Archive for March, 2011

Crossing the Continent: Day 2

I dream I’m at a party with a friend from Melbourne and it must be hard rubbish collection because he keeps cutting sick on great piles of white goods. I dream in fragments, waking up periodically as my sleeping mat deflates, or from the cold. I dream we cross the Nullarbor really quickly, in a truck in the dark or something, and miss most of it. I dream I am asleep for the 90 Mile Straight. But then I wake up, the walls of my tent illuminated grey by first light, and there is nearly 3,000kms between us and Melbourne.

The bad feeling leaves me the second day. I forget it driving. The desert spreads out like the surface of a coin and I become completely subsumed by the rhythm of tire on bitumen,  the impossibility of such distance. I think about waking the others when we reach the 90 Mile Straight but decide against it, listen to The Veils through headphones, and enjoy the solitude. It’s hard to believe all the space out here. I get lost in the road, its perfect dissection of such a vast landscape, the clouds latticed out into a broad ceiling high above us.

There are only a few things that calm me to patience and long-distance driving is one of them. I have trouble sitting all the way through a full-length film but I can drive for hours without even noticing. My restlessness leaves me when I’m at the wheel. It’s as if a sort of equilibrium is reached in that state, like my physical speed finally matches up with the speed of my constitution. That frantic, inattentive, distracted part of my brain becomes completely occupied with the simple act of it, giving the rest a chance at lucidity. I can conduct conversation without impatience, listen closely to music, think clearly about a single thing for a long time.

The second time we break down, G notices a shake to the engine she doesn’t trust so, paranoid now, we pull over. I’m driving this time as well. She opens up the engine to have a look but everything appears to be fine. “Let’s just drive to the next town. See how she goes,” G says and climbs into the drivers seat. She turns the key. The starter motor gasps but doesn’t catch. She tries again. Nothing.

The man we flag down climbs grinning out of his ute in Australian flag boardies and Southern Cross sunnies. An Offspring album plays through the open door. He leans over the engine and his t-shirt falls loose, I can see his belly swinging loosely underneath. He and G start discussing the engine and I go for a wander. There’s a high concentration of rubbish out here, I think, considering the sheer size of the place. Empty cans and bottles, faded biscuit wrappers wrapped around the low scrub. I find a dried-up creek bed and notice the soil’s a bit darker at its base. “It’s rained recently,” I announce when I come back to the van. “Look, the soil’s damp.”

The man is still leaning far into the engine and I notice he’s smoking. They’re trying to flood the carburetor with petrol so the engine will catch but not much is happening.
“Shit!” G suddenly gasps.
“What?”
“We’re still on gas. Fuck, I forgot. Sorry. Shit.”
The man plucks his cigarette from his mouth and chucks it behind him. The implications of flooding the carburetor with gas under a lit cigarette take a minute to sink in. “Bloody women,” the man says, but he’s smiling. G bristles and looks guilty at the same time. “Well,” he continues. “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much room, ‘ey?”

The problem has something to do with the connection between the spark plugs and the battery but they figure it out in the end and we’re off again. We drive until night falls, and then we keep driving. We reach the sea cliffs just on dusk, the point in the distance silhouetted a deep black against the setting sun behind it. I stand as close to the edge as I can, full face to the ocean, but I’m disappointed at the low light and I want to come back here, spend a day. I notice caves in the cliffs and paths down to the beach and I vow to come back. I need to swim. Explore this place. There’s something very powerful going on here, something to do with the remoteness of it maybe, the hostility and the beauty. I need to come back.

I lie on the mattress in the back and watch until the rest of the light disappears completely. We’re on the actual Nullarbor Reserve now but we’ll cross all of it at night. I stare out to where the sea must be. After a while, G gets tired and we pull over at the gimmicky Nullarbor roadhouse to swap drivers. We’ve crossed the border, lost two and a half hours all at once, and the place is closed. Through the window, souvenir signs and novelty signs stand in a wash of fridge light. On the edge of one of the garden beds, there’s a tap on a spring with a sign underneath that declares in big letters, “Free spring water!” H offers to fill up our water bottles before she realises the joke.

G gives me the drivers seat and climbs into the back to sleep, H stays on kangaroo watch. I notice how strangely the light behaves out here at night. Headlights from an oncoming vehicle will appear as a glow on the horizon and you wait, finger on the lever that switches off the highbeams. But they just keep coming. Any minute you expect to crest a hill and there they’ll be, headlights in your eyes, but they just keep coming.

We stop about 100kms from Ceduna and I set up my tent. The clouds closed in over the stars back at the border so when I take my beer and wander out for a bit, it is into a thick blanket of dark. I notice a strange arc of light over the road and walk towards it. I turn around. There are headlights. I wait. Finally, a road-train appears, shuddering and clattering towards me, highbeams in my eyes. I watch it approach, swivel to watch it go. And then it’s gone and so it the strange arc of light.

Crossing the Continent: Day 1

Getting out my duffle bag and I remember what it is I’m good at. It’s been a storage vessel since I’ve been home – full of winter clothes and ill-advised op-shop purchases and the few girly things I bought on those occasions when I thought life might be better if only I weren’t such a tomboy. I dump it all out onto the floor. I ball up the clothes I’m bringing and find my Leatherman and fit everything between the nylon and canvas. There is assurance in these familiar motions of travel that chases away the bad feeling I’ve had about this trip. I can’t tell if this feeling is fear – mine, other people’s – or instincts or a mixture of both, or whether I should be taking heed of it or not, but I look up flights the night before the trip and stare at them for a long time before closing the tab. I can’t read myself anymore.

We leave Fremantle just after 8am but it’s nearly 10am by the time we finally clear the city. Perth rises in the windscreen and falls in the rear-vision, and then Midland gives way to bush and paddocks and we’re out. We stop for the first time in a tiny, single strip town where the only thing open at midday on a Sunday is the great red edifice of the Ettamogah Pub and the bottle-o down at its side. We use the pub’s toilets and sit at the tables out the front to eat pasta and banana bread out of tupperware and plastic. A couple of bikies behind pints at the table next to us strike up conversation.

I fall asleep in patches and when I wake up we are nowhere. Not even the paddocks are populated – they’re just blank stretches between the trees. To the left of us, C.Y. O’Connor’s famous water pipeline follows the road. I know a bit about O’Connor but I’d never seen his pipeline before this. I know he was the Chief Engineer of Western Australia back in the late 1800s – one of those colonial leaders and builders they’ve named suburbs and buildings and tertiary institutions after. He built the pipeline to supply water to the Goldfields, an incredibly ambitious 550kms of pipeline, and although it worked and still runs today, the public criticism he faced over the issue eventually drove him to suicide. I’ve spent a lot of time down at the beach just south of Fremantle where, a few days before the water came through, O’Connor rode his horse into the ocean and shot himself. They’ve erected a statue to this effect, of him on his horse in the water, about twenty or so metres from shore depending on the tides.

The first time we break down, I’m driving. We’re about 10kms from Coolgardie and I’ve been letting the odometer creep towards 110, 120, and changing gears badly because I’m learning. There’s a hill coming up so I shift from 5th into 4th but I’m not sure I’ve shifted properly because the van seems to lose power, or something, and then G smells burning and we pull over. H disappears into the bush to go to the toilet while G pulls up the passenger seat to get to then engine, and when she does its hissing and leaking this thick, brown fluid from where it probably shouldn’t be. I go out onto the road to flag down the next car.

A lurid green ute pulls over and two boys climb out. They are sleepy, slow, shy boys who blink helplessly over our hissing engine for a while before advising us to drive slowly to Coolgardie and find a mechanic. I’m worried and impatient to get to Melbourne but I don’t say anything. I think briefly about those flights, about hitching back into Perth to catch one.

The local RACQ mechanic is asleep when he gets the call. It’s 7pm or so by and the sun is setting over the unusually wide roads of the town. He arrives groggy, adjusting; an old, round and patient man who talks like he’s spent a lot of time explaining things to children. He enjoys using people’s names. He likes G’s name in particular, and he uses it a lot while he explains about the engine. She listens intently. She bought this van to learn mechanics and breaking down serves this purpose perfectly. I quickly lose interest and wander onto the main road of the town to stand under the purple light of the sunset. I find a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk and amuse myself arranging and rearranging the grammar.
Open for real coffee.
Open for real. Coffee.
Open. For real coffee.

The mechanic sends G and H on a test drive while I stay behind with my notebook. He starts talking to me about his kids and his grandkids but he’s worried about us in our rickety old van across so much desert and he’s not quite sure how to tell me.

“Yep, I’ve got three daughters. So I know,” He says. “I know what young girls can be like.” His eyes are pointed in the direction the van has gone. “Seven children, I’ve got. I’ve been through all of it. All the things young people get up to.” I nod in reply, lean against the tray of the ute behind me. “I get people through here all the time. Breaking down out here. Thinking their cars can make it across.”
He explains an interesting mechanic’s dilemma that had never really occurred to me before. Cars can be a very personal thing for people. People get attached to their vehicles. They name them, build them personalities, until their sense of how good, or not so good, their vehicle actually is becomes distorted. So for the mechanic and his educated, objective viewpoint, criticising the car becomes almost like criticising the owner.

“You’ll be alright though,” he says hesitantly as the van reappears. He shakes our hands. We thank him profusely. “Yep. Yeah, you girls should be alright.”

It’s dark and we put on Bon Iver and fall to silence. We watch for kangaroos in the headlights and G flicks on and off the highbeams between oncoming traffic. A road-train roars towards us and past us in the darkness like a giant, lit-up, neon insect from space. “It’s beautiful,” H says groggily.

We stop around ten and there are so many stars it’s like there’s something wrong with the sky. I set up my tent and make a meal out of Philly and tomatoes and salami and flatbread. I crack the luke-warm Coopers I bought earlier in the day. I brush my teeth with my water bottle. The light in the van goes out and I sit against a tree for a while, under the impossible white rash of stars, alone and quiet among all that space and all that dark.

Dressing Up

Dad’s in town so we go out for dinner at the restaurant at the Hyatt where his company’s put him up. There are five of us: my brother and his girlfriend, my father and his partner, and me. It’s a nice hotel and a nice dinner, so I try to dress up, though every time I do I usually end up looking – as my housemate Josh likes to point out – like either a lesbian or a country girl giving it a red-hot go. Dressing up for me means picking out the best jeans out of the three pairs I own, borrowing some make-up, and finding some sort of nice-looking shirt, which in this case is a collared cotton one whose cut people kept complementing (though I’m pretty sure they’re just picking out the best thing about the ensemble and focusing on that).

There are rich people everywhere and some of them hold open the door of the elevator as we rush in. In the elevator among all the rich people is a little girl. She’s maybe eight years old and she’s all dressed up, many times classier than me, in heels she can actually walk in and a well-tailored dress. Earings flash in her little ears. She holds herself in imitation of an adult’s posture, with only the occasional flick of the shoulders or impatient bend of the knees to give away all the kid-energy trapped in there.

When the doors close and I see her turn around to the mirror on the back wall and her hands go up to her hair. It’s not as if her hair needs fixing, and she’s not doing much to it – just pulling at the strands like she’s seen the grown-ups do. Her face smooths out in learned assurance and her eyes pucker with concentration, and she stands there fixing her hair, as it seems she’s learnt she should do, as a girl, in an elevator with a mirror.

Coming Home

Photo by Josh Hoffman

When I got back to Perth, to Australia, I noticed the things tourists notice. How huge and blue the sky is, the crackle of a dry landscape. Low buildings, screen doors, the harshness of the sun. It was both intensely familiar and strange; the novelty of being home.

I settled, I got a job, I moved house. I stopped writing my blog, because it was a travel blog and in my mind I had stopped travelling. I relearned the contours of my hometown, caught up with friends I hadn’t seen in years, met new ones, was intrigued by the changes and comforted by constants.

The festive chaos of December came, went, brought in the old routines of a brand new year. That deep craving I had for heat after all that European cold was sated by a good, solid Perth summer. Most of my time, it seemed, was spent either going to or coming back from the beach, and there were daily revelations of, “We live here. Here, in this stunningly beautiful, laid-back small town next to a city, with those beaches and that river and all that blue. We fucking live here.”

But, then, the novelty wore off. Without a project to keep me busy or enough shifts at work, that restlessness returned. I noticed that small town descent into nothing to talk about, and that the contentedness with simply existing so common in Fremantle is something that I’m really no good at. Rest in abundance becomes suffocating, and is just as overwhelming and paralysing as too much stress.

So I’m going to start writing this blog again. For something to do until I take off again in June; because I’m about to catch a lift in a van across the Nullarbor and that should be something good to write about; and because I am still travelling, in a way, even if it might look like I’m standing still.