Sunday, January 05, 2014


I awake before dawn, and pack my few belongings into the motorcycle panniers. It is cool outside under the poincianas, but a familiar red demon is rising in the east. It will be hot again today. The last three days have been north of 40 degrees, since heading out from my underground digs at Coober Pedy. Pushing on through the baked red heat.

Today's dawn start from Alice means I will beat the heat, but only to a degree. I will have to go slow and watch for animals. They've all got the same idea – early bird, worm – and recent rains means feed along the edges of the highway. I tootle along in the low, early morning light at around 80, slowing when I see roadkill or movement in my peripheral vision. Here are wallabies, looking just like anthills – until they move. There go some crows, feeding on carrion. You couldn't hit a crow if you tried,  but an eagle is a bird of a different feather. From a distance, an eagle feeding on roadkill looks very much like a crow, until you're way too close. I learned that driving lesson near Exmouth in '88. A wedge-tail, its wingspan almost as wide as the 'screen of my Phoenix, brushed my roof as I sped under it. Gawping at each other in mutual surprise.

It's the wrong time of year for this desert run. As the sun climbs, I lose fluids fast, and the familiar fatigue sets in. These long, straight distances have me shaking my head to stay alert, stretching limbs against the frame, deep breathing and playing mind games to stay focused on the road's grey nothingness. I stop about once every hour, leaving the hot bitumen for the shade of some spartan steel shelter to peel off my jacket and helmet to stretch or down cold electrolytes from the pack. There is usually a rainwater tank at the roadside stop, sometimes with water, sometimes not. I wet down the stretch-fabric tube around my neck. The evaporation will keep me cool for a while. Occasionally, if I'm starting to flag, I percolate some coffee, setting the stainless steel device over a small fire, or grab a nap on the swag, the wet fabric tube pulled up over my face against the flies.

Back on the road, the government puts the hex on me with its road signs. 'Drowsie Drivers DIE' they bark at me, suddenly, randomly. Oh, come on, I mutter into my helmet. There's no need for that. I'm doing my best out here.  I shake my head clear and focus on that distant grey-and-white point, that thin unfolding ribbon to the north.

The next stop is Wycliffe Well, the self-proclaimed UFO capital of Australia. A group of Aboriginal men sit under the bridge yonder. I buy a few mls of fuel, enough to get me to the Creek. One of the men is walking towards me. I hope he's not going to start humbugging me. I'm on a tight budget.

Merry Christmas my friend, he says, and shakes my hand.

Back on the road, I'm just settling into a routine when the Devil's Marbles loom like an hallucination. Rising out of the heat as if from an unearthly cauldron, these huge hot blistering boulders burst upon the flat red landscape like a curse. I feel compelled to stop. Drawn in by a strangely gravitational pull, I ride towards the stones along an elliptical gravel track, orbiting around these huge round boulders, eventually pulling right up tight against a brutal concrete table set under a steel square of shade cut from the sky. I kill the motor. Hooking my jacket and helmet onto the swag, I let the sweat and shade cool my core as I cast about the campsite. The large rainwater tank here is empty, and I'm getting low. I take my remaining small bottle of water and the Nikon and walk out among the boulders. The Karlu Karlu.

The sun hits me like a ball hammer beating a relentless noonday rhythm upon this strangely sculpted landscape. A huge rounded rock lies split asunder in the scorching heat. Nearby, another boulder looks ready to roll, poised precariously upon the shoulder of its big brother. In the near distance, an eerie, repetitive wail echoes off the stones. Must be some kind of bird. Surely.

I crouch in the sparse shade of one of the massive stones. The Aboriginal traditional owners, the Kaytetye, have their own myths about how they were formed. But I keep First Peoples' myths at arm's length. This is not my story, this is not my dreaming. Of course there is a lot to be learned from hearing these mythical yarns, from reading them. They are moral, and even plausible, up until the point where someone or something turns into a rock. But here, dwarfed into silent stillness by this inscrutable granite splendour, I can almost fathom the arcane logic.

I have about a hundred kilometres to go the nearest town: Tennant Creek. From there I was hoping to push on to Katherine. Now I'm having my doubts. I've clocked up 400 k's since leaving the Alice: I'm hot, I'm tired – and what on Earth is that weird, strangled cry? Can that really be a bird?

It sounds like a ghost. I'm beginning to feel like a character in a quintessential Australian outback novel, the one that goes quietly mad in an ancient, eerie landscape. But the heat. The heat!

I tramp back through the red dust to the motorcycle. Again I pull on the leathers, the helmet, and the ever-reliable Kwaka rattles back to life. UFOs, stones strewn by magic men, empty and alien landscapes … I'll be glad to reach Tennant Creek. Or Katherine. Or Darwin. Anywhere I can down a rum, and once again draw a veil across this brutal, indifferent reality.

1 comment:

sarah toa said...

Thanks Shark.
Just lovely. I've been waiting days, no years, for this post.