A CHRISTMAS TALE: DEAD FROM THE NECK UP IN AUSTRALIA
December 25, 2014
"It's lonely without a friend to share the road." —Doug Armstrong
Australia captivates everyone's imagination. Oz, its nickname, houses exotic creatures that defy description. Desert constitutes 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 prove 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," gives their answer to trivial problems and not worth an anxiety attack.
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 sang, joked and drank. They trumpeted 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 3,500 kilometers."
"Did you know that you're going across the Nullabor Plains, mate?"
"Yes, I saw it on the map,"
"Do you know what Nullabor means in Aborigine?" he asked.
"It means 'treeless,'" he said after swigging on a Foster's ??beer. "There ain't a tree for 3,500 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!"
Three weeks later, I arrived in Ceduna. I stopped by a restaurant. The waitress asked me where I was headed.
“I am riding to Perth,” I said.
“Don’t you get lonely on the road?” she asked. “It’s Christmas in two days. Wouldn’t you like to be with your family?”
“Yes, it’s lonely,” I said. “But I could be home sharing Christmas with my friends, but then, I wouldn't be out here on this great adventure across your country.”
“That doesn’t sound normal,” she said.
“For sure, I could go back home and be ‘normal’ any time I want,” I said. “Life’s short enough. I aim to squeeze every second out of every moment. I can always be normal when I return home.”
“I like your spirit,” she said.
Richard proved correct about the Nullabor. The highway shot straight toward the horizon, bisecting the land into two equal halves of nothing but desert. When I left Ceduna "The Gateway To The Nullabor 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: “Why am I 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 tail winds. 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: I stared 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 by the afternoon. It felt like breathing air from a portable hair dryer.
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 ground-level heat 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. I saw no reference points, no humanity for hundreds of miles. Traffic on the trans-Australia highway: sparse to nonexistent. A true sense of solitude crept into my mind.
Road houses spaced 120 miles apart, but 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 roadhouse rippled in the heat waves of my rearview mirror and quickly vanished, as if it had never been there. I was back 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 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 we returned 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 offered the only relief I 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. Black feathers covered him as he 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 this scenic turnout. 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 featured 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, gasped for breath and sweated 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 Dreamsicles? Man, could I curl my tongue around a Dreamsicle 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 meters 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 sunset, 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 apiece of apple. 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 felt 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 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 grow 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.
The emu George gave me the best Christmas present of my life: friendship.
From Sandi and yours truly—Merry Christmas to you and your family.
© 2014 Frosty Wooldridge - All Rights Reserved
Frosty Wooldridge possesses a unique view of the world, cultures and families in that he has bicycled around the globe 100,000 miles, on six continents and six times across the United States in the past 30 years. His published books include: "HANDBOOK FOR TOURING BICYCLISTS"; “STRIKE THREE! TAKE YOUR BASE”; “IMMIGRATION’S UNARMED INVASION: DEADLY CONSEQUENCES”; “MOTORCYCLE ADVENTURE TO ALASKA: INTO THE WIND—A TEEN NOVEL”; “BICYCLING AROUND THE WORLD: TIRE TRACKS FOR YOUR IMAGINATION”; “AN EXTREME ENCOUNTER: ANTARCTICA.” His next book: “TILTING THE STATUE OF LIBERTY INTO A SWAMP.” He lives in Denver, Colorado.
His latest book. ‘IMMIGRATION’S UNARMED INVASION—DEADLY CONSEQUENCES.’