Why I'm giving up on GPS devices.
Within about a mile, or a kilometer, or hectare, or whatever they call it here, I was lost, or at least the world had failed to present itself to me in a manner that could be called transparent. Perhaps it was the sun: It hung in the northern part of the sky. Because down is up here, spring is autumn, south is north, and Orion with the belt and sword in the night sky is standing on his head.
Sydney quickly revealed itself as a place where all street names are provisional—you can be driving on Williams Street and discover that it has become Park Street on a whim. Now, if I had GPS, I wouldn't have learned this about Sydney so quickly. Nor would I have had the nice interaction with the locals that I enjoyed when, at an intersection, I begged a cabbie for directions.
Fortunately it was an older cabbie who actually knew how to find such strange Sydney thoroughfares as the Eastern Distributor. The younger cabbies, I was later informed (during a rare trip in a taxi myself) by a veteran hack from Lebanon, use GPS—and never learn the city.
"No brain! They have GPS!" he said, smacking the dashboard to denote where hateful gadget gets mounted.
I had brain. Also a lot of fear. The novice driver in Australia must learn to overcome the sense of being seconds from death. Cars bear down on you from unlikely angles, the anxiousness of the moment heightened when you try to signal a turn and merely activate the wipers.
The newspapers are filled with stories of traffic accidents. A fatal accident is invariably referred to as a "horror crash." My goal was to ensure that if I got in an accident, it would be an unhappy crash but not a horror crash or a gut-wrenching revulsion crash.
I rented cars in four cities: Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, and Alice Springs. Australia is a lovely place: the people are the friendliest on the planet, the accents are delightful. The kangaroos are numerous and, I found, delicious—pair with mashed potatoes, beetroot, and a big cabernet.
I rarely mourned the lack of GPS because I spent a lot of time in the countryside, which is essentially uninhabited and where one is pleased to be on any road whatsoever. There are only about four or five roads on the entire continent, including the Stuart Highway and the Sturt Highway. There are dirt roads—"tracks," they call them, accurately—that go for 1,000 miles across the bush. When you pull out of the Alice Springs airport, a road sign says, "Alice Springs 10" and "Darwin 1502." Another sign says simply, "Adelaide," with an arrow, failing to note that the distance to Adelaide is about 4 percent of the circumference of the planet, by my calculation.
The danger here isn't that you'd get lost but rather that you'd venture too far out-bush, as they say, and then run out of gas. You'd know exactly where you were—and that you were doomed. Eventually the authorities would find your dingo-gnawed bones.
As far as the quality of my driving in Oz, I can report that when I was pulled over by police, I got off with a warning. In Margaret River, which is south of Perth, I overshot my hotel, got flustered, ritually hit the wipers instead of the blinker, and finally lurched into a housing complex, at which point the flashing lights appeared in the rearview mirror.
"You committed three violations," the officer told me. "You drove on the wrong side of the road, you didn't use your turn signal, and you weren't wearing a seat belt."
"I was wearing a seat belt!" I protested. I felt a bit chuffed from having been accused, in effect, of driving recklessly, when I was merely driving badly.
Now, with GPS, I probably wouldn't have overshot the hotel—the GPS lady would have told me exactly when to turn and in what direction. But it turned out I didn't really need it, because everything worked out fine—the cop let me go. He probably felt sorry for me because I didn't have any GPS to guide me. You never know.
As I write, I have just a few more days in-country before heading home, and it's possible that I've racked up dozens of speeding tickets from the hidden cameras and am, as we speak, wanted by authorities. I may be on the lam, in other words. An outlaw. But I have seen the country my way without any GPS lady to guide me. Today I'll head out into the bush west of Alice Springs and have a bit of a walkabout. I'll drive back before it gets dark and the 'roos get thick around the roadways. And I'll be careful, with hands on the wheel at 10 and 2.
Or maybe here it's 2 and 10.
Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the new book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.