Deserts lie. Oh yeah, the desert is really hot. It’s so dangerous. You’ll see oases, they say. Make sure you take plenty of water…

It’s 5am and all that phoney nonsense couldn’t be further from the truth; I’m freezing my arse off, I’m breathing icicles, I’m without a coffee.

Dawn is still an hour off and moonlight sheds strange shapes through the scrub. A minibus had picked me and some others up to take us ballooning – past the township of Alice Springs, onwards to where it’s flat and barren.

The soil under my shoes looks red, but in this light I can’t be certain.

I am, notwithstanding my chilly pessimism, very much looking forward to hot air ballooning. I’ve always thought there’s a certain old-time and upper-class romanticism that goes with balloons: Around the World in 80 Days, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen and to a lesser extent Danny Deckchair starring the delighful Rhys Ifans… but not so much Led Zeppelin, or balloon animals. Nevertheless I’m excited.

That is until the breath of a dragon – a flashing red glow with a gush of wind – startles me from my dust-stumbling stupor. The first burst of flames has little to no impact on this oversized whoopie cushion, but they do light up the surrounding bushes. I needn’t complain about being cold anymore. Slowly the balloon begins to take shape, or at least take the shape of a large snail stalled on a cross-desert journey, its large orange and red stripes aiming to blend into the surrounds.

A few more squirts of fuel again and it’s as if the flames from the basket have lit up the entire black dome that once encased us. Rich hues of red and orange are peaking over the horizon. Purples and blues are filtering west, pushing the black night away.

Up, up n away

Twelve of us pile in the wicker basket. Our driver, or pilot… the guy in control of letting off hot air, unties the rope and we slide along the loose desert floor before inching off gracefully.

We climb into the air as the early morning sun hits us directly – the race against time has been won and our cameras are at the ready. A good view of the horizon and the lay of the land is cracked open by the piercing yellow that spreads quickly over the flat land as alarm clocks ring out in shrubs, burrows and hollows – desert life for another day has started. And sure enough, a few grey kangaroos are spotted on their morning bounce.

For us it’s onwards and upwards with the occasional spurt of flames, each giving us a bit more weightlessness.

It’s blissful and everyone has a delighted smile on their face. A fellow passenger questions our speed. It feels like we’re travelling at about five or 10 kilometres per hour. But without a breath of fresh air in our hair and pure peacefulness it’s a complete surprise to find we’re moving at 60 clicks.

This may sound completely stupid, but you can’t steer a balloon. It’s not like a massive kite, we don’t bank left or lean right. We have quite literally thrown caution to the wind – it’s up to Mother Nature – let’s hope she isn’t hungover.

Below us comes our mini van banging along down a dusty scrub track and we begin to lower. There’s no runway or X marking the spot, just plenty of room for a gradual landing. A bit of a skid on the red pebbles and to a stop we come.

Everyone pitches in to fold up the massive snail and it’s breakfast time. We chat excitedly about the flight as we scoff down a delicious meal of fruit, juice and a veritable array of other yum stuff. And although I don’t really need the coffee anymore, having warmed up and being thoroughly awake, I have one anyway. Because I’m an addict.

Eating dust

Exhilarated and ready for my next activity (and with a decent caffeine-buzz), it’s time for quadbiking. Turns out our balloon pilot is also our quadbike guy.

Quadbikes are pretty simple to operate, you don’t have to be Valentino Rossi to ride one… or so I suspect. Having some sense of balance and auto-experience always helps though. For riding through the outback, probably don’t wear your brightest white daps or Sunday best either.

We take off on a track that’s thin and bumpy and the dust flies immediately. However with my nerves slightly jarring my inexperienced riding, the bike bunny hops and coughs as I choke from the bikes in front of me. Behind me? Oh bollocks, I’m last – get it together. I press hard on the accelerator and I’m away, maybe a little too away, I grip on for dear life. Who knows what prickly bush, thorny lizard or snake’s mouth I’ll fly into if I let go. Steering is important.

I narrowly miss a fence post and skittle around a bush before flying right over the top of a hillock, I was supposed to swerve around.

Some totally “xxx-treem” dudes do this on purpose, off far greater jumps – I am not one of them. Turns out I’m not actually going at kamikazi speeds, I’m just a wimp, there’s no massive air, there’s no wipe out… just tipping over to one side. I correct my direction and away I go.

The others are far enough away not to see them, but close enough to see their cloud of dust. Gah!

Get away vehicles

I refocus and look at the trail ahead, remind myself of the arcade days of sitting on bike simulators and away I go, forecasting turns and twists in the track, leaning into the corners and eventually smiling. The smile doesn’t last for long though as I catch up to the dust storm of the others and tiny bits of the desert floor fill every one of my available orifices in my head. I’m practically on my way to winning the Baja/Cannon/Gumball 3000. We corner the old windmill, over a bridge and past a cow skull on a fence post. We really feel lost in the outback, you imagine these trails may go all the way to either east or west coast, if the petrol doesn’t run dry. Fortunately just as the saddle sores begin to kick in we round the final corner and are back to where we started.

We’ve all acquired quite a tan since starting out. A tan that will require a decent showering, and a touch of exfoliating if I were to princess myself – and I do deserve it.

After loading the bikes onto the trailer we pile into the minibus and share stories of speed and adrenalin, of near-tippings and good times all the way back to Alice.

Alice: Where animals kiss you

Some things I like: tea, the dizzying genius of Cesc Fabregas and kissing. I really like kissing (unless onion breath is involved). So when the cute woman at Alice Springs’s Reptile Centre asked who I wanted a kiss, I was out of my seat faster than you can say “withorwithtongues?”.

I got in position – eyes closed, head bent forward expectantly, lips pouting. She pulled a lizard out of a bag. “This is Casanova,” she said. “It’s a blue tongue lizard and it’s going to kiss you.”

I was a little disappointed. I don’t tend to kiss animals, as a rule. But then the little lizard stuck its little tongue out and, true to promise, gave me a little kiss on the cheek.

I forgot all about the girl. I had just had a kiss from a lizard – much, much better than those disgustingly saliva-sloppy kisses from dogs. And no onion breath. I almost proposed.

Then I listened to an enthusiastic talk about all things cold-blooded by a reptile fanatic, posed with ‘Bea’ the python, met local hero ‘Bub’ – the lizard which once bit Steve Irwin – as well as goannas, thorny devils and even a sulky croc.

There are numerous attractions around Alice, like Desert Park, numerous Aboriginal art galleries (if buying, ensure money goes back to the artists), the School of Air, the Old Telegraph Station and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, but I simply didn’t have enough time, sadly. I did have time to eat a camel.

My hour’s camel ride along the picturesque, yet dry, Todd River was a fun and relaxing way to watch the sun set. Yet when I was offered camel meat at dinner, I had no hesitation in accepting (hmm, salty). Camels are oft perceived as grumpy, reluctant, smelly animals. Which is because they are.

Much as I had turned an important corner regarding animal kissing, I was immensely glad no camels busted a move.

The damage: Early Morning Ballooning rides cost from $230 (30 minute flight and breakfast), plus $25 insurance. Quadbiking: Trail Blazer Tour is $119 (with transfers). Package Deal: Early Morning Ballooning (plus breakfast) & Quadbike is $349.

The details: Outback Ballooning Freephone: 1800 809 790, Desert Quads Ph: (08) 8953 7100.

The damage: The Reptile Centre cost $12 admission; camel rides from $45. The details: Reptile Centre talks are held at 11am, 1pm and 3.30pm, Ph: (08) 89528900; Anangu Waai!, Ph: (08) 8950 3030.

November 12th, 2007

While trying to drive across the Simpson Desert, LIZZIE JOYCE and her partner were forced to hitch a ride with some dodgy truckers.

Early one January morning my boyfriend Dan and I set off on our trip across three states, covering 3,000 miles on what would turn out to be the best trip I have ever done, not to mention the most dangerous. We were attempting to cross the Simpson Desert on our way to Alice Springs from Sydney. We were fully prepared and set off in our 4WD loaded with equipment, including 60 litres of water, a double swag, a laser beam,
and an Epirb signal.

After 10 hours of driving, watching the landscape turn from highways and tall buildings to red earth and eternal horizons we glided past an old mining town called Cobar, stopped for a wee and drove on through, thankful that this ‘Hicksville’ town was not our destination. But while driving at an average speed of 120km per hour, the trusty car (which I was assured had “just had a full service and was made for driving across such terrain”) was disintegrating and the entire wheel was about to fall off.

Ugly mothertruckers

Suddenly, the brakes started to fail and smoke started pouring out the front passenger tyre. We were 120km from the last town and with at least 100km to the next, Dan decided we should drive on (without brakes) and see if we could make it to our destination. Luckily it didn’t last long anyway as the car stopped in defiance and we were forced to pull off the road in the middle of nowhere. Within minutes two semi-trailers driving in convoy by brothers, pulled up to offer us help and I’ve never been so glad to see two spectacularly ugly truckers before in my life. Freaky Brother One then began to undress me, with his eyes, almost frothing at the mouth at coming in such close proximity to someone of the opposite sex, while Freaky Brother Two was pretending to be a mechanic and baffling Dan with his bullshit. It was turning into Wolf Creek.

Nothing could be done with the car, and we had no choice but to accept a lift from Freaky Brother One to the nearest roadhouse 13km up the road. But then he said there wouldn’t be enough room in the cab so Dan should travel with his brother and I should hop into his cab by myself. By this point I was close to hysteria and there was no way I would be getting in that lorry by myself.

So we both hopped in with Brother Number Two. Dan settled in the middle of the very spacious cab which had enough room to house a small Albanian family! Relieved to be on our way to a phone box and in relative safety, (even if we were in being driven by an axe wielding maniac I had enough faith that Dan could knock him out if it came to it) I thought it would be plain sailing from here. After a couple of minutes on the road Brother Number One starts becoming agitated – he thinks he has lost his keys as he can’t use the radio to contact his brother. He pulls into the side of the road and asks me to hop out to see if he had left them in the door lock. This forced me into ungraceful acrobatic maneuvers in order to hang myself out the door and reach round to grab the keys, with freaky brother one more than enjoying the view of my ass in the air. The keys were there, so off we set again in stilted silence.

Roadhouse blues

Finally we caught sight of the roadhouse and saw our escape was only minutes away and we made a sharp exit from the freaky brothers. Good riddance!

The roadhouse turned out to be a petrol pump and a shop that was about to close. They had a phone though and we arranged for a tow truck to pick us up and take us back to the nearest town… Cobar (the Hicksville town we drove through scorning) where we would have to wait for the next three days for the car to be repaired. How ironic that the town we were laughing at turned out to be our refuge.

So we skipped the Simpson Desert and took another route to Alice Springs where we arrived two weeks later with the biggest smiles and the best memories!

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