obscured by the trees, there was only one obvious solution: climbing the water tower. (Well, two, but I didn’t have a packet of balloons and a bottle of helium handy.) The bottom rungs were broken off above arms-reach, so I had to carry our ladder over and clamber awkwardly from one to the other. It took a few heart palpitations to get there, but the view over the desert was amazing.

28/6: Day Six – Dalhousie Springs

It was nine in the morning, and the pub was already half full. The main attraction wasn’t the alcohol, though. Strange as it seems, it was the décor. It ranges from the relatively mundane, entire walls and ceilings plastered thick with business cards, to the creative, children’s drawings of outback roads and poems penned in ode to the pub, to the surreal, a gas mask hanging from the ceiling with ‘Dear Steve – thank fuck I didn’t have to use it’ scrawled on the visor. There isn’t a spare inch that isn’t filled with mementoes left by those passing through, whether it’s signed team jerseys or tea towels or the foot from a dress mannequin.

It’s gimmicky, of course, but subversive too. There are gold coins glued to the floor for the gullible, and the exit door has handles on both sides, poking fun at the tourists who invariably reach for the wrong one. There’s a charge of a dollar per photo for the benefit of the Flying Doctor, and I looked in vain for the collection box, until I was told to drop it into one of the slots on the toaster that sits on the bar. It’s a small fee – Lawrence tells me that in the Birdsville Pub, walking in wearing a backwards cap results in an automatic fine.

We were en route to Oodnadatta when Lawrence abruptly told me to pull off the road. The old Ghan railway was running parallel to the road, and it was time to find some of Australia’s history to burn. He donned overalls and brought out the chainsaw, cutting the railway sleepers into firewood-sized chunks. It was hard to find the road again when we set off – it looks almost identical to the rough off-road tracks scratched by four-wheel drives. It was rough, and the rattling of the car drowned out the bass so only the shrill instruments were audible, distorting the music almost beyond recognition.

Well over a hundred years, and the Algebuckina Bridge is still sturdy. We can testify to this as a fact, because we walked out on it, past the wire mesh and the handrail onto the wooden sleepers, nothing but air between them and nothing to catch hold of if you fall. Some were missing, whether from the ravages of time or tourists I don’t know, and we had to half-jump to the next. I was tentative at first, but Lawrence wasn’t, and as usual I followed his lead.

The Hagley-pink Oodnadatta Roadhouse serves the best chips known to man and every other living species, and I briefly considered moving there until I discovered petrol was $2.15 a litre. And perhaps I should have stayed, because I was disappointed to find Dalhousie was full to bursting with campervans and four wheel drives – it seemed we were back in the suburbs again. I walked down to the Springs and ventured in as far as my knees, almost retreating at the intense temperature. There were ten or so men lounging in rubber tyres, and one of them detached his mouth from his beer can long enough to call out that clothing was prohibited, and I decided that perhaps this wasn’t the optimal time for a dip.

It was damper time tonight, and I’m pleased to report that my culinary skills remain superb. Only Philistines would tell you otherwise.

29/6: Day Seven – Alambi

Instead of being greeted with a steaming bowl of hot porridge smothered in brown sugar, this morning I was met with a man in overalls declaring “I have a job for you”. It seems some mischievous desert sprite apparently took umbrage to our relief at the back shock absorber turning out to still be intact, and early this morning Lawrence made the unwelcome discovery that the front one was shot. It was a simple repair job, though – so simple I wonder why I’ve been paying mechanics a small fortune in labour all these years.

We couldn’t leave without one last pilgrimage to the Springs, of course. Hundreds of little finger-length fish immediately swarmed to suck at my legs – I suppose they were seeking the salt from my sweat, though they seemed to be giving my armpits a wide berth. This was my second visit, having spontaneously decided to head down close to ten the night before, when it had finally regurgitated all the people.

It was magic. Everything was still, and the only sounds were the sleepy nighttime noises of the bush animals and the occasional splash from an over-ambitious kick. The moon was just bright enough to make out the shadowy shapes of the trees that surround the water, cocooning me from the outside world. I drifted for over an hour, sometimes curled in a rubber tyre and sometimes just floating, always staring up at the sky, and I can’t remember ever feeling so at peace with the world. Nobody could be unhappy under stars like those.                                                                

The experience was different in the hard light of day with half a dozen kids splashing and screeching at each other to stop peeing in the water, but even without the peace and tranquillity, a long hot bath is nothing to sneeze at. Eventually I got out, braving the transition from 38 degree water to 15 degree weather, and stared in dismay at the bench where I’d left my towel – which now had three almost identical maroon towels. I had no idea which one was mine, and I was starting to turn blue. Eventually I picked one at random and ran, assuming we’d be gone before they got out and formulating my legal defence just in case we weren’t.

There must be nothing good on television up in the land of Mechanical Gods, because we weren’t even halfway to Old Andado before we had to jack the car up again, this time because the back tyre was shredded almost to pieces. After we replaced it, Lawrence told me we’ll fix it when we reach the campsite, and I was afraid he wasn’t joking – and he wasn’t.

At long last, my skateboard (“spare firewood”, says Lawrence) got the chance to strut its stuff at Old Andado. The dunes weren’t quite steep enough, and the Olympic team won’t be coming knocking on my door, but I shoved and cajoled it and dragged myself back up the slope time and again, and there were brief, breathless moments where the board picked up speed and I slid and laughed until it bogged and I tumbled off again.

I found it hard to really connect with Old Andado, because after driving into a car park and walking past the tourist cabins to get to the house, it felt like some kind of replica rather than the once-home of real people. It’s different for Lawrence, because he visited when Molly still lived out there alone, battling the dust and loading firewood into the oven to cook under the corrugated iron roof in the sweltering heat. But I spent some time looking through her bookshelves, choosing one and sitting in one of her armchairs to read it, and it’s hard not to know somebody at least a little by seeing the worlds they like to inhabit, so she was a little more real to me after that.

We followed the Binns track for miles to reach our campsite. I keep thinking in miles: the word ‘kilometres’ doesn’t seem to adequately describe the endless juddering journey over ruts, sliding through deep sand, stopping to open gate after gate, every one with a new latch to figure out, rocking around corners and hoping the world doesn’t suddenly turn upside down. Lawrence drove all the way today, but I was content just to look out the window and watch the Northern Territory drift by. There are almost never fences along the side of the road here, but endless gates - so many that I suggested a fee of $1 per gate opened, Lawrence suggested I walk the rest of the way to Alice, and we wisely left it at that.

I only know this is Alambi because Lawrence tells me so: there are no signposts out here, and it’s not marked on the map. After the deep rich sand of Old Andado, the pinky-orange dirt here looks almost anaemic. We haven’t seen another car since midday, and if I were Tom Cruise I’d be befriending soccer balls by now. I love it.

30/6: Day Eight – Lawrence Gorge (Alice)

The only thing soap has been used for in the last few days is getting the tyre back on the rim, so it was definitely time for a shower this morning. We rigged up the tent, and thank goodness Mum gave me midget genes, because the shower tent only reaches up to my shoulders (provided there’s no wind to blow it lower). Standing inside it, I had to feel blindly around inside the (running) engine to find the switch to flip the water on, naked and shivering and hoping I wasn’t about to grab something hot or sharp and spinning. I still have all my fingers for now, but who knows what tomorrow will bring.

It was another slow overall-clad morning with tyre repairs and chainsawing, and we didn’t make it to Alice until after midday. I’m almost certain there’s a special section of Hell reserved for those who visit the outback and don’t tour the Flying Doctor headquarters, so for the sake of our eternal souls, that was our first stop. I particularly liked the medicine chests supplied to homesteads, with each bottle and bandage labelled with different numbers so the doctor could diagnose and prescribe over the radio. Not quite as idiot-proof as it seems: one early patient notoriously reported that they were out of number 9 pills, but he’d given his wife a number 5 and a number 4 and they’d fixed her up no worries. The early radios were pedal-powered, and I decided not to think too hard about what you were supposed to do if you happened to be calling about a broken leg.

With unintentional irony, I then left Lawrence to do our laundry while I went to investigate the Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, founded by Molly Clark of Old Andado. The highlight was an amazing quilt, with 343 different squares. Each had material representing the achievement of a different woman in her particular field, with a white section underneath for her signature. Many of them also bore encouraging messages ranging from ‘never give up’ to ‘don’t do drugs’. I stayed until it closed, surreptitiously snapping photos on my phone.

We’re camped almost an hour out of Alice, since the prospect of sharing a caravan park with endless grey nomads made me inclined to drink the container of battery acid stored in the back. I’ve never been so glad we packed the lilo and not just the Thermarest, since we’re sleeping by the river on a bed of rocks, so rocky the pegs won’t go in and the tent ropes are weighed down with the heaviest ones we could find. This might even be my favourite place so far – but then, I think that every night.

1/7: Day Nine – Tennant Creek (sort of)

This morning we showered out of the creek without bothering to put up the tent, and every breeze was like the icy hand of death.

Wallace Rockhole is small and dusty, like everywhere else out here, but its art centre is neither. The create-your-own dot art is meant to cost $25, but he took one look at my pitiful attempt and said “I’ll only charge you $5”. There was a local woman painting in the corner and I was hesitant to interrupt, especially since direct questioning is considered rude in Aboriginal culture, but she was listening and laughing at my conversation with the manager, so I went over and talked to her about her art. From a distance it just looked like small dots, but up close it was hundreds of tiny ants with layers of painted detail, and she told me a little about the story behind it, how the honey ants burrow deep into the ground near the mulga tree and women use their digging sticks to extract them.

It was a culture shock being back on the flat, straight highway again, with no prospect of imminent fiery death by car crash to keep things entertaining. Even the 130 k speed limit wasn’t as exciting as it should have been, considering that the four wheel drive sweats and sobs when you push it to 95.  We reached the Devil’s Marbles as intended, but about fifteen minutes too late, so instead of being backlit by glorious sunset colours, they were little more than vague lumps in the darkness. I bet this sort of thing never happens to David Attenborough.

Today is Territory Day, and I’d been bewailing my failure to buy fireworks in Alice, but Tennant Creek welcomed us in style. When we pulled up to get gas, kids in the park barely a hundred metres across the road were letting off endless strings of them, and I’m pretty sure I was even more excited than they were. (Yes, my standard for joy is indeed ‘Oooh, pretty colours!’)

We’re staying in a cabin tonight, and I fully intend to sleep the night in the bottom of the shower with the hot water running. 

2/7: Day Ten – Katherine

“Lawrence, you’re going the wrong way.”

“No, I’m not.”

It became evident that we’d got our wires not so much crossed as tangled into a snarly ball and given to a kitten to play with. Lawrence had wanted to drive all night, but I insisted we stop so I could go horse-riding in Tennant Creek the next day, and had shivered all night under paper-thin blankets as the price for my insistence. He, meanwhile, had woken me at seven so we could continue travelling, down the endless stretch of boring highway. Tired and with tears threatening, I did what any sensible person would do: curled up with my Hello Kitty pillow and went to sleep.

I felt better within the hour. We stopped in briefly at the Daly Waters pub, also festooned with the detritus of customers (though bras rather than caps this time) but I cannot think of it as anything but a cheap William Creek imitation. I do have to admit that they have their own style – next to the Angle Parking – Any Angle’ are ancient parking meters dug into the ground, all Expired of course, and I have to wonder how many people try to put coins in them. A rough hut across the road sells seed jewellery, with a hand-scrawled sign out the front that reads ‘under new management – worse than ever’. We cooked toast in the shade under a tree, but I sacrificed most of it once I discovered the delights of the apostle birds, willing to crash-land on my outstretched hand for a second in order to snatch at the crumbs.

Today we visited the station where We of the Never Never was written, and I sat in front of her husband’s grave while I read about his death. I was terrified that it would be swarmed with campervans, parents checking their emails while their kids swung on the headstones, but the cemetery was quiet and tree-shaded. I cringed at her descriptions of the ‘niggers’, but learnt to look past the terminology to the sentiment, which was more enlightened than you’ll find in many outback pubs today. The last leg of our highway journey was clouded by smoke from the burning off along the edges of the road, commonplace here but still a novelty to me.

We’re camping right on the water at Springvale Homestead. I shouldn’t have fed the resident duck the raw sausage I spat out (thanks, Lawrence), because after that its concept of personal space was nonexistent, to the point of laying its beak on my leg in a companionable manner. Enormous fruit bats are flying overhead, and there is the promise of crocodiles and turtles in the river (I assume they’ve signed some sort of peace treaty), so there are red glaring eyes in the darkness to look forward to, and doubtless I’ll go to bed humming Never Smile At a Crocodile yet again.

3/7: Day Eleven – Kakadu

I stood in the Woolworths car park this morning and looked around, trying to picture the Katherine of We of the Never Never, population seven, but my imagination failed me. The shop windows bear stickers saying ‘We Accept Basics Cards’, evidence of the legacy of the Northern Territory Intervention, and I wasn’t sad to leave. We stopped in at Edith Falls on the way to Kakadu, and it was the kind of flat, easy walk that makes you feel like you’re not working hard enough to be getting anything worth having. The falls were beautiful in the classic postcard sense, but I wished it was warm enough to plunge in and swim, or alternately that I wasn’t too chicken to plunge in anyway. Sadly, neither came to pass.

Lawrence was apoplectic when he saw the sign stating that there was a $25 entry fee to Kakadu, and when he realised that it was per person he hung an immediate U-turn and headed back the way we came. We’d travelled another 20 k down the highway to Darwin when I decided bugger this, we’ve driven thousands of kilometres to get here, what’s 25 bucks? Plus I suspect they refuse entry to the ferry if you tell them you’ve been to the Northern Territory and you bypassed Kakadu. (I’ve heard rumours that the government also intern you as an enemy alien, but they refuse to either confirm or deny.)
Our first stop was a walk out to the picnic area of Mardugal, sans picnic, and though there were more people in the campground than there are stars in the sky, we had the billabong to ourselves. I was astonished at its size. I’d assumed it would be a large puddle just big enough to waltz your Matilda by, but the people who’ve swum the English Channel would struggle to make it from one side to the other, and not only because they’d probably be swallowed by a crocodile halfway.

The plan was to camp at Shady Billabong, out along a 4WD track that would hopefully deter the campervans, but man makes plans and God laughs. It was closed, so we were stuck in Djarradjin, which was only shady once we put the canopy up, and the only billabong in sight was of the Paddlepop variety. The ranger came around to check our camping fee receipts, which we hadn’t actually paid, but luckily he was like a snake – more scared of me than I was of him – and he accepted my meekly proffered money without demurral.

I don’t know what day of the week it is, but I do know that it’s NAIDOC Day, and there was a free barbeque and slideshow in celebration, sitting on folding chairs under a yellow-orange full moon. Buffalo tastes a lot like beef, albeit rather tough, smoky, salty beef.

The ranger’s nine year old (ten in fifteen days) gave a talk on bush food, and one of her topics was nuts, large as a fist and mottled with irregular indentations. Her father carried them around the audience, asking “Does anyone want to see my nuts?” and without missing a beat she scolded “Dad, if you say that one more time you’re fired”. She was more entertaining than informative, but it was fantastic to see such strong culture and connection to country in the kids. Her mother spoke of her own childhood at the end, talking about breaking the nuts open with a rock if they wanted peanut butter, or using it as a cricket ball if they were more energetic than hungry. Her parting advice was that we couldn’t leave the park without licking the backside of a green ant - advice I decided to take with a rather large grain of salt.

4/7: Day Twelve - Darwin

In the time-honoured manner of all the best breakfast shows, Lawrence and I started the day with a lively debate, in which I called him a racist, he called me naïve, and we dropped the topic each feeling that we’d won the argument.

We reached Nourlangie by eight for the circuit walk of the rock art, and I enjoyed it with an enthusiasm I never managed to muster at the Louvre. The paintings are expressive and raw and real. Some are crude, even, but unlike a stately Monet depicting hat-bedecked gentry picnicking, every painting is so much more than it appears, with its own story to tell, not just of the Dreaming but of the people who painted it and the landscape it interprets. A ranger told the story of the young man who was turned into a crocodile for his sins, the rock atop the cliff that was once a feather from his headdress standing as a reminder to those who might also stray.

Following this, the walk around a billabong should have been a boring anticlimax, but it was gorgeous, a shady well-walked path alongside the edge of the water – too close to the edge, as it turned out, because we’d only walked twenty minutes when we reached a sign marking the track as closed due to seasonal flooding.

Our last stop was the Bowali Centre. I never have much patience for the multitude of little disjointed posters in places like this, but I read the information on crocodiles simply because the photos may be the closest I get to seeing one, and it squeezed my heart. In the endless dry season, the sunburnt crocodile piles mud on itself and lies down in the barren waterhole, waiting either for rain or death. The six-metre skeleton beside the poster testifies silently that sometimes, death comes first. 

As we entered Darwin, the above-ground water pipes that have been our constant companion for this trip changed as suddenly as a butterfly bursting from its cocoon, no longer a dirty grey but a rainbow of colours, painted to depict plants and animals of this world and of the Dreaming. We checked into a caravan park, but only stopped long enough to claim the square metre of earth we were allotted: I was itching to be out exploring.

Aquascene was hugely fun in a way only five year olds and I can truly appreciate. At first I stood on the steps leading down to the water, tearing pieces off the bread and throwing them out to the fish, and it was fun, but rather like feeding ducks in a pond. Then I discovered the boat ramp. Standing knee-deep in water with large and slimy fish sliding against my skin, I held soggy bread out until the leg-length whoppers came and took it from my hand, courteously regurgitating flesh when they accidentally ingested my fingers as well. Occasionally they would give my hand a wet kiss, just checking they hadn’t missed any delicious crumbs. Sitting on the edge of the ramp, I dangled my feet in the water and enormous fish surfaced to consume my toes, an understandable mistake given that they’re so pasty-pale they resemble nothing more than a lumpy piece of white bread.

You would think that for my first night in the new city that I hope will one day be my home, I would have big and thrilling plans, but what I really wanted to do was walk along Nightcliff Beach, and sit and eat noodles on the foreshore while I watched the sun set over the water. So I did.

5/7: Day Thirteen - Darwin

Having been booted out of the Magistrate’s Court, I decided to meander aimlessly around the city, and in my meanderings passed a scooter hire shop. I walked another block and a half then, struck by a vision of myself gliding along the waterfront with my hair blowing in the sea breeze, I turned around and walked back. Here are three things I soon learnt about that vision:
1. The bike of my imagination was driving itself, while I sat on it having a merry old time. In reality, bikes from Cheapa Scooter Hire do not drive themselves, though it often feels like they’re doing the steering, generally in the direction of some sort of large wall.
2. It is difficult for your hair to blow in the breeze when you’re wearing an enormous helmet, even when the strap is so loose it falls and dangles around your neck every time you go above forty.
3. Inconveniently, beaches tend not to be located in the middle of the central business district, and there are busy roads with traffic lights and roundabouts to tackle before you reach their sandy sanctuary.

And here is one thing that I should have learnt quickly, but somehow failed to do so:
1. A scooter is not a pushbike, and it won’t stop when you put your feet on the ground. Your feet will, however, bounce and drag in a painful manner, and the bike will wobble like a drunk after pub closing time.

It was a good thing I hadn’t eaten lunch, because I would have lost it. I wobbled tentatively along unfamiliar roads, petrified and never doing more than half the speed limit, being sprayed with gravel and other sharp detritus in rebuke by overtaking cars, until I reached the shoreline of Fannie Bay where the limit was a blessed 30 k. Nevertheless, I was still passed by a grandmother pushing a pram, and by a class of kindergarteners running three-legged races, though I beat the man with a wooden leg by a scant head. Another guy on a rental scooter sailed past, one hand resting idly on the throttle while the other hung nonchalantly by his side. I wanted to spit at him but my mouth was dry with terror. A police car drove up behind me, and my instant thought was “thank God, when they arrest me for dangerous driving I can get off this thing”.

The problem with steering is that you have to lean, and the problem with leaning your tender flesh toward harsh, unforgiving-looking bitumen is that an inner voice of self-preservation says insistently ‘No, please don’t do that, I’d really rather you didn’t, thank you ever so much’. (It seems my inner voice is rather peculiarly British.) And when I paid attention to it just for a millisecond, that was all it took to miss a turn and plough straight into the barrier. I bounced hard, and continued bouncing off it at erratic intervals, limbs flailing with the shock of the impact and cars honking and swerving. My mind couldn’t seem to produce anything more than “SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” when really “BRAKE! BRAKE! BRAKE!” would have been a much more appropriate response.

I joke, but I really was scared. In a car, you sit in a comfortable armchair while the lines on the highway move past you, but on a scooter it’s you hurtling down the road, and if you crash and roll, it’s you crashing and rolling, not the car.

A car honked at me, and I ignored it as the kind of thing that happens every couple of minutes or so (which at that point in time, it was), until it pulled up alongside me with the passenger brandishing my phone out the window, which evidently had fallen out of my pocket while I was busy trying not to die and not paying it much attention. Getting it back involved a unique form of one-man Twister where I tried to simultaneously hold the bike upright and stretch to reach it, since of course I had no idea how to get it on the stand, and I briefly considered suggesting she toss it on the side of the road and leave it there. (I only refrained because I’d had more than my fill of strange looks for one day.)

It was fifteen minutes until the travelling harbinger of death on wheels had to be returned to the hell from whence it came, which would have been a relief, except I had no map and no idea of where I was going. Blithely confident that, having had the misfortune to rent this monstrous contraption, nothing else bad could possibly happen to me today, I more or less picked roads at random. This was a mistake. I ended up on the major highway heading out of town, which was quite possibly the worst case scenario, and the thirty or so cars behind me wondering why they were suddenly stuck doing thirty k an hour didn’t seem to be enjoying it either. I was running red light after red light, simply because I wasn’t going fast enough to zoom through orange, and I wasn’t going slow enough to remember which one was the brake in time.

I eventually managed to pull off into a petrol station, and after prevailing upon a kindly pitying man to show me how to get the bike on the stand, went inside to pay for my $1.60 of fuel, and asked the attendant how to get back into the city.

“Oh, no worries,” she said. “Just pull across the four lanes of traffic then find a spot to do an illegal u-turn back the way you came.”

Yes, sure, no worries. This was no small ask for somebody who crashed trying to navigate a bend in the road. How I eventually managed to get back to the rental shop is between me and God.

The woman greeted me cheerfully, and just now informed me that during my first perilous laps around the car park, a couple of observers had come in to suggest that this maniac who couldn’t seem to find the brake shouldn’t be allowed on the road – however, by that point I’d already signed the waiver, so she was unconcerned.

“Did you have fun?” she asked. “Would you do it again?”

“Yes,” I lied, beaming cheerfully. “Absolutely!”

If Mindil Beach Sunset Market had a Creation story, it would be of Salamanca Market dreaming of all it wished it could be, and the dream swimming the sea to coalesce into a riot of tie-dye, jewellery and stalls called Happy High Herbs. I’d walked the whole thing a couple of times without buying anything, and was starting to think I should buy something greasy on a stick and sit down quietly for the next hour, when I heard music. It was loud and wild, the Salamanca buskers on steroids, with one man playing drums at a furious speed while his partner blew into no less than four didgeridoos. I loved them instantly. Even knowing that in the more sedate environs of my Battery Point bedroom, it will likely sound raucous and grating, I bought their CD without hesitation.
Village Cinemas will forever be tainted by the memory of the Deckchair Cinema, serving up double chocolate cake under the stars while small nocturnal animals scurry underfoot and hope you’ll drop some. The movie, Boy, was funny and strange and beautiful, but I’ll be afraid to watch it again in case it loses its magic.

6/7: Day Fourteen – Nowhere

I scratched my leg this morning, and discovered black under my fingernails when I pulled back my hand. It may be time for a shower.

Simply by virtue of having nothing else to do, we drove out to Katherine Gorge and walked up the lookout. It was, unsurprisingly, beautiful, but the familiar sort of beautiful of lush vegetation and shimmering water that didn’t move me the same way the dune-rolling desert did. Lawrence struck up a conversation with another couple, his winning opening line being “How’d an old bird like you make it all the way up here?” Back on the highway again, an entire convoy of army trucks passed us, their camouflage-painted exteriors strikingly conspicuous.

I was going to say that the Pink Panther Pub has seen better days, but upon sober reflection, all I can really say is that the days it’s seeing at the moment aren’t very good. As its name suggests, it’s painted a shrill pink, apparently missing the memo that Oodnadatta has been there and done that. The roadside signs boast FREE ZOO, which turned out to mean an array of small, shabby cages, with rocks and grass inside that could have been hiding a small animal but mostly weren’t. But there was one that most definitely held a very large animal. Of all the ridiculous coincidences in the world, on the day I was meant to be on a saltwater crocodile cruise that was booked out, I ended up in a tiny outback pub hundreds of kilometres from the ocean, looking at a saltwater crocodile. There were freshwater crocodiles too, small enough that I could have fitted one in my bag, if it was water and teeth proof, which it wasn’t. Sneaky Saltwater Charlie was as still as a rock, even when I stood temptingly close to the wire mesh, and I was uncomfortably reminded of the story of crocodiles lying down in the mud and waiting to die. We didn’t stay long.

I love driving at night, and as we meandered down the highway we chatted intermittently, eating lollies for dinner and watching out for shooting stars. Anybody who’s seen a primary school child’s drawing of a black bull on a black road at midnight knows that they’re exceptionally hard to spot, and we had the occasional slamming on of brakes, but nothing could scare the girl who survived a scooter ride yesterday. By the time we pulled off the road I was exhausted, and I crawled into the car-top tent and let the crickets sing me to sleep.

7/7: Day Fifteen – Alice Springs

Kelly’s Ranch was instantly welcoming, with puppies bounding to greet me at the gate like a long-lost friend they’d been pining for for years, chickens scratching around the horse yard and children playing. The owner Jerry obviously had me sussed pretty quickly: when we walked over to meet my ride for the day, the six year old playing on the swings piped up “that one’s my horse!” I hoisted myself aboard like a sack of potatoes (but without their innate grace), and that was the end of my contribution for the day – the horse knew where he was going, and my role was limited to staying upright and giving him the occasional kick when he decided this looked like a nice place to lie down and have a nap, but please do feel free to go on without me. There was one small bump where the horse missed a tree and I didn’t, but it was otherwise uneventful. At one point, Jerry gently admonished me that it was better to keep at least one hand on the reins.

This was not the yee-haw galloping of Man From Snowy River, but a slow meandering amble through the bush while we talked about country. Every few minutes he’d point out some different bit of bush tucker, explaining which shade of green means it’s ripe to pick, which seeds to swallow and which one to pick out, which part of the flesh is sweet and which is bitter, how to crack them open with a rock without bruising the contents. He pointed out bush coconut, orange, tomato, sultana, beans and banana, and that was just in the first ten minutes. Some we sampled, and I even broke my First Commandment and ate a tomato (promptly washing my mouth out afterwards). My fingers sticky with juice, he stripped some leaves from a plant and instructed me to rub my hands together, no, faster, and a soapy lather formed – “bush soap”, he explained, grinning at the awed expression on my face.

The ice broken, we chatted about everything that came to mind: native title, my study in Tasmania and hopes for the future, Indigenous health issues and ponies that think they’re wild brumbies. As we passed a burnt-out old tractor, I told him my first car was held together with string and duct tape, and he grinned.

“Long as the wheels go round, eh?”

I asked whether Tennant Creek still has grog-free Thursdays, and it turns out the scheme was abandoned years ago, when it became apparent that the lack of alcohol was driving people to petrol-sniffing instead. He spoke for a while about his life growing up on a station, going to school in a caravan with a ‘big mob of kids’ and mustering cattle on the weekends, their only toys the cars they made out of bits of metal and wire. It was like something out of a less-British Enid Blyton novel, except it had the advantage of being true. I asked whether his family lived in the area, and he told me that his parents were both dead and he was orphaned at eight. I was cursing myself for asking when I knew the question might have a difficult answer, but he smiled and added “And now here I am”. It went without saying that here is a pretty good place to be.

Most of his time is spent with prisoners from the jail, young petrol-sniffers and local kids with alcoholic parents and little education, and it was clear that he’s proud of his work, though minimising the difficulties with a shrug and “they got a bit of attitude”. They ride for weeks until their butts are like leather, then go out mustering, breaking and shoeing horses and cutting and branding the cattle, coming out the other side with skills and jobs on stations. I assumed that his passion was for sharing culture with the next Indigenous generation, until he talked about one of the white boys he taught.

“They told me, he’s white, can’t do the program. He go to the same school, same classes. Why not? What’s the difference? No difference. Black, white, all the same.”

It was over too soon, simply by virtue of it ending at all.

We dismounted, and after I’d finished the obligatory bow-legged staggering and butt-rubbing, went onto the verandah to look at his photos. I felt like a family friend as we flipped through an album while he explained each one, his puppies cuddled into my legs under the table. When Lawrence arrived to pick me up, he insisted we get back on the horses so Lawrence could take a photo of us – not so he could sell it to me like most tour companies, but so he could add it to his album. I left reluctantly, but not without an offer of lessons in cattle mustering.

The Devil’s Marbles are ridiculously improbable. For a start, after hundreds of kilometres where the earth is flat and sparse, with the occasional tree and no rocks big enough to even stub your toe on, the incredible quantity of them is amazing: they are not, as postcards would have you believe, five boulders in a pile, but an entire landscape of them, enough for every resident of Launceston to have their own. Many of them are stacked and balanced in ways that shouldn’t be possible. It looks like some capricious god got up one morning and decided to defy the laws of physics before breakfast, then got bored and wandered off to play baccarat. Even though they’re a sacred site, they’re not fenced off, and visitors are free to clamber over them like children at a playground, and lay on the flat top of rocks the size of Trevallyn, sunbaking peacefully. After some climbing and exploring, I picked a high one and dangled my legs over the edge, entertaining myself with stories on how the Devil had lost his marbles; that small one over there when he had lost his keys to the Underworld and had been forced to spend the night in Deloraine, as it was the closest thing to Hell he could find; the big round one below me when he had attempted to loose a scourge on mankind and it had manifested as Rebecca Black’s Friday, and become a worldwide hit.

It was 9:30 and pitch black when we pulled over partway in to Owen Springs, having shredded another tyre – a common enough occurrence, except this one had the distinguishing feature of oddly-sized nuts, and we couldn’t get them off with the wheel brace. Eventually, through the eclectic mix of a spark plug spanner, a stubby holder and Lawrence’s left knee, we succeeded. Once we reached the campsite, I was lulled to sleep not by the sounds of birdsong, but by Lawrence swearing and hammering at the offending wheel, right outside my tent.

8/7: Day Sixteen – Boring Nameless Caravan Park in Erldunda

In Alice again, I wandered the market for a little while, passing a food stand called Korean Duck Pancakes who explained to me that they didn’t actually sell Korean duck pancakes, and a furtive-looking man selling used local licence plates out of a milk crate.

I was picked up for my quad bike tour of Australia’s oldest cattle station at the post office, since it’s one of Alice Springs only distinguishing landmarks. Our leader was called Frosty, and he was as idiotic as his name. He was the kind of prat who thinks he could run the country if he wasn’t busy doing more important things. He was overly fond of having a yarn with his cobbers, and I’m still yet to figure out precisely how one’s eyes can light up like lollipops. (Are the lollipops radioactive, or perhaps hanging from a Christmas tree?) But whenever he started lamenting Whitlam granting the Abos the right to get on the turps, I quietly wandered off to look at the landscape, which was far more interesting than he was.

I was the only one in our motley crew who had never ridden a quad bike, and the older men were encouraging in that way that does nothing but make you feel worse. I’d been instructed to wear trousers and had instead showed up in shorts, and quickly discovered that the sides of a moving quad bike attain the approximate temperature of the surface of Mars, so in my quest to avoid heat I was justly punished with an excess of it. The throttle is operated not by a hand-twist but by pressing a lever with your thumb, and all I can say is that I would not like to tackle a seasoned rider in a thumb-wrestling competition – it ached by the middle of the ride, and only got worse. But despite minor discomfort, it was fantastic: exhilarating enough to be fun but not terrifying,

The first section of our ride was corrugated and jostling, and reminded me of sliding down flights of stairs on my butt as a child, but at a slightly faster pace. From there, we moved on to the kind of loose yellow sand you could make a board game timer out of, slipping and sliding and never quite in control, hemmed in by trees and dodging low branches. The last stage was thick with rocks, and we went at an impossibly slow pace - I later found out it was because the teenage girls ahead of me lost all control and veered off into the trees every time they hit one. I told the assistant leader that absolutely, I would do it again, and this time I wasn’t lying.

9/7: Day Seventeen – Painted Desert

Our first encounter with state borders and quarantine stations taught me precisely nothing, and I had an unexpected second breakfast this morning, sitting on the back of the car and forcing down seven mandarins in quick succession, feeling faintly nauseous and remembering Zoe’s lectures about sunk costs. A few kilometres later the roadside advertisement for the Cadney Homestead beseeched EAT HERE, OR WE’LL BOTH STARVE, but we ignored it, and turned off to the Painted Desert, another four-wheel drive track. There are so many signs out here warning DIP that they might as well stick up a few that say NO DIP and be done with it. The hills to the right remained always distant, marred with white spots like sunscreen that hasn’t been rubbed in properly.

The rocks are different out here, black and hard, the kind of thing you’d expect to find on the end of a spear. In contrast, the ground is spongy, like it’s so unused to human feet it hasn’t bothered to form a protective crust yet. Some of the hills are nothing but a mass of small rocks that tumble away at any attempt to walk on them, making ascent impossible. The amazing thing isn’t just the incredible variety of colours in the rocks and the dirt, but the sharp division between sections of different colours: you could make each colour a country, and never be afraid you were unknowingly straying into another’s territory.

On my way back down the steep slope in near-pitch black, I discovered a new sport which I have christened ‘shoeboarding’. The only competitors were myself and Death, and I hope never to play it again.

I slept outside, curled up in my sleeping bag next to the fire. It was cold, and Shrek himself would have been proud of my layers. I lay on my back until I fell asleep, watching shooting stars and trying to memorise the sky.

10/7: Day Eighteen – Coober Pedy

Sleeping outside has the delightful effect of allowing you to watch the sun rise without actually getting out of bed. We tried to leave early, and it seemed that the Painted Desert, so long bereft of company, wanted to keep us a little longer. Trying to find the road was like trying to navigate a maze but instead of walls we were blocked by impenetrable deep gullies. While reversing out of a dead end, the branches of a dead tree scraped a wound into the side of the car.

Quite frankly, residents of Scottsdale would visit Coober Pedy and immediately wish they were back in their interesting, cosmopolitan hometown. This is the kind of place where a resident leaving to travel and actually coming back is so newsworthy it merits a half-page of the local newspaper and its own frame in the visitor centre, a place where the supermarket bulletin board holds advertisements for $60,000 mining equipment and fruit is only delivered once a week.

We went to the Old Timer’s Mine, where I learnt a new but not altogether startling piece of information: I have zero interest in opals, mines, or mining opals. Despite the fact that the first female miner pegged a claim in 1925, the proprietor’s demonstration of mining equipment referred exclusively to ‘the boys’. This cultural experience summarily dispensed with, I set off on an expedition to find a shop selling something other than opals. The closest I came was the Underground Bookshop, which sells books about opals.

My choices for the afternoon’s entertainment were thus to either go to a mining museum or back to the motel: if you have met me, or any other functioning human being, you know which I chose. Upon being told that the accommodation here consists of individual rooms hewed into the hillside, I’d expected little Bilbo Baggins-style doors ranging along the hill, but it actually has a passageway with rooms leading off it like any other hotel. In other hotels, however, you’re not reliant on breathing pipes poking up through the rock to the surface to provide oxygen, like the land equivalent of snorkelling. Naturally, the rooms are dark, and for some reason the owner favours funeral-home style soft lighting, but they’re cool and cozy, with the bed tucked into a little alcove. I curled up and went to sleep ridiculously early, one hand resting on the smooth-ragged rock of my wall.

11/7: Day Nineteen – 100 k from Port Augusta

Woomera is even more boring than Coober Pedy.

12/7: Day Twenty – New South Wales

We had the most amazing storm last night. Abandoning our Deckchair Cinema by the fire to huddle in the car, we watched lightning split the sky and felt thunder rumble the ground, while the rain pelted down so hard it soaked through and puddled inside my tent. But every good night has a miserable morning after, and we packed up in a mess of sodden bedding and clinging red sand.

This trip has been very educational for Lawrence: in addition to learning not to lie to Customs officials, he’s now aware that doing double the speed limit through a police breathalyser zone is perhaps not the wisest of ideas.

The Wadlata Outback Centre in Port Augusta was utterly fantastic. I’m glad they chose not to call it a museum, because that has connotations of boredom and dreariness that it definitely does not deserve. Not only was the information interesting, but the production value was superb, and this makes all the difference between a Broadway musical and the local kindergarten’s presentation of the ABC song. Stretched throughout the entire Aboriginal exhibit was a giant snake suspended at head-height, red eyes glowing and mouth open in a snarl so large I could have pitched my tent inside it. The Ghan Railway video had railway benches to sit on, while a sample of early television footage offered the kind of paisley-print couch op shops everywhere are trying desperately to get rid of.

I loved the Dreaming section. If Christianity had stories this good, people would be converting just for some free Sunday entertainment; wicked old women who enjoy nothing more than a fresh human liver with their morning cup of tea; fathers who turn into stars to escape their obnoxious offspring; hills of copper created by cast-off emu meat, green and rotting; trees so high you can climb them and touch the sky.

Another video section showcased the skills of Aboriginal people, while they narrated their actions in language. In two minutes and eight seconds, a man had taken a section of tree trunk and stripped the bark and chipped away the middle to form a bowl, while I would have still been trying to work out which side of the axe to hit it with. I’m slightly less keen to try fire-lighting, which involves rubbing animal dung vigorously between your bare hands, but if I ever buy a pet rabbit and run out of matches then I suppose you never know.

I bypassed the explorer section, already familiar with Sturt and his quest for the fabled inland sea, dragging wooden boats endless kilometres across the Simpson Desert, and by now the only part of the story that surprises me is the fact that his long-suffering men didn’t mutiny and murder him gruesomely. I was similarly fatigued when it came to the Ghan, but even here the Centre managed to surprise me with something new – the story goes that a woman was so persistent in asking when the train would finally arrive in Alice Springs that the conductor became irritated and asked her why she was in such a hurry, to which she replied that she was due to deliver her baby. When he chastised her for boarding the train so close to her due date, she snapped “Well, it wasn’t when I got on!”

I slipped into the empty theatre for the Outback Cinema, showing stories of early settlers with goofy accents and goofier hats. Next time I’m riding my bicycle 200 kilometres to the nearest sheep station and I get a flat tyre, I’ll know not to fret: after all, all you have to do is kill a snake and wrap it around the wheel and you’ll be off again in no time, bob’s your uncle.

The next room was full of buttons to press and things that light up, always an exciting prospect. I spent a few minutes on the pedal-powered radio listening to a School of the Air broadcast, and in those couple of minutes I single-handedly came up with a solution for the country’s obesity epidemic, but I fear it may not catch on. The Flying Doctor radio required rather less exertion, as you only had to push the microphone button to listen to transmissions, followed by a morse code station where the shrill beeps were translated into messages on a computer screen. There was a lever to push to write replies, and if ever mankind makes contact with an alien species, I hope it’s not through dots and dashes, because the most enlightened message I managed to produce was ‘TTTTT’. They also had a switchboard where you could pull cords and pick a slot to plug them into, then listen to outback women gabbing about their amazing new steam irons weighing just three kilograms, and men competing over who could tell the best story about fixing various bits of machinery with chicken wire, mud and a piece of string.

My last stop was a video celebrating the locals of outback towns, many of which we’ve visited. One that we missed is Andamooka, the town built in a creek bed that floods every year, where beer is cheaper than water and there’s a pub on each side of the main street, so no matter how high the waters get you’re never cut you off from a pint.

En route to Morgan, I took off my well-worn thongs and scrawled RACH ARTHUR, TASMANIA – NO LONGER NEEDED DUE TO FROSTBITE. WHY DIDN’T SOMEBODY TELL ME IT WAS WINTER OVER HERE TOO? on them in preparation for a pilgrimage to the shoe tree. But it was gone. Given the hundreds of pairs of shoes it wears, I suppose it’s not such a stretch to surmise that since our last visit, it just walked away.

Renmark has exciting news: it now has its very first roundabout, apparently such a novelty to its citizens that the construction crew also put up a sign helpfully informing drivers that they have to give way to the right.

Even the trees in Victoria are cold. Luckily, some kind stranger had knitted one tall specimen a colourful patchwork blanket and nailed it to the trunk, no doubt much to the envy of its neighbours. The rain was so heavy even Lawrence slowed down, and rather than brave the weather we got a cabin for the night. Travelling rough my left butt cheek.

We woke up in South Australia, had afternoon tea in Victoria and went to sleep in New South Wales. Not a bad effort for one day, but I think next year we can beat it.

13/7: Day Twenty One – Echuca

The speed limit on the Murray River is four: which is lucky, because a paddle steamer is hard-pressed to go above three, even in Sherlock Holmes boat-chases. The driver narrated as we chugged peacefully along, describing each moored paddlesteamer we passed like an old friend: and after over a hundred years of life on the river, one could indeed build up an acquaintance with them. I found it poetic that the wood they build the boats out of is the same wood they burn to keep them moving. The engine, exposed in the centre of the passenger seats, should have a WARNING: MAY CAUSE TRANCE sign: the pistons move back and forth endlessly, always on the same track, always at the same speed.

We passed under a bridge, which spans from the Victorian side of the Murray into New South Wales. Apparently, back in the early 1900s, the two governments had such a bitter row over who would get to cut the ribbon that it sat padlocked for over a year, until frustrated citizens smashed the locks and stormed the bridge. It is still awaiting its official opening.

After a quick walk-through of the museum, I spent the rest of the day at Sharp’s Magic Movie House and Penny Arcade investigating more interesting history: the very first silent-movie custard pie fight. This is a world where newlyweds sleep in separate beds, young beauties have snowball fights in their bathing suits, villains wear suspenders and top hats and the hero may quite literally exit left, pursued by a bear. I particularly loved the magnet car (the most economical way to travel!) and the Wallace-and-Grommit-predecessor awakened by the feather alarm tickling the bottoms of his feet. The penny arcade was just as fun, with steam-powered claw machines, ball mazes where you literally have to tilt the entire machine, guns that shoot metal balls rather than lasers and cannons that blow air onto ping-pong balls while you try in vain to direct them into a hole. I ate fudge until I was almost sick, and laughed until I almost wet myself.

Never has it been more clear that things work out precisely as the universe intends them to. Having somehow missed the shoe tree yesterday, today we came across an even more specialised specimen: a thong tree. With difficulty, I found a spare gap, nailed mine on securely, resisted the urge to steal a replacement pair, and blew them a kiss goodbye.

14/7: Day Twenty Two – Spirit of Tasmania

This morning we went to the Victoria Market, where I shopped and Lawrence consumed eight jam donuts. Somehow he still had room for cupcakes, so we dropped in on friends of his, who turned out to be the nicest people in the universe. Seriously, if you’re on an overcrowded sinking lifeboat or marooned on a desert island and rapidly running out of rations, these are the people you want to be stuck with. They won’t cannibalise you until it’s absolutely necessary. Late afternoon, we finished the trip the way we started: with a banana smoothie on the beach.

This trip has been a crazy, amazing mess of contradictions. I slept under a silk blanket brought back from China, and I showered in petrol stations so filthy cockroaches would shun them. I sweated under a blue sky where UFO sightings are more common than cloud sightings, and shivered in night-time temperatures that gave me nightmares about being back in Tasmania. I slept underground, and outside under the stars. I went from the ocean to the desert, and I experienced country on the back of a flesh-and-blood animal and astride roaring, uncontrollable machines.

There was one constant, though: I loved every single day.

No comments:

Post a Comment