Into the Outback - Australian Hitchhiking Loop (Part 4)
I woke up south of Port Augusta, "where the desert meets the sea". It had been a warm night in my sleeping bag, just off the road about 5km or more from the last gas station I'd walked from the night before.
I had a dream about two backpackers who'd waken me up after discovering my spot and wanted to camp themselves. I falsely woke up twice to discover they were really there, finally waking up through all the layers of dream to determine no one was there, just myself laying in the hard pack sand.
I got sorted and on my feet, on the road again. A security van picked me up, a guy transporting things like cigarettes in South Australia. He rode me up to Port Augusta where I stopped into a library. I checked and sent out some last minute messages to friends and couchsurfers, assuming I wouldn't be able to tap into the internet for a good while after.
I walked over a bridge and past one last fork in the road and parked myself in front of a sign with towns and distances on it, the furthest being Alice Springs, 1221 kilometers - the middle of Australia. That's where I was headed, among other places and places beyond it.
I got tired of watching cars pass me, many of which seemed local, I decided I'd walk a ways down the road and get past what whatever turn offs these locals may be going to. After a long good while I was out into it, the true beginning of the outback, I knew there was nothing much between me and anything else, and there weren't many cars passing me now.
At last, while standing in the shade of a speed limit sign, a car stopped for me, a grandpa going to see his daughter and grand daughter in a small town some hundred or more kilometers up. He gave me some organic apples he'd grown when he dropped me off that good way, as I stood in the sun waiting for my next ride I munched them both down. I'd passed a lot of desert, he said it was greener than normal, usually all red dirt and rock, but recent rare rains had changed things. It was by no means lush, but the hint of green was nice.
A white van came rolling, my thumb out, eventually making out two girls in the driver and passenger seat, they slowed and stopped just past me. I ran up seeing the colorful side of the van, "hippy camper".
The girls were from Switzerland, around 20 years old give or take, all smiles, they'd been living in Byron Bay for a good while, six months or more, now were roaming around the country getting some travel in. Jojo & Tines, their names on the road as written in sharpie in the back of the van where I was sitting. Jojo rolled and lit a cigarette, her feet up on the dashboard, brushing her brown hair back while switching around the music from the passenger seat. They said their plan was to head to Coober Pedy where they'd then catch a flight out to the west coast, then eventually back to the outback, then back to Byron Bay.
Up the road a ways we hit the next "town", a gas station and some accomodation. They decided they'd stay there the night, there was still some daylight left and I said goodbyes and thanks and headed back to the road in hopes of catching another lift.
I didn't wait far too long until they came cruising up and stopping alongside me again, they'd decided to keep trucking down the road after hearing from people at the station that there were little pull out rest stops a little ways up they could park free and spend the night.
I missioned forward with them, arriving at a rest area right around sunset, decidedly spending my night there and continuning with them to Coober Pedy in the morning.
We started getting sorted for dinner, they had all the means to cook and plenty of food, "too much!" they said. I joked about setting up a table in the middle of the rest area lot and drinking champagne like royalty. This joke became reality, they had a table and a bottle of champagne they'd meant to dirnk the night before and never got to.
I paced around while they got things sorted for dinner. Jojo set up a camera on a timer to take a picture of us hanging off the van, I noticed then the Tines matched the van perfectly, wearing a purple dress and big yellow glasses slipping behind her ears and blonde hair. The flies cruised all around us, a pesky and definite part of the outback experience. "I wonder, do they sleep or do they die?", Tines pondered regarding their disapearance and replacement with mosquitoes come sunset, this became our running joke.
Dinner was ready, loads of chicken and salad and some noodles I added at the end from my pack. We feasted as the sun finsihed setting and the night came on exposing more and more stars. We sipped champagne and eventually smoked a joint from the tail end of their stash. We talked nonsense, travel, philosophy, stars and likening the passing road trains to Cocacola commercials - the massive trucks with sometimes four trailers more than half the length of football fields.
Come morning the flies either woke up or were born again, flying all over us, up noses, ears, on our faces and covering our backs - this way their way, I'd see it get more intense later.
We rolled down the road with minimal conversation and reaggae music, after some hours we got to Coober Pedy. The line on the town was that everything was underground, an opal mining town where they'd dig holes to mine, then once done would sometimes build structures in them, which also made for cooler living in the hot desert.
The girls went to an underground hostel where they'd stay the night, this is where we parted ways. To me it looked like a regular building with a heap of dirt on the roof.
The place seemed like a dusty town from the storied old American Wild West, accept instead of cowboys and shop keepers the streets were mostly populated by Aboriginals, families sitting in patyches of shadows in the dirt, a guy hauling a case of beer on his shoulder across the road, an argument near a phone booth.
Our looping around looking for the hostel and my walk back towards the main road was enough of the town for me I figured, a guy saw me walking and gave me a one kilometer lift to the sparsely trafficed road.
I began walking down the road, the road that spanned the thousands of kilometers south to north through the country, thumbing cars as they passed infrequently, many of them clearly mining trucks that wouldn't be going more than a few kilometers. On both sides of me were piles in the distance all over, places were they'd been mining for opals, the reason for this place's existence in the middle of the outback. It reminded me of the movie "Boy" I'd seen in New Zealand where a guy had buried money in a field and couldn't remember where, so spent ages digging hole after hole in the field trying to find it.
As I walked I accumulated flies, more flies, and more still. It got out of hand, they swarmed and covered me, a thick cloud of them as I walked more than an hour. Whenever I spinning to walk backwards and thumb oncoming cars, they got agitated and swarmed more, causing me to wave one hand in front of my face to get them off, I'm sure I appeared like a maniac to the people in these cars. At one point, a few points, I booked off running as fast as I could trying to shake them. They chased me down without a problem. I threw my backpack off and ran around in circles causing quite the commotion, from a distance I probably looked like someone off their meds.
At last a car slowed and pulled over, I slapped my bag around releasing as many flies as possible and chucked it in the back, then hopped in the car and closed the door quickly. We had to ride with the windows down for a bit to truly shake the flies, but we'd never get rid of all of them, just a couple remained though.
This guys name was Brian, a road grader, he'd worked all over the outback and was known by many people, he knew the area really well. Accoridng to him he was pretty well respected for his hard and good work, he'd been doing it a long time. Straight off he handed me a cold cocacola can from a cooler in the backseat next to his dog, it seems the magic trucks from the night before had delivered. We stopped once along the way for some chicken he had in the back as well.
Further down the road we saw a car stopped in the middle of the road, tilted to one side, a big truck pulled over on the other side of the road. We stopped to see what was up, the same as the trucker had done. They'd diagnosed a flat tire, but Brian took a look and saw that the wheel had popped right through the bottom and into the trailer, it was shot. The two older woman were in good spirits considering, one was from Aussie and the other from the UK being shown a good trip.
The trucker took off and the women drove ahead Brian and I pretty slow, luckily we were just 20 kilometers or so to the next petrol station, which was conveniant considering how few and far between everything is in the outback.
We made it all the way and the women discussed what they may do with it, Brian was joking and flirting with the Aussie a bit. Eventually someone hanging around the petrol station, a local perhaps in this isolated place, offered to take it from them, or rather they offered and he accepted. He reckoned he could fix it up or salvage some parts at the least.
They took some time to remove their belongings from the busted trailer while Brian stayed at the flirting. The woman's 50th birthday was coming up, Brian offered up his place as a venue and gave her his information.
We drove off and Brian realized he didn't know her name. He pondered this for a moment and we then u-turned it back. He rolled up alongside and handed the woman a piece of paper and a pen, she wrote down her name and number, all was good.
We drove off in the post sunset light heading towards the center of the giant Australia. We thought we saw a kangaroo in the distance, but could have been a wallaby.
We got to the center where he would continue north, the was a petrol station and nearby a little pull out with some high bush that I could camp behind, so that was my spot under the stars for the night.
I waited in the sun for my next ride, tow french guys passed me, then changed their minds and stopped, I ran up to the car where they were already getting out to shuffle things around and make room for me, they were both about my age. They'd been touring around the country, sleeping in their old small car and telling me about staying in campsite or streets and driving off in early mornings to avoid paying fees or dealing with police or rangers.
Up the road a ways, heading towards the big famous rock (Uluru or Ayers Rock depending on who you ask) we came to a lookout point of the false rock, a big rock in the distance called Mount Conner. We stopped there and climbed a sand dune to get a better look and stretch our legs a bit, some other tourists were about there as well.
We eventually got to the park and rolled up to the ticket booth. They asked how much the ticket was, the woman replied "$25 each, so $50 for the two of you". There was a sun shade in the backseat and she hadn't seen me, I stayed still and they paid, then we drove off into the park, free and easy.
We drove right up to the rock with the thought of driving around it, a big red orange mound that was pretty impressive. We saw people climbing towards the base and decided we'd give it a go. I filled up my water at the base, they did the same and we got to climbing. Right away the frenchmen started breathing heavy about 50 meters into the first steep bit. A father and his two daughters were huddled there taking a break as well, that's where on of the guys decided he'd stay as well.
The other guy and me started climbing, there were chain links all the way up the first bit that didn't seem entirely needed for most people, perhaps just a safety and scare factor. We got to the top of that after some rests, realizing that the climb went much higher. We kept at it, at one point the other guy considered going back since his friend was waiting, but we'd gone too far to just turnaround.
After some time we were at the top where we could see 100 kilometers in every direction, just incredible vastness with some other formations here and there - Mount Conner, the Olgas and smaller rocks. On our way down we ran into the other frenchmen, he was with an old man and had decided to go for it. We sat with a nice view and waited for him to reach the top and get back down to us, then climbed the rest of the way down. Except for one of the french guys, who didn't think he could make the climb and slid down on his ass ripping a giant hole in the back of his shorts, earning plenty of laughs from tourists below.
We headed to the resort afterwards where did some investigating as to whether they could sneakily car camp in one place or another. Getting back to the car, the battery had died and some tourists gave us a jump, then we headed back into the park to see the Olgas, the other rock formation, and caught a dull sunset at Uluru itself.
Back at the resort we found a shower and it was good to get washed up a bit. Coming out they saw a Swedish girl and one of them said hi to her and we all got to talking. She was touring around in style, actually staying at the resort, we agreed to meet at the pub/restaurant area in a little while.
The frenchmen got to washing their clothes as well, we got some beers and got into a jumping night. There was some live music that got us all moving and everyone was in good spirits. The royal wedding was on the TV and tourists were taking picture of the screen. The guys paid for a buffet then snuck me a salad plate to go up and have a go, I filled up as much as I could.
Towards the end of the night and the music thoughts switched to where to sleep and the day tomorrow. The guys were heading to Alice Springs, same as me, but asked if I was ok with hitching another ride with someone else over concerns about my extra weight costing in gas, and I had no cash to chip the difference. I was fine with this, and got my pack and wandered into the darkness looking for my own stealth camping spot, found outside the entrance 50 meters down the road behind some trees.
It didn't take long to hitch a ride in the morning, a father driving his son around their country for his first road trip. We stopped and he got us a big breakfast at a place that had an emu wandering around, following an old woman cleaning the side of a house. The guy driving me asked for a cappuccino and she laughed at him, coffee instead.
Him and his son went to Kings Canyon, a turn off up the way a bit, I stood waiting for the next car to come. AN older couple from Tasman picked me up heading to Alice Springs, perfect. We stopped for a coffee and they told me about their travels and the island and such, just a happy couple loving life.
They dropped me off in the middle of Alice where I got to looking for a library to see if I could get online and get in touch with a couchsurfer I'd contacted earlier. The library was closed, public holdiay of some kind, McDonalds' wifi was down and eventually I settled for an internet cafe where I was able to get his number and give a ring that resulted in an answering machine.
I was in go mode and I didn't see much to the city, although the surrounding scenery was pretty amazing, but I figured it may not be worth waiting around to call the guy again, he'd mentioned in an early message he may have been going to a festival.
I took the walk out of town, occasionally showing my face and thumb to traffic in stretches I thought they could pull over. A woman stuck half her body out the window, "Where you going bro?!", her middle finger a blaze and an ugly laughing look on her face.
I at last got to what seemed like the end of town where there was a great place to pull over and posted up there, singing to myself as I waited for a ride. A lot of time went by and few cars, none of which looked like they were going all that far or would have any interest in picking me up. My rambling intentions eased with the sun and I decided I'd stay put in Alice, at least for the night. I got to walking back to town.
I guy picked me up on the way back which saved me the walk, an off duty cop.
"I got here five months ago, got a job as a copper".
"So how's... copping?", I asked.
"My first arrest was for a murder. It's mostly the ideginous, fighting amonst themselves. There's not enough of us here".
He dropped me off in town, I'd noticed earlier many aboriginals sitting on the street in the shadows, kicking around in parking lots with bottles of one thing or another. As I walked into town one guy came up to me mumbling something about a phone, but I couldn't make sense of it. Another guy was on the sidewalk pissing on the wall with his head spun around cackling with a wide drunken grin.
The vibe of it all made it seem like a temporary city that they were just abusing counting down until it's destruction, and in fact others told me that smaller villages that had cost millions built just for aboriginals had been destroyed in days. They stopped building with wood, because this became fire wood in some cases. Most of the people I spoke to on the trip through Aussie had pretty strict and broad biases against aboriginals, not liking them at all, I guess it was people like the ones I was witnessing here that gave them the bad name. Few others told me that on the whole they were good people, especially in the smaller villages, often casting off any bad apples who would come to more populated and exposed places like Alice Springs and give them all a bad name. Like many things, the bad news gets more attention.
I tired calling the couchsurfer one more time, no luck again. Back in rambling mode after some wandering, I figured I'd walk a little ways out of town to find a place to camp the night and hitch in the morning. I saw a Hungry Jacks on the walk back and remembered I hadn't eaten a good while, time to treat myself. I ordered a burger, it popped up on the counter and I walked back to sit down. At a table behind me were the two frenchmen from Uluru.
"You made it", I said, sitting down, they both looked pretty tired. They told me they'd found a place to park in a campsite by the resort and skipped out early before being detected, stopping at Kings Canyon on the way to Alice Springs, they'd only just arrived.
I finished my meal and said goodbyes again, then headed towards the end of town. A guy in a pickup truck picked me up, no thumb needed. He was from the States, now living in Alice Springs. He was pretty intuitive, knowing that I was on my way out looking for a place to camp and that I'd probably settle at the first dark point, which he said wasn't the best idea.
"Aboriginals have a pretty bad reputation... uh, they're not all bad, I don't think so anyway, but sometimes they get on the piss and wander this way to camp and uh... yeah I know a better spot a bit further out.", he told me, seeminly a bit a embarrassed to say anything about the aboriginal stereotype at all.
He dropped me off several kilometers out of town where he said no one would be. There was a path down to a river he told me. In my typical stealth camping principles, I don't generally camp anywhere I think anyone has ever been or will go, so I decided to wander off the path to find something a little more tucked away. There was plenty tucked away, but the ground was wildly rocky and uneven everywhere, on the path or otherwise. Eventually my nose lead me towards a clearing that I thought could be a better spot, I must have been right because I shined my light and saw a small tent set up there with a cooler outside. I heard a rustling and a grunt, a reaction to my light, I quickly and quietly turned around and headed back for the road.
I wandered down the road a few kilometers keen to get away from whoever was there, keeping my eye out for a better spot, encountering more rocky spots, but at last finding a small sliver of flat ground that was still rocky, but tolerable.
I got all settled into my sleeping bag when I heard footsteps coming my way, little steps that paused here and again. As they got closer I shouted out, "Hello!", no response. I felt around me for something to grab, bracing to hop out of the sleeping bag. I shined my light finally and saw a small dingo peering at me through the trees.
"Bah. Get outta here dude!", I through a stick at him. He circled around me curiously, I threw some more sticks at him, "I'm going to sleep, don't need you roaming about", I told him, he didn't seem like much of a problem though. Either way it was a night of light sleep, something was crawling around my bag and rustling off and on all night, maybe a rodent or something.
I'd made it to the middle of Australia, well into my loop around. The next day I'd be on the way out, getting that much closer to the east coast again, back to Mandies. Good times.