Saturday, January 18, 2014


It's been a long ride in this heat. I've clocked up somewhere north of three thousand kilometres since leaving the old mudbrick hut west of Ballarat. I can't give a precise figure, because the speedo cable let go somewhere south of Woomera. I've been guesstimating my velocities and perambulations ever since. I know it's 673km from Tennant Creek to Katherine. And I know 4000rpm in sixth gear means 100km/h. But beyond that is pure speculation.

But before I can even begin to think about being in Katherine, I run into a bit of bother with the fuzz. Halfway to the horizon on the road ahead, red and blue lights atop a bacon machine start flashing. I watch with dismay as the Landcruiser grows larger, then slows and swings around behind me. I wind down through the gears, pull over, and hit the kill switch. Cops. Always looking for trouble.

I pull off my helmet. The leather jacket too. It's far too hot to be standing around in the desert in a leather jacket. The walloper slams the door and stomps over.

Any idea how fast you were going.
149, he says.
Uh huh.
Can I see your drivers licence.

I peel my plastic smiling face out of my wallet and hand it to him.

Where are you going.
Just going to work.
Where do you work.
Starting a job in Jabiru.
So you've got a WA drivers' licence, a Queensland registered bike, and you work in the Northern Territory.
Looks like.

The tyre biter stomps off, boots crunching on the roadside gravel. I crouch against the slim shade of the bike as he checks my record on the radio. It must be extensive. He is gone a while. When he comes back, he hands me a ticket for a month's wages.

I'll spare you the lecture.
About how far it is to get help out here.
You're old enough to understand.
Uh huh.

He returns to the 'bruiser, fires it up, and continues south. I pocket the fine and ride off. A few clicks down the highway I'm sitting on the same speed as before. I know now, at least, how fast I am going.

I pull in at a place called Mataranka, intrigued by a series of colourful statues standing, staring, in the park. At the far end, under a huge strangler fig, a group of Aborigines sit in a circle, talking and drinking. One or two will occasionally get up and cross the searing bitumen to the general store. The women wear colourful print dresses. The thin brown men, wide-brimmed Akubras, boots, jeans and long-sleeved cowboy shirts.

Here is one now, sitting on a horse, staring down at me.

'Aboriginal Stockman', the plaque reads. And here, this Chinaman, in his tight-fitting blue skivvy, standing beneath a saucer-shaped water tower, looking like a long-lost George Takei twin. The plaque identifies him as Cheon, the Chinese cook. And over here, 'The Black Princess and her Dog'. A little Aboriginal girl. Someone has thrown a bucket of whitewash over her. I'm not sure why people do this, but the psychologist in me offers a theory. It's most likely because they are fuckwits.

It is when I find Mrs Aeneas Gunn and her husband, staring out across the road with a look of mild bemusement at the paddy wagons outside the Mataranka Police Station, that I realise this is no surreal outback parody of Star Trek. Not at all. These are but statues of the characters from Mrs Aeneas Gunn's 1908 classic bible of Australiana, We of the Never Never. Back in the day, Mrs Aeneas Gunn was at Elsey Station with her husband, Mr Aeneas Gunn. For a few months. Before Mr Aeneas Gunn died of malarial dysentery. Or maybe it was the chop suey.

The name 'Mataranka' begins to set bells ringing. I vaguely recall seeing a photo in a tourist brochure in a motel south of Alice, showing some bright young things swimming in a pool fringed with pandanus and paperbark. It said something about a thermal spring. There was a sign a back on the highway that said something about a thermal spring. I fire up the bike.

I could use a thermal spring about now.

Sunday, January 05, 2014


I awake before dawn, and pack my few belongings into the motorcycle panniers. It is cool outside under the poincianas, but a familiar red demon is rising in the east. It will be hot again today. The last three days have been north of 40 degrees, since heading out from my underground digs at Coober Pedy. Pushing on through the baked red heat.

Today's dawn start from Alice means I will beat the heat, but only to a degree. I will have to go slow and watch for animals. They've all got the same idea – early bird, worm – and recent rains means feed along the edges of the highway. I tootle along in the low, early morning light at around 80, slowing when I see roadkill or movement in my peripheral vision. Here are wallabies, looking just like anthills – until they move. There go some crows, feeding on carrion. You couldn't hit a crow if you tried,  but an eagle is a bird of a different feather. From a distance, an eagle feeding on roadkill looks very much like a crow, until you're way too close. I learned that driving lesson near Exmouth in '88. A wedge-tail, its wingspan almost as wide as the 'screen of my Phoenix, brushed my roof as I sped under it. Gawping at each other in mutual surprise.

It's the wrong time of year for this desert run. As the sun climbs, I lose fluids fast, and the familiar fatigue sets in. These long, straight distances have me shaking my head to stay alert, stretching limbs against the frame, deep breathing and playing mind games to stay focused on the road's grey nothingness. I stop about once every hour, leaving the hot bitumen for the shade of some spartan steel shelter to peel off my jacket and helmet to stretch or down cold electrolytes from the pack. There is usually a rainwater tank at the roadside stop, sometimes with water, sometimes not. I wet down the stretch-fabric tube around my neck. The evaporation will keep me cool for a while. Occasionally, if I'm starting to flag, I percolate some coffee, setting the stainless steel device over a small fire, or grab a nap on the swag, the wet fabric tube pulled up over my face against the flies.

Back on the road, the government puts the hex on me with its road signs. 'Drowsie Drivers DIE' they bark at me, suddenly, randomly. Oh, come on, I mutter into my helmet. There's no need for that. I'm doing my best out here.  I shake my head clear and focus on that distant grey-and-white point, that thin unfolding ribbon to the north.

The next stop is Wycliffe Well, the self-proclaimed UFO capital of Australia. A group of Aboriginal men sit under the bridge yonder. I buy a few mls of fuel, enough to get me to the Creek. One of the men is walking towards me. I hope he's not going to start humbugging me. I'm on a tight budget.

Merry Christmas my friend, he says, and shakes my hand.

Back on the road, I'm just settling into a routine when the Devil's Marbles loom like an hallucination. Rising out of the heat as if from an unearthly cauldron, these huge hot blistering boulders burst upon the flat red landscape like a curse. I feel compelled to stop. Drawn in by a strangely gravitational pull, I ride towards the stones along an elliptical gravel track, orbiting around these huge round boulders, eventually pulling right up tight against a brutal concrete table set under a steel square of shade cut from the sky. I kill the motor. Hooking my jacket and helmet onto the swag, I let the sweat and shade cool my core as I cast about the campsite. The large rainwater tank here is empty, and I'm getting low. I take my remaining small bottle of water and the Nikon and walk out among the boulders. The Karlu Karlu.

The sun hits me like a ball hammer beating a relentless noonday rhythm upon this strangely sculpted landscape. A huge rounded rock lies split asunder in the scorching heat. Nearby, another boulder looks ready to roll, poised precariously upon the shoulder of its big brother. In the near distance, an eerie, repetitive wail echoes off the stones. Must be some kind of bird. Surely.

I crouch in the sparse shade of one of the massive stones. The Aboriginal traditional owners, the Kaytetye, have their own myths about how they were formed. But I keep First Peoples' myths at arm's length. This is not my story, this is not my dreaming. Of course there is a lot to be learned from hearing these mythical yarns, from reading them. They are moral, and even plausible, up until the point where someone or something turns into a rock. But here, dwarfed into silent stillness by this inscrutable granite splendour, I can almost fathom the arcane logic.

I have about a hundred kilometres to go the nearest town: Tennant Creek. From there I was hoping to push on to Katherine. Now I'm having my doubts. I've clocked up 400 k's since leaving the Alice: I'm hot, I'm tired – and what on Earth is that weird, strangled cry? Can that really be a bird?

It sounds like a ghost. I'm beginning to feel like a character in a quintessential Australian outback novel, the one that goes quietly mad in an ancient, eerie landscape. But the heat. The heat!

I tramp back through the red dust to the motorcycle. Again I pull on the leathers, the helmet, and the ever-reliable Kwaka rattles back to life. UFOs, stones strewn by magic men, empty and alien landscapes … I'll be glad to reach Tennant Creek. Or Katherine. Or Darwin. Anywhere I can down a rum, and once again draw a veil across this brutal, indifferent reality.