A Race Among the ‘Roos

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | February 10, 2010

When a road train approaches in the silence of an Australian night, it sounds like a giant, primeval beast growling with vast power across an open plain.  Non-sentient living things probably turn their heads in the direction of the noise and instinctively react to a potential new predator cast loose upon the land.  I had seen these trucks thundering across the Nullarbor during the day and felt their windy tug as they passed me going the other direction on the motorcycle but I had not yet heard a road train making passage in the dead of night.

A road train at rest

A road train at rest

Road trains are Australia’s solution to dealing with unpopulated regions and distant cities in need of life’s essentials.  They are tractor-trailers, (semi-trucks in the U.S.), pulling anywhere from three to six 44 foot trailers.  The larger versions tend to travel the Stuart Highway up through the continent’s empty middle from Melbourne to Alice Springs and Darwin.  They also carry cattle and ore along the Great Northern Highway, which borders the Kimberly, a region known for natural resources and cattle stations.  The trucks are banned from population centers but they thrive like ancient creatures in the open spaces of the Outback, carrying products from the port cities on the coast to inland communities thousands of miles from the contemporary world.

We began to see a few of the road trains entering the highways from mining sites in Western Australia as we made our way eastward across the continent on motorcycles.  I did not get to closely scrutinize one of these rigs until our first stop on the Eyre Highway at Balladonia, a roadhouse that once became an international dateline when a piece of Sky Lab fell to earth not far from where the diesel pumps are located.  Inside the roadhouse, the proprietor has set up a small museum to commemorate the moment obscurity dissipated for his little spot of the universe.  The centerpiece of the exhibition is a mockup of the Sky Lab debris with U.S. and NASA insignia and a satellite dish on the side of the panel that looked like it was placed there by DirectTV.

Fake Sky Lab debris at the Balladonia Road House

Fake Sky Lab debris at the Balladonia Road House

“I think the dish looks a little too real to have made it through a burning re-entry,” I told Jack.

“Yeah, probably not real.  But then neither is the camel.”

I went over and looked at a mockup of a camel that used a low-grade carpeting for fake fur.  If the camels roaming the Outback ever stumble into the Balladonia roadhouse to see how they have been caricatured, there will likely be an ocean of humped warriors bound for the nation’s civic centers to seek their revenge.

“So, the Sky Lab chunk’s real, eh?” Jack smirked at the proprietor as I paid for our gas.

“Oh sure it is,” he laughed.  “And if you believe that there’s a bridge in Sydney I’d like to sell you for scrap iron.”

“NASA came and grabbed the real deal, I reckon?”

“You wouldn’t believe how fast they got here,” he said.

As he rang me up, I noticed a sign in front of the register that said, “Yes, we sell bread.”  I thought it was odd that such a proclamation had to be made but my guess is there are issues with freshness as bread is transported thousands of kilometers.  In a later stop that day, I discovered an entire freezer devoted to loaves of white bread.

“Do you sell bread?”  Jack, making another one of his easily misinterpreted attempts at humor, asked the cashier.

“Yes, we do.  You need a loaf?”

“No.  I guess not.  Just wondered.”

Crossing the Outback, however, a question that does not occur to anyone is where can I find a loaf of bread.  I assume, though, if you live in the wide out yonder that does become an issue.

Back out on the highway, I ducked behind the low windscreen every time one of the multi-wheeled monsters peeled past and then kept a wary eye on the tarmac for kangaroo carcasses.  Before renting the BMW 1300, the agent had warned me several times not to ride at early dawn or dusk because the ‘roos are about and hitting one on a motorcycle is inconvenient.  Road trains, however, roll all night with huge bumpers and do not slow down for the animals that are drawn to the warmth of the pavement that is heated by the sun.  Riding during the day, we were compelled to watch for dead ‘roos and the great birds feeding on the carrion.

We fought the summer time easterly wind and ended our ride that day at Nundroo on the eastern edge of the Nullarbor.  We appeared to have found another tough spot where more people passed than stopped and a bit of paint and some updated furniture could have changed the world.  As tired as we were, we asked the proprietress to show us rooms and give us prices.  She grabbed a key and walked us toward a low structure with one car parked in front of a faded door and a broad, window with no drapes.

“This is one of our better rooms,” she said as she opened the door.  “It’s 90 dollars a night.”

I did not want to see one of the “lesser” accommodations.  A bureau with edges scraped bare from years of use was along one wall in front of two sagging single beds.  A portable TV with about a 10 inch screen that appeared to be early 80s technology was poised on the edge of the bureau and was either gray when it left the factory or colored by time.  I did not cast my eyes to the carpeting.

“I think we’ll save our money for dinner in your restaurant and just camp in the caravan park,” I said.

“Yeah, I don’t blame you,” she said.

Rooey II at a roadhouse

Rooey II at a roadhouse

We had a decent meal in the restaurant and spoke with a few of the backpackers working at the Nundroo Roadhouse.  Because employees are difficult to keep in the rural parts of Australia, the country offers extended visas to traveling students that agree to remain on a job at a tough location for a longer period of time.  The two working the evening shift were a charming girl with a Scottish brogue and a whip-thin boy of about 6 feet 5 inches, who clearly had a crush on the only girl within a two-day’s drive.  I saw him in the morning as he was opening doors to mop the restroom floors.  He looked crestfallen but there was no way to know if it was because of the task before him in this marginalized existence or if his dreams had been busted during the previous night.

Just before nightfall, we got our tents up and watched the rising cloud tops a hundred miles south along the Southern Ocean.  Darkness highlighted the lightning flashing in the storm as it raged along the Great Australian Bight.  The stars directly above wheeled in a brilliant clarity against the light of a gibbous moon.  Australia’s sky is close and familiar to people living beneath it and at times it can feel almost tangible and within human grasp.  But it is not; it is only more darkly beautiful and mystifying.

The few campers nearby went quiet early, tired from the endless road, and I watched electricity brighten the clouds as the storm drifted closer.  Another band of showers began to illuminate the horizon to the west and I envisioned our little tents being borne off on mighty winds.  When I finally surrendered the night to nature, I fell asleep without effort.  There was utter silence outside in a perfect spot between two storms, until I was awakened by the first of the night’s road trains.

The sound was initially recognizable as being distant and I thought of the stories I had heard through the years about tornadoes.  Australia does not have tornadoes, I am told, and when I stuck my head out the tent door I saw a light glimmering just above the bush line to the east as a road train approached in full throttle.  The noise made an increasing crescendo, a blaring and unhesitating waaaahhhhh with a decibel level that could only leave the dead undisturbed….or Jack.  In about 90 seconds, the Doppler drop off of the rolling thunder was barely audible as the road train moved toward Perth or Kalgoorlie or Port Hedland or Broome or some other distant town in need of 21st century fundamentals.

I could not keep myself from wishing I was going along for the ride.

2 Comments for this entry

  • John Larsen

    I’m jealous. Has your sphincter turned to leather yet? Bag Balm and powder… Ride safe, I’ll stay tuned

  • ANDREW WEARY

    DETAILS ARE JUST ENOUGH TO FEEL LIKE WE’RE THERE WITH YOU BUT NOT TOO MUCH OVERLOAD. ANY MORE WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS? MAKES THE BIG BEND FEEL LIKE CENTRAL PARK! –TIO ANDRES

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