Thursday, July 4, 2013

Back in the outback

It's been several years since I posted in this blog, and I don't have any real intention of starting it up again, but having spent nine days driving throught the Australian outback after a semesters worth of studies in Brisbane, I felt compelled to put thoughts to paper and save it for posterity. Here is what I posted to facebook earlier today:

There is a great misunderstanding about the Australian outback. People (and until a few days ago, 'people' included myself) seem to believe that the Australian outback is made from red sand, hardy vegetation, kangaroos, and roughly a thousand deadly critters for every square meter. I have found that this is not true. Outback Australia is made from distance. pure and simple. Unrelenting, mind numbing, brute distance. And here's the kicker; this is a Very Cool Thing indeed.

If you ever find yourself in Alice Springs with the stated intent of driving to Darwin, here's what you do. First you find yourself a car. Then, you simply point said car in a northerly direction, grip the steering wheel loosely (rolling down the window and resting your elbow, if you are so inclined), depress the pedal just enough to get to and maintain 100 km/h, and then sit back, relax, and stay in that exact position for the next ten or twelve hours. There is no need to navigate. There are no turns. Just straight, endless road, and red, tough bush. For as far as the eye can see, and for the couple of days it takes you to drive from Alice Springs up to the civilized pockets of the Northern Territory, there is only that. Road. And bush. And I know this might be hard to believe, but trust me, it doesn't get boring.

After my travel companions and I did just what I described above, preceded by a short jaunt to Uluru (well, 1500 km is relatively short, by Australian standards), Kata-tjuta and Kings Canyon. We drove, drove, then drove some more. And then some. And just for good measure, a bit more after that. Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that the landscape didn't change for days (apart from the curious appearance and subsequent growth of termite mounds to ridiculous proportions) it is quite frankly amazing. There is something immensely poetic about this landscape. And the wind. As we drank up the miles of tarmac, it seemed as if my brain was washed clean by this desert wind and the dust it brought with it. All of the worries of the past six months, all the longings, all of the (admittedly very few) regrets were blown right out the back of my skull, slowly but efficiently. I am not sure what my mind was doing all that time. Well, part of it was watching the road for wildlife or the occasional oncoming car. The greater part was, I am convinced, thinking deep throughts, but to be honest I have only a fuzzy notion about what they were about. Relationships? The future? That big cliché life itself? I haven't the faintest. All I know is that I could feel my subconsciousness vaguely now and again, working away, rearranging, cleaning up, and sorting everything into its rightful place, just so.

Make no mistake, however. My infatuation with distance did not get in the way of a great many adventures. Here is a short rundown of things to do if you have nine days to spend rummaging through the outback between Alice Springs and Darwin, all of it based on my own meandering experience:

 * Get hold of a van with a stage on the roof. Perfect for sunrise breakfasts, sunsets in crowded carparks around Uluru, making new friends around the clock, and generally being very noticeable. On the downside, you are very noticeable, so don't get into too much trouble - you're easy to find! In summary: Roof-stage. It's awesome. Do it.
 * Have a very friendly, very drunk Aussie policeman (prefferably off duty) take a tumble from said roof-stage. Not a common activity among policemen of this proud country, but very memorable, if slightly surprising to witness.
- If you make sure the back door of the van is open, he won't hurt himself too much and will politely close it on his fast approach to the ground.
- Make sure to convince him afterwards that such a tumble is perfectly normal, and eveyone in the car has done it at least once just for sport. You'll be lying through your teeth, of course, but when a macho man looks that sheepish, a small sympathy lie is forgivable. Bless.
 * Uluru is cool and all, but you simply MUST visit nearby Kings Canyon (do the long walk) and even-more-nearby Kata-Tjuta (again, do the long walk). These latter two represent some of the most stunning scenery I have ever traversed, and between you and me, that's saying something.
 * If you have to go to Kakadu National Park, make sure to see the sunset at Ubirr. It's packed with american toursists, but for once, they have their priorities in order. It is magnificent.
- If you don't have a 4WD, don't bother with Kakadu. Go to Litchfield instead. I hear it's just as good, and far more accessible. I will get back to you once I've been there.
      EDIT: It's even better, and FAR more accessible.
- From what I hear, if you DO have a 4WD, there's STILL no reason to prioritise Kakadu over Litchfield.
- If you insist on going to Kakadu, make sure to visit the Border Store. Friendlier bunch is hard to come by, and in this country, that is a grand compliment indeed.
 * Treat yourself to a crocodile boat-trip. As with anything else, the cheaper and smaller, the better. And crocs are just plain awesome on so many levels. But for christ sake, keep your distance! Australians are afraid of crocs, and nothing else on this planet. If they scare Australians, you should DEFINITELY be scared too!
 * DO NOT lock your keys in the car in the outback. Roadside service is VERY far away. Wait until you get to Darwin.
 * DO NOT marry an aussie. It's bloody far from EVERYTHING, including other parts of Australia.
 * DO NOT put a foot outside you car. Everything in Australia is out to get you. Everything. Seriously, even the sun is poisonous here. Just stay safe behind the windows and let your companions take their chances with the local fauna. I didn't strictly follow this advice myself, but that just goes to show that I am, in fact, none too bright.

A few things to note about Australians. They're good people, and that's an understatement if there ever was one, but there are certain differences to be aware of.
Firstly, they seem to apologise for everything, even when no fault can be laid on anyone in sight. 
Second, while their english is pretty good, they do have some quirky linguistic habits. And not just the accent. they tend to shorten every word you ever learned of english; Brisbane is Brissy, Indooroopilly is indrupli (the u is silent), and so on. The resulting conversations can be confusing to the point of absurdity, until one overriding strategy becomes part of your social arsenal: Smile and wave boys, just smile and wave.
Thirdly, they highly respect entirely absurd rules and regulations, and are strangely disrespectful of other, much more sensible ones. Go figure. I have no further help to give on this third one, and if you want to explore an Australian metropolis, you'll just have to experiment on your own.
Fourthly; they. take. their... tiiimeeee.... Standing in line in grocery stores is a popular full day activity here. Bring plenty of water, a tent and some firewood in case they close the store before you get to the register. The reason for this tardiness is the register-attendants overwhelming enthusiasm for every aspect of your life, and that, frankly, is quite awesome and balances the whole experience out nicely.
But I will say this: For better or for worse, living, working, and playing with Australians on their home turf makes for great stories when you have grandchildren (and yes, that's a premature assumption).

And lastly, to the Australians reading this: Stay true, stay blue, you're fuckin' awesome!

No drama!