Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

Driving Across the Australian Outback
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 8 2010 6:34 AM

Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

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I haven't driven a car since we left the States and I've been itching to get behind a wheel. A drive across the Outback seems like potentially the best road trip available on this planet. Granted, we don't have a car. Nor do we have any clue as to the possible perils involved in crossing the Outback. But we've managed to get ourselves three-quarters of the way around the world so far. We're feeling cocky.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Our initial hunch is that renting a car will be pricey. (After all, we'll be asking the rental agency to let us drive their vehicle across an endless expanse of desert doomland before we ditch it on the other side—thousands of miles away.) But it turns out that one of Darwin's rental outlets is offering a relocation deal. They need to quickly ship a sedan to a sister franchise in Sydney. If we can drive the car there for them, and complete the journey in four days or less, they'll give us a massive discount on the price. Total rental cost: one dollar per day.

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We can't believe our fantastic luck. Until we hit the road and look at a map. "Hmmm," says Rebecca, sitting in the passenger seat of our newly acquired Toyota Camry as I drive us south toward the dead, empty center of the continent. She's studying the Australian road atlas that we bought at a bookstore on our way out of Darwin. "It's come to my attention that Australia is very large," she observes.

To make it from Darwin to Sydney in our allotted time we'll have to cover about six hundred miles a day. We've tied ourselves to waking up at sunrise, getting in the car, and then driving without much pause until dusk. (We daren't drive at night on these dark, lonely roads—for fear of breaking down, leaving the car to seek help, and being devoured alive by a pack of ravenous dingoes.)

No matter. It's worth it. I'd forgotten the amazing rush of driving fast down an empty two-lane highway. Sure, we've had a measure of autonomy with other vehicles on this trip: our bicycles in Vietnam, the scooter in Malaysia. But there is nothing like a car. The private, mobile world of its cabin. The picture windows front, sides, and back. Point the grille in any direction you please, depress the accelerator, and feel the freedom. With an Australian country song blasting from the radio, we begin eating up the miles.

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Darwin on its surface appears to be an unremarkable suburb—the type you might find anywhere in heartland America. But its generic, two-story buildings and sleepy culs-de-sac belie its freakish setting. It is in fact an outpost. A fragile fortress surrounded by the most brutal forces of nature. On one side is a deadly, unswimmable sea. ("Don't worry about the sharks," a taxi driver reassured us. "They've all been eaten by the saltwater crocs or poisoned by the box jellies.") On the other side is the barren, pitiless Outback.

Within a half hour of exiting the rental car company's parking lot, we leave all hints of human existence behind. There is nothing out here but red dirt, lime green scrub, and a broiling orange sun. The deeper into the Outback we go, the more desolate it gets. We can drive for forty-five minutes without passing a single car and go hours without seeing a house or a building of any kind. No gas stations. No billboards. It's a startling emptiness—an absolute emptiness—of a sort that is difficult to find in America these days. Which makes sense, given that Australia is nearly as large as the continental United States but is home to 20 million people instead of 300 million.

At one point, we drive past a massive brush fire burning not a hundred yards from the side of the road. The flames are ten feet high. There's not a single soul in sight. We're the only witnesses to this hellacious, raging inferno. With nothing to block the wind, a fire like this can suddenly sweep across the plain, inhale all in its path, and breathe out a wispy trail of ash. During a recent set of fires near Melbourne—one blaze stretched sixty miles long—survivors spoke of having twenty seconds from the time they heard a crackling roar approaching until the moment the flames overtook them.

The overwhelming impression I get is that this continent hates living things. It's like a part of earth that refuses to assimilate. The creatures that make it are forced to get by either on their wits (as humans have) or with bizarre, weaponous mutations. Basically half the animals you encounter here are capable of killing you in a matter of seconds. And only Australia could produce the platypus—a venomous, egg-laying mammal, which naturalists at first thought must be a prank some trickster was playing on them. Or the kangaroo—whose ridiculous, propulsive hopping, sometimes with an infant roo peeking out of an onboard pocket, seems to have been a prank played on the animal by its creator.

We've already seen dozens upon dozens of dead roos, lying in the road and in its ditches. But it's not until our second day of driving that we spot our first live one. And now we understand why: Kangaroos have a death wish. They hop in packs along the roadside, and as our car approaches at least one roo will invariably gauge our speed, gather his hoppy momentum, and zag across the pavement directly into our path.

I don't blame him. Australia is a constantly menacing environment, and no doubt there comes a time when you're just ready to give up the fight. So far we've managed to swerve around these suicidal roos—mostly because we've learned to hit the brakes at the moment a troop comes into sight. I sometimes shout out my window at the roos, preemptively: "Don't you do it, Matilda! You've too much to live for!"

The other cars on the road all have beefy front grilles, designed to buffer a roo collision by deflecting the tawny-colored limbs and crimson guts over and around the windshield. Most cars are also equipped with exhaust snorkels that extend above their roofs, presumably to allow the vehicle to drive through chest-deep floods. The sight of all these rugged armaments has left us feeling less sanguine about our own naked-grilled, nonsnorkeled, factory-issue family sedan.

When we (very occasionally) pass another car, its driver will always wave. Initially, we'd assumed our brights must be on or that we were dragging a roo carcass or three from our undercarriage. But then we realized these friendly hellos are just an effort to forge an ephemeral moment of human contact. You take it any way you can get it out here. And you never know when you'll run out of gas one hundred miles from nowhere and need to siphon from a friendly Samaritan.

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