The Never Ending Road through the Red Middle

We continue south in the direction of the Big Red Rock, Uluru.

Yes. This is the real deal. Landscapes covered by not much more than red soil and termite hills. Roadkill is abundant and cleaned by vultures circulating above the Stuart Highway. Wind has no longer a cooling effect. Yes, this is it. The Outback. Finally.

 

I tried to leave Darwin on a very humid Saturday and checked 4 gas stations in 4 hours (4 short lifts #15, #16, #17, #18):

– The BP on Wishard Rd close to the Berrimah rail yard: this is a popular place for trucks to fuel up, but not on Saturdays as most of the trucks leave Darwin on Friday.
– Fairway Waters gas station: only local traffic, worst ever. Chances are minimal to find a lift here.
– Coolalinga on the Stuart Highway: two gas stations of which one is 24/7 but in the wrong direction (Darwin) and the southbound one closes in the late evening. There’s also a truck rest area with no trucks.
– Gull Truckcity on Berrimah Rd: a large truck stop, but also in the wrong direction (Darwin) and almost no traffic during the weekend.

I was tired after the intensive scouting and a little disappointed in the erroneous advice of locals. The Gull Truckcity is playing Tomorrow Never Dies in the truck lounge and a truckie offers me a Martini. Shaken, not stirred.

 

#19 Woman with catering business / Darwin -> Katherine

I camped behind Truckcity and neither mangos, ants nor snakes woke me up this morning, but sprinklers.

Truckcity is very calm on Sunday. I do meet Franziska and Adrien, a Belgian-German couple trying to hitchhike to Alice Springs. The competition is on!

I switch to the Caltex gas station on the other side of the road and find a woman who can bring me to Katherine. She talks about the 4 businesses she runs with her family and the rather traditional life in the outback. Politics is always a popular subject and this is no different this time.

“Our ministers are very disconnected with the real life. The minister of agriculture recently visited my farm and it was the first time that he set foot on a farm. Had no clue at all. I doubt he can distinguish chicken from turkey. The problem is that we are too spoiled in Australia. The mining boom elevates the overall salary level and makes us lazy. The tax payer’s money is not efficiently allocated.” We pass Pine Creek and she adds “The gold rush can cause incredible things to happen. Here in Pine Creek they moved the highway because they discovered gold underneath it.” It’s true and you can see it on Google Maps.

She drops me off at the BP/Shell truck stop just before Katherine. It is very calm on Sundays and most trucks seem to be heading to Darwin.

 

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#20 Simo / Katherine -> Threeways

Simo is the pilot driver of two oversize road trains that are transporting two caterpillar dumpers to QLD. I can join the convoy till Threeways. Sounds good and I chuck my backpack in the trunk of the pilot car.

Simo has a very long name that I didn’t fully get, but I should call him Simo. He will also shorten my name because he is Australian and Australians abbreviate everything.

He explains me that he’s working for his son in law, actually ex-son in law.

“My boss is a nice guy, but he sacked my daughter. But not me. Big company, big guy. About 60 people on the payroll, including my daughter now, haha!”

“I’m almost 70, but I continue driving because it’s good money. I receive $49 cents per km. We average 1000 km per day so it adds up quickly. It’s actually good money. Most truckies make between $2000 and $3000 per week. The government takes its piece of the cake, of course.”

“Downside of this job is that we are limited to 80 kph, can’t go faster with the oversize. It ain’t cheap for the client either. We charge $1.5 per km for the pilot car and $6 per km for one oversize transport. Everything with tits or wheels costs money!”

Simo’s job is to scout the road and warn the oversize trucks of oncoming traffic or potential dangers. He uses a certain jargon to announce the oncoming traffic. I quickly learn that petrol trucks are called “road bombs”, and road trains “two four and a half”.

Simo is quite a character and really talkative. He was also in the RAAF, the Australian air force. When I ask him how his time in the army was, he silently answers “Don’t remember much.  I think I was an alcoholic then. Now I can stop after 3 beers, but I wasn’t able to do that as a young bloke. Always drinking and chasing the birds you know.” The bird is the word.

Simo’s favorite artist is The Man in Black so we play Johnny Cash almost non-stop. He also has other CDs of a friend who switched to iPod. He is amazed by such technology.

“Nowadays those little machines contain hundreds, maybe thousands of songs. Impressive do I find that, very impressive.”

The donated CDs, however, aren’t worth much. Often, Simo dislikes the disk, ejects and throws it out of the van swearing “What the heck is this?”

I point to the stuffed camel sitting on his dashboard and he jumps up and explains “This is Clyde. Clyde, the camel. He protects me from hitting camels. Very useful and it works!”

“What about the other animals on the road?”

“Well, I guess that I can’t fill up my whole dashboard with stuffed animals right?”

I travel without time so I ask him what time it is.

“It is beer o’clock, son. Beer o’clock!”

We pull over at the Dunmarra roadhouse and have an excellent burger. Australia is the first country where I find beetroot between the hamburger buns. A refreshing taste. Additionally the option “The Lot” exists for most burgers and gives you extra toppings and fries. I always take The Lot.

Darkness sets in and I plant my bivvy next to truck convoy. Camping outside the caravan park is explicitly prohibited although we are surrounded empty land as far as the eye can see. Simo assures me “You’re with us so they won’t bother you. We just fueled up for $4000!”

It is a very cold night and the heavy condensation wakes we up early in the morning. I get up and see that Simo is already brewing coffee.

“Cold huh?”

“Yes,” I shiver.

“Temperatures can drop close to zero, never forget that!”

He pushes a coffee in my hands and informs me that the convoy will depart in 20 minutes. I pack my belongings and get in the heated pilot car.

The remaining drive to Threeways is relatively short and the sun rises soon and we switch from heating to AC. It’s again a clear sky day with temperatures well above 30 °C.

Simo is, as always, talking.

“People disappear all the time in the outback. If you break down with your vehicle, your best chances for survival are staying with your vehicle. Many start walking, get lost and die. Simple. Many forget that it is a long and desolate road. And very arid, too.”

It is indeed a long road. The Stuart Highway between Darwin and Port Augusta is 2834 km long. It is the only North-South connection for road transport, and certain sections are even used as a landing strip for planes. The highway is also the race track of choice for the World Solar Challenge, a solar-powered car race, since 1987.

Simo continues “On the other hand you have the murders. We got many. The Peter Falconio case and Ivan Milat, just to name a few.” A simple Google search for outback murders gives enough tales of outback trips that have taken a wrong turn.

Our ways separate at Threeways. I continue south, while the convoy hits east.

Simo gets in his pilot car, honks, lowers the window and screams “You ain’t seen nothing yet. The road goes to infinity and beyond!”

Sounds like a trip worth taking.

 

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At the Threeways roadhouse I see Franziska and Adrien, whom I met in Darwin and have apparently also made it to the intersection of the Stuart and Barkly highway. And that’s a good thing because it wasn’t easy to find a lift at Threeways.

Franziska tells me stories about their fruit picking jobs in the North.

“So we were doing this fruit picking job up north and the farmer told us that the pay was $1 per tree. When asking if it was $1 per tree per person, the farmer nodded and we gave it a shot. Soon it became clear that we finished about 3 to 4 trees every hour and that the pay was not per person but per tree. Our actual pay was around $2 an hour. Ridiculous. We quit the next day.”

Finally a car passes and I speak to the driver.

“Is this a good place to find a lift?”

“No idea.”

“Would Tennant Creek be more strategic?”

“No idea.”

“Is there more traffic at night?”

“No idea.”

“So what do you know?”

“That you’re stuck here.”

A truckie was more informative:

“Sorry mate, I’m not going south. You got to know that most trucks are heading to QLD or up to Darwin. If I’d need to choose between Threeways and Tennant Creek, I’d stay here as more trucks stop here. On the other hand, trucks coming from Mt Isa could simply fuel up in Barkly Homestead and simply skip Threeways. One more advice: scout for Gilberts trucks as they should head to Alice Springs.”

A few rental vans stopped but refused to take hitchhikers. It’s of course their right to refuse, but I have the impression that these tourists are the least open to hitchhikers. Why? There was plenty of time to reflect and the following reasons can apply:

– The obvious one: it’s of course very dangerous to pick up hitchhikers.
– The van rental tourists are typically non-adventurous tourists. Their travel agent advised them to discover Australia during a road trip and they got a rental van (buying is way too much hassle). A hitchhiker was not mentioned in the tourist guide and doesn’t fit in the planned travel journey.
– The van rental tourists have rented their van for a ridiculous amount of money. Now they consider it their own for a certain period. They don’t want to share it and don’t see the fun of picking up a total stranger and the beauty of a random conversation. They are mean.

While enjoying the shade of the Threeways roadhouse, a young bloke pulls over his pickup.

His name is Nick and he asks “Where you going mate?”

“Alice Springs.”

“Jump in,” he says.

I greet Franziska and Adrien and assures them that at one point they will get a lift to Alice Springs. Adrien nods and says “Catcha bro!”

 

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#21 Nick / Threeways -> Erldunda

First, jumping in proved to be difficult. The passenger’s seat of the pickup was covered with empty beer cans and packages of cigarettes.

A bit surprised, I tell him “That are a lot of beer cans!”

“Well, it’s a long stretch you know!”

I remove between 20 and 30 beer cans and a handful of cigarette packages.

It is not clear from where Nick is coming or where exactly he is driving to. The only thing I understood that his trip has something to do with a girl in a hotel room of which he didn’t know the number. That’s it.

After only 5 minutes drive, he pulls over and grabs 4 beers out of the fridge. By the time I have drunk a single beer, he has downed 3. I keep a close eye on his driving behavior and conclude it is still safe. Nick enjoys Australian country music and puts on Chad Morgan who plays music with striking titles as: “Let’s Get a Cow”, “I’ll Just Get Stoned This Afternoon”, “You Can Have Your Women, I’ll Stick to My Booze”, “Truckloads of Starvin’ Kangaroos” and “Drinking Man”.

While we cruise through the desert, I understand that alcohol is the center of Nick’s life.

In Tennant Creek he asks me “You have a license?”

I take over the wheel because Nick suspects coppers to circulate the streets and check passing traffic for DUI, driving under influence.

“So what’s your story Nick?”

“I work on a station in the outback, every two months I have some holiday. Very isolated places, but we try to have some fun there. Every time I go there I bring 1000 beers and 30 bottles of Johnnie Walker.”

“Euh, that’s about 16 beers and half a bottle of Scotch every single day?”

“Yeah, I know. It’s not too much. And you have to be careful not running out of booze at the end. If you plan, you keep walking.”

His driving behavior doesn’t exactly improves and he often zigzags hitting the shoulder. I’m ready to grab the wheel if necessary. There is fortunately little to hit except for animals.

At Ti Tree we stop and Nick buys a little snack in the roadhouse. He receives a call from a friend called Blacky and the conversation is mainly about boozing. When hanging up he says “Ah, my friend Blacky has been boozing all day. He is an alcoholic. I like him.”

I notice that the dashboard fuel indicator says E for empty. Since Alice Springs is still around 200 km to go, I ask him if he doesn’t need fuel.

“Roger, my bad! I knew I forgot something. No dramas.”

Finally, we arrive at the Desert Palm Resorts in Alice Springs. He has booked a nice villa and offers me to sleep there too. It’s already dark and I only have heard bad things about Alice Springs so I accept his invitation and enjoy the Resort’s pool.

He unpacks his stuff and gently places a bottle of Johnnie Walker on his bedside table. He jumps up and yells “I’m a thirsty, thirsty camel!” while spinning around his eyes and walking on 4 legs. Note that Thirsty Camel is also a major Australian chain of liquor stores.

“We have to celebrate!” Nick screams.

“Celebrate what?”

“We got to Alice Springs. Yea Yea, Alice Springs. Let us celebrate!”

I think to myself that it is indeed incredible that he got alive and well to Alice Springs. We get in a cab and are dropped off in city center  Nick disappears in the first bar without saying a word. When I run after him he has already ordered Jack and Coke. Eight of them. He socializes with other alcoholics and I realize that alcoholism is an important problem in the outback. And clearly not only for aborigines. Soon, he is barely able to stand on his legs anymore and wisely orders a taxi. We get back to the resort where he crashes.

When I wake up next morning, I’m afraid Nick died last night. But when I look for him I can only find a half empty bottle of Johnnie Walker on his bedside table. His bed is empty. Maybe he did die and housekeeping has already removed the body?

I also wonder if Nick would call the bottle half full or half empty.

Sitting on the veranda, the neighboring guest greets me and we have a short chat about the Alice Springs Masters Games, a yearly sports event exclusively for elderly people. About 15k people attended this year. I’m not sure if sporting in the desert is the most healthy thing to do for elderly people.

Nick pops in with a Hungry Jack’s burger and fries. He seems sober and greets me with “G’day mate”. He tells me more about his work and explains me you can’t do much there in the outback except for drinking. He is 26 and the last two months of hard work have earned him $30k. Not bad, and I ask him what he plans to do with the money.

Nick explains “Well, I’ll put $20k in the house, you know pay of the loan. Bought a cheapie, so I should try to pay it back asap.”

“What you do with the other $10k?”

“Have some fun, have some fun.”

I do some quick math and conclude, if Nick continues like yesterday, he will actually finish his $10k very soon. One day in Nick’s life costs $735:
– around 30 beers at $6/beer = $180
– around 3 packages of smokes at $30/package = $90
– at least 10 Jack and Cokes at $8/drink = $80
– 2 taxis = $50
– 1 night at resort = $200
– fuel = let’s say 600 km at 15L/100km and a petrol price of $1.5/L = $135
(- except for the burger he is holding now, he doesn’t seem to eat)

I have no idea what to respond, so just nod.

“I also give to charity,” he adds, and carefully takes out of his pocket a key ring of which the engraving says Amnesty International. “I’m going to heaven again!”

Nick decided that we won’t drive today since his hangover is giving him a hard time. Even three Pauls Iced Coffees can’t help to start him up.

Next morning we continue our way south. I drive because Nick is still feeling sick. Our ways separate at the Erldunda: Nick continues further south while I will try to hitchhike to Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. The next post will be fully dedicated to this Big Red Rock.

I think Nick is the most destructive person I have ever met. You could compare him with Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. We will never know, but the chances are high that Nick would have killed himself if I wasn’t there to drive.

 

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