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After flying with JetStar airlines I can say that I’ve had worst in-flight experiences and I’ve had better. In all fairness, they did manage to scrape us together something resembling a TV dinner meal of frozen potatoes and turkey. The turkey had a strong aftertaste of rubber cement and I’m not sure that the Irish would have eaten the processed potatoes during the Great Potato Famine, but it was edible nonetheless. The air conditioning is blasting and some passengers are shivering. I ask for a blanket to borrow for the flight.
“That will be seventeen dollars,” the attendant says perkily. She’s not joking so I pass. I’d rather endure the cold, and budget airlines are all about endurance—get in, get out, with no expectations higher than somewhere to sit and arrive at your destination alive.
As we disembark the plane, which has arrived an hour late, the flight attendant gently tells a man on crutches that he’ll need to hurry for his connecting flight. “Fan-tastic,” he grumbles.
It’s hard to believe that in that small window of time we’ve flown clear across the ocean and into another country. Jet lag is exactly what the term implies it is—the lagging of the proper required headspace to adjust to differences in culture and time zones. It’s like being sucked up into a vacuum or time warp. Seat-of-your-pants adventure travelers such as Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson have been replaced by the frequent flyer business type. The rugged traveler who moves by whatever means possible and does so for the sake of exploring has been replaced by the week or weekend holiday-er with a loaded credit card. These days, everybody travels but few explore.
Jonathan, who I meet in the Darwin airport, turns out to be one of the latter few. A sign above us at the terminal reads 31 degrees Celsius. That is to say that in Darwin, it is hot. Jonathan seems just as disoriented and lost as I do and after escaping more-than-casual glances of our passports from the border police, I suggest that we try and hitchhike into the city together. I’m dedicated to hitchhiking around the entire circumference of Australia and even from the airport I choose to use the power of the thumb.
Jonathan tells me he has just flown in from traveling the Philippines islands and now will spend a considerable amount of time in Australia. He will be in the country for 9 months or more with a working visa. Many travelers, especially from countries in Europe, travel to Australia and end up working in the country. Wages in the country are strong and there is plenty of available work.
We are both sweating raindrops as we cross our way out of the small airport. A group of cockatoos chirp and cluck as they fly between gum trees. Ten minutes later, we are picked up by a woman who turns out to be heading into town as our luck will have it.
“How ya goin’?,” she asks us. Just got into the country!, we tell her.
“Well, welcome to Australia!,” she says. This seems to make her happy and her face glows. “I pick up travelers from time to time.” She suggests working under the table like “everyone else” if I have to since I don’t have a working visa. The conversation is short and we don’t have enough time to get to know her beyond the surface level.
We walk around the downtown Darwin area for a bit and the first thing we need is food since we are both starving. My jaw nearly drops when I see the prices in the supermarkets; it’s nearly twice the price of produce in the States. So that’s how it goes, I’ll either have to learn to eat bark off trees or find a way to survive this country.
“So where are you staying?,” Jonathan asks me as we make our way through downtown.
“Oh, have you heard of Couchsurfing? I’m staying with this guy, his name is Phillip…”
“No way! I’m staying with a guy off Couchsurfing, his name is Phillip too…”
“No way it could be the same guy…”
“No way, but where does he live?”
“Bakewell area is what I have written down…”
The chances are slim but it’s at that moment that we realize that we both came in on the same plane and are heading for the exact same house. So we decide to hitchhike to Phillip’s house together.
After a few minutes of walking, we’re picked up by a young lady heading for a friend’s house. If hitchhiking in Australia remains as good as it is in Darwin, I’ll have to give Australia stellar ratings all around! This girl is young, as in probably-still-lives-with-her-parents young based off her appearance and how she behaves.
I tell her I just came from Thailand and Malaysia. “Ooohh, I’m going to Thailand soon!,” she exclaims. “I’m going to get a boob job done in Thailand since it’s cheaper. My parents don’t like the idea but they’re going to let me do it anyways. In Thailand it only costs about 10,000 dollars to get the job done and in Australia it costs about 20,000 so it’s a lot cheaper.”
I promise her I’ll keep that in mind the next time I decide to call up Doc for a breast-size increase. She drops us right off at Phillip’s house and we wish each other luck on travels and upcoming surgeries.
Phillip is not home and neither of us have cell phones so we improvise and throw our packs over the fence and decide to apologize later if he takes offense to it We head to the park for a while and go for a jog while we wait for Phillip to get home. . Of course, he doesn’t and Phillip is one of the most easy-going, considerate, good-humored people you’ll ever meet. We meet him an hour or so later and he introduces us to three other travelers from Germany who are staying at his place.
One of them tells us that he got a job working on a fishing boat just off the local port that went sour in the end. “The visherman, vee vwas a dick,” he says in English with a heavy German accent. “All da time, I vwas not take fresh water showers, only vit salt water from da sea and his vife from the Philippines meanwhile vas always washing clothes with fresh water. Sometimes, sharks or crocodiles vould get caught in the net and with the sharks; he vould cut off the fins and let them sink to the bottom of da ocean.”
At the dinner table, he shows us his hands, which in some spots are cut right to the bone. “Da salt water vould get into it and it would sting,” he says. “I had to quit after a week because of dese injuries and I’m going to a doctor tomorrow. Da fisherman was always looking down on me, saying ‘hurry up’ and calling me a ‘fawking cunt’, stuff like that.” At the same time, he says that he would still have done it knowing what he knows now just for the experience.
One of the German guys had been hit by a car while riding his scooter while riding around locally. What was going on in Darwin? Why was everyone getting hurt or in accidents? The travelers set up outside, where an Australia flag was hung up proudly as the wind blew and the mosquito zapper buzzed through the night as it turned the pests into dust.
Dinner is organized so that somebody cooks every night, making for a variety of food and less expenses for the house. When somebody tells me that I am in charge of cooking for the evening, it usually results with an increase in heart rate and sense of panic, as making Instant Noodles is a culinary accomplishment. I decide to do the typical ‘American’ dish, nothing more than burgers over the grill. During dinner, a tree frog climbs over one of the bushes near the outdoor table. Roosters scuttle back and forth in the yard.
Stephen, our host, is a deaf-mute and he has a new service dog that he is training to help him with his needs. We practice by knocking at the door while he is with his trainer to see if he alerts Stephen. The dog still needs some practice.
Despite the setbacks, Stephen seems to live a life that is happier than most people that I’ve met, probably because he openly shares his experiences and what he owns with other people generously. “You gotta watch out for salties in this country,” he tells us at dinner. “They even have been found swimming in the ocean near Darwin. And you don’t see ‘em till they’re right next to you mate.”
The next day, Jonathan and I will walk to the ocean.
Jonathan later tells me that he is from Quebec (pronounced kwee-beck), which is the French-speaking province in Canada. There have been instances in Canadian history where Quebec wanted to become a separate country from Canada, but this never actually happened.
While walking through a roundabout with a pedestrian passage, a car slows down and then starts driving again, nearly running me over. I flick off my sandals and instinctively start running backwards as the car continues to come at me. It’s not till I yell out “Hey!” to the lady driving the car that she slams on the brakes with a horrified expression on her face.
We find out that they had a baby in the backseat and she was more occupied with the baby than the driving. A block away, the couple pulls over beside us at a parking lot. She asks if I’m OK, if I need to go to the hospital. I tell her it’s fine and just to keep her eyes on the road instead and we laugh, shrug it off. “Sorry mate!,” the guy says as they drive off. It was a real kind gesture for them to stop and ask if we were alright.
Jonathan and I venture off exploring Darwin on foot and find our way to the ocean, which as far as we can tell contains no crocodiles. Or maybe it’s filled with salt water crocodiles that we don’t see. Salt water crocs are the one that are known to actively hunt and eat humans.
At the supermarket, a white taxi van drops off a group of Aborigine people, barefoot and seemingly invisible to the rest of the world. We forage the supermarket for pasta sauce, noodles, and garlic bread for dinner.
There is quietness to the area as the sun sets and creates a lava-lamp effect over the city of Darwin, swallows it whole. The tree frog does not make another appearance at dinner.
In the morning, I wake to the sound of Stephen’s robotic vacuum driving around the living room and crashing into everything in sight. Jonathan and I hitch into town and get a lift from an x-fisherman. I ask him what life as a fisherman was like for him.
“It does something to you,” he says. “It’s not an easy life mate.” I ask him if he has seen any crocodiles in the area, the typical tourist questions. Every other noun that comes out of his mouth seems to be cunt. “Oh, the crocs have been migrating south since they made it illegal to hunt them now,” he says. “If you ask me, I think they should kill the cunts…”
He’s a good bloke with a foul mouth. He tell us that he once tried to pick up a loopy hitchhiker with his pants down but when he stopped to give him a lift and see what the deal was he said, “sorry, I only accept rides from hot female backpackers.”
We hop out of the car and thank him for the ride. “Alriiiight m’ate, good luck,” he says.
I busk with my Martin backpacker guitar for awhile, make close to fifteen dollars in an hour and an old Aboriginal lady slowly walks over to me, throws in a coin and says, “You’re pretty good at playing dat thing mate.”
That makes my day. Later, we get a lift back to Stephen’s place from a few guys who planned to travel to Southeast Asia in the future and were keen to listen in to any advice I might have. In the kitchen, I stencil in a rough map of Australia on notebook paper and map in with peanuts the route I will like to take via hitchhiking.
The next day we all make a stop at the local farmers markets since it’s the weekend and it’s on the way out of town. I’ll be hitchhiking south towards the town of Katherine, my intentions being to loop off in the direction of Western Australia. I say goodbye to everyone and my first lift comes from a couple that are both in the Australia Air Force and are off for a weekend camping trip.
They tell me a story of an Asian couple they once picked up who had gotten stranded after missing their bus and accidentally left their backpack and camera in the back of the truck. “We drove all the way back to the coast with their stuff in the back and didn’t even know it till we got there,” she says. “So we drove all the way back to where we came from and found them, gave them back their stuff. The girl was nearly in tears. They offered to pay for gas to compensate, but we wouldn’t take it.”
I inquired about the Aboriginals, which I was curious about after seeing some of them at the supermarket. They told me their thoughts. “The Aboriginals have to keep money in the family; it’s all about helping each other out. That’s why most of them can never get ahead in life because problems like alcoholism drag the whole family down.”
They drop me off in Katherine right in front of a trail head that they tells me leads to hot springs, that actually “aren’t hot, just luke warm.” The first thing I do is go and take a dip in the springs, which turn out to be refreshing after walking for a bit in the heat. Giant spiders perch on webs surrounding the water hole and the locals tell me that crocodiles have been seen in the area before. Nonetheless, many locals and tourists are taking dips in the water. “No worries mate, just crocodiles that might want to eat ya. Nothin’ to worry bout.”
I meet a couple Irish guys that tell me Perth is the most expensive city in the world. It sounds like the high cost of food in Darwin is not unique to Australia. It’s no wonder that most travelers come here to work while traveling.
I try hitchhiking for over three hours with not a chance of a ride. Road trains, which are trucks loaded down with three heavy-duty trailers full of anything imaginable just chug on by me. I’m told that new insurance laws and other political, bureaucratic reasons make it difficult for the drivers to stop, or at least give the ones that don’t like picking up travelers a good excuse not to.
One truck has three whole trailers packed to the brim with cattle. I hope that I can get out of this town tomorrow. I’ll be sleeping in the park near the hot springs, just down the road from where large families of Aboriginals sleep on the streets.
I sit at the dusty roadside with my guitar for almost a full 24 hours without a suggestion of a lift. I’m thinking that maybe it’s time to change my tactics. Most people blow on by and pay me no mind. One girl even makes the effort to roll down her window and yell out “No way!” Many people watch too much television or are brainwashed to think that the outside world is this dangerous place where everyone means you ill. It’s unfortunate because they’ll never have opportunities to step outside of their comfort zones with that kind of mindset.
I try to stay positive but it’s becoming a real challenge to maintain that. I’m stuck in the middle of an outback town, miles into nowhere. I shouldn’t have come to Australia, I tell myself. My moral is as an ultimate low. At one point I even consider buying a ticket to Asia for the rest of the trip and flying out of Sydney after three months. Something keeps me determined though and eventually I get a lift to the outskirts of town, which turns out to be a worse hitchhiking spot than the original was. “You’ll probably have better luck at this spot mate,” the guy tells me.
On the green road sign above me, somebody has etched these words into the sign: 39 degrees Celsius! I hitchhiked all bloody day! Apparently, this guy had better luck than I did anyways. I realize that the sun is beating down on me like hell’s inferno and my gallon water jug is starting to run low. Luckily, I run into a road worker who agrees to give me a lift back into town after I ask him. “Your body loses up to 2 liters of water an hour in this kind of heat,” he tells me. “You can dehydrate quick out there mate.”
I get a lift back to the supermarket where people walk into the store with no shirts and no t-shirts. Instead of “No shirts, no shoes, no service” it’s more like “No worries, come on in.” It’s really an interesting place and only the fact that my bad luck with hitchhiking it tainting my perception right now.
I walk back to the hot springs after stocking up on food and water, an Aboriginal pointing me towards a tap near the petrol station. “You can use there mate,” he says, pointing across the street through faded eyes.
I meet a fisherman down by the hot springs who is retired and lives in his truck, following the good weather and camping everywhere he goes. “I eat well and eat fresh fish every night,” he says proudly. “You know, these rivers flooded real good a while back,” he says. “Washed it up so far back that they found a salt water crocodile swimming near the Woolies supermarket… somebody said ‘ I reckon somebody outta direct him to the meat department!” He gets a chuckle out of this. I get the impression that he enjoys telling this story and has told it a few times before.
Meeting that fisherman is enough to revamp my spirits and decide that Australia was a good place to explore and I shouldn’t give up just yet. After talking it over with him, I decide to try my luck at hitchhiking towards Alice Springs instead, through the Australia outback, also known as the Red Center.
“You’ll have more luck going towards Alice I think,” he says. “More people probably heading that way.”
I sure hope that he’s right. That night, giant fox bats swoop over my head where I sleep in tight packs and make screeching sounds. The mosquitoes come to torture me later in the night, but only for awhile. Then at 2am the sprinkler system blasts on, startling me from sleep and I have to quickly grab all my stuff and make a dash for the other side of the park, but not without getting pelted with water first.
This is the Australia I know so far.
I walk a few more miles to the spot that lead towards Alice Springs and after three hours or so, a working roadside truck pulled over. I nearly jump into the air—wait, no, not nearly, I do jump in the air—and run over to the truck. Thanks so much for stopping, I tell him. I’ve been stuck in this town for three days!
He’s a good bloke that is originally from Turkey and has lived in Australia since he was two. He introduces me to the music of the Turkish ud, which is a strange-sounding instrument with a distinct sound like none other.
These days he works on the roads in the Red Center, patching up cracks and potholes that are common along this well-trafficked road. We talk about a lot of things, from work, to life, to travel, which all blend into one as we pass masses of termite mounds that people have decorated with clothing. The trees quickly disappear and there is the sense that we are really in the Australian outback. There is no Outback Steakhouse to be seen in these parts—this is the real thing.
Kangaroo carcasses scatter the roadside like there was a nuclear holocaust. Flies buzz around at every stop we make. Muz invites me to stay in the motel once we arrive in the town before arriving to Alice Springs the next day. He gives me a Bundaberg rum and coke in a can. “Cheers mate,” he says. “Welcome to Australia. I don’t like these things, my friend gave them to me.”
A cold drink never tasted better. Rum and Coke in a can is just what the doctor would have ordered.
No, it’s alright, I tell him. Thanks for the ride, but I can camp.
He insists on me staying and a warm shower never felt better. We order some food from the local restaurant and have steak and potatoes; a perfect meal after being on the road.
Sleeping rough makes one sincerely appreciate the creature comforts of a soft bed with air-conditioning.
The rain comes down in heavy sheets in the morning, which is unusual for the area, Muz tells me. His work is canceled for the day, which was lucky for me since he will be able to give me a lift all the way to Alice Springs. There is the feeling of momentum starting to build.
We meet up with the other roadside workers at a café and hang out under the eaves as the rain falls down off the tin roof. Stand around drinking coffee, the workers cracking jokes and laughing about the “hard work” they will have for the day. Rain or shine, they still get to collect their paychecks.
As we’re driving, we hydroplane for a moment on a road that is filled with a tiny river of water. Flooding in the area is common during certain times of the year. “Shitshitshitshitshit,” Muz mutters, but manages to let his foot off the gas and gains back control.
Muz tells me that in his opinion, the problem with the Aboriginals was that they get “throw away money from the government” so a lot of the city Aboriginals sit around all day with no incentive to do anything but drink grog (alcohol.)
In the middle of the desert road, there is an unexpected mango farm that offers sample tastes of mango ice-cream and wines. I offer to treat us to some ice cream, which proves to be a great decision—it is delicious. Muz tells me about his trip with friends in an RV across America a few years back. “I loved New Orleans and all the meat—the steak, the fried chicken,” he says.
We drive for a long ways until we finally arrive in Alice Springs (some 1,800 plus kilometers later) and Muz sets me off at the supermarket. Muz tells me that if I had a working visa, his boss would have offered for me to work for their company.
In Alice Springs, I walk passed Digareedoo shops, many backpackers, touristy coffee shops, a World War 1 memorial, and Catholic churches. I hike to the top of the war memorial and overlook the town below. This site was a burial site for many soldiers that didn’t make it home during World War 1.
I walk around the town looking for a place to sleep and find a church called the Angalic Church. I find a secluded corner and catch a few winks.
That morning while walking around town I meet a guy from France who is playing his guitar and drinking coffee in the middle of the center of town. Doing what seems logical, I join him. “This is the best country to find work in outside of Switzerland,” he told me. Just for fun, we jam in front of the supermarket just for fun and he sets up a sign that says he is looking for work. I make 40 dollars in one hour, and a light bulb goes off inside my head.
This is how I could survive in Australia.
It rains all day, on and off.
Later that night, I walk to my Couchsurfing hosts’ house on the other side of town. His name is Zack, and it is mentioned in his profile about being something of a nudist, but trust me when I say that I didn’t expect him to answer the door with his balls hanging out full bloom. I sort of expected him to walk around the kitchen in the middle of the night naked, something to that effect.
Zack tells me about his experiences traveling around Australia in a van and going to a festival called Confest in past years. These days he works at a hospital in Alice Springs sorting out supplies.
Speaking to another guy when they are completely naked in front of you, I learn is slightly uncomfortable, to put it mildly, and it’s hard not to be distracted by this fact that everything is literally hanging out. I don’t think I would have been uncomfortable with it in a different setting, a different place, but this was just weird so I went to sleep on the floor and in the morning I thank him for letting me stay and decide not to stay there again.
The next day, I meet a girl from Belgium while busking in front of the supermarket. Her name is Nazarine. She is super sweet and funny enough, when I mention hitchhiking to Ayers Rock in the middle of the desert, she doesn’t think it is such a bad idea. She asks if she can join me before I can even offer for her to come.
A little girl walks up to me while I am playing my guitar and says,“Guess what? I like your sou—ound.” She can’t quite get the syllables and sound for the word to come out right, which makes it that much more appreciated.
I am invited to come to some kind of “devotion gathering” where I am told there would be other travelers and music by a couple that meet me in town and have seen me playing music earlier in the day. I can’t turn it down, so I go and meet a host of interesting characters. They read quotes from different religions and have me play music in between the spoken word. The people are kind-hearted and I feel welcome in this quassi-hippy get together. Their religion, as they explain it, is defined as a “bridging together of all religions; a oneness.”
The next day, Nazarine and I walk to the edge of town and begin hitchhiking. We wait about two hours to get a lift to Uluru (Ayers) Rock after immediately getting a quick ride out of town by a local guy in a beat-up Ute. I try starting a fire to help Nazarine’s ear, which is apparently slightly infected since she has gotten her ear pierced recently. I work out the chords to a song she knows called Lemon Tree and we sit on the roadside playing that song with nothing but the wind and heat outside our own company.
Nobody is pulling over until I go off into the woods to make a fire and who would have guessed that somebody decides to pull over, probably thinking a woman is all by her stranded self in the middle of the outback. When I pop out of the woods, they might have been hiding their disappointment, although I’m not sure.
There are two guys in the car and they are planning to make a documentary about the Aboriginals that lived near Uluru Rock in order to get some funding for the communities there. Nathan, the driver, tells us his stories about his first interactions with the Aboriginal tribes.
“One day I was driving towards Uluru Rock and picked up a dead Emu that I found on the side of the road. I wasn’t sure why I picked it up, I just felt compelled mate, out of respect for animals. I’ve spent a lot of time in India and learned to respect all creatures.
“Anyways, I had just got back from traveling India with this fresh in my mind and I wanted to visit an Aboriginal community and all the locals said ‘no, it’s too dangerous, don’t do that’, all that sort of thing, so I of course went anyways. So I walked over mate, and hiked into their community and out comes this old man with a walking stick and this man says, in a gravelly voice ‘hello, I am Emu Man. ‘Well, I’ve got something to show you’ I tell him. I run back to the car and grab the Emu carcass and give it to him.
“The next day, the man had sorted out all the feathers into necklaces, stuff like that. That experience sent chills down my spine and changed the course of my life forever. It determined my life for the next 25 years.”
Uluru is a long drive out into the middle of nowhere; some 450 kilometers southwest of Alice Springs.
We’re then invited to stay at a camel farm, where there are a host of interesting characters, one being a French guy who works for the circus teaching Aboriginal kids. Nathan shows me some authentic Aboriginal Digareedoo playing, which is much rawer than the European style of playing. He lets us listen to an audio clip of a recording he did with the village people, jamming with a saxophone, Irish flute, digareedoo, drums and keyboards.
We have a dinner of steak and are invited to stay for the night. We both decide to sleep along the sand dunes.
Mark, the guy that works on the camel farm, tells us that they once found a dead camel and a snake trail next to it, figured that it was bitten by a snake the night before. Mark was once bitten at night by a snake when he had to help push his friend’s car and passé dout in the car, not realizing that he had been bitten. It wasn’t till after the hospital and later in the shower that he noticed the fang marks on his legs and he was lucky that he got to keep his life.
We grab our sleeping bags and hike into the night with the flashlight, toss them down on a soft blanket of earth that overlooks Uluru Rock.
It was like heaven on Mars: craters, desert, mystery, and all.
In the desert, the climate is the coldest in the morning when the sun’s first rays drag up the cold from the ground. Feeling this change in temperature, my body wakes my mind and my mind is grateful for having been woken. I grab my camera and take some shots of a fire red sun over a desolate desert with a giant rock sitting in the midst of it all. Watching the sun unfold over Uluru is like having a magician show you the secret to magic. It is magic. The rock changes colors, transforming from yellow, to red, to purple, to red again and a mix of colors that simply can’t be described in words.
And it really is a wonder to many how the rock got there, in the middle of nowhere. It seems that there is a lot of this type of geography in Australia; giant rocks in the middle of the desert. But how did they form? How long had they been there? Certainly many years beyond our short human life spans. Years of plate tectonics, erosion, and sculpting by the Gods I suppose all play a part. Regardless of the conclusions people form, everyone tends to walk up to the landscape and go wow.
The rock has two different names; one that the European settlers gave it in 1873 (Ayers Rock) and one that the Aboriginals gave it many years ago (Uluru). Personally, I think that Uluru sounds cooler and they should just stick with one name or just stop calling it anything at all—for God’s sake, it’s only a giant rock.
We pack our gear and hitchhike to the rock, eventually getting picked up by a couple girls from Mississippi who are excited to climb to the top but have a mix of emotions based on what they have heard of what the Aboriginals believe. To the Aboriginals, the rock is sacred and out of respect one should not climb the rock. Many people still do despite this and in the past many tourists have fallen off and continue to meet their demise making a wrong step on the top of Uluru Rock.
Nazarine and I walk the seven kilometers around the circumference of the rock and the Mississippi tourists are disappointed when they found that the trail to climb the rock has been closed due to slipperiness from the recent rainfall. Anyways, probably for the better; they don’t look like they are in that good of shape at any rate.
On the way back, a car full of Aboriginals stop to try and give us a ride but there car is full to the brim with people. Night is falling over the rocks, and we are almost prepared to camp out if we have to but at the last minute a couple pull over and offer us a lift back to the ranch.
Later at the ranch, Mark gets to talking, as he is very accomplished at doing. He tells us that his friend had bought the camel farm originally and it was a “sad affair” when they first purchased it. “Only seven camels were at the farm and it was in shambles, but now there are over 700 camels and it is a thriving place since we are passionate about it.”
When we tell him about the Aboriginals that tried to offer us a lift and the car was full, he smiles and says,” yes, that’s quite typical, as the case often is.”
Mark says once he was jogging while working in an Aboriginal community and they stopped to ask “are you ok? Why are you running?!” To the Aboriginal people, the only proper time to run is if you are on a hunt or if a predator is chasing you and wants to eat you. That’s also one of the modern day Aboriginal problems and I suppose a human problem. We used to have to run and work for our food and now we can just sit in front of a computer screens and collect it and lazily have our bodies transported in mechanical, motorized things.
With that, I walk back to the sand dunes that night by myself and lay my sleeping bag under the crystallized blanket of black and shining stars. Never, never turn down a chance to sleep under the stars, I write in my journal.
I jump out of my sleeping bag in the morning at the sight of the sun rising over Uluru Rock. When would I be back at this spot to see the sunrise again? The answer was almost certainly never. When would I witness this exact moment again? Without a doubt, I certainly never would. You could only embrace it.
Mark gives me some advice over breakfast and unorthodox advice at that. He’s not the kind of guy that has had someone spell out his life for him—he has taken and crafted his own reigns and his own set of rules to live by. He always wears a cowboy hat and he lives the lifestyle as well. “Travel until you’re 40, work your ass off till you’re 60 and then retire,” he says. He wishes that someone had told him that from the beginning.
Society tells and expects everyone to go to school, get married, buy a house, work until you might be able to retire at 60 or 70, and if you’re not completely dead or lacking in any energy yet, then you can find some time to travel a bit here and there with any remaining funds you might have. Sounds like a wonderfully great way to waste your life.
Nazarine and I spend the day going on a camel tour that Mark offeres free of charge, a genuine and kind gesture. Even when I offer some money, he declines to accept. Camels not usually what everyone think of when the continent of Australia pops into mind. They are not native species and were brought into the environment originally by early Arab explorers during the 19th century for transportation and construction. With the birth of the automobile, the need for the camel to be used in this way decreased and the camels were suddenly let into the wild.
Being that much of the center of Australia and Western Australia is comprised of desert terrain, the camels thrived in the environment. By 2008, people that studied the camel populations in Australia were suggesting that it was doubling every eight years or so—an alarming rate of growth. They were degrading the environment and natural ecosystem, threatening local species. Recently there has been a push by authorities to kill off many of the camels in the desert, in hopes to put the population at sustainable levels. Some of the practices, believe it or not, include flying by in a helicopter and blasting away at them with machine guns. Yeah, humans. We are definitely a strange and sometimes disturbing breed of animal.
Training camels takes months and months of concentrated patience. They are not easy creatures to tame and even when tamed, sometimes they have it in their personality to be defiant and not cooperate. Nazarine and I are paired with two special camels of this type of personality. When it is time for the group of camels to move, our camels just sit there and look at the trainers stubbornly. “What, you expect us to move in this heat?,” they seem to say.
Eventually, they do. The camel tour through the desert is one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced but it would have been great to see one in the wild, which I never do. I do run into plenty of other species of wildlife, however.
We say goodbye to our friend at the ranch and hitchhike back towards Alice Springs, as Nazarine is meeting some friends that are staying that way. I have to backtrack to get my stuff anyways and find myself wishing that I had just carried it all with me instead of leaving the extra weight in Alice.
The lift from Uluru area comes from a guy and his sister from England on holiday in Australia. The bumper sticker on their car reads: No Room for Racism in Australia. She gives us her personal insight on Uluru Rock. ‘When the Aboriginals signed the tourist contract, they couldn’t read, sadly,” she says. “So it wasn’t a fair deal. They would never just sign over their heritage and the land of their ancestors. If the amount of people climbing the rock goes lower than 20%, they are inclined to close the site down for climbing. “
We end up in Curtain Springs, which really isn’t much of a town at all but a place for tourists to camp for free and spend their money on breakfast and hot showers if they want.
Bullet holes riddled the signs in the outback. A prehistoric-looking bird called an emu circles the camp and ducks behind bushes. The creature is harmless enough, but if cornered it could certainly do some damage with its’ massive talons. I have seen my first living kangaroo in captivity at the camel farm but never in my life have I seen so much road kill of one species scattered along the road. You see so many dead kangaroo that your eyes stop seeing them after a while.
We set up our camp and make a fire. Dinner is canned spaghetti and bread. We are just about to fall asleep when I hear a rustling sound in the bushes and hear Nazarine mutter something like “there’s a frog” but then I realize that I’m not dreaming and she has actually said “there’s a dog” and I turn over to my left and there is a dog that is distinctly not domestic sniffing around and looking down on me. It distinctly a dingo!
The dingo is a free-roaming dog found in Australia and some parts of Southeast Asia. It is a descendent of the grey wolf and at times it can get aggressive, especially when in packs. Lucky for us, this guy seems to be a lone wolf.
“Hey!,” I yell out at him. “Get outta there!” It dawns on me that this wild dog must frequent the area as campers probably throw their old burgers and food to the camp perimeter, drawing in the curious scents of food that the dogs pick up. This particular dingo probably smells the spaghetti we had cooked earlier.
With that, the dingo runs off into the forest. There is the fading sound of rustling grass and snapping twigs.
The only creatures that bother our sleep the rest of the night are a group of Germans who take their time setting up their tent and make it a point to be as loud as possible at two in the morning while doing so. This is why I sometimes despise campgrounds, even when they are free, let alone paying for them. Anyways, we eventually get our sleep and we do in fact wake up in the morning, mild dew slicked across our sleeping bags.
The scenery surrounding Uluru is arid, rolling hills, dry river beds, red clay, which is some ways reminds me of the landscape of New Mexico, but in most ways altogether completely different. It takes us but a few minutes to get a ride from a couple Italian guys who are driving to Alice Springs in the morning. They are heading east, towards Brisbane, they say and I can tell that Nazarine is thinking about jumping in with them, as she says she has friends that have work there.
So we depart in Alice Springs and agree to meet up again later on the east coast. It’s time for me to go exploring on my own again. I get back into town, grab my stuff, say goodbye and almost immediately set out hitching again out of Alice Springs, back towards Uluru Rock. It’s somewhat mentally taxing to be covering the same distance you just covered but it’s what has to be done.
I get two short lifts out of town and then wait at the turn-off for about an hour and a half as cars zip by me for a ride further south. Someone has left a fire burning at this spot and as I try to put it out, a couple police officers drive by and scold me out their window for starting a fire. I want to say I didn’t start it and do you really care anyways?, since they’re just driving away and look bored.
I’m picked up by a couple that are traveling the Red Center and they live in Sydney. We pass by a crow that is feasting on a fresh kangaroo carcass and they manage to pull over and snap a few shots. They seem to be a couple that has kindled a new sort of relationship, a love with a fresh kind of energy to it. They drop me off in the middle of the bush and I hop over to a sand dune just before dark and set up camp.
A fire-setting sky transforms into midnight dark over the lump of horizon, illuminating distant suns. This is the Outback Sand Dune Estate, a five billion-star hotel—nothing but a sleeping bag, sand, and an immense stretch of stars.
The sun rises again in the morning, and along with it, the persistent flies. As it quickly becomes hotter, they follow me in swarms and I find myself wrapping my face with my shirt to keep them from attempting to fly up my nose, into my eyes, my ears, and any other moisture-thick area on my skin. They aren’t the kind of flies that just buzz by and annoy you for a few minutes, the kind that are common in the States—these flies will follow and shadow your every move until you are on the brink of insanity.
I wait for a few hours in misery, swatting the flies away, only for them to return ten seconds later, nearly 50 to 100 flies on my back. I take to playing my guitar to keep my mind occupied on something else. My saving grace comes from two German backpackers, who to my luck happen to be traveling all the way to Port Augusta. I am in a long ride for the day. The German guys love their heavy metal music. The repertoire varies from Killswitch Engage, to Soilwork, to Lamb of God, to a German rapper called Casper.
We stop in a town called Cadney Homestead where time seems to stand still. There is only the sound of the wind blowing in the desert and the heat burns down onto the caked earth. Inside a roadhouse, a few local guys play billboards by themselves. There is a heavy silence to the room that speaks louder than a crowded bar in the city. Outside, a semi carries a small house on the back of its trailer through the outback. Where was the house going and what kind of eccentrics lived out here? I want to meet them.
Driving through the outback, the driver runs over a snake that darts out into the road. The thing was about three feet long and it happened to fast to swerve out of the way. Just another road kill casualty. “Poor snake,” he says, and the road carries along the straight and forever sprawl of sand and termite mounds.
Cooder Pedy. We stop for snack supplies and pass by a sprawl of houses, many of them built underground to withstand the heat. Families live in shelters built as permanent basements. This is an active miners’ town and one can’t help but get the sense that every town like this is temporary, despite its’ rich history. Once the minerals run out or they find somewhere else to dig, the jobs disappear along with the people. A man with a patch over his eye walks into the store and loads his cart with groceries for his family. I find it likely that this is the result of a mining accident.
They drop me off in Port Augusta and I’ve made it to South Australia, another territory. I ask two young sheilas and a bloke hanging out near a park what there is to do in the town. “No-thing,” one of the girls says slowly for added effect and laughs. The bloke gracefully kicks a clump of red dirt as if to prove that there really is nothing to do in this town.
“Welcome to Port Augusta,” he says dryly.
Despite the boredom and the drag of the town, one gets the sense that there is, underneath it all, a real sense of community in this town. I roll out my sleeping bag beside a bridge in a secluded-enough spot and fall asleep, unnoticed by all.
I’m learning Zac Brown’s song Jolene on the side of the road while hitchhiking the next day when a local miner pulls over in a Ute and offers a ride. He’s got thick calluses on his hands and his skin is a burnt red color. “Happy to give you a lift,” he says. “I’m only going about 100 kilometers or so.”
I tell him that’s fine.
“Been working on farms and mining all my life,” he says. He says that China, parts of Asia and Indonesia now own over ten percent of the agriculture stations in Australia. “The government never talks about it, of course,” he says. “It’s a big problem.”
He tells me a story about the miners blowing up the cop shop in the area fifteen years back because the police wanted to shut the mines down. “They made sure that no police were in the cop shop, but they blew it to bits and they got the message,” he says.
The guy is full of stories. He tells me he once went camping with some of his mates and a brown snake crawled right into his friends’ tent and curled up with him in his sleeping bag. “We were having breakfast, and somebody asked ‘where’s Pete? I’m surprised he hasn’t smelled the bacon and come out to eat yet.’ Well, we just figured that he was tired and sleeping in a bit so we let him be. A bit later, he comes running out of his sleeping bag, screaming like a little girl. The snake had crawled up next to him to keep warm and had finally decided to slither away. He had been lying there, as still as possible, trying not to move! Poor guy, we all felt bad for him. He was lucky not to get bit!”
He stops at the local supermarket on the way to stock up on a 24-pack of grog (beer). “You’re probably wondering why I didn’t buy from a bigger store where they sell cheaper beer,” he says. “I only like to support local supermarkets, so that’s why I stop here, even though it’s a bit more expensive.”
He talks about the problems he experiences with the Aboriginals, in his perspective. “We are forced to keep even the lazy ones employed in the mines,” he says. “We basically don’t have the authority to fire them.” He offers to put me up for a few nights but I tell him that I’ll be making my way to Adelaide. The distance I am planning to cover in three months time seems daunting at this point. I wonder how it would have gone had I accepted his offer.
I snap a picture of him for the scrap book as he drops me off and leaves. “There’s an Aussi wanker for ya,” he says, laughs.
The miner drops me off and I sit down working on my Zac Brown cover again while the flies pester at me. Ten minutes later, a woman in a silver car pulls over to the side of the road and I throw my pack and guitar in the back seat. It becomes instantly noticeable that there is a certain type of nervousness to her demeanor. She has an unhealthy skinny look to her and there are bags under her eyes. She wears a short black skirt and high heels.
“Shit, there’s a cop a few cars back,” she says suddenly. Is that a problem?, I ask her.
“Not for you, but maybe for me. I have no registration, no insurance, and no license for years…”
We are pulled over and they search her car, find amphetamines of some sort in a Ziploc bag, an open container of vodka and her license has been expired since 2006—she’s on a joy ride, this one. They don’t arrest her but instead ask if I can drive her car and follow them back to the police station.
“Don’t worry, we understand that you’re not a part of this,” one of the police officers says. I’m really glad that they completely understand that.
“Can you drive this car?,” the younger, apparently wiser cop asks me.
“I’m not sure,” I tell him. “Can I? I only have a Colorado license.”
The rookie cops looks to his senior for assistance.
“Can he drive this car?,” he asks him.
The older cop doesn’t seem to have answer. “Do you feel comfortable driving this car?,” he asks, rephrasing the question.
“Comfortable enough,” I tell him. “But I’m trying to get to Adelaide by the end of the day is all.”
“Well, we can make sure you get a chance to get there.”
Sounds good, I tell them.
So I’m driving her car to the police station, with my new friend in the passenger seat.
It takes a full hour for the police to work things out with her in a back room. There are a maximum of three police actually working at this small town station. Across the street there is a Blockbuster Video rental. I’m surprised to see one of the stores still in business here in Australia. The police come out of the station and hand her a bundle of official looking paperwork and we walk over to her car.
“So you’re free to go?,” I ask her.
“Yeah, we can go but you have to drive until we get out of here. I told them where my x boyfriend was hiding so we can get out of here.” Somehow this feels like another half-truth or complete lie but I just roll with it. At least I’ll make it to Adelaide by the end of the night.
“Picking up a hitchhiker is illegal in south Australia,” she tells me. Later on, I actually look up the laws and they make it clear that hitchhiking is legal, but it is recommended to avoid it. Not that I really care what is written in a book—if it’s doing good and not bad, it shouldn’t be illegal anyways.
She tells me that one thing that isn’t illegal in South Australia is prostitution and she reveals to me her profession. “I’m a high-class escort,” she tells me with pride. “People message me online for my services.”
I can’t help but ask her how much she usually makes for her services. She remains entirely open and eager to talk about it. “I usually make 300 dollars an hour,” she says. “There’s one guy that has his wife drop him off right at the house, knowing full well what happens. Another guy just wants someone to take to the movies.” There is something really sad about both sides of that equation.
I drive for about fifteen minutes, following the speed limits as we make our way down a winding road towards Adelaide. The blinkers are reversed to what they are in the United States. “Use the other blinker,” she says impatiently.
It dawns on me that I’m getting driving lessons in Australia from a drug-addicted prostitute; not exactly the best way to learn, but interesting nonetheless.
At a petrol station she decides that she’s going to take over the driving. Dear God. In hindsight, I should have just got out of the car and found another ride.
She’s got the music cranked to an ear-piercing decibel. The speakers sound on the verge of being blown and she’s got her high-heels welded to the accelerator. We’re going over 180 kilometers an hour for most of the way until we get to the city. She spoons her finger in a jar of strawberry sugar spread and offers me some to lick off her finger.
“No thanks,” I tell her.
“So, have you got laid in Australia yet?,” she asks me.
“No,” I tell her.
“I know this road and where all the speed cameras are is all,” she says. She is careful to slow down at every camera. On the way to Adelaide, she stops at a few of her “friends’” houses (I use this term lightly) and I get the impression that she just trying to get a fix of some sort of drug so while she is in the house, I hop out when she’s not looking and walk off into the city to get away from her.
I wander around the city for hours until I find a place called the Bike Kitchen, which is a co-op where people can fix their bikes as well as rent out bikes for days. My plan was to rent a bike from the place but fate would have it otherwise. The building is essentially a giant garage with couches sprawled everywhere. Conveniently, there happens to be about two other nylon-string acoustic guitars lying on the couches so three of us that are music-inclined have a jam in a triangle.
One of the people I meet is Jessica and she invites me to stay at her place for the night. Two husky dogs greet me at her door, one of them just a puppy and the other the pup’s mother. They invite me into their home. “Wroarwolwolf!”
My backpack is immediately covered in husky dog hair fibers. The house is a clutter of books and shelves and the couch feels like home for the evening.
In the morning, Jessica makes coffee and tea and we have a conversation in the backyard with the company of the husky dogs. She says that she knows some musician friends that have jams often and we might be able to join them in the next couple days. She tells me about her friend who lived on a hippy commune in Australia during the sixties.
I take off on a bicycle and explore some of the city. Adelaide is full of trails through thick gum tree forests that are fantastic for cycling. I follow the trail and conveniently get lost for miles until I find myself in the middle of downtown. There is a transportation system called the Adelaide-Bahn, which is essentially a bus that follows a track with no traffic lights or stops. The locals tell me that it is the second biggest system like this in the world, the largest being in Germany.
German settlers were some of the early colonizers of Adelaide and the surrounding areas so the German influence in infrastructure is not surprising. While cycling, I meet a guy named Rick who offers to take me on a short tour of some of the coastal areas in the next couple days and I can’t turn it down.
Jessica and I climb to the top of Mount Lofty and bring the dogs with us. It is the first time that I see a kangaroo as the dogs catch onto their trail and chase them out. Out comes a kangaroo, with wide steady, magnificent hops and the dog close behind it. The dogs never catch up to them as the kangaroos are too fast.
We also go to a jam with about eight different musicians and I bring my guitar but fortunately, there is also an electric guitar that I’m able to borrow as well. It’s a bit of a train wreck most of the time with all the people but fun nonetheless. There are a wide range of personalities at the house. Mostly, we improve on cover songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, amongst others.
I take Rick up on his offer to go on a tour of the coastal areas near Adelaide. He stops at all the local pubs to make bets on his favorite horses. He notoriously loses every time and walks out when he knows that his luck is out. An old coal train passes us by at a café near the ocean bay.
Jessica invites me to the Adelaide 420 Festival which has a turnout of maybe 100 people. It’s a funny gathering where everyone lights up a joint at 4:20 and blows smoke into the air. That’s what this feels like. Blowing smoke. The air is light-hearted, a fun energy when the footy game gets out.
I’m not really into the whole marijuana scene although I do think that is should be completely legal, as it shouldn’t be the governments’ decision as to what you can or can’t do, especially with something nearly as harmless as pot. Jessica prods me to play some music, so Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix seems appropriate for the occasion. A guy in a tie-dye shirt starts singing the same verse over and over again since he’s maybe too stoned to remember the rest.
Purple haze is in my brain
Acting funny, and I don’t know why
(repeated, over and over again)
I can’t help but laugh. It’s a free-spirited event and there are good vibes everywhere. I feel like I’ve been in Adelaide too long though, despite the hospitality. At the Adelaide bridge, we find a piano player busking and we have an improvised jam.
I have the desire to move. Tomorrow, I will.
The next day I make it to Murray River on two separate lifts. There are lots of young people out driving about since it is the Easter holiday which means lots of cars with the passengers drinking beer while driving. “Melbourne is a great place,” one guy says. “It’s like Adelaide but better.”
It’s a sharp contrast to what Rick told me, recommending avoiding Melbourne (pronounced Mel-bun) altogether and venture through the small towns.
So I get into Murray River and nobody stops. I replace my broken G string with a D string and invent my own tuning and take to playing it with a cigarette lighter as a slide. A few people pretend they are going to pull over, only to peel off once I start walking towards them. One guy throws a glass beer bottle out his window and it shatters on the guardrail. There is hospitality of all sorts.
There truly is no such thing as a free ride when hitchhiking. You pay for your ride in the patience it takes to wait for somebody to pick you up and for putting up with some of the hazards on the road. The elements of weather and stupid people are two of the biggest hazards.
I get turned around in a small town going the wrong direction, cars blasting by me. An old man who looks to be about eighty years old is warm when I start talking to him. He’s working in his garden and says he’ll give me a lift to a better spot when he’s finished. Two minutes later, he comes back and says he’ll pull his truck around.
“The rats have been getting into my vegetable garden and eating the roots,” he says. “I built a garden just like this one for my daughter who lives in Katherine as well.”
He tells me that he remembers when they announced over the speakers at school during his childhood that World War 2 had ended and they could leave school for the day. “We went home and there was an excitement to that day I’ll never forget,” he says.
“Well, this is the Murray River,” he says as we drive over a bridge. He starts singing a tune that almost sounds familiar, but isn’t.
I went cruising down the river, on a Sunday afternoon…
A Google search later reveals that it is in fact a song by Blue Baron and his orchestra from the late forties.
He tells me there are many churches in the areas surrounding Adelaide because of the stretched influence of England’s churches. “In 1836, the Queen of England declared everyone had to be Christian.” Sounded like a great social experiment to me.
Next I’m picked up by a commercial fisherman and given a lift to the town of Horsham. The ride is short and I can’t gather much from him other than the fact that he makes about 25 an hour working on the dock.
Then there’s the IT guy that picks me up in Horsham as the sun goes down over the lake. He is coming back from a two-week surfing trip and has his surf board on the top of his van. “On one day, the dolphins followed me while I surfed,” he says. He has two daughters and they weren’t into surfing so he goes on excursions by himself every time he gets holiday time.
We drive through kilometer after kilometer of farmland in the dark. I walk into a public park to try and find a place to sleep for the park and hear a strange gurgling sound. A creature less than a foot tall is seemingly playing hide-and-seek behind a gum tree an in the black I can’t make out what it is. It then shoots up the tree and disappears but I can still hear a guttural sound that sounds like rolling masses of marbles. Later, a local tells me that it was most likely a Kuala.
I take shelter under a church awning since it is raining and throw out my sleeping bag.
I’m picked up by a guy from Bangladesh, which is a small country just to the east of India. He tells me about when he first migrated to Australia and had to do whatever he had to do in order to survive. “It was rough at first,” he says. “I had to sleep in train stations because I couldn’t afford to pay for an apartment.”
He is now an electrical engineer and has increased his living standards since those days.
Three hours later, we arrive in Melbourne and I set out exploring the city on foot. It has a cosmopolitan feel to it and the Asian-influence is prominent in the city center. Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants and cafes are common scenery here.
In Melbourne, I’ve been passed along from my new friend in Adelaide to her niece Charlie, who happens to be a musician. The whole house is a musician sanctuary and without any real introduction, I just walk into the room where four people are having a jam and that’s how we meet each other.
I spend a portion of the day busking in front of the supermarket for food funds. Melbourne has some great graffiti along the slabs of concrete that run along the city alleyways; there is the presence of a thriving art scene.
I try taking Charlie’s old bicycle out to explore the city but the cables are so rusty that they snap and I find myself blasting down a hill with no brakes and have to use my feet to come to a complete stop.
While busking downtown, I meet a local guy named Tony who is out of work and living on the streets. He was a plumber by trade but his luck had run out and he had been laid off. He tells me a story about an Aboriginal woman who had claimed that a wild dingo had taken her baby off into the forest. There was a lot of scrutiny and skepticism surrounding the story but later it was proven that it was entirely possible.
I venture back to Charlie’s house and all of us get some kind of 30-minute bug. The virus must have been airborne and out of 8 people staying in the house, 7 of us got sick. Diarrhea and puking ensue. Tony and I go to a place called Lentil as Anything, which offers great vegan-style food and live music.
I leave Charlie’s place in the morning, Charlie being the last one to get the virus that is floating around in the house (that makes eight out of eight) and he has it the worst, locking himself in his room for the entire day. Over dinner, Charlie tells me a story about a friend of his who was busking with his guitar in the street when a pub owner kept stepping out and telling him to “shut up or get lost.” At first, his friend ignored the pub owner but when he wouldn’t stop demanding for him to leave the busker took the guitar and smashed it over the top of the guy’s head to wear as a death necklace.
“It really was death necklace,” he says. “When the police arrived, they couldn’t pull the guitar off the guy’s face without damaging his jugular vein. They finally found the busker and the guy called out from the back of the cop car, the guitar twisted around his neck ‘that’s him!’”
Tony laughs. “Story of my life,” he says.
That night, I sleep in a park beside a bunch of people that wind up on the streets for different reasons. A few have definite drug problems (which they keep to themselves) but one guy from Malaysia had been promised work and was let down when he arrived. “The man that purposively arranged work for me stopped contact as soon as I got here,” he says. “Now I’m stuck living on the streets with no work.”
I find staying with them more interesting and eye-opening than staying at a youth hostel, where it’s just partying and people doing the same sorts of things they would do in their home countries.
That night, possums come out of the woodworks and crawl over our sleeping bags, looking for food. They have a sluggish behavior about them and crawl around in the trees during the day. There are families of possums living in the park.
There is Tony, who has shown me nothing but kindness. He had some issues with his x-wife and eventually tells me he got caught trying to steal a car and it caught up with him in court. My observations lead me to conclude that the core of his problems is drugs and it’s really a shame because at the heart I know he’s a good person.
There is Kiwi, the crazy guy of the group from New Zealand who is the least responsible and seems to be hanging out with a different woman every night. He has a crazy laugh and seems to be a bit of a problem-starter at times with the group because of his loud behavior. He doesn’t give a shit.
There is Malaysia, who is stranded in Australia due to a scam disguised as a job offer. He said whenever the cops come to break up the camp he just “runs off and returns later.”
Then there is Bong, who is from Cambodia. He meditates every night before going to sleep. “Meditation is truly about listening to yourself,” he says. “It’s about letting things go.”
I’ll miss these guys when I’m gone and I wish them the best. Tomorrow I plan on leaving. I can’t stand to stay at this hobo camp much longer.
The problem with hitchhiking out of cities is that it is a task that is near impossible. I take a train to the outskirts of the city and it isn’t until I am halfway there that I realize I’ve left my notebook at his apartment. I scramble off the train and head back, only to find out an hour later that he has left and the door is locked. With no phone, there is no way to get hold of him but borrow someone else’s phone and every time I call him nobody answers. Leaving the journal behind is out of the question. It would be leaving a piece of myself behind.
I spend most of the day waiting at the apartment, entertained by Tony’s mother her sister, who bicker away like only old women can do. The local drunk invites me in for a beer and he cranks on some tunes by an artist named Chris Rea. “I’ve got my habits,” he said. “I drink four to six beers a night.” He pops another one open, asks me to play a tune on the guitar.
“Stay true to yourself,” he says. “Most people never find out how to do that.”
He’s got this distant glassy look in his eyes as he sits in his chair and I’m not sure whether I should take it as advice or a compliment but it suits me just fine. I go for a jog to pass the time. I have a beer with Tony’s mother. I don’t tell her that he’s spending most of his time living at a hobo camp when she asks how I met him—it’s just not my place to do so.
So I’ll spend one more night in Melbourne and having grabbed my journal this time, I’ll be ready for leaving the city (round two!) tomorrow.
Two hours of standing underneath the shade of a tree on the edge of town later, I make it out of Melbourne. An Indian man gives me a lift just three kilometers or so down the road. While waiting, a car pulls to the side of the road and does the “haha” disappearing trick again. I just shake my head. Maybe I’ll see him further down the road with his car broken down.
A half hour later, another guy pulls over. The car is dirty, filled with empty pop bottles, the seats torn, the upholstery in various states of decay. He tells me that he is coming home from work and can’t travel because the government won’t let him leave the country. “Forty years ago I fired off a few rounds of ammo in a place I wasn’t supposed to,” he tells me. I don’t ask him where this was.
He points in the direction of green sloping hills in the distance. “I live in the hills,” he tells me. “I love the view from my window.” He expresses his concern about the number of Asians in Australia. “They’d take over if we let them,” he insists.
He drops me off on the end of a series of road construction and I walked to the point where the speed limit began to increase. A man picks me up in an SUV and tells me he is involved in organizing cricket tournaments and selling sports memorabilia online. As we pass by, he points out that we are passing the birthplace of one of the winning horses.
“I’ve been to Thailand about ten times,” he tells me as we pass rolling hills. “Name’s Wayne,” he tells me and hands me a business card as he drops me off at the truck stop. “If you get stuck tonight, give me a call and I’ll put you up for the night.”
An hour later I get a lift from an Indian man who is taking his father around sight-seeing in Australia. “It’s my father’s first time in the country,” he says proudly. He explains that he works on an orange farm and has lived in the country for five years and has a family here now. A wife and two kids.
“When I first came here I was sleeping in public restrooms and using the hand drier to stay warm,” he says. I ask him about India, a country I have yet to visit.
“Once I ran into a tiger in my home country. It was only a few feet away from me once I noticed it. Luckily, it did not attack me.”
He has another story about a friend of his who saved a tiger from the jaws of a crocodile. When he tells it, it sounds like it could be an urban legend or some kind of fairy tale but the sincerity in his voice is there. “My friend bandaged and cared for the crocodile and the tiger now lives in his house.” I imagined a tiger that the family named Fluffy walking around there house and kids playing with it like it wasn’t some wild creature that could potentially eat you.
The small town of Griffith and the farmland surrounding it is filled with orange farms but the season won’t start for another few weeks. We pass a juice factory and row after row of grain and orange plantations. I nestle my sleeping bag in between some tall gum trees. The clouds in the sky are pondering rain so I wrap myself inside my waterproof bevy sack.
My gear is damp in the morning from the light rain and I find myself walking the wrong way out of town. A road worker passes by me and then reconsiders and turns around, gives me a lift to the direction that I need to travel. “No worries mate,” he says. “I get paid hourly anyways and I’ve got all day to finish my work!”
He spins off and leaves me to eat my can of Ravioli on the side of the road. A local mechanic picks me up next. He’s carrying a trailer with a ride able lawnmower on the back. “I fixed this for someone in town and have to drop it back off,” he says. I help him get it off the trailer and he sets me off on some country road in the middle of nowhere.
One car is passing every half hour on average. There is open country and a small country gas station/supermarket on the corner. I wait for at least two hours until my ride out of there arrives. A man and his wife are on the way to pick up their son from the local jail. “Can you pass me up a beer mate?,” the man asks, who thankfully is the passenger for this trip and not the driver. It’s one in the afternoon and he’s already on his way to being all-out drunk. He offers me a beer and at first I say no, but then decide why not, how many times do you get picked up by two country-folk on the way to grab their son from jail?
His wife chides him and tells him to stop swearing. His mouth is rolling marbles of four-letter words. I gather that his son was arrested for possession of a large amount of marijuana which seems to be a family franchise of some sort.
By the end of the day I somehow end up in the small town of Griffith, being that I have no map and just a general sense of direction. I’m walking up a steep hill when a lady out for a walk curiously approaches me while she is out for a walk herself.
“Where are you going?,” she asks me cheerfully. “And what are you doing?”
Both of those are good questions, I tell her. We chat for awhile and she invites me over for tea and the next thing I know she is asking me if I’m looking for work. There is a box truck sitting in front of the house. “My husband and I were looking for someone to take over the milk route while we go away for travels,” she says.
This idea is enticing and stops me in my tracks for a moment. The idea of working and living in a small town and getting to know the locals in a more intimate setting sounds like an experience. I consider this for a minute and ultimately decide to hitchhike out of Gundagai, to continue my trip moving north towards Cairns.
She drops me off at a gas station a few exits down the highway and as I’m waiting there I go in the gas station for a snack. I grab some fruit snacks and head back to my spot. Nobody seems to be interested in stopping. It’s at that moment that I look down at my bag and it’s decorated with cartoon characters that look like milk jugs. Maybe it’s a sign, I think during an inspired moment. Maybe I’m destined to give it a go at being the milkman in Gundagai.
Impulsively, I stick out my thumb and head back in the direction that I came from. The person that picks me up happens to know Tom and Nancy. He drops me off at their doorstep.
We make a fire and as I gather logs Nancy shows me a red back spider that has decided to make its’ home in the damp wood. “You’ve got to be careful with these,” she said. “Red back spiders like to make their homes in damp places.” As soon as the log heats up, the spider crawls out. Red back spiders are tiny but distinct in appearance with black bodies and a red dot on their backside. One bite could potentially kill a healthy adult human.
Tom comes home from working on the farm and I spend the night hanging out with them and their three young kids. We drive to the local pub. Everyone has come here for Friday night—it’s not even a question of will people go, it’s just a habit in this town. I meet the local firemen, a Canadian girl that is working the bar, a guy from Argentina, amongst a host of other characters.
The television is playing an important footy match. It’s Australia vs. New Zealand. The Kiwis come out at the beginning of the game and deliver their famous war cries.
I wake up before the crack of dawn and helped Tom out with the local milk route. “Back again, eh?,” the local guy at the gas station says as he stocks the shelves. Everybody really does know everybody in this town and it results in curious glances as to who the milkman’s sidekick is for the day. I help him move boxes of milk with a dolly after picking it up at a cooler shed. Two hours into our shift, the sun is beginning to rise. So this is the life of a small town milkman. It’s hard work.
“I get used to which business owners want what and when,” he says. “So a lot of the time I’ll just come by and stock them up before the weekend. I hate getting called out on a Sunday by one of the motel owners saying that they ran out of milk. A motel without milk can be an outrage for some customers.”
Later in the day I go hiking in the hills of Gundagai. I can’t get to the hills without crossing one of the locals’ fences so I knock on the door to ask for permission. I’m welcomed by one of the nicest families I have ever come across. They just laughed it off. It’s probably not often that they get travelers asking to cross their land. “Oh sure, go ahead!,” a jolly woman says. “It’s common land anyways, anybody can use it!”
The rolling deep-green hills overlook the town at the peak, overlooking curvatures of grassland , horses, cattle, the fresh air stretching for miles and miles.
The couple invites me in for tea when they are done and they tell me about their travels through New Zealand. “Our daughter wants to see the landscape where the Lord of the Rings was filmed,” the father says.
While working the milk route with Tom I was introduced to a trucker and local bee keeper who has offered to give me a lift towards Sydney the next day.
I find the truck driver to be nice enough, although just maybe a bit borderline-racist. He jumps right into talking political, a subject I often try to avoid amongst all company, especially when hitchhiking. His ideologies are that China is going to invade Australia soon, the Arabs are taking over the world, and the Jews are responsible for the uprising of every war in human history. He is keen to point out where he frequents the local brothels in Sydney.
I have him drop me off along the outskirts of Sydney along the highway. I don’t want to go into the city because I already know how difficult it is to escape the Rat Race maze once you are inside it. The shoulder that I have to work with has minimal space and the traffic zips by at 120 kilometers an hour. My luck has it that somebody pulls over five minutes later.
The first lift passed Sydney comes from an Aboriginal kid in a van who is on his way to catch a good surf. The back of his van is decorated with surfboards. He says that sometimes he does surfboard repairs to make money. We stop in a small coastal town for a couple stout beers.
He is one of the most down-to-earth people that I’ve ever met. “My grandparents were Aboriginal, they met at a Christian commune during the ‘Stolen Generation’ period,” he tells me. The period of the Stolen Generation was a tragic period in Australia’s history where thousands of Aboriginal kids were ripped from their families in the name of progress and religion.
We sip on our frothy beers. “My mom and dad used to live in tents, my dad following the work of the Australian railroads when they were building it.”
This kid has the desire to travel in his blood. His mother was a woman on the move even when he was in the womb. Alongside us there is the sound of waves crashing against the shoreline as we hang out on the hilltop.
That night I make to the small town of Macksville. Lifts come from a lady who kindly gives me replacement sunglasses for the ones I’ve lost, a strange intellectual type who is intent on quizzing me on the history of US president to which I miserably fail, and a couple environmental activists on their way to stop some oil fracking in inland Australia.
Almost everyone mentions the notorious backpack killer Ivan Milat, a crazed backpacker serial killer who murdered at least seven people in the 1990s and buried them in the Belanglo State Forest. For the benefit of the citizens, he’s now serving a sentence of life in prison inside a tiny room with white padded walls.
Inside the activists’ van, somebody has written in The Trans Van in black marker on the upholstery of the ceiling. They offer me raw salmon. The activists take me a great distance north and tell me that there recently was an area that was sacred for the Aboriginals that the government paved over with a new highway. “We always bypass it with the old highway,” she says. “One time we accidentally drove over it when we got turned around and bad things ended up happening.”
It gets dark and we move through miles and miles of dense gum tree forests and farmland. We listen to raw punk rock music and BBC radio.
In Macksville, I camp behind a grocery store witness two speeding comets as I sleep under the stars.