This one’s almost a year out of date and I’ve been sitting on the first draft for months, but maybe Scott will like it….
Let’s see… they must be at…. Well 51 by now….
I’m in my tent in the Kununurra Caravan Park, poring over my WA 4WD map by the dying light of my headtorch, trying to pinpoint the exact location of the boys from the latest set of GPS co-ordinates I’ve received. It’s late, it’s very dark and I’m alone again but for a sleeping four-month-old.
That means they’re still…. I do the number crunching – I love this, adding up distances on maps – 95km from the end.
Hmm. They won’t finish tomorrow, then – more likely halfway through the following day. What to do. In my mind I’ve fixed on tomorrow as the finish day and visualised meeting them in Billiluna, but on that terrain, 95km is still 1.5 days’ ride. I don’t for a moment fancy the idea of overnighting in Billiluna. I suppose that I could take an easier pace, stop short and camp some old anywhere, then finish it off in the morning. Or – and for some reason, this is the first time the idea ever occurs to me – I could just keep on driving beyond Bililuna, down the Canning Stock Route until I find them.
I go to sleep smiling, knowing that tomorrow my family will be reunited, and thinking about what food I’d like to be greeted with if I had just spent a month in the desert.
The following day we drive some 550km from Kununurra to Billiluna – the longest driving day I’ve put in thus far with Bryn, but he’s in a co-operative mood and sleeps ’til just before Halls Creek. We break our journey there; breast milk for him, iced coffee for me, petrol, dinner supplies. Beyond Halls Creek life gets more adventurous as we turn onto the dirt Tanami Rd, which runs across the desert all the way to Alice Springs. We follow it as far as Billiluna, reached a little after a random signpost warning “no petrol for 700km” causes me a few moments of anxious confusion and self-doubt. Billiluna, it ensues, is not a further 700km on and does have petrol – but there’s little else there that tempts us to hang around, so I quickly confirm directions and head out along the Canning Stock Route.
Immediate quiet, and space that stretches to the horizon in every direction. The road is corrugated in places, smooth in others, and throws up a few more unmarked junctions to fuel that self-doubt. I drive to a well that’s marked on my map, 21km along, convinced that’s where they’ll stop to camp.
Not by the windmill.
Not down the many side trails.
Where are they?
I get out of my car and stand, considering. The silence is crushing.
What the heck am I doing, out here miles from anywhere with a baby? Well what difference does it make, you’ve been camping out miles from anywhere with a baby for the past month anyway, why is here any spookier than anywhere else? Could I have missed them? Could they possibly have put in a huge fast day and got to Billiluna already? Surely not, 95km by early afternoon? No way, not possible. Oh why didn’t I at least stop in the shop and check whether anyone had seen them. Ok. You have 3 choices. Camp here. Turn back. Or keep going, knowing that, rationally, you have to find them somewhere, you can’t possibly have missed them.
I opt for the latter even though with my engine whining unhappily, it is starting to feel a touch adventurous. I cover about another 10 km (where are they? could I have missed them?) before I finally find them. I see the bikes first – then Scott – then Tom. He’s running towards the car as soon as it stops, rushing around it as I open my door.
“C’m’ere c’m’ere c’m’ere”
It’s me first, sought and held for the longest moment before he even looks beyond for our small son. This registers, somehow seems important.
Two men, two bikes and a tent, here in some anywhere where the whole environment is one endless campsite. So this is how it’s been… and here I am, an unexpected intruder.
They’re about to rehydrate a dried meal but change their minds when they realise I’ve turned up with fresh bread, fresh fruit, fresh pasta, fresh vegetables. And beer. Of course, there’s beer. “Are there oranges?” Scott asks hopefully, and I kick myself, because I so nearly bought oranges, but didn’t. I have mandarins – close enough. All six disappear in a matter of minutes and I learn that a fruit tax was demanded of passing 4WDers wanting photos.
They’re filthy, layer upon ingrained layer of dirt that hasn’t been washed off in four tough desert weeks. Both have lost weight, enough that it’s noticeable, not so much that it’s dangerous or worrying. Scott has a black mark down one cheek and a slighty wild look in his eye. Tom is sunken cheeked and scruffy bearded. They are so far into “the zone” that they don’t even know they’re there, speaking little, and when they do their words come slowly and their voices are soft.
I feel like an alien who’s dropped in from outer space. I had a shower yesterday and I’m wearing a skirt and a clean t-shirt. I’m too noisy, too chatty, crashing in here with my fresh food and my happy bounce, maybe it’s too much. I’m here, and for me it’s good to experience what “here’s” all about – but – I didn’t do it. I wasn’t part of it. Maybe I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I should have left this one, final peaceful night to our two adventurers without gate-crashing, bringing them back to civilisation and its excesses that little bit sooner, in effect ending their trip a day early. I love the feel and to have this stolen insight, but – I shouldn’t have come.
“It was HARD”. This the overwhelming message and summing up that night and again, I’m glad to have heard it straight up. By the time we reach Perth, a week later, it already seems to me to have softened in the telling. “It was hard, but….” perhaps grown easier in the light of their successful completion of it, prettied up a little with a few lazy days of sitting in the car and steady eating between them and it.
I breathe in the desert, knowing I’d’ve loved the being out here, the camping – knowing too, that I might not actually have been able to do it. Determination and endurance, those I have, but to a degree this is a trip that’s actually strength dependent. There’s the sheer physicality of getting a heavily laden bicycle up dune after dune, and success is speed determined – where the slower you go, the slower you go. I really don’t know that I could’ve done it.
I’m so proud of these boys and especially the one that’s mine. I watch this filthy wild man who’s just done this amazing thing and wonder, how much of this is my influence? Might he have grown into some other potential self, if he were with some other woman than me? In the face of their impressive achievement, in the presence of these desert boys who look so rough and tough and have formed such a tight team team right now, I feel a little shy.
We pitch my tent and Scott spends the final CSR night sleeping alone while Tom joins his family. Despite the smell of him I find myself lying in the desert stillness, just wanting to reach out and touch that lean tired face.
What a wonderful post, and well worth the wait. It formed a terrific reflection on the whole CSR experience a year later, when it was in all our minds (I assume!) Well done again to our intrepid cyclists, and to the fan club/gate crashers, who had no small adventure themselves!! Love and heartfelt admiration from the armchair grey grans, Alan and Pam
I like the way you describe the sense of collision between the different states of being – wilderness travel mode and modern technological access-to-fresh-food mode.
It’s so disorientating. I get that sensation of collision every time I end up in a super market after being ‘out there’ for a week or two. I imagine Tom and Scott must have been well in ‘the wilderness zone’ after their month in the desert.