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.
A shock to see buildings over three storeys. There’re women with severe blond hair and silver jewellery. In a pleasant Adelaide campsite next to the river I wake at seven to the bad-tempered shrieks of cockatoos. I like it. The warm autumnal days and crisp clear nights are perfect.
I attend a small demo against the war outside parliament. Even the organisers can’t hide their disappointment. To add spice to the V8 racing on the other side of town the air force provides some low level fighter jet action. The pilots buzz the demo. The speeches are drowned in noise. It’s tasteless and disheartening.
From Beachport I ride to Bordertown. The south is peppered with these literal settlements. I am enjoying the clean well-organised cities of Australia’s population centre. Melbourne is a well-provided for multi-ethnic city with excellent food and wine. A Mediterranean climate with northern European civic values is about as good as you can get. It’s a fine life they’ve made for themselves down here. It really is veranda beer and barbecue living. They do say :”good on yer”. They don’t say “strewth”.
Backpackers are a very different breed in this land. Mostly English, they just watch TV all day. It’s like a sickness or something. They put it on first thing in the morning. Like they can’t exist without it. Come all the way around the world and watch TV. I mean.
Three weeks of rain conspires to ruin my experience. Life under canvass loses its charm. In Nambuca Heads I return to the campsite after my evening meal to find the tent blown away. Next day I ride to Sydney to say hello, and it responds “give me all your money now”. So I just keep riding. Just three hours in the city I came to Australia for. You do strange things on a motorbike.
Bladder full, tank empty. Time to reverse the situation. Ambrose is one of those family run road houses that won’t last the decade. A single loo, with the strong smell of piss. A short flush doesn’t do it, so, cursing the penny-pinching plumbing installed by the petit bourgeoisie, I press again. A long dark strand slides slowly from under the rim. Disgusting. And then, and then, no it can’t be, it articulates and pulls itself up. Jesus. This, as they say, is some clever shit. “This might sound odd” I report back, “but there appears to be something living in the toilet”.
Overconfidently, “That’s Freddy”. “Right, Freddy”. I let a silence fall. She’s kind hearted enough to fill it: “Freddy the Frog. He lives in the dunny”. All perfectly normal now.
“Surely some people get the fright of their lives?”
“Yes” she smiles wistfully, pausing on their darned foolishness, “there are some screams. We always know it is Freddy”. I am in a David Lynch movie now, laughing manically, more than a little glad I didn’t meet Freddy recumbent peering down. Once, she explains, we cleared out all the frogs. A lady took them all the way to Gladstone. “Two days later they were back. Same ones. Very territorial are frogs.” I am loving this. Softly she adds, to no one in particular “You know who your frogs are”.
After adding the barrier reef to my short list of spectacular things in Australia I was at, but didn’t see, I fly out of Brisbane to San Francisco.
In fours weeks time my bike joins me.
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