We never set out for Innamincka.
But there we were, 2000 kms from home on the last day of the school holidays: dusty, dirty and delirious around a campfire as the sun set over Coopers Creek.
Ours was a spontaneous adventure, a road trip from the Gold Coast to Darwin, a caravan led by women – without the caravan. It was a simple mission really. My daughter Rebecca had a wedding to attend in Darwin. It was so expensive to fly with the children. Would I drive with her?
We loaded up the Subaru, the tent and eskies and sleeping bags in the back; Krystle and Dylan, 12 and 10, stuffing themselves into what was left of the back seat with Leo, our 10 month old border collie. The people who know and love us shook their heads.
‘It’ll be hard with the dog,’ they said.
‘You won’t find anywhere to stay,’ they lamented.
‘We’ll be fine,’ we said.
‘We’re going to Uluru!’ shrieked the children.
Several years ago, Dylan received a Christmas card with a picture of Uluru on the front. He’d tossed it away with a glance, excitedly ripping the wrapping from the present instead. I retrieved the card and held it up.
‘Hey Dylan,’ I said, ‘do you know what this is?’
‘Yep,’ he answered blithely, ‘the heart of the world.’
The heart of the world. If we’re going to Darwin, then we have to do Uluru, I said to my skeptical daughter, who at the time was in the middle of her honors year at university.
We hit the road, headed north and eight hours driving and two sleeps later we were cranky and on each other’s nerves. The road was already seemingly endless. The car too small. The effort too great.
We turned west at Rockhampton. West to the desert. West to forever.
Australia, I discovered on this journey, is a land of cardinal directions. In the following two weeks we drove north, then west, then south, then east, then south, then east then north then east again. We drove roads that were black, red, gold and brown.
We slept in the bedrock of the earth and beneath desert skies. We ate breakfast in the dawn light, hearts lit wide with wonder at the red and gold of morning after desert morning. We climbed a big rock in the centre of this vast red continent and we dug our toes deep into the mud of a lake that is lucky to see water once in a decade. We excavated the bones of a dinosaur species that is yet to be identified and we sheltered from rain, way out west where the rain don’t fall.
In 17 nights on the road, we paid for accommodation only twice: in Alice Springs and at Yulara, the resort and campground near Uluru. Every other night, we popped up our little tent, minus the fly, and lay like sardines on our foldout foam mattress, gazing through the gauze at the stars and the traveling moon.
Our criteria for rest stops was simple: at least one other caravan (they were all caravans except for us and our little tent) and a picnic table, for ease in preparing our meals. Every afternoon around 4pm the wagons would circle and a host of road-weary travelers would set about building campfires and roasting their evening meals.
As we barreled through the outback, the family tensions blew away with the dust. By the time we got to Three Ways, where the east-west road that carves up Queensland meets the north-south artery that stretches from Darwin to Adelaide, the Nintendo batteries were flat and we were all exhausted. It had taken us nine days to cross Queensland and inch into the Northern Territory. The wedding was the day after tomorrow.
‘Bugger the wedding,’ said my daughter. ‘Turn left.’
I stared at her. I looked right, up the track running arrow-straight to Darwin.
‘It’s 2000 kilometres to Darwin and back to here,’ she said. ‘Turn left.’
I grinned. She rang the bride-to-be and apologised eloquently. We turned left.
And our adventure began.
We fanned wide from Alice Springs, purchasing a permit to drive to Uluru through Namatjira country, testing our nowhere courage on the dirt road that winds its way through Aboriginal lands.
‘We could do the Oodnadatta Track,’ I announced to my daughter, having no idea what or where the Oodnadatta Track was – only that it’s an iconic word that sits in my brain and a friend, an American man with a car just like mine, had driven it two years previously.
‘And Coober Pedy!’ she said. ‘The kids would love to see an underground town.’
Terrified we’d end up in Adelaide, too too far from home, she looked at our map. From Coober Pedy we could drive north to William Creek and meet the Oodnadatta Track. At Marree we could turn onto the Birdsville Track and this would bring us home to Queensland.
‘The Birdsville Track!’ I exclaimed. ‘Woohoo!’
And then we settled down.
Are we equipped to head into the Outback?
We asked around about the state of the roads. In Alice Springs I googled phone numbers that would give us up-to-date information. One was the Boulia Police. My daughter rang the station. She asked about the roads.
‘Hmm,’ said the young woman at the other end. ‘I’m not sure where that is.
‘Actually, I didn’t even know where Boulia was until I got here last week.’
The police woman gave Reb the number for the Birdsville pub.
‘Road’s fine,’ he said.
We giggled. We took the advice of a fellow traveler and let some air out of the tyres. We bought 10 litres of water and made room for it under Krystle’s feet. I unpacked the car to check the spare tyre. Gave it a good thump with my fist.
‘Tyre’s good,’ I announced.
We turned the car north from Coober Pedy and onto a track that disappeared over a distant curve in the earth.
I am here to tell you, the world out there is 80 per cent sky. You can stand in the dust and turn a circle, beaming from your own heart centre all the way to the horizon and back and there is nothing to reflect back to you. Nothing. No signs, no fences, no people, no trees. Just you and the neverending blue of forever. It’s like driving through a painting (sometimes a very bad painting). And you are never alone out there for long.
When we blew a tyre on the Birdsville Track – an Aussie rite of passage if ever there was one – within minutes our saviour romped in on his silver Nissan steed, right about the time we’d unpacked everything onto the side of the road and discovered we couldn’t undo the bolt securing the spare to its berth. We were stranded. We were saved. The Outback, we discovered, is filled with men of goodwill who are so incredibly well-equipped they are in dire need of someone else to create a chaotic moment to fulfill their need for a mission. Lucky for him, we were there to oblige.
Within minutes he had the tyre changed. We sagely advised that he’d need to let the air out so it was the same pressure as the others. He reached into his pocket and produced . . . a traveling tyre gauge!
‘You want the good news or the bad news?’ he asked.
Reb and I looked at each other. We shrugged cautiously.
‘There’s only 10 psi in the spare,’ he said.
We giggled nervously. Clearly a good thump is no measure of a tyre’s pressure.
‘The good news is I have a pump.’
And with that he threw up the bonnet of his silver steed, plugged in a hose and pumped up our spare tyre, right there in the dust on the Birdsville Track.
On and on we drove, the roads wide and flat, a traveling family circus doing the school holidays the old-fashioned way – all piled into the car.
Leo, the collie, was welcomed from one end of the country to the other, a social rarity and, consequently, a minor celebrity. The oldies loved him for the memories he sparked of days long gone, when dogs were workers as well as pets, an everyday presence in a gentler world. We tied him to the car at night, occasionally sleeping him inside the car when the wildlife was too much for him, or pulling him into the tent with us when he was too much for the wildlife.
Joy of joys, there is still one caravan park in the Alice who welcomes dogs and double digit joy of joys, Yulara not only welcomed our darling Leo, they let us tie him up in the shade at the back of reception while we visited Uluru. Such love! Such service! Such gratitude on our part.
Our journey was fun!
We laughed as the car filled with dust: as we filled with dust; as overnight our hair matted and became unbrushable; at the very thought that we might average only one shower a week. We stretched our wings and our limitations. We watched the odometer click over 200,000 kms at the edge of our known world. We picnicked in deserts and doffed our hats to the colonial explorers and settlers. We lost track of the days. We bowed low to the Aboriginal people for whom every rock is a lifeline. We watched the stirrings and stories of our hearts and minds as we drove through the billowing dust singing along to Pink and the Darwin Killer Soundtrack, a compilation CD of Krystle’s favourite songs, the roads threading us through outback stations like beads on a string.
Then came our turning point. An hour out of Birdsville. A sign pointing south to the Strzlecki Desert. A calling in my daughter’s voice.
‘We could drive the desert,’ she said. ‘A real desert.’
I slowed. The car stopped beneath the sign. We stared at it.
‘Could we?’ I asked.
‘We’ve got water and a spare tyre,’ she said.
‘There’s no sign telling us the road is open or closed, like there was on the other tracks,’ she said. ‘So it must be okay.’
‘We’ve got a full tank of petrol,’ I added. ‘And it’s only about 300 kilometres.’
We grinned at each other as the car slowly made a right hand turn onto a bright red track.
Five minutes up the road we stopped beside two city-like blokes fixing the axle on their caravan, three small children milling around their feet. We all shared a laugh about our collective madness . . . and Reb and I quietly gave thanks that they’d be driving up behind us once they were back on their feet. We stretched and bumped and glided all the way to Innamincka, stopping for lunch beside a rolling mound of gorgeous red dunes, pulling into town with the petrol gauge on empty, parking beside a mob of stately 4WDs lined up on the dirt concourse.
We soon realised all desert roads lead to Innamincka. It’s a hub of the Outback. Bourke and Wills country.
We camped on the town common, one among the hordes strung along the banks of Coopers Creek. Thanks to Dylan, fifth grade social studies came to life as he regaled us with tales of Captain Bourke and his offsider Wills, although he was most captivated by the survivor King, who returned to Melbourne to claim the reward for crossing the continent.
Bourke and Wills. Dead in the desert. Bourke’s grave a long way this way. Wills buried a few kilometers that way. In truth, until now, it had been roll-your-eyes boys own manual stuff to me. Now – now I understood the courage and the calling of these adventurous spirits, who put it all on the line for the glory of an uncharted landscape in an unknowable world.
The following morning we paid our respects at the Dig Tree.
The Dig Tree, inscribed with ‘DIG’ and an arrow, at least that’s how the story goes; an arrow pointing into the earth when the rest of Bourke and Wills’ party, tired of waiting for the intrepid explorers to return from their northbound journey, buried supplies by the banks of a dustbowl called Coopers Creek, with a message to ‘dig’.
I leaned towards Rebecca.
‘There’s a long way between dig and death,’ I whispered.
In just over two weeks our comparatively little Subaru drove 8500 kilometres. In recent years, I have traveled all over the world; how wonderful to touch base with my own country: to climb Uluru, to paddle in Lake Eyre.
I have long held the philosophy that those among us whose hearts are called to climb the great red rock in the desert are entitled to climb, while others may honour their pilgrimage to the centre by walking around the base. Previously, I have not been compelled to climb, have been content to honour the requests of the Aboriginal guardians. This time, the call barreled in and without hesitation I hauled myself onto the roof of the desert. Dylan climbed it twice in two days. Whatever story we choose to tell about why we’re out there, the stone cold reality is that we – humanity – travel vast distances from all over the world to visit a rock. To watch the sun rise on a rock. To pay our respects to a rock. The heart of the world.
Lake Eyre was a wonder. For no other reason than we were there and the mythical inland sea was filled with water. We imagined waterbirds. We imagined wild flowers. What we found, 80 kilometres down a dirt track now red, now silver, in the hub of now flat, now bumpy nowhere, were sea gulls. Picnic tables of coastal dwellers throwing bread to sea gulls. We laughed. We left Leo securely in the car. We wandered out onto the mudflats, marveling at the salt crystals left by the evaporating tide in the footprint hollows of pilgrims who had passed this way before us.
So it takes me the rest of my life to get the dust out of the car with a cotton bud, so the car is apparently unsaleable because I clicked over 200,000 kms, so the dog jumped into Coopers Creek and rolled in the dirt just as we were about to leave, so the children were three days late for school.
Folks, once we were back on the neverending bitumen, I have to tell you it’s getting crowded out there. The Oodnadatta Track is pockmarked with signposts, shiny and new. The bitumen is coming. Don’t die wondering. Fear is no reason to stay home. Get out there. Take the 4WD for the journey it was built for. Take the dog. Get out among the crests, curves and dips of the desert roads. Sleep in the rest areas. Take your food. Lose track of the days. Forget you have another life. Put conditioner in your hair and leave it there . . . or, alternatively, let the dust in and allow the desert to have its way with you.
Let the desert have its way.
For here is the miracle: my beautiful adult daughter rising in the soft light of morning calling ‘Mum! Look at the sunrise!’
Imagine that, my daughter cheerfully up at dawn.
Tips for Spontaneous Family Outback Adventures
- Be warm and comfortable at night – take thermals, take a mattress, take doonas or good sleeping bags
- Circle the wagons – close your day around 4pm by finding a rest area with other travelers. This gives you daylight enough to cook and clean up and peace of mind at night.
- Take your food – in 17 days on the road we bought only one meal (a poor substitute for our own cooking in Alice Springs). We spent an average of $2.50 per person for three meals a day – and most of it was organic.
- Take water bottles and fill them up as you go. Take a portable water filter if the thought of tap water is too much.
- Take picnic rugs and fold up chairs (at least for the adults).
- Wear old clothes! And don’t bother with much more than one change of clothes. Take a jacket.
- Tie up your hair and keep it tied.
- TAKE WATER. Keep a container of water in the car and don’t touch it (remember the Page family).
- You will use more fuel than you think on the desert roads. Fill up at every opportunity.
- Check the spare tyre is good and the jack is where it ought to be.
- Don’t worry too much about a whiz bang phone – there’s bugger all reception out there anyway.
- Take leads and a water bowl for the dog (make sure s/he has an identification tag).
- Take a book of maps and rest stops.