When writing about recent experiences, especially of the travelling variety, it’s incredibly easy to slip into hyperbole. It’s how you get headlines like ‘This is Something Everyone Must Do!’ I’m going to try to avoid that here, even though crossing the Nullarbor Plains is something everyone should do if and when able.
Several days ago, my housemate put out a call on Facebook for road trip movie suggestions, as he was about to write a screenplay and wanted to research the genre. As it happened, I was writing a novel which features a road trip as well, so I walked into his room and asked him what he had planned for the week.
“Nothing,” he said. We were both between jobs.
“Well, we should just hit the road then.”
He laughed, and so did I, but after a minute of silence without a reason not to go surfacing, his expression became thoughtful. We quickly looked up the price of a rental car, the distance involved driving between Sydney and Perth, and after a few quick calculations it was immediately apparent that this was very doable. Neither of us had much in the way of savings, but there was enough to ensure we wouldn’t be homeless if we did it. If we do it, can we still eat? is about the bar most working artists live by, especially at the journeyman level. If yes, it’s going to happen.
“No, wait, this is insanity,” my housemate said. “I need a voice of reason here.”
He called his dad, who endorsed the move one hundred per cent. “Go and live and be crazy,” he said, “these are the only years you’re allowed to be.”
The next morning we rented a car for nine days: unlimited kilometres, $450, and we were off. The plan was to drive there and back again, spending just a day in Perth. It was completely bonkers, but the alternative option, dropping the car off at the rental branch in Perth, involved a $1,000 surcharge we couldn’t afford.
We didn’t book accommodation; we didn’t plan ahead. We just took some blankets, pillows and two packs of water bottles. This plan may not be to everyone’s liking, but, for us, the longer you take to think about things the more reasons crop up not to go, so we had to ride the wave of spontaneity to its outermost edge. And I’m so glad we did.
The first thing you realise as you drive out of Sydney is how quickly everything becomes dark. We take light for granted in the city: the ability to go anywhere at any time and have the way lit for us. Street lamps, traffic lights, twenty-four hour shops and bars, reflective surfaces everywhere magnifying the illumination. In the countryside, you have just your headlights and sometimes the winking strips of roadside reflectors marking the way. Otherwise, the dark is total, primal and terrifying. Which is why you shouldn’t drive at night and should plan ahead: something we didn’t do on that first day.
After a 1.30 p.m. start, we drove for several hours until we got past Wagga Wagga and hit Narrandera, where we decided to stop for the evening. The next town over would be too dangerous to get to at this hour.
The plan was to spend a few nights in the rental car, so we parked in a twenty-four hour petrol station and set up for the night. It was four degrees and the harsh glare of spotlights blared into the back of the car where we had contorted into almost-comfortable positions. The station had a cafeteria attached where the odd trucker or two sat in separate booths and a television played Two and a Half Men. We got up at dawn, as much because we barely slept as it was dedication to the timeline we’d set, and kept on driving.
Farmland spread on either side, dotted with livestock; every mile a mild painting of soft rural beauty. This was an unexpected delight. I had been conditioned to think of this country as a big red nothing, the desert perfectly staged for scenes of Mars. The abundance of verdant greenery came as a surprise. I knew agriculture was a big part of our economy and farms and droughts a part of the national conversation, but it’s an altogether different experience to be confronted by the sheer size of the land, the grazing fields, tilled earth and orchards. After a few hours of driving, a flash of red caught my eye.
“Is that a man in a cape?” my friend said, looking out his window as he drove. The man appeared to be dressed like a pirate or a colonial figure. A ghost of our past stalking the country, perhaps. We debated stopping but it was too late: he was far behind us by then. Twenty to thirty kilometres later, we spotted another man dressed similarly to the first. We couldn’t resist a second time.
If we do it, can we still eat? is about the bar most working artists live by, especially at the journeyman level. If yes, it’s going to happen.
My friend pulled over, leaned out the window.
“You’re the second guy we’ve seen dressed like that, so we have to ask, what’s going on here?”
The man came across the road. “Oh you saw him, did you?” he said in a thick British accent. “He’s my mate, we’re walking to Perth to raise money for kids with brain cancer.”
As he said it, I remembered the car we’d spotted next to a mandarin orchard a little way back, which had ‘Walking Tour for Kids with Brain Cancer’ plastered on the side. It was their support vehicle.
“Holy shit, we’re driving to Perth. We started in Sydney yesterday.”
“So you drove this far after a day?” he said, squinting against the sunlight. “We started five weeks ago.”
Suddenly, our crazy road trip didn’t seem so crazy, dwarfed by the journey this man and others were undertaking, and for far better reasons. (You can and most definitely should follow their efforts at White Eye Patch Day.)
After a photo and some quick social media plugs for his excellent cause, we resumed our trip, enlivened by the passing interaction. We had a somewhat subdued lunch in Mildura, the next town over, knowing those boys – those men – would not make it even that far by the end of the day.
Omar J. Sakr is an Arab Australian poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Meanjin, Overland, Cordite Poetry Review and Kill Your Darlings, among others. He was recently shortlisted for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize and the ACU Poetry Prize.
Feature image used under Creative Commons by Chris Fithall (via Flickr)