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From the Highway to the Milky Way

A day on the road


I awake to hear a truck passing on the distant highway. My body feels tight and my head is fuzzy. Slowly I stretch all parts of my body. I span my feet and twist my wrists. They make a cracking sound. I reach way above my head and create space between each one of my vertebrae. Like an invisible rope, I twist and turn my spine from my fingertips right down to my toes.


A sudden noise breaks my focus and I jump up to see my campsite in daylight for the first time. I’ve done well. It’s shady and relaxed. Red earth holds scattered clusters of low-lying scrub amidst taller trees. It’s quite green. Relatively. The noise reveals nothing but I am up now. As I jump from the back of my car bed onto the dusty earth, my feet fall beside a lonely vertebrae glowing white through layers of sand. I glance off to the side and see an entire skeletal carcass. Some fluffy beast had wilted away there some time earlier. A rusty car bonnet nearby has decayed beyond signs of any paint, could have been there 50 years.



Desert debris. Remnants of forgotten stories are buried and revealed by the sweeping sands. I prepare some muesli and put on a coffee. I do my morning yoga routine as I wait. The air is crisp and cool. The silence is offset only by the sounds of gentle breeze amongst the trees, calling birds and occasional cars passing on the distant track. I can’t see them but I can hear them. Soon it will be me again.



AWAKE


First I will have a morning coffee and knock off some work. Having camped just outside a small town, there is some phone reception. The few bars on my phone won’t last long as soon as I start driving. I return a few calls. As I discuss our evaluation survey with my colleague Jess, a large gentle emu casually strolls by my camp. He barely acknowledges me. I am struck by awe. I always am.


The night before I found my camp quickly in the dark as my sister had called. We spoke for hours as I sat in my camp chair sipping wine gazing up at the Milky Way.


I have to get on the road. I have three days to get to Mount Isa. It is do-able. It’s about 2,000km more. It is afternoon and I haven’t left yet. I enjoy a really slow morning but now, I gotta hightail it out of here!


It’s well into the afternoon before I get away. I always find it hard to leave in the morning. Well, I find it hard to leave at anytime of day to be honest. I hate to leave, but once I’m on the move I love it and hate to stop. It’s my own personal oddity. Well, one of many. I hate to get up in the morning but once I’m up, I love it. I hate to take myself off to bed, but once I’m asleep, I love it. It’s a tough life.



ON THE ROAD AGAIN


Pulling onto the highway feels like entering another universe. It’s one where you have to concentrate. The smallest lapse could be fateful. A micro-nap could cost you your life. So says the road sign and TV ads. They work, it appears to be drilled into my head. Animals can run onto the road, other drivers. I’ve been in, and seen too many car accidents not to be cautious.


THE MIND


Once you enter the driving ‘zone’, the other universe kicks in. Thoughts run wild. Sometimes they’re slow and sometimes there are none. It’s a form of meditation. Anything could come and go, and usually does.


I flick on a playlist of my favourite songs from the year so far. Already I know them well although I never look at the details so I don’t know the artist or song name. I connect with the aesthetics of the sounds. My mind goes into a pleasant ride thinking through my conversation with my sister from the night before. Then it roams through the various happenings from my preceding weeks. Problematic scenarios and dynamics fill my thoughts as my mind wanders through them seeking solutions.


THE BACK-O-BOURKE


Before I know it I have reached a town. It’s Bourke! I’m in the back o’Bourke! It’s small but pretty. A snaky brown river runs through the town painting the neatly kept lawns a luscious green. People randomly roam the streets. Many kids. Aboriginal kids. I wander along the river banks checking out the land. I am surprised it’s so green. I’m surprised there is so much water.



LOCKED OUT!


The town has a good feel to it, which is lucky because I end up there longer than I intend. I wander into the supermarket. I’m starving. I get a hot chook and some veggies. I can have some for dinner and stretch it for lunch tomorrow. I buy a six pack of cider.


Back at the car, I throw my goods hastily in the back of the car so I can cruise off and eat in the bush away from the town. I move too quickly and leave my keys in the back. The automatic lock clicks in and I am locked out. Bugger. I'm starving and it’s getting cold. The sun is going down and I really want to get out of the town. The food is inside the car. My jumper is inside the car. But alas, my phone is in my pocket! Awesome. I call the roadside assist. They are going to be an hour, so I walk to the local pub for some warmth and a beer. The town is quiet. It's 5pm on a Friday and the shops are closed.


The pub is the only gathering of people.


LOCALS


I buy a schooner and sit outside. An old man pulls up a seat at a table nearby and says 'g’day'. His face tells a story of beer. Another man with a similar story on his face joins him. They don’t appear to know each other. After a long silence, one speaks. “How long you been cooking for?” Elongated pause. “Eight years”.


The next pause lasts longer than the time it takes to travel the city loop on Melbourne trains.


Having just come from the city, my rhythm is rolling a bit faster than these guys. It would pay me to slow down. I sip my beer and overhear conversations from the next table. They sound like uni students. I lose interest and drift back into my own thoughts.


The road side assist blokes arrive and break into my car.

Hoorah–I’m away...”

DRIVING THROUGH THE DARKNESS

The orange glow of the sun fades over the horizon into darkness as I drive out of town. My headlights pour onto the road piercing the blackness. I am not alone. Roo’s are everywhere. The road is literally littered with roo road kill. The drive becomes a navigation challenge of dodging roo’s. There are just as many dead as alive. One jumps out of nowhere. I slam on my breaks so hard that all my gear flies into the front of the car. Shit. Oh well, at least I didn’t hit it.


THE ROO GUARD OF HONOUR


I continue driving, leaning over to reach my hand across the passenger seat to check if my water or any of my snacks spilled in the jolt. It seems okay. Just as I do, another jumps from the darkness into my headlights just meters from my bulbar. I slam on the brakes again and just miss the second one. There are literally hundreds of them. Crowds. They line the edges of the dark road, paws held together as if in prayer or poised at the starting line of a sprint race. I muse at the vista before me of a road lined with a roo ‘guard of honour’. They get startled by the headlights and don’t know which way to bounce. When they do take off, it’s spontaneous, at immediate high speed and in unpredictable directions. I drive slowly. There is good reason for prayer as these roo’s attempt to co-occupy the road with unforgiving and heavy road trains, hurtling their way at high speed through the deserts at night, creating hundreds of nightly casualties on a highway of death. I don’t see the third one. It’s a big fella and I hit it. I heave a deep sigh of sadness. I detest hitting animals.


IT'S TIME TO THINK ABOUT FINDING A CAMP


Before long I arrive in the small town of Cunnamulla. I don’t want to stop there, but am curious to cruise around the town and check it out. I remember the name from the documentary years ago that I never saw. At 9pm there is barely a sign of life in the town.


I see a light on in the pub.

Then they see me. The cops. I’m fresh meat in town! They pull me over. Oh shit. I had two ciders. They pull their huge 4wd right up my tail and I think this could go either way. You get the wrong personality and you could be in trouble for anything. Not tonight. A young female and older male cop make light conversation with me while they breathalyse me.


I’m fine. I blow under the limit. I note how many roo’s I saw on the road. The bloke says they hadn’t noticed any. Great Australian sarcasm. He follows by saying they never drive on the highway at night if they can help it. They wish me well and tell me to drive safely. I’m off again.