I love the unpredictability of travelling, all the random and serendipitous encounters that surprise you along the way. In Katherine, I met an English Girl, Jaimi. Like me, she had spent the last two years cycling from England, and though similar routes led us to Australia, sometimes only two weeks apart, we had never met or heard of each other. Until now. She was heading to Adelaide, I was heading to Adelaide; we agreed to team up and conquer the lonely roads of the outback together.
The Australian Outback holds notoriety as a barren and hostile place. This reputation is almost completely spot on. But don't let that fool you into thinking cycling across it would be dull. When I first arrived in Australia everything was novel. The earth painted rust-red, the giant termite mounds which pierce up through the ground, the colossal road trains which shake the world as they thunder past. I had worried about this initial fervour wearing off, but perhaps surprisingly, I never grew tired of the outback.
The desert explodes with life, truly a miracle in a landscape so dry. Murmurations of birds danced through the sky, twisting and tumbling, seemingly for no reason other than to perform for us. I would crane my neck, and marvel at the grace with which huge birds of prey commanded the skies, scanning for the next meal. Lizards basked on the road, a sudden streak of colour scampering into the bush, as I approached. My favourite of all was the wallaby, so camouflaged that I never spotted them first, until a flash of brown burst through the bush, accompanied by the dull thud like a lumberjack's axe with each nimble hop.
This was not the world of humans. Except for the masterful indigenous Australians, we have neither the adaptations or knowledge to survive here; release me into the Outback, and I would be a dehydrated, blubbering mess within 48 hours. That is why Australia has the least human influence of the six inhabited continents. I was a privileged time-traveller, cycling through a scene that has played out for thousands of years, granted a glimpse to the world as it was 200,000 years ago. I wouldn't have been at all surprised had a dinosaur lumbered through the trees in front of me, and across the road (the road being the only sign people had ever been here before).
Mostly I was captivated by the enormity of the landscape. Beside the road, low shrub-land pulled my eyes to the horizon, which could have been drawn with a ruler. One hot morning, I was excited to see a giant lake, in the not-too-far distance. It appeared about 15 minutes cycling away and spanned the road, an unavoidable obstacle. Jaimi and I looked forward to ditching the bike and diving head-first into its refreshing waters, so we sped up slightly. 3 weeks later, the 'lake' still taunted us, still 15 minutes away, but always receding just beyond reach. It was enough to drive you crazy.
Another of the road's optical illusions was that we couldn't tell whether it was going up or down. With no fixed point of reference, Jaimi and I argued, her adamant that it was going downhill, while I was convinced we were climbing steadily uphill. Normally, we were both wrong. One thing we agreed on, was that we were stationary; spinning our pedals simply rotated the treadmill beneath us, and more road wobbled free of the hazy mirage on the horizon, like an infinite grey ribbon stretching from a clown's sleeve.
I pictured the scene from above; I was an ant, barely visible and slowly making my way across the landscape. But mine was not the wiggly, unpredictable path of an ant, it was a wonderfully purposeful trajectory south, never deviating, rolling over the terrain's ripples and lumps. I was an ant on a mission, an ant destined to one day reach the Southern Ocean.
Each day, after dinner, I would say 'night' to Jaimi, and sit in the centre of the road. Not really thinking much or doing anything in particular. Just sitting, absorbing the atmosphere. Feeling the warmth of the day flowing up through the bitumen, watching the white road markings catching the moonlight, listening to the deafening silence, interrupted by the hum of crickets and perhaps the odd moo of a cow. No human noise, no human light, this is where I sat, rapt by skies which seemed claustrophobic in the number of stars. More stars than black spaces, it seemed; indeed the indigenous population observe - and find constellations in - the gaps between stars, the negative imprint they leave. “There's a big emu up there” a man told me, referring to a gaping star-less window into space.
One night I hid in the bushes as a car passed, and then returned to my star-gazing spot. 12 minutes later, the single red dot, where the cars tail-lights had merged into one beam was still visible. The scale of this place enthralled me, and was what motivated me to continue cycling. 'Surely, the space must run out soon?' 'There must be people here somewhere?'
The answer, was a resounding 'no'. I arrived in the town of Larrimah, which had been signposted for the past 100 kilometres of nothingness. A marker counting down every 10 kilometres. It seemed set to be a lively place with billboards advertising the cafe, the petrol station, the museum, the zoo, the aviary, the caravan site and the 'famous' pink panther pub.
Filling our water bottles at the pub, a tall man, with a long grey beard and kind eyes, seemed delighted to pause his sweeping of the leaves to lean on his rake and chat with us. He had just moved back to Larrimah.
“I love it here.” he grinned.
“Great. How many people live here?” Jaimi asked.
“Ah.. not many. About a dozen.” he hesitated, “Hang on, I'll work it out. One, two, three, four...” As he spoke, he looked around and pointed at the buildings dotted round, actually counting the people who lived there. “Five, six, seven, eight, nine. Yep, nine.” he confirmed.
“Just nine?” I asked, staggered.
The three of us exploded in laughter, though I don't think he really understood why we were all laughing. I had never been anywhere where you could count the residents on your hands. In an emergency, Jaimi and I could shelter the town between our two tents.
“So how does the town survive? Just passing traffic?” I asked.
“Yeah mate. But course, that'll stop when the rains come. Then it's just the locals.”
I glanced around the town; the pub (which employed 33.3% of the town), the zoo, the aviary, the cafe, the museum. I had never been anywhere quite like it. With our water bottles full, we wished him a good day. He returned to his cheerful sweeping, wereturned to the treadmill, to drag the next town a little closer to us.