Words by Olive Cooke.
I’ll be honest, driving through the middle of Australia was something I had never planned to do.
So when Tim and Ed from Lagoon Collective asked if I would help them drive a friend’s car 4,811km from the Northern Territory to New South Wales, my answer was, “Fuck. I suppose this is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ trips that you never wanted to do, but will forever be grateful that you did. So yes.”
Darwin was hot as hell with large, beautiful homes set between tall palms and overgrown, tropical gardens. The main beach was picturesque with no one on it, and for good reason. In Darwin you can’t swim anywhere but your backyard pool, otherwise you will be at one with the crocodiles.
We took a quick tour of the town by foot then boarded the Jumping Crocodile Cruise, which skips along the Adelaide River, home to over 7000 crocs. We were told stories of people being attacked while our guide dangled dead chickens over the side of our boat.
Moving on in the direction of Pine Creek, we passed wild horses under an amazing sunset until it was dark. We pulled in to Pussy Cat Flats campgrounds and enjoyed a dinner of chilli beef jerky and beer. Campground owner Sharon, along with her husband and a few of their veteran campers, gave us hot tips on where to stay and where not to, amongst other crass conversation and the spearing of a cane toad.
At Mataranka Springs the next day, I felt we were on the set of a strange film. Naturally heated, turquoise springs were set amongst palm trees, still smoking from council burnings. An oasis amidst the driest desert and literally in the middle of nowhere, like a mirage brought on from heat exhaustion.
A local dealer offered us a joint but we had other plans. Tim picked up a few drinks for the road from one of the least inviting pubs I’ve ever seen, and five hours later we arrived at Renner Springs Roadhouse.
Surrounded by peacocks, we filled up the car with fuel at $1.90 per litre and decided to stay the night. Hats, caps, beanies, stickers, magnets and children’s fluffy toys decorated the inside of the bar where we sat, drank beer and ate questionable pub food. The outside beer garden was decorated with cane toads and the blood from a snake that a chef had chased out of the kitchen and killed the night before.
By morning we were back on the road, with 666km until Alice Springs. Passing through town, we scored a breakfast of homemade dumplings and hot sauce from a couple on the side of the road.
We made a stop at the Devils Marbles. Karlu Karlu, the traditional name for these monstrous, granite rocks balanced atop one another, literally translates to ‘round boulders’. The indigenous people believe they are the eggs of the rainbow serpent.
Wycliffe – the UFO capital of Australia – was little more than a service station, campground and a makeshift museum. The museum walls were covered in newspaper clippings with headlines reading, “Sex starved emu could get lucky” and “Alien fantasy off the planet”. We had a drink, checked out the alien in a glass cabinet and then got the fuck out of there.
In Alice Springs the nightlife was epic. A quick visit to a bar down the road and we ended up back at our campsite. We met a few locals, one of whom had recently returned from a buck’s party. “If my mate’s wife doesn’t play guitar on their wedding day, we’ll fuckin’ cut ‘er tits off.”
There was talk of split personalities and of the Northern Territory being home to all that are running away from something. We were also filled in on Lady Dee, the local pool champion who could sink more beer and balls than anyone else. They called her The Vortex because everyone gets sucked in. Tim bought her a drink, Jacks and Coke.
We were headed to the heart of Australia: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, sacred to the indigenous Anangu people. Uluru has many Dreamtime stories detailing its creation. It is thought to represent the physical evidence of the Anangu’s original ancestors; the spirit people’s time on this earth.
I was in charge of picnic snacks again. Hot sauce and corn chips. We spent way too much money on a bottle of wine and started straight towards Uluru to catch the sunset.
A dry storm was brewing overhead, creating clouds of dark blue contrasted against deep orange sand and yellow grass which danced in the breeze. Cameras down, we sat and sipped in silence. In front of us, over 600 million years old, was the centre of culture, ritual and Dreamtime belief. Uluru was beautiful.
4:30am wake up. Tim had selected his best camel costume, a white on white combination, and we were off. We arrived at a nearby farm, home to over 60 camels as well as a fully functioning saddlery, mini racetrack, windmill and walls of camel-based souvenirs.
And there we were, 5.51am on a string of camels watching the sun rise over the most iconic natural monument of Australia. We were literally in a postcard.
The town of Coober Pedy was made up of derelict car yards, rundown homes, front gardens of burnt-out trucks and dusty roads leading to bizarre opal museums.
We had been recommended to check out Fay’s underground home, an iconic dugout in town. Fay had recently passed away but her memory as one of the first to promote tourism in Coober Pedy lived on through her hand-dug abode. It took her and two lady friends almost 10 years to complete. Five bucks a head scored us a guided tour of the three bedroom, underground lair, complete with walk in robes, kitchen, living room, wine cellar, bar and indoor pool.
Our night was again spent with a few bottles of wine – one per person by law – this time perched on the lookout atop our underground hotel. We sat listening to the abusive disputes happening below or to dogs barking at the occasional passing headlight. Of all the beautiful places we had passed through, deciding to stay an extra night in Coober Pedy was perfect. It was weird and interesting, beautiful and creepy; dead yet alive.
Flat plains of dust with apparently no end were suddenly broken by the largest salt lake that we had ever seen. Almost blinding white in the 40-something degree heat, Lake Hart was worth the stop. We pulled over and stretched our legs, crunching across the hard salt.
Another day of driving, of towns getting bigger and more civilised, with more people and more cars as we headed towards Sydney.
Pulling into Bondi, it’s crazy to think how big and remote this country is. Crocodiles, flies and red dust, piss-heads and bogans, cane toads, culture and history. Like a whole other world, the deeper you get the weirder and more wonderfully beautiful Australia becomes. When a bit of rain makes your day or playing pool with The Vortex makes your night, Darwin to Sydney is a tick on a bucket list I never knew I had.
Hot Sauce Highway featuring:
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