By Frosty Wooldridge:
“It’s lonely without a friend to share the road.” — Doug Armstrong
Australia captivates everyone’s imagination. Oz, its nickname, is a land filled with exotic creatures that defy description. Desert covers nine tenths of Australia. It’s an ancient continent with most of its mountains flattened by millions of years of erosion. Along its coasts, breathtaking beauty abounds in a variety of temperate zones from rain forests, to 7,000-foot mountains in the Snowy River Range of Victoria. Legends have it that British convicts populate Oz. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aussies are some of the kindest people on the face of the earth. They possess a dry sense of humor that keeps life in perspective. “No worries me mate,” is their answer to problems that are trivial and not worth an anxiety attack. Australians equal enormous friendliness.
A mate invited me to a party in Sydney on a Saturday afternoon a week prior to my departure on my trans-Australia crossing. A group of Aussies were singing, joking and getting pissed (drunk). They sang about the hard times in Oz, and a collection of other ribald lyrics about wine, women and the Outback. At one of the high points of the party, they sang Yankee songs in my honor. Their best one was, “I’m an old cowhand, from the Rio Grande.” After singing a few stanzas, a chap named Richard asked me what a Yank might be doing in Australia.
“I’m going to ride my push-bike across your country,” I answered.
“You’re gonna’ do what?” Richard asked again.
“Ride my push-bike to Perth.”
“Do you know how far that is?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Over 3,000 kilometers.”
“Did you know that you’re going across the Nullarbor Plains, mate?”
“Yes, I saw it on the map,”
“Do you know what Nullarbor means in Aborigine?” he asked.
“It means ‘treeless,'” he said after swigging on a Foster’s beer. “There ain’t a tree for 2,500 kilometers, and it’s 38 degrees (app. 115 Fahrenheit) at this time of year. It’s nothin’ but a bloody desert. You’ll cook like an egg in a fryin’ pan.”
“It’ll be a great adventure,” I said.
“You know what mate?” he said. “I reckon you’re dead from the neck up!”
Richard nailed it about the Nullarbor. The highway shot straight toward the horizon, bisecting the land into two equal halves of nothing but desert. When I hit Ceduna “The Gateway to The Nullarbor Plains,” three signs warned travelers of animals to watch out for–wombats, camels and kangaroos. They might have added the Emu, an ostrich-like bird that inhabits the Outback. When drivers hit one with their cars, a large repair job results.
Nothing could have prepared me for that ride. I suffered under a merciless sun. The heat sucked moisture out of my pores faster than I could pour it back into my body. I carried five gallons of water in plastic jugs. A thousand times I asked myself what was I doing out there? Why hadn’t I listened to Richard. I cooked daily in the saddle and broiled at night in my tent. To top that off, Australian bush flies attacked me every time I stopped. Those demonic monsters respected no one, and they seemed to be searching for water themselves in that desolate land. As soon as I stopped, they attacked my eyes, mouth, nostrils and ears. I prayed for head winds. I prayed for tailwinds. I got no winds. At night, flies circled my tent in an expectant swarm, trying to find a break in the netting. I lay there in my underpants, sweating in the evening heat, cursing them and waiting for sleep to take me away from their noisy torment. The one good thing I remember was staring up at an uncommonly clear night sky with millions of twinkling stars complimented by the Southern Cross.
Each morning, I woke up before sunrise, ate breakfast and pedaled into the quickly rising heat of the day. It never dropped below 95 degrees at night and the mercury popped 115-120 by the afternoon. It felt like breathing air from a portable hairdryer.
The Outback defies description. Its vast landscape of red clay, and white sands reaches to the horizon in every direction. Scrub bushes grow close to the ground, but they too give way to the burning 160-degree heat at ground level at midday. In many areas, nothing grows.
The only companion that I could count on was the sun–always shining and blistering hot. Because of it, and the endless immensity of the land, the Outback swallowed my confidence. There were no reference points, no humanity for hundreds of miles. Traffic on the trans-Australia highway: nonexistent. A true sense of solitude crept into my mind. Roadhouses were 120 miles apart, but they were nothing more than wooden buildings with a gas pump outside. When I reached one, my spirits rose because I knew that cold pop awaited me in their generator powered coolers. I stalked into the house, swatting bush flies and headed straight for the cooler. A liter of icy orange pop vanished into my mouth within seconds. I grabbed another before walking up to the cashier to pay the bill. A half-hour later, the road house rippled in the heat waves of my rearview mirror and quickly vanished, as if it had never been there. I returned to drinking tepid water and watching miles of nothing slip by.
This routine repeated itself for weeks, until one day in the middle of the continent, I approached a turnoff where the highway touches the Southern Ocean. Before reaching it however, I cruised along, minding my own business when up ahead, I saw something move across the road. The closer I came, the bigger it grew. Finally, I focused on it. A Camel! It was a big, shaggy camel–out in the middle of nowhere. He walked up to me, sniffed my pack, then trotted north into the Outback. Later, I found out that more than 35,000 wild camels roamed the desert in Oz. They were brought in from the Middle East for transport trains from Adelaide to Alice Springs and on to Darwin, right up the middle of Australia. When mechanized transport arrived, the camels were turned loose in the desert.
Late in the day, I turned off the road for a short ride to the Great Australian Bight on the coast. Rugged cliffs offered a spectacular view. It was the only relief I had enjoyed from the bush flies for several weeks. After eating a snack, I pedaled back toward the main road.
At the juncture of the highway, a large emu stood in my way. He sported black feathers, stood five feet tall and weighed more than 90 pounds. The bird walked right up to me, expecting a handout. He had panhandled other tourists who had stopped at these scenic turnouts. I gave him a piece of my apple.
After taking a few pictures, I decided to be on my way. The bird began running alongside me. My bike carried eighteen gears, so I started cranking it up the freewheel. With every increase in speed from me, the emu ran faster. With nothing else to do, I decided to see how fast the bird could run. I clicked into high gear, and held a good 24 miles per hour for a hundred yards. It didn’t faze the emu. He thumped along with me, not even breathing hard. I, however, started gasping and sweating like a horse. Enough of this! I slowed down to my usual 12 miles per hour. The emu again matched my pace. What the devil?! If he didn’t mind running alongside, I didn’t mind his company. I talked to him–asking him about his family and kids.
“How’s your mother-in-law?” I asked. “Get along with her pretty well? How does she deal with this heat? Any of your kids play cricket?”
After no answer, I continued, “Do you know of any ice cold swimming pools around here buddy? Have any friends who sell ice cream bars? Man, could I curl my tongue around an ice cream bar right about now.”
The emu never looked over during the whole conversation, but kept perfect stride with me.
This new partnership continued for 30 miles. I really enjoyed George’s (his new name) company. But it was time to call it a day, so I turned off the highway and pitched my tent a hundred yards off the road. George walked into the bush with me and stood while I cooked dinner. I threw him another piece of apple. An hour later, with the sun set, George’s black silhouette pressed against the sky as he seemingly stood guard outside my tent.
“You don’t have to stay here all night George. Go find your friends. I’m out of apples.”
George didn’t budge. I finished dinner and went to bed with him standing outside my tent. Around three o’clock, I woke up. A glance outside my tent revealed George standing guard. I felt safe.
Next morning, I woke up with my new friend standing in the same spot.
“G’day George,” I said. “This is going to be a test of your character to run 150 kilometers today mate.”
George snaked his beak down to my tent flap.
“Okay, you want some food,” I said. “Just wait till I finish eating, okay?!”
“Crazy bird,” I said, talking to myself. “This is outrageous. I’m out in the middle of nowhere, 12,000 miles from home–and here you stand guard over my tent all night–in this one tiny spot on the face of the earth, and all you want is a piece of fruit. It’s a cheap price to pay for your friendship George.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” I answered. “But you gotta’ work on your vowels my friend.”
I packed my gear and walked out to the road with George following. I fed him a piece of bread. He again took up his effortless stride alongside my bike. It was like having my own dog as my best friend and traveling companion. After an hour, I stopped for a drink and squirted water into George’s face. He pranced around in a circle like a banshee, crowing a weird sound. He loved the water.
“You’re one crazy bird,” I said. “Here, have another shot.”
I squirted a steady stream into his face. He opened his beak and caught the water like a funnel. It drained down his throat. When half my bottle was gone, I stopped. He flapped his wings and danced around some more, squawking happily. He loved the attention. We were buddies.
Minutes later, I pedaled west, with a blazing sun rising high into the sky. Sweat dripped off my nose and chin onto the tube. I looked for George, but he wasn’t with me. I looked back. He was gone. “I’ll be darned,” I said. “I enjoyed George’s company.”
I pulled around in a big circle on the highway, but no George was in sight. The Outback stretched to the four horizons.
Some kind of joy faded from my spirit when George quit our partnership. Loneliness crept in again, but I told myself that it was better to have enjoyed him than never to have met him at all. He proved one lesson to me that day–all great journeys through life are better, when shared by two.
I looked around one more time, but the Outback rippled in the heat waves. Better get on with it. I had half a continent to go.
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