I pulled off the road near a water tank, somewhere between Boulia and Mount Isa. The sun was dropping rapidly; time to find some firewood before dark. I rode through the rest area and out into the bush on the other side.
I didn’t want my camp to be clearly visible from the road, and I also had no interest in sleeping with my head next to the road while the road trains thundered through in the small hours of the night.
Not all people shared my thinking, however. In between the water tank and the road – a few metres from the bitumen – two caravans and a campervan were clustered together, looking in on each other. I saw this sometimes on the road – people from the East coast usually, circling the wagons against the hostile outback… What did they think was going to attack them? Wolves, cowboys, Indians? Behind the camp, in the direction which none of the three vehicles faced, the sun was going down in a blaze of glory that none of them saw.
So I rode back into the bush and found a quiet spot. These days, I have my bush camping system sorted: twelve minutes from killswitch to camped. Tent up, sleeping pad inflated, gear stashed, kitchen unpacked, head lamp and essential items carefully placed so that I can find them in the dark. Home sweet home.
My nearest neighbour, out in the scrub, was an older bloke in a beat up Coaster bus. He was in his late sixties or early seventies; it was just him and his dog, an excitable cattle dog cross. He wasn’t well. He waved me over, so I went and sat by his fire for a bit. Gordon had been living on the road for nearly twenty years, he told me, travelling the outback and working when he needed to. It was a modest life: you don’t need much, he told me, echoing what I’d told myself all those months earlier as I prepared to resign from my real job.
Gordon told me that he’d been at the Mount Isa rodeo the previous weekend, and had set out for Boulia on Monday. He’d gotten a couple of hours down the road when he’d suddenly felt terrible; he pulled over and slept. He slept for three days beside the road, alone and feverish and too ill to move, barely waking as the nights and days melted together. No-one knew where he was; no-one knew he was ill, or where to come and look for him. He was completely alone.
After a couple of days, he’d felt well enough to travel a couple more hours down the road, to where I met him that day. He was on the mend but still weak, shaky, and he accepted the packets of rehydration salts that I offered.
It made me think about the vulnerability of solo itinerants – people like he and I, travelling alone, liking our own space. If I see someone pitching their camp out of the way, I understand and respect it: I won’t go and bother them, in the same way as I expect other people to stay the hell out of my camp unless I invite them in. But what if it was someone like Gordon, someone like me, lying there sick and needing help? I knew that if I’d come across Gordon’s camp days earlier, when he was seriously ill, I would never have invaded his space enough to know that he needed help. He could very easily have died quietly beside the Diamantina Development Road, and so could I.
It has made me more conscious of other solo travelers while I was on the road: perhaps us loners needed to keep an eye out for each other. Now when I pass a camp with no people, my eye lingers a bit longer: is anything out of the ordinary? Does the dog look distressed? Is the campfire still smoking from this morning?
Later, when I got to Mount Isa and reconnected with the world, I learnt that a particularly severe strain of flu was sweeping across Australia and had hospitalised more than 3,000 people in Queensland alone. It hadn’t reached any of the outback communities where I’d spent the last few weeks, but it seemed that the rodeo had brought the flu to Mount Isa with a vengeance. All through Mount Isa and Camooweal, over the next few days, I met people who were just getting back on their feet.
That night by the road, I chatted with my fellow travelers. I met Doc and Di, heading North for Doc’s induction into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. In his seventies now and fighting off a couple of cancers, Doc is contemplating retirement from rodeo riding. He was still riding the American pro rodeo scene in his fifties, but apparently the organisers got upset because he was too old for their insurance coverage.
I gratefully shared dinner with the Victorians down by the water tank, who had cooked two whole chickens. They were amused by my overlanding ambitions and also by the sheer volume of chicken that I was able to eat, so I guess I sang for my supper too.
The next morning I lit out early. Breakfast was a slice of the delicious and insanely energy-dense fruit cake that Jeff and Judy had cooked in their camp oven near Boulia. They’d sent me on my way with a zip-lock bag full of cake, and I ate it for days, breaking off a piece whenever I felt my energy flagging. Honestly, I can’t speak highly enough of homemade fruit cake as moto-snacking material: it’s solid enough to withstand being stuffed into a pannier, stays fresh and moist for weeks (except you’ll have eaten it long before then) and is not even destroyed by the crazy heat of the midday sun. (Once, it got so hot inside my panniers that the sugar in the ‘creme’ of my wafer biscuits melted, then recrystalised like tiny bits of glass.)
Next stop, Mount Isa. My tyres were waiting.