We didn’t mean to go to sea, and I used to have a very romantic view of being at sea, I thought it would be lovely to go on one of those container ship cruises, where you spend three months sailing to Australia or some other far off land and you can get on with all the writing and music that you ever wanted to.
The one vitally important thing (which I ought to have known) that I missed even though I am socially a bit like Scrooge, is that I actually really, really like people! The reason I ought to have known that isolation was not for me (at least not with small children) is that I once travelled around Australia with my two older children. They were ten and six at the time, which I still find amusing (their age gap was often like old money).
Somehow after spending three weeks with my fascinating and lovely older sister, I came up with the bright idea of driving from Northern Queensland to Uluru in central Australia, on my own, with the old money kids. It was only two thousand two hundred miles. What? I did what? I drove with my two children in a saloon car across Australia to Uluru with a five gallon butt full of water, and a tent to sleep in. I had planned to buy a camper van when I got to Oz but couldn’t find one in the first few weeks I was there and got bored of looking, and so my Aunty Betty and Uncle George kindly lent me a car they weren’t using. Distance and loneliness take on new meanings when driving through Australia, I had to take a less direct route than one might choose just looking at a map, but there are few sealed roads in the outback, and the last thing you want is to breakdown on a dirt road. Why? Because they are far less frequented than the highways, which are also highly unused.
Imagine driving for four hours and only seeing one car. The roads are very long and very straight and the horizon is far, far away, there are very few hills and when you see one it’s almost shocking. My method of driving through the outback was to drive several hundred miles, which took pretty much all day, and to arrive at a camp site in some teeny weeny town, preferably with a swimming pool, and then to spend two or three days in the swimming pool wishing there were some interesting people to talk to, before driving several hundred more miles and doing it all again.
I had some sort of daft notion that I would bump into some interesting people, at the very least a hippie or two. The people I met were mostly what they call ‘grey nomads’ people who have retired and live in motor homes on campsites continuously touring Australia. Of course some of them were very nice once I had got past the ‘Where is your husband? You know you should not be out here without a man, it’s dangerous, make sure you never stay overnight in a rest spot’ conversations.
The other people I met were a random group of humans who were travelling the same route as me, they were not together in any sense, any more than they were travelling with me, but we frequently found ourselves at the same tourist attractions and campsites over the course of about three weeks. They were friendly enough but with zero things in common the interactions were limited. It felt a bit like the wacky races as we all arrived in drips and drabs over the course of an afternoon at the same campsite. It’s all very civilised really to cope with the uncivilised nature of the Australian outback, uncivilised is probably not the right word, dangerous would be more accurate, at least to anyone who is not an indigenous Australian. Driving in the outback after dusk is a really BIG NO NO. Unless of course you want to run into a big red kangaroo and totally write off your car, or crash into a wandering cow and write off your car.
The outback highway edges are bizarrely littered with the drying carcasses of cows and kangaroos, at first my children and I found this utterly distressing and grizzly in the extreme, but after about two weeks we got used to it and were able to ignore it. After three weeks we had developed a rather odd fascination with said carcasses after we noticed the jaunty angles that the dead animals were positioned in. This is not at all funny, except that it was. It was like seeing live animals posing, their skins perfectly dried and still covering their bodies. Perhaps it had to do with the weird solitude and vast expanse of flat red earth and blue sky, perhaps you had to be there.
So how are all these animals being killed then if nobody drives after dark, I hear you say? Indeed a good question. Until you hear about road trains. A road train is basically a lorry, pulling two or three trailers which makes the road train often in excess of fifty metres long. These road trains can take up to a mile to stop, luckily you can see them coming, however unsuspecting animals only get one chance to get out of the way, and I believe that the road trains don’t even try to avoid hitting them as to do so might make them swerve. Fifty metres of two hundred ton truck swerving is seriously undesirable in so many ways.
When we saw a road train up ahead of us on a road we just slowed down and drove a mile or so behind it, you cannot drive up close behind them as they often throw up rocks from the edges of the road. I overtook one once, it seemed to be going a bit slower than most and it must have been towards the start of a long journey, we didn’t want to be stuck behind a lorry for three hundred miles. It took a very long time and several miles to overtake the road train and all the time it was wobbling around on the road, much too close to my car, still it was exciting enough to not need to do it again, ever.
The sun seems to set in Australia at the same time every night, and the moon hangs on its side in a rather casual way. By 4 o’clock every afternoon it was time for a few stubbies, and by 6 o’clock every night my children and I had eaten whatever burnt offering I had concocted on our tiny stove and we were tucked up in bed while I made up a story.
Australia was one long boring fascinating trip for me. I longed to meet someone, anyone, with whom I could have a decent conversation, or even a stupid conversation, I wanted to laugh with someone and I wanted someone over the age of ten to appreciate the scenery with me. Actually my kids were pretty good at scenery appreciation, but you know what I mean.
I wanted to hear the sound of someone else’s voice instead of mine.
I feel a bit like that now, out here on this little boat, but it’s worse somehow, or perhaps it is better? In Australia there was the tantalizing possibility that someone interesting could show up and entertain me, but here there is no chance of that.
Of course some interesting people did turn up on our trip through the outback, but not of the variety I wanted. One such person was the ‘bushtucker man’. At a campsite in who knows where I saw a poster advertising a bushtucker evening and so off we went, and rather unsurprisingly met all the other wacky races folk there.
When I was a child I had a stepfather, who was always talking about how he had eaten witjuti grubs. At this bushtucker evening we had the chance to try one, and the ‘bushtucker man’ made it really easy for us by cooking them in the fire first and then passing them round for us to smell before he got us to try them. They smelled just like roast potatoes, so I tried one, it tasted a bit like popcorn. I have been a vegetarian since I was fifteen, did this bit of witjuti mean that I am now a carnivore? I am not sure to this day, are moth larvae meat? The other delicacy that has stayed with me was called a snottygobble! The snottygobble is a small sweet fruit about the size of a blueberry, and it has a rather mucousy texture.
We did make it to Uluru, it took us about three weeks and ten swimming pools to get there, and it really was stinking hot there. Uluru is a big big rock. It is very beautiful, perhaps even as beautiful as the sea, but I did not get to spend very long looking at it. We were instructed to go and watch the sun setting over it, which we dutifully did, but as my youngest child was not in the mood for it, it was not so enjoyable. We did not go up it, nor did we walk around it, we just stood at its base and marvelled at its pulse, it felt to me a bit like the sea.
My trip to Australia is wonderful to look back on, even though at the time it was at best fascinating and picturesque and at worse tiring and very lonely. I am glad I went, and I had many more wonderfully lonely adventures there. Perhaps this adventure will be as fun to look back upon one day, when we have all forgotten just how uncomfortable it feels to be so far from all the people we love.