Jamaicans are the coolest people on earth. They also come from a very small country and have no idea about large countries. ‘Look, it’s 4,000 kilometres from Adelaide to Darwin,’ I found myself arguing with Lone from Jamaica, outside the backpacker joint, ‘are you sure this car will make it?’
‘Sure man, sure,’ reassures Lone, in the sort of relaxed and lovingly dismissive way that only a tall shiny black man in dreadlocks can offer. His station wagon looked like it had been dragged off a crash test dummy site. I couldn’t find a straight panel or a bit of seat without holes or dubious-looking stains, and it coughed and gasped like a dying trout in a sewerage plant. However, I had done lovely Adelaide. I had taken the tram to Glenelg, swum with dolphins, bought wildlife toys at the Central Market, anointed pubs and clubs and even spent a weekend on Kangaroo Island. It was time to hit the road – a very long road. A long, straight and very enticing line up the centre of Australia. To cross from South to North felt like a rite of passage, a way of seeing a continent and I wasn’t going to miss it: Lone and his car was my continental conduit.
We left the city with a burst of fumes and a clanking sound that provided an accompanying beat for our rumble up the highway. The farmland became dryer and browner, the grass crackling into dust if a sheep even looked at it. This was the great, open country I had heard about and I loved the little stone towns where, stopping for a drink or a sandwich during the sun-drenched days, we could imagine firing a cannon down the wide, deserted main streets.
We swept into Port Augusta in a blast of reggae music and four separate clanking noises. The Wadlata Outback Interpretive Centre confirmed my suspicions that great dinosaurs roamed these great plains; it was inevitable – all that space.
Further north we arrived in the mining town of Coober Pedy. Here miners blew up the dirt and pulled out glittering multi-coloured opals and I joined a two-hour tour taking me into surprisingly cool underground homes and even an underground church. I fossicked in the mine tailings and found a small pale opal that I was determined to make into a necklace – my very own Australian gem.
While I was finding my fortune in the dirt, Lone had been underneath the station wagon attempting to decrease the number of highway breakdowns. There is nothing more surreal than waiting next to a lonely desert highway: not flat and sandy but stony, bushy and stubbly with the odd smoky blue mountain range silhouetted against the horizon. Road trains would whoosh past – three or four trailers creating a wind draft that always blew my hat off. I would wait for Lone to groan, chainsmoke and tackle the rusted debris of the chassis or engine. I felt myself melting into the dazzling colours of inland Australia: intense rock reds; eggshell blues and grey skies; plants of emerald and olive greens. I built up my karma by stopping the odd lizard from kamikazing across the highway, sending them back into the skeletal bushes and stunted trees that crackled and whispered in the dry wind.
We limped into Alice Springs – a wonderful place of shops and tour opportunities. We wandered around the Royal Flying Doctor Visitor Centre, squizzed at the wildlife at the Desert Park and ending up at the reptile centre, where I trembled under a massive python who made love to our necks. I survived to swing a leg over a camel and heave along the Todd River, the town watercourse which, of course, contained no water. The station wagon finally died post-engine-fire, so we took the four hour AAT Kings shuttle to Uluru. This great red rock is the world’s largest natural monolith; rising out of the plains like a mysterious phantom. It’s a sacred site for the local Aboriginal tribe and as I took the three-hour walk around its base, I understood why. The walls of the rock were smooth, except for strange abrasions and otherworldly caves, holes and ledges. A strange feeling echoed off the rock, as if it existed on a different plane to we puny humans. As the sun set, the rock turned different shades of red then blue. It was an awesome experience.
There were no lifts to Darwin at the backpackers, but in one of those twists of fate, we met a busload of American students at a local restaurant where we were treating ourselves to a meal of kangaroo (delicious and best eaten ‘almost-hopping’ raw). They were Christian college students on a field trip Down Under and in a kind Christian gesture – if somewhat uncertain after a dubious glance at Lone’s rainbow woollen hat, blood-shot eyes and a sniff of marijuana odour – they offered us a lift to Darwin via the northern ‘sights’.
After spending a week crossing half of Australia in a noisy, cranky, uncertain vehicle, I relished the prospect of no breakdowns. North of Alice we saw eagles spreading wings on the thermals and the odd wild camel herd and cattle grazing on the stubble. Katherine is a sizeable town on the way to Darwin, with spectacular attractions. I camped at the sweet little Springvale Homestead, the oldest stone building in northern Australia, while the students used its budget motel rooms. Joining the local ‘croc cruise’ was a highlight of the trip as you get to within a few feet of a monster salt-water crocodile before celebrating with a bush BBQ gathered around tables under flaming torches, echoing a scene from the Survivor series. However, the most famous attraction in Katherine is the Katherine Gorge. Thirteen gorges in all, we boarded aluminium boats for the first two sections, cruising past red cliffs, aboriginal art and wildlife.
Litchfield National Park blips on every northern traveller’s radar: a place of forests, waterfalls and moonscape cities of termite mounds. It was here that our bus broke down (what is it about engines and distance?) and Lone finally found his way into everyone’s hearts, and probably one or two sleeping bags, when he started it up again.
Finally and happily, I reached Darwin, having traversed the continent in two very different vehicles, with the odd side trip on a camel. Darwin is a small sunny city where the average age is 29, so it’s a happening place. Evening markets, shopping and day tours with a liberal sprinkling of pubs, eateries and nightlife, kept me hopping like a kangaroo on hot coals. As for Lone, the last I saw of him, he was yarning with a grizzled stockman in a Darwin pub, baking on the edge of the blue Arafura Sea. The words ‘work,’ ‘horse’ and ‘cattle’ reached my ears as I slipped away. If you decide to travel straight up the centre, you might see a Lone Ranger with an Akubra sitting on dreadlocks, underneath some broken down vehicle in the magic landscape of inland Australia.