Read further for my adventures in the Australian Outback at The Good Men Project.
Read further for my adventures in the Australian Outback at The Good Men Project.
The piercing howl of a dingo erupted in the dark of night as I roasted marshmallows over the camp fire at Devil’s Marbles with Ben and Petra, a Dutch couple I befriended at the camp site. They had never experienced marshmallows on a fire.
The howl was too close for comfort and I made sure my flashlight was on at all times. It seemed I was surrounded by howls. Just that morning in Alice Springs howling winds awoke me at 07:42 just as Paul was returning from the bathroom.
“We’ll be heading off in five minutes,” he said. I awoke Cookie and we hugged our ‘goodbyes’ with our newly made life-long friends that helped make Uluru and Kings Canyon an unforgettable trip.
After Cookie and I repacked the car and filled up oil, we headed into town just past nine in the morning. Our first stop was the Coles supermarket in the shopping precinct where we stocked up on pasta, canned tuna, fresh produce and bread. The second-hand store was just in the corner of the precinct.
“All my guitars are in storage as I don’t have any guitar hooks to hang them by,” said the impatient owner.
“Uh-huh,” I grunted, eying a guitar case at the far end of the store. “What’s in the case?”
“It’s empty,” he said, sounding like a flat line on a life-support machine.
He did, however, direct me to another second-hand shop on Gap Rd. “You can’t miss it. There’s a 12-foot hand out the front of it,” he called out as I left.
Of course there is.
And like all big things in Australia, I assumed its claim to fame was it being the biggest hand in the Southern Hemisphere.
Cookie spotted it first.
“Looks more like 8-foot,” I measured.
I walked in and called out for attention.
“Yes?” An elderly woman appeared from a back room.
“Do you have any guitars?” I asked with high hope.
“No, but there is a store called the Roxy Music Shop that does repairs and sells guitars,” she showed me on a map.
I drove to the other side of Alice Springs and saw the large guitar-shaped sign of the Roxy Music Shop. My heart was a flutter even though the shop looked suspiciously closed. I parked and walked up to the door and read the, ‘Sorry, we’re closed’, sign.
You’ve got to be shitting me.
I read the explanation on the sign next to the door that, ‘Due to family health issues, the shop will be closed on Tuesday, May 21. Sorry for any inconvenience’.
I looked at the date on my phone.
You’ve got to be fucking shitting me.
I sat back in the car.
“What’s wrong?” asked Cookie.
I threw the gear into reverse. “Out of all the fucking days that I’m in fucking Alice, the one fucking shop that I needed is fucking closed on the fucking 21st of May.”
Cookie laughed as I launched us out of Alice and back onto the A87 towards our next stop, Devil’s Marbles.
We fuelled up at Wycliffe Wells, the UFO capital of Australia.
A few hours later we pulled into the tiny town that welcomed us with a sign that read, ‘Caution! UFO landing site’. I fueled up at the pump, the building that was the service station painted black with stars and UFO related images.
There was, what I presumed to be, a life-sized model of a UFO complete with green men out the front of it.
“Where’s the UFO Centre?” Cookie inquired inside.
“In the diner,” informed a worker.
We walked in and besides the green covered table tops, the only thing that provided any information about UFO landings were the tabloid newspaper clippings pasted along the walls.
“This is it?” I said to no one in particular as I realised that the whole UFO thing was a gimmick to get people to stop in.
496 K’s later we pulled into the Devil’s Marbles Conservation Park, a sacred Aboriginal site called Karlu Karlu . It comprises huge granite rocks that look like someone had stacked them on top of each other. But this was 1700 million years in the making when the area was surrounded by large granite solid rock forms. They broke down due to wind and rain – called weathering – creating the formations seen today (in a few thousand years it’ll all be sand so get in quick to see it).
The formations were balancing precariously like in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Others were split down the middle, still more were perfectly round in shape.
At the free camping ground (complete with a compost toilet) at the base of the largest formations we pitched a tent between the caravans.
Cookie had retired to bed by 19:00 after cooking us a dinner of pasta with tomatoes (which she peeled), onions and carrots. It was here that I met Ben and Petra. They loved the gooey form the marshmallows became over the fire. They also provided me a VB beer and a hookah waterpipe.
“Coca cola flavour,” said Ben, a semi-pro indoor soccer player when I asked the tobacco flavour.
Petra had her own camera store back in Holland.
I looked up and stared in disbelief at the ¾ moon that was lighting the Outback. A perfect cloud ring in a diameter of what I could only presume to be a few hundred metres had encased it.
“I guess that’s the UFO’s they meant,” I suggested as we all looked up in awe.
It was when we discussed worldly travels that the blood curling howl erupted not 20 metres next to us, among the nearest pile of rocks.
“Dingo,” I confirmed.
But it wasn’t the sound of a howling dingo that annoyed me. Hell, they were only the size of a German Shepherd. It was the sound of the TV blasting out from our neighbouring caravan, whose satellite dish I had noticed earlier.
After the Dutch couple retired to bed and I had scrapped gravel over the remains of the fire just after 21:33, I walked over to the caravan.
“Excuse me,” I politely tapped on the screen door and waited as the Mrs opened it. “Was wondering, if it’s possible, could you turn it down a bit?” I smiled my Sunday best at her.
“Bit low is it?” said the woman in a Scottish accent.
“Sorry, what?” I leaned in.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Lo-ud,” she emphasised (the ‘dags’ scene from ‘Snatch’ hitting me in the head).
“Ah, yes,” I said.
I hit the sack, the TV still loud in the background and as soon as head touched pillow rain came down like a waterfall. I guessed it was about 3 AM when I awoke to a noise that sounded like some animal sniffing at the tent. I stared into the darkness, waiting for my eyes to adjust. I couldn’t see a shadow but something was making sniffing noises right up against the tent.
I slapped my hand on the tent and the noise stopped. I didn’t hear any paw-steps and made a mental note to check for footprints in the morning. A late night howl echoed out before I could settle back to sleep.
In the morning I woke up at about 7 AM, just as the rain stopped. But that’s not what woke me up. It was the morning show the Scottish woman was blasting from her TV in the caravan.
“I just can’t believe it,” I yelled over the music the band on the stage was blasting out. They had been flown in from Sydney for the occasion, playing covers from Stevie Wonder to Bruno Mars and doing them fucking well.
“What?” yelled back Paul.
“We’re here, at Ayer’s Rock, dancing to the sounds of a band under the Outback sky. It’s just too surreal.”
“It is!” laughed Paul as the music went up a beat and we danced amongst the rest of the revelers who had turned up for the ball, the after party of the Camel Races.
It all started 738 kms ago. A drive which began from Coober Pedy all the way to Uluru with a break every couple of hours to stretch out the legs. We stopped at Marla, the last town in South Australia before crossing the border into the Northern Territory. It was here that I somehow managed to break the handle of the passenger-side window of my car, leaving Cookie without the ability to open the window.
Learning from our experiences in Coober Pedy, I donned my fly net and headed outside to make myself some peanut butter and honey sandwiches before fueling up at $1.99 per liter.
Our next stop along the desolate A87 highway was Kulgara, a rest stop that was the border between the southern state and the Northern Territory. Along the way we spotted emus, wild horses known as ‘Brumbies’ and wedge-tailed eagles feeding off the carcasses of dead cows and kangaroos.
At Erldunda we took a left onto the Lasseter Highway towards Uluru. We passed Mt Conner which, for some reason, we assumed was Uluru. At Curtain Springs we learned that the owner of the station had buried his dead wife on the mountain top (which was a flat top of rock, kinda like something you’d find in the Utah desert). The Aborigines believe that due to that the mountain has bad spirits and only one tour company takes people up to it.
After fueling up at $2.20 per liter, we continued on the last hundred K’s, passing more cows and sighting our first dingo. Then Uluru greeted us with a red smile as the second largest monolith (the largest being in Western Australia) came into view.
We camped at the only facility available – Ayers Rock resort, located a half hour drive from the national park that housed the monolith.
Ayers Rock was named by Ernest Gilles, an English explorer that also discovered Kings Canyon in 1872. He named the rock after Sir Henry Ayers, governor of South Australia at the time.
“You’re in luck,” said the girl at the reception as we paid the $36 for a tent site. “This weekend we have the Yulara Festival.”
“The what?” I asked.
“The Yulara Festival. It’s the annual camel race. After the races there’s a ball. Frock up and rock up. There’s a free shuttle bus service to take you there. Starts tomorrow night at 8 pm and goes on until 2 am.”
Cookie and I looked at each other. “Good timing,” I grinned.
We pitched the tent and Cookie went off to check out the local market as I made dinner for myself. After driving almost 800 kilometers in one day, all I wanted to do was get some food in me and keep my legs in a standing position for as long as possible.
As fate would have it, a couple were running to catch the sunset on a hilltop behind me. While passing by, the fella called out, “I’ll have two steaks, medium rare,” as I was cooking by the barbecue.
“No worries,” I called back, playing along with the banter while I stirred my tuna pasta in the dish, grinning at them. They came back after the sun had gone.
“I’m Paul,” said Paul. “This is Regina, she’s from Germany.”
We hit it off immediately and I invited them to join me for dinner as I had, “Made too much food.”
They came back to cook their snags and shared their gin and tonic with me as we chatted away. It was evident that we’d become friends as soon as the Schwarzenegger impersonations came out.
“Anyone ever tell you you look like Hugh Jackman in ‘Wolverine’?” Paul said as he looked at me as one does when trying to figure out who you look like.
“A few times,” I said, laughing. “It’s the sideburns.”
We agreed to carpool for the sunrise the next morning. That evening we hit the bar.
Some things are expected when going to a bar in Australia: a bouncer (usually from New Zealand) will have a power trip and decide to not let you in because he thinks you’re drunk even though your just a happy-go-lucky chum. A bartender who’ll ignore you while everyone next to you gets to put their order in and some idiot who always spills their drink – on you.
In the Outback things are a little different. For one thing, the roof was made of tin. Everybody is drunk by 8 pm and the other thing that was a little hard to miss were the two single hump camels being exhibited for the people who had gathered to ‘buy’ a camel – placing a bid for the races the next day. It was the only time you could place a bet on a camel.
Australia is home to the largest population of wild single-hump camels (also known as dromedary), released when the explorers of the 1800s had finished exploring. They also released donkeys and horses, all sustaining themselves and becoming wild animals.
Just as we walked in, one of the camels urinated on the carpet they were standing on. “House-broken, I see,” I said in passing.
We had a few rounds sharing laughs with the locals, getting caught up in the action. One guy bid $900 on a camel.
At 22:30 I called it a night as I wanted to be fresh for the early rise to catch the sun, predicated to light up Uluru at 07:16.
After I brewed my Turkish coffee, we hit the road for the half hour drive to the rock. Paying the $25 for a three-day pass, we entered the national park just as the sun peaked over the horizon, splattering the rock with colours of pink and bright orange red.
I stood, shell-shocked, not believing that I was really there, at the place that I had only ever seen in photos on postcards and in National Geographic magazines, an elongated dream finally achieved – driving through the Outback to Uluru.
The culture center teaches about Uluru’s significance to the local Aborigines, the Anangu people, who maintain the park. It’s their Mecca, a sacred site to their way of life. It was here that the story of Tjukurpa – the Creation period – happened (not to be confused with the Dreamtime).
The men have sacred ceremonies at the top that are so secret, they are not allowed to be spoken of or discussed to anyone outside of the tribe and those who aren’t initiated. The women also have their sacred spots on the rock. These sites are forbidden to be photographed as the indigenous people believe that photography steals the spirit and soul of what is being photographed.
It is also disrespectful to climb the rock and although they don’t enforce the rule, they ask that visitors don’t climb it. But there are those who do. 35 people have died attempting to climb the rock since it was opened to tourism in the late 1950s.
As a strong believer in Karma, I refused to take part as did Cookie and our new friends. We watched tourists clambering up a very steep incline to the summit of 345 meters. We did walk the 10.6 km base around the magnificent structure.
I was surprised at how green the surrounding bush was, complete with red gumtrees and an abundance of wildlife.
“I really feel the spirituality of this place,” I noted to Regina who agreed.
Cookie and Regina got acquainted while Paul and I walked together for most of the hike, quoting ‘The Princess Bride’ and other movies, continuing our Arnie impressions and discussing farts.
“Ever noticed that when you fart in the shower it’s as though, by adding water, it becomes a chemical weapon of mass destruction?” I said as Paul laughed. “And there’s no better feeling than farting while you’re peeing,” I continued as Paul stopped to water a bush. “It’s about the only time a man can truly multitask.”
I told Paul of the legacy I had left at my high school some years back in Year 12. “I can’t remember why but I decided to go on this fruit diet which turned out to be a pretty bad idea. I have never farted such a rancid, toxic scent. One day I was at school and on our lunch break we were all chilling on the balcony. There were about 50 kids out there when I needed to release. I knew it would be silent. I also knew it might be deadly but it was a risk I was willing to take as it’s been scientifically proven that people who fart are happier than those who hold it in. So I released and knowing the outcome I stepped back and waited to watch the carnage unfold,” I paused for effect. “You know how some farts linger around for awhile?”
Paul nodded as he laughed.
“Well this one held on to anything it could due to the down wind that should have taken it away from those poor kids. I watched quietly as they ran around screaming, eyes burning. It was though someone had released a tear-gas grenade, which I think is what they would have preferred rather than endure the torture they were undergoing.”
Paul cracked up.
“To this day I’m forever remembered for that one moment,” I reflected proudly.
We finished the walk in 4 hours and headed back to the resort for a quick lunch and an afternoon chillout until we would meet up for the camel races.
At the dusty race truck, we were greeted by a small number of revelers. Paul noticed the face-painting corner and asked me to distract Regina while he went to get his face done.
The only way to purchase alcohol was by presenting a special permit that was provided when checking in. I suggested we go to the bar and get some drinks.
“You need glasses for the beers,” said the bartender to Regina who grabbed two beer glasses from the stand in front of me. They were still in plastic wrapping. When the girls ordered wine for themselves, “You need wine glasses,” said the bartender.
I was standing next to the stand that had the glasses set up and grabbed a couple.
“Hang on, mate,” the vendor grabbed them back, “you gotta pay for them.”
“What?” I said, Regina looking as baffled as I was. “Your saying it’s not enough I’m purchasing the beer and wine I also need to buy the container it needs to be contained in?”
“Yup,” he said flatly.
“How much are they?” I asked
“Six bucks?!” I almost yelled.
Regina turned to the bartender and asked for plastic cups. We realised that we had just managed to unintentionally steal two beer glasses to keep as souvenirs.
Good thing we didn’t climb the rock.
Paul had come back and was wearing his hat low over his forehead. His face had the look of someone who had done something mischievous and Regina knew right away.
“You’ve gone and done something stupid, haven’t you?” she said.
Paul looked shocked. “Do I have ‘stupid’ written on my forehead?” he said as he removed the hat, revealing a stenciled ‘S-T-U-P-I-D’ written on his forehead.
The camels were presented around the track and then the final race was won by camel number 2. The winner took home over three thousand dollars after ‘buying’ the camel for just $250.
From the track we headed over to a hilltop to view the setting sun over The Olgas, casting a purple colour over Uluru. We shared a bottle of Rose that Paul and Regina provided as we took photos and laughed our heads off by doing stupid antics as the sun set, providing entertainment for the French and German tourists that were also there.
Back at the camp we cooked dinner together. I made an Israeli salad while Paul barbecued porterhouse steaks and corn cobs.
“You know, Regina was the German Masterchef winner,” he announced proudly when she went for a shower just before we served dinner. We had some wine and beer and by 21:30, besides being drunk, we lumbered off in good spirits to catch the shuttle bus to the ball which was being held at the race track.
“Excuse me,” I turned to a security guard, “where are the toilets?”
“Anywhere in the dark, mate,” he grinned.
As I peed in the darkness staring up at the Milky Way, I realised that it was all just too surreal, with Uluru casting a watchful eye somewhere from within the darkness.
An early rise at 07:15 brought me out to the kitchen. Mat and his parents, Sharon and Colin, were seated around the dining table, breakfasting on porridge, cereal and toast with Vegemite and butter whilst watching the morning breakfast show on the telly.
I brewed some coffee from my Turkish\Lebanese blend with cardamom seeds.
The previous night, Mat had brought out coffee that he had purchased in Vietnam.
“It’s weasel coffee,” he said as he presented the tin which had a weasel on the label.
“Lemme guess,” I guessed, “it’s coffee beans that have passed through the digestive system of a weasel.”
“Yup,” he grinned.
“I gotta say,” I began, “I’m curious to know how the first person to see a pile of weasel shit with coffee beans in it thought, ‘Hmm, that would taste amazing!’”
I didn’t try the weasel coffee but they did enjoy my Turkish blend. I gave some to Sharon and explained how to brew it:
“If you fill the pot up, the way I measure it is 4 teaspoons of coffee and then 6 teaspoons of sugar. If it’s half a pot then I’ll do 2 teaspoons of coffee and 4 teaspoons of sugar. Let the water boil and as it does, the coffee will open up, releasing the flavours and aroma. When it boils, the coffee will rise. Just as it’s about to spill, take it off the heat, let it settle then repeat and you’re done.”
After the morning beverage, Mat took me around the farm showing me the shed for housing the tractor equipment, the old sheep shed that now housed his old Camry and his brother’s Holden and the shed that housed his brother’s motorbikes and the lay of the land.
It had rained during the night and was still raining as the ute slipped and slid up the muddy track. As we reached the hilltop, I could see the Southern Ocean and a rainbow that was sliding out from the clouds into the water.
At 10 AM I thanked the Millards for their warm hospitality and along with Cookie, drove out towards Port Germein, our post-breakfast stop.
Port Germein used to be a happening town back in the days of the late 19th century. It was the gateway to the world as one of the busiest port cities around.
When we drove through the town it seemed to be deserted of any living creature, except for the one seagull that pestered us as I fried up an onion omelette on the electric barbecue.
It was once home to the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere until a storm took the end off it, shortening it to a mere 1,532 meters from its previous 1,800 meters (the record is now held by a jetty somewhere in Western Australia).
We headed onwards to Port Augusta, the last stop before turning north into the Outback. An hour later we drove through the busiest town we had seen since leaving Adelaide complete with several traffic lights. We made a beeline to The Outback Centre (which for some reason, had the giant head of a dinosaur as an entry point) for information.
“Your closest free campsite to pitch a tent is in Woomera, about 60 km north,” said Di, an elderly short haired woman scratching 60, volunteering behind the counter. She wasn’t much for smiling and had a ‘mis-information provided here’ feel about her. “There aren’t any petrol stops between Woomera and Coober Pedy. The water after Woomera is bore water. It’s salty and dirty and I wouldn’t drink it. You can refill water at Coober Pedy. 30 cents will give you about 20 litres worth. The Sturt Highway between Woomera and Coober Pedy will be closed due to missile testing from the nearby air force base –”
“What?” I jumped in.
“As of next Monday,” sighed Di. “So if you make it to Coober Pedy before next Monday, you’ll be fine. Watch out for road trains as they’ll be at least four trailers long.”
A road train is a truck that has anywhere from three to seven trailers (taking the 18 wheeler to 70) that flies along the Sturt highway at speeds that would flatten a town if one were in its way, spitting out rocks, kangaroos and anything else it might hit right out the back and straight into your windscreen.
I looked at the giant dinosaur head. Besides resembling the woman informing us, it was a sign to hit the road.
Thanking Di’s sour face, Cookie and I stopped at a service station to fill up the tank (which was half full). I asked the cashier if she had any old newspapers she was about to throw out that we could use to light a fire with. She enriched us with 4 editions of the Sunday Mail.
We hit the road and I turned right onto the A87 Sturt Highway (also known as the Explorer’s Highway) leading to Darwin. The Outback began almost immediately. And almost immediately I felt the isolation that came with it. The red ground was covered in six-foot shrubbery stretching out as far as a good eye could see, the black road cutting the only tarmac path through it.
The next (and what turned out to be the last) sign I saw placed Woomera at a distance of 177 km. Cookie brought out the map and we could both see that Woomera was at a greater distance than 60 km from Port Augusta.
I kept one eye on the clock and one eye on the road. It was 15:20 as we left Port Augusta. We had until about 17:00 to make it to the camp site otherwise, we’d be camping by the road.
As cars passed us on their way south to Port Augusta, the drivers would lift an index finger to signal ‘hello’. This was customary in the Outback and I raised mine to every car, ute and road train that flew by, applying a new meaning to ‘giving the finger’.
Cookie was immersed deep in her book as I spotted a wedge-tailed eagle chewing on roadkill on her side. It was big enough to take my little car off to feed its young – with us in it.
I kept the speedometer on a consistent hundred K an hour (even though the speed limit was 110) as the outback went from trees and shrubbery to barren, back to shrubbery and trees. Cows were strewn about in the… well, I wouldn’t exactly call it a field… along with sheep and a couple of emus that walked about looking like they were doing the Egyptian.
“Holy shit!” I called out, looking at what appeared to be a, “A pack of dingos!”
The animals seemed to be creeping up to the emus. I slowed the car down until I realised that,
“Hang on,” I said, “don’t worry about it,” I sped up, “it’s sheep covered in red dust.”
As I overtook a three-trailer road train, the sun had started to set in the west. Clouds to the east had red underbelly’s, the colour reflected off the red earth. Without a single sign on the entire drive to Woomera, I was getting concerned as to whether we would get to our campsite before dark.
After almost two hours of driving past dried up salt lakes, a jutting red hill here and there, dusty off-roads and barely visible fences, we finally saw a sign (and signs of civilisation) as we took a left to Woomera via Pimba.
We continued a further 6 k’s down the road to the town that had a replica space rocket on a launch pad positioned at the entrance. I pulled into a caravan park and asked the fella at the reception where the free campsite was.
“Pimba. Spud’s Roadhouse. Gold coin donation.”
“That lady was full of shit,” said Cookie.
I was dying for a piss but I really wanted to set base camp before dark. I sped us back to Spud’s Roadhouse which was filling up with campervans, caravans and roadtrains. I pulled in with my Hyundai Excel hatchback, getting the kind of look one gets when rolling into town with an unusual vehicle.
Inside the roadhouse we were greeted by a diner-styled restaurant\bar with a pokies room (slot machines for the elderly to dispense their life savings), a souvenir shop and petrol station. Number plates from every state (and a few international ones) covered a wall and hand written messages on two surfboards (?) hanging from the ceiling which was also covered in messages from passing travellers provided light reading.
One in particular stood out: ‘Nurses do it with more patience, Jodie, 2011’. I laughed as my eye caught the special’s board. On the menu was ‘Today’s roadkill’.
I dropped a $2 gold coin in the donation box. The lady at the counter had thinning purple-dyed hair and seemed to lack the ability to produce a smile. The lady who served us food was the complete opposite, showing off black-stained teeth along with her sunny misdemeanour.
It wasn’t the greatest meal but I had just driven 448 kms in a race against the setting sun and wasn’t about to get fussy. As the sun set, we pitched our new tent, using the old one as an extra layer to cover the gravel.
The setting sun painted an incredible colour of yellow, purple and orange as the blue sky darkened to pitch black with the stars popping out one by one with the quarter moon overseeing it all.
“Tomorrow,” I began to suggest, “I reckon we get up at dawn, pack the car, make coffee, hit the road for two hours, stop for breakfast and then make a straight run for Coober Pedy.”
“Sounds good,” Cookie smiled as we sat back in the roadhouse so that I could write and she could read. She was keeping me updated on the plot of her book.
“I’ll let you know what happens in my next book,” she said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“I’d rather get bitten by a taipan,” I said as she laughed. “I’ll give you Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’.”
The night was surprisingly warm. The lady in Port Augusta had said that the forecast for the week would be 15-24 with the nights dropping to 7-14.
Then again, she had also said that Woomera was 60 k’s away.
Returning to the tent, I almost tripped as I was distracted by the gazillion stars watching my every move. I sat at the entrance of the tent in my boxers (it was that warm), wrapped in a fleece blanket and simply looked up until my neck hurt.
I awoke at 07:00 the next morning and as the coffee brewed I stirred Cookie to rise. I repacked the car, checked the oil and water and fixed the horn (a disconnected wire) while Cookie had a shower.
As soon as we had left Melbourne, I noticed the difference in petrol prices. I had fuelled up at $1.39 per litre in the sports and culture capital of Australia. In the City of Churches (Adelaide) it rose slightly to $1.45 per litre. Here in the middle of nowhere, it was a staggering $1.67 per litre.
“I think I’ll ask the lady inside how far it is to Coober Pedy as I don’t trust the information the lady in Port Augusta gave us,” I said to Cookie who agreed.
“It’s 367 kilometres,” said the cashier.
“So about 4 hours?” I said.
She nodded as I wrote our names on a wooden barrel used as a table – ‘Nomad + Cookie 2013’.
The roadhouse was all started by Spud who established it as a resting place for travellers and truckers. The number plates were from cars that had broken down (this was before there was a sealed highway) and food and petrol was free (except for Christmas Day). Anyone who walked through the door wearing a necktie was either refused entry or had his necktie cut off and pinned to the wall.
Spud retired to Mildura in Victoria in 1989 and passed away in 2007.
We hit the road at 08:35. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the wind was refreshing and I was discovering new ways to put my feet up so as not to lock ‘em into a constant long haul flight position.
As I’m driving a manual (and as there’s no need to shift gears until you reach a town that’s bigger than two tin sheds), I would place my left foot to the left of the steering wheel on the dash and after a hundred and fifty kilometres, control the accelerator with it while my right foot hung loosely on the side-view mirror, the wind whipping between my toes.
At exactly 10:24 I pulled into a rest stop and decided that for breakfast I would make shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish with a tomato-onion-garlic base. At home I’d add red capsicum, mushrooms, fresh basil leaves and a chorizo sausage but being in the Outback I kept it to the base.
As soon as I opened the door of the car I was attacked by a squadron of flies, relentless at trying to get to my eyes that I had covered with my sunnies. It didn’t stop them from trying to land in my ears or get up my nose. As soon as I started cooking, the smoke helped disperse them, leaving me to deal with big black ants that had jaws that could puncture a truck.
We ate in the car as I decided that, “We’ll clean up at Coober Pedy. Fuck doing it with these flies about.”
Cookie agreed as I drove us back onto the A87 and onwards to the underground town.
The name is a derivative from the Aboriginal kupa piti meaning ‘white man’s burrow’ (the town used to be called Stuart Range Opal Field, named after John McDouall Stuart, the first European explorer to arrive there in 1858. It was renamed ‘Coober Pedy in 1920). It’s the opal capital of the world with the precious stone being discovered in 1915 by a 14 year-old boy that had joined his father, Jim Hutchinson, on a gold-prospecting expedition.
Returning service men from World War I came up with the idea of underground dwellings to beat the heat and the flies (can reach a soaring 60 degrees Celsius. It also has the lowest rainfall in Australia). Living underground gave a consistent temperature of 24 degrees.
We hit the mine-infested town with 367 registering on the car’s odometer. Warning signs of deep shafts were placed everywhere. Old mining machinery was scattered about as we passed mounds of dirt where shafts had been drilled. At the information centre we were provided with a map and some details of attractions. I rolled up the attractions paper and used it as a useful weapon against the flies.
Since arriving in South Australia, we had passed large billboard signs that simply read: ‘Stop Creeping’.
“What does that mean?” I asked the girl behind the counter.
“It’s an advertising campaign against falling asleep while driving, making you creep over the speed limit,” she informed us. “I guess it’s only used in South Australia ‘cause you’re not the first to ask.”
Why not just have it say: ‘Don’t sleep at the wheel’? Or ‘Stop when tired’?
We headed down the main drag of Hutchinson St. Every shop had a sign that advertised something about being underground, having the ‘best prices’ for opals or having underground opals at the best price.
We went through the underground opal museum which showed fossils and remains of prehistoric sea creatures, Aboriginal history and how they were involved in the mining of opals (which they had known about for centuries just never saw any monetary value to it. Since the white man arrived, they discovered that the stones could be exchanged for food rations).
The underground backpackers had dorm rooms at $35 per person so we decided to go to the underground camping grounds. At the reception Rick, the owner, a former opal miner, tried to sell us a mine tour that began at 19:00.
“It’s a pretty comprehensive tour,” he said. “Goes on for an hour where I tell ya basically everything there is to know about mining opals and how to do it. It’s $22 per person and your accommodation is free if you take it.”
I looked at Cookie so that she could tell him that, “I’m not too fussed about it. I think we’ll be going into town for drinks at that time.”
“Not a problem,” he smiled.
“How do I connect to the internet?” I asked as I had yet to post a blog.
“You can’t,” he said. “It’s broken.”
Of course it is.
He lead us outside and pointed out the, “Showers over there, kitchen over there and if you drive round the showers, pick an alcove and pitch your tent.”
We walked down a tunnel that lead underground and Cookie picked the biggest alcove.
It was here that I realised that when travelling through the Outback, if you forget extra petrol, water, food, you’ll manage. Absolutely no worries in the Aussie tradition. There are plenty of travellers on the road that may (or may not) stop to help out. But if you forget some sort of face netting to keep out the flies, prepare your local insane asylum for your accommodation because these tiny little Messerschmitt’s will take your sanity and shit all over it.
“You are camping underground?” asked a Norwegian backpacker as I cooked dinner.
“Yup,” I replied.
“Just be careful because we camped there last week and my girlfriend found a Western King Brown snake not far from our mattress because we don’t have a tent.”
The Western King Brown snake is a sub-sepcies of the cobra family, the longest venomous snake in the world (making the Aussie second). It is also number 8 in the top ten most lethal snakes in the world and has an aggressive nature that might end up with you being chased by it.
“What did you do?” asked an extremely worried Cookie.
“We got the manager and he killed it.”
Cookie looked at me. “If that happens you’re killing the snake.”
“Er, no. I don’t kill snakes.”
“We’re in it’s territory. I’ll get the manager but I won’t kill it.”
After dinner we hit the town for a couple of drinks and a few games of pool (3-0 to yours truly) and the drunk locals recommended making a straight drive to Uluru as, “There’s not much between here and there.”
We hit the sack at 22:30 after I made sure that no snakes were around.