A gang of friends drive up the spine of Australia, where the country opens silent and wide, and other people come in and out of focus like mirages. By Oliver Mol.

Into the Red Centre

Oliver and his fellow travellers walk on Lake Eyre.
Oliver and his fellow travellers walk on Lake Eyre.
Credit: The Adventure Handbook

We were in this car park outside a Woolworths on the outskirts of Adelaide. The idea was to drive from Adelaide to Alice Springs, part of a project my friends and I call The Adventure Handbook. We wanted to meet local people, to document a different country, our interior, the Australia promised to us in the movies, the one we’d heard about but had never really seen.

It felt good to be there, the sun overhead. To be loading our car with food so we could sustain ourselves and not die like a bunch of city kids forgetting who we were.

We pulled out of the car park. I was already missing my girlfriend. Ryan and Molly were in the back seat and they’d drawn up a pencil map shaded in yellow and pink and brown. Perspective drifted back and forth. Lake Eyre looked something like a winking eye. Our journey was a dotted red line meandering through the centre of the country.

I stared at the map and wondered about the people who lived in the Red Centre. I messaged my girlfriend and said, “Maybe leaving reception soon, heh. Love you!” At some point, the road became a highway. Fast-food joints became houses became farmland. We passed a lake, somewhere before Snowtown, and I thought: goodbye, goodbye.

Except we didn’t get very far. I’d drunk maybe two litres of water in 30 minutes because I’d read that hydration was important in the desert. We stopped and I ran out of the car and pissed on a fence. When I got back, Luke and Ben were doing something beneath the car. Turns out we’d run over a nail. Like, somehow, we’d run over a nail in the middle of Snowtown. There it was, wedged in the tread of the tyre.

I asked Ryan if he knew how to change a tyre and he looked at me like a person who didn’t. He said “Do you?” and I shook my head. We laughed. We began singing, “We learning as we go/we just learning as we go.”

That night we didn’t make it to the Flinders Ranges. We’d spent too much time changing the tyre. Getting the tyre fixed. Looking for a hubcap we’d lost somewhere. With the sun going down, we found a campsite for $50. After driving into a creek, sort of getting bogged, getting un-bogged, setting up tents, watching tents fall down, figuring out how to set up a tent, we made a fire and cooked a vegie stew, accidentally replacing curry powder with “hot madras” instead.

I realised we had no idea what we were doing.

The next morning we reached the Flinders Ranges. Large rocks touched a blue sky and surrounded a valley that looked like Texas. We pulled up over a lookout and saw an old man – a tour operator, maybe – speaking to two tourists. Ryan wanted to slide across the bonnet of our car in his underwear like they do in the movies. So he did.

Then the tour operator said, “How’s the driving going?” and we said, “Good.” He said, “Yeah, sometimes we get city kids out this way and they don’t know how to drive on these unsealed roads.” Then he winked. A slow wink that became a smile. Driving off, he said, “Be careful.”

We stayed there two nights. Each night, falling asleep, there was a dead silence. The kind of silence you can hear yourself in. The kind of silence when you’re the only people around.

We came out of the Flinders Ranges and the mountains and the trees dropped away and everything flattened. This unpaved road, the Oodnadatta Track, with us travelling along it, and nothing in front of us for miles and miles. I kept checking my iPhone for reception because I wanted to message my girlfriend. I wanted to tell her about the openness and the nothing and the air. I wanted to tell her I loved her. That I wished we were together. Here. With nothing around.

We stopped at a roadhouse because we needed wood to make a fire later. A woman called Sally told us to get wood from the Old Ghan Railway, the tracks that ran, until 1980, from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. So we walked into the desert and found some old sleepers and carried them back to the car.

We continued driving, with the sun in the distance, and maybe once an hour we’d pass someone coming the other way. Eventually we reached Lake Eyre. We walked on the lake and watched our shadows stretch out before us, the four o’clock sun coming down overhead.

That night we camped at Coward Springs, an old settlement and railway station. We cooked vegetarian pasta and ate it around the fire. It was the night of the supermoon and we could see so far. Midnight, and all the way to the horizon. I began wondering if we would meet anyone from the outback. Not tourists but locals. As I looked out there wasn’t anyone in any direction. There wasn’t anything but flat land and shrubs and sky.

We reached Coober Pedy and it felt weird to be around people. To see people walking around, shopping, eating food. We checked into Radeka Downunder, this motel that, like most of the town, had its rooms built underground. Some of us showered. Some of us didn’t. I was so tired I lay down and fell asleep.

The next morning Luke told me he’d met someone we should interview. His name was Gary. Gary managed the pub next door and we sat down and asked about his life. He lit a cigarette. He said, “I moved here 23 years ago to get some opal and then move on … but I forgot to move on, didn’t I.”

He told us how he’d been in Fremantle and how his friend kept telling him about the opals so he thought he’d come take a look. He smiled and said, “I had nothing better to do.” I asked him if his family visited him much and he let out a long no: “I’ve been hiding from my family out here for 20 years.”

He told us how he had a female friend back in Fremantle who caused more trouble than anything and how he still had a daughter in Nimbin and how his daughter’s mum still lived in Perth and how they spoke on the internet sometimes. He told us about this miner who died falling 30 metres headfirst through a corrugated iron seal to the bottom of a mineshaft. He told us how he liked working every day, at the pub, because it kept him out of trouble. He laughed a big laugh and then he walked inside.

Over the next four days people began appearing again. Tourists mostly. People like us, crossing into the Northern Territory. And it was beautiful. Hiking around Kata Tjuta. Uluru at sundown. Kings Canyon. Rainbow Valley at last light against an almost pink sky. Walking with them I thought about how we had wanted to meet local people. How we wanted to find out what they were doing.

Driving towards Alice Springs I remembered how leaving Coober Pedy we met a group of Aboriginal people. We asked if we could take their photo. We explained we were taking photos of people while travelling through the outback. They agreed. They asked if we could buy them a case of beer in exchange. They said they couldn’t buy the case of beer because of the alcohol laws. And we did. We did because people are people. And maybe the police would tell us we did the wrong thing. But I also don’t think it’s for us or the police to say.

We drove through the night. When we arrived in Alice Springs, the sky was still dark. We passed the casino and saw maybe 50 or 60 people wearing singlets and shorts. Jumping up and down together. Stretching. Ready for a contest. We pulled over and watched everyone line up. I closed my eyes thinking this wasn’t real, this illusion: everyone shoulder to shoulder, behind the same line. And I kept them closed because I didn’t know what else to do. I heard the race begin: the sound of a gun, and people cheering.

Later, I realised it was the Alice Springs Marathon, which starts in the pre-dawn before the heat becomes too much. Before the country becomes unbearable and bright and real.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 18, 2014 as "Stuck in the middle".

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