Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Crossing the outback

The last month or so has been a blur. My mind feels like it may explode just trying to recount what has happened, though that could also be due to tiredness. Kim has been waking up at 5am lately which invariably means that I wake up at 5am. Perhaps like last night, after having previously already been woken at 3. I'm looking forward to arriving in New South Wales in a couple of days time where there is daylight savings. At least there it will be 6am when Kim wakes me up. The only difference in how late Kim sleeps seems to be related to the timezone of the state that we are in. At least 6am will look slightly better on the clock. So I feel handicapped at the moment before the day even begins. Tori has spent some days like a zombie, having been kept up all night by the little bugger. But he is armed with a deadly smile that lights up his whole face. Somehow that seems to make it worth it. A built in survival mechanism of human hatchlings. He is quite a big baby now. Too long really for the wicker basket in which he sleeps, that sits balanced on the van table. I'm still wondering if we keep him in there if he won't grow any bigger, in the way that a goldfish will only grow to the size of its bowl.

Aside from tiredness, the main thing that makes my mind boggle is when I look at the photos I've taken of where we've been. So many incredibly beautiful places, but also some harsh and desolate land. Isolated little desert fringing towns with a population of less than a dozen people. Driving along famed old stock routes such as the Oodnadatta and Strzelecki Tracks. Not passing another vehicle for hours and driving through a mostly barren landscape with the temperature outside of the nicely air-conditioned car being hotter than 40 degrees in the shade. And there isn't any shade. When we left the town of Lyndhurst at the start of the Strzelecki, we were greeted with a sign that told us that the next fuel and services were not for another 485km. We came through this region of Australia outside of the recommended season, putting that extra bit of pressure on not breaking down. It would make you feel too much like an idiot for taking on such a foolhardy venture with two young children and a baby, if and when somebody finally turned up to rescue you. Though it is not fully the hot season yet. In summer, the temperature in this region breaks 50 with regularity. It is around here, on the banks of the Cooper Creek, that Burke and Wills perished 150 years ago. An expedition to cross the country from south to north, ill prepared and badly planned that ended in death for all but one of the party.

And stepping outside into the heat, it is easy to see why. On one stop I went to the van to refill the water bottles and the water came out of the faucet so hot that it scalded my hand. You could have made tea with it straight from the allegedly cold water tap. I spent a lot of the drive with my eyes glued to the temperature gauges, hoping to not see the needle stretch towards the red, or worse still a flashing red light on the dashboard. Periodic stops were made to check that the tyres were ok too. The last thing we needed was for them to overheat and to get a blow out. My previous misadventure with tyres on the Duncan Road was still fresh in my mind. As was the overheated transmission on the road to Alice Springs. We were loaded up with provisions. Full water tanks (albeit a tad warm), an enormous cache of canned food and UHT juice and milk and an assortment of cheese and frozen meat, packed tightly into the portable fridge/freezer we now carried in the van because the van fridge had packed it in sometime back in Coober Pedy. But as I look back now on all the places that we have been since we left Katherine, my mind feels drawn to this part of the journey more than any other. Perhaps it is because of the sense of adventure that it created. Perhaps it is because I have never seen or experienced such a terrain.
At times the landscape seemed so different to anything I'd ever seen that it could easily have been a different planet. Or maybe I am drawn to it because here we were truly alone and together as a family. Just us, driving along listening to Stephen Fry read us the Harry Potter books. In the remote areas around the Kimberley and around a lot of central Australia, even though you couldn't see them, you knew that there were a number of Aboriginal communities around. In large stretches here, it felt that there was nobody. For large sections there was no sign of life at all to be seen. Not even any lizards. The tiny settlement of Innamincka was like an oasis when we finally arrived at the other end of the Srtzelecki. An old pub with a tasteful modern touch and a kitchen producing fine quality meals. It immediately felt welcoming, aided by the fact that it had ice cold beer on tap. Coopers. James Squires. A pub in the middle of nowhere with a bit of style. And free WiFi. And a beautiful Brummy barmaid. We decided to move out of the van for a couple of nights and moved into the pub accommodation for a bit of a break and a reward for having crossed the desert successfully. And also to drink my fill of James Squires Chancer Golden Ale.

Some 25 days prior to arriving in Innamincka I'd decided to have a break from drinking. I was in Singapore  for a conference having had a lightening visit to Melbourne on the way through, while the rest of the crew were camped back in Alice Springs. Computer trade shows are often depicted as a collection of nerdy guys and geeky girls talking in acronyms about the latest industry technology in a way that would bore the pants off the rest of humanity. And that pretty much sums it up. I've been going to these kinds of "shows" for around 10 or 11 years now, predominantly on the vendor side of the equation. One of the cheesy sales types armed with giveaways such as bags, pens and t-shirts to attract people to the booth, so as to be able to convince them that they should talk to me about my latest exciting software features. I can delve into the depths of techieness with the best of them too. I know how the stuff works. Some days at these shows are mind numbingly boring. Standing around the booth waiting for people to come by. Sitting in presentations hearing somebody drone on about a topic that you have no real interest in. But there are undoubtedly the high points too. Invariably the conferences that I attend are in exotic locations. Sydney, Singapore, Bali, Beijing, Seoul, London, Vienna, Las Vegas, San Jose. And always in very plush hotels. With loads of food laid on. Breakfasts, lunches, morning and afternoon teas and snacks provided at other intervals just in case you get hungry between morning tea and lunch. At night time there is always booze and a meal laid on to facilitate the schmoozing, which is typically what these events are all about. I've certainly taken joyful advantage of the free food and drinks over the years at many of these events, but this time I was on two doses of antibiotics thanks to my visit with Pusskana, who decided to share with me his displeasure that I had abandoned him to go off on this trip and had bitten and scratched me multiple times.
I decided that a break in drinking would probably do me some good anyway. Clear my mind. Give my liver and kidneys a bit of respite. See if some of the well invested extra pounds around my midriff and face might fall away. And it had all been going well too. I did feel better. I did lose a few kilos. On walking into the Innamincka pub some three and a half weeks later though and seeing the gleaming frosty beer taps, I immediately decided that the drought was officially over. And never has a beer tasted so good.