Hitting West to Darwin

The story continues in fast-forward mode.

  • Cairns is a little isolated in the North so I have to travel back along the East Coast in the direction of Townsville and then continue West on the A6 or Flinders Highway.
  • And then there was absolutely nothing.
  • We finish in Darwin above the Tropic of Capricorn.

#11 Sandy / Cairns -> BP truck stop Charters Towers

The common rule of thumb is that hitchhiking out of a city can be tough. Cairns proved to be no different.

I slept from dusk till dawn and am ready to hit West.  Here we go again. Cairns is still deserted and the few people I ask about a a good hitchhiking spot stare at me as if I just landed with a DeLorean DMC and asked for directions to the Milky Way. Not very helpful.

I walk along the Bruce Highway and find a gas station with only local traffic. Not good.

A Canadian cyclist stops and waves at me. He advises me to take a bus to Edmonton and try to get a lift in front of the Coles/Woolworths/Hungry Jacks. I follow his advice and jump on the next bus. A ticket goes for $3.10 and the bus driver assures me that I’ll get much better traffic in Edmonton. It is almost 10 am and the southbound traffic should start shortly. Once in Edmonton, I install myself with a sign just after the traffic lights on the Bruce Highway. Lots of traffic, but nobody pulling over. Finally, after one hour, a Ford stops. The driver yells “Get in mate!”

His name is Sandy as it is tattooed on his left arm. Sandy is a retired truckie and has driven interstate road trains for his entire life.  He visited relatives in Cairns and is driving back home. He smokes almost continuously and often breaks out in a violent coughing.

“I tried to stop,” he almost apologetically explains, “but now it’s too late anyway so why stop?”

I’m afraid that Sandy will go the way of the audio cassettes in his car.

I tell him about my hitchhike experiences in Australia and the hard time I had getting out of Townsville.

“I won’t drop you off in Townsville. Townsville sucks. Everyone hates Townsville. I think even the people in Townsville hate Townsville. There should be a good truck stop in Charters Towers. Let’s try that one.”

Avoiding Townsville sounds as a great plan to me.

Sandy stops at the 24/7 BP truck stop in Charters Towers.

“Just follow the A6 and you’ll get there eventually. Don’t die!”

I grab my backpack and thank him for the lift. “Rock on,” he replies and off he goes.

Yes. He is spot on! I’m on a Highway to Hell.

 

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# 12 Tiffany / BP truck stop Charters Towers -> Shell truck stop Mt Isa

The Charters Towers truck stop sees a lot of traffic passing by. Taking into account the advice of the many truckies, I try to find a lift directly to Darwin. This should be a 3 day drive of 2400 km. I can’t find a truck heading that far and after a truckie told me that Saturday night is relatively calm, I decide to pitch my tent next to a warehouse. I simply need some sleep.

Twilight wakes me up and I notice a tubular object lying on my bivvy. I hit the bivvy with my toothbrush and the object escapes. I pack my bivvy and walk back to the truck stop. A man informs me that this a snake-infested region. Duly noted.

The traffic at the BP truck stop heads in a variety of directions: Mt Isa, Sydney (2000 km), Adelaide (!), mines, and many cars to Townsville. I realize that a direct lift to Darwin will be rare and have to downgrade my expectations. I decide to accept any westbound lift to a major town.

Around 9 am, a girl named Tiffany offers me a lift to Mt Isa.

This 800 km drive proved to be a grand experiment in patience.

Tiffany is a devote catholic and hasn’t much to say. And neither have I. Sometimes it’s tricky to find overlapping interests during a lift. So I propose to listen to some records that I spot on the dashboard. She inserts a CD and describes it as “the best CD ever”.

I’m curious.

Bad luck. The CD contains a collection of prayers and so do all the other CDs. I don’t exactly recall what is was about, but I vaguely remember the preacher complaining about Jesus having drunk too much wine and eaten too much food. This lift reminds me somewhat of the US where my travel companion and myself were often picked up by deeply religious drivers or simply sects. I silently fall asleep and can only dream about food. Lots of food.

Tiffany is going to visit her parents in Mt Isa and I ask her why someone would want to live in the middle of the desert.

“My father is working in a copper mine, I think it is the largest copper mine in the world. It’s huge. But it’s actually not bad there, they have a very nice church. It’s easy you know, you just go to church and you immediately have all the friends you want!”

Long silence.

She asks “So how do you try to be a good person?”

I try “Being a good colleague?”

“That’s not convincing”

Damn. Second try “I don’t kill anyone, I guess that’s also good? I mean, I don’t do many bad things, I assume that should also apply, right?”

She mumbles something and asks “So you don’t believe in anything?”

“I just believe in me. I don’t feel the need for a religion in my life.”

Luckily, we pass Cloncurry and the conversation switches to the extremely hot Australian climate. Cloncurry claims to be the warmest town in Australia. I’m not sure if that’s positive. Although some discussion exists, the highest temperature recorded is 53.1 °C. I can’t see the magic to live here. Fortunately, we don’t stop.

The conversation, however, takes again the religious turn and she tells me about her prayers and the healing effect.

“We prayed for many disabled people and they were cured. There was this old man who was hardly able to walk and after a couple of weeks of intense prayers he was almost a marathon runner.”

Tiffany also prayed to solve relational problems of friends and she was also personally healed by prayers!

“I had severe eczema on my arms and no medication helped. Then we prayed in church and my eczema disappeared.”

She shows me her arms and they are indeed eczema-free.

“Amazing,” I say,  “did you change your eating habits at the same time or maybe it was dependent on the climate?”

“No, it healed because of the prayers.” She notices that I’m not entirely convinced and continues “And how would you explain trees growing out of rocks. Explain that to me.”

I want to bring up that the rocks have simply weathered and the correct nutrients have gathered in the cracks making it a fertile base for plants and trees. But I also realize this discussion is useless, so I agree with her diplomatically replying “Yeah, there are some pretty strange phenomenons in this world.”

The interrogation continues with the question “Do many people go to church in Europe?”

“No, not really, there is actually a strong decrease.”

“How come?”

Since we are approaching Mt Isa, I’m less inclined to play the nice guy. So I reply with a quote of Andre Baptiste Sr. in the movie Lord of War:

“Personally, I blame MTV.”

“MTV? What you mean?”

“Today, you have many alternatives to going to church. And I think many of these alternatives appeal more to the younger generation than church. With the ease of a mouse click you can discover the world, isn’t that fascinating?”

“I hadn’t seen it from that angle yet.”

Silence ruled during the remainder of the trip and Tiffany drops me off at the Shell Truck stop in Mt Isa greeting me with “God bless you”.

The slogan of Mt Isa is “You ain’t a real Aussie before you’ve been in Mt Isa”. Apparently, I’m a real Aussie now!

At the Mt Isa Shell truck stop there’s a young bloke napping under a tree. His name is Xochi and he’s on a “business trip” to Katherine. He tells me that he dropped out of school and is now hitchhiking north to find a farm job. If I remember correctly, he had just turned 18.

Since the tree is not providing enough shade for two people, we switch to a shaded spot next to the truck stop. We share travel stories and my last bread together with tea and coffee from the truck lounge. It’s an incredibly hot day and none of us feel the urge to hitchhike on the road with a sign so we stick to the truck stop.

Xochi is originally from the UK but has been living in Australia for a long time. Often he talks about the Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road and I notice he has been deeply inspired by the book. I ask him what other books he reads. He opens his backpack and shows me the content. About half of his pack is filled with books, mostly English novels.

I show him my small pack with only the bare essential and ask him “That must be heavy to carry?”

“Yes, a little bit. But you know, I’ll probably throw out a lot stuff on the way. I still have to learn how to travel I guess.”

“So what do you want to do after the farming job?”

He swiftly answers “Volcanoes”.

“What you mean with volcanoes?”

“You know, when the earth trembles and lava and ash get out of a mountain. I’d like to wait till I’m 21 and go back the UK and start physics.”

“Why the UK?”

“Education in Australia sucks. You are covered with debt when finishing your study and you haven’t learned a damn thing.”

Not many trucks stop and a helpful truckie  informs us that most of the transport to Darwin has already passed early this morning. He adds  “Trucks coming from Brisbane usually stop in Mt Isa on Sunday to be in Darwin on Monday. When driving back to Brisbane, they usually stop in Mt Isa on Wednesday to be back home in Brisbane on Friday.”

I take a cold (read: lukewarm since cold is very relative) shower and decide to camp after the truck stop. Xochi wants to continue hitchhiking at night and I wish him all the best. The next day he was gone.

 

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#13 Gibson / Shell truck stop Mt Isa -> Darwin

I wake up with hundreds of ants inside my bivvy. And they sting. Although I carefully closed the zippers, some smaller ants have made their way in and are very interested in my limbs. Since I had to use rocks to set up the tent, I might have uncovered an ants nest and now they take revenge.

I meet Coraline at the truck stop. She is a 26-years old girl from Bordeaux (FR) and is hitchhiking from Townsville to Darwin. The amount of luggage she is carrying is frightening. I count a HUGE backpack, one dangerously stuffed smaller backpack, two large water bottles, not to speak of the numerous items attached to her backpack. She looks like a decorated Christmas tree. In the desert.

Coraline has no plan (“No plan is the best plan!”) so I propose to split efforts. I stay at the Mt Isa truck stop and she stands on the road with a sign saying “Darwin – my parents are waiting for me.”

By the time Coraline has walked to the road I already have found a lift. And it is a triple-A lift directly to Darwin! Gibson is a statistics graduate from Taipei on a working holiday visa and is driving to Darwin to pick mangoes on a farm. We squeeze the luggage in the Ford Falcon and off we go for a lift of 1600 km.

I had seen grassland for miles and was curious to see how the landscape would change.

It doesn’t.

The concentration of trees fluctuates, but the landscape remains either grassland or savanna.

Coraline kills the time smoking. I try to have a chat with Gibson, but there’s a bit of a language barrier and most of the trip is covered in silence.

The speed limit changes at Queensland-Northern Territory border from 110 to 130 kph. This is appreciated by all passengers and we shortly hit the end of the Barkly Highway at Threeways. Only 1000 km left to Darwin.

We camp at Tennant Creek, a town south of Threeways with a population of around 3000. It is the fifth largest town in the Northern Territory.

I only have two sets of clothes, including the ones I wear. I wash my clothes and my Levi’s jeans dry in less than half an hour. Meanwhile, Gibson proves to be very well equipped and cooks up a storm.

Darwin is getting closer and the next day we make it to Katherine. We find a nice camp spot next to the Katherine hot springs. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to a hot spring, but they appeared to be cold. Refreshing.

Our last day together is short. We pass by a job agency in Katherine and Coraline finds a job as mango packer. I help to fill in the paperwork while the agent is warning her to handle mangoes extremely carefully. When the stem is removed from the mango, the mango releases a highly irritating sap that can burn the fruit and skin. The skin irritation it causes is called mango rash and is a common problem among farm workers.

Gibson and me hit the road again for the final stretch to Darwin. After 4 hours we arrive in Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory. It feels and is very small. I want to see Mindil Beach and start walking in that direction. A woman from New Zealand (#14) stops and offers me a lift to Mindil Beach. I gratefully accept and enjoy the AC.

It is not advised to swim in Fannie Bay due to the high concentration of deadly box jellyfish. Also saltwater crocodiles reside in the creeks around the beach and are aggressive compared to their freshwater variants. And of course, sharks patrol the coastal waters. Sleeping on the beach is also a no-go because crocodiles are sometimes sleeping on the beach, especially now that the water is warming up. I speak with a certain Jeff who tells me “Many have disappeared at night. Devoured by crocodiles and never found back.”

I stroll to Vesteys Beach and witness a scenic sunset when the sun sinks in the Timor Sea.

 

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