By Matt Wilson
My favorite novel is ‘On the Road’ by the American novelist, Jack Kerouac. I think my love affair with the novel is partly due to the fact that he wrote it in three weeks, typing continuously on a 12-foot sheet of teletype paper. But aside from that, Kerouac’s adventures of hitch-hiking and driving across America in the 1950s, perfectly encapsulate my favorite type of holiday: the road-trip.
Over the years, I’ve had some good road-trips. Whether it was searching for spiritual enlightenment on Spain’s Camino de Santiago, or searching for the best smokehouse in America’s south-west (Joel’s BBQ in Flatonia, Texas if you are curious). Being on the road makes me feel alive in a way that being lazy on a beach in Bali never could.
But it occurred to me that I’d never had a significant road-trip in my own country. In fact, spending the majority of my twenties living in London, meant that I’d seen an embarrassingly small amount of Australia.
So on a gloomy winter evening in my home town of Melbourne, I asked my mate, Conrad, whether he fancied a road-trip north.
‘How far North?’ he asked.
‘How about we stop when we hit water?’
We mulled over the concept over a couple of beers and decided to lock it in. And so with our planning now done, and some last-minute vacation requests submitted to our respective desk jobs, our 4,500km drive to Darwin began.
The first stop on the trip was a small coastal town named Barwon Heads, famous for two things: an Australian TV show from the 1990’s called ‘Seachange’, and more recently for being the home of 2011 Tour de France winner, Caddel Evans. Although both good reasons to visit, our real excuse was to attend (aka crash) our friend’s wedding. Many hours of great food and wine were accompanied by another tradition at Australian weddings: bad dancing.
With a slightly fuzzy head the next morning we drained a couple of coffees at a local café, and looked at the map. If we aimed for Adelaide, we would probably get severely side-tracked amid the world-class wineries of the Barossa Valley.
Instead we took the path less traveled, passing through small towns I had heard about, but never seen. Little towns like Avoca, St Arnuad and Woomelang. Towns that have less than a thousand people living in them, and all with the same basic layout: a little shop where you can buy milk and the newspaper, a footy oval and a bakery proclaiming to sell “The Best Pies in Victoria”. We decided it would have been rude not to sample a pie from each.
After driving all day we finally pulled up in a town called Ouyen, eager to get the tent set-up and a fire started.
‘No fires,’ stated the sign at the campsite.
What was camping without a campfire? We sought clarification from the bloke that ran the campsite.
‘No fires,’ he repeated, with even less emotion than the sign.
So our first night of the “Great Drive” through Australia was spent shivering in a tent in the cold Victorian Winter, wondering what the weather was like in Bali.
The next day, we woke early, brushed the ice from our noses, and hit the road – crossing the South Australian boarder. As we cruised north-west through the Claire Valley it was impossible not to marvel at the sheer beauty of the countryside. Vineyards flanked the road and steep mountains stretched out across the horizon.
And then there was the sky. Everywhere you looked. Lots of it. It really wasn’t until we drove along the long and empty highway that I realized that Australia had quite so much sky. It was stunning.
That night, we pulled into a campsite in Crystal Brook, tentatively asking if they allowed fires.
‘Of course we do mate. How can you camp without a fire? I’ll go get you some wood,’ said the bloke behind the counter. It appeared that they were a little friendlier across the boarder.
And so we got the fire going, threw some burgers on the grill and enjoyed our first night of BBQ, beer and banter under a starry South Australian sky.
The following day we grabbed some supplies in Port Augusta and turned onto the Sturt Highway – the same road that would take us through the middle of the country and all the way north to Darwin. With satellite navigation no longer needed, we continued north, stopping for a break in a town called Woomera.
Woomera has a somewhat of a checkered past. It felt like we were walking through a town that had been constructed in the 1950’s to test nuclear bombs. Of course this feeling was probably due to the fact the town actually was a missile testing base from 1946 until the late 1960’s. We checked out the remnants of the rockets and missiles that were proudly on display, surprised to find out that Australia was the fourth country in the world to have their own satellite in space. More recently Woomera housed a detention center for illegal immigrants to Australia, but was shut down after nation-wide condemnation for conditions in which it kept it’s detainees. We agreed that missiles and detention centers didn’t make Woomera the most inviting of places, and gladly got back on the road, keen to see the next site.
We would have to wait for a long time. Hours in fact. We had now entered the Outback. The vegetation became less, and the dirt and the road started to be tinged red. Eagles and hawks circled high overhead looking for prey, and the only things we shared the road with were the 50-metre long ‘road trains’ that thundered along the highway at 110 kilometers an hour. Overtaking was interesting.
Sharing the driving between us, Conrad and I now became dependent on the third and most vital member of this trip: the iPod. As hundreds of kilometers ticked by, we journeyed to the depths of our music collections, listening to albums that were now undoubtedly lining the bargain bins of music stores around the world (the soundtrack to Tron Legacy anyone?)
We arrived into the famous opal-mining town of Coober Pedy, which looked like a scene from Mad Max (unsurprising really, given that this is where it was filmed). We’d traveled a fair way north now, and as we climbed out of the car we quickly changed into shorts , sunnies (sunglasses) and thongs (flip-flops). It was good to feel heat on our skin for the first time in months.
We did a quick cruise through the town, checking out some of the dwellings that people had built underground in a bid to cope with the searing heats experienced in this part of the country. But after less than an hour we both felt it was a little touristy for our liking and itched to get back into the Outback.
With the sun about to set, we drove on, looking for a place to camp for the evening. After about an hour, in the middle of nowhere, we pulled the car off the road and drove into the bush.
We found a clearing about a kilometer from the road and decided that this was as good a place as any to set-up camp. We gathered some firewood, set the tent up and enjoyed a beer, watching the sunset over the Outback without a single sound interrupting our serenity.
In the morning we weaved back through the bush and got back onto the Sturt Highway, in what was the quickest check-out either of us had probably ever had. A few hours later we crossed the boarder and entered the Northern Territory.
If someone said to you that they wanted to make a 500 km detour to see a tourist attraction you’d tell them they were dreaming. But when the tourist attraction in question is Uluru, then it may just well be worth the trip. We pulled off the highway and headed for what was formally called Ayers Rock, noticing a sudden increase in camper vans and British backpackers.
I remember when I drove down the A303 in England and marveled at Stonehenge. But the closer I got to it, the less impressive it became. Uluru is the opposite – the closer we drove to it, the more beautiful and alien this rock became. We checked out the visitors center and learned of the significance of Uluru to the Pitjantjatjara people, the Aboriginal people of the area. Conrad and I decided to respect their wishes by not climbing the rock, instead opting to do the 10km walk around it’s base. It was impossible not to be impressed at just how big it really was.
As the sun set on Uluru, it changed colors from brown to a glowing red, and finally cooling to a deep purple as night began to fall.
We camped at the Ayers Rock Resort, we decided to eat at the local pub, looking forward to having a night off from barbecuing duties. As it turned out the pub forced patrons to barbecue their own meat in an effort to make them feel more ‘Australian.’ We suspected they were just trying to keep labor costs down. Halfway through our meal we overheard the group sitting next to us, and couldn’t decide whether they were speaking Italian (which Conrad speaks) or Spanish (which I fumble my way through). As it was they were speaking both: 2 were from Barcelona, the others from Florence. And so in the middle of the outback, Conrad and I proceeded to have conversations in Italian and Spanish,. And as we drank, laughed and talked with our new friends (using a healthy amount of sign language), I realized that as much as anything, it’s the people you meet on a road-trip that make it so special.
The following morning we got up early to check out the sunrise against Uluru, and decided that the sunset was infinitely more stunning (although to be fair, it was kind of hard to block out the bus tour members gossiping about which member of the bus they disliked the most). After breakfast we escaped the crowds, by driving a few hundred kilometers up the road to King’s Canyon, and spent the day scaling the rocks and cliffs – a million miles away from the cafes, rain and football of a usual Melbourne Winter.
To get to Alice Springs, we were faced with the safe option of back-tracking to Uluru, and the comfort of its smooth highway. Or instead we could take a short-cut across 100 kilometers of a dirt road that was designed for 4x4s. We didn’t have all-wheel drive, but were confidant that out little Toyota Camry was up to the challenge. A rather stressful hour and a half of sliding our car along the bumpiest road in Australia had us questioning our decision-making, but we were pleased to eventually make it back to the familiar asphalt of the Sturt Highway before nightfall.
That night we camped next to some meteor craters where the Apollo astronauts apparently visited in preparation for the moon landings in the 1960’s. Conrad and I both agreed that if the Henbury Meteorite Craters were their sole reason for the trip Down Under they would have been furious. Surely they had rocky mounds and ditches in Houston.
We drove into Alice Springs, and met our mate Haydn, who had secured a few days of R&R from being a new dad. As the three of us walked through Standley’s Chasm, Conrad had the idea that we could probably dispense with our grill and cook tonight’s dinner on some rocks. Somewhat dubious, we reluctantly picked up some smooth stones and carried them through the canyon.
That night we stayed at Wycliffe Well, which bills itself as Australia’s UFO Capital. In truth, I think it is probably Australia’s Capital for Tacky UFO paraphernalia (Although still short of Roswell, New Mexico’s contribution of a sign with an alien on it proclaiming “This coffee is out of this world!”).
As we waited for the aliens to arrive, Conrad constructed the fire and we set our washed rocks on the coals. After an hour of heating up we laid our sirloin steaks on them, eager to see if this would work. Within minutes they were sizzling nicely, and while we didn’t have any close encounters of the third kind that evening, we were proud of our own Outback version of Master chef.
We continued north and had a great day at the Devil’s Marbles, thankfully not breaking any ankles as we leapt between the bizarre-looking rocks. That night we had a superb meal of steak and barramundi ("large-scaled river fish")at the famous Daly Waters Hotel. An old jackaroo (cowboy) by the name of Chilly entertained us with a song or two, and offered us some jokes that were so old that they were in danger of coming back into fashion. Thankfully a young soldier who had just returned from the War decided to take the stage, giving us some ballads to listen to as we drank our beers in the warm night air.
The trip was coming to an end, but we still had one highlight left. Katherine Gorge was formed by the Katherine River as it carved its way through enormous cliffs of ancient sandstone. We decided to hire a couple of canoes and camp for our final night on the banks of the river.
Before setting off we decided to check with the park ranger about the prospect of encountering any crocodiles.
‘There aren’t any crocs in the water are there mate?’ we asked, all of us trying to act casual, but secretly pretty nervous.
‘Shouldn’t be any saltwater ones, but maybe some freshwater ones. Should be ok boys.’
Quite nervous now.
‘But they won’t have a go at us will they?’
‘Just don’t swim with them. Swimming with sharks is interesting. Swimming with crocodiles is suicide’.
Apparently the bloke was a stand-up comedian too.
So off we set: three blokes, two canoes and one very full Esky (Cooler), paddling down the gorge. In some parts you are forced to carry the canoes over rocks, and by about 5 o’clock we’d decided we’d paddled and carried enough. We set up camp on a deserted bank of the river. On a warm barmy night in the Northern Territory, there’s no need for a tent and I fell asleep on the sand, looking up at the sky full of stars.
The following day we came across a couple of German backpackers who had lost control of their canoe in the rapids, which Conrad and Haydn bravely retrieved. Shortly after, as we paddled back to our car, we spotted some crocs laying on the side of the banks. We were less brave with these.
We arrived in Darwin that night to Haydn’s house – tired and hungry. After a week on the road, I was looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed.
‘There’s only one spare bed. Matt – you’re on the blow up mattress.’
Darwin is the capital of the Northern Territory and has a great atmosphere about it. I was amazed at the fact that it had been bombed heavily by the Japanese in the Second World War, finding it impossible to believe that it was the same war which had seen bombs dropped on East London, and the storming of the beaches in Normandy on D-Day.
We checked out the Crocosarus Park, a Crocodile Theme Park in the middle of town. After seeing a 6 meter crocodile named “Chopper” at feeding time, we were pleased with our decision to give them a wide berth at Katherine Gorge.
On our final night we visited Darwin Market, eating Chinese food and drinking beers. And as I watched my final sunset of the trip, I realized that like Kereuok’s road-trips in the States, we’d literally gone from coast-to-coast. I wondered if he would have approved of our own version of On the Road: No real plan, sleeping under the stars and cooking steaks on the fire. I like to think so.