It's been a long ride in this heat. I've clocked up somewhere north of three thousand kilometres since leaving the old mudbrick hut west of Ballarat. I can't give a precise figure, because the speedo cable let go somewhere south of Woomera. I've been guesstimating my velocities and perambulations ever since. I know it's 673km from Tennant Creek to Katherine. And I know 4000rpm in sixth gear means 100km/h. But beyond that is pure speculation.
But before I can even begin to think about being in Katherine, I run into a bit of bother with the fuzz. Halfway to the horizon on the road ahead, red and blue lights atop a bacon machine start flashing. I watch with dismay as the Landcruiser grows larger, then slows and swings around behind me. I wind down through the gears, pull over, and hit the kill switch.
Cops. Always looking for trouble.
I pull off my helmet. The leather jacket too. It's far too hot to be standing around in the desert in a leather jacket. The walloper slams the door and stomps over.
Any idea how fast you were going.
149, he says.
Can I see your drivers licence.
I peel my plastic smiling face out of my wallet and hand it to him.
Where are you going.
Just going to work.
Where do you work.
Starting a job in Jabiru.
So you've got a WA drivers' licence, a Queensland registered bike, and you work in the Northern Territory.
The tyre biter stomps off, boots crunching on the roadside gravel. I crouch against the slim shade of the bike as he checks my record on the radio. It must be extensive. He is gone a while. When he comes back, he hands me a ticket for a month's wages.
I'll spare you the lecture.
About how far it is to get help out here.
You're old enough to understand.
He returns to the 'bruiser, fires it up, and continues south. I pocket the fine and ride off. A few clicks down the highway I'm sitting on the same speed as before. I know now, at least, how fast I am going.
I pull in at a place called Mataranka, intrigued by a series of colourful statues standing, staring, in the park. At the far end, under a huge strangler fig, a group of Aborigines sit in a circle, talking and drinking. One or two will occasionally get up and cross the searing bitumen to the general store. The women wear colourful print dresses. The thin brown men, wide-brimmed Akubras, boots, jeans and long-sleeved cowboy shirts.
Here is one now, sitting on a horse, staring down at me.
'Aboriginal Stockman', the plaque reads. And here, this Chinaman, in his tight-fitting blue skivvy, standing beneath a saucer-shaped water tower, looking like a long-lost George Takei twin. The plaque identifies him as Cheon, the Chinese cook. And over here, 'The Black Princess and her Dog'. A little Aboriginal girl. Someone has thrown a bucket of whitewash over her. I'm not sure why people do this, but the psychologist in me offers a theory. It's most likely because they are fuckwits.
It is when I find Mrs Aeneas Gunn and her husband, staring out across the road with a look of mild bemusement at the paddy wagons outside the Mataranka Police Station, that I realise this is no surreal outback parody of Star Trek. Not at all. These are but statues of the characters from Mrs Aeneas Gunn's 1908 classic bible of Australiana, We of the Never Never. Back in the day, Mrs Aeneas Gunn was at Elsey Station with her husband, Mr Aeneas Gunn. For a few months. Before Mr Aeneas Gunn died of malarial dysentery. Or maybe it was the chop suey.
The name 'Mataranka' begins to set bells ringing. I vaguely recall seeing a photo in a tourist brochure in a motel south of Alice, showing some bright young things swimming in a pool fringed with pandanus and paperbark. It said something about a thermal spring. There was a sign a back on the highway that said something about a thermal spring. I fire up the bike.
I could use a thermal spring about now.