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.

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