‘I don’t know how to get there. This Google map is useless.’ Said Anna with resignation. Her glasses were sliding down her nose, the perspiration making her skin slippery. It was late in the afternoon, the last rays of the sun were retreating rapidly before us, but the air still quivered with heat. The temperature gauge on the dashboard had been climbing steadily over the past few hours and I knew I had to stop driving soon. We needed to find a place to spend the night at. The few small towns we had driven past earlier in the afternoon had not looked particularly promising and. ‘Okay, you gotta turn into a road off to your right in about 500 meters.’ Anna finally announced. The only exit road we saw over the next few kilometres was a dirt road leading into the bush. It seemed to have been blocked off for some maintenance work.
‘That road back there had to be it.’ Said Jeremy, sipping his beer. ‘Okay, let’s give it a go. The old mate can’t go much further anyway.’ I said, nodding at the dashboard. I did a wide U-turn and took the exit into the forest. The sun’s last rays were clambering up the tall trees as we rumbled along the darkening forest path.
The dirt road’s surface was scarred, clawed by deep ruts and strewn with the tiny, sharp-edged rocks that puncture the car’s tyres more often in my imagination than in real world. A puncture would be disastrous nonetheless; we had neither a spare tyre nor the equipment to change the tyre with. And our phones had no reception. We rumbled along the track. The darkness had descended by the time we came across a fork in the road. An old, weathered wooden sign pointed to a camping ground seven kilometres away to the left. But it didn’t indicate where the other path leads to. I wasn’t going to drive for another seven kilometres at that snail pace and I said as much. After a few minutes of heated, beer-driven discussion, we agreed that someone should walk down the un-named path to see where it lead to. If that didn’t work, we would turn around and drive out of the national park, risking driving after the dark with a busted headlight.
Jeremy and I volunteered to go. In hindsight, I should have stayed with the car, seeing as I was the only one who could drive the manual vehicle. We told Mark to stay with Anna and Lisa.
Only the rustling of the leaves broke the silence of the bush. Gumtrees stood with their backs to us, throwing shadows into the depth of the forest against the weak light of the moon, as if protecting some ancient secrets that only the night prowlers were privy to. Jeremy stopped me and pointed at a metal sign half hidden in the bush; ‘Be ware, poisoned traps for foxes, dingos and wild dogs.’ The acute feeling of being watched by some imaginary wild dogs put our senses on high alert.
To deter these imaginary beasts, we began making as much noise as we could, and occasionally executed circus-worthy, sudden 180-degrees twists to our left or right, thinking we could surprise them should they be following us. And that’s when we saw the pair of eyes in the dark. They were a faint yellowish-red colour, about 50 meters or so away. I was holding a tiny, pathetic Swiss army knife. Jeremy picked up a wooden stick. Well armed, we stood close to each other, facing our rather shy enemy. It was blinking and turning his head every few seconds, looking as alarmed as we were. We all stood our ground for a few long seconds. Then the beast blinked one last time, turned around and hopped away into the dense thicket. It was only a wallaby.
So with no dingos or even any mangy old wild dogs around to spice up the night, we ventured down the dirt road until we heard the ocean crashing against rocks in the distance. Eventually, we stumbled onto a small clearance surrounded by short, scraggly shrubs on three sides and a smooth sandy cliff on the other. The ocean, lay immediately beyond the cliff, roaring madly as if complaining about the relentless wind.
The road-trip had been Jeremy’s idea; the last venture in Australia, Melbourne to Byron Bay, before the four of them headed back to their native Canada. We had mused over it for weeks, yet it remained a fairly poorly thought-out proposition. I suspect it was merely a feature of this sort of spontaneous adventures; a date would be chosen, a few scattered details discussed and the rest would be left to fate. We had no maps and no real knowledge of the hot spots along the way. We rented a van not much newer than the one in Little Miss Sunshine. Someone had painted bullet marks, a vicious bulldog and a hippie peace sign on its sides. sadly, the message the painter had intended to convey through those seemingly random figures remained a mystery to us all.
We rumbled along the monotonous roads, up through Victoria and into the neighbouring state of New South Wales. The land and pastures grew noticeably greener, the landscapes undulating gently before us. We drove through humble country towns, where the people seemed to be the reason the town was there and not the other way around as it is with larger cities.
The wind blew ferociously across the clearance, forcing the scrubs to bend low to its will. I parked the van perpendicular to the wind, to act as a wind break, and pitched the tent behind it.
Too tired to cook, we rummaged through our meagre supply of snacks and fruit, then settled down on our camp chairs in a semi-circle eager to wind down and challenge our sobriety with a combination of lukewarm beers and long hastily-rolled joints.
The conversation soon took a turn for the absurd and the magnificent; ‘How big do you guys think the universe really is?’ Someone asked. ‘The scary thing is, it’s growing bigger every day!’ Another answered.
We talked about the Northern lights, the wilds of Canada and the outback Australia in a dazed manner. They filled us with a sense of wonder, a feeling of longing and a vague acknowledgement that we could never really comprehend such grand matters. The conversation was occasionally interspersed with long stretches of silence, with our thoughts floating around, like millions of jellyfish coming up from the deep seas, touching every corner of our minds with their tentacles. I got up at some point and walked towards the cliff. I stood alone on its edge and listened to the raging, restless ocean.
After a while, I noticed the murmurs of chatter had died down, replaced by a curious silence, like the haunting peace that lingers after everyone has left the stadium after a big match. They must have run out of beers and snacks, the conversation spluttering into some incoherent mumbling and eventually a wordless void. And so I headed off into our tent too and let my scattered thoughts take me away into the abyss and towards the distant dawn.
Next morning, as is so often the case, revealed the truths we couldn’t have seen in the dark. The camping ground wasn’t as precariously located as it seemed last night, the ocean not as close as we thought it was, the civilisation not as far. Standing on the half-submerged rocks on the shore, I could just about see a sleepy coastal town far in the distance. Way to ruin the sense of detachment and isolation, I thought to myself. Sausages, bread and eggs, plus a few leftover bananas made up for a varied if slightly unimaginative breakfast. A cool breeze picked up as we ate, and its battle with the warmth of the rising sun, mirrored our conflicting feelings; it had been an extraordinary night, and we had grown to like our little private piece of the coast, but the clock was ticking and the road awaited us.
We piled our bags and the tent back into the van and cleaned up the litter we had scattered during the night. As I pulled away from the clearance in a lazy arch, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that we had never been there. It was as ifs we had turned around half way through that road last night and the lonely cliff, the full moon and that stormy sea had all been but a hazy dream.
There is no dramatic lesson in this story, nor can I claim that the experience changed me in a profound manner. I still don’t like getting lost. And if I were to find myself in that position again, with a chance to turn into a dirt road, I cannot tell with any certainty that I would take it. In spite of that, I do still wish that we all find the courage in us, every now and then, not to turn right around; to give the road a chance.
No, I must correct myself; I should hope that we have the courage to give ourselves a chance.