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I walk over a river in the morning and chat with a local on the way out of town. My accent is immediately recognizable. ‘Yous’ a yank, are yeh?,” he asks me. He directs me to walk around the bend to where there is a better spot for people to pull over. This turns out to be good advice.
I’m picked up by a guy delivering a BMW SUV and he’s heading north of Bundaberg. We stop in a town to have the vehicle inspected for emissions and safety regulations. I make it to the Gold Coast and ask a couple if they will watch my backpack while I go for a jog along the beach and a dip in the ocean. It is trusting of me but I determine that I have nothing worth stealing inside the backpack anyways.
The Gold Coast is a hot spot for tourists and surfers. The closest comparison I can think of to it in the US would be the beaches in Los Angeles. Therefore, I don’t care for it too much and I hitchhike out of town at nightfall over a red fire sun that is setting over the ocean and creating jaw-dropping images that I burn into my retina. I’m picked up by a local guy coming home from work and driving a meat delivery truck. He is also a country musician of some sort and invites me out to karaoke with some friends of his.
While driving out to the pub, a family of kangaroos are spotted hopping around near the apartment. After a few glasses of whisky, they somehow convince me to get up with them and sing Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Cold Shot” and it must have been some time shortly after that song that we decide to leave.
The next day I get a lift from a guy who installs high-tech roofs that are mechanical in that they can open up to let the sun inside. He tells me that he has a daughter that got a basketball scholarship and lives in Austin. Dan sets me off where he has work that morning.
While hitching just outside a McShit’s, I get offered a ride by the first trucky in Australia. He tells me about the speed and Codeine epidemic that was prevalent in the last decade and probably still is in different shapes and forms today. He shows me an extensive log book that his employer requires him to fill out. “It’s tedious, annoying and there are always ways around it,” he tells me.
“There are big fines for not following road laws for truck drivers,” he says. ‘Even for riding in the wrong lane you can get a 600 dollar fine.” That night I make it into Bundaberg and sit down in the bleachers at the local park and watch some people play Aussi hockey. It has nothing to do with ice skates and the “sticks” they players carry are more like golf clubs.
There is a solid cracking sound when a player hits the “puck”, which is more like a baseball. They players wear minimal padding and I’m not sure how there are so few injuries.
I sleep in the park and will hitchhike the two kilometers from the park to the farm I have found work at the next day through gumtree.com, a site similar to Craigslist.
Wake up at the face of dawn. Start walking towards the area of the town the farmer lives in and a local tells me “I reckon it’s about seven kilometers away”, so it was further than I originally expected. Nobody picks me up. I’m late for work. I start shouting four letter words in frustration.
Minutes later, a farmer pulls up in a silver truck and yells out the window, “You Jack?”
“Yes sir I am.”
I was about 20 minutes late on the first day but he turned out to be a considerate and understanding man. He says expressions like “All good” and “righty-o” often.
Later a girl working on the farm admits that she had seen me in the morning but decided that she didn’t like to stop for hitchhikers. I spend the day pulling weeds, toiling in the hot sun and walking through muddy rows of flower plants. I just about ran into giant spider webs while walking the rows a few times.
An Australian cattle dog named Bruiser lounges out at the end of the day as I play my guitar. Hayden says that he will pick me up in town at the park the next morning for work. “No worries, I’ll have coffee ready in the mornin’,’ he says and drops me off for the night.
Next morning is spent pulling weeds and vines all day at the farm. I’m in need of travel funds so I’m grateful for the work. I help Hayden with a flower set-up in the front of the roadway. Flower business is booming. It’s the day before Mother’s Day.
Later that night, while walking around the town of Bundaberg I run into a man named Allen who invites me into the pub for a beer. I get the impression he is already slightly smockered, but this seems to be his normal state of consciousness. He invites me to come see his boat that he lives on in the water. Flashbacks of the movie Wolf Creek play through my mind. Ultimately, genuine curiosity overrides my false sense of dread.
We paddle out to the vessel on his tinny and he shows me around his small quarters. “I’ve traveled all around the country on this boat, following the construction work,” he says. “This is the life for some of us, as we must. Some people say that I’m lucky to live like this, but there is no luck involved… not like it just fell into my hands.”
I ask him what he thinks happiness is. He ponders this for a moment. “Doing what you said you’d do and seeing it accomplished,” he says. Surrounding us, the lake is calm, spacious. A chill floats in the air and hangs like a timepiece.
Four beers later, he shows me a piece of wood in the center of the boat that moves to the side that he uses as a makeshift bathroom. “Sometimes I push people in there when I don’t like ‘em and turn ‘em to shark bait,” he says, laughs.
Somehow he stumbles his way off the boat and rows me back to shore. Somebody in the neighboring boat shines a spotlight in our faces. Allen holds up a hand to keep the light from blinding him.
“What are you doing?!,” the paranoid person in the other boat asks.
“What’s it look like I’m doing?,” Allen asks.
The man continues to shine the spotlight in his face.
“If you don’t get that light out of my face cunt, I’ll shove this ore up your arse.”
The man keeps the light on us all the way till shore. Some neighbors he has out here on this waterfront.
That night I meet up with Nazarine, the girl that I had met back in Alice Springs. She is staying at a hostel run by Asians and works on a tomato farm. I find out that she has just been leading me on and avoiding me the whole time, she just doesn’t have the courage to say it. I feel like I wasted a lot of efforts and took a detour to come out and see her. She had been the one encouraging me to come see her in the beginning.
I tell her if that’s the way it was, then I’d just assume piss off.
She blows me a half-ass kiss as I walk away.
Oh well. Isn’t that just how it goes sometimes?
Spend the better half of the day finishing the rows on the farm. Second half was spent around the campfire with everyone laughing and telling stories.
Bruiser the farm dog lazes around the campfire and listened in to our every word. The Ozzies out here are a daring and bold bunch of blokes in their lifestyles and hospitalities.
The next day I get a lift all the way to Rockhampton by one of the farmer’s friends. They are heading that way to meet up with some friends. We have dinner at KFC and I must head to a park for a place to sleep.
Out of curiosity, I inquire as to what the price of a cheap motel might be in the area. It turns out to be 90 dollars for a night. I walk out of the motel and find a six star motel on some soft green grass in the park for the night.
A man picks me up near the ocean side in a small town. I’ve been waiting for well over an hour. Hitchhiking is starting to drain me. I need something to revitalize myself.
“I almost passed you up,” he says. “But something in my gut clicked that I should give you a lift. Always listen to your gut mate.”
He tells me that his wife got pregnant a long time ago and he got trapped in the monotony of the working class life. Before that all happened, he used to travel. “I’m well off financially,” he tells me. “But trading up freedom for comforts was not the best decision, honestly although I love my family.”
He drops me off at a grocery store and quickly sticks some notes in my coat pocket, to my protest. “Seriously, please take it,” he says. “I don’t need it.”
Later, I pull out two wadded notes and to my surprise find 100 dollars. I could have got a motel after all last night. Yet that would have been a waste of funds.
I’m picked up by another trucky who nearly skids to the side of the road when he sees me. He sprinkles some pot in his makeshift soda can bowl and has a smoke. He has a definite roughneck edge to him. Wears a straw hat.
‘I got kids with these two cunts,” he says. “Both of ‘em taking all me working money.”
“You should go to Western Australia,” he says. “That’s where I’m from, you probably wouldn’t guess it. The cunts in the city won’t help no one. The blokes in the west are true blue mate.” He sets me off alongside a construction site.
Then I’m picked up by an old man. “I’m on a pension and retired,” he says. “I don’t go to the pubs no more, don’t drink. I just sort of go around these days.” There’s something sad about the man’s tone of voice, like he’s distant, waiting to die.
Get picked up by a mechanic with two horse dogs who works on the fleets belonging to the local miners.
“They beat the piss out of them,” he says. “They don’t even do maintenance on them; just drive them for thousands of miles till they fall to pieces.
He sets me off and I start walking along country road as the rain sweeps in and I started wondering where I might sleep for the night. This doesn’t look like a light rain; it looks like a potential downpour. I’m not sure how my bevy sack will hold up in that. I need a makeshift shelter. Drainage ditches seem to be the only option along the lonesome country road.
Luckily, an islander with dreadlocks and white guy in the passenger seat pull over and pick me up. They give me a lift all the way to Airlie Beach. I am completely convinced that these guys were angels or some other power disguised as humans. I’ll sleep at a park just before the turn-off to the beach.
“Looks like the weather is better here and glad we could help,” the islander says. “Beats walking the whole way!”
Later that night, the rain faucets down in heavy spurts and I take shelter underneath under the overhang and when that starts to flood I have to take shelter in a bathroom. I don’t get much rest that night. When a security guard kicks me out of the park in the middle of the night I finish my rest across the street at a bus stop shelter.
A guy driving a Ute is my first ride in the morning to Airlie Beach. Most of the people passing by seem to be tourists so they don’t stop. This guy is a local.
We arrive at Airlie Beach where there is the ocean amongst hostel after hostel. “When the bus dropped me off 15 years ago this was all grass and I slept on the beach,” he tells me. The modernized Airlie Beach has a more tourist-catered feel. Paved sidewalks are everywhere and tourist shops abound. I imagine that it would have been a nicer place to come to fifteen years ago. Maybe I was born too late.
“None of the housing development on the hills was there,” he says, pointing to million dollar mansions overlooking the ocean. “Prices are jacked up here now and so is the cost of living. My partner and I sold our home here and traveled the world for two years.”
I meet a girl named Lynn while swimming near the lagoon in Airlie Beach. She is taking a short break from her life in England to enjoy some of what Australia had to offer. I opt out of the youth hostel (as I don’t like hanging out in areas where everyone else congregates) and I head down the beach and find a secluded spot underneath the trees to sleep. The sound of the receding tide invites me into a state of temporary coma.
The next day I get stuck in the pouring rain for three hours and countless cars pass me by and nobody picks me up. Grace comes in a small Toyota car with a school teacher from Proserpine inside. He has some good ideas as to what direction the United States should go, he said. “The States should convert to the metric system,” he says. “It would make things a lot easier all around the world. Not to mention all the jobs it would create for the American people in the process of switching over. Just changing out the highway signs would take some workers.”
He tells me that his wife and he have dreams of moving to Spain in the near future.
Then I’m picked up by an Aboriginal guy with a dog in the back seat as I eat my peanut butter sandwiches on the side of the road. It’s not raining anymore. “I’ve lived in Queensland my whole life,” he tells me. He gets work picking fruit whenever he can.
He invites me back to his place for some coffee and we take turns spray painting hitchhiking signs with some leftover orange spray paint he has laying around. We write T-VILLE in bold letters, representing Townsville.
A few hours later I’m picked up by a guy that is a sugar cane train conductor. “In the morning I’m going for a drug test for a new job,” he says, pointing to a container of fake urine in his glove compartment. “It’s no worries, I’ll pass,” he says and smiles.
He also has a passion for motorcycles. “I have lots of biker friends that complain since you can’t ride in groups anymore,” he says. “If you ride in groups of more than 3, you can get up to 15 years in jail. It’s ridiculous.”
Later, a cop shakes his finger at me while hitchhiking. Something tells me the cop has never hitchhiked before. I ignore him and carry on.
I get a lift from a construction worker who informs me about some of the wildlife and especially the ticks in Australia. “I once got one in my head and didn’t know it before I fell asleep that night,” he says. “I woke up with a huge lump on my head.” It sounds like a horror story and I make a note to myself to check over my body for ticks before falling asleep that night.
I check in at the supermarket hotel and they have room in the back where the artificial lights are dimmed out and there’s nothing around but the stars.
A caravan with a camper trailer cuts us off causing the driver to swerve out of the way. She just about honks the horn but something causes her to refrain. “Oh well,” she says. “Without tourism this town would die.” This is in the small town of Ingham, Australia.
The car rambles on, the motor thumping away at the beat of its’ last legs of life. The lady who has offered me a ride is an older country woman. “We have a chicken at the farm that lays 8 to 10 eggs each day,” she says with a measure of pride.
Hitchhiking has been slow-going and tough in this area.
On a winding road through the tropical region near Cairns and sprawls of sugar cane plantations I wait on the side of the road for over two hours before a ride finally comes. One short ride had gotten me into a tough spot where the traffic was too fast and it was difficult for anyone to pull over, even if they wanted to. I get a lift from an Aboriginal man named Matt, who has picked up a couple that are hitchhiking together all around Australia. Not only are they hitchhiking Australia but they say they have been continuously wandering the roads, landscape and culture of Australia for over five years. They make their travel money from their online business. They seem cautious to tell me exactly what that online business is.
Matt, the driver works for a company called Linked-In that helps Aboriginal people link with their lost relatives from the Stolen Generation. I ask him what his job ensues.
“It’s a mixture of using library databases, computers, and speaking with local communities,” he says. “Some kids were taken away as far as New Zealand, even the United States in some instances.”
Amanda tells me a story about her and Alex driving a desolate road in Australia once and a man came out of the bushes with torn clothing and a three-foot long beard. “We usually pick up every hitchhiker we see, it’s our commitment,” she said. “But that was the one guy we actually passed up. “He looked like he had been living in the bush for years.”
Hours later, we arrive in Cairns and I call Max my host. He says that he won’t be around till tomorrow, so it looks like I’ll be camping again tonight. I throw out my guitar case and busk for awhile and in over an hour I’ve done considerably well. People appreciate the music, except for a disgruntled fat woman who acts as the authoritative manager and tells me I have to move along. I wonder how she would feel if someone came and told her to “move along” with her job? I’m creating a pleasant atmosphere for her customers; some people can be thoughtless and robotic in nature.
I can’t fully blame her though. It’s only the pressures and the weight of the world. Her boss pressures her to behave and remain obedient to the rules of the Corporate Masters.
I stealth camp right in front of the grocery store, in a small island of grass filled with trees. I lay low inside my bevy sack and take shelter from the misty rain that falls and comes down off the mountains.
Max picks me up the following day and takes me to his mansion at the top of the hills in Cairns. It’s a beautiful tropical spot and his home is surrounded by a rainforest setting. Birds chirp, the wind brings in a breeze that is fresh and pure. I’m greeted by his dog Mango, a spunky red dog that can run like none other and is full of energy.
Max doesn’t let his success get in the way with his passion for helping fellow travelers and making genuine friendships. Being used to sleeping on the streets, these conditions feel like the ultimate luxury to me. It’s a sharp contrast to what I’ve been living like yet it still feels the same.
Max tells me over coffee that he invested in Sydney real estate years back and he lucked out when the market rose drastically in the recent decade.
I borrow his mountain bike and cycle/ push it to the top of a hill. It is 20 kilometers to the top and no easy feat yet the view is incredibly rewarding. I look out at sprawling green canopy and a fresh-lake below. A biologist from Germany stands beside me at the lookout with a set of binoculars. “Look this way,” he says, handing me the binoculars. “There’s an eagle’s nest over there. And you’d never guess what’s over that way, it’s not what you’d expect in this area… there are a couple feral cattle.”
The biologist tells me that the fox bats that live in the area can travel up to 200 kilometers every night. They contribute to the well-being of the ecosystem by spreading the seeds of the fruit they eat in their scat, increasing the trees through the jungle landscape. The new mayor of Cairns has recently made plans to cut down trees that the thousands of bats frequent in the local parks in order to get rid of them and encourage them to live outside of the city.
“The mayor is a fool,” he says. “He sees the bats as a nuisance. Politicians rarely understand nature and how ecosystems work. They shouldn’t be allowed to make these decisions.”
On my way back from the bike ride, I notice thousands of fox bats camped out and hanging upside down in the park, staying cool during the day.
Max and I venture into the downtown Cairns area and I busked with my guitar for a few hours with slide style and traditional playing. The highlight of the performance was when a few young kids start dancing around and spinning around the telephone pole, laughing and playing.
I meet another traveler named Todd and together we hike to a waterfall. On the way in, we run into a baby brown snake that hisses and lunges at us, fangs bearing. I nearly walk on top of it since it blends in with the twigs and sticks along the trail. I jump back quicker than I think I ever have before!
Swimming underneath the waterfall is a feeling like none other. There are few tourists in the spot too which makes it even better. It is cold and refreshing. Max and his partner Jacob cook a great meal and in the morning, they will set me off on the road that continues back south to Townsville and then I will head west back to Katherine. I am going to try another attempt at making it to Western Australia.
The next day they drop me off along the road and I’m heading southbound back the direction I came from. It takes at least three hours to get a lift and I just throw my backpack down on the ground in frustration. I have a seat and listen to the wind blow in the trees. Somehow, it speaks.
I’m given a lift by a wild trucky who nearly slams on the brakes when he sees me and pulls right over. The patience has paid off. “Oh so you’re an AmeerrrrrrrrriCAN!,” he says frenetically as we drive off into the setting sun. He tells me that he doesn’t take his job too seriously since it’s just extra income to support his family.
“I blow glass and sell it on the black market,” he says. “I make more than twice the money doing that than what I make in the trucking business. My father got me started with blowing. He gave me a four-year internship.” His rig is two trailers long and he’s got just a few stops left for the day. He’s come all the way from Sydney at the beginning of the day.
We stop at a meat shop and deliver I help him unload some of the day’s meat.
He blasts his speakers and puts in music from Aussi rock bands from the eighties and stereotypical trucky music. There’s something great about this since Jim isn’t your typical trucky; he’s somebody with dreams. He runs over a dead kangaroo on purpose just to mess with me. I brace myself for a giant bounce in the cab but the beastly rig doesn’t even tremble in the slightest.
What I really remember about riding with Jim is that we were laughing hysterically the whole way to Townsville. “This is a lazy man’s job mate,” Jim tells me and pops a DVD in the DVD player. We watch cheesy American war films from the seventies and eighties. He even invites me to stay at his hotel and we have a steak meal. Tomorrow I’ll be doing the same thing I’ve been doing—that is, leaving town.
I leave the hotel about eight o’clock, an hour after Jim has already hit the road. Before he walks out he wishes me luck, coffee cup in hand. “I’m an Australllliiiiian!,” he says, and walks out the door with a laugh. As I wait out at the best choice hitchhiking spot I notice lots of prison guards on their way to work. Obviously, there is a prison somewhere in the area and this factor doesn’t make for good hitchhiking.
Eventually, an older guy pulls over on his way to Richmond and wants the company. He is a veteran with World War 2 stories. He tells me how the English had sent in the Aussis to the front lines but when the Japanese wanted to invade Australia, only the Americans had come to aid.
“I had a friend who fought in Vietnam and had to hide in a ditch in the jungle by himself. The adversary was onto him and while he was hiding, the Vietnamese pissed on him from on top of the hill. He didn’t want to blow his cover, so the poor bloke just had to take getting pissed on.”
The man is full of stories. One of the best ones, however, is a story about a joy ride he took with his hot rod as a young bloke. “I was out for a joy ride and nearly ran over a cop who jumped back while I was passing a car. The cop jumped in his cruiser and followed but I cut off to a side street and got away and he never caught up with me. Anyways, twenty years later I went to a party and the guy that used to be a cop comes up to me and says,’ you’re the guy that nearly ran me over 20 years ago! We were searching for you!’ Anyways, we both had a good laugh over that one.”
I ask him what life is like out in this part of the country for most people. “Well,” he says. “People out here might come across hard at first, and maybe they are—but they’re darn hard workers mate. It takes a certain kind of perseverance to get by in this kind of country.”
He has some borderline racist views towards the Aboriginals. “They were only here 200 years before the Europeans came to the continent at most,” he says. “Half of their cave dwelling artwork was made recently with white man’s paint, so they just use it to claim it as sacred land. Most of the times, they’re just trouble. They have been known to hunt the farmer’s local sheep and drag them into the forest. Also, they have been known to poison their babies in some instances… I have a friend who’s a nurse that has told me stories. ”
I just nod my head and listen. I suppose everyone has an opinion.
At the gas station where he drops me off two Germans are camping in their van with a cardboard sign that has been written on with a black marker. STRANDED: NEED A TOW, it says. I say hello and ask them how long they’d been there. “Three days,” the girl says slowly and clearly, with a trace of resentment and trepidation in her voice.
I buy them a bag of chips and a couple sodas and wish them luck. I imagine it’s hard to find a cheap mechanic in this desolate area considering that they probably live miles away and are the only mechanic shop in the area. Probably some kind of monopoly results with spiked prices.
I wait for an hour for the next lift. The landscape is dry and barren and the wind picks up the speed. I’m truly in the middle of nowhere, where only a lonely gas station and cattle surround me. It’s like Texas in Australia here.
I take out my map and have a look and it sinks in just how huge the expanses are between towns in this part of the country. Often, there is nothing for miles and miles. Then it dawns on me that I’m sitting on the wrong side of the road (the American right side) and it’s no wonder that I’m not getting any lifts! The sun must be getting to my head.
Hawks circle the road, searching for carcass to scavenge. Leaves blow in from the wind and there is the pungent smell of cow shit. The sky is baby blue with only a few faints wisps of white clouds.
I luck out and two girls pick me up on the way to the mines, one of them particularly cute. “We work near the mines in Cloncery,” they tell me. The girl shows me a picture of her operating a piece of machinery. “I get to work in an air-conditioned truck all day so it’s not so bad,” she says.
The girl in the passenger seat tells me that she had a friend in jail who met Ivan Milat. “He was a scary guy,” she says. “He sat all by himself in the cafeteria and he used to have menacing jokes with the other inmates. He used to say ‘what’s the difference between a German and a French backpacker? Ten meters, he would say.”
I set up my guitar once we are in town outside the grocery store as my food funds are running low. A group of Aboriginal kids run up to me and start firing a million questions. “Did you walk? Where’d you come from mate?! How long will you stay here? Why are you traveling?”
It’s a bit overwhelming but the kids are awesome and full of energy so I buy them popsicles once I make a few dollars. A guy pulls over and hands me his number on a piece of paper, tells me that he can offer a place to stay for the night if I’m interested. A miner limps into the supermarket and is missing an arm. I can only assume this is the result of a mining accident. Some people have rough but they remain resilient for their families.
Everybody knows everybody here but the locals are accepting and trusting. They allow me to play in front of the supermarket with no problems.
That night, the Aboriginal kids help me find the guys’ house who had offered a place to stay. We walk through the streets in the darkness of night, some of them on their bicycles. One young kid not older than 14 lights up a cigarette and takes a drag. “You shouldn’t do that,” I tell him. “It’s really bad for you.”
He smiles. “We die young though,” he tells me simply. Maybe he’s right. He recites the lyrics to a 2Pac song. America’s influence on every street corner; maybe it’s a dirty shame.
Every night, the kids say, they play a game of “run from the coppas.” There is a curfew for the kids at 9:30, which they dutifully do not follow and make a game of the whole thing. This is the fun they have living in this small town.
I can’t help but quickly grow attached to these kids. They don’t have much and neither do I. I feel like these kids’ chaperone on a retreat. At the same time, they’re giving me a tour of the town through their innocent eyes. “That’s our school,” one kid says, pointing to a tiny building with faded white shingles.
A quiet kid who follows close to my side speaks up. “My dad’s dead,” he says out of the blue. “I found my Dad hanging from a rope in his room one day. I miss him.” The crickets stop chirping, the world stops spinning and I can’t think of anything to say. I hand him a guitar pick, pat him on the shoulder.
We finally arrive at the guys’ house, only to find out that from a tentative woman that answers the door who says “he might have been on drugs tonight and there is no place for you to stay.”
We depart and I begin the search of finding a soft piece of green grass in this late night hour.
I camp next to a church and am haunted by mosquitoes and the occasional familiar ghosts.
Nothing but the crows leaving this town
In the morning breeze, locals must know better
Home is where you’ll never leave
I write in my journal in the morning as I wait for a ride. As I’m sitting on the concrete steps next to the local library drinking my morning coffee, a dog comes zipping frenetically out of nowhere and rolls over, has ten seconds of bliss, and runs off again. Happy as a free-roaming dog in a small town, since that’s what he is. His name must be Freedom.
I try some delicious pastries from the only bakery that sits on the corner, recommended to me by a couple road workers. “It’s the only place to go,” one of the guys tells me.
Eventually the dust clears and a guy that works in the mines picks me up. “I heard you playing your guitar in front of the store last night,” he tells me. “I dug your music and when I saw you standing there I was like ‘whoah, that’s the same guy!”
He offers insight on the mines surrounding Mt. Isa. “In Mt. Isa, the industry is worth 2.3 billion dollars a week, after wages and taxes.” If the mining in the areas were to end or come to a halt, many of these families and residents would have to simply pack up and leave. There would be nothing left to sustain them.
He tells me a heavy story about his friend who was bitten by a brown snake, which has deadly poisonous venom. (What snakes in Australia don’t carry deadly poisonous venom?)
“We were out four-wheeling and he happened to be in the wrong place, wrong time,” he says. “He’s stepped off his ATV and the snake must have been underneath him. He stepped off and the snake was right there. He walks up to me, almost casual-like, trying to keep his blood from circulating too fast and says ‘mate, that snake, it just bit me’. So I got him inside my Ute and I floored it all the way to the hospital, nearly ran over an old lady at the front entrance. They had to amputate his leg. There was nothing else they could do and he was lucky he didn’t die that day and could take his life home with him.”
The hard red and dusty landscape passes us by. “People have your back in this part of the country,” he says. “We depend on each other. You have to live that way to survive. To this day, my mate still says ‘if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here’. I just tell him that he wouldn’t have been bitten if I hadn’t suggested going four-wheeling together!”
Jake is a down-to-earth kind of bloke. Most people that offer rides while hitchhiking tend to lean that way. Halfway into the ride, he tells me that his father is a billionaire investor and recently purchased a 400,000 dollar house for his partner and him to share. In either fate or coincidence, it turned out that the house actually belonged to his girlfriend’s grandfather at one point in it’s’ history.
“My Dad always takes care of me, but I wish I could see him more,” he says. “He’s always busy chasing the next investment, the next big deal closure. I called him the other day and he immediately asked ‘do you need money?’ and I was like no…”
“I wanted to tell him that I just want to spend time with him but I just couldn’t say it,” he says.
Once, his Dad took him around in a rented Lamborghini. “Once the speed reaches above 150 miles per hour, the back side actually raises up and is grounded in the front,” he says. “It was the biggest rush of adrenaline I had ever experienced!”
Jake’s heritage comes from New Zealand and his father originally came from being dirt poor and having nothing. “His x wife tried to bleed him of everything he worked for,” he tells me.
I tell him about the drug-addict that had offered me a place to stay last night but had been out of his mind.
“Mt. Isa also has a lot of drug problems,” he confirms. “Mt. Isa is also a helluva a place to get stuck mate.”
Two hours later, I’m stuck in Mt. Isa and frustration of the passing cars returns. The mechanics at the local shop watch me from across the street. The mining infrastructure is massive amounts of machinery and giant metallic buildings that blow out smoke and pollution beyond your wildest dreams. Further than your farthest nightmares.
I kick at clumps of dust and rocks. Even reading my current book or playing my guitar doesn’t’ sound enticing. I swat the hundreds of flies away from my face that try desperately to dive into my eyeballs. I desperately try to swat them with my shirt—the disgusting maggots are quicker witted than I.
Hours later, just before the giant red ball of fire slides behind the floating chunk of Earth, a white van comes screeching to a stop. The door slides open. A cloud of dust explodes into a mushroom cloud.
Inside the van, there is a bed and four French people squeezed into the back along with their backpacks. “Hop in!”
It’s like God has sent this dirty, stinking van to my rescue in this God awful dirty, stinking town that smells like coal. I throw my dusty backpack inside and hop in knowing full well that as always, I’m in for a ride.
An insect blends in with the tree and its’ surroundings so that it can survive, so that it won’t be eaten by the bigger creatures and swallowed up by the bigger things that surround it. In some ways, people are the same way. People blend in and conform to social norms so that they can feel comfortable, safe, so that the system doesn’t eat them up. Maybe this is the reason that franchises and corporations are starting to decorate the world landscape.
Are people by nature scared to try new things? It is easier to always experience the monotonous?
We’re all just pawns, destined to be moved by someone else if we don’t move ourselves.
These are the kind of philosophical conversations we have in the back of the van. We just lounge out in the back as the miles pass by in the night. The back of the van smells like yesteryears’ dirty socks and wet dog. None of us mind this and the French guys that picked me up simply don’t give a shit. That is their freedom, their philosophy to live by, moment to moment.
Their tactics for acquiring road funds involve setting up a cardboard sign in front of gas stations and busking for gas money. Their sign reads: SOS- OUT OF GAS! They tell me that originally their sign actually said SOS-NO GAS! but somebody called it in to the local police thinking that they were Green Peace protesters against the shipment and consumption of petroleum. So they reinterpreted their cardboard sign.
At one lonely gas station, we have just started jamming and an old Aboriginal woman steps out of the car and hands our driver a 100 dollar bill. It is shocking to me. When the French guys start packing up their guitar I’m a bit saddened that the jam has ended before it even began—it was just getting started. They explain to me that it’s respectful to leave after some has offered to fill your tank so they don’t assume that they are using the money for something else.
These desert towns are strange places and take on a life of their own. Everyone is either transitory or stuck with no in between. One Aboriginal man that seems to be in the stuck category offers our driver sixty dollars at one spot in exchange for buying him a case of beer. The town has limits on how much beer one person can buy per day—not that any rule ever kept people from getting their fix.
Our driver consents to this and the man comes over and siphons the gas out of a can using his mouth. “Don’t you want something to wash out your mouth with?,” the driver asks, offering some water.
“No, it’s alright mate,” he says. Siphoning gasoline seems to be an accustomed practice for him.
Night falls and we stop at pub that has old bicycles set up in the front for decoration and a few locals zombie around inside. I walk inside later after taking a short walk around the park by myself. The two French guys seem to be in some kind of argument with the bartender. He has sold them beer and then tells them they have to drink it away from the pub, even though there are plenty of open seats.
“Yes, but I gave you the take-away price,” he tells them.
“The price wasn’t cheap,” the French guy says. “I don’t think you offered us a special price. Why can’t we just drink these out on the patio?”
The bartender won’t have it and he doesn’t take kind to travelers. However, he takes kindly to the funds that travelers bring into his establishment.
“Then why do the others get to drink inside the bar?,” the French guy persists.
“Because they paid more for the beer. You do the math.”
I try to make eye contact at let them know that it’s best we leave even though this guy is a complete dickhead. We defiantly pull out a table from the back of the van and set it up across the street. We play cards and drink beer on the other side of the bar.
A massive tourist bus pulls up alongside the pub. Its seats are empty with the exception of the driver. The driver walks in and comes out after a few minutes with two cases of beer.
We theorize that the driver must have a contract with the pub to bring tourists into the pub every day. In exchange, the pub owner offers him heavily discounted or absolutely free beer.
I remember what the pub owner had condescendingly said. You do the math.
That’s what tourism business becomes when it mixes with giant industry—impersonal and only a matter of numbers. The relationship becomes one of capital and loses all personal human touch. The traveler is seen as a walking bank to some greedy establishments.
I’m not bashing Australian pubs here—most of the pubs I walk into are full of people full of life and open to more conversation and life outside of pocket books. This is an element of the tourist industry that is prevalent in some areas, however, some more than others.
We stay up till the early hours of the morning chatting, laughing and playing cards. Sometimes they will go into French-mode and I can only get the gist of what they are saying.
Defiantly, the French guys park their van across the street in front of the pub and go to sleep. In the morning, an old lady walking her dog whines about us sleeping along the roadside and commands us to pay and “sleep at the RV Park next time.”
In the middle of the desert, we climb to the top of an old wind mill. Around us, blue sky and golden desert, a vast openness and isolated independence.
We arrive in Katherine and I find myself in the small Northern Territory town for the second time. I’ve officially hitchhiked around half of Australia; what remains is Western Australia, the large expanse of the west. The town seems just the same as it was just over a month ago. The Aboriginals hang out in the shade of trees in the parks. Locals and tourists hang out near the hot springs. Time hangs on like a clump of bush dust.
I go for a hike along the trail near the springs. Abandoned rusty automobiles and white gum trees decorate the yellowed dry landscape.
Shelby, my Couchsurfing host, meets me in the park as we play cards. I grab my guitar and backpack full of Australian dust, say goodbye to the French crew and hop in her car. I find myself in the company of a few local teachers for the night and we go out to the pub for drinks and dinner. She tells me that there is a high turnover rate at the schools in Katherine and not many teachers stick around long-term. Shelby is one of the few that does.
She tells me that she is going to a music event with her friends the next day and to my luck they are heading to Kununurra, which is a small town the northwestern Kimberly region of Australia. This is reassuring, as it means that I won’t have to get stuck waiting for a ride out of Katherine for three days as it happened last time.
We cross into Western Australia and the landscape changes drastically. Steep rocky escarpments cut through the dry land and Boab trees pop up through the soil. Boab trees are iconic to the landscape of Western Australia, some of them living up to 1,500 years old. They were used as food, medicine, and shelter by the Aboriginal people and when the white settlers came, they were used as directional markers as well as makeshift prison trees in some instances. The Boab trees seem to reach up to the sky in a fifty-finger claw; they are some of the oldest trees in the world and each tree seems to take on a distinct personality of its own. The only other place in the world you can find Boab trees is Africa. Some theorize that early nomadic people brought the seeds from Africa over to Australia but the most likely theory seems to be that Australia and Africa were at one point in distant history a part of the same land mass.
We cross the Western Australia border and the billboard reads : Western Australia, A Great Place. It was like the planners couldn’t think of a better way to advertise this part of the country. You can imagine them sitting at a table, dressed sharply in business suits. “Well, any other ideas for slogans, anybody?”
“Hmmm… how about ‘Western Australia: A good place.’
“No Frank, that one’s been used before. We need something snappy, something attention-getting that will really reel the tourists in.”
Someone raises their hand.
“Oh, I know! Western Australia: A Great Place.”
“ Ok, good enough. Let’s go with that.”
I spend a good portion of the day playing guitar with my case open in front of the local Woolworth’s with a cardboard sign that reads: Looking for a lift to Broome. A German guy introduces himself as Wolf and says that he’s heading to Broome in the next couple days and is looking for a travel companion.
“I just have to wait till I can get my truck fixed,” he says. He jots down his number on a piece of paper and tells me to call him in a few days.
Later, a fat woman in a security uniform approaches me. “ Did you know what you are doing is illegal?,” she asks condescendingly.
“Illegal?,” I ask her. I wasn’t aware that playing music was illegal in this part of Australia.
She leans over and her voice turns to a slight whisper, as if to let me in on a secret. “We have a big problem with the Aboriginals,” she says. She says this as if she were talking about the local mosquito problem.
Aboriginal people are hanging around, some bored, some talking to each other. In all fairness, earlier there was a fight between to Aboriginals that lived on the streets right next to where I play. When they hear me playing, they suddenly stop in the middle of the fight and listen to the music, seemingly forgetting about what they were doing before.
“I don’t see a problem with them,” I tell her. “I’m just playing music.”
She won’t have it. “Rules are rules,” she says. It’s not my country and it’s not my town. I pack my stuff up and walk on. Small minds often speak the loudest. Why is that?
As I’m leaving an Aboriginal guy in a blue and white mechanic’s uniform walks up to me, extends his hand. We shake hands. His eyes are blood shot and his words are slurred.
“The name’s Crow,” he says, pointing to his red name tag. The name tag reads Crow.
I ask him about the concert and how much it costs to get in. “Yes, there is a concert mate,” he says. “But people like us, we don’t pay. We don’t go through the front gate… we go around.” He speaks in secrets, whispers, an ancient demeanor.
While walking towards the concert I run into an old eccentric German man. “I’ve lived in Australia for over 30 years,” he tells me. “But I can remember, I was 8 or 9 when Hitler paraded through the streets of my home town. I can remember when my sister died when mortar came crashing down when the Americans bombed our house. I was in the other room and I’m lucky even to be alive.”
We start walking and find ourselves passing a fancy pub. Being a true German, he says, “Let’s go get a beer, fuck it.” We walk into the pub and an Indian man who happens to be the owner looks at my jug of orange juice that I am carrying along with my backpack and says, “you can’t drink that in here.”
Old Man Markus glares at him. “Of course we didn’t come here to drink orange juice, we came here for a beer,” he tells the owner bluntly. “What the fawk did you think we came here for?” The small Indian man walks off.
We have a seat at a table on the balcony. “See, all these people wasting their time,” he tells me. “Like that Indian man that owns this place. Why doesn’t he just mind his own fuckin’ business, ya know? I don’t have time to waste. I could die any minute. I know it’s not a good way to put it, but it’s true. “
He then goes on to tell me that he recently found from his doctor that his aorta has doubled in size and is on borrowed time. “The doctor told me that I should have died months ago,” he says. We catch a bus to the music festival and are let down by the mediocre music acts that are performing.
“It’s gotten worse every year,” Markus says. “I’ve lived here for five years and it’s like the more they promote it, the more they charge, the more hype there is, the worse the bands get. I told you, the concert is not worth even sneaking into for free, let alone paying for it.”
Markus shows me a “good spot” in the park that I could potentially camp for the night. I notice that there are sprinkler heads in the area. “Won’t the sprinklers turn on?,” I ask him.
“Oh no, you don’t have to worry about that,” he says. “I live across the street and I’ve never seen them turn on during the weekends. Besides, if you stay in this gazebo, the sprinklers wouldn’t even reach if they did turn on…”
Markus takes off for the night and that night, not only do the sprinklers turn on but they come blasting on without warning and I have to make a mad dash with all my stuff across the park. Not without first getting blasted and completely soaked. It’s one in the morning.
At first, I wake to the sound of birds and the crack of a sore back. I’m still wet from the night before. Then I feel a sharp pain in my shin and realize that during the night when I had to move I had coincidentally laid on a fire ant colony! I jump up and do a wild dance and frantically brush the aggressive ants off my body. Who needs coffee when you have fire ants?
I grab a shower from the local caravan park and start walking out of town. The first lift comes from a guy driving a taxi van, offering lifts to people to the airport. “I was heading that way anyways, so I thought I might as well offer you a ride,” he says. He is picking up a woman from the airport to drive her into town.
Just two kilometers on the outskirts of town the trees disappear and open up to a wonderful canopy of sun-blistering hell. Not even the birds venture here; there is not a single tree to perch upon. I take my shirt off and use it to cover my face. An hour later, no cars have stopped and I walk another few kilometers till I find a sole tree in the middle of the dry landscape. I throw my backpack to the ground and dust blows everywhere. I use it as a makeshift bench and read my book, jumping out every time I hear the sound of rubber on pavement speeding by.
Still, nobody stops. Two hours later.
I’m starting to think of heading back into town for now but a silver car comes scooting on by and without even bothering to get up from the tree, I shoot out a half-ass thumb. My request is acknowledged and the car pulls over to the curb.
Joe and Kelsie are heading to El Questro to camp and experience the water gorges and waterfalls the area has to offer. That’s the great thing about going into a trip unplanned; you don’t know what’s around the corner and everything that you are in for is a surprise. Not always a pleasant surprise but more times than not, it is.
Joe pops in a CD and we listen to the Avett Brothers as the road winds along. At one point, we witness a wild dingo walk into the road and then dart back into the bush.
The cities have the tendency to bore me but being out in the wild is a ceaseless opportunity for amazement. Joe and Kelsie are young and in good physical shape so we go for a jog through the rocky trail that splits through the creek and make our way to Emma Gorge. Water cascades off a 500 foot cliff edge and the water is the perfect temperature—icy fresh cold but not freezing cold. After jogging through the heat it feels like paradise.
I hike to the top of a hill at sunset by myself while Joe and Kelsie tend to their camping spot. There is live folk music around a campfire and we grab beers and share some laughs together. We meet another guy who is traveling around Australia on a BMW motorcycle. Tomorrow morning, we will hike more gorges together and then I’ll head back to Kununurra.
After a day spent hiking and experiencing some of the wild gorges, I set out my guitar and busk in front of a gas station. While busking, Wolf stops and offers an Emu Export beer. He says that he’s going to leave tomorrow no matter what along the Gibb River Road and he’d like the company.
I sleep on the outskirts of town one last time and in the middle of the night a kangaroo comes rustling around my campsite. I sit up in my sleeping bag and the kangaroo stands there stark for a moment, stomps on the ground and then darts off into the warm night. It’s a moment that is fleeting, memorable, and tingles my nerves with a spike of adrenaline.
Wolf and I just nearly miss each other the next day. Sitting bored along the side of the road, I decide to go for a short jog, leaving my backpack resting on the trunk of a lonely gum tree. As my luck would have it, it is just that moment that he comes driving by looking for me and drives off when he doesn’t see me. I notice him from the other side of the trail and try running up to him, shouting out, but to no avail. Coincidentally, there is a jogger moving alongside the trail at that exact moment that I am able to flag down in order to borrow her phone and call Wolf. Wolf turns around and picks me up and we are off.
It is the start of one of the best adventures of the entire trip. The Gibb River Road stretches from the outskirts of Wyndham to Derby. The road stretches for about 660 kilometers of desert through the Kimberly region. During the wet season (November through March) the road often experiences mild to severe cases of flooding. In recent times, many sections of the road have been paved but other sections still remain single-track dirt road. The road does not take kindly to vehicles that do not have four-wheel drive capacity.
We take to setting canned beans inside the engine bay of the four-wheel drive truck. This way, we don’t have to stop to start the propane burner and we could use the engine’s heat to warm our lunch. The landscape is hard dirt and clay-looking mountains.
For the next two days, we make sure to stop at every gorge that we possibly can. We swim at every spot and often miss the loads of tourists that come by on gigantic buses. One time, we just made it out of a gorge just as the bus rolled in. “They’re a danger to the environment,” an Aussi guy jokes on our hike out.
We stop at a gorge and I take the best shower I have ever taken underneath a rocky surface where the waterfall falls onto me. Huge spiders drape their intricate webs around the water hole and I observe small dragonflies darting in and out of the air eating even smaller bugs.
The Aboriginals had told me that there was a certain ant that you could eat that tasted sweet. You would have to eat the backside and the ones to look out for were the green ones. Finding a green ant, I try eating the backside. “Well?,” Wolf asks.
It tastes like ant guts without a hint of sweet. “It’s disgusting,” I tell him. “Definitely not the one.” We get a laugh out of this. Ropes have been tied to the branches of some of the trees and we climb to the top and jump into the water like wild Neanderthals.
Every night I unroll my sleeping bag and sleep on top of the truck under the stars. Wolf and I drive the truck through the sand along a beach area and make camp in a solitary area away from the other tourists. Dry wood is easily accessible and scattered around the area. We build a fire with flames that reach upwards of ten feet into the air, the licks of flames of which reach to the heavens. We tell stories and jam on our guitars for a few hours and in the morning hundreds of cockatoos come to the area and wake us up. One of the songs on our repertoire is of course Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd and I take to playing some slide guitar lead while Wolf strums and sings the rhythm part. It’s the orchestrated sound of a jungle circus.
On one trail, we nearly run over a black glossy snake that appears aggressive; squirming about and making every futile attempt to bite at the giant piece of metal that hovers over it. I’m no snake expert but I’m certain the snake would absolutely be classified as deadly poisonous.
Since we are running low on gas we hitchhike the 13 kilometers into one of the gorges and are picked up by a man who is on vacation by himself. “My sister and I came out to this gorge at night time once and we saw the red eyes of many crocodiles,” he tells me. We both have a strong desire to see this during the day.
The hike is easy and mostly flat along the gorge’s sandy bank. Dozens of fresh-water crocodiles rest in the water and along the sand. At first glance, many of them appear to just be logs floating along but at closer glance you can see that they are prehistoric survived reptiles. It’s one of the most amazing atmospheres I’ve ever experienced. We try to venture as close as we can get without feeling like we are in the croc’s territory to get pictures. These are fresh water crocodiles and not as dangerous as salt-water crocs. Still, there have been instances when fresh water crocodiles have attacked humans.
On the way back, we’re offered a lift from a car full of ladies. The mother is old enough to be a grandmother and sits in the back with us. Just to have fun, I have dressed up wearing one of Wolf’s ties that he had in his car and the ladies get a laugh out of this. “You look ridiculous!,” she says and tells us to get in. “But please,” she says in proper English humor, “Do take that tie off!”
“Here’s the rubbish bin… should we drop you off there?,” she jokes with us. She chides her daughter, who is driving to stop hitting the ruts in the road. “Drive on the other side!,” she tells her. “You’re giving us a headache back here!”
I take a dip in the cold water of the river back at camp but not for long, the thoughts of green reptiles with rows of jagged teeth that could potentially bite me in half still fresh in my mind.
We drive into Derby and Wolf decides that he wants to find some salvaged part for his Toyota 4-runner. After asking the locals we somehow find our way to the “salvage yard” with in actuality turns out to be an Aboriginal community. Asking around for directions to the salvage yard, we get confused looks and various offers to sell their vehicles.
Neglected houses in various stages of decay and a seemingly abandoned basketball court. Broken doors, sagging porches, dirt roads, rudimentary shelters made of tin and wooden poles. An Aboriginal woman approaches us, alongside her three young kids and a scraggly-looking dog. Her eyes are a bloodshot red and she has a beer in her hand. Sadly, this almost seems like a cliché.
“You have Ganja?,” she asks and sways from side to side. We tell her that we didn’t come looking for Ganja nor do we have it.
We thank her for her time and we drive around the community. One house has a Toyota 4-runner in the driveway and seems like it hasn’t been driven in years. Wolf pulls into the driveway. Four kids gawk at us, one of them wearing an AC/DC shirt.
A woman comes out onto the lawn and he explains that he is looking for a Toyota truck to take parts off of. “How much you give me for car?,” she says.
“Well, I didn’t want the whole car, just some parts, but it has to be a manual transmission… is it a manual?”
“Ok, this one automatic.”
She tries to sell us her other car but it is not what Wolf is looking for. Seeing that there is no sale to be made, she asks for a ride into town. We would have happily given her a lift to town had the truck not been loaded to the brim. In hindsight, I could have strapped myself to the roof if I had felt up to it.
This experience leaves me feeling slightly sad at their condition although there does seem to be a strong sense of community, tainted heavily by drugs and alcohol in this particular area. It’s the all-too-familiar infliction of white man’s medicine in a place it shouldn’t be.
That night, we find a place to camp alongside the beach in Broome. Gathering firewood along the beach before dark, we make ourselves a steady, slow-burning fire. We meet an old Australian who has been traveling the country long-term. He joins us at our fire with his dog Blue. A small crab comes in off the ocean and crawls near the fire for heat. I pull out the guitar and find myself playing guitar.
“You can play that guitar Yankee,” he says. His dog Blue is anxious and seems like he wants to go explore. “Blue sit down boy, you can’t go to the beach, there’s a four meter croc down there!”
He informs us that a giant crocodile has been spotted in the area recently. Without a doubt, I’ll be sleeping on top of the truck for the night.
The sound of ocean waves washing against the shoreline was a comforting alarm in the dawn’s hour. Wolf is already down at the ocean playing guitar, trying to work out the chords for Zeppelin’s Rain Song.
Tom, the man we had met the night before, invited us over for coffee at his site. “I used to own a home along the coast of Sydney,” he says, pouring us both a cup. “I wasn’t happy though, everyone leeching off you, I was lonely. I live better just camping like with no bills.”
A few minutes later we walk back to our campsite where Wolf had left his guitar alongside the shore. To his shock, it is now floating and submerged in the ocean. He runs over to it and we quickly try to dry it off and set it on top of the truck to dry. The guitar will definitely be damaged but perhaps we can prevent it from damaging further.
Lesson learned: never underestimate the tide and the tide is always changing, often faster than you might think.
Wolf and I make camp along Cable Beach in Broome, which despite the hype by other travelers, turns out to be a touristy spot. It is a place that has changed much in the last ten years, the locals tell us. Tourists ride an ocean path on the backs of camels in the setting sun.
Wolf and I depart and I find myself walking again, hitchhiking in a southern direction. In a matter of minutes, I’m picked up by an Aboriginal guy who is a primary school teacher. Five minutes into the ride he seems to be slightly irritated, maybe tired and then I realize that last night was rough and he’s sharply hungover.
“I’m hung over from the horse races last night mate,” he says. I end up driving the 150 kilometers back to his community for him and he falls asleep in the passenger’s seat. He hands me a banana and jots his name down on a slip of paper. “If you get stuck, just call me,” he says. “Might be able to put you up tonight if it’s ok with the wife.”
The desert is dry and hot and there is one car that passes by for every five minutes. The next lift comes from a French guy named Vince. He is heading to Port Hedland the next day, so I decide to camp at Shell Beach with him for the night. Instead of paying for the camp, I just hike out to the Oceanside and sleep by myself in my sleeping bag. The sound and caress of the sea breeze puts me to sleep. It sure beats camping next to the noise of a bunch of other travelers and paying for it.
The sun is a red-rimmed fireball setting over the deep blue ocean, deeper than anyone can possibly fathom. The colors change to reflections of purple, orange, yellow as it sets; the last remnants of light shimmering against wet ocean rock—then it’s a conclusion of a magnificent orange streak as the sun disappears here and reappears elsewhere in the world, giving way to a crescent moon, blue fading to black, families retreating to inland campsite for the evening, the crickets coming alive.
As I sit that night and watch the ocean swallow me alive, one feels insignificant and small.
Vince sets me off at the supermarket in Port Hedland, which is a massive mining town on a scale that I have never seen outside of Mt. Isa. “It’s a strange town,” one of the locals tells me while I’m playing my guitar. “ Possibly a temporary one, maybe we’ll be lucky if it lasts twenty years, destined to be a ghost town.”
He drops two Aussi dollars in my case. “But don’t tell anyone I told ya that mate,” he says, smiles and walks off.
I make it to the edge of town from a guy named Ian, who picks me up in a large commercial truck filled with crumbles of concrete. His job is to take the load to the local dumpsite.
“Why we bury the rubbish when we can recycle it, I don’t know,” he says. “All we’re doing is polluting our country.” Ian is an older-looking fellow, probably in his early sixties.
A lady at a small wooden booth checks us as we drive in. “I’m Ian from Gay Edwards Plumbing, delivering this fine load of rubbish to you,” he says with a flashy smile.
“My company has to pay seventy dollars a ton to drop rubbish off here,” he explains to me. “In Sydney, where I am from, it’s 360 dollars a ton!”
The scale weighs us and we are carrying 3.22 tons of concrete.
Ian has lived in Port Hedland for eight years and tells me he has grown to love the desolate areas. “There’s no kind of super highway like there is from Los Angeles to Las Vegas,” he says. “Here, there’s just a lonely road and the bush, mate.”
Ian is a self-proclaimed liberal. “Anybody that says guns can curb violence is talking rubbish. You can’t curb violence with more violence.”
He sets me off and I start walking until I’m given one short lift from a guy delivering some type of refrigeration unit. I walk until dark and no rides come so I walk off into the bush and make quickly make myself a fire. I heat up my canned beans for supper and read my book. There is the sound of wind and nothing else and if solitude had a sound, it might sound just like it does now; a distant whisper in the wind.
Grace comes to me in the morning after walking for a few hours as the heat begins to rise. I’ve got half a gallon of water left and it’s getting a bit depressing after the hundredth road train I count passes me by. Suddenly, a silver road train with three long trailers pulls over to the side of the road.
The hitchhiker relies on impulsive attempts at good deeds. I then meet Derek, who has been on the road for three days straight. “My truck broke down in Broome,” he tells me. “I had to wait on the side of the road for the mechanic. It took hours. “His recent experience of being stranded in the outback is related, although mine is partially by choice and his was not I suppose.
“You know, they say Western Australia is the only place you can drive huge distances to somewhere to get to nowhere,” he says. He explains that he is traveling all the way to Perth and it’s at that moment that I change my mind about going to Shark’s Bay and rather decide to ride with him all the way to Perth. He seems like a great personality and would be good company.
We make a habit out of stopping at every roadhouse along the way. The Australian government has made an effort to supply truckies with free coffee at every stop in order to keep them awake on lonely desolate roads. “Where’s the next coffee?,” Derek always says with glowing eyes. I think I’ve never drank this much coffee in a short period in my life.
When we pass another truck, he gets on the radio. There is a lot of formal communication and formal bullshitting that goes on between the truckies. It’s the rules of the road and the camaraderie that keeps them alive and in good spirits when they are away from their families.
“Hey mate, I’m about to step out on ya,” Derek cautions the driver in front of us.
“Righty-o mate,” the other driver responds.
We exchange stories, watch the passing scenery and Derek tells me a few cheesy and a few dirty trucky jokes. “What do you call a cattle with no legs?,” he asks. “Lean beef.”
Dead cattle and dead kangaroo litter the road like a great outback massacre. In this part of the country, cattle are not required to be fenced in so often they wander into the road in a zombie-like state and are run over in the night by tons of truckage. “We don’t worry ‘bout the cattle mate, we just run ‘em ova,” Derek explains.
We drive for hours and hours and it’s not until we get closer into Perth that scenery gradually changes from flat, dry desert to hilly, green terrain.
Derek sets me off on the outskirts of Perth as going into the big city of Perth with a giant three-trailer road train rig is unfathomable. I’ll be hitchhiking to Coolgardie and the Stirling Ranges tomorrow.
I hitch out of Perth and a local retired school teacher drops me off near a man-made lake that I would not have found if I had not been hitchhiking. “Water is hard to come by in Western Australia,” he tells me. The lake is 5 kilometers all the way around and the water is ice-cold. I swim a quarter of the way across and then rush back to land to dry myself off.
I sleep in Coolgardie on the hard ground in the middle of the bush. The sleeping bag is covered in wetness and a thin layer of melting frost as the sun rises. In the middle of the night a truck driver and pulls up next to my spot and is surprised to see me when I say hello; he wouldn’t have seen me if I hadn’t introduced myself in the dark.
“Thought I was hearing things!,” he says. He takes time to clean and wipe out his cab.
I have various short rides all the way to Salmon Gums, which is a town small enough that you can only buy groceries at the local post office.
One guy that picks me up is a stocky Aboriginal who used to be a boxer and now works at a correctional facility. He pulls over while I am hiking with my thumb out and even though he hadn’t initially seen me, he offers a ride in his Japanese Supra. He shows me around town and takes me to a scenic overlook.
“This here is wheat country,” he says. We are surrounded by green rolling hills and farmland. “I’m from Melbourne, just moved here five months ago.” He says that he mostly deals with illegal immigrants from Iran and other areas of the Middle East that arrive by boat.
“The boat driver gets paid about 100 dollars per person to bring migrant workers to Australia,” he says. His car is fast, efficient, and quiet as we cruise along the highway and a speed of 180/kilometers an hour.
Just before dark, I’m picked up by an Aboriginal man who is a Christian pastor. “It’s a good job,” he tells me. “We’re in the business of counseling, marrying, and burying people.” He pops in a cassette of a local band, I imagine him as someone thoroughly involved in the community. He pops in some Jesus-inspired country music and old-timer style porch bluegrass all the way to Coolgardie. He offers me the rest of his KFC chicken.
We pass along miles and miles of pipeline. “That water pipe goes all the way south,” he says. “It’s for drinking water.”
He drops me off on the outskirts of town and it’s long since passed dark.
I walk a bit this morning, and then get picked up by a guy heading home from working in the mines. An emu, which is a prehistoric-looking bird similar to an ostrich darts across the road and we nearly hit it. “We used to try and catch those when we were kids,” he says.
James tells me about his travel experiences, having spent time in Thailand and other parts of Asia. He also had tried crickets and unknowingly once ate dog meat that his friends served to him.
He once stayed with the Aboriginals and says that they hunt ducks in groups, throwing rocks at them to scare them underwater and once they pop back up they are captured and cooked. As we pass the train line, he tells me that is derailed just a few weeks back. “The cars dragged for about four kilometers before the conductor even noticed,” he says.
Just as I got out, a man pulled over and offered me a lift the rest of the way to Esperance. He said that first he had some errands to run, as he was searching for a caravan park to stay at. I hike over to a tree-covered area and while eating my bread and peanut butter, a car driven with two guys inside and someone yells,”get out of there, cunt!” seemingly to express the intelligence levels of some of the local miners.
Ten minutes later, Ray comes back and gives me a lift the rest of the way. “The government is run by idiots, selling farmland to the Chinese—what do you think will happen when the big drought comes in ten years? The Chinese will feed their people while we starve!”
We pass miles and miles of farmland. “It’s a different kind of farming on the west. You could grow the same crops on 200 acres of land in the east as you do on 2,000 acres of land in the west.” The land on the west coast is more dry and arid and with less overall rainfall, so farming can become more of a struggle than it is in the east.
“The French backpackers are wild,” he says. Ray stays at caravan parks as a way of life. “They go running around naked and what-not and the caravan people come out and say “hey! Get back inside!’ They’re real buggers,” he offers.
I busk with my music at the local supermarket for a bit and then walk to the ocean and set up camp along the sand dunes.
I wake this morning to an incredible sunrise; a deep red that only the ocean’s reflection can deliver. It truly looks like one of those posters that people like to post up on the walls over their homes but this was in real-time. While playing music at the supermarket, I meet a couple who had been cycling the world from England for 14 months on bamboo bicycles. Anything is possible if you are willing to give up some creature comforts.
While playing at the supermarket I meet an eccentric character named Dita who invites me over to his place if I need a place to stay. He has long hair and a way of expressing himself with the wave of his hands and a sly smile.
Later on I do make it to his house. There is a homemade hammock in the backyard made out of poles from an old ship he found near the seaside. He has a passion for drinking wine by the bottles and seems to be an almost devote alcoholic, amongst other things. One of his favorite expressions is “Hoooot diggity!” as he pours us another glass of wine. His home is full of a library’s worth of books and he’s the only person I’ve ever met that will read a Home Improvement book and Hitler’s autobiography at the same time.
At the kitchen table, he tells me a story about a professor who is trying to showcase to his students some highly-durable glass on the tenth floor of a building. As he is pushing onto it, he falls to his demise below. “There is probably a lesson there if you think about it for a month or so,” he tells me.
We converse a bit about life and anything that comes to mind over the dim glow of the chandelier in the small kitchen. Three glasses of ride wine later, Dita pauses and says,” Well just remember, if you’re somewhere, you can’t be there, and if you’re there, you can’t be here.” His glass is now empty.
“Anyways, do you have six dollars I can borrow? I need six dollars. We need more wine.”
I hand over a piece of my busking earnings and Dita runs off to the liquor store.
That night I also meet his roommate, who he refers to as the Cat Lady, as she is hosting about ten stray cats near the house. She comes into the room, pale as a ghost and a blank expression on her face. “Was there a dog in the house?,” she asks, with a nervous twitch.
“No, I don’t think there was,” Dita says. Then the Cat Lady floats away to her room with the mysterious aura and grace only a feline creature can convey. She disappears like the air we take for granted.
In the morning, there is a market going on down near the ocean side. The town of Esperance is in the middle of a huge project of rebuilding the paths along the ocean side. Iron ore ships depart from the dock, heading to China and who knows where else. A Kool Cones ice cream truck passes by, spewing black smoke and kids run up in bliss. Along the sidewalk, a man dressed sharply in blue paints under a sea mural on a Fish & Chips shop.
Dita and her friend drop me off on the outskirts of Esperance and save my legs the discouragement of walking the three miles to the edge. I’m picked up in a matter of minutes by a couple from Switzerland; Swiss chocolates and excellent travel company ensue. “These chocolates are fresh from Switzerland,” the girl tells me. “I just flew into Australia yesterday.”
That’s how immediate and interconnected our modern world has become; we fly across the world in the same time it would have taken early day colonialists to travel five miles through rugged mountain terrain.
We pass through a national park area and see a few kangaroos hopping around the bush after dark. Seeing them at night time along a dirt road is something truly special that one has to witness with his or her own eyes. They just stare blankly at passing cars as if they’re just part of the natural landscape. It’s no wonder that many of them get hit. Their eyes stare stark into the headlights, waiting the moment of impact to carry them into the next phase, whatever that might be.
“I worked on a farm for two months and my boss recommended me to travel to Bremer Bay, so that is where we are going,” the Swiss guy says matter-of-factly. “If my boss recommends it, I already know it’s a place worth going to. He says that it is quiet and there are not many tourists.”
Sounds good to me, I tell them. I’d be happy to go to that place, wherever it is. That’s the benefit of having no time-frame and no itinerary—the traveler is open to voyage wherever the wind blows and often finds his or herself welcomed by locals with open arms.
That night, we roll into a solitary town and they stop to check-in at the caravan park and we depart. I walk on along a dirt path alongside a river that connects to the ocean (I learn in the morning when there is light), but for now it’s dark and I can’t see anything so all I can tell is that I am close to some sort of body of water. I meet a couple Irish travelers who have just finished fishing and are gutting their fish at a fish-cleaning station.
“It’s great fishing here!,” they tell me.
I trot along the trail until I find a spot that is well-secluded along the water side under the illumination of a pale, naked full-moon. I camp there, in the soft sand to the gentle sweeping of water swell. There is a sharp sulfuric smell in the air. The bloated clouds swoop over my camping spot and bring a soft rain.
I hike along the trail in the morning to the top of a cliff after hiding my backpack behind a bush near the public library, which is a tiny building where only one librarian seems to spend the morning by herself sweeping and drinking coffee. Bremer Bay felt like it was near-empty and all the tourists from the popular season have packed up and gone home. The top of the cliff overlooks a section of ocean that is mesmerizing. Bremer Bay is also a botanist’s dream landscape, with plants that are protected and found nowhere else on Earth.
I hitch out of the ghost town and get a lift from a wheat farmer, an Australian who has traveled through the States, and a man and his son who were surfing in Bremer Bay but go to Albany to stock up on food.
Once in Albany, I set up playing my guitar in front of a gas station after being kicked out of the supermarket by and old, balding, disgruntled manager. I meet a guy named Ralf who was kind to invite me to dinner and his sense of humor, goodwill and his sincerity were so real that all I could say was “sure, why not.”
Ralf is an energetic, outgoing guy from Brazil and we have a jam with his nylon-string guitar at the kitchen table. Together, his girlfriend and him make a dinner using organic ingredients. They show me pictures of their epic trip to South America together; the pictures of the Andes mountain ranges are stunning.
While Ralf and I are at the supermarket getting groceries, he mentions that he had met in his travels a guy who was going around the whole world by only means of hitchhiking. There was a traveler named Jeremy Marie that I had heard about online and read many of his blogs. Come to find out, Ralf was talking about the same guy. It really is a small world, especially when you are traveling.
They easily convince me that Denmark and Walpole are worth traveling to, so tomorrow I will hitch in a westward direction along the coast.
The ocean road that winds out of Albany fades into a green and hilly landscape of cattle pastures and farmland. The clouds above are dark and grey and there is a cold breeze that tells me today is not going to be one of sunshine. I’m first picked up by a woman whose father was a British military man and she traveled all over the world during her childhood and found herself in Russia during the Cold War period.
“There were always guards around our place I reckon,” she says. “These days, I’m a chef.”
Having lived a life full and rich of travel, she now puts value in making roots somewhere.
She drops me off near the farm that she lives at. There are still twenty or so kilometers left until Denmark. The wind blows in a cold, misty rain and that transforms into a torrential downpour. I find myself thoroughly soaked and shivering on the side of the road. I’m pacing back and forth and no cars are coming by and there is not a shelter of any sort in sight.
A century later, a man comes coasting by in a little red car and says that he is heading to the farm and will pick me up on the way back. He is a cattle farmer but only has 30 or so small cattle.
“I can only keep them till they get about 200 pounds or so,” he explains. “Then I have to sell them for space.” He also lived in South Africa for 27 years.
“My family used to be tour guides for the Americans on safari hunting expeditions,” he says fondly. In the days of Ernest Hemingway and the like. “Once my uncle was attacked by a lion that someone had shot but it was not yet dead. It clawed him along his stomach a bit, mashed his legs up real bad—but he survived that one. His partner put a second bullet into the beast.”
“But then it happened again, and that one he didn’t survive—an African man tried to save him by shooting the lion during the attack, but the bullet went through the lion and into my uncle, killing them both.”
Another life from a guy who travels and takes odd jobs on farms and makes documentaries. “I’ve been doing this a while mate,” he says. “There is no going back for me.” He recommends a spot that might be amazing to hike and sleep at for the night. “It’s called Conspicuous Cliff,” he says. “I’m not going that far though, but I can drop you off at a spot where you’ll only have five kilometers to go.”
Then there’s another lift from a real estate agent to Conspicuous Cliff. I meet an Italian guy named Tommy along the trail and I suggest that we climb to the top of Conspicuous Cliff, which we do. The trails winds up sharply to a peak that overlooks the ocean. There is the distinct smell of salt and a freshness you’ll never find in a town or city. At the peak, the wind will blow you over if you let it; the ocean raw and untamed. Our footprints are the only noticeable ones in the sand. Aboriginal people used to hunt and live in these areas in days past.
Kangaroos hop by us along the cliff’s edge, easily maneuvering through trails that would be difficult, if not impossible for us to pass through.
Tommy and I talk about all kinds of things and at night it can’t help but go to the possibility of aliens and other worldly civilizations given the clear view of the night stars.
I hitch the rest of the way into Walpole for the night and find a shelter in a small dugout in the ballpark. Good thing too, since it rains for a majority of the night.
After sleeping on a metal bench all night I wake up feeling like an elephant has slept on top of me. I went to the Valley of the Giants, which is an ancient forest filled with some of the oldest, largest trees in the world. I hiked along the scaffolding and decided that I’d rather hike along a dirt trail then an industrial railing made by humans. Still, it was one of the most incredible hikes I’ve done before and I made it there before most of the heavy tourist traffic arrived.
Hitchhiking out of Walpole, I wait an hour to get my first lift. The lady that picks me up says that her electric power is out at home. “I just moved to the country side,” she tells me. “It’s a lot different style of life than the pace of Perth.”
Her son sits in the back car seat. “Can you fiiiix it?,” he asks.
Then it’s another lift from a girl who is also from Perth, who works in the Walpole café. That morning, she’d put a new battery in her car and needed to drive it around to keep the charge. “It’s hard to find a job in Perth,” she tells me. “In Walpole, I have been offered four jobs since I moved.” She’s a positive-energy, giggly person.
Then I’m picked up by a guy named Dan, who wears a beanie-cap and a smile that could melt a mountainside. “I traveled all over Canada and Australia for a couple years,” he tells me. “I was on the cruise ship from Canada to Alaska, and I was informed that the food onboard was expensive, so I stocked up on canned foods but later realized I had forgotten a can opener. The chef said, ‘well what’s wrong, you don’t like our food?’ when I asked for a can opener, but says ‘see me in five minutes’ and he gives me an outstanding meal for three dollars—next thing I know, I wind up in the ship pub and all the Alaskan fishermen are buying me rounds.”
Dan drives a large white camper-style cargo van. “I just bought this a week ago,” he says. “My family plans to travel in it.”
Dan even invites me for a cup of coffee and says that if I want to come back to Denmark later on, I can stay at his place. I’m back in Albany for the night.
Leaving towards Porongurup National Park the next day, I’m picked up by an Aboriginal lady who used to live and work in the mines in Newman for three months. “You had to wear safety glasses, helmet, PPE for everything,” she says. “It was just too hot and not even worth the money… there was air conditioning inside the mines, and I was getting 1,000 a week.”
Another ride comes from a farmer-type driving a Ute. “I deliver wood chips for the farmers. I go hunting with my son sometimes—feral animals—fox, cats, kangaroo, and deer mostly. The process of getting a gun license is tricky in Australia. First, you apply for it with an initial deposit, then you send in a permission slip for the kind you can hunt on from the owner, then you must have your gun inspected thoroughly to make sure it’s not a piece of crap, then you buy the gun, then you must prove you can safely store it, then you must wait nine months, maybe more.” He laughs.
“I’ll give you a ride all the way to the start of the mountain mate,” he offers.
I hike to the top of Castle Rock, which is a beautiful lookout that gazes onto farmland, clumps of thick gum trees; it’s colder here, you can feel the difference in the mountain atmosphere, even though the altitude is of no comparison to that of the Rocky Mountain Ranges of North America. There are lots of birds in the area, a huge canopy of foliage, the constant chirping of the creatures of the tree tops. The more one spends in nature, away from civilization, the more one feels at ease and peace.
There is nobody around, so I camp out on top of a picnic table that is sheltered by a tin-roofed gazebo. The birds chatter well into the night, seizing once dark, but when the full moon shines it reminds them of daylight and they start again.
I have the climb (Devil’s Peak and Nancy Peak) mostly to myself this morning, only rain into one local; I started early before the other tourists arrive. The one man I run into seems truly happy, on his morning walk, which he says he does about “three times a week.” There is a big conservation movement that he is a part of. He shows me green forest that was completely burned out six years ago. “It’s amazing how quickly lush it re-grows itself,” he says.
I tell him that I am hiking to the top of Devil’s Peak. “Ah, the view at the top is rubbish!,” he jokes. He has German heritage and a good sense of humor.
I get a lift from a Singaporean couple, who seems surprised that I actually spent a day in Singapore. Another lift from an Italian who works on a nearby farm but was heading into Albany since he had the day off. He tells me he tried to see the local racetrack but security told him it was twenty-five dollars, which he didn’t have as he was also a poorly-financed traveler. So he then went to find a secret entrance, which he then found to be an electrified fence—but he did manage to sneak in a different way, only with the small cost of a small shock.
I make it back to Albany for the night and walked to the ocean’s meeting of the land, where society and blinking lights and progress could stretch no further. You can watch the fast-pace of a developing ocean town; it seems that many people live out-of-town and come into Albany for supplies. This town was built much differently than Esperance.
Head back towards Denmark, the first ride coming from a Scandinavian couple who were backpacking Australia. They play Scandinavian metal music through a couple crackling speakers. Another lift comes from a local going to surf with his friends nearby. He tells me about his travels hiking in Shrilanka, where even eighty-year olds hike to the peak. “The entire event was lit by candles,” he tells me. “It was a surreal feeling.”
Another couple that picked me up was working on their master’s thesis for college. “A bottle of wine and the ocean ought to help,” he says.
Then I’m picked up by Matt, and we spontaneously travel west of Walpole. He wears a cowboy hat and has been on the road for a long time. He walks along the oceans’ rocky jagged edges. He finds a small dead puffer fish washed up along the shore.
We talk about the dangers of travel, life, and other things. “People are finding different ways to die all the time,” he says. “Why not live with a little danger, climb at your own risk? This is what we were born for.”
The ocean is a giant tub of water, gradually sucking in all of the coast line. It makes it easy to open your thoughts along a solitary beach. Matt has been living out of his truck for a long time and just pulls out his tent along the ocean and goes to sleep wherever he ends up. It’s not an easy way to live in some ways, yet it’s complete freedom from the weight of the rest of the world while being a complete disconnect at the same time. He lives off social security and occasional cash-in-hand type jobs.
“I’m a socialist,” he says at the campfire. “The government is sending our resources to places like China, so I don’t believe in it. I live free, traveling this country to wherever I want—I follow my own curiosity, not money.”
He puts on a J.J. Cale album and it fills up the night air. I tell Matt that I’ll meet up with him in the morning and head off to the ocean to lay down my sleeping quarters for the night.
I borrow one of Matt’s sheepskin pads to sleep on and in the morning I read some more of my current novel. There is the sound of waves crashing into the ocean, birds cawing as they flutter by, the wind in the sand. When I look up, ten or more dolphins are riding the waves towards shore. I throw down my book and run alongside the sand and follow them along the rocky edge until they disappear, too far into the deep-end to see from shore anymore.
Matt and I go hiking along the edge of the ocean, exploring everything we possibly can. Matt handles the ocean like a regular explorer; with an eye for everything and a keen compass for route choice. He carries his boots on his pack and goes barefoot everywhere, placing one foot on a clump of sand and sliding down thirty feet to the bottom with grace as the clumps fall apart, working like a natural elevator. I try the same thing and nearly twist my ankle; there are things you’ve got to learn.
Matt is completely driven by genuine curiosity and it is infectious; we get along particularly well. We climb to the top of a rocky cliff and he disappears for awhile. I take off my clothes since nobody is around and dip into a cold inlet completely naked. The tide sweeps me back and forth. It’s a liberating and vulnerable feeling. There is that premonition that the ocean could take you to its mercy and throw your head into a jagged rock or a shark could come and clutch you in its jaws—yet this mostly is only an internal fear, out of context and out of reality. Anything could happen, at any given moment. Why worry? I wash up onto a hard rock and walk barefoot along the rock. Nobody is around for miles—I imagine that this is what humans used to do before modern times. Imagine the ancient Aborigines, walking naked along this coastline for the first time, the first human footsteps ever on the shore, the sense of awe they would have had. Hunt, tell stories over campfires, ponder some of the same questions that we still do. Except now everything is so stressful and fast-paced that we barely have time to acknowledge these things. If you do, people tell you that your head is in the clouds and the mainstream mentality is to habitually turn on the TV and stop thinking for yourself. We’ve forgotten to explore and to appreciate that some things go beyond understanding.
The sun dries me off quickly, standing naked and alive on a massive rock. More than half of the rock is submerged in the ocean.
“You just have to go ‘wow’,” Matt says when I meet up with him later. He ventures much further than I do since he is a more experienced climber while walking along jagged rock, the ocean splashing beneath us, Matt tells me that he’s not always confident when he goes swimming in the ocean. “You know, a shark could come along and pull me under. Or I could fall, hit my head on a jagged rock and it would all instantly be over. But that’s life, mate. That’s life, isn’t it?”
We take the Toyota 4-wheel drive and take single-track dirt roads along the coastline. We pass by an underground campground that looks more like an outdoor house that is designed for people to stay in. “I wouldn’t want to camp here,” he says. “Here, you might actually have to talk to and negotiate with people.”
Inside Matt’s Toyota, the dashboard is full of eagle feathers, shells, puffer fish, sandstone, and other treasures that he has found along the ocean. While cruising down a dirt track we come across a couple emus, their instincts being to run off as fast as possible. I do the same thing, and sprint as fast as I can, chasing them along the track. My own instincts, somehow repressed, immediately kick back in. They are impossible to catch, running upwards to speeds of 30 miles per hour.
Matt sets me off near the trail next to the paved road in the morning and I camp in a thick forest of gum trees. He offers me an old inflatable camping mattress that he doesn’t use anymore. “You’re doing alright mate,” he says. We wish each other luck and he begins to drive off, but not before offering his final words. “All we are is dreams,” he says, and disappears at that.
I’ve finished reading the book Ramses, a fictional story about life in Egyptian times. I use it as kindling to get my fire started. I would be honored if some day a rugged traveler burned one of my books to keep warm at night.
In the night, a kangaroo comes hopping over but I can’t tell that it’s a kangaroo in the pitch-black of night. It sets my heart beat racing and a lay there completely still until I can make certain that it is only a kangaroo, albeit most likely a large male. I slowly sit up and once it notices me lying on the forest floor, it comes closer from the other side of the tree (curious), then darts away like a bullet in the direction it came from. The feeling is both primal and magical. Amazing creatures that they are, kangaroos have adapted to withstand the conditions of every corner of the sunburned country.
I stumble out of the brush in the morning, greatly lacking coffee. Two gigantic RV campers pull over along the winding forest road and offer me a lift. “Two campers full of Asians” is how John put it later when he sent me an e-mail to reconnect and say hello. They have quite the convoy and a couple radios to stay in contact with each other. John works in Australia and the rest of his extended family is visiting the country from Vietnam.
“I work for the immigration office and catch a lot of people working illegally,” he says. He offers his opinions on the Aboriginals in Australia. “The problem with the Aboriginals is that they are pressured into living in a society that is not theirs. Their bodies can’t handle sugars, that’s why there is a lot of diabetes, alcoholism, stuff like that.”
I tell him about the dolphins that I saw the day before. “Maybe you were a dolphin in your past life,” he says. “Or maybe even a prisoner!”
They travel almost the exact opposite way that I travel, with everything meticulously planned, kilometer by kilometer, meal by meal, place to place, every accommodation booked in advance; it’s interesting to see travel from this perspective. He shows me a log book that is crammed with things to do for every half-hour. Staying on schedule seems like a chore to me and doesn’t offer enough room for spontaneity. On the other hand, you can’t really do that easily when you’re traveling in a group of fifteen or more people and loaded with children.
We go back to the Valley of the Giants and afterwards I jump out at Conspicuous Cliff— something has been pulling my soul back to the place and I have to explore more by myself before I make my way further east. So I venture over the cliff, where I find crabs and the tide comes in, along with some rain later into the climb. I follow the paths the kangaroos have made through thick brush.
There is the feeling of isolation in climbing and hiking to areas where no one is around; the ocean makes one feel small, as it should. The rain chases me off the trail and makes me change my mind as not to stay near the ocean for the night. I hitch a ride back towards Denmark from an Irish girl and her Australian boyfriend. They are good-humored and cheerful company and set me off further than they were originally going, given the weather conditions.
I hang out with a wild-roaming local dog with one green and one blue eye for a few minutes and was then offered a lift from a local man. He is a carpenter and built houses around the area. “It’s nice because I can work when I want and go surfing when I want to,” he says.
I connect with Dan and take him up on his offer to stay at his place for a night. What first ensues is a fantastic meal of grilled kangaroo, which is a gamey red meat that tastes best when cooked medium-rare. He takes out his digareedoo, which is an Aboriginal instrument that makes a deeply percussive sound.
Dan tells me a bit about his Irish history and how his ancestors first came to the continent of Australia. “My great great grandfather stole bread in England along with his brothers so they could get deported to Australia with all the other convicts,” he tells me. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, his great great grandfather’s brother never made it to Australia and instead was sent to Canada, where they never saw each other again.
Dan takes me to the school that he teaches at and I meet a mix of teachers and students and even get to participate in the local music program. Jamming with the kids reminds me of the initial spark and enthusiasm when I first started playing guitar and making music. Music can communicate things that no language has ever been able to achieve.
The daylight brings more rain and Dan and I go hiking around the area, the rain not stopping our desire to drive around and do a bit of hiking between spouts of hot tea breaks. The impressions of how difficult life must have been for the early Irish settlers– it must have been brutal to an umpteenth degree. Cold and unforgiving weather conditions, clearing canopy all day by hand and horse, with no leisure time whatsoever–just pure survivalism– this is what the settlers had to contend with.
Much of the trees in the region thrive off fires and re-growth after large burnings that happen every few years. Some vegetation shoots right up after a good burn. The trees are resilient and it is amazing how fast they can grow back within months. The distance that Dan and I hike along the trail that takes ten minutes may have taken the early settler’s days.
On our walk, Dan tells me how the Aboriginals would build a stone structure nearest to the shoreline so fish would swim into it under high tide, and once the tide receded they could swoop in and collect the fish. Aboriginals are some of the most resourceful and creative people in the world, especially when it comes to surviving.
I wake up from my six-star slumber on a bench outside the local library in Albany and decide to hitchhike to the Sterling Ranges. It takes a few hours to catch a lift once I am on the outskirts of town but it proves well worth the wait, as it almost always does. Patience pays off.
He is a local man who is both a tradesman and a beekeeper. “I’ve read hundreds of books about beekeeping, I’m the second largest beekeeper in town and I know fuck all about beekeeping mate,” he tells me straight-laced. He uses the huge distances he travels when working to think about his family and new ways to make money and provide for them. Altogether, this man is a true-blue family sort.
“There is this philosopher and I’ve read some of his books,” he says. “He reckons that if humans lived like bees, we’d have true harmony and world peace. No wars, no poverty, no rich, no poor, people doing everything for the great good– no greed whatsoever.” Beekeeping is a never-ending pursuit of experience and knowledge– knowledge of livestock (bees), a bit of botany (knowing the plant life), a dose of environmentalism, and a healthy study of weather.
I hitchhike to the Stirling Range and climbed to the peak of Bluff Knoll. One man that picks me up on the way is a farmer and says that some of the eagles have occasionally tried to grab his young sheep. “A lot of people don’t believe it,” he says. “But the eagles will have a grab at the young sheep. Bloody oath. If the eagles are hovering over my sheep and looking curious like they might have a go at ‘em, I will shoot at them if I have to.”
He takes his eyes off the road momentarily and shoots me a glance.
“But don’t tell me anybody that though, cause they’re endangered.” He drops me off and peels off in his Ute, leaving a thick poof of dust.
The Bluff Knoll climb begins with a paved walkway, which is how any major climb that caters to tourists would be expected to begin, for better or worse. The incline then increases sharply with rocky platforms to the top, curving along one half of the bluff. Near the top, I find myself staggering at my heart beating a solid THUMP THUMP of booming presence. At the summit, the clouds on break up a bit, and over the ledge you can almost feel the sheer drop by the break of the wind and the clouds that hang around all day.
I almost camp out at the mountain’s base but ran into some humored cyclists who poke fun at me first but then offer a lift down to the bottom. As I write in my journal, one guy asks me, “Are you writing your will?”
“Yes,” I tell him. “I will these two cans of creamed rice…”
Ten minutes later, he meets me while walking down the mountain trail and drops me off at a local café that is closed for the season. Across the street, bagpipes can be heard at the caravan park. “The guy that owns the caravan park charges too much anyways,” the cyclist says dryly. The cyclist tells me a story about how his friend got popped in Colorado fifteen years ago for driving while piss drunk. The traveler is always seen as some kind of ambassador for his or her own country or residence, whether he or she wants to or not.
I sleep under the veranda of the café and I can occasionally hear a critter scamper inside the metal roof during the night. Apparently, the café is not completely closed for the season.
I make it back to Ralf’s house and we have another flamenco-guitar style jam in his kitchen. Ralf’s neighbor comes over and is an animated, gregarious sort of personality that loves to talk. He tells us a story about a giant snake, which is a rumored but officially undiscovered species of Australia. It lives in trees and can grow to be upwards of twenty feet long. It’s a bit similar to Bigfoot theories in North America– heavily reported yet elusive and an unofficial species.
He tells us a story about a saltwater crocodile that seems to far-fetched to be true, yet I’ve already heard this story from an Australian I had met earlier in the trip. Brendan leans over the table and nearly talks in a whisper, pure fascination. “I’ve tested my Aboriginal friend a few times, and his word seems to be good,” he offers. “There was an Aboriginal man who was dragged down by a saltwater crocodile and the croc dragged him to the bottom of the water and shook him to try and snap his neck and kill him but he somehow survived it. When the man woke, he was in the croc’s nest and had to break through branches to find his way out.”
He is excited for the morning, as a friend has invited him to a breeding site nearby of endangered species of Australia. “I’m not allowed to say where it is, it’s top secret,” he says. “Imagine what would happen if criminals found out where it was. There would be too much money offered for any of the rare birds and somebody would inevitably try to break in. There are millions of dollars inside that building.”
I try to joke with him and press him as to where it is but he just smiles and won’t offer me a hint as its’ whereabouts.
As the sun rises, I find myself standing outside a low-traffic country road and unsure of the direction the road leads. Generally, I know that I’m headed in a northward direction. As my luck has it, a miner from Kalgoorie picks me up and is heading home after spending some time with his family. Where else could a lift offered from a miner end up besides the local pub? There we sit, marinating on a few drinks and some casual conversation. An hour later, I’m invited to a bonfire with a bunch of other miner friends dressed up at a costume party for his mate’s thirtieth birthday party. Two guys are dressed up as Spiderman, one couple dressed up as Dorothy and the Tin man from the Wizard of Oz, amongst other things. There is no irony lost in the fact that I am in Oz land (Australia).
Only three beers later, there are two acoustic guitars being passed around and Spiderman walks around drunkenly and squirts water into the fire. I carve out a pick from an old credit card and we have a jam. We grab a taxi and make our way to a miner’s kind of bar where the bartenders are all young attractive women dressed in nothing but bikinis missing the top half. A cover band plays lots of songs from the eighties hair metal genre and the beer flows like a river. I find myself starting to speak more freely and blend in with the miners. They introduce me to the Australian concept of a beer snorkel, which is exactly what it sounds– a snorkel inserted into the top of a beer bottle so the beer chugs down your throat at rapid speed.
“Most miners make around 3,000 a week,” one man I meet around the campfire says. He says that he is currently taking a “redundancy” which is when the company pays a worker to leave since they are running out of work. The miners all seem to agree that this is a common practice in the field. Mines shut down, workers are let go, and the corporations move elsewhere to exploit resources.
“America to me is a place of extremes. I’m not sure I’ve ever met an average American,” the Tin man offers. “Every American I’ve met has been an eccentric.” I learn that night that the proper pronunciation of Australia in this neck of the continent is “Straya’, cunt!” Political-correctness is not an accepted concept in a dim-lit bar of a mining town.
Brad takes me to the Super Pit on the way to the road out of town in the morning. The view in front of me is indescribable, like many things that I see during my travels but I will attempt to put it into words. The Super Pit is a giant hole in the ground which has been heavily mined by numerous companies since the early-eighties. It is like an entire village of miners, some channels and holes going deep into the Earth. From the top of the hole, the enormous pieces of equipment appear microscopic.
After Brad drops me off, I stand along the roadside for about an hour. It begins to get cold and windy as the cold front rolls in overhead. Two kindly-mannered ladies eventually pick me up. “Guess where we are coming from?,” the one in the passenger seat asks. “The prison!” She throws back her head and laughs.
Funny enough, this isn’t the first person that was in route to or from the local jail and I tell them this. She tells me that her son is in jail for the possession of drugs.
“We couldn’t even sit next to each other when visiting, only facing each other,” the driver says. “ The maximum security women have is better off than the minimum security men have,” she says.
After driving for a bit, Dawn invites me to stay at their place for the night since it’s raining. “You can sleep in the garage,” she says. The next thing I know, I’m invited in for dinner and in the company of an experienced traveling couple who spent two years sailing around Australia. I meet Celia, who is a Philippine woman staying at the farm in a camper in the garage.
Over dinner of Philippines food and wine, the husband George offers insight into their travels. “Sailing around, you meet some characters,” he says. “We actually had one guy offer us his cattle station and a house in Sydney in exchange for taking him to America plus an incentive of thirty grand in cash. It was too good to be true,” he says. “He was obviously trying to get away from someone. We said no to that one!”
“Another guy we met wanted us to move drugs from Asia to Australia, which we definitely said no to of course but they guy said that ‘we knew too much’ so we packed up, through our shit in the vessel, and set sail out to Cairns as fast as we could.”
“Fifteen years ago, Thursday Island used to be the hot spot for illegal immigrants,” he continues. “They’d take a boat to the island and then fly into Australia from there.”
Two French guys who have been working at the farm and cutting wood on their property for a few weeks are departing the next day. George makes them sing “Waltzing Matilda”, which is a nationalistic tune that sounded worse the more alcohol was consumed, despite the locals often insisting that it sounded better.
“Oh, I’m all buggered,” George says an hour or so later. I’m back in Esperance and sleeping on the garage floor at the farm next to Celia, the magical woman from the Philippines. It almost feels like a home.
On the road, we pass a woman who is pushing a cart weighing approximately 60 kilos around Australia, fighting against and increasing awareness of depression. She hands us business cards, sweat dripping down her face. “These cards have helped hundreds,” she says. At the bottom of the card is the number to a suicide hotline.
I imagined what it must be like to be pushing a cart around sometimes redundant and desolate areas; even by car the landscape can become monotonous. I wonder how she manages to camp along the roadside at night, or if she always books some sort of motel or lodging.
I spend the day helping at the farm, falling a few trees and burning the pile, stockpiling firewood. Dawn places a small lizard on my backside, which decides to become comfortable and crawls over me for an hour while I work. I try lemonade fruit straight from the tree, which tastes like a sour candy but better. Somehow, I’ve lucked out and fallen into the hands of incredible people. The farm is full of hand-crafted ornaments made of recycled and re-used discarded objects. None of the plants on the farm are native and the couple uses the land also as a campsite for travelers.
Over dinner, we listen to bands from an earlier era before my time (pre-Beatles) that I’d never heard before. They told me more stories about sail boating around the world. George built his own boat from scratch, which took him about six years to complete.
“I once came face-on with a brown shark while I was trying to fix part of the boat in a full wet suit because of jelly fish in the area. The brown shark just stared at me and I about had a heart attack but eventually the thing let me be.”
I nearly make myself at home at the farm, having been welcomed with open arms. I help around the farm with what I can, one of the tasks being digging a trench to find a buried telephone pole along the dirt driveway. As I am working, Chas drives up in his Ute (a local that I had met a few days earlier who frequented the farm) and invited me to go fishing for salmon along the ocean. I gladly set down my shovel and jumped in the Ute.
We listen to the band Corrosion of Conformity in his Ute on the drive in. The day before I had spent cycling along the miles of rich coastline where surfers and fishermen congregated. We set up a fishing pole inside a tube of PVC piping and he sets the cast far out into the ocean. The crabs pick away at our bait. “The fish always bite when I try to light up a smoke,” he says as he smokes a cigarette. Still, there are no bites. “It’s the one time I get grumpy when I have a bite,” he jokes.
Eventually, Chas decides to choose plan B and throws some shark bait on the line (half a salmon.) Still, we have no luck, although there is a bite but the fish somehow snaps the line. Most likely it was because I held the line to straight, causing too much tension. Even though we don’t catch anything, the experience of fishing along the ocean is a first and its one to remember.
Every morning, Celia and I have small-talk conversations over a pot of coffee in the garage and she introduces me to Novah, her friend who is also from the Philippines. I stay at the farm in total for nearly a week and on the last night they have a party in which everybody dances in the living room over the sound of blasting dance music and shared laughter. Because George and Dawn are so inviting to strangers, their lives are rich and full of laughter, probably a level above the mundane lives of most.
Dawn gives me a lift back into town and I spend one last bit of my time in the seaside town of Esperance. I keep my promise and return to Dita’s house and knock on his door. He is surprised to see me and invites me in for a glass of wine. We exchange books and he bites off a page of one book that someone has written a message and just says, “I don’t like it when people write in books.” Being quite the character, he spit’s the piece of chewed paper onto the ground. “Hoooooot diggity-dog!”
He then calls up Mrs. White, tells her jokingly “we have an emergency.“ She shows up to his house in five minutes. They have a quick dance and laugh while I play my guitar and set me up on the outskirts of town for the hitch.
Ten minutes later, a lift arrives from an old-timing miner, who has the ins and know-hows of just about everything to do with the Australian mines. His hands are weathered, dry, callused, belonging to a working man. “I’m the superintendent now,” he says. “Used to work the underground, but not anymore… my foot once got stuck in the ground and they kept filling it in, I’m lucky I was able to undo me boot.”
“We do 9 days on, 5 days off now, so I live near Esperance and work in Norseman,” he says, laughs. “Management changes about once every four years. The Chinese own a lot of the mines these days.”
He grunts in between breaths, an exhausted sigh, perhaps the effects of years of hard labor. “The mill’s working conditions are my responsibility,” he says. “It’s safety before production. You have to remember that mate. To remember to value people over profits– but too often management doesn’t consider that these days. The new management fired all the top honchos first thing– they were flying to Hawaii and California for meetings and stuff, a complete waste. They try to cut corners now and I recently had to stick up for one of my workers. The grinder wasn’t working properly, they wanted this employee to go in and work it, so I flagged the foreman, and then they flagged me back so I said ‘well, I’ll be calling the inspector then.’ They tried to fire me, but they sure weren’t successful– safety before production mate.”
He tells me how they drill a hole, fill it with a concrete paste after dynamiting it, then work the area for gold and iron-ore. “This way they can work without the dirt caving in,” he says. He sets me off in Norseman and I wish him luck and he says,” I hope ya get another ride.”
Norseman is a big sprawl of a town, with many fly-in, fly-out miners. Temporary mining housing fills most of the inner-town landscape. I walk a mile or so out of town and nobody picks me up as nightfall quickly approaches. One woman pulls over to say hello and is going all the way to Adelaide but has promised her husband that she “wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers.”
I walk off into the bush and make a fire before it’s pitch black and set up camp for the night.
The wood in this area is dry and burns easily, hot and burning slowly. I sit and watch the flames flicker, dance along the gum wood. Dry leaves and sticks that I find work good for temporary light as they burn bright.
First, I receive a lift from a man and wife who are grey-nomading around Australia, doing an even where you play a hole of gold at every roadhouse along the way. “It encourages tourism to places that people usually pass on by,” he says. The man first sees me with my thumb out while passing along the road on a morning bicycle ride.
They have been traveling for a few years and seen much of Australia, including the Tom Price National Park, which I pass over this time around.
Another guy gives me a lift about 300 kilometers who has the appearance of an Elvis reincarnation. The well-worn voice of Elvis plays over his speakers. He is a retired fisherman heading to pick up his son from the jetty, who spends weeks at a time catching crawfish at sea in wooden-baited crates, most of which get sold and shipped to China’s growing market, feeding the massive population.
“We get the leftovers here in Australia,” he jokes, sincerity in his voice. His son pulls in at the end of very day to sleep on land, as opposed to how he used to sleep on the often rough sea waters. “It’s hard to find workers that stick around,” he says. “We’ve been through 7 in 2 weeks time.”
In this desolate country, there are landing strips for emergency helicopters. “It’s not a good place to get bent and twisted out here,” he says.
A man named Drew picks me up eventually and gives me a lift all the way to Port Augusta. He tells me that his son is setting off on a journey by motorcycle around the world and he has been helping him prepare the bike. The miles roll on and on along the flattest and straightest stretch of road in Australia and eventually we arrive in Port Augusta.
He sets me off and I take a shower at the servo station and when I get out of the shower, hot water still on my skin I realize that my sleeping bag has somehow rolled out of my backpack. Being that the sleeping bag is an essential item that keeps me warm at night, I panic and quickly throw on some clothes and race out of the bathroom to ask the employee working if I can borrow a phone. It is truly a blessing that Drew happened to give me a business card with his phone number written on it! Ten minutes later, I do manage to get hold of him and he says that he will drop the sleeping bag off at the local pub in Wilmington, which is 60 kilometers out of town.
So I hitch out of town and flag people down with a wave of my hands since my situation is becoming somewhat desperate as dark settles in and the temperature begins to drop. I get a lift from one guy coming back from working at the local mines as well as a 17-year old kid who is a volunteer fireman for the town of Wilmington. He tells me a story about a Frenchman who recently got turned around while hiking in the Flinders Ranges and they had to come in with a helicopter to save him. I walk into the pub where four locals are seated and my sleeping bag is at the end of the bar stand. I wanted to buy the Good Samaritan a beer at the pub but he was seventeen, one year shy of the drinking age in Australia. The firefighter sets me off at the top of the Flinders Ranges trail and I take shelter by the base of a large tree to block the strong winds that rage down the mountain pass during the night. All the other travelers are cozy in their caravans while I am out in the elements.
The night proves cold, with lots of wind coming from the ridge, no wood nearby for a fire, having been used up quickly by the other campers.
I walk along the dirt trail in the morning, following the rising sun like something straight out of an old western movie. I get a lift immediately from a couple that are from Adelaide and heading home. They are engaged to get married, tomorrow being their “official day of engagement.”
While driving, the girl gets a call from her mother, inviting her to her adopted brother’s wedding in Namibia (she used to live in South Africa). The story about him was that he was brought to a German-influenced school during the expansion of Hitler’s regime and was treated harshly so they took him under their wing and now he was grown and getting married, having become an artist and a painter.
The guy tells me that Port Lincoln used to be the originally most populated city in the area but the shore proved too rocky for ships to dock, so Adelaide became the new hub.
In Adelaide, I meet back up with my artsy friend Jessica and venture to downtown via the bicycle trail. The pace of the city seems drastic having spent the last month in open farmland and ocean country. Everyone seems to have an agenda, a deadline, a deal to make– there just isn’t time for a thought that doesn’t involve business, perhaps, at least that’s what shows. A group of young people carry boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts. Men and women can be overheard talking about business. Names like Statravel, Marcs, Tony Biance, Padly Pallin, American Apparel, Mountain Designs, and McDonald’s fill the area. A lone old woman paces slowly through the city streets amongst the masses with her cane– the only person that looks genuinely happy. Many faces appear to be frowns, under a constant invisible pressure.
Jessica is still on the road during her trip with friends to Canaberra, so I take watch over the husky dogs. They take to plopping down in the bed and attempting to take over at night and setting off landmines of dog poop in the paths that I will walk through. I take them for a walk in the mornings and they thank me by chewing up my jar of peanut butter, pieces of slimy-slobbered plastic decorating the tile floor.
In Australia, I would not trust the adage that “pedestrians always have the right-of-way.” People seem to drive differently here, and not that Australians mean anything by it– they are often hospitable and accommodating, but you can come to the conclusion that a vehicle weighs more than the average human, so therefore a pedestrian is better to be wise and get the hell out of the way.
I spent the day cycling with my new friend Brendan along the bike paths. I take the dogs for a walk and later the young pup sneaks out of the house, seemingly vanishing out of thin air and I chase her around the neighborhood a bit before convincing her to come back with the lure of a can of tuna.
On the bus, I meet a Malaysian man who speaks of the developing world with wisdom. “Once a country becomes developed, there is no going back– they might try to live simply, but it becomes impossible to do so.”
I’m picked up by a guy originally from Liverpool, England who has what initially sounded like a heavily-coated Irish accent. He moved to Australia about 15 years ago with his family. “The road in between Adelaide and Murray Bridge used to have no traffic at all back then– things here have changed!”
Now cars zip on by the highway in a blur of heavy traffic.
“I thought it was post-Apocalypse or something when I first moved here, being used to the heavy traffic in England.”
The distances between towns were also a real culture-shock for him. “Now my son drives from Adelaide to Melbourne to meet a friend for pizza!,” he jokes. He tells me that his friend does sound engineering for big-name music acts and has had no lack of work, having once had to turn down an offer to do the sound for David Bowie since he was already booked. “My friend always wears ear protection,” he says. “If he loses his hearing, he loses his work.”
It’s not until after he drops me off that I realize that my forgotten sleeping pad is still back in Adelaide. I cross the road and head in the direction that I’ve come from. I’m picked up by a man that has been hunting red deer this morning, looking for a buck that had been spotted by his friend’s cattle paddock. He had no luck and lives at the top of a hill in Adelaide.
Then I get a ride back into town from a guy driving a BMW who says that he hitchhiked around Australia 35 years ago. “Perth to Port Augusta was still all dirt roads then,” he says. “Semis only carried one trailer. It was easy to get lifts. People are so paranoid these days, it pisses me off mate.”
We drive by China town and he comments that “all the Chinese development in Adelaide is crazy.” It’s a sharp contrast to the Chinese woman I had met earlier in the day who had told me that “China town was a great place where I could get whatever I wanted to eat.”
He had six kids in their late twenties, all of them avid world travelers.
I ride the bus back to Jessica’s place. We watch a documentary on solar and wind energies of the future. There is a resistance to the green movement by greedy corporations rooted in old ways of burning massive amounts of coal and exploiting earthly resources.
Jessica and I spend the day hiking a bit in the Adelaide countryside, taking the dogs with us. The young pup, being the ever-defiant one, likes to run away and play catch-me-if-you-can.
A lift from a guy who works for Penfold’s Wine and is heading to work at the vineyards. He usually sprays for weeds but says he “might not have work if it keeps raining since all the spray washes away.” A truck drives by with his company’s logo on the side. The rain doesn’t look like it’s going to let up.
Another lift comes from a nurse in the pouring rain, says that she used to hitchhike all the time.
A farmer offers a lift and gives me his opinion on the political landscape. “This development comes in and destroys the communities we had,” he says. “Big government has their agenda; public opinion doesn’t even matter anymore. Nothing is grown in Australia anymore; the attitude is to grow it God-knows-where, slap on a ‘made in Australia’ sticker, maybe a kangaroo sticker or something like that and call it good. The new counselor ignored the opinions of 17,000 people to increase development in our farm town– there’s no going back to it mate.”
As he lets me out, the sun is finally shining and the hills are flooded with water. I find myself soaked but beginning to dry off.
“Good on ya mate,” the farmer says. “Have a good trip home.”
Then I’m picked up by two women on the outside of town and I end up staying with one for the evening since the rain is coming down in buckets. The rain isn’t always a bad thing. The Aboriginal girl tells me how there are no connections in language between the different tribes. When there were no cars and they could only walk the land, there was no way for the tribes to unify in similar language; the land had real divides.
“If I were to cross into another clan’s territory the traditional way, I would have to sit at the river, light a fire, and maybe wait to be approached by a chief, which could take days,” she says. “The elders would have to speak to me first. To do otherwise would be seen as highly disrespectful. Each clan has its own language, creation story and unique way of life.”
We walk around the river and she talked about the outdoor retreats she does with her class, working with Aboriginal kids. I stay out of the cold for the night and Colette makes vegetarian burgers; she is homely company.
In the morning, Colette’s tiny dogs escape by way of the sliding door and we find ourselves trying to fetch them down but instead they come back on their own terms, looking pathetically cute as if nothing happened. I meet her friend Sue, who offers a ride to the Victoria border. She tells me that her son died of cancer at the young age of two, who donated his body to help kids with ailments.
“He told them they could have it,” she says. “Since he passed, his brother has found ways to raise over 20,000 dollars for cancer.” One has to admire the inner-strength of this woman.
I walk for about 45 minutes till I get picked up by two brothers from the Fiji Islands, one who is visiting, the other who works picking fruit in Australia. “Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks own islands in the Fijis,” the say. How does a person own an island? How far passed insanity can the concept of ownership become? We talk about how it’s better to leave things untouched then to try to control them.
“The Fiji islands are highly populated. Europeans once pushed us to the outskirts to live in villages, but we regained our own independence in 1921,” he says with pride. We stop at Happy Jack’s and they order three burgers under the sly and give me one. They offer to say a prayer before we leave and they ask God to “keep me safe in travels.”
Then I get a lift from a man from the country of Jordan, who works at a water treatment facility, who is on his way to work. “The process is that the water goes through layers of sand, which takes the sediment out of the water. It then is treated with chlorine so it is deemed safe for drinking.”
All the water is siphoned from the Murray River, some 30,000 kiloliters per day for his town in the winter, more in the summer. He has studied and traveled extensively, through Europe, Russia, and Japan. Japan seems to have to made the most lasting impression on him.
“Every bit of land has been used and it is beautiful,” he says.
There are no more lifts before nightfall, so I make a small fire under a near-full moon. A car sees my fire and honks song-like four times. There is no feeling like placing your bare feet beside a warm fire, the clouds overhead growing. As an escape plan, there is an abandoned car around the corner in case the rain gets too heavy during the night.
A ghostly, sly fox greets me as I pack up my camping gear and leave the forest canopy in the morning. The rain holds back enough that I never have to run for shelter inside the abandoned car. I lay back and watch the clouds quickly roll over passed me and the last embers of the fire burn out.
The fox is yet another species that is not native to Australia; it was introduced to the country, just as were camels, cane toads, tamed horses and a few other creatures. Just as the camels and cane toads, it’s safe to say that overall, the introduction of the fox was a failed experiment. The foxes took to eating the farmer’s livestock and became a burden on the local herdsmen.
I’m standing along the roadside for almost two hours and starting to think that nobody is going to come when my saving grace finally comes. The first lift of the day is from a guy coming back from visiting a friend whose mate had died in a motorcycle crash and they’d just flown his body back to New Zealand to be properly buried in his homeland.
His mood is one of dismay but he tells me how he would go pig hunting, scouting out with his dog. We pass two emus running alongside the road in the bush. “You can catch an emu by throwing sticks and stones in the air, then grabbing them around the neck when they become curious.”
He lights up a joint and smokes it, offers me some but I decline. I ask him if he thinks they will ever legalize marijuana in the country. “I hope not,” he says. “Cause I’ll lose my business.”
His mate calls and it’s the formalities of “righty-o, no worries.”
I get another big lift by another group of Fiji islanders who find work picking fruit in Australia. What is it with the Fiji islanders in this region? I’ve been picked up two days in a row by seemingly the nicest people on the planet. Their hospital seems to be incredibly hospitable and I now would like to travel there someday having met these kind folk.
They drop me off at a servo station and it is already dark, yet there is another 200 or so kilometers till I can arrive in Sydney. I try hitchhiking by word of mouth, asking people filling up at the pumps if they have room for one more to Sydney. I reason that just about everybody at the servo station is heading to Sydney if they are indeed heading that direction.
After getting shot down a few times, somebody says yes. He’s a man that has a family with strong heritage in Australia. “My father-in-law, bless his soul, helped the group that brought in the cane toads from the Fiji islands to help with the farmer’s insect pest, which didn’t work obviously– he’s not particularly proud of that.”
“There are lots of Australians that haven’t seen most of the country you have,” he says. The terrain towards Sydney becomes hilly and the highway transitions into four to five lanes in width and the traffic picks up. He drops me off near the main transit station in the heart of Sydney.
Sydney is drastically different; cosmopolitan in a true sense. Motorbikes, people speaking in classy language, designer clothing, clean streets, development followed by development and the clap of high heels down a sidewalk as bicycles cruise by and cars blur by. I walk passed a pub filled with people chattering, betting on their favorite horse. There are cafes with European themes at every street corner.
I meet up with Carlos, who is my Couchsurfing host for my stay in Sydney. He is a musician and originally from Spain, studying in Sydney. His house is full of people from all different countries; Japan, Mongolia, Italy, Germany, you name it– the house itself is cosmopolitan and a good metaphor for what the modern city stands for, at least in my first impressions.
I go cycling with Carlos down to the Sydney harbor, riding the loner bike which is a Frankenstein bike made by his friend from Czech Republic who is a mechanic that cobbled the thing together. The frame is that of a BMX bike and the tires are off of a road bike giving it a funny sort of presence. Carlos and I sneak into the music conservatory and listen to an artist named Mark Wilkinson doing his sound check with a pianist and cello player. The song is called All I Ever Wanted and the message is simple and directed towards the heart.
James Bond style, we dart into a practice room and play on the piano for an hour or so. Miraculously, we managed to avoid getting kicked out by the staff until we were actually already on our way out of the building.
Along the harbor near the iconic Sydney opera house there are classy, expensive cafes mixed with the names of earlier European explorers. Captain Cook boat tours, musicians busking, an Aboriginal selling his artwork. We jam on the guitars for a while and I meet his roommates, one girl from Mongolia who strikes my fancy and together the three of us climb to the top of the hill in an attempt to photograph the full moon, which the rolling clouds do not permit us to do on this particular night. In a four-story building across from the park, business men whack golf balls at a high gated fence during the late night hour.
In Sydney, there may be natural sounds, but the machines are louder and have overtaken these sounds. The ancient Romans, if they time-traveled to this future, might view the city and be completely immersed and enthralled at this idea of progress and development. Observing cities around the world, one can’t help but wonder: how long will they last? Eventually, won’t they crumble and fade just like everything else?
Later in the day, I take the train and crossed the harbor to meet up with my Italian friend I met in Malaysia and her boyfriend who lived in Sydney. When traveling, there is no greater feeling than reconnecting with a person you met earlier during your travels. It makes things at least feel like they have come full-circle and there is a sense of camaraderie and community on the road. Together, the three of us go hiking to a lighthouse that overlooks the ocean front.
Her boyfriend works in the restaurant industry as a chef and he explains how a wage based on non-tipping in Australia affects the servers. “A manager and I were having a meeting recently and one of the servers actually forgot to bring us our silverware,” he says. “Not once, but twice. Since they don’t rely on tips, some of them have no incentive to bring forth good customer service.”
There are pros and cons to having a tip-based restaurant industry, as well as the opposite.
Carlos and a group of about twenty other people go hiking in the Blue Mountains of Sydney. Massive cliffs, waterfalls, ravines, dry and wet microclimates and clear skies follow us the whole day, although it doesn’t have the same sense of openness as Western Australia often has.
It’s my last night in Sydney and I can’t believe I’m actually leaving this incredible country. As always happens when one is about to leave, I get closer to the girl from Mongolia name Sharleen who tells me a bit about life in her country as we sit on a park bench in the city at three in the morning as the drunks stumble on home. There is a soft rain dripping from the sky, making it feel like a scene from some kind of chick flick– it’s a good feeling as yesterday blends into the grips of tomorrow. There is no place I’d rather be than here.
Tomorrow, the definition of here will have a new interpretation.
I have to admit that I accidentally overstayed my Australia travel visa by about 12 days. When I originally booked my flights, I had read incorrectly that one could stay on a travel visa for six months but later re-read to find that this was only for European citizens and American citizens were only allowed three months of stay at a time in the country. Since to change the flight would have been beyond my budget, I opt to instead be thick with apologies at the airport security check and cross my fingers, hope for the best.
They play hard at first but eventually let me pass but not without compensating my entire jar of peanut butter, telling me that it could be a potentially deadly item. I imagined some crazed terrorist taking a glob of PB in his fingers and rubbing it over a pilot’s eyes, blinding him and crashing our plane to the ground. Then I realize that this is stupid and far-fetched, just like the modern day airline rules and regulations.
On the flight, there is no meal served for the entire eight-hour flight and like a true vagabond, I share my Ramen noodles instead of being pressured to buy a processed dinner for twenty dollars from the flight attendants. They won’t even have the decency to share a cup of coffee with us. I promise myself that I will avoid Jetstar airlines at all costs in the future. Watching others eat while you starved was like insult to injury; such is life sometimes.
In Hawaii, I get flagged by the authorities most likely because my backpack was dirty, full of dust and I looked to them like the type of traveler that might smuggle drugs. I wait patiently as they scrounge through my stuff piece by piece. “What’s this?,” the guy demands, pulling out some sage I had kept from a hike in Sydney. I tell him what it is.
“Ok, wasn’t sure if it was marijuana,” he says. Definitely not, I tell him. I am tired of airport checks and want to escape the building and get out into the fresh air.
I am asked more stupid questions entering my own country than I was when leaving Australia. Are you a terrorist? Are you carrying anything illegal into the country? It gives the impression that one isn’t welcome back into their own country.
On Oahu Island, it is hotter than hell’s kitchen. This is my first time ever in Hawaii. I flew there because it was cheaper to fly from Sydney to Honolulu, then to LA rather than flying directly to LA. I walk into a food court where there is mostly Asian-style fast food, Filipino food, a large plasma TV featuring a preacher blabbing about God as people ate their food. Tucked in the corner is a divorce shop offering special “military rates.”
The first human that I talk to is a homeless man on a bike who wears a genuine smile and says, “doing well, thanks.” The first genuine smile I have seen so far amongst the fast-pace of the island. The Bank of Hawaii has a slogan on the front of the building that says “Ready for whatever life may throw at you.” There is a picture of a wedding, parents with a baby, and college students throwing up their tassels– as if these were the only things that life could ever bring. Was that all we ever expected life to bring? If more of the same was never enough, how much more did we need? Was there a price tag for everything on the planet?
I meet a local man and ask him for directions and offer to buy him a cheeseburger at McDonald’s. “Whatever you do, don’t sleep on the beach,” he tells me. “They killed my friend down there. And be careful if you go in the hills hiking– if you go off the main tracks you might run into a pig hunter or something. You don’t want to run into them.”
By days’ end, I’ve probably walked over 15 miles and my feet have blisters since the traffic is too congested on the island and nobody bothers to pull over for hitchhikers. Dare I say that an overabundance of tourism has in some ways destroyed the culture?
I hike to the ocean’s edge, which isn’t hard to find in Hawaii and I sleep as the waves rush against the land.
I hang out most of the day at Waikiki Beach, which is world-renowned for its’ pristine and optimum surfer beaches. Hawaii is a great place if you are not hitchhiking. I take the bus around the island just to get a sense of the size of the island. It’s already dark and it takes about two hours or more to circle the entire land mass. Rush hour traffic slows us down. We pass windmill farms and the bus driver waves a few locals the Hawaiian sign, which is an extended thumb and pinky.
“Aloha, welcome aboard,” says the robot on the intercom. The Oahu boat harbor is massive with incoming shipments of everything imaginable. The cost of living is higher in Hawaii because of the need for imported goods.
Eventually, I make my way to the airport and sleep there since it’s already three AM and my flight for LA leaves early in the morning. I’m not in Hawaii long enough to make a thorough impression, so I’ll have to save that for an extended return trip to the other islands. I find the solace of sleep amongst tropical travelers and local bums.
This is real life.
Stotanism- a quiet resilience, the desire to keep pushing on.
LA greets me with its fast-paced, selfish initial façade and the city seems to move on at a speed that is reckless and inconsiderate of all things human. I’m more than happy when I find a group of travelers that are heading in a van and a car to Colorado and all they need is help with the driving. Coming home seems like a crash-landing, like a dream that can’t possibly be real. Part of me is happy to be home, another part wishes I was still traveling away from where I come from; the feeling is bittersweet.
Funny enough, one member in the group is an Australian is traveling around America in a similar fashion that I travel, through mostly hitchhiking. Bryan is the leader and organizer of our group and is traveling to the Navajo country of Colorado to build adobe houses with a volunteer group.
In a park, we meet a Navajo Indian man that has a certain kind of sadness to him. It seems that the bottom of the bottle has gotten some of the best of him. He invites the Australian guy to go with him to a Sun Dance ceremony and we share lunch with the native. “I was there when the American government kicked my own people off our land,” he says.
The landscape through Arizona is littered with dead sheep, broken beer bottles amongst and incredible red sunset. We stop at a place called Baby Rock and hike around for a while as the red ball falls over the horizon. Phil tells us that his claim to fame is that he once got stuck in quicksand and had to have someone pull him out.
Eventually, it’s just myself and the Coloradan girl from Montrose heading in an eastward direction, as the rest of the gang is heading elsewhere. We say our goodbyes and check into the cheapest motel on the edge of town.
I walk towards the outskirts with Sandra in the morning and we were offered a lift from a genuine Colorado cowboy– until this point I was convinced that they were now only in movies and nearly forever dead. He could just as well be the ghost of Buffalo Bill, on his last leg in the afterlife. He holds a giant coffee mug and sports a red and white flannel shirt, a straw cowboy hat.
“I work on a farm in Gallup,” he tells us. “I just wanted to check and make sure y’all were ok. I seen ya walkin’ down the street with yer backpacks and all. I could have gone myself to church this morn but it was already late and I don’t like walkin’ into church late.”
We hop in his car and he takes us out some 20 miles. “My wife of 35 years left me,” he tells us sadly. He pops in a CD of a country guy singing with a drawl over a slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitar.
I ask him who the artist is. “Oh, this is my wife’s new boyfriend,” he says. He holds a giant silver coffee mug. “It makes me realize that she’s really gone.”
Royce drops us off and the next lift comes a few hours later from a seemingly drunk man and a Navajo woman driving a car that has no hood. “I work at a junk yard, so I’ll fix it soon,” he says. “Runs good anyways.” Their lives seem raw and full of open wounds, much like their car which is in disrepair.
He has on a camo-hat with a hole in the side. Someone has drawn I Heart Sam on the carpet ceiling and there is a faded I Heart with a name that has been crossed out and erased. He offers cheap tequila and accept as not to be rude. It is disgusting and I nearly puke it out in the hot car; it’s a good thing that his Navajo girlfriend is now driving.
“You didn’t have to stop, thanks for the ride,” I tell him.
“I know I didn’t. I don’t have to do anything,” he shoots back.
“There’s a lot of good people in the world,” I tell him.
“I know there are,” he shoots back. “And I’m not one of ‘em. But it’s ok, I only kill the people I don’t like.”
We wait in Hermosa as the steam-engine train full of tourists scoots by us. It takes a full offer to get a lift from a man that is a sort of jack-of-all trades. He tells us a story about a black bear encounter. “I was at my place and I heard this mournful, whining sound and thought it was maybe a local drunk and I was barefoot and it was outside so I didn’t go. Luckily, I didn’t change my mind because it was the mother bear mourning her dead cub which had gotten into the transformer and had been electrocuted so it would have been bad news to get stuck in the middle of that. That was in Silverton and it was the only bear encounter I’ve had.”
Another lift comes from a girl coming from Albuquerque after visiting old friends. “After living in Colorado, I don’t have too much interest in New Mexico,” she says. We get into the small town of Montrose and there is the distinct smells of horse and cow shit, pulling us in like weary travelers, pungent aromas tugging at the air.
Hitchhiking towards Denver, a woman stands on the opposite side of the busy street and shouts against the grain of traffic. “ Ooo—ooooo! HEY! Everybodypraisethelord! Oooo aaaaooooo !!” (lost in translation) She’s got a 55 mph sign on the front of her wheelchair. Cars zip on by and don’t seem to notice her. It’s a concert projection thrown into oblivion.
The last lift to Denver comes from a guy that is retired and lives in a cabin. He used to work in the oilfields. “Used to be able to work 120 hours a week, but now it’s all safety and 80 hours max.”
He traveled to South America in the past. “People live in huts and pay nothing to live on the side of a hill. Hell, maybe they’re doing it right over there after all and we’re doing it wrong.” His voice is raspy and sounds a bit like a disgruntled coyote, having spent a thick portion of his life chain-smoking cigarettes in the stressful conditions of working the oil fields.
I can see the city skyline and Rocky Mountain ranges of Denver approaching in the distance and can feel the magnetic pull of the closest thing to home pulling me back. Suddenly, it’s like I never left and the travels I experienced were just a dream.
That’s all we are is dreams, a familiar voice rings in my head.
All roads are endless and lead full circle, back to the place where you began– it’s inevitable. There is the freedom of choice to follow the road or to cling close to where you came from. You’ll always carry your roots, and there’s no escaping yourself. In between choices, there are convenient excuses such as financial reasons, fears of being robbed, of not understanding another culture or language, fears of falling off a flat Earth, fear of the media actually being right with their cynical depictions, fear of being homesick. Some of these fears are rational and should be acknowledged, others should simply be ignored.
In between, there is your decision if you choose to make it. Your choice to travel.
Your choice, to do so or not. One doesn’t have to travel the world in pursuit of adventure—but it’s a great way to start. You don’t have to live based off people’s expectations. If you get the chance to go, you probably should; it’s an interesting place, wherever you go.
All you need is a clean backpack with the bare essentials and maybe a bit of space left for the dust and stories you might collect along the way.
Total distance traveled on the trip was well over 24,000 kilometers (14,913 miles) by cycling and mostly hitchhiking. Not that the distance was what mattered in the end anyways; I had conquered some of my doubts and accomplished beyond what I initially thought conceivable. Now I was home and as some of the Australians say, all buggered out.
Recommended travel books read on this trip:
Down Under by Bill Bryson
Napalm & Silly Putty by George Carlin
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane
The Inheritance of Loss by Hiran Desai
The Last Tycoon by Scott Fitzgerald
A Citizen of the Country by Sarah Smith
Adam’s Empire by Evan Green
Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
Is That Thing Diesel? By Paul Carter
The Savage Crows by Robert Drewe
Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman
The Kiwi Connection by John Meskell