December 31st : New Year’s Eve

31st December 2001 |

Me in The Outback. An uneasy photo-op. Can’t get the camera to balance. Just a tiny bit of rain, and the grass springs up.

I start early again today. It’ll be two hours to Camooweal and the border between Queensland and the Northern Territory, but there is still cloud cover and a bit of rain, so the beginning of the ride is easy. The rain heralds the coming of the Wet. There are two seasons in the Outback, the Dry and the Wet, and of course the Wet has been a long time coming.

I’m glad of the rain here, but one of my reasons for hurrying to Darwin is that I want to arrive before there’s any chance of a cyclone cutting it off.

In 1976 I didn’t go to Darwin, because there was no there there. Cyclone Tracy had abolished it.

Today, Darwin is the cheapest and easiest way out of Australia, and I’ve got a free ride for the bike on a boat to Singapore, so I need to make it there in time.

Long before my next stop, though, it’s dry and hot again, and now the heat will really build up as I get closer to the center of the continent.

At Camooweal I get my breakfast, eggs and bacon again, but more expensive and less of it than yesterday. And the gas is 20 per cent up in price too, so I pass. This is where my huge fuel tank really comes into its own.

I talk briefly to a trucker and his mate who’ve just come from Darwin. The trucker has big bushy white whiskers, and I can hardly hear anything he says through them, but I understand that in the evening the big red kangaroos just stand there and look at you, instead of getting out of the way.

Then he tells me never to let my gear out of my sight or they’ll nick it.
Who are “they”?
I’m pretty sure he means aboriginals, but unlike in the seventies, you’re not allowed to say that any more.
I’m seeing more aboriginals now around the fuel stops, strange wraithlike figures with black putty faces, very thin, almost unreal, moving without apparent purpose. I hate to generalise. I know nothing about them still, but they don’t look well.

Now it’s 278 miles to where this Barkly Highway meets the Stuart Highway going north. Nothing to do but sit on the bike and absorb the heat. Sixty-five mph is the most comfortable speed, for me and for the bike.
Halfway along is another road house and they’re preparing it for a New Year’s celebration. They are going to make it a Hawaian Night, and women are pinning palm fronds and boogie boards up on the wall.

A young man is directing the proceedings, and telling the women what a good job they’re doing. Apparently all the “ringers” from the cattle stations around are coming here tonight.
It’s only midday, but for a moment I think of making my New Year stand here.
There’s one room left, for $50. I ask if I could use their phone line for my computer. The young man rejects the idea out of hand, with a good deal of self-importance.
“Can’t do it, Mate. I’ve told others. No way.”
He won’t listen to argument. His ignorance offends me. What difference can a three-minute local call make to him? I give up the idea of staying, and get back on the road.
At the junction with Stuart Highway is another roadhouse called Three Corners. I drink a mug of tea, and sit for a while under the cool air from the fans.
Then I fill up again, and ask the clerk how far north I have to go to find a bed. He nods the question across to an attractive woman standing next to us, and she says, “Renner Springs has rooms, or you can go on to Elliot”.
Another 150 miles. That seems about right. 550 miles for the day.
But when I go out to the bike, there’s a man looking at it.
“Where you reckon to get to today, Mate?” he asks.
I tell him Elliot.
“Don’t go there, Mate. It’s a dump. Go to Dunmarra. That’s a much better place. Clean. Decent. Only another 110 kms.”
Another 70 miles or so. Might be stretching it, but still, I feel OK. I’ll have a look at Elliot, and if I don’t like it I can go on.
Before I can leave another motorbike arrives at the roadhouse from the north. The rider is a very tall, thin young man from Israel, on a small Yamaha with a huge amount of luggage. He’s very excited about his journey around Australia, and tells me that he has just been through two scary lightning storms.
“Oh Yeah,” I say.
I seem to have acquired the habit.

There are two kinds of termite mound that litter The Outback. The ones above look more like little gravestones, although sometimes they resemble upright wallabies. The ones below, closer to Darwin, are much more fanciful, and make beautiful little groups that are quite human in appearance.

The land stretches out unbelievably far. A scattering of light cloud has formed above me, which helps to shield me a little. Somewhere north of Elliot, they tell me, is where the Tropics are reckoned to begin. I can see there are rain clouds in the far distant north.
It’s 5.30 by the time I get to Elliot and I ride slowly past the hotel.

It doesn’t look very inviting, and there are aboriginal people flitting all around it. That’s what the man meant when he said it was a dump.

If I hadn’t come so far, maybe I would have the energy to involve myself in this as an experience, but it’s New Year’s Eve, and I want somewhere comfortable, and clean, and unchallenging. So I decide to ride on to Dunmarra. It shouldn’t get dark before 6.30.
When I arrive there I see that it is indeed a good, well run establishment, and congratulate myself on my decision. Inside there’s a man behind the counter.
“What can I do for you, Mate?”
“I’d like a room.”
That’s all he says.
My heart sinks.
“Why? Are you full?”
“We’re not renting the rooms. We don’t know how to run them.”
I can’t understand what he’s talking about. I start asking questions.
“Don’t ask me, Mate. I just work here.”
The guy is just a stone wall, and refuses to explain. I’m really pissed but I don’t want to waste my energy on him. “Well how far do I have to go now, to get a bed?”
“Another fourty-four k’s. To Daly Waters.”
And so that’s how I managed to ride more than 650 miles on New Year’s Eve through The Outback.
The tropical night was falling fast. I was afraid of hitting the big red kangaroos that just stand there and look at you, but I didn’t see a single one.

When I got to Daly Waters it was good. I got the last free room. There was a swimming pool, and I fell into it as quickly as possible, feeling the heat drain out of me.

The woman I’d met at the Three Corners road house was there at the bar, with a man who owned a pub nearby.
She had lived in London for a while, managing a pub called the Surrey Taverner, near a famous cricket ground.
It seems to be something Aussies do when they go to London. She told me about the elderly man from Jamaica who used to come into her pub every day, twice, and drank nothing but green chartreuse.

She had meant to stay in London, but she got homesick. Now she was a teacher. I thought if anyone can explain the attraction of this territory, surely she can, and she tried, but in the end she couldn’t.
Her name was Robin, and we talked all evening.
I bought a bottle of wine, and had a fish dinner at the bar.
Then I went to my room thinking I was going to join them later at her friend’s pub, but instead I fell asleep, and woke up fully clothed at three in the morning with rain bucketing down, and lightning all around.
Happy New Year.