...And A Fortunate Change Of Events
09.06.2012 - 10.06.2012 23 °C
(This is a long one folks - as was the trip described herein, so grab a drink...)
I just had the best shower of my life! Ok...that is a totally overblown statement, it was not the best shower of my life. That was probably the shower at the Radisson in Syndey following the 14 hour flight...so this was probably the second best shower I've ever had. And I only made it 2 full days - I am *such* a pussy. Yes, only 2 days - you see, not all went according to plan. But again, let me back up and explain...
2 days ago...Day 3.
My plan was already botched when I woke up at 5:30am...to realize that the sun doesn't actually rise in this area for another 1.5 hours. It is important to note that one of the rental conditions of the camper is that I cannot, under any circumstances, drive at night. You see, in this area of Australia (meaning pretty much any part of Australia that doesn't have tall buildings and a Pie Face chain outlet on every corner), all the critters hide from the sun during the day - and then come out at night when it is cooler. So all that road-kill I mentioned earlier? Probably all night-time collisions. Any damage done to my camper as a result of driving at night makes me responsible for any and all costs. So no driving at night. Got that? Remember this for later...
So I managed to brave the freezing (e.g. frost on the ground) cold and get myself all ready to go, and the moment the sun started cresting, I was on my way. I hit the turn-off to the Tanami Road at around 7:30am. And off I went, telling myself - yes, this is happening - with both good and apprehensive connotations in these thoughts.
Soundtrack: none, the video camera is charging because I lost the damned travel adapters. Grumble grumble.
The road starts interestingly enough - a single lane strip of bitumen (learn the terms, folks) with wide, red gravel shoulders to allow passing.
So I'm cruising along at a decent clip - even passing a few folks (mostly towing trailers, so I figured that's why they are going below the speed limit...I tell myself this to convince myself I'm not being an asshole tourist). This goes along like this for about, I think, 200Km? I'll look it up later. In any case, even though I knew it was coming...the bitumen suddenly ended.
BAM!!! I was expecting a bad road, but let's face it - I'm a sheltered product of suburbia Canada - I haven't the slightest idea what "bad road" means. To me, a bad road is one with pot holes...or broken or grooved pavement...or too many old people driving slow. No, no, and no. Only now do I finally understand.
Imagine driving on a corrugated sheet metal roof (yes, the corrugations go side-ways). Now throw in the odd cheap shot to the face by some angry dwarf that you can't get rid of (don't ask me why a dwarf, it just seems to conjure the right metaphor) each time you hit a pot hole or rut. Sprinkle in the odd brief moment of utter panic as you are sure your entire vehicle is being pushed over by an vengeful and merciless god (out here in the Tanami Desert, it is not hard to imagine that there are probably a few around). Now multiply that by 800Kms...and you have the Tanami Road.
As I crawled along at 40Km/h, getting brain aneurisms left right and center, all I could think to myself is: 800Km of this? Are you fucking kidding me? And as I meander along like a tool, I watch as all those folks I passed on the bitumen soar by me, probably laughing their asses off. I would be. Not to be easily defeated (because I left myself absolutely no choice but to follow this road) I did what I have done in other situations in Oz: I watched and learned. Some of these people were in cars for Pete's sake, and they must have been going, like 100Km/h. How? I veered around to different places on the road to see if there was some "secret" area that was better to drive on...but that was like trying to find a decent wine from, say, Minnesota. It simply doesn't exist. So I tried the only option that was left: I sped up. And holy shit, turns out that the sweet spot to drive over most of these corrugations is somewhere between 80Km/h and 110Km/h. Honestly, that just doesn't seem right, and in retrospect maybe it wasn't the 'correct course of action'. I was reminded of this in a few areas where the cross-wind made it feel like trying to pilot a sail boat with the sails out against the wind with a shitty 5hp outboard motor. It was pretty scary, but it seemed to be working - provided I kept both hands firmly on the wheel and both eyes firmly on the road.
Enough about my hang-ups: what about the scenery? The best I can come up with: imagine driving through Hell if Hell was absolutely beautiful. I don't know why that works, but it does. The landscape went from treed to barren to virtual forests of termite mounds (that was cool). Later on, just desert scrub, grass-lands, abandoned ruins, rocky outcroppings, and lots and lots and lots of dust.
And lots and lots and lots of road-kill. I'm fairly positive there were some dead animals out there that haven't even been fucking discovered yet. I saw some animal that looked like a mole the size of a human being (what was that? Probably a kangaroo that came from an unfortunate gene pool.) There were also lots and lots and lots of destroyed, burned-out vehicles that were a constant reminder of what would happen if I made one wrong move.
The camper-van seems to have infinitely better milage traveling on this dirt road than it does traveling on the highway for some reason. Oh, and by the way, I've named my bush-camper Cass. A long story which I won't tell, because I'm inundating you with enough of those as it is. Anyway, I pulled off for fuel at a place called Yuendumu - an Aboriginal community about 300Kms into the drive.
What I found was eye-opening. A seemingly very poor community with run down houses, garbage everywhere...I even passed a recently deceased full-sized doberman laying on the road, and at first I felt a bit out of place (that may be the stupidest thing I've ever said) but after that, where I bet you dimes to dollars many white tourists in the same situation would instinctively roll up their windows, lock their doors, and possibly even turn around, I was actually a bit angry. I'm not sure at what exactly, but let's look at the facts: people do not want or choose to live like this, but some chain of events over the course of generations have led them here. And these events always seem to lead back to stupid, mean, inhumane things that white people have done for their own benefit along the way. I can't pretend to know the exact history of the Aboriginal people here in Australia, but you can be sure I'll be looking it up. Anyway, even coming from British Columbia which has a deep, insidious past of marginalizing it's indigenous people, I was still pretty taken aback. I'm not sure if these people are looking for sympathy but I'll tell you this: Yuendumu was one of the friendliest places I've been. I had a nice conversation with the gentlemen running the fuel stop, and on the way out of town several of the locals waved hi. So: don't judge a book by it's cover, and don't put that damned cover on the book in the first place.
Soundtrack: Various Lewis C.K. stand-up routines...though I should have been enjoying the isolation and solitude I wussed out and listened to a few of these along the way so I could hear another human's voice. It helped.
Not only was I getting good milage, I was making good time. Too good as it turns out. By the time I passed Rabbit Flat, a now defunct roadhouse, it was only early afternoon. This drive should take about two days, meaning I would need to stop somewhere along the side of the road...but at this pace, could I make it to Wolfe Creek Crater by nightfall? It was kind of starting to look that way.
I passed into Western Australia around 4:30pm NT time, which means it should now only be 3pm WA time. So I decide I'm going to make a run for it. Maybe not one of my wiser decisions, but one I made anyway. You see, just because I crossed a time zone and gained an hour and a half, that doesn't mean the sun was looking down at me thinking "oh, he crossed a time zone, I better back up". No, as my GPS was quick to inform me shortly after I committed to this plan, it simply meant that the sun set that much earlier by the new clock time. Shit: it's winter here, Steve you asshole, just because the sun is intense like a summer day in Canada doesn't mean it will last as long. Remember the bit about not driving at night? And could I possibly be in a worse place in all of Australia to make this dumb-ass move? Maybe a few, but not many.
Then I got stuck behind a road train. I've been encountering these all day, but I waited to explain them until now - you see, imagine a typical load-bearing semi on the Trans-Canada - then add three more cars to it. Now put that thing in front of you, on a *dirt road*, with the sun going down directly in front of you, and you are still over 100Km from your destination. This takes my stupidity to another level, and due to the massive dust cloud I was following in pretty much blind it took a while for this guy to see me, take pity on my puny tourist intellect, and allow me to pass. I can only imagine what he was thinking.
Soundtrack: my rapidly beating heart and me counting down the Kms to Wolfe Creek out loud. Seriously: out loud.
The sun disappeared as I passed the last fuel stop on the Tanami, about 60 Km from the turn off to Wolfe Creek Crater. I'm now in twilight - I can still see OK, but I'm pretty sure that won't cut it if something happened. As the twilight began to fade, I started to drive slower as I figured I had already made the (moronic) decision to get to Wolfe Creek at this point - I may as well take as much time as I need to. Good thing too, as it was at this point I *finally* saw my first live kangaroo (a pretty big deal to a Canadian like myself). You see, although I found several restaurants in Sydney that served kangaroo, I promised my son that I would wait until I saw a live one before I tried eating one. Well, had I been going any faster I probably could have packed this one up in the cooler for lunch. I see something in the middle of the road that looks like a sign post, because it is reflecting light. I geared down thankfully, because there is this mid-sized (I believe it to be a Red) kangaroo staring back at me. As I approach it hops away - in the opposite direction thankfully. I thank my lucky fortune, and gear down some more. I call this "learning".
I make the turn-off to Wolfe Creek, and it is pitch black. I am now indisputably in violation of my rental agreement. But it is only 20Km into the park, I can just crawl the whole way, right? I turn off the Tanami...and come face to face with a gated road. First thought: holy shit, is it closed? It didn't have hours posted on the sign...I think. There is a small, narrow track running back to the south beside the fence, but clearly that can't be it...can it? I have this weird uncharacteristic moment of calm as I think "maybe I'm camping right here". But instead I grabbed my flashlight ("torch") and checked out the fence. It was a cattle fence - not locked, only chained shut. OK, I read about these - so I take the chance, open the gate, drive through it, and close it after me...and hope to hell I'm going the right way. The sign said 20Km - I'll drive that far and if I don't find anything, then maybe I'll panic.
It took little time for me to be convinced I was going the right way. I had read about how bad this road was (see the bit about what a Canadian thinks is a bad road). This road made the Tanami to this point look like a stroll around Darling Harbour: the corrugations were the worst I had seen, and of course I can't speed up past 40 or 50Km/h, because then I would probably smash into Kanga and Roo, and then Tigger and the gang (and Britz) would be out for my ass. So I toughed it out for the full 20Km. My head still hurts.
All in all, I drove for a little over 12 hours and 900Km. Not my finest moment.
But I made it, pulled into the Wolfe Creek National Park bush camping area, found a site, and parked for the night. And remember when I said the bit about how you had nothing on me for seeing an impressive display of stars? Well, now *I* have nothing on me, because somehow the stars here were clearer, brighter, and more abundant than at Ayers Rock. It was almost unreal - like I had driven into a Truman-Show-like night-globe. And it was warm out unlike the areas to the south, so I sat out under the stars and just stared - and thanked the heavens (of which there were plenty above) I made it safe.
Wolfe Creek has bugs. And I mean these tiny, fruit-fly like bugs that managed to get into the camper no matter what I did to stop them. Now, they weren't bothersome or anything, but by the time I was ready to go to bed there were so many of them gathered around the the door inside, you could hear the little bastards flying into the ceiling, and it sounded like eggs frying. So I did the only thing I could - I took paper towel and made bug paste. I now have a new hobby for the rest of the trip - cleaning the ceiling of the camper.
Wolfe Creek Crater is another one of those places that photos just don't properly describe. A massive crater created by a meteorite hundreds of thousand of years ago, only second in the world in size. At the center of the crater, a unique ecology has developed, like a small country of its own. Absolutely spectacular! Of course you are not supposed to climb down there, and I didn't, but you could clearly see a trail where many before have completely ignored this directive and probably irreversibly fucked things up below. I spent some time at the rim pondering, thinking about how much my son Rowan would have just loved this, fought back another bought of homesickness and then I made my way down and started on my next journey.
I had only about 100Km left of the Tanami Road left, but it was by far the worst of the entire stretch. Not so much in corrugations, but massive fields of little razor-sharp rocks that wanted nothing more than to shred my tyres - I could almost see them wait for me, then jump in front of the camper trying to line up with my tracks. You see, what I was supposed to do was deflate my tyres somewhat to safeguard myself against this, but midway through the Tanami the day before I opened up the compressor that I had rented ("hired") from Britz, to find that even after reading the instructions, I had absolutely no idea how to use. So my tyres were still almost fully inflated - they had sagged a bit from use thankfully. I simply continued to play the game that I had played pretty much the whole length of the Tanami - I call it "See and Avoid". If I could see it, I tried to avoid it - rocks, animal carcasses, car parts, pot holes, people, vengeful and merciless gods, etc. But I'll tell you, this last stretch of the Tanami was probably the longest of the whole trip.
I finally made it to the Quarantine Bin (look it up - you cannot transport fresh fruits or vegetables across some Australian state borders, especially the Western Australia border). I had already bagged all my produce like a good little tourist, so I dumped my stuff and got onto the Great Northern Highway. I had successfully completed the Tanami Track! And although I made it, I'm pretty sure I'll have nightmares about it - and all the things that could have gone horribly wrong - for days to come. Do I regret it? Not a chance. Would I do it again? Ask me in 6 months after the therapy.
Despite the fact that Western Australia may be even more awe-inspiring in its scenery and ecology than anything I've seen yet, there isn't much to say about today - I just drove along the highway, enjoying the spectacular landscape. It was awesome...
So, I've made it to a place called Fitzroy Crossing, and this puts me about 400Km from Broome - an entire day ahead of schedule. And here's the kicker - now that I have figured out what time the sun sets and how much day light I actually have, there is absolutely *no way* I could have made the drive from Wolfe Creek to Broome in daylight. By my math, I would have lost the sun about 3 hours away from Broome at daytime speeds, which would have been a complete and utter disaster - imagine driving for 300Km at night at 40 - 50Km/h on a major highway because you are completely and totally (and probably justifiably) scared shitless you are going to hit a kangaroo or stray cow or an Australian Sasquatch or something? So although pushing through to Wolfe Creek wasn't the wisest of choices, sticking to the original plan (one night on the Tanami and the second at Wolfe Creek) would have been a worse choice.
Soundtrack: Don't Dream (It's Over) / Crowded House...because it's playing on the radio here in the bar at the caravan park I'm staying at. I think they have like 3 songs on auto-repeat, because this is the 3rd time I've heard it.
I'm off now to brush the hell out of my teeth, because they are two days overdue and they kind of hate me for it. I'm going to try to make Geike Gorge tomorrow (an added bonus of the "extra" but ultimately required day) before heading to Broome. I'll be spending two nights there in (what I hope to be) a nice resort hotel before heading off on the second, and probably the most significant, leg of the road trip - the Gibb River Road. Thanks for reading - miss you all. But not that much. But no, I do. Kind of.