I still remember that evening over Coober Pedy. The sun setting against the backdrop of a lazy mining town with a hundred dimly lit homes bracing themselves to see through yet another night. We were weary travelers back then… It was one of those evenings when life couldn’t get better. I long for that evening. I long to be that weary traveler again.
Hundreds of palm trees crowding out a small mud-house as if waiting for the perfect time to encroach. The house itself lies obliquely along a small hillock overlooking the rail tracks. It seems completely oblivious to the drone of the mechanical monsters that thunder by every day. Evening descends early along these parts as people fold their final chores and a stoic silence engulfs the small houses. The backwaters ripple in perfect cadence with the gentle evening breeze. I see a distorted reflection of the mechanical monster I’m riding all along the backwaters in a perfect rebellion of man against nature. A seagull flies low over the backwaters not realizing how lucky it would be to get a catch. Colors are so vividly green as if telling you that all other colors are only a figment of your imagination. Beautiful little railway stations that would spring up with life even when a single train stopped there through the course of the entire day. Sweet strains of Fleet Foxes’ Blue Ridge Mountains plays on my headphones. Words pour out when you travel in solitude.
I don’t hate people, but I seem to feel better when they’re not around – Charles Bukowski (quote adapted)
Somewhere along those blessed roads, a lone traveler must be tearing through that calm blanket of darkness. Somewhere near the Ayers rock, life must have unraveled its great mystery. Someone must have ordered his last pint of beer at the Kulgera pub. Life must have changed for many, but for us it just stood still in those undying moments, still breathing the air of the Northern Territory. It was all that we left behind, all that we ever had.
Mumbai airport. Terminal 2. Gate 7. I’m finally here. It all started off as a drunken babble. Or it must have been something similar. The fact is it all happened so long back that I’ll need another drink to delve into that part of my brain which acts as a dump yard of unwanted waste. It’s amazing how you can muster all the patience for things that you like to do.
These were the days of great unrest among us. Our lives were so entwined with the daily worries of stock markets and clients and deadlines that our youth was getting crushed in that great juggernaut. The worst part was we failed to realize. Maybe we still do not. But this journey was an attempt on our part to get back the lost days, to discover new lands, to feel like adventurers, to feel free again.
Onward to Sydney
By the time we grow old, probably a third of our time would have been spent at airports and transit lounges. Singapore airport turned to be another one of those so-called great airports of the world. I had a different opinion about it. But that could be because I hate all airports. The enormity and manufactured ‘beauty’ didn’t really change my opinion about it. It turned out to be a tiring journey and it was morning by the time I reached Sydney.
I met Sid there and the excitement of the journey started brimming from that point onwards.
We’d decided to spend the first day in Sydney preparing for our trip and the vehicle which would eventually take us around the great Australian Outback. The shopping list included a tent, stove for cooking the food while we are camping and certain essentials for the trip. It was a Saturday and our journey was to begin early on Sunday. Sid’s friend was ready to give us his ’92 Mitsubishi Lancer (two-door) for the trip. We decided to accept that as it would save us a lot of money from the car rent (this would eventually turn out to be one of our worst decisions of recent times). We went and brought the car and parked it within the city so we could hit the road early Sunday morning.
Sydney to Katoomba (110 Kms)
Day one of the trip started off in a bad hangover from the previous night’s drinking. I was to drive us out of Sydney as Sid was not conversant with manual gears. The M4 motorway was a beauty and we reached Katoomba in no time. This was where the Blue Mountains were. They were called Blue Mountains because of the colour they assumed during the day. The hills of Katoomba offered a beautiful view of the Blue Mountains and it was the perfect way to start the trip.
Katoomba to Hay (500 Kms)
The night rolls away with a puff of wind among the vast, cold plains of the New South Wales winter. We drive through the thunder and rain, almost impeding us at every turn. The wipers move with a death rattle that could leave us in the lurch at any point of time. We’re singing songs along the way, oblivious to the rain outside, yet enjoying every minute of it, smoking cigarettes, talking about old times and all the things in life that won’t matter to us during the next 10 days. The road abruptly stops its sprint as it ends with a final sigh into a T-junction – gear shift, clutch, brake – the engine almost complains as we bring the car to a halt after taking a left towards Hay. The rain has finally let up and we decide to water the plants by emptying our bladders into nothingness. As I stepped out of the car, a sudden realization dawned upon me; that of being in the absolute wilderness and being free. No cell phones, no emails, no worries – just the open road and the car. All around me were the flattest plains of the great Australian continent. We drove the final 100 Kms in silence; probably both of us were contemplating our choices in life and the decisions we made. What we had given up in the past couple of years was our own self that was free; free of choices, free of decisions, free of the family. We were changed men. Maybe the whole purpose of this trip was to bring back that old self. Talk to our long lost alter egos that got killed in the hustle of daily life in the city. But here we were now, in a small town called Hay, just a few hundred Kms from the border of New South Wales. The night was heavy with sleep and moist with the fresh rains. We pulled over at a roadhouse and slept in the car. Our first night’s sleep, sound as hell.
Lake Mungo National Park (700 Kms.)
We woke up early just in time for a large breakfast prepared by the jovial old lady of the roadhouse. Sid joked around with her when she brought us our breakfast plates in her bare hands and warned us that the plates were extremely hot. We freshened up and headed for the first major town along the way. Balranald.
Sid drove all the way to Balranald while I sat back smoking a few cigarettes and enjoyed the beautiful morning views. We had a bad tyre condition when we reached Balranald. To aggravate it further, some vital part required to detach the tyre was missing. It took us about an hour to get it fixed and cost us 25 dollars. We picked up a bottle of Jim Beam, supplies for the night to be spent at Mungo National Park and some firewood.
The drive to Mungo was through a dirt road. Took me a long time to get used to sloppiness of tyre grip on that surface and after a while I started enjoying the fact that car would just glide over the surface. The speed limit was 80. Hell. I take it past 120 with no steering response. We reached there just in time to catch the days last bit of light which helped us put up the tent.
By the time we started the fire (after several attempts and using various techniques like starter twigs, petrol, paper, etc.) it was dark and getting colder. Sid heated up the beans on our little gas stove and we gulped them down like hungry dogs. Soon we polished off a bottle of Jim Beam while standing around the fire-pot and talking about the old days, about the future, about how stupid we were at times, about how we missed another friend of ours at that point of time. It would be futile to even attempt to describe the sky that night. Sid was convinced that he could see atleast two galaxies from out there. Millions of stars gazed at us in amazement asking us where we were all our lives. It was as if we were born to see this day; as if all the stars in the sky had come out in one giant parade to adorn this vast continent, to honour the night and to look over the weary travellers, to cradle them in their beauty and make them feel at home. The night grew darker and we grew hungry after finishing of the entire bottle of Jim Beam. Sid cooked the chicken over the open fire and I felt it right then. We were living in the wild. Away from the burdensome civilization, living our own lives and we were truly free.
Mungo to Coober Pedy (1,400 Kms.) and the Kangaroo Incident
We looked like slick city boys every time we took a shower or shaved. Deep inside we just wanted to be adventurers but it’s so difficult to shake off that other self of yours!
First stop from Mungo National Park was Mildura which was in the state of Victoria. Sid slept all through as I drove at high-speeds of 160 kmph to reach Mildura as soon as possible. We had a couple of pints of Guinness at O’Malleys, a beautiful Irish pub. After having the usual lunch of burgers and fries we hit the road yet again.
This time we drove through beautiful wineries just out of Mildura and the road all the way up to Adelaide was cut straight out of God’s own photo album. The Barossa Valley and the other small wineries around were simply breath-taking. As we reached Adelaide the road started going uphill and around beautiful green pastures of various shades until all the roads came down-hill with a final sigh to reach the city of Adelaide. Cities have never excited me much. It was the raw and untamed outback that I was lusting after. I was to taste the power and ruggedness of the outback tonight.
Adelaide was the southernmost tip of our journey. After having dinner at Adelaide we started heading north. The road from here goes in the absolute north direction right up to the northern tip of Australia which is Darwin. Sid slept yet again as I drove from Adelaide to Port Wakefield and all the way to Port Augusta which was like an inflection point. Beyond this town lay the beautiful Australian outback. The sudden changes in the landscape (as Sid described it) really amazed us. It was like god had put a ruler out there and drawn a straight line across. We filled up on Gas at Port Augusta and also filled up our Jerry can for extra fuel since we were going to be driving through the night.
Just as we left Port Augusta and hit the Stuart Highway the air became colder and the night became calm and an almost eerie silence enveloped our car, almost travelling with us. Civilization, vegetation and lights soon thinned out as the road jerked itself into a straight line; straight as an arrow. We kept on driving through the night till we ran out of fuel. Sid was awake now and I needed his jerry-can skills. As we opened the door we were hit by a gust of chilling night air. No sound anywhere. No life. The winter wind breathing down on our necks and the sound of our quickened breath. Sid refuelled the car as I looked around and all I could see was darkness fallen like a blanket over the plains surrounding us. These plains would run for several thousand kilometres. And in the great Australian outback, the roads unfold like one continuous, giant carpet, made by man but touched by God.
Once again we headed towards Coober Pedy and this is when we switched the driving seat a couple of times amongst us until I finally suggested we pullover on the side of the road and sleep. We must have been sleeping for about half an hour when a truck driver stopped and asked if we were okay. I lost my sleep at this point and without saying anything I just started driving with one objective in mind – to reach Coober Pedy. This night was a recipe for disaster. I must have been driving at 140 Kmph when a huge 6-feet tall Kangaroo went across the road. Since it had already gone across I decided not to slow down but as fate would have it, the Kangaroo saw us and just turned back and timed it so perfectly that I had no times to brake and we ran into it. The Kangaroo died and the complete kerb-side of the car was badly damaged. It was a borrowed car with no insurance cover. Sid suggested we drive on slowly till Coober Pedy since, luckily, the car engine was still running fine. We finally reached around 4:30 in the morning and got a 3 hour sleep at a roadhouse.
Mike and Wally (Almost a dead-end)
We woke up with red and swollen eyes. It was a sunny day but not cheerful at all. Our first stop was Bull’s Garage where we were told that the only way out was to sell off the car in Coober Pedy and get a flight back to Sydney. Our hopes of making it to Ayer’s Rock almost came crashing down on us. Second stop was Dusty’s Mechanical Works. Same story, same response. Dejected we decided to stay over in Coober Pedy for that night and think about what to do through the course of the day. We went to The Underground Motel and met Mike there who was very helpful and he too mourned for our car. But he suggested we take the car to one of his friends, Wally. Wally looked at the car and promised us that he would do something about it if we left it with him for the day.
We spent the day catching on some sleep and whiling our time in the little mining town. Sid was on the phone constantly trying to snap things back into place. We got ourselves a few beers and saw some TV. As promised, Wally brought us our car first thing next morning and it was temporarily fixed and Wally promised we could drag it for another few thousand kilometres. This immediately lifted our hopes and we were all packed and set to hit the road again. Battered and bruised but never say die had become our motto then.
The Road to Uluru (750 Kms)
The last few grains of sand drain away in the hourglass; no one turns it for decades.
Life probably stood still in the northern territory for decades. Dead animals lay all over the road showing signs of humans having driven there. The soil turns red as if in anger, smouldering at these unwanted guests. Kulgera was the first stop; probably the last before Uluru. We’d decided to make it to Uluru by sundown so that we wouldn’t have to drive in the dark with one headlight. A couple pints of Carlton Draught and we were good to go. Once again the bar left a lasting impression on us; a place as small as Kulgera and bang in the middle of nowhere, yet they conjure up a beautiful pub like this. Life seemed to fade away into gentle slumber in these towns. The worries and hustle of daily life seemed to be a thing of no consequence here. Our aim in each town – find the nearest pub for a pint of beer. Why is it that people you meet on the road leave a lasting impression and you never forget them? I still remember that girl who was bartending in West Wyalong. That drunk who was listening intently to our story while vigorously nodding. It was then that I realised my biggest folly. It was never the places that define its people. It was the people who made these places worthwhile. Without them all the natural beauty of these places was of no consequence. We asked the bartender for some information about the next stop where we could refuel our car. The next stop was Ehrldunda, where we refuelled and drove on.
The road to Uluru goes west from Stuart Highway. At Ehrldunda you take a left turn off the Stuart Highway and it goes straight to Uluru and to Kata-Tjuta National Park. The same road also continues onto the border of the ever elusive and dangerous Western Australia; the Western Australia of the deserts that adorn the land and bring out its barren beauty. We were cautioned several times about the road we were taking as it was full of animals, not only Kangaroos but also bulls and rabbits and koalas. The road just swerved around the flat plains to negotiate dry rivers and lakes. I drove on at 130, soon 140. We had to be there by sun down. Soon it became a mad race between us and the sun. Every bend where the elevation in the road blocked the sun, was like a victory lap for us. The evening sun shone right into my eyes as I tore through the outback. In the end we made it safely to Yulara and just in time (with a couple of scares when I had to just slam the brakes right in).
Two Nights at Yulara and the elusive Ayer’s Rock
We were almost broke by the time we reached Yulara. Hell, not just broke but also in debt for the broken car. We only had enough money to buy petrol and food that would take us back to Sydney. Sid mourned the fact that all those Europeans would be staying at the plush hotels within the resort while we had to make do in a tent on the campgrounds (which cost us a bomb). After buying a couple of things from the Supermarket the only natural thing to do was to go to the pub. It was called the Outback Pioneer Pub. It was beautiful. There were people from all over the world: Germans, Americans, French, Italians and Indians. All were here to see the rock and breathe in the pure and spiritual air from the heart of Uluru. The man who played the guitar and sang Dire Straits was a perfect addition to the whole ambience. We had a few beers and started heading back as the crowd thinned out.
The night wrapped us like an iced blanket out for revenge. The temperature had dropped to -1˚ C. Shivering and shaking we walked the long walk back to the tent. Sid was constantly on the phone with the ‘girl of his dreams’. I called him a pansy and made him feel guilty about being on the phone. It’s hard to make him feel guilty, but I was really surprised to find that I was succeeding.
Next morning was when we headed to the Ayer’s Rock. Our great aim was to climb it. The local Anangu tribe requests all visitors to refrain from climbing the rock as it has some kind of a spiritual significance for them. But the urban visitors that we were, we do not pay heed to their advice. Several people had died while attempting to climb the rock. But we took it on a challenge and started climbing. We drove 4,000 kms for the Ayer’s Rock but we couldn’t do it. We were weak. Or maybe we were still weighed down by a thousand worries of the real world. This isn’t real, none of this. And on the climb up, I could feel the Anangu whisper to me and I could feel the tribe giving us gentle admonitions. It’s their tradition, their heritage and their spirit. We dared to soil it with our gutless goals. And we couldn’t go further than halfway. On the way back I felt I conversed with them. And I asked them, where did you come from? Where did you disappear? Did the worldly pleasures not suit you? Why did you give it all up? Why can’t I give it all up? I didn’t expect any answers- maybe I was talking to myself. All I could feel was the massive and intimidating Ayer’s rock push me down; back into my own world; into my own life of misery.
And in the Land of Anangu, under the Ayer’s Rock, we shall taste true freedom, all our vices will bleed in the courts of the dead and truly free is what our souls shall be. Our past lives will be wrenched free from our hearts by that vast untamed outback and life’s beginning will shine bright over that timid, amorous sunset.
Aimless wanderers, born out of restlessness, is who we are. Traveling through cities and countries, neither caring nor knowing why. Endless plains of human life far flung into oblivion by the smirk of the passing jets. And never does it end, this restlessness. A part of every country lost in the madness of this mind, tangled with renewed hopes of a simpler future. Crimson skies gaping wide open at hundreds of civilizations, converging at the horizon with angry waves. With neither hope nor purpose the wanderers amble on.