We set out from Alice Springs for no discernible reason at around eleven o’clock in the evening as we weren’t doing a huge amount and decided not to wait until the morning. Another contributory factor in this decision was the vans continued refusal to function between eleven a.m. and 3 p.m.. It seemed that the added risk of kangaroo collision was worth taking given the circumstance and so we hopped in and hit the road.
Originally we had planned to share the driving, taking turns to sleep, but that went out of the window when I spent the entirety of the night pointing out wildlife to Faye. There is actually an awful lot more wildlife to be seen in the outback at night than during the day as most of the Australian fauna tends to take shelter from the hot sun during daylight hours. One of the commonest and most memorable sights were the great herds of kangaroos, appearing out of the darkness and bounding across the road, silhouetted against the magnificent, bright bush sky.
It is advisable when driving at night to keep to the middle of the road in remote areas because the roads are unlit and unfenced and so the split second warning you get from the centre of the asphalt as something looms out of the darkness onto the highway could easily represent the difference between hitting it and missing it.
Traffic is so scarce in these areas that the local wildlife has no qualms about leaping out in front of you and so we spent a good deal of the journey just waiting for roos and cattle to get out of the way.
The big road trains have a different and less subtle means of dealing with these obstructions. They prefer to hit the gas and drive straight over them. Even cattle. The huge bull bars on the front are enough to protect the vehicle from damage and so they just plough on through whatever may get into their way.
This roadkill will then sit at the roadside rotting, a smell which can be picked up from miles away. Larger animals such as red kangaroos and cattle have also been known to swell with gas as they fester before finally exploding, sending a mist of decaying flesh across the surrounding area. Those buggers are particularly pungent.
I avoided these creatures though. My nemesis was much smaller. We still aren’t sure what they were but we called them ‘cone-head pigeons’. They looked like regular English wood pigeons but had crests on their tiny, brainless heads. I say brainless because the tarmac roads cool more slowly than the surrounding countryside and so the pigeons choose to roost there. It goes to show just how empty the roads are when a creature can sleep on a highway every night because it is warm and still survive long enough to reproduce. The outback is so quiet that natural selection doesn’t seem to need to apply there.
I hit five that night and narrowly missed a lot more. Two thudded sickeningly against the windscreen, one hit the roof box and got wedged into our luggage, one managed to attach itself to the front of the van in the cartoon style of a Warner Brothers movie and one somehow managed to wedge itself so neatly between the panels of the bodywork that I had to pick it out with a screwdriver.
We continued until the sun came up with one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen then stopped for a water break by the dry salt pan Lake Eyre.
Lake Eyre is dry most of the time and was dry when we saw it to. It floods around every four years and with it comes a vast array of bird life. More remarkably though, some species of fish actually lay dormant in the parched soil, wriggling out of the sediment when the lake floods so that they can fleetingly reproduce, feed and act like normal fish again before the waters recede and they burrow back into the salty earth. The lake even has its own dedicated yacht club which sails there whenever it floods enough for it to be possible.
After a rest we pressed on to Coober Pedy, a town famous for its rich opal veins, for being the hottest place on earth for a time and for the fact that a large proportion of its residents live in caves carved into the rocky earth to shelter from the blistering heat. In fact the name Coober Pedy literally translates from the aboriginal as ‘whitefella live down hole’. This quirky name is however pretty much its only endearing feature. Well that and the fried breakfast I had at the roadhouse.
As we kept heading south, the desert became at once very hilly and then almost as suddenly as that had happened, the ranges of bluffs opened out onto vast swathes of wheat fields and meadows reminiscent of the mediterranean. The suddenness with which the desert gave way to such temperate areas was shocking but it made a welcome change to the faceless desert we had encountered since we left Darwin weeks before.
We stopped briefly for refreshments in Port Augusta where I caught sight of my reflection for the first time since I had left Alice Springs 20 hours earlier. The whites of my eyes had given way to dark red. I didn’t look very well, but I felt alright and awake, probably due to the eight litres of Coke I had drunk and the sixty cigarettes I had smoked since leaving and so we pressed on to Adelaide where we had arranged to meet and stay with some friends. We arrived a day earlier than planned and so rather than drop in unannounced, we pulled up to a campsite in Adelaide.
Arriving in Adelaide was a shock to the system too as real roads with traffic lights and other cars criss-crossed the city. It resembled London, at least by night. We pitched our van at the campsite and had soon befriended a few people camped nearby. We spent the rest of the night drinking with some Aussies and two barking mad and heavily tattooed Danish guys.
We finally went to bed thirty two hours after leaving Alice Springs. It had been an enjoyable trip in places, but I for one was glad to close my eyes that night.