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Wind Warnings for Sunday:
Gale warning for Far North West Coast, Lower East Coast and South East Coast
A Time Of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977) 291 p.
Patrick Leigh Fermor has been on my TBR pile for quite some time now, and I picked up his seminal book A Time of Gifts at Readings about two months ago, but since he passed away last week it seemed appropriate to advance him to the front of the queue. A Time of Gifts is a travel memoir of a bold endeavour Fermor embarked upon in 1933: to walk all the way across Europe, following the Rhine and the Danube, from Rotterdam to Istanbul – in winter, no less.
What sets Fermor apart from other travel writers is his massive breadth of literary, historical, linguistic and cultural knowledge; he seems, in fact, to have been not just a renaissance man but a genius. While walking through the Swabian counryside he amuses himself by singing and reciting verse, casting his memory back through the swathes of literature he has memorised. He literally fills an entire page with the names of English poems and poets that he has read, then says “My bridgehead in French poetry didn’t penetrate very far: a few nursery rhymes, one poem of Theodore de Banville, two of Baudelaire, part of one of Verlaine, Yeats’ Ronsard sonnet in the original, and another of du Bellay; lastly, more than all the rest put together, large quantities of Villon.” That’s not a bridgehead, that’s D-Day. Either Fermor was exceptionally modest, or standards have slipped in the last century. How many eighteen-year olds today would be able to recite a single English poem, or even name a French one?
Fermor is therefore that kind of traveller, a lifelong scholar with an intense thirst for knowledge – one readily slaked by the majesty of Central Europe. He finds every town and city and province fascinating, detailing their history and customs and fashions and architecture. A Time of Gifts is more than a mere travel memoir: it’s an orgasmic ode to the grandeur of civilisation itself.
I make this sound tedious, and it can be at times, but Fermor’s infatuation with Europe is so genuine it’s hard not to appreciate it, and it can be infectious. I often split travel writers into two groups: witty, conversational types like Bill Bryson, who can easily be read by anyone, and writers like Ted Simon or (I assume) Paul Theroux, whose loftier ruminations on the world can easily turn people off. Fermor certainly belongs to the latter category, but the book isn’t all art and literature. There is a definite sense of adventure and excitement to his travels, as he dosses down in haystacks or befriends wealthy German counts and sleeps in plush four-poster beds; the idea of being a young man with an open road and a pack on his back, something wonderful around every corner. In an early chapter, he hitches a ride on a river-barge, and describes the joy of watching the counryside slide past, the flourishing of flags and horn-blasts from other vessels, the wheeling of seagulls and the shadow and sunlight of the mountains. Not since the ferry chapter in David Mitchell’s Number9dream have I read a passage so suited to “Blitzball Gamblers,” the finest song there is for stirring the excited, triumphant feelings of nautical travel at its finest. (The scene must always be on a water-borne vessel, of course.)
The other thing that sets A Time of Gifts apart is the age in which it took place. The 1930s were arguably the last great era of Europe, before it was devastated by World War II (many places or objects in the book are footnoted as having been destroyed in the war). The scenes in Germany are darkened by the presence of S.S. men with raised forearms and sieg heil salutes – although they also reveal a strong dislike of the Nazis amongst many ordinary Germans. In many other places there is a sense of a vanished age, of towns and cities lost not just to war but to modernity. Fermor’s world of dainty villages and regal cathedrals and ruined castles is a world crammed full of the aesthetic splendour of antiquity, a world full of things made in a time when individual craftsmen took pleasure in their work and created things that were beautiful; before high streets all over the world became identical, selling Nike and McDonalds and IKEA out of pastel-coloured concrete boxes whose fittings can be stripped down and replaced in a day. Fermor’s book is a voyage into a beautiful world that was devoured by the Ballardian nightmare a few decades later. There is still beauty in Europe, as I found last year when I landed in Berlin after five months in the hideous block cities of communist or post-communist Asia. Yet one can’t help but read Fermor’s words and feel that we’ve lost something.
Nowadays if one set off across Europe, there would be hordes of backpackers and tourists in every town. Most nights would be spent in YHA dorms; if strangers did take you into their home, odds would be you arranged it on couchsurfing.com. The castles and monasteries would all be covered in restoration scaffolding. If there are any river-barges left, OHS regulations would prevent them from giving lifts to random vagabond travellers. Yes, the world has definitely lost something.
A Time of Gifts is often considered one of the finest travel books ever written, and I can see why. I can also see how Fermor’s elaborate prose and constant cultural tidbits would put some people off. Although it slowed at times, for the most part I enjoyed it, and it deserves its well-regarded place at the peak of travel literature.
We woke late as usual, and went to a roadhouse for an unappetising breakfast before setting off east. The Eyre Peninsula was, I was beginning to realise, not much different from the Nullarbor. Certainly there were now wheat fields and fences and other greatly stimulating things to look at, but we were still riding along a flat, straight stretch of road for hours at a time, ducking underneath the rush of trucks’ air every fifteen minutes. The most interesting thing was a few sections of road that were under construction, where we had to ride at the edge of the road to avoid warm tar.
South Australia, unlike Western Australia, has strong concerns about the welfare of its drivers. Every two or three kilometres – all the way from the border – we’d seen billboards featuring weary eyes propped up by matchsticks, and grim words urging us: DON’T DRIVE TIRED. If the South Australian government had its way, we’d all be asleep all the time, an entire state of snoozing Rip van Winkles.
As we drew closer to Port Augusta, the landscape slipped away from farmlands and back into desert. I hadn’t expected that at all. With a hot sun, red soil, spinifex to the horizon, and low hills and mesas, it actually felt more like the Outback than the Nullarbor had.
We stopped for lunch in Port Augusta, and since we now had phone reception for the first time since Esperance, we called a few bike shops in Adelaide to see if we could have tyres fitted the next day. Our off-road tyres were now almost bald, and for the last few days I’d been gripped by a low-key fear of having one suddenly burst at 110. This had happened to Chris in Vietnam, which had sent him swerving into the oncoming lane (mercifully empty at the time). He’d described it as “the most terrifying moment of the trip,” but he has good reflexes and reacts well to such things. I don’t.
Leaving Port Augusta, we followed the eastern shores of the Spencer Gulf south, with only 300 k’s to Adelaide. The farmlands still hadn’t returned; the landscape around us was dry scrubland and salt lake. “We’ve now travelled further than we ever have on any land-based vehicle,” Chris said to me at a fuel stop, “and there’s been next to no change.”
“I know,” I said. “You could pick up any town around here and plonk it down in WA and they probably wouldn’t notice for a few days.”
“I don’t mean the towns, just… the landscape. There are huge parts of this country that we could pretty much just do without.”
“Yeah, that too. I’m lusting for mountains.”
We followed a dull highway into Adelaide and entered the outer suburbs at sunset, the glare making it quite difficult to read street signs. We promptly got lost in Adelaide’s park-girt CBD (that’s the first time the word “girt” has ever been used outside of the Australian national anthem or discussions of the Australian national anthem), and spent about half an hour trying to navigate one-way streets and confusing turns. I fucking hate driving in city centres. But it was quite satisfying to be in a city again, especially since it marked the hardest and most boring part of the journey being over.
We were staying at yet another nickel and dime YHA hostel, although, being in a proper city, it was large and clean and well-run. Our room had a balcony, which was nice. After unpacking and showering, we headed out into the city to find dinner, at about 8.30.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of Adelaide – it’s smaller than Perth, yet it’s located in the eastern states (i.e. civilisation). Turns out it’s like Perth. Every single restaurant, diner, eatery and general hospitality outlet had shut down for the night, even the fucking fast food joints. We criss-crossed the empty CBD wracked with hunger pains for half an hour, until I finally glimpsed a middle-aged couple emerging from an innocuous door. We opened the door and went down the stairs to find ourselves in a busy, bustling, upscale Indian restaurant. It was like two dying refugees in a desert stumbling upon Las Vegas. In the battle between frugality and food, our stomachs won, and we took a table. We deserved a nice meal after crossing the Nullarbor anyway.
After ordering, as we slowly began to unwind from a stressful day with a Little Creatures and a gin and tonic, it slowly began to dawn on me where we were. After more than a week of small towns and petrol stations and shitty roadhouse food and rough camping, we were in a fine restaurant in a civilised city, surrounded by men in suits and and women in dresses.
“Look at all these well-dressed people,” I breathed.
“Look at this rosewood finish,” Chris whispered, rubbing the surface of the table.
The bill came to $91.
Adelaide – 0 km
We rose at 9 am, checked out, and stowed our gear in a precarious jumble inside of the compartments in the hostel’s luggage store.
We both had separate appointments with different mechanics, and were hoping to get done by early afternoon and be on our way, avoiding another night in expensive Adelaide. As we were checking out, the German desk clerk told Chris about a great mechanic who was “a real Aussie bloke,” and could fit tyres as long as he wasn’t “drinking beer all day.” Chris switched allegiances, but I preferred to stay with a licensed Kawasaki dealer, and took off for the western suburbs. I dropped my bike off, was told that they would ring me when it was ready, and walked back into the city centre.
I spent some time wondering which was the better city, Adelaide or Perth. They’re both small, dull places, of course, but one must be marginally superior to the other. I can’t really say, since I spent 21 years in Perth and only 36 hours in Adelaide, but Adelaide does seem to be the better designed city, and has more stuff in its CBD than Perth does. There are an awful lot of traffic lights, though, and not a lot of small cafes or eateries, which is what I was hunting for when I returned from the mechanic’s. Ultimately I suppose neither of them are particularly good cities, which is of course why I am moving to Melbourne and not Adelaide. All Australian cities are pretty much the same except in scale, though.
I did notice a difference in drivers during our time there, though. Perth is generally agreed to have the worst drivers in Australia; Adelaide, in my opinion, must have the most authoritarian. The slightest infringement of the rules results in a cacophony of honking from other motorists; even ignoring gentle guidelines (stay left unless overtaking) was met with an arm out a window violently motioning for us to get in the left lane. This came from a car that was already in the left lane, on an otherwise deserted highway. Chill out, guys.
And while I’m comparing Australian cities, what’s with this silly idea we have that anything other than Sydney or Melbourne is just a “big country town?” I hear it about Perth all the time, a guy near Mt. Gambier said the same of Adelaide, and I’ve seen Brisbane called that in a goddamn newspaper (“The Queensland floods have now devastated Australia’s third-largest city, even if it is one that feels like a big country town.”) Merredin is a big country town. Kalgoorlie is a big country town. Perth is not a big country town. Country towns don’t have skyscrapers and endless suburbs and metro systems and freeways and a population of over a million. I may call Perth a shit city at every opportunity I have, but it is still undeniably a city, as are Brisbane and Adelaide. And this silly axiom is in stark contrast to official government designations, which slap the label “city” on any LGA with a population of more than twenty thousand or so.
After musing over these weighty topics on my long walk, I went back to the hostel to start looking up shortleases in Melbourne. Jamie had gained apporoval on his house, but we couldn’t move in until the 13th of March, which was much later than our estimated arrival date. I made a few fruitless phone calls, including one to a bizarre woman named Judy who spoke with the speed of a glacier and revealed that the room she was advertising was to share with her. “Alright, I might give you a ring when we get to Melbourne,” I said, as I crossed her off the list in my notebook.
I went for another wander around the city, and found myself in Rundle Mall, which was indistinguishable from Hay Street Mall. (I later revisited it with Chris, who said: “Are we in Perth?”) Then I trudged back across the city and the deserted parks to pick up my bike for an agonising $463. Chris’ mechanic, by the way, turned out to be totally on the level. Chris said he was the best mechanic he’d ever met, and he got new tyres for half the price of mine. Apparently getting anything done at an official dealership is a bad idea.
By now it was four o’clock. Since we had daylight savings on our side, I was keen to push on, but Chris didn’t want to drive in rush hour and eventually I relented and agreed to stay in Adelaide another night.
We split up to check out nearby hostels, since the YHA was booked out, and eventually found one on Wakefield Street on the eastern side of the city. Not only did this mean we had to strap all our stuff to the bikes for a measly one kilometre ride, it also took us twenty minutes, because we were sitting in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. If there’s one thing worse than navigating a CBD, it’s navigating it during rush hour.
We had dinner at a Thai restaurant. “There are a lot of Asians in Adelaide,” Chris said.
“We’re in Chinatown.”
Adelaide to Mt. Gambier – 437 km
The brief respite of clear blue skies and warm weather that we had enjoyed for the last three days was over. I woke up at 9 am to the sound of rain and said “Fuck.”
“What?” Chris murmured.
We went downstairs for the hostel’s free breakfast, and over my soggy cereal I read in The Advertiser that today was expected to bring the biggest February rain that South Australia had seen in 40 years. I trusted BOM more than I did a paper that went to press the previous night, but the website confirmed it: a huge, swirling mess of blue and yellow over the entire radar map.
It wasn’t going to change, so we decided to just grit our teeth and get underway. According to BOM, Mt. Gambier had clear skies, so with any luck we might be able to escape it and dry off later in the day.
We were soaked before we even left the CBD, constantly held up at traffic lights (“City of Lights” is not necessarily a compliment). My visor was fogging, I was freezing cold, and I’d forgotten to zip up the waterproof lining in my jacket.
One of Mike’s friends from Adelaide told me he was impressed by Perth because Adelaide has no freeway; he was wrong, but for some reason, rather than connecting the suburbs to the city centre, Adelaide’s lone freeway begins in the eastern suburbs and then heads southeast, shooting out into farmland and terminating at an irrelevant country town. What the fuck?
In any case, it’s much nicer than Perth’s freeway, snaking up through the eastern hills. I would have actually been enjoying it if it wasn’t such an awful day. It was a cruel and bitter irony that the first remotely interesting road we’d seen in two thousand kilometres came upon us on a day when I just wanted a nice, safe, flat stretch. Wet corners, low visibility, high speed roads and brand new tyres are not a good mix.
Along the way I saw a familiar yellow Animal Crossing sign, yet this one featured the sillhouette of a koala. That was quite a surprise – I hadn’t known they spent much time on the ground.
The freeway eventually rose above the hills onto a plateau, dragging us forward in the mist-obscured haze. We crossed a bridge over the mighty Murray River, and when we arrived at our first fuel stop we were bedraggled, freezing wrecks. Chris’ open motocross helmet was hell on his exposed skin; my own kept fogging up and obscuring my visibility.
The rest of the day faded into dismal repetition: soggy vinyards, wet fields and dark pine forests, stopping at a town every fifty k’s or so to warm ourselves up and begin the process of freezing to death all over again. At one point the rain grew so heavy I thought it was hailing. It showed no sign of letting up as we drew nearer to Mt. Gambier, and every petrol station attendent – after making a crack about how it was “a nice day for a ride” – confirmed that according to the weather reports, the storm was moving south-east. “You boys are keen,” commented one storeowner in the wine-growing town of Pandthaway. I have never been less keen in my life, I thought. My boots were filled with water up to my ankles, my jeans were drenched, and my hands were beyond wrinkled.
We finally rolled into Mt. Gambier – as miserably overcast and raining as everywhere else we’d been all day – and went to a motel. (Our plans to camp had been discarded as soon as we’d seen the weather report that morning.) As soon as we had the room key we began the process of emptying our bags, spreading out our wet things, and stringing up occy straps to create a crude indoor clothesline.
This is my shirt after spending the day in my supposedly “waterproof” jacket.
A hot shower was pure bliss. I turned the TV on just in time for the weather report; the map of Australia depicted a vast cloud belt covering everything from the Bass Strait to the Nullarbor. We waited for tomorrow’s forecast with desperate anticipation, and when it showed the rainfall moving east and clearing even Melbourne by noon, Chris said “Fuck yes,” and held out his fist for a bump.
After one of the most miserable, awful, horrible, shitty days of riding I ever had, the evening was quite pleasant, simply because it wasn’t miserable, awful, horrible and shitty. A hot shower, dry clothes and warm bed are all nice enough, but it takes eight solid hours of being in pouring rain to truly appreciate them. From my written journal:
Everything is drying; I am showered, clean, dry and warm; dinner is coming; I have a glass of wine and a comfortingly nostalgic WWII documentary on SBS. It’s still raining, dark and bleak outside, but I am inside. At this moment, I am content.
Mt. Gambier to MELBOOOOOOOURNE! – 553 km
The next day was still overcast and gloomy, but without any suggestion of rain. We quickly packed our bags and put our gear on before checking out. The motel manager was the most incessantly overhelpful man I have ever met in customer service. “Is there a petrol station on the road out of town?” Chris asked.
The manager strode out from behind his desk and started pointing at the map on the wall. “Yes, there is, I think if you just follow the highway out here, you get to the edge of town, there’s a Harvey Norman here somewhere, and the petrol station should be just on the other side of that, sort of right at the edge of town, I don’t know what brand it is…”
“Okay… yep… okay, great.” Jesus, just let us go.
We had an atrocious breakfast at a petrol station, before mounting our bikes again and quickly covering the scant few kilometres of pine forest between Mt. Gambier and the Victorian border. The welcome sign was quite small, and I wouldn’t even have noticed it if Chris hadn’t pointed at it as he rode past, because it was hidden amongst the dozens of other signs from both state governments shouting about the dangers of driving tired. Victoria’s were even more ridiculous than South Australia’s: “FEEING TIRED? POWERNAP NOW.”
There were a few uncomfortable spells of drizzle, but nothing like the torrential rain we’d had to put up with yesterday. Victoria was lovely and green, a landscape of wet forests and lush fields and bridges over bubbling creeks. We passed through the town of Warrnambool, and then I saw my first ever wild koala… smeared across the road.
I thought it was a wombat at first, but as we drew closer I saw the trademark bushy ears and cute button nose, next to a long red streak of blood and viscera. Chris clapped his hand against the side of his helmet in mock horror. It was one of those things that’s so horrible it’s funny. The koala is cuteness personified; as a Western Australian who’d never seen one before, it hadn’t really occurred to me that they’re also wild animals existing in nature, which is red in tooth and claw.
“What was a koala even doing on the road?” I groaned at the next fuel stop. “I didn’t know they even went down on the ground.”
“How did you think they got between trees?” Chris asked.
“I dunno… I thought they just went from branch to branch, like monkeys.”
Chris laughed. “What, swinging?”
As we headed south towards the coast, the cross-winds began to pick up, but there were a lot of right angled roads – so a dangerous and irritating cross-wind would suddenly become a pleasant tail-wind. We soon arrived at the first of the coasts’s attractions, the stacks and London Bridge.
London Bridge doesn’t look very bridge-like anymore, since the first arch collapsed about twenty years ago – stranding a pair of very lucky tourists, who had to be lifted out by helicopter.
We had lunch in Campbell Bay, missing out on the lunch hours at a pub with a lovely view because we’d forgotten to wind our watches forward half an hour when we crossed the state border. After that we visited Lord Arch Gorge…
…and the Twelve Apostles. The Apostles are easily the most impressive of the coast’s formations, but after seeing all the others were were pretty much done with them. Kind of like in Vietnam, where it was karsts all the way up the country and Ha Long Bay did nothing for us.
Both attractions were swarming with tourists. We admired them very briefly and then got back on the bikes, eager to ride the Great Ocean Road.
I’m not sure where the Great Ocean Road officially begins and ends, but the stretch between the Twelve Apostles and Apollo Bay was surprisingly more mountain than ocean, switchbacking up and across the Otway Ranges through wet temperate rainforest. I was enjoying it too much to stop and take any photos, so here’s some from flickr, which don’t capture the switchbacking but are better than nothing:
A fantastic bike road, and just what we needed after four thousand kilometres of mind-numbing flatness. I would have enjoyed it a little more if it wasn’t wet and covered in leaf litter and on new tyres, though. At the peak of the ranges is the tiny town of Lavers Hill, where we found ourselves enveloped in cloud, a thick white mist that reduced visibility to twenty metres. We slowed down, passed through the town, and soon descended the ranges on the other side.
On a map Australia is, for a landmass, pleasingly symmetrical, but the eastern half extends surprisingly further south than its western counterpart. Somewhere on this winding, hilly road is the southernmost I’ve ever been. The easternmost is a beach north-east of Sydney (the one where they film Home and Away); the westernmost is somewhere around Bath, England; and the northernmost is somewhere on a flight path between Ulaan Baatar and Moscow. Or, if you only include feet on the ground, somewhere in Berlin. I’m sure this is of interest to nobody but myself.
The next stop was Apollo Bay, a pretty little town of pastel-coloured beach houses. More importantly, it’s the starting point (or ending point, depending on your direction) of what people traditionally think of as the Great Ocean Road: the curving, winding road that clings to the cliffsides for about 75 kilometres. The kind of place where you’d film an advertisement for a red convertible.
One drove past us almost immediately after I said that, and we both cracked up laughing.
Beautifully, the clouds were finally parting. After an entire continent of bleak weather and flat landscapes, we’d earned this.
Immediately after we took this photo Chris cracked up, saying that in my bike jacket I looked like a bulky space marine from Starcraft or Gears of War. I think he looks pretty bulky too.
An absolutely spectacular road. It ended around Anglesea, and we took a highway to Geelong that soon funneled us onto a freeway stretching up the western shore of Port Philip Bay, just as the sun went down.
This was it – the final stretch. A pastel twilight sky with a few peachy clouds, and the city lights beginning to sparkle on the horizon. Soon we caught a glimpse of the distant skyscrapers, and as they grew, a fat yellow full moon rose above them. Visually speaking, it was a very auspicious arrival.
We crossed the West Gate Bridge, went through an impressively long tunnel, and ended up heading east on a sunken freeway. Jamie had told us to turn left on “City Link,” but I was pretty sure we’d overshot it, and I needed fuel anyway, so we exited the freeway and found a service station.
The friendly attendent told us Brunswick, where Jamie was staying, was north of the city, while we were east of the city in a suburb called Glen Iris. He lent us a street directory, and we plotted out a circuitous path through the northern suburbs to avoid tram lines and thus the dreaded hook turn. Then we returned to the freeway, took the correct exit, drove through Brunswick, and found ourself outside Jamie’s temporary residence: a very fine house on Aberdeen Street. Success!
All in all: 11 days of riding, 13 days in total, covering 4588 kilometres. 6 of those days were under grey, gloomy skies – very odd for Australia in February. I’m not sure how much it cost, other than “a lot more than we expected.” Chris kept nearly all the fuel receipts, but has yet to tally them up.
Overall, as I said earlier, it was something that was very satisfying to do – to have done – but not a ride I’m interested in repeating. Australia is a wonderful country and I love it dearly, but, as Chris pointed out, a good chunk of it consists of absolutely nothing.
But whatever, we made it to Melbourne.
Previously: Perth to Melbourne, Part 1
Esperance – 0km
At South Coast Motorcycles a mullet-haired mechanic expressed barely restrained contempt for our decision to ride 250s across the country, before inspecting Chris’ chain and declaring that it was fucked because it hadn’t been sufficiently lubricated. “You need to lube ’em every three hundred k’s,” he said.
“I thought every thousand k’s,” Chris said.
Snort. “Nup. Three hundred. You got any tools?”
Another snort. “You’re crossing the Nullarbor without any tools?”
We could have told him that there was no point in having tools because we wouldn’t know what to do with them, but we felt we’d been derided enough for one morning. He tightened Chris’ chain and sold us some lubricant, but told us it needed replacing, which he couldn’t do because he was booked solid.
We went down the road to Esperance’s other motorcycle shop to seek a second opinion, where we were again greeted with a generally condescending air. “Mechanics are always assholes and I don’t understand why,” Chris said later. “They think you’re an idiot for not knowing what they know. Like, ‘what are you going to do if your bike breaks down?’ What the fuck? I’ll bring it to you and pay you to fix it. That’s your fucking job. It’s like if you went to a book signing and the author said, ‘What do you want to read my book for? Why don’t you write your own?'”
The mechanics at the second store had the time to replace Chris’ chain, but didn’t have a new sprocket, so I had to ride back to the first store and buy one. During the transaction the female cashier – doubtless our mulleted friend’s wife – said “Yeah, you just got to keep those chains lubed. You can’t just treat them like that and not expect them to break. And what’s your fuel mileage? You know on the Nullarbor there’s about 250 k’s between…”
“We’re carrying jerries,” I said. “Longest stretch is 182 k’s.” I asked for a sprocket, not a lecture.
In defence of the mechanics who so despise their clients, the bikes do, upon closer inspection, instruct us to lube the chains every 300 k’s. It’s written right there on the chain guard. I’m not sure where we picked up the 1000km figure from.
While waiting for the chain to be replaced we went to a cafe for breakfast, but it was hideously overpriced, so we went to IGA and bought some hideously overpriced ingredients to cook back at the hostel. WA’s cost of living is quite unreasonable, but in remote areas like Esperance it borders on ridiculous. After breakfast we went for a walk, even though it was still overcast and howling with wind.
Another long jetty, although this once had a sea lion dozing underneath it.
Apparently he’s a semi-tame town local called Sammy. Brett lied to us and told us he’d been murdered, just like somebody murdered the dolphins at Underwater World. You lied, Brett! The sea lion is alive and well. We thought he was dead for a bit, but eventually he stirred ever so slightly in his sleep.
Here’s a stupid billboard:
Skylab did indeed make landfall across the south-east of WA, and the Shire of Esperance really did fine NASA for littering. This is the kind of story that’s quite amusing, until you put it on a tourism billboard with the calculated intent of portraying yourselves as a bunch of witty Aussie larrikins.
Later that afternoon, after retrieving Chris’ bike ($250, ka-ching) we did an oil changes on our bikes… or at least, on my bike. Chris was quite frustrated to find that his sump bolt – plus all the other nuts and bolts on his gearbox – were fitted so tightly that his most vigourous attempts to remove them simply wore down the angles of of the bolt’s head. After half an hour of fruitless prying he flung his Yamaha spanner into the bushes. “It’s useless!” he yelled. “I can’t take it apart without destroying it!”
The entire time we were keeping up a conversation with a babbling Tasmanian man, who was attending to a stray puppy he claimed to have found wandering in the street. He never shut up, and being alone with him for even a few moments was a sentence to being drawn into some long anecdote about how he’d gone to Thailand to learn kickboxing and had then taught it to Aboriginals on a station he’d been working on up north. “Yeah, I been up there about eighteen months, pretty much on my own,” he said.
“No wonder you’re fucking batshit,” Chris muttered later on.
Esperance to Caiguna – 441 km
The crazy bastard robbed us! Come morning, the Tasmanian was gone, along with the tool kit from the back of my Kawasaki and nearly every earthly possession belonging to the European backpacker who’d been sharing his dorm. “I wonder if he really just ‘found’ that dog?” I said.
It was still fucking grey and fucking windy. I know it’s the south coast, and that it has to spend every day of its windswept existence facing down Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, but Jesus Christ. It’s meant to be summer. It’s meant to be an Australian summer. I’ve seen photos of perfectly still days in Esperance, you know the ones, one the brochures with the crystal white sand and turquoise water and kangaroos fucking lazing about on the beach. It must be like that sometimes, and if not February, when?
East of Esperance is an unsealed road that runs all the way up to the Eyre Highway, connecting with it just east of Balladonia. It would save us a hell of a lot of time and distance if we took this rather than the typical Norseman route, and since it was about 200 k’s, it was perfectly possible to do with the jerries. It would also save some wear and tear on our off-road tyres, which were starting to look a little bald after more than a thousand k’s on tarmac.
So we headed east out of town, on a little-travelled road leading to the town of Condingup, a tiny hamlet hidden in low scrubland.
This was another service station (well, actually just some pumps outside the pub) where the attendant came out to fill our tanks up for us, as though Robert Menzies were still in the Lodge. I guess it’s a country thing. We queried him about the condition of the off-road track, and he said it wasn’t bad at all – actually tarmac for the first forty k’s, and in pretty good condition until you got to the half owned by the Shire of Norseman, which didn’t bother to maintain it. It was quite corrugated on that half, he said. Chris knew what he meant, and I pretended I did too.
He knew what he was talking about – even got the distance right. After forty k’s, asphalt ran out, and we were in Hardcore Offroad Country.
Not really. It was good solid ground, not sand, and most of it was even graded. Still a bit bumpy, but about as close to an actual road as off-roading can be. We passed a bearded farmer who resembled Santa Claus driving along on his quad, and as we passed him he turned to look at us with an incredulous yet delighted expression.
After about 120 k’s we stopped to refuel. Something had happened to my bike, but I didn’t notice until much later.
We passed a gate covered in people’s underwear, a curious rural ritual which we saw repeated all over the country.
Further on the road was no longer graded, and I discovered what corrugated meant. The loose sand that blew along the surface had formed into tiny little dunes, no more than a centimetre high, making it similar to corrugated tin. As you might imagine, this is difficult and unpleasant to ride on. “It actually gets better if you can get up to about 80 or 90 k’s,” Chris said. “Which is intimidating, but trust me, it’s a lot better.”
I did sometimes manage it, but then potholes or patches of gravel would come along and I’d slow down again. For the most part I managed 70, which was still quite nerve-wracking. At one point I hit a gravel-soaked part of the road, and ended up in a long tyre-gulch, which funneled me to the left. I have a fear (reasonable or not, I have no idea) of turning even slightly when I’m on gravel at any kind of speed, and so I tried to brake rather than steering out of it. I’d developed the speed wobbles and the trees were looming up on my left and I was gripped with the same kind of looming helplessness as when we’d beached the speedboat on the last night of Collie, only a few weeks ago. “Oh no,” I said. “Oh no.” Fortunately I managed to slow down in time and the worst that happened was some branches scraping my left arm. But it was a close thing.
After four hours of off-roading we finally hit the Eyre Highway,and both of us were glad to see it.
We swung left to fuel up at the Balladonia Roadhouse, where we encountered our first stingingly high Nullarbor prices ($1.90 for premium). The weather was worsening and it was getting late in the day, so we agreed to lube the chains, scarf down a quick lunch and then be on our way.
The roadhouse was staffed by a charming young Irishman, who asked us a lot of questions about “dem boikes,” and also checked up on us while we were eating about every 30 seconds: “Are you aright der, boiyes? You aright?”
“He was very nice,” Chris said later, “but also very… there.”
“My Nana does that too,” I said. “Just randomly asks ‘Are you alright, Mitchell?’ Maybe back in Ireland you had to check on people every five minutes to make sure they weren’t dead.”
The roadhouse also had a modest museum, which contained what is probably not a real piece of Skylab.
After shoving down coffee and sandwiches prepared for us by the Asian chef, we prepared to head off, with less than two hours before sunset, and more than two hundred kilometres between our target of Cocklebiddy. “You take care of dem boikes, boiyes,” the Irishman said. “Don’t rush, just take yer toime.”
This was it. The Nullarbor Plain. Two thousand kilometres of absolutely nothing stretching ahead of us, the largest settlement containing no more than fifty people. Flat and featureless and remote – and yet holding the major artery between Australia’s east and west, so that a vehicle passes you every ten or fifteen minutes. This was the stretch of the journey that all our friends and relatives had been wringing their hands about. I still recall the words of an ex-girlfriend of mine who, when I had proposed a hypothetical roadtrip to the eastern states to see a concert that never ended up eventuating, had said: “Mitch, people die on the Nullarbor!” (This made me and Chris laugh for many months to come.)
I didn’t expect it to be anything worse than boring. And yet it was also something I wanted – had always wanted – to do. In what other country can you drive along a major highway for two or three days and see literally nothing?
Of course, I’d always imagined I’d be in a car when I did it. Not a motorbike. Bikers like corners, because they’re more interesting. Long straight stretches of road, not so much.
At least we can say we’ve done it. (It’s listed among Australia’s top 200 bike rides in the Australian Motorcycle Atlas purely for that reason). I believe this was formerly the longest straight road in the entire world, before one was built to one of the king’s remote desert palaces in Saudi Arabia. At least we still have the longest straight stretch of railway line in the world, which is also across the Nullarbor, about two or three hundred k’s to the north of here. Why the railway doesn’t run alongside the road, I don’t know.
It was, as one might expect, quite dull. It was also freezing and cold – quite ironic, given that one of the major concerns people had about the Nullarbor was that I would literally bake to death. Instead I was keeping an eye on the clouds and hoping we could make Cocklebiddy before it started raining.
We stopped to refuel from the jerries, and took a moment to appreciate the sheer emptiness around us.
Fifty k’s out of Caiguna, the sun went down and we were soon plunged into darkness. I was still wearing my sunglasses, but couldn’t be bothered pulling over to take them off. I was constantly keeping my eyes on the bushes on either side of the road, worried that a kangaroo would suddenly leap out and end my life in a heartbeat. We’d heard regular warnings about kangaroos, which often bound out onto rural roads at twilight and into the path of vehicles, to the detriment of both. Trucks don’t notice them, cars can be severely damaged, and on a motorbike you may as well be hitting an atomic bomb. Yet we’d seen nothing but crows so far, and very little kangaroo roadkill. It occurred to me that the same people who had warned me about kangaroos had been the same people who thought crossing the Nullarbor was akin to crossing the Sahara.
When we pulled into the roadhouse at Caiguna, it was well and truly nighttime. We asked the proprietor if it was true that kangaroos were a serious danger at dusk, and she said they absolutely were. “Had a bloke come through on a bike last week who said one came out right in front of him and he missed it by that much,” she said, holding her hands apart about a foot.
“Alright,” I said. “Guess we’ll stay here.”
“Right, that’ll be twenty bucks,” she said, at which Chris’ eyebrows shot up, “and I’ll need your names and license plate numbers.”
“I’ll go check what they are and call them out to you,” I said to Chris. I went back out to the petrol pump and discovered I couldn’t, because my license plate had fallen off.
“What the fuck. What the fuck!”
It was pretty funny and we cracked up laughing for a bit, but it did leave me nonplussed as to what to do. I couldn’t exactly get a new license plate out in the middle of nowhere, especially since we’d be entering South Australia tomorrow. The fact that I planned to have the bike re-registered in Victoria just added further hassles. I rang Dad from a Telstra phone booth (no reception out there) so he could check my rego papers and tell me what my license plate number was. He suggested making a new one out of cardboard in the interim, and said as long as I could tell cops what the number was I should be OK.
We set our tent up in the dark, and had showers at the reassuringly clean facilities. The sign warning us to keep the door shut to keep poisonous snakes out didn’t fill me with confidence, though.
Caiguna to Nullarbor Roadhouse – 531 km
That night’s sleep in our miniature tent wasn’t nearly as bad as the night in Pemberton, because we’d been absolutely exhausted. We rose around 9 am and packed the tent up.
Breakfast was toast and jam for the ludicrous price of $6. An emerging theme at every breakfast was the discussion of dreams, which we were both having a lot of. I suspect it’s because on a bike trip, you do a lot more imagining and thinking and daydreaming than usual, due to the huge stretches of the day where you don’t have much to do except look at the road.
I was still worried about my license plate, convinced that if police pulled me over they would have every right to make me remain here until a new license plate could be mailed out. “Don’t worry about it,” Chris said. “You’ll be out of WA before they catch you… shit, that was a bad thing to say as someone walked past.”
It was sixty k’s to Cocklebiddy, which was a very desolate roadhouse – only about two buildings and no sign of a caravan park. Quite glad we’d ended up sleeping in Caiguna instead.
Another 91 k’s until Madura. At this point the novelty had worn off and I was tired of being on the Nullarbor. I found myself swaying back and forth along the road from sheer boredom. The skies were still grey, and it was still chilly and windy. At Cocklebiddy I had decided I couldn’t take it anymore and put my iPod in, shoving the earbuds up my helmet (with great pain) and spending a good fifteen minutes wiggling them about until they fit in my ears. Music provided slight stimulation in an otherwise sterile landscape.
Madura was situated on an unexpected ridge – I’d thought the Nullarbor was flat from beginning to end. I neglected to take a photo, so here’s one I swiped from flickr.
(Credit Les Kay)
After Madura was Mundrabilla, and after that, Eucla. I was naturally looking forward to seeing Eucla, but realised almost immediately that the real Eucla bears no resemblence to the wholly fictional Eucla of my writing, so I didn’t bother looking around or taking any photos – except the mandatory petrol fill-up.
Even the Nullarbor itself bore no resemblence to the Nullarbor of my imagination, which involved, oh, I don’t know, nullus arbor. There were trees all over the goddamn place.
We had a quick lunch here and pushed on to the Border Village, where we crossed over into South Australia under the shadow of some huge wind turbines. This felt quite good. In a country with only six enormous states, crossing into another one is always a small accomplishment, even if they’re all pretty much the same.
This was the longest stretch we had to cover without fuel – 182 kilometres. The trees actually started to thin out a bit here. I later found out that “Nullarbor” originally just meant a relatively small region in South Australia, but was later expanded to include the whole empty wasteland between Norseman and Ceduna, even though much of it has trees.
This stretch of the Eyre Highway is the one that comes closest to the coast. We took advantage of the first side road we saw and headed south, parking the bikes and approaching the ocean with the expectation of dramatic cliffs.
We were disappointed; the plateau merely sloped down to an ordinary beach.
Fifty k’s ahead, we tried again, and this time were rewarded.
Photos don’t quite capture the dramatic majesty of these cliffs – a thousand kilometres of desert suddenly pitching straight down into an equally desolate ocean, which stretches all the way to Antarctica. If you were to fall off these cliffs, it wouldn’t really matter whether you survived or not; the nearest helicopter is in Ceduna, some five hundred kilometres away. There is absolutely no way back up.
If I ever get diagnosed with a terminal disease and a fairly accurate timeframe, I know how I want to go out: riding a muscle car off these cliffs, playing “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin.
As we mounted the bikes and drove back to the highway, we saw a light plane flying eastward, very low, only about two hundred metres above the road. I assumed it was the RFDS, although it had no markings. I couldn’t imagine who else would be out here. We’d passed about three or four emergency RFDS landing strips – just sections of the highway itself where the scrub had been cleared out on either side, to provide space to turn around and take off again.
When we stopped to crack open the jerry cans, the sun was setting behind us.
We plunged on into the dusk, and when some tosser drove past in the gathering gloom with his high beams on, I conceded defeat and pulled over to remove my sunglasses. This improved my visibility, for about five minutes before the darkness descended even further.
This part of the Nullarbor was rabbit territory. There were dozens of them visible at any one time, darting about at the edge of the road, their eyes glinting in the headlights. They would quite often choose the exact moment we flew past to make a dash to the other side of the road; I braked to avoid hitting one, and another later zoomed right between me and an oncoming road train, adjusting his direction at the very last second. I think he made it… I think.
It’s amazing how bright lights can be when there’s absolutely nothing else around. I spent a good twenty minutes staring ahead at bright blue truck headlights light visible just beyond the horizon, blinkered by the curvature of the earth. The lights of the Nullarbor Roadhouse were visible a good half hour before we reached it.
I presume that this roadhouse, out of the dozens of roadhouses on the Eyre Highway, gets the privilege of calling itself the “Nullarbor Roadhouse” because it’s in the only part of the plain that actually has no trees. We bought an outrageously priced $30 patch of dirt from the one-armed proprietor, and then went to buy dinner. I was informed of the price and called out to Chris, who was inspecting a rack of bumper stickers.
“Dude, do you have six bucks?”
“You have a fifty dollar note.”
“Yeah. Do you have six bucks?”
I get that it costs money to transport food out there, but Jesus Christ.
While we were eating dinner we chatted to a pair of young men who asked us about our bikes, and how much ground we could cover in one day. One said they’d started the day in Kalgoorlie, which I thought was an impressive feat, until he said “we’re flying, though.” I thought he meant they’d been speeding all day, until I twigged that they were the owners (or leasers) of the light plane we’d seen at the cliffs. They were students from a flight school in Melbourne, trying to clock up hours so they could get their commercial licenses, and were doing a long loop via Uluru. “We’ll hit Adelaide for fuel tomorrow, then be in Melbourne tomorrow night,” one of them said. “When are you planning to get to Melbourne?”
Chris and I glanced at each other. “About another week.”
The clocks in both the petrol station and the roadhouse both had a typed note plastered next to them that read “YES, THIS IS THE CORRECT TIME,” and another that read, “YES, THIS SIGN IS CORRECT.” Personally I think they could have had a sign that explained why there was such a huge discrepancy instead of two signs that are snarky to confused Western Australians. South Australia is on GMT + 9.30, because most of the population lives in the far eastern half of the state; furthermore, South Australia observes daylight savings whereas Western Australia does not. So while our bodies thought it was 7.45 pm, it was actually 10.15 – a disconcerting jump of two and a half hours.
This made getting to sleep in our coffin even more difficult than usual. More irritating was the fact that the showers were coin-operated, and since everything had shut up shop right after we had dinner, there was nobody to change our notes into coins. We went to bed tired and unwashed and with empty wallets. Fuck the Nullarbor Roadhouse.
Nullarbor Roadhouse to Wudinna – 513 km
When I rose in the morning, under daylight, I saw something I hadn’t noticed the previous night.
It reminds me of Ray Winstone in The Proposition: “I will civilise this land.” More importantly, though, was the fact that there was actually daylight. The clouds had mostly parted, and we were witnessing blue sky for the first time since Pemberton, some two thousand kilometres behind us.
We went to the roadhouse for breakfast, at either 8.30 or 11.00. Stupid timezones. Behind the counter was a girl from the UK, who explained how she and the Irishman had ended up out here: it’s a good way for backpackers to save money and experience the “real” Australia. We talked to a married couple from Melbourne who were heading back east after visiting Perth. Inflicting the dreary eternity of the Nullarbor on yourself more than once, and in such close succession, takes a determined mind. “It’s the kind of thing you want to do once, to have done, and then never do again,” I said.
At least it was a much nicer day. Not only were the clouds gone, but there was absolutely no wind, which made riding a dream. I was getting up to 130k’s with no problems, whereas I’d been previously struggling to hit 110. I spent a lot of my time staring up at the huge, wide, open blue sky. How I missed you, blue sky.
About a hundred k’s east of the roadhouse we found ourselves driving through bushland and trees. So the Nullarbor is basically 10% Nullarbor, 90% forest. We were now in Yalata Aboriginal Land, where you need a permit to stray off the highway. Are there Aboriginals out there, living traditionally? The very last Aboriginal tribe that had never had contact with white man was discovered mind-bogglingly recently, in 1984. Of course, it’s a catch-22: every tribe is the “last” one until we discover a new one. Although we probably are done now.
I’d always thought Ceduna marked the end of the Nullarbor – it certainly marks the first place where you have the option of more than one road to take – but east of a place called Nundroo we found ourselves in tin windmill country again, surrounded by golden acres of wheat and corrugated water tanks and miles of fencing. We stopped for lunch in Ceduna, a place the Gullottis and Hills had both warned us was “a hole,” presumably because it has a significant Aboriginal population. I thought it was OK. While we had lunch I bought some zip-ties from a hardware store and scribbled myself a new license plate, on cardboard I cut out of a box of Shapes.
Good as new!
It blew off in the wind enroute to our next stop, and I didn’t bother replacing it again. We left the Eyre Highway on a reccomended detour south, which was about as boring and even longer. On the plus side we visited the pleasant little town of Smoky Bay.
We’d been planning to take a ferry across the Spencer Gulf, which would have saved us hundreds of kilometres and provided a pleasant break from riding, but we’d found out in Ceduna that it was discontinued several years ago. This meant we’d have to get to Adelaide via Port Augusta after all, but there was no chance of making it there that night, so we stopped at a wheat-farming town called Wudinna which had a strange obsession with granite, featuring several granite-related attractions that I’m sure as many as five or six people visit each year.
After two nights in the tent we were quite ready to shell out the money for a twin room at a motel. Dinner was better and more reasonably priced than it had been on the Nullarbor, and also featured James Boags (for some reason the pubs at both Caiguna and the Nullarbor Roadhouse shut very early). “I am so glad,” I said, “that we’re out of that expensive desert.” Having a bed again, of course, was the greatest luxury of all.
For some reason the motel room TV only picked up Northern Territory stations, which was weird, but provided a fascinating glimpse into a frontier world. “Vote to introduce the bottle refund scheme in the Territ’ry!” a PSA urged us. “The scheme works in South Australia and it will work in the Territ’ry! It hasn’t increased the cost of living in South Australia, and it won’t in the Territ’ry!”
“TerriTORY!” Chris shouted at the TV.
A poltical advertisement featured a middle-aged white man in business clothes walking around Alice Springs and speaking earnestly to the camera. “We’re all sick of it – drunkenness, graffitti, littering, anti-social behaviour. Vote for me, and let’s clean up Alice Springs!” You all know who I’m talking about, I imagined him saying.
“I’ve had the best idea,” Chris said. “When we get to a sign that says “WELCOME TO MELBOURNE,” we should take a photo of both of us sitting in our bikes in front of it giving the camera the finger, and mail it to that mechanic in Esperance.”
Both Caiguna and the Nullarbor Roadhouse had noisy generators running all night, but as I went to sleep in that motel, it was in absolute silence. Or it would have been, but in my head I could still hear the screaming of my bike’s engine and the sound of the wind hammering against my helmet.
It’s often said that Perth is the most isolated city in the world, which only works if you define a city as having a population of at least one million, and if you ignore Auckland. Yet there’s no denying that it’s still a long way from anywhere, a distant and lonely place on the far end of the Australian continent, separated from the eastern states by thousands of kilometres of desert. Growing up in Perth, I always saw the eastern states as a semi-mythical place beyond the horizon, the headquarters of a nation where all the important decisions were made, dispatched almost absent-mindedly to our remote outpost. Even Adelaide huddles down in the south-eastern corner of South Australia, close to the warmth of civilisation.
This is one of many reasons I want to spend my life anywhere but in Perth. My current decision was to move to Melbourne, and Perth’s staggering isolation is also one of the reasons I decided to do this overland. Rather than jumping on a $150 Jetstar flight, I thought it would be much more cathartic (not to mention interesting) to drive to the east coast, to cross the Nullarbor, to watch the odometer roll over and Perth get swallowed up in the trackless wastelands behind me. Even without the move factored in, a roadtrip across Australia has always been something I wanted to do.
At this point in my life, however, the vehicle I own is a 250cc Kawasaki KLX. There are those who say that a 250 is not an appropriate vehicle to cross a continent on. To those I say: please lobby the Western Australian Department of Infrastructure to lift engine capacity restrictions on first-year motorcycle licenses.
Pretty much everybody I talked to said it was a bad idea. On Christmas Day I had nearly every member of my maternal family trying to talk me out of it. I didn’t see what the big deal was. I rode a 125cc bike across Vietnam and I can guarantee that was a hell of a lot more dangerous than anything Australian roads could throw at me. The Nullarbor in particular had everybody fretting. At the time I was reading Jupiter’s Travels, and found this passage to be quite apt:
The Crossing of the Nullarbor was a legend that died hard. People had been trying to frighten me with it for months… Australians in cities love to shudder at the merciless hostility of their continent. I wondered whether it was a sort of apology for betraying the national ideal, an excuse for not being out there digging.
Chris was originally one of the legion of naysayers, before changing his mind and deciding to come along with me for the hell of it. Suddenly the choir of disagreeable voices was quieter. Whether because they thought it was safer in a pair or because they thought I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my perpetual caregiver is debatable. In any case, we did a dry run by riding the bikes down to our annual trip to Collie, where much laughter was enjoyed by all as my KLX’s crappy mileage meant I ran out of petrol on the side of the highway ten kilometres short of the first service station. 135 k’s, including reserve. No biggie. I’d just need to carry some jerry cans.
Perth to Bunbury – 182 km
Ah, the first day of a voyage! We’d packed light – Chris was carrying his own two backpacks of clothes (one to wear and one to strap to the bike), as well as a sleeping bag, self-inflater and very compact two-man tent. I had two backpacks as well, plus a sleeping bag, self-inflater, and my Dad’s old saddlebags with a five-litre jerry can in each. I’d also borrowed my Dad’s old Rossi motorcycle boots, which he purchased circa 1980. Retro fashion!
We didn’t set off until about 3.30 pm, which was a slack start, but it really should have been just a quick ride down the freeway. Bunbury was a fairly modest target for the day, but I have relatives there we could stay with, and starting out a trip in comfort and familiarity is always a nice thing. My Dad opened the backyard gate for us, we pulled out into a road covered in schoolkids that had just let out, hit Reid Highway and were soon southbound on the freeway. The skyscrapers and the river came and went, a tiny slice of city separating the huge swathes of northern and southern suburbs. Goodbye to all that – snorkelling at the beach, swimming in the Hill’s pool, the cinemas at Innaloo, Karrinyup Shopping Centre, the shady patio out the back of Chris’ house, drinking at the Flying Scotsman with Sam, waking up at 5 am to the sound of Kristie’s dog screaming like an injured woman, driving along West Coast Highway on a sunny afternoon… a few days before we’d left, when I’d come home drunk from Terri and James’ engagement party at two in the morning, I’d stumbled across the road to my old high school. I walked across the oval and up the embankment, drawn by a demountable clasroom that had all its lights on for some reason. I stared in the window entranced by it for a while – I used to have Biology classes in that room, asking Mr. Hugo stupid questions like “can you drink lava?” or “do trees have souls?” More than twenty years of my life in this encapsulated suburban world, a thousand miles from anywhere, quiet and unimportant, the archetype of a generic city. Goodbye to all that.
After the ride to Collie and back I felt much more comfortable sitting on 100 k’s an hour. We stopped for our first refuel in Safety Bay, just outside Mandurah. “You be careful on those bikes,” a woman refueling her car said.
“Yeah, someone’s already flipped me off today,” Chris said.
“Really? What for?”
“I dunno. Riding a bike?”
In the same way that I took a photo of every bed I slept in when travelling around the world, I resolved to take a photo of every petrol bowser we filled up at.
As we pulled out of the servo I was cut off by a truck and didn’t see which direction Chris went in. I made a wrong guess, and ended up on Ellis Road. After some phone calls we eventually linked back up, but the traffic lights on Ellis Road and trying to find the right address in Bunbury (a larger town than many Perth residents assume) meant we didn’t arrive at the Gullottis’ house until sunset. I’d expected Uncle Tony to cook us SOME-AH SPICY MEAT-A-BALLAS, but instead he resisted satisfying our demands for a stereotype and gave us steak and some other exotic, highly delicious stuff. It’s always pleasant at Collie to drift over to the Gullotti camper around evening and smell what Tony’s cooking up.
After dinner we pored over some old maps and brochures of the South-West they had, to see if there were any decent free camping spots on our planned route. “Not that I think you guys haven’t prepared for this,” Tony said, “but isn’t this something you should have done earlier?”
“It’s kind of… hard to do, until you’re in the trip itself,” Chris said.
“Yeah,” I said. “You don’t really have the motivation for it until then. Or we don’t, anyway.”
Here is a photo of the Gullotti’s adorable puppy Indy. Chris and I spent quite some time trying to figure out what her goggly eyes reminded us of, before deciding that it was the humans in Half-Life 2, whose eyes would follow you around the room while barely turning their heads.
Bunbury to Busselton – 53 KM
A weak ride, but Chris had family friends in Busselton we could stay with, and the prospect of two beds in a row was too good to pass up. We lazed around the Gullottis’ all morning with Brett, who is quite eagerly transitioning into the lazy life of a university student. Ah, how I envy him, with three years of rising at noon and drinking as much beer as he pleases ahead of him. We talked about how neither of us were really feeling the trip yet; it always takes a while to get into it. Eventually, after noon, we started packing our bags and putting our gear on. Chris and Brett both mocked me for strapping my Leatherman to my belt.
“You look lik a gay ranger,” Brett said.
“Yeah, with the tight jeans and the boots and all,” Chris said. “You look like Woody from Toy Story.”
They had a point.
After a gruelling forty minute ride down the highway to Busselton, we arrived at the quaint little home, well, their names escape me, but they were two old friends of Chris’ parents. We had the rest of the afternoon to kill, so we went and walked the length of Busselton’s jetty, which is the second-longest wooden-piled jetty in the southern hemisphere – a merit that contains slightly too many qualifiers to be impressive. It is quite long, though.
We visited the underwater observatory at the end, which was pretty neat, considering all the fish you see are wild animals.
Afterwards we went for a quick swim, despite the brisk weather, and lazed about on the beach for a while. It was a perfectly warm evening, and when we returned home, our host cooked us a steak dinner. Beds and steak two nights in a row was more than we had any right to expect on this trip.
The South-West is such a pleasant region. It’s the kind of place I can see myself retiring to, pottering around with a garden and some writing projects, with a loving wife and a cat and a dog and our kids off at university.
I spent the evening perusing the maps in our road atlas, and noticed, with a tinge of white guilt, that Tasmania has no Aboriginal town names. I wonder why? Obviously Tasmania is the only state where we completely wiped out the Aboriginal population, but they weren’t greatly loved in the others states either, and those are still full of Manjimups and Wollongongs and Ngangaras.
Also, guess how many sealed roads there are linking western Australia with eastern Australia? Go on, guess.
There are only two – the Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor in the south, and the Barkly Highway between the Northern Territory and Queensland in the north. That’s it. Well, okay, technically the Stuart Highway connects the two halves because it runs from the west of the beginning of the Barkly down to the east of the end of the Eyre, but that would be a pretty roundabout route, and in any case three sealed roads is still a stunningly low number. And these aren’t huge highways – they’re just two-lane blacktop. Imagine if the United States only had two or three bridges across the Mississippi River. Australia – what a country!
Busselton to Pemberton – 232 km
This was our first proper ride, taking us off the highways in the Perth region and down into proper back-country roads. For some reason we decided that we needed to get up very early, which meant neither of us slept very well. I just can’t relax and sleep when I know I have to get up early, because I worry about oversleeping, and tense up every thirty seconds thinking “Did I fall asleep?! Did I oversleep?!”
We ended up leaving at a quarter to eleven, took a road past Dunsborough, and started the first ride we were actually looking forward to: the Caves Road, which hugs the coast from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south. It’s a lovely little road, winding up and down hills, through karri forests, and past the snobby cultural sector of rural Western Australia – all wineries and craft stores and art galleries. We stopped for lunch at a hipster vegetarian cafe in Margaret River, and then experienced something I never thought I’d see this side of the 21st century: a service station with an actual attendant who came out and filled up our tanks for us. Very quaint, but wholly pointless – I can see why we don’t have them anymore.
South of Margaret River the road wound through pockets of karri forest. Is it karri or jarrah that we nearly wiped out? There seemed to be an awful lot of them.
East of Augusta, we headed inland on the Brockman Highway, and suddenly the lush karri forests became dry, scrubby banksias. Much less interesting. The road wound through this parched bushland for about 75 kilometres, featureless except for some lizard roadkill and a few lumber trucks. According to the road atlas it’s not national park, yet it doesn’t seem to be put to any use at all. I’m not sure what’s up with that.
Eventually the Brockman led us onto the Vasse Highway, and the scenery returned to karri forest again – with far more of it this time, the trees taller and greener. We were testing out the jerry cans for the first time, since there didn’t seem to be any petrol stations between Margaret River and Pemberton. My ass was sore and my head was hurting from wearing the helmet for so long, but I knew I only had to hold out to 135 k’s, when my bike would run out of fuel. The fickle bastard lasted until 150.
In Pemberton, we located a caravan park and were violently robbed at gunpoint, being charged $30 for the privilege of a patch of dirt on which to pitch our tent.
Once that was sorted, we jumped back on the bikes and set off to hunt down the Gloucester Tree.
The Gloucester Tree is a fire lookout at the top of a 61 metre karri tree, which is accessible to the public by ladder. I was too young to climb it when I first visited Pemberton at the tender age of two, but when we returned some years later, I was determined to conquer it. Unfortunately I was then only five, which was still a little too young to manage it, and I chickened out. But now I’m 22, by God, and there’s not a tree on this earth too tall for me to climb!
It is quite an impressive tree – as you can see, I couldn’t fit it into one photo.
Here we go. This one’s for you, five-year old Mitch.
Before seeing it Chris had been ambivalent about bothering to, because he’d never heard of it before and had assumed it was some tiny loser tree. “I didn’t think they’d just let people do something like this in Australia,” he said, as we started climbing, before adding, “This is well dangerous.”
I’m not frightened of heights, but there was definitely a low-key anxiety about climbing up there. Theoretically you can’t fall out because there are wires to your right, but you could certainly slip and fall down the rungs, smashing your body to bits along the way.
But we made it. After many years, I FINALLY CONQUERED THE GLOUCESTER TREE.
Some impressive views. According to the visitor’s centre it’s still a working fire lookout, but there was nobody up there, and I’m pretty sure we have planes and satellites for that kind of thing nowadays.
The tree was first climbed in 1947 by forester Jack Watson, using spiked boots and a belt. Another forester, George Reynolds, built the ladder and the original platform. The tree was named after Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who was Australia’s Governor-General at the time, and who picnicked in the area, no doubt reclining on a tartan blanket and sipping tea while Jack and George took their shirts off and lopped branches off from a height of fifty metres, their sinewy muscles glistening with the sweat of honest labour. Under the quaint logic of British Australia, the Duke clearly contributed the most to the tree and thus deserved the naming honour.
I got it in my head as a child that the Gloucester Tree was the tallest lookout tree in the world, and was disappointed to discover that it’s actually only the second-tallest. Not only that, but the tallest, the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, is also located just outside Pemberton.
Well, whatever. Childhood goal accomplished.
We stopped off at IGA to buy some food to cook for dinner. Afterwards I had a shower, and then Chris and I fed some ducks for a while, since we had fuck all else to do.
“What time is it?” Chris asked, after we’d gone through half a loaf of bread.
“So we have… four hours to kill.”
The sun set, and we went for a wander around town, which was as thoroughly deserted as if a government evacuation order had been issued. Never before had I encountered such eerie silence in an urban setting. There were faint stirrings of light and life around the local pub, and Chris and I had an argument about whether to go in there or not. I held the notion that country pubs are full of Akubra-wearing, beer-gutted truck drivers who would rapidly sniff out and eliminate any interlopers. Chris’ position that this was ludicrous held the field, and we went to the pub, which was also almost deserted. We played a few rounds of pool, then went back to the caravan park.
“Good God, I’m bored,” I said.
“It’s just that… we don’t really have anywhere to be,” Chris said. Our tent was a one-man swag, with a diamond shape that meant we could just barely get away with fitting in two sleepers lying perfectly still. It certainly wasn’t a place where we could hang out.
We retreated to the caravan park’s cooking area, where the lights meant we could at least read, and cracked open the bottle of wine we’d bought at the liquor store. This was a cunning plan to assist in sleep; since we had only thin self-inflating sleeping pads and inflatable pillows, we both knew we were in for a very difficult night. I’d been texting my girlfriend, and at 9.07 she mentioned “I’m going to see the Getaway Plan tonight and maybe join Mike at the Court after.”
“This bears emphasis,” I said. “While we’re counting down the minutes until our night is over, Kristie’s hasn’t even begun.”
The lights were automatically shut off at 10 pm, and we retreated to the tent. It could charitably be described as cosy. I didn’t fall asleep until after twelve. At about 4 am we were woken by pattering rain, and had to scramble to grab our bags and gear and bring them inside the tent. Now it was even cosier! It took hours to fall asleep again, and then a flock of kookaburras woke us up around dawn. I didn’t even know kookaburras went in flocks.
Pemberton to Albany – 243 km
Tired and aching, we packed up camp just before ten and had a quick breakfast of toast and baked beans. Over coffee at the nearby café we reviewed our route: down the Vasse Highway and onto the Western, through Walpole and Denmark along the south coast, before arriving in Albany where we had a hostel room booked. A hostel room with sweet, juicy, delicious, actual beds waiting for us.
It was grey and overcast, and though it didn’t look likely to rain, it was quite cold. For some reason I’d left my jacket lining at the bottom of my clothes bag, which was now firmly occy strapped to the bike. The ride was as beautiful as it had been the day before, winding through more enormous karri trees, but I was too cold to enjoy it.
We stopped to fuel up in a town called Northcliffe, which I had never heard of before, before passing a sign that said “Welcome to Denmark.” This was confusing, since I was pretty sure Denmark was 150 kilometres away. Since I also had no recollection of making the turn-off onto the Vasse outside of Pemberton, I began to worry. Was I suffering from a mental problem that erased huge swathes of my memory? Had I just ridden 150 kilometres without realising it? (It turned out we were actually just being welcomed to the shire of Denmark.)
We stopped for lunch in Walpole, where I finally gave up and dug the jacket lining out of my bag. In the carpark we met a guy of indeterminate European nationality, who lived in Harvey and was just about to complete the final leg of a round-Australia trip on his V-Strom. Looking at his comfy, comfy seat made my ass insane with jealousy.
Outside of Walpole we stopped to visit the Treetop Walk. I’d seen it before, nine years ago on a family trip, but it was pleasant enough to visit again.
There’s also a land-based boardwalk nearby, and I insisted we walk along that too, to get our money’s worth. “I’m pretty done with trees, dude,” Chris said.
“You won’t be saying that on the Nullarbor.”
Eventually I was satisfied with the ratio of dollars spent per trees witnessed, and we returned to the carpark. Here I did something I’d been doing an awful lot of: while backing my bike out, and twisting the handlebars to turn it, I got directions mixed up in my head and instead of pressing down on the ignition button I pressed down on the horn. Not as embarassing as dropping it in the Video Ezy carpark the day before we left, but close. Chris laughed at me, and we left.
We fuelled up in Denmark, where the day’s grey cloud cover was finally threatening to turn into actual precipitation. The final 50 kilometre stretch into Albany was freezing and windy and spotted with rain, and we flew along the road at 115 k’s an hour. The whole day I’d been keen for the ride to be over, eyeing the odometer like I used to eye the clock at work. When we pulled into the Albany YHA I crawled up onto the top bunk and had myself a good, long lie down.
Dinner was a bleak roast dinner at the local pub, where a nearby group of yobbos were loudly discussing their bitches and hos. “When you’re overseas,” Chris commented, “you don’t understand the language, so you don’t really notice… class, or dignity.”
“Shhh,” I said.
Albany is also a place I haven’t been to for about nine years, since I was a young ‘un. It seems a pleasant enough town, with lots of 19th century buildings and blustery weather and a strong nautical tradition. Sort of like New England or Canada’s Maritime provinces. Yes, I did just compare a place I’ve been to before with places I’ve never been to.
Albany to Esperance – 483 km
We set our alarms to wake us up at 7.30, but we both ignored them and slept another hour. Neither of us are naturally given to early starts. At 8.30 it began to rain. “Fuck,” I said, peering out the curtains.
“It’s days like these I wish we had a car,” Chris said.
We packed our bags and went about our morning routine in the hope that it might just be a brief spell, but it wasn’t. Shelled out a dollar to use the Internet and check BOM; both the Albany and Esperance radars were down, but the forecast for the south coast proclaimed shitty weather for the rest of the day. We decided there was nothing for it but to grit our teeth and wrap all our stuff in plastic bags.
We had breakfast at a nice little restaurant called Dillons, which had a vintage bike up on the staircase.
Half an hour later we were on the road out of town, stuck behind a piece of earthmoving equipment trundling along at 10 k’s an hour. How I loathe riding in such blustery, grey, bleak, overcast, miserable, drizzly weather. My legs were shivering and my visor was perpetually fogging up. At least the rain had lightened up a little, down to a light sprinkling.
From here on there were no more forests – just scrubland and a few farms, the southern fringe of the Wheatbelt, where sheep farmers eked out a meagre living at the edge of the continent. The first service station we came to, a speck on the map called Wellstead, had a sign announcing “Ammunition Sold Here,” which signalled to me that we were now well out in the country.
It also had a strange mural.
The roads were long and straight and featureless, and it was beginning to dawn on me that the boring stretches of this grand cross-continental ride would consist of much more than just the Nullarbor.
Worst of all were the cross-winds, requiring us to lean ten degrees to the right, and occasionally making a rapid shift which would unbalance me – an unnerving experience. Sometimes they’d force me quite close to the gravel shoulder, and I was forced to ride essentially right down the dotted line in the middle of the road. We were also encountering our first road trains, which would rush past us in the oncoming lane with a whoosh of displaced air. The trick was to slow down and duck your head down low, so the wind went right over you. It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be; certainly not as bad as the detractors of this trip had made it out to be, who seemed to imagine rural Australian truck drivers as being identical to the antagonist in Duel.
The headwind meant I ran out of fuel earlier than usual, at 115 k’s, just two hundred metres shy of Ravensthorpe’s petrol station. The jerries were full, so it was no huge hassle, but Chris and I had an argument about his conviction that I must be riding the bike wrong, rather than the fact that it’s simply a dirtbike with low fuel mileage, and a 110 k’s down straight roads into a headwind will use a lot more fuel than lower speeds along a windy highway near Pemberton on a still day. I always find it frustrating to explain to Chris (or to anyone) the problems and issues I face while riding, because so much of it is just feeling, that’s hard to articulate.
The final stretch into Esperance was very difficult on the ass and soul, with the wind still going strong and the skies as grey as ever. We caught a brief glimpse of blue skies when we stopped to fill up from the jerries.
We finally reached the town at dusk after 488 kilometres of leaning to the right, sore and weary. We’d booked another hostel, which was less flash but more expensive than the one in Albany. We’d originally planned to have a day off in Esperance, which supposedly has the best beaches in WA, but it was still cold and windy and showed no sign of letting up. Behold the wonderful beaches out the front of our hostel:
Unfortunately, it looked like we’d have to spend a day there for another reason – Chris’ chain had started sagging, and he’d need to visit a mechanic. Just like Vietnam all over again!
We had Red Rooster for dinner, and played some pool and chess. Some Danish backpackers were discussing the Internet with an English backpacker, who was using one of those satellite USB thingies in his laptop. “In Europe there is free wifi at all hostels,” the Danish guy said, “and we thought would be the same here, but always just computers and $1 for 15 minutes…”
“Oh, they’re backwards, mate, so backwards,” the Englishman said.
No arguments from me. I recall hearing a maxim that Australia is ten years behind the rest of the world, and WA is ten years behind the rest of Australia. So that would put us in 1991. Of course, Tony Abbott is right, we can’t build the NBN because it’s a great big fat waste of taxpayer money that could instead go towards a new detention centre for refugees surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by crocodiles.
Long Way Round by Robert Uhlig (2004) 312 p.
Long Way Round is a fairly well-known TV series documenting the journey undertaken by actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in 2004, riding motorcycles all the way around the world from London to New York, across very remote and wild terrain in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia. McGregor was already quite a famous actor, appearing in Star Wars, Trainspotting and Big Fish; Boorman was considerably less well-known, in the shadow of both Ewan and his more famous father John Boorman (the director of Deliverance). Long Way Round turned out to be the largest success story of both their careers.
I’d already greatly enjoyed the TV series, and since I have motorbikes on the brain at the moment, I recently rewatched it and then picked up the book, which is ostensibly written by both of them but is actually obviously ghostwritten. The style is a bit strange, actually – it regularly cuts between Charley and Ewan, prefacing their segments with their names, but there is no difference whatsoever in their writing style (because, of course, they didn’t really write it) and the only way I could ever remember who was talking was to see whether it was “Charley and I” or “Ewan and I” doing something. I’m really not sure why they chose that style.
The book is related in a fairly conversational tone, as though the two adventurers are telling you stories at the pub, and the chronology jumps around quite a bit in the early stages, with flashbacks to the planning sections while they’re already riding through Europe. It’s a very easy and quick read, and one which I found very enjoyable, but I wouldn’t recommend it to somebody who hadn’t already watched the TV series.
For somebody who has watched the TV series, however, it’s a fascinating in-depth look at the journey. There were a lot of things which happened to them that weren’t featured in the series simply because they didn’t catch them on film and therefore couldn’t work them into the narrative; my favourite would have to be Charley pulling two people out of a car crash on the Road of Bones. There’s a deeper insight into their relationship with their two producers, Russ and David, including a crucial confrontation in Prague; there’s also a deeper insight into the two men themselves. Both Ewan and Charley are extremely honest about what they think about themselves and each other: their flaws, their strengths, the things they do that really piss each other off… and the fact that, at the end of the day, their positives outweigh their negatives and they’re still best friends. There’s also appendices detailing the exact mileage and destinations they covered on every day off the trip, and a full inventory of all the equipment they carried on the bikes and in the support vehicles.
Overall, Long Way Round is an excellent supplement to its televised brother, but probably wouldn’t work as a stand-alone book.
In 28 hours my plane will be taking off from Perth International Airport and launching my friend Chris and I into a realm of adventure – a realm also known as the PLANET EARTH! To be regaled with exciting tales of frustrating third-world transport, visa hassles and dodgy Asian street food, bookmark Grub Street’s sister blog,
I’ll still be using Grub Street for book reviews and other assorted miscellany, so don’t delete it! PLEASE DON’T
TIGER AIRWAYS FLIGHT 2717
DEPART PERTH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (PER) 9.35 PM TUESDAY APRIL 27
ARRIVE SINGAPORE CHANGI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (SIN) 2.50 AM WEDNESDAY APRIL 28
After many many many weeks of constantly checking http://www.skyscanner.net in the hope of finding a cheap fare to Asia, Chris and I finally bit the bullet and booked a flight last night. Obviously 3.00 AM isn’t the ideal time to be rocking up in a foreign city, but unless we wanted to shell out six or seven hundred dollars for a non-budget flight, they were all at shit times. As it stands we paid $201 each, airline taxes and bagagge checking and all, which is pretty good for Perth to Singapore.
Now, in the six weeks until we leave, we need to sort out stuff like visas and proper shoes and travel insurance and first aid kits. To discuss boring crap like that, which is only of interest to people planning similar trips, I’m going to crack out the other blog I registered ages and ages ago, and which I named after an unremarkable but titularly appropriate novel: Gentlemen of the Road. Feel free to ignore it until later in the year, when it will be full of delightful adventures about breaking out in hives from antimalarial medication or getting the shit kicked out of us by Russian border guards.
43 days to go!
American Journeys by Don Watson (2008) 326 p.
America holds a fascinating sway for Australians – for foreigners in general, certainly, but more so for an English-speaking nation with little history and a feeble culture. I grew up watching the Simpsons, eating at McDonalds, reading Calvin and Hobbes, going to see Hollywood blockbusters and playing Grand Theft Auto. For me, names like “California” and “New York” are on par with “Narnia” and “Oz,” equally fantastic and unreachable.
And yet there is a vehement anti-American streak running through Australian society; perhaps a kneejerk reaction against our children being bred as quasi-Americans, or a way to compensate for our own inferiority complex, or simply the fact that most of the world, by and large, dislikes America. This creates a paradox, one which Australian journalist Don Watson tasked himself with exploring:
On The United States of America my senses swing like a door with no latch. They are moved by fierce gusts and imperceptible zephyrs. Love and loathing come and go in about the same proportion. But then, one rages about one’s own siblings from time to time, and one’s own country: it is not rational, in the main. Yet there had been a time when anti-Americanism took on a gleam of reason. As earnest student radicals in the late 1960s, we saw the thread that joined the vicious white mobs of the South to the very foundations of the republic – because we learned that such founders of American democracy as Washington and Jefferson took slaves. We learned what we took to be the real truth about the Indian Wars, the Mexican Wars and the Monroe Doctrine, and it persuaded us that Vietnam was part of a pattern which, when you looked at it hard, revealed IMPERIALISM.
But just as we were thinking it was in the “nature’ of America to be brutal, racist and imperialistic, a paradox appeared. The Freedom Marchers had been American. Martin Luther King was American. Sidney Perelmen was American. Mark Twain was American. Portnoy was American. Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, William Appleman Williams, Herbert Marcuse and Robert Crumb were all American. Our jeans were American. The most articulate critics of America – the most articulate people on earth, and the most liberal – were American. The America of my most avid anti-American phase was the America of my first rational adult heroes. The paradox, greatly modified though it is, animates me still.
America itself is a paradox. It is a country responsible for the lion’s share of the great technological and scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, yet a country where evolution is widely disbelieved and the vast majority of the population is religious. It is a country that, in spite of its Christian values, executes convicts by the truckload and craves a war every twenty years or so. It is a country full of people who call for “smaller government” while supporting the erosion of civil liberties. None of this is this a new phenomenon; the phrase “all men are born equal” was coined by slaveowners.
It is on this paradox that Watson bases his book, part travelogue and part social commentary. His journey took place in 2005 and 2006, beginning in Katrina-devastated New Orleans and spanning a very respectable chunk of the country, crossing back and forth almost as much as Jack Kerouac in On The Road. There are several recurring themes – race relations, the plight of America’s underclass, the pervasive influence of Christianity, the political polarity. Watson is a fine writer and an intelligent scholar, and while American Journeys can be tedious at times, one is never short of food for thought.
For a book supposedly about the Great American Paradox, however – which would mean both the good and the bad – American Journeys paints a very bleak picture. Black Americans continue to occupy a low socio-economic rung. The prison-industrial complex leaves penitentiaries overflowing with inmates. Violence seems ingrained in the history and the culture. There is no universal healthcare, the state values the rights of employers over employees, and the minimum wage is appallingly low – many people live day-to-day, dollar-to-dollar, teetering above the poverty line. The political sphere is rife with slander, pettiness, and unebelievable ignorance.
Watson mentions only two arguments in favour of America. The first (and minor) one is the kindness and friendliness of its individual citizens, which I’ll come back to in a moment. The second – a major theme which he bases his entire conclusion around – is American freedom.
Freedom is such an old chestnut of American rhetoric that it does not impress outsiders as perhaps it should. The more the president speaks of it, the less meaning it registers… And yet, when one travels in America, the chestnut sheds at least some of its shell. You come to see that, to Americans, freedom means something that we incurable collectivists do not quite understand; and that they know freedom in ways that we do not. Freedom is the country’s sacred state. Freedom is what must be protected. All over, they will tell you what is wrong with America, but freedom is the one thing they think right. And whatever the insults to my social democratic senses, that is what I find irresistable about the place – the almost guilty, adolescent feeling that in this place a person can do what he wants. He can grow absurdly rich; he can hunt a mountain lion; he can harbour the most fantastic ideas; he can shoot someone. He can commune with God and nature, buy anything he wants, pay anyone for any service and at any fee. He can be a social outcast or even a prisoner and yet, being American, believe that he is free.
If I am American, I am as free as a person can be. If I am free, I can do – or dream of doing – all the things it is in my nature to do or to dream; no other place on Earth need interest me. So long as I am guaranteed this freedom, I will forgive the things my country does that are not in my nature or my dreams. I will be “spared all the care of thinking about them.” This is, of course, unless my country or some other place threatens freedom.
This comes completely out of the left field in the afterword, as though Watson suddenly realised he’d written a comprehensive tome detailing every one of America’s flaws and felt compelled to balance it out somehow. It feels quite hollow when he has been told numerous times throughout the book, by taxi drivers and barmen and retirees and countless others, that America is a unique stronghold of freedom – and which he counters every time with the plain and simple fact that dozens of other countries are equally free. More free, perhaps, given the current American penchant for trading in civil liberties for security.
The lasting impression I got from the book (one which I mostly already held) was that America is, among Western countries, an extremely dysfunctional nation. A fascinating place, yes, when held at arm’s length and viewed through the lens of movies and video games, and a place which I already have plans to visit. But not a place where I would like to permanently live, or raise a family. Not a healthy society.
I probably shouldn’t cast judgement on a country I’ve never been to, only experienced (a lot, mind you) through popular culture. But I’ll do it anyway. I think that, under my personal definition of “great,” America is far from being the greatest nation on earth. I think it is nonetheless the most interesting nation on Earth, by a long shot. I think it’s important to separate people from their governments; I’ve met many Americans in my time, and found, as Watson did, that they’re quite friendly and likeable. I have nothing but disdain for Australians (invariably, Australians who’ve never actually met an American) who accuse American citizens of being arrogant and rude and stupid – without a shred of self-awareness. It’s one thing to criticise the sweeping history of the American nation/government’s brutality; quite another thing to generalise 300 million people.
I think that while America has many flaws, there are plenty of great things about it… but that none of those great things are absent in the other nations of the Western world.
I think that while these other Western nations may not seem to have as many severe flaws as America does, that may just be because we are smaller and quieter and less populous. I think that Australia or Europe or Canada would be equally liable to sabre-rattling and imperialism, were any one of us the most powerful nation in the world.
I think that, while my beliefs about America may be naive or uninformed, at leas I’m fucking consistent and lucid with them, unlike Don Watson.
American Journeys makes a lot of interesting arguments about aspects of America, but ultimately fails to make any kind of cohesive statement on the country as a whole, other than the bizarrely uncharacteristic afterword that suggests Watson felt a book about America would be incomplete without a big stirring speech about trademarked American Freedom – a myth he has previously debunked. (A myth that is self-evidently debunked, for that matter.)
That’s okay, I suppose. America has been the defining cultural, political and economic juggernaut all over the world for nearly a century, and will remain so in the English-speaking world for a long time to come. You can’t wrap your head around it by taking a few train rides and writing a book, let alone by reading that book from your distant home in suburban Australia. I doubt I’ll ever understand a place as powerful, dynamic, intense and loud as America, but if my life goes to plan I’ll be arriving there sometime next year, and I’ll see things for myself.
Chris and I went to the travel medical centre on Mill Street today, since the world overseas is a seething cesspit of hideous tropical maladies. Also because I’m a total pussy who hasn’t had a single vaccination since they were mandatory in primary school, so I’m not really safe to live here in Perth either. I thought I was being so clever when I wriggled my way out of hepatitis and meningitis vaccinations in high school. Now I want to go back in time and punch that kid in the face.
In any case, the last shot I had (tetanus, 2000) left me pale and sickly for hours afterwards, and I think I threw up when I got my measles shot the previous year, so I wasn’t looking forward to getting an estimated ten or eleven vaccinations for travelling. While we were sitting in the doctor’s office discussing exactly what we’d need I started to feel increasingly queasy and had to splash some water on my face. I am a creampuff.
Getting the shots themselves wasn’t too bad, though, so I guess my body has manned up since I was 12 years old even if my mind hasn’t. Today I got a new diptheria/tetanus shot, polio, the first of my Hepatitis B shots and the first of my rabies shots (those two both require a three-week course). In the coming weeks we also need to get typhoid and yellow fever, and decide which anti-malarials we’re going to take, since each type comes with a different set of fun side effects. Diseases sure do suck, although I guess they suck worse for the people living in the third world who actually have to get them.
Including consultancy it cost $270 for that session alone. Medicare doesn’t cover travel vaccinations. I went to the doctor for something unrelated the other day, and paid $70 out of pocket for a five-minute consultation. Isn’t Australia supposed to have free healthcare? I’ve often said that the fact that America doesn’t have free healthcare is absolutely mind-boggling, but somehow I’ve managed to become an adult with my own Medicare card without really learning how our system works at all.
I’m sort of bummed out about money in general, because these vaccinations are going to cost way more than I thought they would, and yesterday I found out that my hours at Coles have been slashed so I’m going to be earning less than $400 a week. I’ve rung up my other job three times since returning from Collie, and my boss has been “unavailable” every time. I always got the distinct impression I was just a Christmas casual, but I assumed a small business owner would be professional enough to tell me that rather than avoid me.
I’m sitting on just over $13,000, so I should easily reach $15,000 by April, but that was always the absolute minimum. I’d be a lot happier with $17,000 or $18,000. Incidentally, what is it with travel blogs and being coy about how much you spend? I find it very frustrating when reading about other travellers and trying to gauge how much our own trip might cost. It’s not the 1950’s anymore. Grow up.
Did some more planning for the first leg of the trip. The biggest hurdle is still the Russian visa/Trans-Siberian clusterfuck, or “chaos snail” as we have christened it. Getting a Russian visa requires an invitation and confirmation and you need an exit visa and all this tiresome bureaucratic claptrap. I don’t think it’s been updated since the Soviet era, and it’s going to be our single biggest headache. I couldn’t even pin down the street address of the Russian embassy in Beijing. Chinese embassy in Bangkok, Australian embassy in Beijing, Mongolian embassy in Beijing, no problems. As soon as I try to find the Russian embassy Google Maps takes me to Moscow and all the websites are five years out of date or run by third-party companies trying to sell me a visa invitation.
Speaking of unscrupulous sales, I scalped my Big Day Out ticket for sixty bucks more than it cost me, and I’m trying to figure out how much I could sell my car for. A Hyundai Excel that hasn’t been serviced in eight years, has a huge dent in the side and takes quite a few revs to get started might fetch as much as $400! Email me if you’re interested!