The third and final part of poet Omar J. Sakr’s ambitious/preposterous attempt to drive across Australia – and back again – in just nine days.
After leaving our road companions in the middle of the Nullarbor, we risked running out of daylight and pushed on quickly. Worn down by the toll of endless tarmac, our exhaustion bred a touch of recklessness and we decided to race the sun to day’s end. As we neared the end of the Nullarbor, a hint of sea beckoned beyond the bush. Soon we saw even that drop away; saw where country becomes salt and foam and wave.
Though it was nearly four p.m., the sun was still high in the sky. A product, we thought, of daylight savings. Western Australia was two hours behind the rest of the country, so it followed that the sun would behave somewhat differently out here: it no longer adhered to our watches or sense of time; time and light became elastic. We hit the border as day became night. Our first evening in this most distant state came to a close in Eucla.
Bolded on the map, we thought Eucla must be a town of some sort, but it was little more than a motel in a cul-de-sac.
“We only have budget rooms left,” the receptionist said apologetically, as if we were ever going to ask for anything else. “Sixty dollars for twin beds. Showers are gold-coin operated.”
“Is there any internet?”
Not only was there no internet, there was no reception. I have been around the world, but I have never been somewhere without internet. Even the remote mountain community I visited in Bali a few months ago had internet. It wasn’t simply a matter of being a typical example of this online generation, needing the thrill of constant connectivity, of near simultaneous communication, but a very real need to let people know where we were and that we were safe.
Eucla didn’t care for such things, evidently, and we holed up in the shed they assigned us. The food was expensive and average, and the time spent there was utterly forgettable. We left with the dawn, a bad taste in our mouths at the awfulness of that nothing place. It began to rain as we drove away, as if to cement its negativity.
“Anything’s better than there,” I said, yawning. “Hell, put this on my gravestone: ‘Still Better than Eucla’.”
We laughed, trying to warm ourselves in the cold and the greyness, windshield wipers trying to clear the wetness as soon as it appeared, and failing. Three days of ten hours or more in a car, inhaling road like air, consuming distance and energy, had reduced us to weary shells.
Perhaps that’s why my friend, the only one of us who could drive, didn’t see the kangaroo until too late. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered either way. It happened in an instant: the shout, the flare of animal eyes in the headlight, its leap in front of the car too short, not fast enough, the slam of the car hitting it; its body bending, neck breaking as it rolled up the bonnet to stare me in the face, before being flung by the impact into the side of the road. A moment, nothing more, to end a life.
“Holy shit,” was all my friend could manage.
“Keep driving,” I said. If he stopped we’d never get going again, I thought. It was only a small roo, luckily. The car had barely moved when it hit. We were okay.
We didn’t get far before the engine began to complain, however, and the rank smell of petrol filtered into the car.
“Do you smell that?” my friend said. “We have to stop.”
He pulled the car over onto the side of the road and we got out. The left side of the car, my side, was smashed in completely, a ruin so disproportionate to the impact that I had to laugh aloud at its ridiculousness. Fluid dribbled out of the hole onto the dirt. Rain still fell.
A moment, nothing more, to end a life.
My friend looked at me in shock, with a wildness and a panic I hadn’t seen in anyone before.
“It’s completely undriveable!” he said, his voice rising into an almost-shriek. He put his hands on his head and backed away from the car, heaving, almost hyperventilating, then screamed “Fuck!” at the damp sky. I frowned at him, properly concerned. I’ve had panic attacks before; I know how quickly it can run roughshod over your ability to function.
“Calm down,” I said, and went over to put an arm on his shoulder. “Relax, it’s going to be fine.”
“What are we going to do?” he said, his voice so small now, as if the curse he’d hurled at the clouds had taken his energy with it. His hope.
“We’ll get a lift, arrange a tow truck, then fly home,” I said, knowing the trip was over and dead now. He had been pushed as far as he could go.
I was still laughing a little bit, however, completely awake and energised in a way I couldn’t conceive of minutes before the accident. I was laughing because this was my friend’s worst nightmare, one that had come up numerous times from our very first conversation right up until the previous night.
“We’ll be stranded in the desert and die,” he’d said time and again, even as I laughed it off. And here we were, in the middle of his fear come to life.
We were only twenty minutes from dreaded Eucla so I was in no way concerned. Sure enough, a car towing a caravan crested the horizon only a moment later. I flagged it down as my friend pulled our stuff out of the car, and I helped him.
“Did you flag the car?”
“Yes,” I said.
He waved at the car anyway, walking out into the middle of the road and I joined him as it got closer, then eventually pulled over to the side. My friend went to the driver immediately.
“We hit a roo and our car’s stuffed.”
“Righto,” the driver said, hopping out to inspect the damage. “We’ll put your stuff in the van.” He introduced himself as Mark.
“I saw the roo back there and I thought it was a bit odd. We don’t usually get those this close to the border. Not at this time.” He helped us stow away our things and we got in the car with him.
“You’re lucky it wasn’t a big roo, or a wombat,” Mark said. “Then you’d be done for. Those are what cause all the flipped cars you see out here. They’re out here for a night, max, before they get stripped too.” He explained that locals would likely find it before a tow truck could, then take it apart.
There was a roadhouse ten minutes up the road and we stopped to make the necessary calls: to the car rental company, specifically. As my friend was on the phone to them, Mark asked me where we’d been heading.
“Perth,” I said. “Though now, who knows?”
“Well I’m heading that way myself, I’ll give you a lift,” he said casually, as though it weren’t still 1,400 kilometres away.
A tow truck was arranged, even though it turned out we were somehow in breach of contract by driving into Western Australia in the first place, something none of us could understand and which had not been communicated at any point.
Mark waited with us while the necessary phone calls were made, and then, true to his word, drove us the rest of the way. He was a compact, bluff man, and didn’t see his actions as being in any way odd. He was going there anyway, wasn’t he? No, we didn’t need to chip in for fuel, he was going to have to pay to get there as it was. (We paid for his food along the way, as it was the least we could do, though I sometimes had to be creative to do it on the sly.)
Mark was a trucker and he knew these roads and their dangers well. As we travelled together, he told us stories of other people he’d helped over the years, unveiling a tapestry of kindnesses weaved into his history.
“I like helping people,” he said. “You know, treat other people the way you want to be treated. It’s pretty simple.”
He told us of a time he was driving a car carrier through an overflowing floodway. Some cars had stopped further down at a rest area, unaware of the danger.
“I told them the flood was coming, and they were going to be stuck. The only thing I could do was get them to drive onto the car carrier out of harm’s way.
“Course a copper pulled me over, swearing black and blue he was going to throw the book at me, and the next thing I hear is ‘No, you won’t, you’ll be out of a job if you do!’ from one of the blokes in the caravan I’d helped. Turns out he was the chief of police. I had no idea.” Mark laughed as he told the story.
“I like helping people,” he said. “You know, treat other people the way you want to be treated. It’s pretty simple.”
Mark waited with us while the necessary phone calls were made, and then, true to his word, drove us the rest of the way. He was a compact, bluff man, and didn’t see his actions as being in any way odd. He was going there anyway, wasn’t he?
We told him we’d been wondering about the floodways, as we’d come across several along the way. These were long flat roads, and we’d often wondered what could flood there. Where did the water come from? There was nothing around for a good long way – how did it pool out on these plains? Even though the idea seemed ridiculous, the regularity of the floodplain signs warned us of its seriousness: an ominous reminder of the deadliness of roused water, which waited somewhere out of sight.
“Miles off,” he said. “Comes all at once with the rains. Oh yeah, a big wave. You’ve seen the flood posts by the road here – they go up to two metres.”
As the land rapidly unspooled around us, Mark told us of the supercargo he used to transport; his family life; of the transgender woman harassed in the workplace he supervised in the Northern Territory; how his kindness towards her meant he was the only one she didn’t name in her eventual lawsuit; of the Aboriginal girls’ softball team he used to coach, and on and on. He’d lived a life of ten men, it seemed, and he enfolded us in his life with generous ease.
At every stop over, for a quick bite or fuel, he’d do a quick count of us, “one, two, good”, in a mock-fatherly fashion, which, by the end of the trip, didn’t feel quite so jokey. He cared, and we cared in turn.
Mark, in fact, is the reason I’m writing any of this. Not because there’s a gorgeous land we should all be falling over ourselves to see, though that is true, and not because the experiences you have on the way, near-death and otherwise, build character in a way nothing else can, though that is also true, but because of the people you meet.
Because of Mark, who drove us 1,400 kilometres over the course of two days and Billy, who is walking the same exhausting distance we drove to raise money for kids with brain cancer; because of the old couple who drove in front of us for a third of the trip, who were lovely and irascible all at once; because of the old farmers who gave us directions to Peterborough; because of the man at the servo who heard I needed a map and gave me the one he’d been using; because of the kitchen lady at the Peterborough Hotel who made us laugh with her gregariousness.
Yes, you may be unlucky and crash. Yes, things may go wrong. But that risk is offset by the joy of discovering the depth of kindness which runs like rivers throughout the land. I found myself thinking of god often on the trip: not in the religious sense, but simply as a spiritual concept greater than man, something beyond the frail bags of meat and bone we encompass. I thought I could see god in the land; see this largeness in the hills, the plains which rolled out to the sea, the creeks and rivers and forests, the orchards and the livestock, wild horses and escaped goats, bells still round their necks as they lingered dangerously close to the side of the road.
By the end of it, I could see this godliness, or grace, in people too. I saw it most clearly in Mark, a selflessness that cannot fail to humble. Witnessing this is worth the trouble of travel, the cost of petty monies, the exhaustion, everything. Seeing land and man come together at their best is an experience worth dying for, though you surely hope it won’t come to that. When those kinds of people and that kind of landscape feature in your own backyard, it is something else altogether; a kind of bliss you will not find any other way.
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.