Part two of poet Omar J. Sakr’s ambitious/preposterous attempt to drive across Australia – and back again – in just nine days.
We were well into South Australia when we had our first near-death experience. It was early evening, the darkness on its way to absolute. We should not have been driving, but we wanted to push on to reach Port Augusta. If we didn’t reach Perth in the four days of driving we’d planned from Sydney, then it was unlikely we’d be back in time for my friend’s dad’s birthday, hence the rush.
It was dark, the road winding, the headlights barely piercing the murk. We came across a narrow bend just as a huge truck blared around in the other lane. Instinctively nervous at the size, closeness and speed of the monstrous vehicle, my friend twitched the wheel to the side. Without warning, the car plunged into a ditch of water, which sprayed over the windshield in a dirty wave just as the truck screamed past the side. A babble of “Holy fuck!” and “Oh my god!” erupted and in the charged eternity which followed we somehow avoided crashing into the truck, or swerving into the dirt and scrub.
The next few minutes were quiet, just panted breaths in the night, my friend’s hand latching onto mine.
“It’s all right,” I said. “We’re fine. It’s just dirt on my side. You have to trust the other driver and just keep straight.”
My friend is an anxious guy at the best of times – not the sort to take this kind of trip – which is why it was remarkable we were even doing it.
After a little while he calmed down and we began to discuss where to stop for the night. I’d been looking at the maps we had (one had been gifted to us by a stranger at a gas station) and comparing it with the car’s inbuilt GPS, so by now I was more than a little suspicious the GPS was taking us the longer way.
We came to a stop in front of a large sign at a kind of intersection, off-road, hazard lights on to ensure anyone coming could see us. A moment later, a pick-up truck pulled up beside us, an elderly couple in front.
“You boys need any help?”
“We’re heading to Burra, is this the right road? There was a sign back there that pointed off to Burra, so we’re not sure if we’ve missed it.”
“Yep, this is it. We’re heading that way; just follow us.”
Relieved, we did just that, the old couple driving slowly for our benefit. They came to a stop not much later. We told them we were heading to Port Augusta, but the maps we had were giving us conflicting information.
“Too easy, mate. Go straight on to Terowie, and from there to Peterborough, on to Orroroo and then from Wilmington to Port Augusta. Now you could go…”
He outlined several alternate paths, then paused at our glazed expressions.
“I see I’m just confusing you. Just go to Terowie,” he said, reiterating the initial path.
In horror movies, any act of kindness received on the road is normally the catalyst for dire events that end in everyone’s grisly murder. But in real life, those kindnesses are a lifeline you should not hesitate to grab onto.
We came to a stop in Peterborough and rented a room at the Peterborough Hotel, which had friendly staff and decent food: just a typical local pub. Rejuvenated by a shower and the promise of an actual bed, it was only then we realised we’d driven 1,000 kilometres in a day. And we still had two days of similar driving to come.
Up again at first light, we drove on to Port Augusta, a relatively short trip as these things go, only 200 kilometres in the early morning mist. Two days earlier, that distance would have seemed unthinkable, undoable. Now it was a blip on our radar. The landscape around us became abruptly hilly, almost mountainous, a dim green behind a veil of grey, the roads winding through them. It felt like a slice of the Scottish highlands, and its uniqueness slowed us.
This was also what saved us as we rounded a bend to see a kangaroo leap onto the road. You are warned not to swerve when wildlife gets in the way, because it means almost certain death at high speed, but the terrain had us going forward at a crawl, so we were able to stop and watch in disbelief as the roo ambled across the road. Disturbed by its obliviousness to a doom so narrowly avoided, but buoyant with relief, we drove on.
Soon we emerged out of the hills into the kind of flat plain we’d become familiar with, on a road that dove into the horizon. Purple clouds hovered around the mountainous land behind us as we drove on to Port Augusta, where we had our second near-death experience. It was as innocuous and terrifying as these things are ever likely to be.
We were at a gas station, just about to cross the road to the McDonald’s we’d parked in, when we heard a man shout. A trucker was refuelling, a pipe leading from the back of his truck into the ground, and he was pointing furiously at an old man walking near us. We hadn’t even noticed he was about to light a cigarette.
“Oi!” the trucker yelled, then pointed incredulously at his truck and the fuel, shaking his head in disbelief.
The old man grumbled and shuffled off, as my friend and I burst out laughing, because everything had nearly come to an end right there – without any involvement from us. Our worries, fears and preparations almost went up in a literal ball of flame. All you can do is laugh when the most unlikely of deaths brushes by so close you can smell its gassy breath.
We kept on through Port Augusta, on track to hit the highlight of our trip, the famed Nullarbor Plains, later in the day.
“It’s a big nothing, just nothing all around,” went the refrain from those we spoke to about the Nullarbor Plain.
We heard other things that turned out to be false, too.
That you should take jerrycans of fuel, which aren’t at all necessary, either to save money or as a safety measure. A twenty-litre jerrycan will cost you forty-five dollars by itself, without even filling it up, and there are numerous fuel stops through the Nullarbor. The largest stretches without them are no longer than 200 kilometres, and each of those stretches have fuel stops before and after.
Take some water, take some food (no fruit; it’s not allowed across the border), and pay attention to where you are and where you’re going. That’s all you need for this trip.
Even though I knew this going in, it didn’t stop the journey from being a nervous one. After all, we didn’t really know where we were going, and though it didn’t seem so far in a car, it was an awful long way from anything on foot.
Leading up to the Nullarbor, far from being an absence, was an abundance of life, a veritable forest of stunted trees and red earth. The road itself was a muted maroon cleaving between the green and gold of growing things, which, with the blue sky above, made for a constantly moving mural of contrasting colours.
The longer we drove, the more confused we became. What was this enormous stretch of treeland? It was broken up, and there were as many chunks of cleared ground as there were long clumps of foliage. Wasn’t this supposed to be some kind of desert, an emptiness leading to yet more emptiness?
Unsure but hardly displeased, we continued on, only one car ahead with open road before and behind us.
Over the next 200 kilometres between Ceduna and the Nullarbor we stuck behind the same car, feeling safety in not being alone. We dubbed the driver our ‘road bro’, and followed him around road trains and across great plains, into the Nullarbor itself.
I have often heard people describe a perceived sameness as boring: that sky, roads, and even beautiful countryside can become a blur after a while. I don’t think I’ll ever understand those people. Though we had, over the past three days, been on roads that extended as far as the eye could see, they never failed to leave me stunned, humbled by scale, and thrilled in a way I had never been by a landscape large beyond reckoning. A largeness only literature could hope to map in its entirety, to expose not just the outer lines, the broadness of its body, but to interrogate its features, its tiny miracles and incongruities.
The Nullarbor itself was not especially gorgeous to my eyes, and it certainly had a relentless similarity of feature, a low and constant hum of shrubbery. Not a desert in the classical sense, in the Sahara sense we see in film and TV, but rather a bleak sort of plain, which might look more barren and inhospitable in summer but retained a liveliness now that was appealing.
I felt myself falling into it over and over again, this inviting openness, as if it were a vacuum trying to suction my memories and dreams and life into its cupped, cracked hands. An enormous ecstatic rainbow spilled across the sky in an unhurried wave as we pressed ourselves into the land and the land pressed back.
An age later, a roadhouse motel came into view and we pulled in, still following our road bro, who I was glad to see had not continued without us.
An old couple stepped out of that car, bent and silver, and they came over to us at once.
“I thought I’d better check to see if you had a rope attached to our car,” the man said and laughed.
We explained the relationship we’d developed with his car, how it made us feel safe. It turned out they were on their way to Perth as well.
“We started 400 kilometres out of Brisbane, a few days ago.”
“Our daughter lives up there,” his wife said, a small nugget of a woman. “We do this every year. What brings you boys out this way?”
“We’re just doing it for the sake of doing it,” I said.
“Yeah, we figure it’s something everyone should do,” my friend added.
“Oh good on you!” she said, her blue eyes alive with delight. “How long are you staying in Perth?”
“Just the night,” my friend said. “Then we’re driving back.”
“You’re fucking crazy!” she said, delight souring to shock.
The old couple were staying at the motel for the night, so our road romance – a marriage of convenience, no more – was ended, and we drove on from there, alone with the horizon.
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.