Along the long storied tapestry of my journeys, oftentimes there are moments I look back on in disbelief and confusion as to what the hell had happened. More often than not, they were spontaneous moments born from a combination of fate and being at the right place at the right time. One peculiar event leads into another until I arrived at a parallel reality of disbelief.
One of those mind-altering moments occurred early in my travels, a moment in time which I still struggle to understand to this day. This is the story of my time in Australia’s mighty Outback.
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Table of Contents
How It Started?
The story begins in Cairns at the tail-end of my 3-week trip up the East Coast on what would be my first-ever backpacking adventure. The goal was Asia, but there was still a vast amount of Australia left to experience. How could I come all this way without experiencing the iconic Outback? The real question was – how could I do that?
Should I rent a car? Take the train? Should I stop somewhere along the way? How does go about experiencing the Outback?
In my deepest fantasies, I envisioned myself buying a second-hand mobile camper, tricking it out with a black spray paint job and a horse skull on the front to live out my deepest Mad Max fantasy. Though it would certainly have been possible, in my travelling infancy, I decided to play it safe and go for the tried and tested long-distance bus!
By the time I made my decision, I had already headed back South along the coast towards Townsville – what many consider to be the gateway to the Outback. After looking through prices for transport and hostels along the route, nothing immediately jumped out for me as a must-see spot. So in that case, I thought I’d be adventurous and book a one-way ticket to Alice Springs, the beating heart of the Australian Outback. I didn’t have any plans further than that.
Despite my inexperience, by then, I was well-versed with long-distance buses. 12 and 14-hour journeys were not too uncommon across the East Coast…but this would really be stepping it up. I had committed myself to a 26-HOUR bus journey. How hard could that be?
The morning of, disaster struck. For the first time in my life, I caught the flu, and I caught it hard! Bulging eyes, sinuses completely blocked, raspy cough, and above all, flip-flopping violently between roasting and freezing to death…and I was about to embark on the longest cross-country journey in all of human history.
All Aboard Your F***ing Nightmare!
Admittedly, there were many rookie mistakes committed during my time in Oz. Overpaying for tours, lost property and generally spending too much on alcohol were just a few of the missteps. Yet on this journey, I committed a catastrophic error, one that almost brought an end to yours truly – wearing shorts.
As the heat in Australia compares to that of Sub-Saharan Africa, coaches always come equipped with ridiculously powerful air conditioning units like you’d expect to find in a meat freezer. Within a matter of minutes, buses turn into heavily ventilated cool boxes that cause condensation to stream across their windows. In a word, its fucking freezing. Thus, wearing shorts and a vest would not be advisable on the best of days…let alone while suffering from an intense flu.
Suddenly, being on the bus became a matter of survival. I was literally being AC’d to death. I desperately tried to tuck my legs into my shorts while cold droplets of condensation dripped like Chinese water torture onto my fragile frame. The only respite I had was curling up into a ball on the seat’s upholstery for warmth.
The further we went, the more I slipped in and out of consciousness. Did I sleep for an hour? 2 minutes? Who could tell? One thing was for sure, I had left reality far behind. At this point, I was on the incline of a psychological rollercoaster, and things were only getting stranger.
Arrival In The Desert
10 hours in, we pulled into Mount Isa city to drop off a few of the passengers, and it was my first authentic flavour of the Outback. Civilisation was scarce from this point on.
That was proved by the sight of a dingo walking through the heart of town without a care in the world. I had already seen a dingo during my time on Fraser Island. However, while that one looked mangy and tragically starved, this one had a healthy clean sheen to its fur and a definite capability to take a baby.
I also got a minor tick off the bucket list when the driver pulled up on the outskirts of Devil’s Marbles. It was the perfect opportunity for a leg stretch and relief from the icy cabin. By that point, only a handful of passengers remained, giving us so much more camaraderie having been through such an ordeal together.
It was on this journey that I also encountered my first Aboriginal man, a meeting I hoped would be a bit more cultural. Instead, he spent the entire interaction pestering me once he discovered I possessed a pouch of tobacco. He repeatedly hinted at wanting a handful and, continued to request despite getting some. In the end, he held onto my lighter with a firm grip, and with a tone that resembled more of a statement than a question, he said,
“You can give me this right?” I did.
Where The Hell Am I?
By the tail end of the journey, I was suffering. Reality had lost all meaning and I was simply along for the ride. Mercifully, a call came over the loudspeaker that we’d be pulling up at a rest stop in a couple of miles. Awaken from my flu-induced slumber, I spotted something up ahead through the condensation on the window – a gigantic Aboriginal man standing on a distant hill with a spear cocked firmly in my direction.
As we pulled into the rest area it become larger and larger to the point you saw that it was in fact a statue, but one that was enough to put me on guard.
We pulled into the rest stop that belonged in From Dusk Till Dawn. It was a full-blown shop/bar/café in the middle of fucking nowhere. And to add to its mystique, in Australia, they’re even called roadhouses. Cue Patrick Swayze.
Beside it stood a paddock full to the brim with camels bounding across and kicking up dust from the red soil beneath. We stepped off the bus to a pair of Aboriginal men were engaged in intense argument. As I approached the door, an older man, who must have been in his 70s, came barging through with a snivelly-looking character behind him, to which the old man sternly declared “fuck off will ya, I’ve already given ya a joint.”
Upon entering, I see a Hawaiian shirt-wearing skeleton point me towards what was labelled as “the shithouse”, though for my current predicament, a rose by any other name is just as sweet. Yet the ultimate mind fuck was yet to come.
Right above the drinks fridges lay a coffin with a classic cowboy simplicity to it with a sincere sign hanging on its front that read:
“Save yourself some money, dig your own grave.”
Alice Without Her Wonderland
Finally, after an agonising 26-hour journey and still suffering heavily, we made it to Alice Springs. I pitifully hauled by bags as I desperately searched for the hostel I arranged.
By that point it was late, and the entire town was as dead as the deserts that surround it. There was nobody at the hostel, not a soul, but I didn’t care. I just needed a bed, I needed to rest. Thankfully the hostel had already left the key out for me.
I had hoped to join some kind of tour so I could explore the Outback and even visit its most iconic landmark – Uluru. Maybe it was travellers fatigue or simply my dreaded illness, but I just didn’t really feel up to it. Coincidentally, that didn’t matter much in the end, as many of the tours in the region had to be cancelled due to unexpected rainfall.
I stayed in that hostel bed for 2 days straight surviving off the food I got at a local petrol station (I couldn’t find the supermarket). That was also the case on Christmas Day, where rather than enjoying a turkey with all the trimmings, I had to make do with a sweet potato and a microwaved burger.
Let’s Get The F**k Outta Here
Alice Springs was a lost cause. I felt done with Australia itself. I had been there a while and my money could only go so far, so it was time to leave. But how?
My salvation was found on the billboard posted outside the hostel. Someone had written a note to the effect of:
Driving from Alice Springs to Darwin, Dec. 26th.
Split petrol money.
Finally, it seemed things were coming together. A rideshare would be perfect! I could have a little road trip through the Outback and save a hell of a lot of money. I didn’t even hesitate, let’s just see what happens.
Meeting My Road Buddy
I didn’t really know what to expect about the whole arrangement. This was the first time I’d ever hitched a ride with a total stranger. I had no frame of reference other than what his writing offered.
When he turned up in a tricked-out 4×4 rammed with all the gear imaginable, it brought some comfort. So too did his well-maintained beard, yet his man-bun (which he wore way before they were fashionable) and nose-ring was less than soothing. His name was Deon, and he had the air of a wook that you’d find in a festival holding a canister of laughing gas and detailing how your chakras weren’t aligning.
Turns out he worked as a tour guide in the area. He was done for the season and was going to make his way to Darwin, hence why the truck was full to the brim with his possessions. That also meant he was pretty knowledgeable about the surrounding landscape.
He needed to stop off at a friend’s house before he left. That stop would end up defining the spirit of Alice Springs. In his own words, it takes a special type of person to decide that Alice Springs is where they should be. It’s a town cut off from reality, not a place one would come to make something of themselves. It was a town of outcasts, nomads, and people who enjoyed knowing they lived an entire day away from normal society.
Heading Out Onto The Road
We left Alice Springs just as the sun began to set. Deon pulled over at the town’s entrance sign to leave behind a note. He then returned to the truck and said with a very sincere tone,
“Just give me a moment, I just need to write in my diary.” Being the passenger in a truck heading into the middle of nowhere with a guy I didn’t even know, I was in no real place to argue.
The journey began, and despite being at the tail-end of my illness, the journey was just as much of a total mind fuck!
Like a bad omen, that night the heavens opened with a monumental thunderstorm like no other. With each jolt, the entire skyline was illuminated in a purple haze bringing the red deserts beneath to view. It was megalithic, and there couldn’t have been a more spine-tingling introduction to my Outback road trip! Sadly, it was a sign of things to come.
Watch The Toads!
One factoid about Australia I was aware of thanks to The Simpsons, cane toads are an invasive species down under. After their introduction, their population exploded to a degree where they began decimating crops to a catastrophic level. I had completely forgotten about that until suddenly the road ahead seemed to be littered with small little globules.
The roads were blanketed in cane toads to the extent that the animal-loving nature lad driving beside me couldn’t avoid hitting them even if he tried! Pop, pop, pop was the gruesome soundtrack to our lives for the next few hours.
Many consider the deserts of America to be the true hotspot of alien activity, though it turns out these extraterrestrial creatures will go for any good old desert!
The most peculiar of our many pitstops was one that had a clear alien-themed to it. They even had a place for travellers to rest up, but alas, Deon didn’t fancy it.
There were a number of road stops along the way, most of which were just the odd parking space on the edge of the road. Each one was comfortingly used by quite a few people, strange considering the solitude.
Many were estate cars, the type of car that always have an extended boot. Many backpackers buy these as they can easily fit a mattress in the back and make for the perfect budget camper. I’ll bear that in mind for next time. I wish we had pulled over when we had a chance.
A Near-Death Experience
I gave myself one rule when got into the truck – no matter what, I can’t fall asleep. Not that I didn’t trust the guy, I just didn’t trust the guy. Fuck knows what his real intentions may have been. More importantly, I felt that I needed to be aware at all times. That thought saved my life.
The hypnotically long and lonely road could easily put one to sleep. As I looked in awe at the limited amount of landscape I could see around me, the truck slowly started rolling over to the right. It reached the central line, sending a loud vibration throughout the truck. He continued until he was at the centre of the right-hand lane.
With some sense of urgency, I said “Um…mate?”
He lurched into life and thrust the wheel violently back left enough to make the tires squeal. Thankfully he didn’t overcorrect and we kept all four wheels on the ground. With a less-than-confident tap on my thigh, he declared, “close one.”
A Night In The Outback
Early on during our journey, Deon told me he actually had camping gear with him, and that at some point, we could pull in somewhere to spend a couple of hours. At first, I was excited, but now I saw it as a matter of necessity. This guy had to get some rest!
I was starting to get exhausted, and I was even more determined not to fall asleep following his earlier performance. But to my heartbreak, each and every road stop or car park we passed, he’d teasingly creep in for a look, only to turn right round as say,
“Naaa, not this one. Let’s pass a few more.” I was close to tears. I was drained, annoyed, and frankly scared.
Thankfully as the sun begin to rise, he decided he needed a quick hour to get himself together. At the time, it was hard to appreciate the beauty of where I was standing. The sun was tickling the horizon, bringing a brief cool air across the landscape. We set up separate tents, and the man’s immediate snores soothed my worries. I couldn’t fall asleep myself, it wasn’t exactly comfortable, and my mind was racing. Either way, I spent the night in the outback, and I’ll always have that.
Animals Of The Road
I had hoped that my experience in the outback would be far more focused on nature. Despite the event turning into a simple one-way track to Darwin, there was still plenty of nature to experience along the way.
The man was actually quite a naturalist. Despite being a piss-poor driver, he certainly knew his stuff when it comes to the Outback.
He proved himself when we came across an enormous proportion of the brush that had burned down. The remnants of a bush fire? According to my guide, it was, but an intentional one. The government regularly performed controlled fires to minimise the likelihood of a full-blown event.
On one of our many roundtrips, there was a very fortunate encounter. At this point, it was dark, and we simply had to stretch our legs. I always wondered what surrounded me without me even knowing. I suddenly had the thought to turn on my phone’s torch to have a look around. In that moment, only a matter of inches away from my feet, a pitch-black scorpion headed in my direction. That would have been painful.
I also had high hopes of seeing a kangaroo out in the wild. I already had a great experience hand feeding and spending time with some at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Sadly, the only ones I saw lay dead at the side of the road, many the victims of collisions.
Last but not least, I was viciously attacked. We regularly spotted snakes darting across the road and my guide assured me that he’d pull over when we saw another one. Finally, we spotted a reptilian figure in the distance which turned out to be a blue-tongued skink. It lay there motionless, and my guide assured me they were neither poisonous nor aggressive. But as I approached closer and brought my camera within range, he lunched at me. Scared the shit out of me.
Arriving At Darwin
For the rest of our journey, I had to break my own rule. I was physically and mentally exhausted, and the relaxing ride and the beautiful scenery had lulled me into a deep sleep, a sleep that I had never experienced before.
No matter how many road stops we had in between, I instantly fell once we got back in the truck. There was a certain amount of guilt for leaving the guy to entertain himself, but at that point, I didn’t care, and I could do anything even if I did.
As night began to fall, we finally pulled into Darwin, and I couldn’t be happier to see civilization. All in all, the journey had taken almost 24 hours, though it felt like weeks. I had high hopes for the Outback, and though it did not meet expectations, being able to tell this tale certainly made it worth it.
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