Are you taking a gun?” I lost track of how many times I was asked that question in the lead -up to my camping trip into central Australia. “For what?” I would say. “Um, snakes? Dingoes?
And it will be so … dark.” A pause, then, inevitably, “And what about, you know, that guy from Wolf Creek?”
Snakes, dingoes, darkness and sadistic psychopaths. The first three I get – atavistic fears probably hard-wired into our psyches. The last? Well, that bloody movie was a constant reference point in discussions of my trip. I resent the long, dark shadow it casts over our imaginations, at least of those of my generation, feeding and commodifying our horror of tragedies like the Falconio and Belanglo backpacker murders.
“Well,” said a Tinder date when I told him of my plans, “I’ll be sure to keep my eye on the news so I know when they find your body.” Charming.
I’d be damned if I would let that fear and, let’s face it, fearmongering, stop me from seeing my own country on my own terms. I would travel north-west from Sydney into central Australia and return through western Queensland mostly on unsealed roads and I would camp in the bush in defiance of any bogeyman.
I did not make the trip unprepared. I’m lucky to have a good vehicle – a battered but apparently unstoppable old Prado. A couple of days spent on a four-wheeldrive training course was a confidence booster and a few afternoons practising changing tyres and learning the daily engine check came in handy.
I borrowed an emergency beacon and backup battery charger and rented a satellite phone. I took enough water to fill a swimming pool and an assortment of old camping equipment. A supportive ex-partner and parents meant my fouryear-old son would be in safe and loving hands. With a cold meatloaf from Mum and various last-minute bits of string and rope from Dad, I was ready to roll.
On that first night I kept the shovel close by my swag. There’s nothing like midnight rustlings to provoke terrifying imaginings. But I was determined to resist succumbing. And, to my delight, not much determination was required. Each night, as I snuggled into my cosy layers, I didn’t feel afraid. I felt thrilled.
There I was, deep in the outback, under a sky blazing with stars, profoundly alone. Not lonely-and-scared alone, but independently, confidently alone.
It is a unique feeling and I came to relish it. And then, suddenly, I’d be asleep, exhausted from driving those dusty, corrugated roads. In the mornings, the red dirt around my swag would be covered in a fine tracery of fresh tracks. The delicate marks filled me with wonder at the thought of the tiny animals that must make them.
Humbled to have been in their midst, undisturbed, I started to realise that I was not actually the centre of the universe. Nothing was out to get me. Nothing was even remotely bothered with me. I had a little chuckle at my own self-importance and packed the shovel away.
My next-closest encounter with native wildlife was, unfortunately, not such a happy one. The pair of emus came out of the proverbial nowhere. I braked hard on the gravel but, as I’d been taught, didn’t swerve. It wouldn’t have helped anyway, and cars are rolled that way. The impact was substantial – one emu ran on but its partner lay on the road behind me. Swearing and sweating with distress, I saw it pathetically trying to lift its broken body. Running back over it, as I now had to do, was as horrible as it sounds.
It was a moment when I was intensely aware of my part in a long history of destructive forces in this country. It made me more determined to leave as little footprint as possible. I thought of my mum who, when camping, would get out of the car to fluff up the grass flattened by tyres. Futile perhaps, but I always admired that affectionate gesture made to the country and tried to emulate it in my own travels.
I had a few other heart-in-throat moments, along with many hours of peaceful exploring and meditative long-distance driving. On one occasion, a herd of brumbies clattered down the bank just metres from my camp and splashed into the river. The ground shook but the sight of those wild horses in the moonlight was one I will never forget.
Less poetic but just as exciting was getting bogged in the sand of the Finke River Gorge. Stranded, I could feel the panic rising. So I did what my 4WD instructor had suggested and got a ginger beer out of the esky and sat in the shade to think. A few hours later, with the tyres reduced to airless pancakes and my hands blistered from digging, I made a triumphant escape. There was much celebratory whooping for the next couple of kilometres.
The only time I felt anything like fear was when I arrived late into Boulia and had to get a room at the hotel. I had a quick beer and apart from the woman behind the bar, I was the only female in a very packed pub. None of those blokes were in any way rude or threatening. But they were there. That night I slept with a chair under the door handle of my room. Overreaction? Perhaps. But it felt as natural as making sure my campfire was out when I was sleeping in the bush.
Mostly I just felt intensely present and skin-tinglingly alive. I walked around Uluru in the morning light, feeling the rock hum and vibrate with energy and life. I swam in clear billabongs, herons watching over me, finches darting back and forth. I boiled the billy under heavy skies on the Oodnadatta Track and slipslided my way across the rain-slick mud of the Painted Desert. I swore at my tent as the wind thwarted my efforts to peg it down. I listened to audio books and Aussie rock as the kilometres ticked by. I gazed at kangaroos who gazed back at me. I drank red wine by the fire on the banks of Cooper Creek.
And 7000 kilometres later, I rolled back into Bondi, my old Prado covered in red dirt, my R. M. Williams boots battered, and my cup well and truly overflowing. No gun necessary.