I woke an hour before dawn, momentarily confused: the full moon had moved overhead and was shining through my tent and into my eyes, like the light of a torch.
I dozed in my warm sleeping bag for a bit then got up and gathered firewood by moonlight. Breakfast was cooking by the time the sky lightened and the moon went down.
Despite my early start, I dawdled and it was morning tea time before I’d packed up, fuelled up, and filled up my drinking water in Windorah. Ever the hobo, I couldn’t resist the lure of a free cup of tea at the visitor’s centre, which is just as well because I met a lovely Dutch family who were travelling through the outback with their two children. They had done some serious travelling through some wonderful places – Myanmar, Mongolia and more – and they invited me to visit them in northern Holland when I got to that part of the world. Thank you – I will!
So things were going fairly well when I left Windorah for Birdsville; the sun was shining, the air was fresh but not too fresh, and I had made some friends.
About forty kilometres out of Windorah, I hit an emu.
The road was still bitumen and I was cruising along at about 100km/h when I saw a flash to my right. There was a line of scrub along the side of the road, and an emu had broken cover going flat-chat for the space that I would be occupying in about half a second. How fast do emus run? 50km/h? 60km/h? Those birds can move, and this was one was not slowing down.
I grabbed the brakes but I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop fast enough. There wasn’t enough room to swerve completely out of his way. There was not enough space to accelerate and miss him.
This is going to end badly, I thought.
I braced. The emu smacked into my front wheel and started to go under it.
I waited for the sickening feeling of my front wheel leaving the road on a mess of emu body, but it never came. Beastie and I were still upright, still on the road, dead straight. We were solid.
I felt hot and cold.
The emu had hit my wheel high enough, and had been going fast enough, that it deflected sideways through the air before my wheel could run over it.
I caught a glimpse in my mirror of the emu writhing, distressed, in the table drain.
It was half a kilometre before I was able to calm myself enough to do a u-turn and check on the aftermath.
The emu was badly injured but still alive. It was distressed and in pain. I couldn’t leave it like that. A slow death? Wild dogs, ants, the hot sun? I wouldn’t want to be left like that.
I waited by the road for fifteen minutes and flagged down the next vehicle I saw. They had what was required. I did what was required.
I checked front wheel, my rim, my spokes. Some gore, no damage. I thanked my lucky stars and continued down the road, chastened and humbled and a little sad.
* * *
When the bitumen ran out, the road went to an immense vista of white gravel and sharp loose rocks. There were deep wheel tracks in the gravel with ridges of rolling rocks in between; turning across the ridges to get out of one wheel track and into another required smooth momentum and a bit of commitment.
I locked in my ankles and rode carefully, consistently. Other vehicles passed me, each time leaving me enveloped in opaque white dust, breathless and blind for long moments.
That night, I didn’t press on to Birdsville as I’d planned. Instead, I turned off the main road at Betoota, population zero, and made my way up to the homestead on Mount Leonard Station.
Andy had drawn me a mud map of how to find the house, and suggested that I might stop there if I fell short of Birdsville. ‘Chook and Lorraine are good people,’ he told me, and he’d given them a call to say that I might drop by.
I was very glad of it. I still couldn’t quite understand how I’d come off unscathed from my high-speed collision with an emu, and the shock had left me tense and tired. I needed a rest. I needed a cup of tea.
Lorraine welcomed me in: friendly faces, crumbed steak, a comfortable bed. Rest, respite, paradise.
At sunset, the dog escorted me down to the waterhole to watch the light fade.
Night descended on another big day in this big, big country.