I’D been invited to a wedding in Darwin in July. Somehow, August arrived. I was still in Melbourne, mired in the worst of winter, those bitter weeks when the calendar says it is nearly spring. A friend said a knot had formed in my forehead.
“Bugger it, I’m going north,” I decided. “Who knows what’ll happen?”
I cadged a lift with two bushwalkers on their way to the Grampians. There, I waited by the highway, smiling and waving at cars. Within minutes a taciturn Brazilian named Carlos, who delivers phone books for a living, stopped his small truck and drove me all the way to Adelaide’s central market. Whoosh! But it wasn’t until the next day that my brow really began to lift.
I’d been dropped at the turn-off to Port Pirie and I was standing in the dirt, head down, scribbling in my notebook: “Bobbi and Tim, maroon Mazda 323, nurse and plasterer, adult kids, Coca-Cola beanie, booze and bipolar, the golden rule tattooed on Tim’s left forearm…”, when a white van pulled up ahead.
It was Harm, a wiry fellow with a thin grey ponytail and great joy in his face. The joy is always there – I knew that straight away – but he was particularly elated right then, thrilled by my means of travel.
We enthused together. He reminisced about his wandering days after migrating from Holland, and showed me his gallery and home in the old shipwrights’ workshop in Port Germein. He made coffee and explained how, for more than two decades, he’d been growing tree seedlings and giving them to locals.
Later, I walked the town’s long jetty, one-and-a-half kilometres over the shallow Spencer Gulf, while the sun set on the Flinders Ranges behind me. I looked back and saw the once-barren port nestled in green.
From there I went north through the desert, gathering momentum, standing by the road and sitting in other people’s cars: Squizzy the resentful, racist roofer; Robbie and Jimmy Barnes, Arabunna mob on their way to a mine; Speeding Amy, the Vietnamese woman too tired to sleep; and Dave, who’d crashed into a tree and broken all his body, but found his backbone – he was moving north to make a better life.
Before long I was in the Alice, both attracted and repelled. Attracted by the rocky MacDonnell ranges and the sharp, generous people I met; repelled by welfare dependency and idyllic ex-pat cafes. Attracted by a football final with its mixed, lively crowd. Repelled by a day watching court. I was shocked by the nihilism of the drunks and the recklessness of a new government removing controls on alcohol supply. I was confused and spellbound by it all.
In Yuendumu, about 300 kilometres north-west, I volunteered at the community arts centre. I filled paint pots and took the artists cups of tea, listening all the while to the sounds of Warlpiri: the fast, rolling combinations of the consonants j, n, p and r, and the vowels a and u. I read a book by an anthropologist who’d lived in a women’s camp there. She learnt to abandon planning her days, to submit to the collective will instead. She gave up control, but gained a profound curiosity upon waking each morning.
Back in Alice, I tried my own brand of recklessness. Four days I hid at the freight terminal, ready to hop a cargo train. Four nights I trudged home, nine-parts despondent and one-part relieved – the trains either hadn’t come or lacked a place to stow away. I’d have kept trying, and might have fried like an egg on a hotplate, but for Macarena, a sparky Chilean traveller who offered to hitch with me the next morning instead. I went with Macarena.
On and on I went, north through hot springs and waterfalls, high-school visits and football games, canoeing days and speedway nights. Until, after two weekends of laksas and mangoes at Darwin’s markets, I turned around and came south.
John McDouall Stuart took five years and six attempts to cross the centre on horseback. He searched for waterholes and ached with scurvy. I hitched the Stuart Highway home from Darwin in just four days. I slaked my thirst at roadhouses and scanned the narrow ribbon of asphalt through seven different windscreens.
For Stuart, the desert brought purpose and quietude, an escape from the awkwardness and alcoholism that dogged him in colonial society. For me, it brought conversation and gratitude, and insight into the lives of people I’d never otherwise meet. Exactly 150 years apart, both of us yearned for salad.
After breakfast on a Friday, I walked to the highway near Coober Pedy. At lunchtime, a fitter-and-turner named Greg stopped for me in Port Augusta. He’d wrecked his fender – hit a dingo on the left side and a roo on the right. I said I was headed for Melbourne.
“You’re in luck,” he replied. He was from Cranbourne. He’d drop me to my door.
At 3 am we crested a hill on the Western Freeway and the big city’s lights sent shocks of surprise through my fingertips. I’d gotten into other people’s cars and put myself in Harm’s way: I was joyful. It was late, but my eyes were bright and my forehead clear.
“Who knows,” I wondered, “what will happen tomorrow?”
Read this article at The Age online, with three other great road trip yarns, from Cate Kennedy, Simon Castles and Fran Cusworth.