After a few days waiting around for people to return from Outback tours, a car crammed full of backpackers (myself included) and their luggage (mine included) laboured off on the long road to the east coast – a cheaper and faster method of transport than the bus (the timetable for which had apparently been designed with inconvenience in mind). We ran into a spot of bother almost immediately when the owner of the car realised that she had locked the boot keys in the boot (thankfully not the ignition keys) – we removed the back seats to try and get in, but found metal plates barring the way. Stopping at the next town to talk to the local mechanics, we found (by a gigantic stroke of good fortune) a similar spare key in the panel shop, popped the boot open and retrieved the keys with relatively little delay – the day’s big delay was yet to come. Just out of Tennant Creek (where we’d found our well-equipped mechanics), we turned onto the east coast road and saw a camper van on its side in the midle of the road – we were third on the scene at a pretty large crash and stopped to help (there’s very little traffic in the Outback). A couple of backpackers had somehow managed to flip their van twice, tearing the roof off and scattering their possessions all over the road – the driver was slightly injured, and while her boyfriend searched for insurance documents muttering about women drivers we busied ourselves cleaning the carriageway up and using a winch to get the van out of the way. With the ambulance coming from the nearest town and a nurse in attandance (who’d also been passing) we set off again at a slightly more sober pace.
The Outback is big, empty, remote and unforgiving – there was little traffic as we headed steadily eastwards other than the ubiquitous and slightly dangerous road trains (fast-moving lorries towing three or four trailers, generating enormous slipstream). We didn’t drive at night due to the very real danger of hitting a kangaroo – our common sense had been given a severe jolt after seeing the accident and experiencing the Outback for ourselves. On the final morning, I was driving – and so we went on roadkill patrol. Hundreds, if not thousands, of kangaroos are killed every day on Australia’s roads, and they’re not small animals. The bodies (and subsequent carrion birds) pose a significant hazard to other traffic, and (more importantly) a joey can survive for up to three days in its mother’s pouch – motorists are supposed to stop if they hit or see a kangaroo, but rarely do. And so it was that I spent a few hours keeping an eye out for last night’s casualties, running back down the road to drag them off to the verge (usually by the tail) and checking for any surviving offspring (none). Thankfully, we had wipes and antibacterial handwash in the car.
We rolled into Townsville at lunchtime, and the others dropped me off as they were heading north to Cairns (I later ran into the car owner, who told me that they’d crashed just outside of the city and had had to return). With the weather tropical once again, I took the ferry out to Magnetic Island and was mildly disappointed to find that it wasn’t magnetic at all (apparently some explorer’s compass had gone strange there). Other than the languid beaches and relatively tame wildlife, I was there to check out the snorkelling – it wasn’t the Barrier Reef proper, but the same ecosystem (and national park) and a far less nausea-inducing journey. The water was clean and clear, the coral exotic and the fishes curious – and not a single shark in sight, despite Australia’s reputation in the UK as some kind of all-you-can-eat diver buffet. Best of all, there were very few other tourists and I had the reef in the bay all to myself.
I escaped the island before the full moon party could kick off (actually a blue moon, so it might have been extra riotous) and boarded my final (hopefully) long-distance express to back Brisbane – the place I started at and, fittingly, the place from where I’d leave to head out to New Zealand. The city is as I remember it, and I have a few days to leisurely do the museums and galleries justice, read guidebooks in the library and generally chill out before flying on to the windswept hills of Middle-Earth.