(...or "A Frantic Race...to the Starting Line")
08.06.2017 - 10.06.2017 20 °C
The morning arrives quietly and unimposing, the colour returning to the city slowly as if it had just started breathing again. My safe refuge is at an end; I gather all my belongings and silently say my goodbyes to the Adina Hotel in Perth.
The preparation for this forthcoming pilgrimage has been somewhat of a hobby for almost three years...perhaps starting only weeks after returning home from Australia the previous time. There have been hours of research; gathering useful tips, how-tos, best practices, where-tos and where-not-tos, what to have, what not to have, and what-to-do-ifs. Much of this information sharing a common theme - being primarily how, when driving completely alone through some of the most remote parts of the Outback, not to die.
There is confidence in history. In 2012, I entered the scene when I picked up a 4wd and travelled - alone - from Alice Springs to Uluru, across to the Kimberly on the Tanami Road, and east to Darwin along the Gibb River Road. In 2014 the bar was raised slightly when I once again drove away from Alice Springs through the West MacDonnell Range, along the Mereenie Loop through Kings Canyon and past Uluru on to the Great Central Road, eventually plunging myself into the adventure that was the 800Km stretch of the Gunbarrel Highway.
Soundtrack: a rugby match (I believe) on the taxi radio as we ride in otherwise complete silence to where my drive begins.
The Longest Road to Queensland - aside from being a rather campy blog title - begins here in Perth in the Bassadean. I am hiring a 4WD camper van that is equipped for remote Outback travel. The plan is to drive east and across the Nullarbor plain and then steer north along several renowned (or so they are in the Outback travelling community) remote roads - the Connie Sue Highway, the Gunbarrel Highway, the Gary Highway, the Canning Stock Route, and the Talawana Track. Assuming I re-emerge eventually, I'll then head north through the Pilbara region to Broome on the western edge of the Kimberly. After a brief reset I'll tackle parts of the Gibb River Road, and then cut across the Top End along part of the Savanah Way and through the northern Gulf region until I reach Cape York on the far northern edge of Queensland. It all ends in Cairns and approximately 10,000 kilometres later. There are much shorter ways to reach Queensland from here. But what fun would that be?
I will need plenty of water and food - enough to cover at least two weeks days with no supplies. I have tools to keep myself and my clothing clean (most of the Outback, oddly, provides no showers or laundry). I will be fully self-contained and pack around all my own rubbish until proper drop-points can be found (I plan on brown-bagging all organics and burning them in a nightly campfire). I have both electronic and paper mapping systems, a satellite phone, a UHF radio with the 40 channel Australian citizens band programed in, and two iPods: one full of music and the other loaded with over 200 hours of stand-up comedy.
I think I'm ready. I better be.
The rugged beasty I obtain from the rental company (by the way they are called 'Travel Car Centre' if you are ever thinking of perhaps trying to top me) is a well-seasoned Toyota Landcruiser with a roof-top tent, two spare tyres (I will be using Aussie spelling, get used to it), a stove and gas bottle, dishes and cooking equipment, an air compressor, recovery gear, an extra-high lifting jack (called a Kangaroo jack, for lifting vehicles out of bogs and ruts), a winch, an emergency locator, a sleeping bag and blankets, a fridge, and an awning.
And no, I did not pick out the licence plate.
After a brief walk-through my new home for the next five weeks, I set out to gather all my food before pointing the wheels east and hitting the accelerator.
Matilda, my murderous GPS, now joins the fun as she guides me from the depot to the nearest grocery store by leading me not along the most direct route possible but rather back and forth across said route through peculiar industrial park back-roads. I gather that she is thinking that perhaps my grip on right and left turns is not at its sharpest since I'm driving on the left side of the road. Thankfully my day trip to the Blue Mountains primed my skills at least enough to foil Matilda yet once again. Poor Matilda...she'll have me one day.
After packing every nook and cranny in the truck with stuff, I'm already several hours behind where I hoped to be by now - huge surprise. I had planned on about 500Kms today alone...and in retrospect this was a naive notion; it is well past 1pm, and there is no way I will be able to drive that distance before sunset. It wasn't really a good idea to begin with.
I set out and immediately feel the intoxication of driving through Australia.
The trip from Perth to Hyden, despite being a fairly smooth highway the entire way, is absolutely spectacular! I enjoy a reinvented freedom as I careen through thick forests, clumps of brightly and flamboyant trees, rolling hills of platinum and emerald, gorges and spillways, small picturesque towns, and of course swaths of brown-red soil and rock...all this while the sun rapidly races towards the horizon. Oh, Western Australia and your knock-kneed time-zone.
I pull into Hyden, specifically a landmark called Wave Rock, just as the last debris of sunlight extinguish behind me. I consider that perhaps this is not such a bad Plan B; I'll be able to at least say I've seen Wave Rock - a fascinating natural formation that has, of course, been appropriated and cordoned off so that entry fees can be harvested. But also, this puts me in a reasonably comfortable caravan park for my first night, allowing for the time and space needed to organize all the crap I bought. I'll be living in this truck for a while - I need to establish a system.
I'd like to claim I have forgotten how cold the nights in the southern half of Oz can be during the late fall and winter, but I haven't so much forgotten as much as I had simply tried to forget and ignore the fact. Thankfully I did have at least a miniscule amount of foresight when I bought a knitted cap (a toque, eh) at The Reject Shop yesterday.
Did I mention it's really cold?
Last night was really cold.
The morning is crisp and vibrant but still frigid. I spend as little time as possible cleaning up and eating so that I can generously allow myself perhaps 20 minutes or so to mindlessly snap poorly composed pictures of Wave Rock before I turn around and head back to the truck. If I were Wave Rock, I'd be insulted.
I do see my first roos of the trip - early in the schedule, by my standards.
So only about 750Kms to drive today if I hope to realign with my original schedule...a generous portion of the trip over gravel.
Soundtrack: While We Were Hunting Rabbits by Matthew Good
My first Outback track to travel is the Hyden-Norseman Road, an unsealed but reasonably well-conditioned shortcut from...Hyden to Norseman. I had imagined this to warm me up a bit for some of the harsher roads to come. But at first it appears this will not be the case, as a shroud of forethought at some point descended on the route and strapped it down with bitumen. Well on the bright side, I suppose I can take this road with more speed and gain more time.
And then, maybe 50Kms in, the pavement suddenly ends.
The road is in very good shape however, and I make fairly good time and this allows me some short breaks to capture the beauty of this road.
The drive is magnificent and serene (save for the loud rattling and creaking of my well-worn truck), leading through dense forests and past large empty lakes...that double, apparently, as 4WD playgrounds.
I reach Norseman by lunch time. 300 kilometres down, and only about 450 to go. And the sunset is blazing towards me. It seems I have a knack for doing this to myself.
The trip from Norseman to Cocklebiddy traverses an iconic stretch of road on the Eyre Highway called the Nullarbor (literally meaning "no trees"). It is not so much that there are no trees, but rather there are very few, and those few are very short and they don't really interrupt your view of the otherwise perfectly flat horizon in all directions.
One well-known length of the road is known at the '90 Mile Stretch' (139 kilometres), the longest straight patch of road in Australia. I blow through it in as little time as possible.
The sunset and I grimace at each other in stiff competition; I continue the race until the full moon leaps into the eastern sky, replacing some of the lost daylight, but not enough to convince me that I will have enough time to manoeuvre around some imbecilic kangaroo - or a flock of ravens feasting on an previously imbecilic ex-kangaroo in the centre of the road.
Night falls and I manage the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse; I treat myself to a delicious grilled fish and beet salad - my last real meal for some time. I am sore and stiff from the drive already, but quite pleased I have realigned to my original plan. Tomorrow I head out into the Outback, and it will be almost two weeks until I reach Broome. Between here and there, only empty desert and isolation.
Goodnight from Cocklebiddy, Western Australia.