The drive to Cunnamulla began innocently enough.
I waved goodbye to my mate Sophie as the first tinges of the sunrise kissed the sky. There have been too many goodbyes recently, I thought, just resisting the urge to beep my horn before 6am on a Sunday.
As I headed west, the sunrise made up for my cold toes. Clouds were illuminated to a shade of pink most 5-year-old girls can only dream of painting their bedrooms. The red orb gradually arced across the horizon, the changing colours mirroring the shift in the landscape. Soon enough I left behind the lush coastal fields, trading the greenery for red soils and vertically-challenged shrubs.
As I lost radio transmissions and, of course, mobile phone reception, things headed south, steadily.
I abandoned the radio static in favour of my own soulful tunes. “Ammmmaaayyyzzzziiiinnngggg ggrrrrraaacccceeee,” I began, loving that no one was around to point out my lack of tone. “How sweet the ….”
I wish someone had been there to hear my kick-ass scream as I ploughed down a kamikaze kangaroo. Some company to still my racing heart or commiserate seeing the poor animal fly in the air as I flicked it out from my tyres would also have been nice.
But, there I was, alone on a road where you can go half an hour without seeing another car. In that time you will probably see hundreds of roo carcasses littering the road, but they’re not really hopping company. Ha ha – I had plenty of time to become desensitised to the involuntary slaughter and pen some horrible dad jokes. I even began to have bull-bar envy.
Just days before, as Friday night was kicking into gear my mate Tracey had warned me about the foolish habits of Australia’s famous national emblem. “If you see a kangaroo don’t swerve that mother f**ker,” she advised me, sagely. “Just take it down.”
At the time I had laughed along with her. I recall taking a sip of my Pinot, loving the dramatic way she packaged her drive-safely-and-give-us-a-call-when-you-get-there advice.
Her astute words echoed in my ears for the half an hour it took to calm my pulse, memories of my laughter mocking me.
My concern about the dearth of radio stations was replaced with a simmering anxiety about kangaroos. I was lucky it did not destroy my radiator, leaving me marooned in a sea of long, straight roads. Instead it just dislodged my bumper, reshaped my number plate and generally gave my car just a little more character.
I rolled into St George at midday, six hours of driving down and just four to go. I was excited and exhilarated, noticing the isolation and feeling the slightly heightened sense of danger that I always associate with the Aussie outback.
My brother instructed me to pump up my spare tyre, just in case (and I had plenty of time to indulge in awful just-in-case fantasies). I obliged and decided that I’d made such good time that I should probably lock my keys in the car. What a fun little trick!
The solo nature of my trip hit home as I stood at the petrol station knowing that I had no mates or brothers or Scandinavians that could pull out two sticks and fix my car. Surprisingly, I was buoyed by this thought, relishing the thought that I was on an intense adventure.
I waltzed into the shop with nothing to lose and introduced myself to Tony, the helpful petrol-station attendant.
“Any chance you’ve got experience breaking into cars,” I asked, mustering an I-know-I’m-useless-but-please-help-me smile. Obviously, I have a wealth of experience with this particular grin.
“Aww, whaddya done,” Tony asked, playing me.
I confessed my idiot-city-slicker status and my crime, but won him over with the news that I was moving to Charleville to work for the local rag.
He was delighted at first, but then gave me a strange look, clearly wondering why anyone would move to Charleville. “I’m looking for an adventure,” I told him, shrugging my shoulders.
“Nar, you’ll be all right,” he relented, slightly, then added “you got a fella with you?”
I gave him a look that said I clearly do not need a man to accompany me to the country. “No, it’s just me,” I said, trying not to sound like too much of a loser.
He scratched his head, a bit bamboozled. “Ah well, do you like a bit of the right arm then,” he asked, miming bringing a beer glass to the lips with his right arm and simultaneously tipping his neck back. I returned the gesture and nodded, “sure, I like to drink.”
“Well, you’ll be fine then.”
Half an hour later Tony had cracked open the passenger door, given a strange look to the lettuce plants I was transporting across the state, and waved me off.
Optimism was on my side. I was thrilled that I’d managed to lock my keys in the car, get them back out and make a new friend.
Soon enough, I passed my first 53-metre road train, which provided a neat little adrenalin rush.
The roads were relentlessly straight, stretching to a blur on the horizon. I began to think I was seeing mirages, a town perhaps, or a petrol station, but they were just dead roos, taunting me.
Petrol became an issue about 100 kilometres from Cunnamulla. The gauge was reaching toward the big E with an enthusiasm my car usually saves for harbouring mandarin peels. With 50 kilometres to go I began to see a slight malevolence in the stark landscape. I had enough food to last the night out here, but what about water? Or would I try to walk to Cunnamulla? Would the person that stopped to help me be an Ivan Milat enthusiast? Would there even be a petrol station open on a Sunday afternoon in a town with a population of 1300 people?
The questions haunted me as the petrol light beamed at me. With 35 kilometres to go I started counting every movement the odometer made.
My kangaroo anxiety was replaced with petrol panic.
Of course, I made it to town, buzzing with nerves and delighting in the spontaneous and candid excitement I had found on the journey. One less-remarkable hour later I arrived at my lodgings, a sheep and cattle farm in the middle of splendid nothingness.
A crisp sunset and a friendly face welcomed me to the west, to the adventurous lifestyle I had hoped for.
What would happen tomorrow? I had no idea. It was the perfect moment.