Author DaQua ◦ Part 1 ◦
Telling the family
“You are going where?”
— “Auburn, South Australia”
— “That’s right.”
— “I am driving.”
“On your own?”
— ” Yes, that’s right too.”
— “When I am sorted.”
“How long will you be gone?”
— “I really don’t know.”
— “Now that is a good question …..”
— “Your Toyota …..”
The Audacity of Adventure in my daughter’s Ute!
The audacity of leaving my daughters, granddaughter and recently adopted home of Alice Springs in Central Australia for a solo adventure, as the New Year of 2021 took hold… and as I too was about to turn a new year of my own (the clock of age stops for no woman, or man for that matter), took my family and friends in Australia and Wales (my home country), by complete surprise.
The series of questions my daughters wrought down on me, sought more to express dubious doubt and disbelief, and the notion that Mum was ‘dreaming again’, rather than seek answers. Worried friends in Wales huddled with their husbands over WhatsApp conversations asking me, “What on earth are you doing……. and on your own?” The impact of my genuine intention only hit home to my youngest daughter when she realised I was taking her prized Ute with me on this open ended audacious adventure from Alice to Auburn.
Motivation or Madness
Wales, like so many other nations globally, was in a serious Covid-19 Pandemic Lockdown, the like of which the country had never seen before. My family and friends hemmed in by the walls of their homes, or the fences of their gardens, for all but essential forays into public arenas, was heart-breaking to see. I felt helpless being so far away.
I wanted to get home, I felt I needed to get home – but it was no longer safe or sensible to fly internationally, and the expectation that the UK may close its borders to international travellers was growing daily, as was my restlessness.
Australia, conversely, with minimal cases of community transmission, was effectively managing risks, and curves, by adopting Hot Spot Declarations, and responsive border controls. This, could mean that Covid -conscious travelling could be possible, if one could accept the risks of being closed out of the Territory, or closed into Territory Government Quarantine on returning.
If I let it, ‘survivors guilt,’ or ‘Covid –challenged,’ emotional states, were about to paralyse me – something needed to change. 2021 was opening out before me, as was my 62nd birthday. I had just resigned from a role that I thought would keep me happily and gainfully employed in the Territory, on a temporary visa, for another year. It was now or never; facing 60 days before needing to have secured a different visa, or leave the country – it was simply going to motivate me or send me into madness. The clock was ticking.
January 5th 2021 and the clock chimed – motivation won over madness. I drove out of Alice Springs in my daughter’s prized Ute, although there are many, in Wales, who would disagree and tell you that it was – is – madness.
From the coast and hills of Wales, to the deserts and coasts of Australia, how different could it be? Well for one, the kit was very different for a January road trip. Thirty litres of boxed emergency water, food supplies, and a remote vehicle first aid kit, an Eskie, cool bags, hats, sunnies and sunscreen, and I didn’t forget the snakebite bandage. In Wales if I had shouted ‘snakebite,’ someone would have handed me a drink – equal halves lager to cider!
Day One: A Doozy of a Drive and a Dozy in a Dug Out…..
Distance 689 km Alice to Coober Pedy
Distances are vast in Australia. Wales extends approximately 274 km north to south, similarly the United Kingdom is around 965 km. This road trip from Alice to Auburn would see me clocking up, in excess of 1,440 km, through vast pastoral lands and arid deserts of the outback. Day one would be just under 700 km, if I stayed on the road and didn’t go off track. It was going to be doozy of a drive.
Best laid plans and all that – how much time can a woman spend in debating what would be the best attire for the journey – only one from Wales! Everything was packed up the night before and practical cool clothing, eventually decided upon – laid out for the morning. It’s January, height of summer, it was going to be a hot drive. Temperatures the day before had ranged from 27c to over 40c and we hadn’t seen rain of any significance in a while.
When I drove out of town – it was cold and it had begun to rain – Alice was to get some 8.4 mm that day. The skies were extraordinary; from the Stuart Highway, I could look back towards the magnificent ranges and see the heavy black clouds gathering over the town.
I really hadn’t anticipated the rain but the poignancy of the weather wasn’t lost on me – feeling a synergy with the weather, sensing the land, wasn’t new to me. Today, I was driving away from the storm, with the rain obscuring the road ahead, and from the past version of my life (albeit temporary) in Alice. I needed to keep driving.
A few more kilometres down the highway, with that inner voice telling me, “you can do this, it won’t be rain and storms all the way,” I threw one last glance towards the Ranges and Alice nestled behind them, only see the play of light and rain, cast a splurge of colour across the cold grey. Emotion swelled like the clouds above. Pulling over, I stepped down from the ute, and stood for a moment, breathing in that unmistakable smell of the rain as it hits the dust; you can smell an incoming storm for miles before the rains arrive in the desert. It gives me goose-bumps. Letting the rain fall on my upturned face, feeling it running down my arms, and playing footsie with my thong clad feet, felt cleansing. It had begun. This doozy of a drive was underway and there was the rainbow.
Beware – The Desert Steals
It really wasn’t long before the vast skies and endless Stuart Highway opened up before me. The sheer expanse of the plains stretched to the left – the right – behind and in front – with horizons, that were limited only by my vision, literally and metaphorically. There were times where it would feel that my breath had literally been taken away from me and my heart silenced. In its place, there was nothing but reverence for the raw remoteness of this rugged rich landscape.
In that moment, of the silencing of my own breath, and heartbeat, I wanted to breath it in, and hold it there, to capture it in that space left by the gasp of my breath, and the beat of my heart, to carry it with me always.
The desert steals, it steals assumptions and imposed and imagined limitations, and the confines of your vision and mind, it throws wide the doors, it cracks open the casing around your heart and it steals its way directly to your soul…. singing its own song.
The desert skies, were, as we have rarely seen them in our recent lifetime. With the grounding of those great metal birds, silently sitting shrouded in the sand of the desert at Alice Springs Airport, the familiar criss-cross patterns, of frequent national and international flights crossing the skies of the centre, had reduced so much to be almost imperceptible– it seemed the clouds had reclaimed the skies and were making their own vapour trails in celebration.
The drive has some great Road Houses, where you can be assured of a warm welcome, fuel and food, some have motel style accommodation and campgrounds. Erldunda, is one such roadhouse and claims to be the Centre of the Centre – but apart from topping up with fuel, and sending a ‘check in,’ message to my daughters, I was saving this for the return road trip.
In any case, I had travelled the first section of the highway before, with family and friends, on memorable trips out to King’s Canyon, Uluru and Henbury, but beyond those more familiar turn offs – some 145 km south west of Alice Springs – I was in virgin territory. The sense of excitement built at leaving behind all that was previously known to me and venturing on alone, without even Vodaphone or Telstra for reassurance. This was it – The Explorers Highway (an alternative name for Stuart Highway, along with simply, “The Track,” or “The Bitumen”), and for me – this woman from Wales in the desert, the real audacious adventure began.
I was two hours out of Alice and knew I had five more driving hours to go. If you manage the mechanical and environmental challenges that could befall you, fatigue is the major risk on this road, together with wandering stock and wildlife. Rest stops pepper the route and I took advantage of these, as much to capture photographs of ever-changing skies and landscapes, and of course my daughter’s ute – securing the proof that this actually happened, and I hadn’t duped my daughters, and was really, secretly, holed up in a luxury hotel in Alice Springs for the duration.
The Big C — Contemplation, Comparison, Colonialism and Culture
Naturally, the very term ‘The Explorer’s Highway’, conjures up all manner of contemplation about those early colonial explorers and the extraordinary feat, sheer determination and belief (of that elusive imagined great inland sea), of John McDouall Stuart, Scottish explorer and surveyor, who in 1862 successfully traversed Australia from the South to the North. At certain points, today’s highway, runs closely to this first track and there are markers and monuments along the way for those with an interest. His determined steps through hostile forests, desert and mountain ranges, opened-up the great arid interior to further exploration, and led to astonishing feats of man and engineering.
Between 1870 and 1872 the Australian Overland Telegraph Line was completed, running 3,200 km from Port Augusta to Darwin ultimately providing faster communications with Britain and even putting, ‘Stuart,’ – ‘Alice Springs’ and ‘The Todd’, on the map of colonial Australia – the dry river bed and oasis cradled behind the magnificence of the MacDonnell Ranges – that became an Overland Telegraph Relay Station – ‘Mpwarnte,’ my adopted home that was by now several hundred kilometres behind me.
And today, as 2021 rolls out as an uncertain road to be travelled, this route still evokes the sense of the explorer in anyone that drives it.
There was plenty of time to contemplate, and compare, the feats of the past and the achievements of the present in colonial terms, but strip that recent historical veneer away from your consciousness and you are challenged, and rewarded, by the deeper culture of country – the tens of thousands of years of custodian care, civilisation and ceremony that worked as one with country – sustainable and sacred. Landscapes, remain, in places, virtually unchanged, but for the hand and mood of the weather. There is a sense of looking out from the present, whilst glimpsing the past, and the future. A great spiral in time that this ‘country,’ invokes and evokes.
The sight of the giant roadside billboard announcing the countdown to Cadney Homestead Roadhouse and the resumption of Telstra services, jolted me from my reverie. The heat of the day was blasting through the windshield, the aircon thankfully did its job. Nevertheless, I was certainly making good use of the water supplies, and making good time. A pit stop, for a cuppa, was due. And how courteous of Cadney to provide aircon fans for the cars in the car park 😉
I was now only 150 km north of Coober Pedy and my bed for the night – albeit a ‘dug out.’ Nothing could have prepared me for the other worldly sights I would see on those last 50 kms approaching Coober Pedy – a mining town in the true Aussie Outback – where the underground is piled above ground. Mounds that resemble varying sizes of mole hills, sit silently on the landscape next to stark pyramids that soar towards, and sparkle, in the sun.
Note to self: take more photos on the return road trip – but for now – simply soak in the sight – kilometre after kilometre after kilometre.
I had not appreciated just how far around the town the opal fields extended. At one point I began to wonder if I had missed the town altogether …… maybe it was all underground and I had missed the signposts? I was thankful to see it in the dusty distance shimmering in the heat just above the ground like some mirage.
My mind drifted; I had known of Coober Pedy for decades – I was once gifted beautiful tiny opals for long ago wedding anniversaries, of a long-ago marriage – a bracelet for the sixth year and a necklace for the seventh, each with tiny fire filled opals in numbers that corresponded to the years of marriage. I have worn the bracelet to the marriages of both my eldest daughter and my son – as if these stones somehow symbolised the continued commitment of that first union, now long lost, and the hope that my, “our,” children would fare better in the survival of their respective marriages.
I had often daydreamed about Coober Pedy and it’s ‘dug out,’ existence, pouring over glossy holiday brochures back in Wales. I simply knew that one day I would visit. But not in my wildest dreams did I (or did I??) for-see, that I would drive in, alone, in a big white Toyota Hilux – my daugther’s ute, at that, dusted with the red earth of the centre, tyres hot from the desert road, having driven 690 kms, ready to find my own ‘dug out,’ for the night.
My dug out did not disappoint – situated on the outskirts of the main drag of town – I had the whole place to myself – hosts who were quite literally, a mine of information, about the town, welcomed me and regaled stories of the infamous Coober characters of the past, who laid in the cemetery, just down the road – most of the time……
Despite the lure of the stories and the spirited spirits, the Coober discovery could wait until tomorrow, it had been a doozy of a drive and I was ready to retreat into my rather comfortable dug out and doze until morning.
Alice to Auburn – the Audacity of Adventure | Day Two (Coober Pedy) | Coober to the Coast | One People One Country One Dreaming | Serendipity or Cosmic Cartographer? | A Seaside Sojourn of Stories | Auburn Awaits