Hands at ten and two, how I fell in love with bush driving

I’m a city girl. I love live music, good coffee and public transport. I don’t like driving in the city – there are too many people with too many destinations and too much else on their mind.

In the country, it’s different. Though I have often traveled with my loved ones, driving is a solitary activity. It’s just you, the road and your thoughts; but you can’t get too engrossed in them because your mind is on the road. It’s a bit like meditation: your thoughts come up like signposts and you recognize them as you’re moving on.

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Me on the road, circa 2011.

So when my friend, the writer Jason Nahrung, wrote about his recent trip up the blacktop spine of Australia – the Newell Highway – I felt a twinge of homesickness and a great swelling of pride in my chest.

“It’s a route of sheep and cattle country, cotton and grain farms, bushrangers, road trains,” Nahrung wrote.

The Newell runs up the western edge of populated Australia, carrying our goods, food and tools to and from the population centers in the south and east to the farms and mines in “the bush”. Road trains, for those who have never had the pleasure, are great hulking behemoths of trucks, frequently three and sometimes four trailers long. They usually haul gas or cattle over long distances. They’re called “triples” or “turnpike doubles” here in the US – but Australia allows four-trailer haulage to a maximum of 53.5m. That’s 175.5ft. Overtake that!

The Newell Hwy stretches 1000km through New South Wales and comprises about half the route from Melbourne to Queensland's Capricorn Coast. Map: Wikipedia, CC
The Newell Hwy stretches 1000km through New South Wales and comprises about half the route from Melbourne to Queensland’s Capricorn Coast. Map: Wikipedia, CC

The Newell is a sometimes harsh but always no-nonsense road shirked by the tourists, who would rather take the picturesque coast road. It’s not quite “the Outback” but it certainly isn’t civilization either. And the scenery is so unvaried that long-haul truck drivers frequently abuse stimulants just to stay awake.

But this flat ruler of asphalt is the backbone of commerce in Australia and when the link is broken – usually by big floods – the country notices. Suddenly, gas prices rise and a leg of lamb is hard to come by. It ain’t a pretty road but without it, the country would be pretty stuffed.

I have lost count of the times I’ve driven the Newell but three memories stand out for me:

In search of Big Things

The Giant Koala at Dadswell Bridge, Victoria, in all its reinforced concrete glory. Picture: Wikipedia, CC
The Giant Koala at Dadswell Bridge, Victoria, in all its reinforced concrete glory. Picture: Wikipedia, CC

I’m 16 years old and I take a plane from Brisbane to Sydney, where a man I have never met picks me up to take me on a tour of Australia. How did I know this man? I met him on the Internet. It seems crazy now but the Internet was a different place then.

So this starry-eyed 16-year-old and a diminutive bearded 20-something programmer nicknamed The Gnome drove around the middle of Australia for a week or two, looking for Big Things, many of which are just off the Newell. Americans know this trend well: when a highway town has nothing else to offer visitors, it builds a Big Thing that is tangentially related to the product the region is known for, opens a cafe, prints a hundred postcards and hopes for the best. Some of Australia’s Big Things are downright scary; like the Giant Koala at Dadswell Bridge in Victoria, which has reinforced steel pipes for ear hair.

The two of us took side roads and camped under the stars. I remember feeling terribly intrepid at the time but in retrospect, I’m pretty sure I was irritable, hyperactive and irritable to The Gnome. We had a fight towards the end of the trip and have barely spoken since. I don’t even remember thanking him for all he did for me. Here’s hoping he reads this one day and knows that I appreciate it.

Meeting a kindred spirit in a rural store

Many years later, I’m driving the Newell with my beau. He is wearing a pinstripe suit and a mohawk because that’s what you wear when you want people in rural Australia to be talking about you for years to come.

One Saturday morning, we walked into a store looking for supplies. This was right in middle of the cattle belt and it was like one of those Wild West films when the wanted criminal walks in and the pianola stops. Jaws dropped and children stared. I began to wonder if we were about to be thrown out.

But then, at the checkout, emerged a Native American man who grinned, shook his hand and said: “My grandfather wore that haircut.” Halfway across the world and in the middle of nowhere, this new Australian immigrant was able to make my boyfriend feel welcome in an alien landscape.

The rock that unzipped

The tent our wombat friend found so fascinating in a park off the highway in New South Wales.
The tent our wombat friend found so fascinating in a park off the highway in New South Wales.

It’s the middle of the night. My friend and I are camped in a park off the highway, halfway between Brisbane and Melbourne. She is moving to the latter and has all her worldly possessions in her tiny car. We have just a weekend to cover the 1730km (1073 miles), which means 10+ hour driving days, and we’re both exhausted.

A snuffling and scratching on my side of the tent woke me. I looked through blurry eyes to make out the silhouette of the biggest wombat known to man. “How big can a wombat possibly be?” you ask. Let’s just say that it should have been included on my Big Things tour 15 years prior.

I tried to wake my friend but she was out like a light. So I grabbed my camera, wriggled out of my sleeping bag and unzipped the tent. The wombat, which had been perfectly happy snuffling around this funny new rock that was made of canvas and guy wires, was startled to find the rock open and a half-dressed woman lurch at him with a camera. His eyes widened, he sneezed out of shock, backed up like a dump truck and ran as fast as his little legs could take his formidable hulk. It was such a hilarious sight that I didn’t even get a picture but I’ll never forget the look on his face.

A forgotten piece of Australian folklore

I’m sure there are countless other stories I can’t remember about this bush highway and others; and some of the Australians reading will have one or two of their own. It’s a chapter left out of the book of Aussie folklore and I think it deserves its place.

That’s what people don’t get about the bush until they’ve explored it. To most of us, it’s not the harsh and reverent holy land depicted in many films, nor is it the Wild West. It’s nuanced, sometimes bizarre and beautiful in its own way.

What’s your wonderful bush driving story? Leave a comment below.

 

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