I pulled out of Barkly Homestead and turned off the main highway. Instead of following the main road west until I hit the gigantic north-south of the Stuart Highway, I was going to head north and into the heart of the Barkly Tablelands.
The Tablelands Highway is a skinny strip of bitumen of variable quality, one vehicle wide, and utterly peaceful. In nearly 400km, I would pass perhaps a dozen vehicles. The road runs through stations, crosses the old stock route, and connects to the small community of Boroloola up on the Gulf. There’s good fishing up there, if you don’t mind the crocodiles, and it’s also how you get onto the dirt road that runs around the top edge of Australia, through Arnhem land and across to Darwin.
Just as I turned north, I saw three blokes on adventure bikes coming the opposite direction; there were two KTMs and maybe the third was a DR, all covered in dust. I heard later that there had been four of them, but one had crashed badly in a bulldust hole west of Boroloola a couple of days earlier, and had been airlifted out.
The afternoon was getting on, and I had to be a bit careful because it was that time of day when a lot of cattle were crossing the road to water. Brahman cattle are masters of disguise, too: I’m always amazed at how a 600kg steer can conceal itself whole self behind a tiny bush and a long shadow.
It was a nice little ride for the first hundred kilometres, but gradually my eyes began to bother me more and more: the hot air flowing across my face seemed to dry out my contacts, and no amount of blinking would ease the gritty feeling. Another thirty kilometre and tears were streaming from my right eye; another ten kilometres and it was unbearable. I saw the first bore up ahead – a windmill, a shade shelter and a tap – and pulled off the road.
My hands were shaking as I pulled my overnight pack off the fender and dug through it for my contact lens solution and case and glasses: there had to be something in my eye, I had to wash the contact lens immediately before I lost my mind.
Water, soap, towel: I forced myself to wash and dry my hands thoroughly first, even though I just wanted to claw the lens out of my eye. Then finally, I could take the lenses out.
There was a hot wind, and I was balancing each contact lens on the tip of my finger, trying to wash and rub it with sterile solution. Twice, the wind blew the lens off my finger and I scrambled hysterically to recapture it. This was really, really bad. I only had one spare contact lens, and I was afraid of having to use it, and then losing a contact and having none.
The second time the wind blew my contact lens away, I actually squealed. There were two caravans parked in the clearing, which I’d been ignoring: I was in too much discomfort to be sociable. But one of the grey nomads came over for a chat and to ask me why I was squealing.
I explained – not in the most friendly or joyful tone – my contact lens problem. Instead of leaving me to it, the guy invited me to use the wash basin in his caravan; there was a mirror and it was out of the wind.
I immediately felt bad for being so short with him, and gratefully accepted. For fifteen minutes I cleaned and cleaned my contact lenses, but I still couldn’t get the one on my right eye to sit comfortably. Eventually I caved and replaced it with my last spare contact; the new lens was perfectly moist and soft, and even though my eye still hurt, it was bearable with the new lens.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The show could go on.
I put on my happy face and had a chat with the people who’d let me use their caravan. There were three of them, plus another couple in the second caravan; they were all heading back South after a few months traveling around the Top End. They had decided to camp there at the bore overnight, and were huddled under the caravan awning, waiting for the heat to go out of the day.
They told me that there was only one other rest stop before Cape Crawford – the second bore I’d seen on the map – but they said the windmill there was bent an making the most terrible, screeching racket. Perhaps I’d better camp here tonight.
I looked around me; the clearing was a barren patch of rocks; no privacy, no shade except for the tiny picnic shelter. It was only 3pm, and I didn’t really feel like making small talk with the caravanners for the next couple of hours until the sun went down. I decided to press on.
An hour later the shadows were lengthening and I pulled into the second bore site, thinking that it might be prudent to call it quits before the kangaroos came out. Hitting the emu a few weeks earlier had been a chastening experience, and had made me even more cautious about wildlife than I had been before.
I couldn’t hear the squeaking windmill with my helmet still on, but at the edge of the clearing I could see a dusty old four wheel drive pulled up to the bushes, with a tinnie on the trailer behind it. I couldn’t see anyone around, and although the vehicle looked like it was parked up for the night – they’d have to reverse out to leave – there was no signs of an attempt to set up a comfortable camp. No camp chair, no shade awning.
This made me hesitate, and it made me think of excessive alcohol consumption. The only people I’ve ever known who don’t bother to set up camp properly in the bush were people who only cared about drinking, and who knew they would be too drunk later to know that they were uncomfortable.
I could have been totally wrong about all that, of course: the person or people who went with that vehicle could have been the nicest people in the world. Maybe they had just gone into the bushes to pee before they set up camp? But if set up my camp here, and then my fellow camper(s) showed up and proved to be bad news, it might then be difficult to pack up my camp and leave without causing offence or perhaps even confrontation. It would also be difficult to leave quickly.
I decided to go with my gut feeling; I put Beastie back into gear and pulled out onto the road again.
Fifty kilometres later, I was racing the fading light to Cape Crawford when I saw a vehicle and caravan pulled over on the side of the road. There was an awning and a camp chair; oh, I thought, they’ve just decided to pull over for the night. But there was a bloke standing between the caravan and the road, and something about the look on his face made me put on the brakes.
The bloke would have been in his late sixties, and he was red in the face, sweating. Sure, it was still hot, but I sensed something was wrong.
‘Everything okay?’ I asked.
‘Well, actually I’m in a bit of bother…’ he said.
He told me that his engine had overheated and he was stranded. There was no phone reception out there. He had a friend near Boroloola who could help him, but the only vehicles he’d see that day were all heading South.
I turned off the bike. What to do? I carry a Delorme InReach satellite communicator for emergencies, and I can also use it to send text messages by satellite. I knew I could get a message through to someone and ask them to track down the bloke in Boroloola, but I also knew it would take a bit of time and some stuffing around.
The sun had started its precipitous drop towards the horizon. If I stayed for 10 minutes of daylight here, it would mean another half hour dodging the kangaroos on the way into Cape Crawford in the dark.
But you don’t just ride off and leave someone alone beside the road, distressed. Not out there. Not without making sure they’re really okay, that they’ve got drinking water, that they’re not ill, that there’s not some other kind of emergency brewing.
I went and had a quick look at the overheated engine. Yes, it was definitely toast. A radiator hose had failed and the engine had cooked until the plastic covers had melted into the engine bay. Old mate really was stuck, and his story stacked up.
So I pulled Beastie off the highway and parked a little way up the table drain. I would sort out some satellite messages for old mate and camp there by the road that night.
He offered me a beer and we had a nice chat as the afternoon disappeared. His name was Dick; he was a retired bulldozer driver from the sandmines in south eastern Queensland. He’d hard worked all his life, and now he was on his way North with his new caravan to do some fishing. He talked proudly about his grown up kids: a son and a daughter, just a bit older than me. I showed him a picture of the bulldozer I used to operate when I was working out near Yaraka, and he showed me pictures of some of the fish he’d caught down South.
I sent satellite messages to Shane and Paul asking them both to call up the fishing camp in Boroloola where Dick’s mate was staying, and make sure the message got through: Dick is broken down south of Cape Crawford, send a tow truck for the ute and bring another tow vehicle for the caravan. It took a couple of hours for the messages to transmit; the relevant satellites mustn’t have been overhead. Lucky no-one was bleeding.
Dick was a nice bloke, and I was glad to be able to help. He’d have done the same for me.
I retired up the road a bit to my camp and cooked up some sort of pasta concoction. Earlier, I’d collected firewood in the scrub beside the road, I saw that it was full of spider webs – massive, extravagant tangles that caught the gold of the lowering sun.
I added some dehydrated peas, brewed some tea, and read a book under the red light of my headlamp. It was Betty Blue, a French novel about a doomed love affair. At that point, however, I didn’t know that the love story was doomed; I was just gripped by the vivid literary portrayal of crazy lust and infatuation, and that inexplicable chemical attraction that feels as inevitable as fate.
It made me think of Shane; thousands of miles away but in my heart, under my skin, as natural as breathing. Inevitable. I was riding away from him, but I knew that he would reappear somewhere ahead of me. Sometime, somewhere.
It also reminded me a little of myself: the book opens with Betty getting pissed off, burning the place down and leaving town. As she does, she is somewhere between exaltation and desperation and joy. I saw a little of myself in that, although only figuratively: I promise I didn’t burn a thing on my way out of Sydney.
I slept well that night beside the road.