The Final Stretch back to Sydney

All good escapes come to an end. Or not? What if it’s all part of a one big escape?

  • This post summarizes the 3500 km journey from Uluru back to Sydney.
  • I will cross more red-soiled land before joining urbanization again in Port Augusta, a major logistics hub in South Australia.
  • Adelaide and Melbourne are next before coming full circle in Sydney.

After a late pasta lunch and siesta, I decided to say goodbye to my friendly compañeros with whom I visited Uluru, and continue my path  south. There’s only one gas station in Uluru and that’s the Shell next to the Ayers Rock camping. I assumed it was going to be easy. I was wrong. Simply put:

Fact 1: most people leave Uluru very early in the morning. I was admiring the sunrise so I missed these cars.

Fact 2: most tourists first head to Kings Canyon before continuing their journey. This means that they turn off at Curtin Springs and don’t continue to Erldunda.

Fact 3: most traffic is local.

Luckily, I meet Cyril, Camille and Laurencie. Three French travelers with two Ford vans and four places. Easy math.

 

#23 Cyril / Erldunda -> Port Augusta BP truck stop

I share the van with Cyril, a 26-years-old telco salesperson from Lyon. We speak French and I can only conclude that he sounds incredibly depressed After the regular chit-chat, I ask him why he is driving alone.

“Why are you driving such a long stretch alone. Seems boring to me. ”

“Yeah, I’m bored to death. But it’s a long story, my friend.”

“I happen to have time.”

“I originally arrived in Australia together with my girlfriend. Beautiful girl. Been together for more than six years. We decided to work in Melbourne and save some money for the trip. She takes up this hospitality job and starts an affair with her boss. Just couldn’t stand it. I Spent the next two weeks continuously drunk before deciding to start traveling on my own. But I was still boozing and, as you can imagine, it was not a good combo with driving. So I realized that it’d be better do something more constructive. So I bought a guitar and learned to play.”

He points to the guitar in the back and promises me that he will play some songs tonight. I also notice an axe hanging in the van and I wonder if he also bought it after the breakup?

We camp at Curtin Springs and watch the sky turning black. Only seconds later, strong winds and rain make it almost impossible to set up my bivvy tent. By placing the vans in a strategic direction, my bivvy survives the night full of thunderstorms.

Next day, silence dominates the trip. But suddenly, Cyril mumbles “C’est le Toyotisme.”

“What you mean with le Toyotisme?”

“Everything has to be perfectly streamlined these day. I read a book about it. Toyota started it in Japan after WWII. The entire supply chain, production and delivery are juste-à-temps and maigre. Sounds horrible to me. ”

I have no clue why he brings this up and am a strong advocate of lean companies in general. But maybe he is also right to some extent. There should always be room for errors – but maybe more in life than in business. Maybe we should evolve, let the chips fall where they may.

Tonight we camp in Coober Peddy, the opal city of the world and home to an 18 hole grassless golf course. Fortune hunters have been digging holes in search of high-quality opals since 1915. Noteworthy is that many of the 3500 inhabitants live underground as temperatures easily hit 40°C during summer. It doesn’t appeal to me as a permanent place to live.

The next day at Port Augusta I rediscover how cold weather feels like. It’s rainy and we decide to camp at the BP truck stop and grill chicken. Port Augusta is a major logistics hub for both trucks and freight trains. The amount of  trucks at the BP truck stop is impressive and I felt confident in finding a lift back to Sydney and catch my plane after exactly one month of travel.

 

IMG_1912

DSCN3686     DSCN3688

DSCN3692     IMG_1975

DSCN3702     DSCN3700

IMG_1878

 

#24 Matt and Paul with a rental van (!) / Port Augusta BP truck stop -> Adelaide

In the morning I meet Matt and Paul from Paris who offer me a lift to Adelaide and the Great Ocean Road. I jump in and realize this is the first time I hitchhike with a rental van.

The landscape between Port Augusta and Adelaide reminds me of the softly undulating Tuscany region in Italy. Except for the soil, which is dark-red. We get off the main freeway and follow little roads through the country side. Many houses seem empty and make some towns look like ghost towns. Would people have shifted to the city life?

We arrive in Adelaide, a city founded in 1860 by a certain Colonel William Light. Light was a man with a plan. And you can take that literally, as he designed the grid lay-out of the city center and surrounding park lands. Curiously, however, during weekends it seems hard to find a living soul outside. The abundant parks are desolated and the wide lanes attract no traffic at all.

At night, I find the idea of spending more time with my French companions cruising along the Great Ocean Road not particularly attractive. We had not much to say and I preferred to change company. When we pull over on some grim-looking rest area, I decide to say goodbye to the Frenchies and look for the next lift.

 

DSCN3703     DSCN3705

DSCN3711     DSCN3715

DSCN3710     DSCN3721

DSCN3723

 

#25 Ashley / Adelaide -> Tailem Bend

Ashley works in a hardware store and is returning from Adelaide. He’s very suspicious of this European hitchhiker and refuses to offer me a lift. Since it’s cold and I don’t feel like camping, I try to convince him while he smokes his cigarette. Ashley changes his mind and brings me to the Shell truck stop in Tailem Bend (there is also a BP in the opposite direction).
#26 Gred’s wife / Tailem Bend -> Unknown place just outside Tailem Bend

It’s 3 am and a woman drives by the Tailem Bend Shell truck stop. She lowers the car window and yells at me “Get in the car because we only have 15 minutes before he is leaving!” I get in the car and quickly understand that her husband is a truckie who is driving to Melbourne overnight.
#27 Gred / Unknown place just outside Tailem Bend -> Melbourne

“No, not Greg, it’s Gred,” says a friendly 40-year-old truckie when I climb in the truck. We shortly discuss the usual topics, but I’m consumed with sleep and switch to the cabin’s bed while Greg, euh Gred, drives through the night.

In the morning we arrive in Melbourne and have a brekkie at the BP in Laverton North, the major truck stop for trucks going to Adelaide. Gred drops me off at the Newport train station and 20 minutes later I walk out of Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station. I’m in Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria.

 

DSCN3726

 

I spent three full days exploring Melbourne and totally loved it. Melbourne is often ranked as the most liveable city in the world and I can only comply with this ranking.

The impressive Yarra River acts as a green lung crossing the city before flowing into Hobsons Bay in Port Phillip. People are rowing, cycling and running after work. Life appears to be fun for the average Melbournian.

Metropolitan areas always put urban camping to the test. But if Paris, London, NYC, and other major cities have proven to be doable, why would Melbourne with its overabundance of green be any different? I found an excellent spot with soft grass, a public barbecue and unique views in the Birrarung Marr Park next to the Yarra river. Especially the barbecue was great and I found myself grilling gourmet burgers while the sun slowly sank behind the CBD’s skyscrapers. It was my riverside hotel and I enjoyed every single minute of it.

Gred had advised me to catch a train to Epping and hitchhike on the BP truck stop on Cooper St. That’s exactly what I did, but the walk from the station to the BP took me more than an hour. But it was worth it as it’s the largest BP I’ve seen in Australia. You can find trucks heading to most major Australia cities, but mind that routes significantly differ. Trucks to Sydney will take a different route than trucks to Brisbane. Generally, most trucks leave in the later afternoon, say after 4 pm. However, around 2 pm, I found a direct lift to Sydney and loaded my backpack in the truck for the penultimate time.

 

DSCN3732     DSCN3752

DSCN3738

DSCN3754

DSCN3743

DSCN3739     DSCN3792

DSCN3759     DSCN3766

DSCN3778

 

#28 Ernie / Epping (Melbourne) -> Sydney

Ernie has been trucking for 44 years and invests every hard-earned dollar in real estate. His last acquisition is a $750k penthouse apartment in Surfers Paradise. He rents it out at $2000 per week and wants to get the initial investment back in less than 8 years. Signs of an overheated property market?

Ernie is a good storyteller and often stops to have a break. We have an excellent latte at the BP in Alburry, stop to snap a picture of the submarine in Holbrook and devour a succulent burger at the Caltex in Holbrook (good spot for hitchhiking, too). This trip clearly ends with a crescendo.

I see a very familiar skyline when I wake up the next morning. Yes, we have come full circle. This is Sydney.

 

DSCN3802     DSCN3803

DSCN3812

 

#29 Joe / Sydney suburbs -> Sydney CBD

Ernie’s colleague Joe drops me off in Sydney after 4 weeks of travel.

 

DSCN3805

 

It’s been a short but intense trip. The numbers don’t lie. Here are the final stats:

– Total distance hitchhiked: approximately 12,ooo km.

– Total lifts: 29.

– Total travel days: 29.

– Total travel days of which actively hitchhiked: 20.

– Average distance per lift: approximately 400 km.

– Average distance per day: approximately 400 km.

– Average distance per day actively hitchhiked: 600 km.

– Longest lift: 1,600 km (Mt Isa -> Darwin).

– States explored: New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory, South Australia and Victoria.

– States not explored: Western Australia, Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania. You always need to keep something for the next time.

– Highest temperature: >40°C (Uluru).

– Lowest temperature: close to 0°C (Dunmarra).

– Animals hit: numerous wallabies, possums, dingos, snakes, etc. No large kangaroos (redbacks and the like), camels or cattle.

Australia. Been there, done that.

What’s next?

I wrote this post in Bangkok and published it in Singapore. Prepare for a whole new escape in Asia where chopsticks carefully maneuver noodles to your mouth, Tiger Balm virtually cures all aches,  shopping malls are the ultimate pastime experience, and crane counting still yields impressive economic indicators.

Escape. It never gets boring.

Advertisements

To the Big Red Rock: Uluru

Uluru is a 500 km detour for me, but I see the Big Red Rock as an important milestone of this trip. And what is 500 km in Australia?

  • We are now in the middle of Australia. Switch to satellite view to see yourself how red the landscape is.
  • On almost every brochure or website about Australia you can spot a panoramic shot of Uluru or Ayers rock, part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The incredibly aggressive flies are, however, never mentioned.
  • Traffic stopping at the Erldunda roadhouse either goes south, north or to Uluru by the Lasseter Highway. It is thus fairly easy to find a lift.

It took me 15 minutes to find a lift to Uluru.

#22 Colette, Carlos, Rodrigo / Erldunda -> Uluru

Rodrigo is a 40-year-old Spanish traveler with a youthful spirit. He rents out his two apartments in Barcelona and uses the rent to travel. Interesting attitude.

“You have to choose between a wife and freedom. I chose the latter.”

Carlos is a Spanish engineer who wants to work in Australia, the new land of opportunities.

“Europe is dead now, there are virtually no jobs in Spain. I can make up to five times more as a bartender in Australia than as an engineer in Spain. I’ll try to stay here and see what I can find.”

Colette is from the UK and worked as a researcher at Imperial College in London.

As the van is older than most of its passengers, we drive at moderate speed and enjoy the red landscape. At some point Rodrigo jumps up and points to what he thinks is Uluru but it appears to be Mt Conner, a fake Uluru. We also spot several dust devils, little tornadoes that pick up dust and small twigs.

Finally, we arrive at the Park’s gates. The park entry is $25 pp for 3 days. It’s already late afternoon when we arrive, but decide to enter and go for the sunset.

Rodrigo and myself want to climb Uluru but underestimate the walk to the start of the climb that leads to the top of this massive sandstone. When we arrive at the base it is already dusk and a sign is indicating that the climb is closed. Moreover, the climb will also be closed tomorrow because a temperature of more than 36°C is forecast. The sign also adds that the climb is physically demanding and over 35 people have died while attempting. A fine of $5000 applies to safety breakers. Sounds like a good escape.

We jump the fence and follow the path up. It is definitely no lazy Sunday afternoon stroll and I can conclude that this is the steepest path I ever walked on. We also started way too fast. Half way up (total height is 348 m) and breathless we realize it is getting too dark to continue. We descend and capture a unique  sunset.

Next day, it’s still dark when we wake up and jump in the van. The beauty of this fantastic sandstone is that its color changes while the sun rises. The rest of the day is taken by a very hot Uluru base walk during which you can admire Aboriginal paintings and, simply, sandstone and red dust.

The verdict? Slightly over-hyped but worth a visit if you happen to be nearby. Also, look up. The stars shine brighter than ever.

DSCN3612     DSCN3602

SAM_5588     DSCN3623

IMG_0331     IMG_0330

IMG_0370

SAM_5595

DSCN3618     DSCN3631

DSCN3634

DSCN3646

DSCN3604

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.

 

DSCN3533     DSCN3532

 

#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.

 

DSCN3535     DSCN3556

DSCN3549     DSCN3548

DSCN3539

 

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!”

 

DSCN3558     DSCN3557

 

#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.

 

DSCN3573     DSCN3575

DSCN3596     DSCN3588

DSCN3599

 

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.

 

DSCN3409     DSCN3412     DSCN3413

 

 

# 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.

 

DSCN3422     DSCN3424     DSCN3426

 

#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.

 

DSCN3430     DSCN3416

DSCN3434     DSCN3497

DSCN3479     DSCN3451

DSCN3507