Whoever said that life is about the journey, not the destination has obviously never been on a 19-hour bus journey with a group of antsy chain smokers.
“Hey mate”, one of them calls from the back of the bus, a tremor of desperation in his voice, “when’s the next stop?”. And at the last stop (just 20 minutes ago), someone got on with a crying child. As I bunch my sweater and try to sleep, I am beginning to know how she feels.
The bus journey in question is from Adelaide to Alice Springs. Of course, there are plenty of places to stop in between the two, but choosing to dawdle in Sydney and Melbourne left me with just under two weeks to travel to Alice, visit the Red Centre, then head on up to Kakadu. I simply don’t have to time to stick around, nor the funds to fly. So here I am, making the best of it, in what is one of the longest bus journeys of all time.
When the bus rolls up at Adelaide bus station I am slightly scared. This Greyhound somehow looks a little more… hardcore than the non-outback ones. Fronted by massive ‘roo bars, it has the look of an armoured vehicle about it, and pulls a mysterious trailer.
I wonder what it could contain – a portable oasis or survival supplies in case we break down in the middle of nowhere? (I find out later that it is just mail and freight). So with my bag full of sandwiches, and wearing flight socks, I settle in for an extensive session of window-watching. Not a bad pastime as it turns out, as I watch the sky over the golden South Australian farmlands turn the colour of lemonade, then apricot then darken to red.
When we arrive at the inky waters of Port Augusta, the smokers board and I am at least grateful that I don’t have a raging nicotine habit. They must get off at Coober Pedy, at which point I am fast asleep and the clicks of their lighters fail to rouse me. We stop for a short breakfast stop at Marla, and having been on the bus for an incredible 14 hours I find out that I am STILL in South Australia.
As I start to wake up I get chatting to one of the other passengers – Buddy, an Aboriginal stockman who got on, like me, at Adelaide. “It’s a great way to see the land”, he tells me, and pointing out of the window, says softly, “you wanna take note of it looking like this, don’t see it like that very often”. Turns out that record rainfall in 2010 has rendered the Red Centre surprisingly green. Hardy shrubs sprout from the orange soil, making the landscape unusually lush. It crosses my mind that I wouldn’t have seen this from a plane.
We get to Kulgera, finally the Northern Territory! In the toilet a genuine Aussie dunny spider stares down at me, his web wobbling slightly in the warm breeze. As the bus rolls on, Buddy tells me about the time he spent 32 weeks herding cattle from Western Australia to Queensland. Turns out he’s an amateur blues singer too, and once entertained train passengers on a broken-down Ghan. The people you meet. It nears 1pm, and just as I start to think excitedly that we are nearly there the driver advises us to put our watches back an hour to Northern Territory time. Endlessly the bus rolls on, until finally a bar pops up out of nowhere on my mobile phone, and suddenly we have arrived!
Perhaps the journey wasn’t too bad after all – I got to see the sunset on one side of the bus, and rise on the other, and I have definitely seen parts of Australia that other travellers usually miss in their haste to ‘get somewhere’.
Then it hits me – this still isn’t over. In just a few days time I have a 21-hour journey up to Darwin. I’d better wash those flight socks.