Sunday, 24 July 2011

Hitching the Australian outback

Driving through the middle of nowhere.
I could still feel the humidity in the air when I arrived at 4am in Darwin, Australia, reminding me that Asia had only been a short flight away. I knew I had to escape further to the south. In Bishkek I had met a travel writer, Jamie Maslin, who was hitching his way from Tasmania to England and his tales inspired me to attempt at least part of his journey in reverse. And so it was I went straight out on to the Stuart Highway, the only road heading south through the centre of this huge, empty country.

I didn’t have to wait long before I was picked up by a man working for a gas company, on his way to ask local aboriginal groups for permission to explore for gas on their lands. He was rather surprised that I has hitchhiking given the various murders and other events of recent times, but I think these fears worked in my favour: people were worried about my standing out on lonely, deserted roads and so picked me up. Geoff dropped me in Katherine, several hundred kilometres from Darwin – not bad for a first ride!

Katherine typifies the small towns of the Northern Territory, centred along the highway with low buildings lining wide, quiet streets. The atmosphere is laidback and slow paced in the dry heat. Most people I spoke to were not ‘locals’, but had moved to the town for work; this was a theme repeated all over the Northern Territory, where jobs appear to be easier to come by than in the southern cities. My positive experiences continued when, after speaking to a passing Australian tourist, he offered me a place to stay in his home in Melbourne – it was just a shame I didn’t make it down there. I spent the following day at the hot springs, ignoring the nearby crocodile warning signs.

I didn’t even need to stick my thumb out the next morning. My ride from the day before was continuing further and almost begged me to keep him company on the long trip to Tennant Creek. There’s nothing special about this town, but I will remember it for the most satisfying of conversations. I got talking to a young Irish guy in the hostel, working as an electrician with a local company. I’m uncertain as to whether his colleagues’ views had already warped him or if he was naturally an ignorant racist, but I found myself listening to his rants about the dirtiness and stupidity of the aborigines. By way of ‘proof’ he provided example after example of terrible sights he had seen, ignoring my attempts to determine why this might be, and my suggestion that his view of their culture might be biased by his own upbringing. Finally, in desperation, he asked the hostel’s owner over. “Bill,” he said, “You’ve been here a long time. Tell this guy about the aborigines.” Without hesitation Bill replied, “I think white people should stop telling them how to live and take some time to learn from their wise and ancient culture.” Perfect.

I was out early in the crisp morning to catch as much of the thin traffic as I could. Just two cars passed before a 4WD towing a caravan pulled over. It was driven by Tony and his wife Elizabeth, examples of the so-called ‘Grey Nomads’ – retirees who roam the country in campervans and caravans. Not a bad life! This wonderful couple turned out to be far the luckiest ride one could hope for: they later took me for a full six days around most of the area’s finest attractions.

The Devil's Marbles
As we drove south the vegetation became sparser and the land dust redder. The skies were crystal clear and the silence of the stops was deafening. We passed the Devil’s Marbles. These huge, strange, red rock formations are almost perfect spheres balanced atop one another, conveniently placed my nature for satisfactory photographs. I was then dropped in Ti-Tree, from where I got a lift to Alice Springs with a Sikh guy who worked for a range of stores specifically located in the most hard-to-reach townships. He briefly showed me a different side to life in those regions, picking up some stranded aboriginal locals on the way whose car had run out of petrol. We crossed the tropic of Capricorn: it will be a long time before I’m back in a tropical climate.

The lonely roads of the Australian outback.
Arriving in bustling Alice Springs is a bizarre experience after thousands of kilometres of nothingness. But if you climb up Anzac hill in the centre you’ll see that it’s all an illusion: surrounding the town is desert. Red, rocky land as far as the eye can see. The next day Tony and Elizabeth took me for a day trip around an endless list of gorges, gaps and canyons, all melting into one in my memory but all equally astounding. You would be surprised by how much richness the land out there offers in terms of flora, fauna and rock formations, from narrow streams running in between steep cliffs, to lakes reflecting the bright white gum trees, to vast plains sprouting thickets of spinnaker.

After another night in Alice (so to speak), we set off on our multiday adventure. I felt like I had become a member of the family, such was the hospitality shown towards me. I hadn’t felt so looked after since leaving home nor so welcome since Iran. Elizabeth cooked for me, Tony drove for me and their caravan gave me a bed to sleep on. So off we went to King’s Canyon, a massive natural carving out of the face of the earth. Standing there surveying the deep crevice, one can only begin to conceive of the sheer amount of time and force needed to create such a spectacle. Not only that, but dotted around the place are shapes of rock so incredible that if I didn’t know better I would say must have been placed there by a powerful being with a sense of humour. Probably a giant bee-god, since most of them are uncannily honeycomb in shape.

King's Canyon
Tony was one of the original drivers of the Greyhound bus company and he regaled me with endless tales of the days when the roads across the Australian outback were no more than mere dirt tracks, often flooded, always hard on the vehicles. He knew the land like the back of his hand; by his estimate he has driven over eleven million kilometres.

Kata Tjuta, or many heads.
Next was Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas if you’re of a certain age), a range of ‘mountains’, if you can call them that, which are bulbous and frogspawn-like. In fact, Kata Tjuta means ‘many heads’, a rather apt name. And then I caught my first glimpse of Uluru, that rock (Ayre’s) that is always the first thing mentioned in any conversation regarding Australia, or rocks. I have to admit that I’ve never been particularly fussed about visiting a large rock, but when I saw it there, glowing, rising out of the ground like the cork it is (it’s a volcanic rock slowly pushed out of the earth), I got a sense of the awe that people here have felt for eons. I climbed it.

Now, people will say that I shouldn’t have, that the local aborigines don’t approve, but I’ll justify it thusly: if they didn’t want anyone to, they could stop them. They own the rock, and indeed they stop people whenever the conditions are deemed too windy, too hot or too wet (which is often). Secondly, as a fellow human being, I want to get a sense of awe, inspiration and wonderment that others do by climbing it, and I don’t think I should be denied those feelings because of the race I happen to have been born into. I climbed it for the same reasons that I like to climb up big things anywhere: to get to the top and know that I am human.

As we continued south the terrain alternated between rocky, dusty and full of trees. Even Tony was surprised at the greenness of much of the ‘Red Centre’. The unusually large amount of vegetation was probably responsible for the biggest travesty of all: I didn’t see a single kangaroo. Ok, I saw one in an enclosure at a petrol station, but that doesn’t count. I want to see a wild one hopping about in the bush, and that desire remains unfulfilled. Similarly, I saw no wallabies. I can’t be certain they even exist at all.

After a short stop at the overrated opal mining town of Coober Pedy, a tyre burst on the caravan. No problem, there’s a spare and Tony is well practised in the art of changing them. Then the spare burst and we were stranded. Tony left me with Elizabeth while he drove off to the next town, hundreds of kilometres away, in the hope that he might find some spares there. It’s a strange feeling to sit in a caravan at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Other people must have thought it equally weird, for they stopped to see if we were ok. Fortunately Tony returned in record time, getting us to Glendambo just as night fell.

A strange thing occurred in Glendambo. We pulled into the only caravan space available, next to an elderly couple who I assume were having a bad day, or life. They were angry about the fact that they now couldn’t put down their awning, despite the fact that this would have meant them taking up two spaces. We all three were very polite to them, asking them if they didn’t feel too squeezed, but they reacted by hissing about how it was “bloody unbelievable”. Tony then shouted, “You’ve already got one foot in the grave, why don’t you do us all a favour and put the other one in!” Brilliant! I was in stitches and Tony was immediately full of regret, but I assured him it was just what we all wanted to say.

Another startling sunrise.
I reluctantly left Tony and Elizabeth’s excellent company just south of Port Augusta, over the Flinders Range where the land open ups into lush green fields. The road was empty and I worried that I might be stranded, but my pleading look must have worked because a lady picked me up and took me all the way to Broken Hill, feeding me a pie en route. I was aiming to catch a bus that night to Sydney, but it wasn’t leaving until 3.45am so she offered me her granny flat to stay in, despite the fact that she was travelling further and wouldn’t be there. It’s these kind acts of strangers that restore (or rather, cement) my faith in humanity. I had a bath and a few hours’ sleep, then settled into the 16 hour bus journey comfortable in the knowledge that it was guaranteed to be better than any of the buses I’d taken in Asia.

The particularly green Flinders Range.
Finally, Sydney. I stayed with R of R & B fame (see the Western and Eastern European road trips from the beginning of my whole adventure), who showed me many, many beaches. It was cold and sunny, thoroughly suitable weather for enjoying delicious fish and chips on the coast, a pleasant reminder of British summers. For some bizarre reason R & B took me to the premiere of the latest in the series of Harry Potter films, of which I have seen precisely zero. I was surrounded by cloaked children who said things like, “I can’t believe we’re actually here!” Neither could I.

Sydney = beaches.
I was, once again, well looked after by R & B, R’s mum and their monstrous dog, the latter of whom spent the entire time salivating a few inches from me in the vain hope of food. It was all topped off by a night at the local crab races, surely one of the more obscure things to do on a Wednesday night. And then I said goodbye to one huge, diverse land and hello to a much smaller but equally varied one; the country of strangely warped vowels; the place every visitor to Australia says you should go: New Zealand.

Crab races: a normal Wednesday night in Sydney.

Note: Sydney also contains an Opera House, and a bridge, both of which are nice to look at.

1 comment:

  1. "You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant..." :-p
    Reference caught. Well done.