I emerged onto the great north-south sweep of the Stuart Highway at Daly Waters. It’s a smooth strip of bitumen that neatly bisects Australia, and I’d been trying hard to avoid its efficient monotony. Since I wasn’t in the mood to take on the bulldust of Arnhem Land and the Gulf on my own, I had no choice but to get on the main drag for the last few hundred kilometres to Darwin.
It was a big moment and I felt a flutter in my stomach; I was almost at the end of the first leg of my trip, the road to the end of Australia. The Stuart Highway would take me all the way to East Arm, the shipping terminal, and the cargo ferry to Timor.
Straight easy highway, no surprises.
I’d done this road before. After being a stranger in so many places, I would again have the pleasures and pains of familiarity, history. But now I was also within a few hours’ ride of Mataranka, and that’s a place that holds pleasant memories for me: memories of mango cake and hot springs and swimming in the Roper River.
I fueled up, bought an ice cream, sweated profusely, and drank more water. I now had phone reception and the messages flooded in. There were some from Paul and Shane confirming that the messages about Dick, the stranded motorist on the Tablelands Highway, had successfully reached Borroloola. I sent some replies but it was too hot to linger and late enough to need to find a camp. It had been a long hot day.
So I got on the highway and fanged north with the cars and roadtrains. Not many of them were faster than Beastie, not today. A couple of times, I pulled over to scout a camp spot in a free rest area, but they were all crowded and close to the noisy road.
I thought wistfully of the free riverside camp spots all over western Queensland; by contrast, the Territory seemed to be fenced off and closed off to wanderers like myself. Eventually, dusk began to fall and I resigned myself to paying for camping in the Elsey National Park. It would be the first time in six months that I’d given in and paid for camping. But, it wasn’t too far, and I knew it to be a quiet and beautiful place.
* * *
The Stuart Highway runs through mostly open country, but that changes quickly once you turn off into Elsey National Park. I don’t know if this is because of clearing practices and regular burns outside the National Park, or whether the park was deliberately created to capture an unusual pre-existing biome. Either way, you notice the difference quickly: there’s a point where you ride downhill into a wooded depression and you’re immediately assailed by cool damp air, a thousand tiny insects and the sweet smell of decay. The scent profiles keep changing as you ride further and further in. It gets drier again, and then eventually you can smell the water from the river.
It’s one of the things I love most about riding – that you can smell the landscape around you. You can smell the vegetation, the humidity, the petrichor that tells you of approaching rain; you can smell a far-off bushfire or the alkaline reek of an old burn; you can smell if you’re in Chinatown at dinner time or if they’re laying fresh bitumen up ahead.
I made it to the designated camp site, scavenged some firewood and put my coins in the honesty box. There were basic amenities – running water, toilets – which i didn’t really need, and a depressing abundance of rules. The grey nomads were unfriendly and wouldn’t meet my eye. I took a hot shower which was nice, but the two German girls having noisy sex in the next cubicle were slightly distracting. Still, I’m glad they were having fun.
I went back to my camp and cooked a surprisingly unsatisfactory dinner. The fireplace was damp from the campsite’s daily watering regime, so the fire smoked badly and the flames retreated to a sullen smolder every time I turned my back. The flying insects were too thick to use white light – they kept flying into my face, into my eyes, into my dinner – so I shuffled around my camp by my headlamp’s dull red glow.
Phone reception was patchy. My boyfriend seemed to be upset with me for not messaging when I’d hit a spot of reception shortly before Daly Waters; he said Facebook Messenger indicated that I’d been online and who was I talking to if not him? Well, I remembered passing some sort of structure and my phone going ping, but I was pinning it in 6th gear the whole time. I tried to tell him this, but the messages would only go through intermittently and he didn’t seem to believe me anyway.
While I ate, I finished the novel I’d been reading. The overwrought literary love affair had reminded of my own, and now it ended horribly; not just with death but with quick forgetting.
I felt inexplicably stricken. It was just a book, just a made up story.
The stars were glorious that night and I should have slept soundly: I was fed, rehydrated and fatigued. But sleep was slow to come. I lay awake for a long time, with a vague feeling of unease.
My eyes were still scratchy and hot under my eyelids. I dreamed of my family.