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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m not tired. I could drive a few more hours into the night or pull over, make a fire and kick back a few hours. The roo’s are unrelenting. I realise I’ve covered some good kilometres today. Maybe best I pull up soon rather than driving until I’m depleted. Sounds sensible. I must be getting wise in my old age. It’s usually harder to find a good campsite in the dark. I always look for a bush track that will take me far enough off the road that I have privacy but close enough I can walk to the road and get help if I need it.
When relatively close to a highway like now or if I'm unsure about the weather or safety, I sleep in the back of the car. Otherwise, I prefer my swag on the ground.
Tonight is a tough one. About 10 metres back from the bitumen, fences line the road on both sides. The only tracks are fenced driveways and the land is dry and dusty. I pass a hundred or so kilometres scanning for the right track. I don’t mind, I’m not tired and I’m enjoying the music and the meditation. Then, I find it.
Taller trees replace the low-lying scrub signalling a more varied landscape with potential waterways - perfect for camping. Turning left off the highway, a windy dirt track takes me through friendly bushlands in the dark. I find a clearing and am happy. I will stop here for the night.
Dried tree trunks lie sleepily on the sand around me. Their scattered limbs quickly bring a fire to life. It’s warmer than it was last night but still cold. The fire helps.
I don’t feel hungry but when I find some broccoli and make up some chicken curry soup, I devour it easily. I wash it down with cider.
ROAD TRAINS IN THE DISTANCE
As the night passes, the occasional hum of a road train can be heard in the distance. After setting up camp, sitting in darkness with only the fire and sky, I always enjoy watching for road train headlights as they get closer to work out how far from the road I actually landed, and what direction the road runs. Sometimes I’m surprised. I feel like I’ve driven quite a way into the bushes but maybe with a few twists and turns, the first passing vehicle can reveal I’m much closer to the highway than I thought. Other times I’m much further away. I like to understand where the road is, to know where to head should trouble arise.
Out bush, I always seek to understand the lay of the land. Ah well, except when I forget. On occasion, I paid the price for even momentary lapses in listening to the land. After decades of going bush for long periods of time alone, I’ve become more and more astute at reading signs like wind and other weather changes, movements and sounds - energetic changes. The intrinsic bush radar is continually getting sharper and more fine-tuned. The feelings and senses tell you the most. The deeper you listen, the more information you get. If you lapse, you learn. If you get a bad feeling, you listen to it. If you need to move – no matter how settled you may be – get up and go!
SILVER RIVER OF THE MILKY WAY
Tonight, the deep silence is broken only by snapping licks from the fire and occasional animal calls in the distance. I sink into my camp chair and gaze up to see the constellations of the Milky Way flow like a silver river through the sky. With not even a small town for hundreds of kilometres in any direction and at least a thousand kilometres to any major city, there is no competition for starlight.
Millions of distant galaxies that are usually blinded from our vision by the bright lights of our industrial feats have come out to play tonight. I am mesmorised by their beauty. Perched on the edge of the earth in this desert of darkness, I gaze into the white heart of the Milky Way taking in the infinite possible worlds out there.
LIGHT BLINDS THE DARKNESS I think of how light can blind us to what lies in the dark. Like powerful rays of sunlight that flood our surroundings, throwing light on everything around us. But in doing so, blinding us to what is beyond - to what lies in the darkness.
My analogy grows.
I think about how we bury parts of ourselves in the darkness, hiding things we are too scared to face or reveal. Confined to the vaults of the banished darkness they can grow. If we don’t visit the darkness or bring them out into the light they can fester. They can grow and torment us.
THE MAGIC AND BEAUTY OF THE DARKNESS
Into my minds eye pops a wet dirty rag. In the darkness grows mould. It begins to smell and attract cockroaches and rodents. In my inner vision, I then drag it out of darkness and into the sun. It starts to breath, and dry out. In the light it ceases to fester.
I consider how without seeking to know and feel and understand what lies in the darkness, we only get part of the story. We don’t get the whole story. What if the missing part of the story was the magic and beauty of the Milky Way?
My darkness metaphors are intervened by the smell of the fire. I gaze intently at the flame. Momentary flames of orange and blue rise from the darkness and disappear almost as quickly in creative dance. The fire glides effortlessly through light and darkness, through life and death. The metaphors are not over. Not only that, it smells divine. I open my nostrils to gently inhale the aromas of the fire.
I lean back in my desert night bliss. Warmed by the fire and gazing up to the galaxies, I reminisce another great day on the road.
I nearly doze off thinking about how becoming the master of your darkness frees you from your demons.
It’s time to go to bed. I brush my teeth, clean and moisturize my face and climb into my cosy car bed.