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.
“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.


2 Responses to “Crossing the Continent: Day 2”

  1. 1 Ben Ainslie March 25, 2011 at 5:31 am

    We didn’t swim when we camped at the cliffs for a night.

    I think it was a combination of it having been such and unrelentingly cold night and morning, and because the bite is very very full of sharks.

    Big ones that like cold water and big fish.

  2. 2 zoebarron December 30, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    And people, I’d imagine.

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