Paul Keating, former Australian PM, he who was famous outside Australia mostly for 2 things; a breach of royal protocol when he put his arm round the Queen in 1992, and for trying and failing to turn Australia into a Republic – presumably so he wouldn’t be given an opportunity to give Her Majesty a Royal kiss on the lips next time. However, he has a way with words, and he captured the view of an entire city and pissed off the rest of Australia when he noted that “if you don’t live in Sydney, you’re just camping out”.
We decided to take him at his word. Having been living in Sydney for the past 14 months, we figured that it was time to shake off the traffic and the tourists and ‘go walkabout’ for a while. But this wasn’t some weekend camping jaunt or two-week holiday caper. No. A brief look at a map of Australia convinced us that this was a big country – and needed some serious time to explore. We figured a year might be about right.
A second look at the map, and the discovery that lots of the roads aren’t actually ‘roads’ at all, but more like sort-of-tracks-across-the-desert that other vehicles, or at least camels have ventured onto once or twice, made us realise that our trusty Toyota Corolla probably wasn’t the vehicle of choice for the adventure. So, with that in mind, we invested in a Land Rover Discovery, a tent, lots of insect repellent, pyjamas for the dogs, a hat for Bailey and the entire stock of the local Icebreaker outlet store.
While the Discovery is a highly rated 4WD vehicle, the problem is that the interior is designed mostly for mum to ferry multiple children to school, football practice, piano lessons etc rather than 2 dogs and a year’s worth of camping clobber around Australia. Fortunately, a quick look online led us to “Daniel” who came highly recommended as someone who could help us get the Discovery a little bit more expedition-ready.
Daniel, who mostly focuses on cutting the roofs off Land Rover Defenders and kitting them out to make them suitable hard-core expedition vehicles for people who probably wrestle salt-water crocodiles for fun, listened politely as we explained that we needed a special platform for our two dogs, Bailey & Saffy. The platform, we explained, had to be high enough so they could look out of the windows, but low enough so they didn’t bump their heads on the roof. He even managed to keep his look of professional expertise as we lifted Bailey in and out of the Land Rover to measure the precise ‘head room’ required of a fully-grown Wheaten Terrier when going on a long expedition. But whatever private misgivings he may have had over these strange requests, his advice and knowledge where invaluable, and before long, we had our vehicle with roof rack, cabinetry for multiple crates, and of course, the plush dog seating and viewing area (with storage underneath).
If there is one word that captures the challenge of trying to pack your life into a storage unit and a car, then it has to be the word ‘gubbins’. Gubbins are the bits and pieces that defy any form of categorisation; they are what remains when you have packed everything into boxes with labels such as ‘Kitchen box one’ or ‘Pantry box two’. No matter how much you organise and categorise your possessions and no matter how many different boxes you prepare, you will always be left with a pile of items which you can’t bear to leave behind, and which have no official ‘home’ in your carefully created packing system. The tape measure, the compass or the little travel-sized shoe cleaning kit that you were given last Christmas. You know you just can’t leave home without them – but where to put them? Of course, in the end, they get stuffed into the corners of the car, balanced precariously on top of the camping chairs or wedged behind seats with the coats and the half-finished packet of biscuits that you also couldn’t bear to part with.
But once all the gubbins has been stowed, the corners stuffed and the neatly stacked camping chairs layered with uncatalogued and uncataloguable paraphernalia, then there really is no excuse but to depart. So we did.
“How long have we been on the Road?”
Australia is big. For those of us who grew up in a country where you can get more or less from one end to the other in a day, even having lived here for a while, the distances take some getting used to. We spent the first travelling day just returning to our old haunt of Canberra and Yass, pausing to catch up for dinner with our former neighbours from when we lived in the area, together with our previous landlords who were probably slightly surprised to learn how much we still yearn for their house in Murrumbateman, particularly as they are quite fond of it themselves.
Having congratulated ourselves on getting through day 1, it was time to really get going. As we headed west, and then north, the landscape slowly morphed from pasture to scrub, to the fertile wetlands of the Murray basin, then back to scrub and finally to the desert vegetation of the centre. The colour of the earth also changed from brown, to orange then finally to the dark deep red that Australia’s centre is famous for. By the time we reached Coober Pedy on the fourth day of travelling, we felt that we really had reached the ‘red centre’, with barren landscapes dominated by hardy scrub bushes and red dust that covered every surface.
We paused for a couple of nights to take stock and a few photos, and realise that, despite having done some 2,200 km over the past 4 days, we really haven’t even begun.