Tales from abroad: Australia

Credit: Courtesy of Ryan Donnelly Credit: Courtesy of Ryan Donnelly

The following is an excerpt from public policy and management master’s student Ryan Donnelly’s blog account of his travels in abroad. Feel free to visit *www.postcardsfromstrangeplaces.com if you would like to read more.*

Being fortunate enough to have traveled across the six or seven continents this world has to offer, I like to think that I’ve seen a thing or two. But I knew that this journey was going to be one for the record books when the 1985 short bus pulled up at 6 a.m. and I saw the man behind the wheel. With the glare of the rising sun radiating off of his dark black sunglasses, a smiling, sunburned, mustached man was finishing off what appeared to be his third Red Bull of the morning.

Half asleep, I threw my bags into the attached trailer and climbed aboard. Five minutes later, my prior estimation was confirmed. Laughing hysterically, Mark sped off driving the wrong way down a one-way alley, honking at a cab that was trying to use the street in the generally accepted manner, and running the bus down the road with two wheels on the sidewalk.

We were departing for a seven-day journey into the outback, and the driver Mark (pronounced in Aussie as “Maahck”) couldn’t have been more pleased. This was exceptional, considering we were departing for a two-day, 1500-mile drive due north over mostly unpaved roads into arguably the single most inhospitable place on the planet. Armed with a head full of knowledge, an evil laugh, and a matching green-fatigue army shirt complete with some well-worn shorts that were so small that I felt uncomfortable being on the same street as him, the 50-plus-year-old road warrior rocketed his rattling steed off into the desert. And wow, could that bus move. Exhausted, I was slipping in and out of a light sleep to the sound of an odd mix of techno and disco-fused tracks playing from his iPod when I was jolted awake by our vehicle lurching violently to the right and our bus passing a smaller car on the shoulder, right as a road train (think tractor trailer with two to five additional trailers attached) swerved past us. Everyone else woke up looking as if half of them had wet their pants, and so I asked:

“Everything all right up there, Mark?”

He turned down the music and looked up into the rear-view mirror and smiled, saying, “You bet, mate! No dramas (pronounced draaah-maz) — I reckon we’ll survive (suh-voyve) this drive (droyve),” and with a hysterical, evil laugh he turned around completely to spend more than a few seconds peering at his passengers, without once slowing down or looking at the road. Mark then turned back to face the stereo and realized the bus was heading straight towards a large boulder. Artfully, he turned the wheel to the left and guided us back onto the road, as if this was as normal as brushing your teeth. I looked down and searched in vain to find something with which I could fasten myself to the chair or floor in the absence of seatbelts.

A few hours later, and the shouting began once again as Mark said, “We will be stopping up here a ways, so you all better (bettah) use the toilets and get some water. Two liters. Minimum. Three is better. Because after that, we’re in the land of big hats, big heat, and big flies. You won’t be finding any more shade or toilets out here, mate. Where we’re going, it’s just us and the outback. Something happens, and it will be at least eight hours (owas) before a plane will be able to get out here, find you, and get you back to a hospital. At least eight hours, mate. And that’s if the dingos don’t get you first.” And with that customary laugh, he adjusted his big straw hat and looked forward again, realizing that the bus was still speeding down the road.

When we stopped, Mark filled up the bus with gas, and then filled two extra containers as well. Just in case we ran out. The heat was over 100°F, and it wasn’t even noon. Plus, we had only entered the desert an hour or two before. I ran inside the station and came out with a Snickers bar. I started chatting with Mark and asked him about where he grew up. He said that he grew up on a station just like the one we were at. A station, he explained, is different from a farm. A station is entirely self-sufficient and is called so because it is much larger than any farm is. The outback, he explained, has a fair number of them — the biggest of which is larger in size than Belgium and has somewhere between 60,000-70,000 heads of cattle, many of which have never seen a human being before. When it comes time to round them up, station-heads have to use helicopters.

Many of these remote outposts also have a gas station, but the primary business is often sheep or cattle farming. Generally, only one or two families live on a station, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of kilometers away from the next-nearest station, town, or city. Mark and his eight brothers and sisters grew up with only each other and a handful of aboriginals that worked on their land with them to keep company. They got their education from School of the Air, which were half-hour school sessions that took place over radio broadcast three times per week. Children all across the outback would tune in during those times, and after the broadcast could ask questions via radio. Homework assignments were written and mailed to the school to be graded and eventually returned. The first time he saw a TV was 18 years ago.

Mark spent a lot of his youth reading and working on the land. Additionally, having grown up with many aboriginals, he knew a lot about their history and customs. He explained some of the expert survival tactics in the punishing outback heat that had been passed down through generations. These people survived for thousands of years in some of the hottest places on earth, where there is virtually no water or shade, living off extremely scarce resources. Australia is the driest continent on the planet. Eighty percent of it is desert, and the country is the same size as the U.S. When I say that going through the outback is big, hot, and remote, I mean it. The heat can get in excess of 140°F, and the road temperature can get over 150°F, melting the pavement.

After two days of driving and a night spent in the middle of the outback sleeping under the stars — taking turns keeping watch at night to keep the dingos away — we arrived in Coober Pedy — the Opal Capital of the World. It’s a place so hot and desolate that much of their population of 2000 lives underground in what they call “dugouts.” A community of miners, they fashion their homes in the same manner they make their mines. We slept underground, too.