I didn’t stay long in Cairns that first time around, but quickly caught a ride north to Cooktown with a native lunatic who tried to kill me in the Daintree Rainforest. (I’ve got a post on that coming later). There were no jobs to be found in Cooktown so on my 28th birthday I walked out to the road, stuck out my thumb, and headed back south.
I ended up getting a ride from two artists heading back to their hometown. One of them insisted I stay with him and his family for a few days, promising me he could get me a ride into Cairns when I was ready to go. Which he did. I hadn’t counted on that ride being in a beer truck. Nor had I counted on having a beer with the driver at each pub we delivered to on the way, but we made it safely enough.
It was in Cairns the second time around that the chain of events which would lead to my meeting with Claudia began to unfold. I walked into my room at the backpackers resort and these guys were walking out. One of them said, “We’re just going for a beer, mate. Care to join us?”
Well, as it so happened, I did care to join them and that’s how I got to know Nick, a pivotal character in this little tale. Nick the Australian, not too tall, stubbly brown hair, round face, round belly, questionable personal hygiene habits and a big smile. Just one of the finest human beings to walk the planet and an absolute joy to pass the time with.
We spent the next couple of days drinking beer together with only brief pauses for food and sleep and somewhere along the line it was decided that we should do some traveling on together. Nick wasn’t working, just living on the dole (welfare), so he was up for pretty much anything. These weren’t concrete plans, mind you, just the kind that drunk people make that sound so sensible at the time, but never actually happen later.
Which was why a couple days later I wandered on down south to a place called Magnetic Island, got a job at a backpackers there, and forgot all about it. It was a good job. Four hours of work a day and in exchange I got a free bed in the employees’ quarters and breakfast and dinner. (I took care of lunch by making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the breakfast buffet and stashing it in my pocket for later.)
Except that a couple weeks later I got a call from old Nick. It seemed he had found us a ride to Alice Springs with another Australian, Ivan, and a lass from Brazil named Jackie. Unlike Nick, Ivan actually wasn’t a lazy bludger and he’d gotten a job there. He had a little truck and a trailer and he’d give us a ride in exchange for helping pay the gas. Well, the Outback was where the cattle stations were and I needed a job that paid actual money, not just room and partial board. How many pbj’s could I eat anyway?
I said goodbye to the lovely British lasses I’d met on the island, caught a ferry back to the mainland and set off for the legendary Outback.
I’m going to take a short detour here and give you all a little geography lesson so you have a better idea where and how far I was going. Australia is roughly the same size as the continental U.S. Back in ’93 there were about 20 million people living in Australia, the great bulk of them living in a few major cities along the southeastern and southern coasts. The great mass of the center of the country and virtually all of the western and northern coasts are empty.
Alice Springs (around 5,000 people at that time) lies almost in the geographic center of the continent, hence the moniker “The heart of Australia.” Cairns is in the northeast, Magnetic Island a couple hours south of that. We didn’t have to worry about getting lost. There was one highway running west until about the middle of the country, where it intersected with another highway that bisected the country north to south.
It took us something like ten days. After the first day or two I don’t think there was a single turn in the road (other than the aforementioned intersection) the whole way. The highway just stretched endlessly to the horizon. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Australia is unbelievably flat, arid and empty. We’d pass through a tiny hamlet every day or two and the rest of the time there was just nothing as far as the eye could see. “Red dirt and gum trees” is how I have always described it (gum trees are what we call eucalyptus). There was almost never a side road. (When we camped, we just pulled off onto the wide shoulder of the road and threw out our sleeping bags.) There were no rivers or even dry washes. No mountains on the horizon. Strangely, kangaroos were quite plentiful, so much so that we were warned not to drive at night lest we plow into one and do ourselves major damage.
Another interesting tidbit: The highway wasn’t quite wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. The rule of the road was that the smaller vehicle was supposed to yield to the larger. Since most of the traffic we saw consisted of massive semis pulling three trailers it wasn’t difficult usually to decide who had to yield. There were no speed limits out there and the semis would flat haul ass. The trucks were also the only traffic that ran at night. All of them had bull bars—big, protective barriers of welded steel bars—attached to the front and they never even slowed down for the kangaroos who were unfortunate enough to wander out in front of them.
It was so empty out there that near the end of the trip, only a day or so from Alice Springs, when we finally saw a sign advertising a roadside attraction (The Devil’s Marbles) that I immediately began clamoring for Ivan to pull over and let me see these wonders of nature. As the kilometers clicked by and more signs appeared I began to get quite excited, imagining something quite spectacular.
Then we got to them and to say I was disappointed was an understatement. Black boulders, not especially round and not especially large either. I’m from Arizona and we have bigger rocks than that in our backyard.
I’ve given you all this background on our journey across the Outback so that you will properly understand that by the time we drove into the Alice (as the locals call it), tired, dusty, and thirsty, it looked like the greatest city on the face of the earth. We were ready to cut loose and have a little fun.
So don’t judge me too harshly when I relate our behavior that first night in the Alice. Certainly Claudia didn’t, though I’ve never understood why. She’s usually so sensible.
(Author’s note: All of the above “facts” about Australia have had over twenty years to rust in my somewhat-disreputable memory and I didn’t feel like spending the 20 seconds required to research them on Google so don’t use any of them as answers on your next trivia night.)