34. Australian Road Trip: A Desert Tale - Camooweal to Tennant Creek
Remote rest stop
Barkly Homestead Roadhouse - halfway between the middle of nowhere and the back of beyond.
On the edge of a vast expanse of nothing
From the Shell station at the edge of Camooweal, you can look across an ocean. It is not a liquid space, but a dry plain that stretches as far as you can imagine, into the depths, and beyond to the far western edge, of the Australian continent. We should really be thinking twice about heading into this void. This morning, when we tried to leave the 'stalag'/caravan park where we stayed last night, the bloody Winnebago wouldn’t start. It's either the battery or the starter motor but the last thing we want to do is wait here to have it fixed. When we blew into town yesterday afternoon, we came across two German girls - young, attractive blondes - who have been stuck in Camooweal for the past five days, waiting for the arrival of a set of points for their disabled Ford station wagon.
After we arrived and booked into the caravan park, I insisted we go and have a couple of cold ones in the infamous “risky” pub. The German girls were sitting on the verandah drinking beer and talking to a couple of down-at-heel white cowboys and an equally scruffy aboriginal bloke. The girls appeared to know these reprobates and were quite friendly with them. It wasn’t until later, in the caravan park behind the pub, that I talk to them and learned their plight. They had broken down crossing the Barkly Tablelands from Tennant Creek and had been towed to Camooweal where the local mechanic discovered the burned out points. It has taken four days so far for the part to be shipped, presumably from Brisbane via Mt Isa. But I reckon points for a Ford should be so common they grow on gum trees. I have a suspicion that there is a dark, outback conspiracy amongst the Camoowealeans to keep the frauliens in town for as long as possible. Reason? They must be the best looking sheilas by far, to have spent this much time in this one horse town. But that is just me thinking bad thoughts. Whatever, I don’t want to wait here while they conspire to “fix” our dodgy battery or starter motor. We are out of here!
We get a push start from a couple of fellow travellers in the caravan park and drive across the road to the Shell Station where I have to shut off the engine to fill up. After filling the tank, we push Winnie across the oily forecourt and jump start her on the slope down to the highway. The road ahead is dead flat and virtually uninhabited so I can’t turn the engine off, at least until we reach Barkly Homestead Roadhouse, 260 kms to the west!
It is 8.00am and it’s a lonely road. Even the normally active wildlife is strangely absent. As we get into the swing of the journey we see just how vast this land is. The road vanishes to a point on the horizon, both ahead of and behind us. It defies space and time. I sit with my foot steady on the accelerator, 80 kms an hour, maximum speed, and after a while I feel that I could step from the moving vehicle, walk about outside, then get on board again without any harm, so unchanging is the landscape.
We pass Avon Downs, a cattle ranch with a remote police station attached, about 50kms out of Camooweal. The cop shop seems to serve no purpose other than to reassure travelers by its presence in this stark wilderness. Once out of Avon Downs the road trains begin to appear on the highway. One dissolves out of the horizon, quivering in the distance like some kind of trembling monster, its height and shape doubled and distorted by the blue mirage that taunts us on the road far ahead. Then it begins to take shape, turning from a blob into a vehicle, then into a huge Kenworth with headlights blazing against the rising sun ahead of it. We close our windows as it passes. Winnie is buffeted and rocked by the slipstream and then the road ahead is once again an empty, watery knife blade. It is a similar experience when a road train overtakes us. At first, I can’t tell, in our convex rear mirror, what is behind us until it materialises out of the watery mirage. Then I watch it draw nearer, playing a game of “guess how long it will take to overtake us.”
It takes about 15 minutes after it appears on the horizon for it to reach us, then it fills our side mirrors like a leviathan about to gobble us up. I mentally urge it to overtake, and when it does it feels like a freight train beside us, one, two, three and then four trailers long, and for a moment we are sucked along in the slipstream, before it quickly puts asphalt between us, and 20 minutes later I see it melt into that watery lake in the distant future. Later in the morning, we are overtaken by two road trains traveling in convoy and it feels like we are going to be tossed off the road by the air they displace as they roar past us.
Day of the Locust
We will never forget our introduction to locusts. The first insect is a shock. It flies out of nowhere, like a rock, and bangs into the side of the Winnebago. Then another crashes into the windscreen and explodes in a puss-yellow splatter of slime, the large, winged creature slides down the windscreen and rests on the wiper blade, then another hits and another and we see them jumping up from the road in front like little kamikazi ninjas. The noise they make as they pepper the front of Winnie is like machine gun bullets – bang, bang, bang, bang, bang - staccato percussion that ends in horrific carnage. The windscreen is smeared with yellow slime and I frantically squirt the screen wash and run the wipers before the yellow blood of the suicidal insects blanks out our view completely. We hastily wind up our windows before they can fly in, but one fat locust is sucked through the last inch of space in my window and hits me on the mouth. I get a taste of it as it bounces onto the floor where I stomp it to death with my bare foot. It tastes like pungent, bitter shit. Sheila screams and for the next five minutes we swealter in the stifling heat of the sealed cab, suffocating on the terrible aroma of locust. Then the cloud is gone and the road is again clear.
A hundred kilometres further on and a car materialises out of the mirage. As it nears us the driver flashes his lights at us and as he passes he waves at us to slow down. I know what he means. We seal our windows and then the first locust of this new wave slams into us and the whole nightmarish attack happens again. “Oh Mike, this is terrible,” says Sheila. “Yes, no doubt about it, it is indeed terrible.”
At the tiny oasis of Barkly Homestead we stop for compulsory fuel. The forecourt of the petrol station is carpeted with dead and injured locusts, scraped from the grills of other cars. I use a stick to gouge the yellow winged bodies from the nooks and crannies of our truck. Some of the little devils are still alive and drag themselves desperately along the ground on broken cricket legs before expiring.
We refuel, eat, drink sub-standard coffee, and with some help from other travellers, push start Winnie and re-enter the dead-straight strip of hot asphalt that is the final 200 kilometres to Three Ways Junction and nearby Tennant Creek. We count off each 10km marker, straining our gaze far ahead along the watery highway in anticipation of spotting the next little green sign. We are like hungry, bored kids, desperately seeking the next McDonalds. Then a Billboard proclaiming the 'excellent facilities' of the Tennant Creek Caravan Park appears. It’s like the olive branch floating on the waters after the Deluge. Then another sign excites us even more with its message of abundant auto parts and mechanical services. Colourful and exciting billboards line the last few kilometres into town. The "Welcome to Tennant Creek" sign brings great beamy smiles to our dusty faces. Like explorers of old we feel a sense of achievement and relief after crossing this vast wilderness in a 30 year old, stop-start, rattling Winnebago. We ride our covered wagon, complete with its yellow locust strikes, proudly along the wide, main street, past sun-baked shop fronts that all appear shut; past vacant lots that have been taken over by the council estate tower blocks that are termite mounds. At the “Thank You For Visiting Tennant Creek” sign, we chuck a hasty U-ey and drive back through town on the other side of the road,in search of a place to stop for the night. As much as we would like to pull over and water the horses, we can’t stop just yet, the bloody car won’t start again if we do.