“You can’t hitchhike across the outback” the scaremongers said. “Do you know how many backpackers go missing out there?” questioned the naysayers. “Why don’t you just fly”? we were asked my the conformists!
Well i’m sorry folks but we obviously didn’t take any notice of the warnings and just happened to have had one of the most memorable and enriching stints of our whole journey from Caston, Norfolk, England to Dulong, Queensland, Australia.
We rocked up at the BP petrol station in Darwin (A) about 11am last Monday. Nina had a quick pee while I guarded the bags. I noticed a chap walking towards the door and as I nipped in for the loo I said to Nina “just ask that guy if he’s heading south babe”.
As I emerged a few minutes later I saw Nina through the window gesturing me to hurry – isn’t it great when a stranger offers to give you a ride without having to stick out your thumb at the road!
Joe lived in an Aboriginal community. We spent five hours or so with him hearing about his early life at a prisoner of war camp in Yugoslavia, his views on the current political situation in the Northern Territory and the “holes” in Australia. The holes he’s referring to are the mines. “Dotted everywhere” he said. He even pulled in to Pine Creek, famous from the gold rush to give us a glimpse of an old mining town. We stood up at the lookout and peered down into a lake 135m deep where a mountain of the same height used to sit.
Joe dropped us in Mataranka (B), 422km south of Darwin. With only an hour or so of daylight left we decided to stay the night and walked into a camp ground. We’d sent our tent and sleeping bags home from Cambodia thinking we wouldn’t need them and so asked the staff if they had any spares but in the end laid out our ponchos for some kind of damp-proofing and squeezed ourselves into the one replacement bag we’d bought in Darwin. It was a cold cold night. We got a little sleep and were up with the sun to try for the hitch south.
As we walked from the caravan park to the centre of the village we spotted a road train parked up for the night. Nina joked that it would be cool to ride in one as they look so invincible. This one was facing Darwin though and so we stuck out a thumb as the sun came up.
A couple of minutes later a guy appeared from the truck eating a bowl of multicoloured cereal. I wandered over for a chat.
“Morning mate. Heading up to Darwin are ya?”
“Nah mate. Turnin’ round, heading down to Adelaide”
“Ah yeah. Don’t spose you can take a couple hitch hikers can ya?”
“Yeah no worries. I can drop you off at Alice anyways. Just gotta wait for fuel and check me tyres. Chill out for a bit.”
Aaron’s road train was 52 meters long and had a weight limit of 122 tonnes. The road trains travel a fairly constant 100 kmph and usually don’t break for kangaroo’s. Aaron had a fridge, freezer, microwave, fishing rod and a DVD player amongst other things but there was only one spare seat which meant Nina got to ride on the bed.
Aaron was an Adelaide boy. A picture of his wife and daughter faced him from the sun visor. He sees them once a week if he is not away for longer. He was a nice guy working hard for his family.
We travelled for 6 or 7 hours with Aaron, 542km south to the Three Ways Roadhouse (C), the turning point east for Queensland. I was amazed by the beauty of the scenery, the red soil, the termite cathedrals, the subtle changing flora. It was so alien to me and so interesting. The odd ute, truck or caravan passed us by but otherwise it was a very peaceful place.
We arrived at Three Ways Roadhouse at about 15.30, keen to keep moving. We met Charles there on his way to Brisbane but he was jammed full. We walked around the corner onto the Barkley highway and out went the thumb in hope of a few more km before the day was out.
Meeting Norman was a funny encounter. We were standing out at the Queensland junction having been picked up there once already only to tell the Singapore family who collected us that they were going the wrong way. They turned around and dropped us back where we came from. The next vehicle that came along was Norman. He was doing a u-turn right in front of us when I somehow managed to engage in a conversation through his window.
“Which way to Queensland guys” he asked, looking fairly bemused.
“This way, the way we’re going” I answered. “Do you have a bit of space?”
“Errrr, yeah hop it. You’ll have to move that junk and sit on the esky mate.”
Norman had been driving since 4am straight off the back of a flight from Vietnam. He’s a bus driver and was relocating from Darwin to Cairns. He told us how shattered he was and he’d be pulling in for the night at the next place. That happened to be Barkley homestead, the place we’d heard of and were hoping to get to…
20 minutes along the track he realised that he was doing a u-turn for a reason and whilst chatting with us along with his tiredness he had forgot to get fuel. So back we went to Three Ways for our third visit and a refuel, before turning east to Barkley Homestead as dusk drifted in.
It was dark by the time we arrived at Barkley. Easy to sneak in, lay down some cardboard and pull over the sleeping bag, helped greatly by the friendly irish trio who leant us a tarp for damp-proofing.
We were up again before the sun and waiting out front for the early hitch, hoping to catch those people trying for the longest daily distance with the brightest start to the day. We chatting with another road train guy who was not keen on taking us. There was also the cycle crew doing a 15000km tour of Oz. Obviously no room there.
Just as the sun appeared on the horizon, Norman appeared from the camp grounds. He drove straight over to where Nina and I were standing and said “just gotta get some fuel guys and I’ll pick you up.” He did his famous u-turn and returned a few minutes later looking somewhat perkier than the previous evening.
As we set off towards Queensland we felt like old friends, safe in the knowledge that we would push a long way east with Norm that day.
After another night under the stars, this time in Hughenden (E), a flat tyre and a couple of stops in old outback towns, Norman dropped us in Townsville before he headed up to Cairns. We had spent three great days together, chatted our way across 1540km of Australia, exchanged books and emails and finally arrived on the east coast of Queensland!