Jaimi and I arrived in William Creek, a 'town' with more planes than local residents (9 planes vs. 6 locals), which made it something of an anti-climax after 3 days of cycling through desert on the Oodnadatta Track. The pub – the centre of every Aussie outback town (the centre of the universe for the locals) – was a peculiarity, built from the wooden sleepers of the old railway line. In the park were the crumpled remains of a rocket that had fallen back to earth nearby. Having seen the sights and met the locals (all of them), we slipped behind the pub when no-one was looking and filled our water bottles from a secret rainwater tank, before heading off for another stint through the desert.
South of William Creek we seemed to cross a magic line - it had rained less here – and the number of flies suddenly dropped, which gave me an opportunity to finally appreciate where we were. There was beauty... not in a way that had me rushing for the camera, but in a way that seemed to completely surround me. You probably wouldn't notice it speeding through in a car, for it required perception, and attention to detail. Small flowers and grasses forced their way through the rocky earth, and were battered by the wind. There were leftover artefacts from the railway; rusting cars and bridges, old railway station signs, collapsing huts.
On either side of the road were cattle stations. These gigantic properties redefine my understanding of farming and land ownership. We cycled through Anna Creek Station, the largest cattle property in the world, and its size may just blow you away. It is 6,000,000 acres. If like me, you cannot imagine 6,000,000 football pitches, that is bigger than Belgium or Wales! On a good season, the family that live on this property can farm 17,000 cows, which they use planes and helicopters to locate!
We pulled into one cattle station to fill our water bottles, when a young boy, no more than 10, rushed from his house, 'Do you have any children?' he asked breathlessly. We told him we didn't, and watched as his energy evaporated, and he slunk back to the house. His nearest neighbours were 40 kilometres away. He was educated by the 'School of the Air' via internet and radio, and he only met his schoolteacher once a year. A life in the outback is a lonely one to lead.
It was lonely for us too, and I was glad to have bumped into Jaimi several weeks earlier. Though we often cycled apart and in silence, it was comforting just to know that we could talk to someone if we wanted. Less than 10 cars passed a day, few of which stopped or acknowledged us; the sight of two cyclists out here must have been enough to convince them we were crazy and should be avoided. Or perhaps they thought they were going crazy, and imagining cyclists. One day a car stopped to filled our water bottles, and the next day a man gave us a beer from his fridge. With so little passing traffic, we were vulnerable out here; if our bikes broke, we would quickly be in trouble. If our water bottles split or leaked, we would soon be dehydrated. If we were bitten by a snake, or spider, or scorpion, well... we were a long way from safety, and I wouldn't fancy our chances. It felt like we were pushing the limits of what was possible on a bicycle, and that made me as alive, and motivated as ever.
On the final evening we slept on the floor of a derelict stone hut, originally built to house the 'fettlers' – those people who lived and maintained sections of railway in the middle of nowhere. There had been times I had doubted I could complete the Oodnadatta Track but finally, 40 kilometres from Marree, I knew I would make it.
As we hit the road in the early morning sun, we startled an emu and several kangaroos. Not knowing which direction to go, they ran and bounced playfully beside us. All the way to Marree we had an escort of emus and kangaroos paralleling us. This was our reward for making it through the desert.
We arrived in Marree, and were quickly intercepted by the chef from the pub as we prepared to cook. 'I can't let you eat that here', he said. He wasn't sending us away, but inviting us in. We showered for the first time in a week, washed our clothes for the first time in a fortnight, and then ate a burger the chef had prepared for us. Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the fact that I'd had rice and tuna twice-daily for 12 days now, maybe it was the hardship we'd endured to get here, or maybe the burger was really that good; but I can assure you, that burger I ate in the Marree Hotel, was the best burger of my life! I can't imagine any taste coming close ever again. I ate it slowly, pausing between bites so as not to overwhelm my system, letting out uncontrollable moans and laughter. It was a complete 'foodgasm'.
Reaching Marree and completing the Oodnadatta Track was bittersweet. This had definitely been the most testing time in Australia, if not the entire trip, which had required reserves of mental strength I didn't know I possessed. But sadly, this was where my road forked right, and Jaimi's left. She was stopping to work for a month, and I was to carry on. I stood on the junction and watched her shrink into the distance, at the slow, drawn-out speed of a bicycle. I returned to my bike, and felt very, very alone.