July 12, 2002 GMT
Outback Australia


Where to begin in a country the size of a continent? At the top of course. Tropical Darwin in the monsoon. Soaking. After four drenching days I was collecting two of each species and enough wood to make my ark.

Battle out south on a road rough chiselled through thousands of desert kilometres; a straight gash joining horizons. Great to be moving. I am carrying food, camping kit, 10 litres of water and 10 litres of extra fuel. Like driving a tank. “You have trouble staying upright with all that?” I grimace back. Only those driven from the lush edges live here: the natives harried by genocidal settlers and gleaming eyed prospectors. The desperate and the dreamers. Towns ribbon strasse the highway, dust in every cranny. An infrequent trinket of modernity glares incongruity, like finding a stainless steel brush set in your grandmother’s toilet.

Every shop is turned towards selling booze. This just too bad to face sober. Outback boys celebrate their roughness, revelling in the harshness—coarse words, beery jokes, two ton trucks. You’re no one if your 4WD doesn’t have an orange light on it. I make my self-deprecating quips to the guys. I hint at the shared experience of life’s futility and its tragic-comic potential. They stare back. These are chips off the old block. In this desiccated land, showing weakness is as odd as Perrier water. They are straight to the point, weather-beaten grey, red. They are granite.

Hundreds of cockroaches live in the wall latrine. They feast on my contribution, as welcome as the next man’s. Their chosen mode of locomotion is breast stroke. What a life.

Australians take their leisure seriously. They haven’t gone through quite the same de-regulatory experience as back home. Thus they still get their weekends. Unfortunately, they haven’t gone through the multicultural campaigns of the 1970s and 80s either; formerly pleasant encounters turn sour as the subject of the original inhabitants come up. I shuffle and look at my feet a lot, coward that I am.

Three days straight-line ride to the giant red oddity at the centre. It is weighty and peculiar. As sun sets the car-parks are full of white hire vans waiting on the miracle They’ve built a town to accommodate the pilgrim millions. But the postcard symbol is mostly brochure promise. Nigel and Fiona may have come all the way from the home counties to share the epiphany, but it looks to me like they’re waiting on the emperor’s new clothes. Red becomes ochre, becomes grey and we go home the same.

Posted by at July 12, 2002 12:11 AM GMT
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