Behind the wheel

I didn’t realise how hard my hands were gripping the wheel until about an hour past Karratha. After two years, I had really left Roebourne. I’d just driven outta there in the Landcruiser with 750kgs worth of vintage caravan in tow. This was going to be my life for the next three weeks. Driving from one chapter of my life to the next.

All week I’d been packing and ticking things off lists of things to do now, later or never. I didn’t run one last dance workshop or take a car full of kids to the beach, telling myself I’d go to the disco on Friday night and see all the kids at once. They’d all be there. We could dance. Maybe play musical bobs or make a circle dance or do the bloody heel ‘n toe for the billionth time.

I finished packing the van and rocked up to the 50c Hall. The fluoro lights were on. The kids were already gone.

On the way out the next morning I saw two of the older ladies at the petrol station. We laughed at the old van and they wondered if it’d make it to Canberra. Is 5,000 kilometers too far? They hugged me for longer than usual.

Old mate Chris flew right into the heart of the mining boom, emerging wide eyed from the sea of high vis at Karratha airport. I’d forgotten to tell him that his holiday was gunna be a part of this big museum thing and that we’d be towing a van behind us the whole way.

We drove over 600 kilometres to Coral Bay that first day. We talked about Roebourne, about who we are, about progress, family, capitalism, faith in art and karma and Lennon. We tallied responses to the mate wave – the old two fingers off the steering wheel that can excuse the slowest of drivers. We listened to Paul Kelly, Crowded House, America, Dylan and Springsteen but driving through the darkness it was singing Whitney Houston at the top of our lungs that got us there.

*

In that first caravan park I took a corner too hard and took out a fire hydrant. It dinted the van, made a big noise and water spurted everywhere. Some miners, a few kids and a family with sullen teenage daughters come out to have a gander.  You can’t even hitch your van on without everyone knowing about it in a caravan park. In these little nomadic villages everything is public.

That first morning the village was in full swing by the time I got back from my morning jog along the beach. Gaggles of kids rode bikes, made plans, jumped on the bouncy pillows they found in place of trampolines, kicked footies and toddled too far from their tall humans.  A couple my age walked passed with skinny jeans and takeaway coffees. A small child asked me, “There’s a lot of neighbours here, aren’t there?”

In the next village us novice nomads were once again watched as we reversed the van 5 times then sat in fold out chairs with the bubble wrap still attached. Not that we sat in them much. We splashed out on a snorkelling tour and floated above some massive mantas, marvelling at that whole other world that exists down there. We lazed by a lagoon we’d seen on some postcard but my mind was slow to stop racing. The wind made me uneasy and all the kids back at the park seemed unsettled.

We were always driving or doing, ticking things off the ‘stuff to see’ list. I wasn’t going to be back that way again soon. We knocked off another couple of hundred ks to Hamelin Station. Driving straight through flat unchartered land was strangely familiar. The steady monotony of driving limited our sphere of influence to a steering wheel, a gear stick and some pedals. We calculated the ks we did each day, counted the hours between meals and measured our progress on the map.

That night we looked up at stars and opened our hearts and the universe expanded and contracted but basically stayed the same.

*

Somewhere between the west and south, in between time zones, between getting somewhere and being nowhere, between total strangers, travel acquaintances and friends, grids, roadhouses, servos, lookouts and one street towns, kilometres pass, questionable meals are eaten, Phil Collins CDs and endless ice creams and postcards are purchased, road trains are overtaken and mate waves are reciprocated.

The village awakes with the sun and we head to Monkey Mia to see some dolphins get fed. On the way we talk about the environment and how we’ve become disconnected. Mid-sentence we hit an emu. It’s not dead yet. It makes it to the side of the road and kicks at crows that know its time will come soon.

We watch a while then jump on our phones, calling rangers and wildlife rescue services hundreds of ks away who can’t help. We are told to call the Shire, but “you might not want to wait around to see what they do to it, love…” We wait. I’ve lived through Alice Springs mouse plagues and killed birds and kangaroos with my car in the Pilbara but Chris herds spiders outside. He wishes he had a shovel or an axe or knife or anything but small stones and Spinifex.

We watch that big bird lie still then kick and try to get up, then lie down again. We wait until the Shire man comes. He takes care of it with a crow bar. We drive on in silence.

On a dolphin chasing boat that afternoon we are finally still. We share small talk and chips with some nice Canadians. Chris stands, scouring the horizon. I sit cross-legged in an attempt to meditate but fall to napping pretty quick.

We keep driving. We do not cook a single meal but cruise around small towns each night looking for ambient lighting and vegetables on the menu. Chris bounces on most of the bouncy pillows and whenever we stop he walks or swims or finds a sand dune to run down.

We’re old friends. We’re on holidays. We’re on the road.

I want to freeze time and just stay in the Landcruiser, our little bubble travelling in between time and space. We drive and talk and talk and drive and stop to eat and piss then drive and talk some more and laugh and sometimes sing.

But betwixt and between time and space passing, nothing much happens.

The road bends, the sun sets and the wind picks up again.

Image: Elspeth Blunt

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Elspeth Blunt is an emerging writer, director and community arts and cultural development worker. This piece was written in a 1968 Viscount Ambassador Caravan while on the road with the Big hART project, ‘Museum of the Long Weekend.’ ‘Museum’ was a celebration of recreation and relaxation, with vintage caravans from far-flung corners of the country all converging for a multi-disciplinary installation as part of the Centenary of Canberra. Elspeth also secretly blogs about dating and small town life and currently lives in rural North West Tasmania.

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One Comment

  • Tracy Sorensen commented on July 20, 2015 Reply

    Beautiful piece, Elspeth. I grew up in Carnarvon & just love those endless roads. RIP emu.

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