Trippin'

Trippin' is a collection of travel stories written by a young Australian writer. They talk of the humor of living a life on the fringe, the frustration of being down and out, and the stories of all the people he met along the way. The journey speaks to anybody who has experienced life on the road, or shares a thirst for the freedom that comes with spontaniety and transient living.

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4. The hitchhiker

Occurred - February 2011, Kulgara (Northern Territory, Australia).

It's an undeniable fact that anybody who chooses to embark on a road-trip through Australia's red centre will have some form of chance encounter with a hitch-hiker. For some people (especially a city person like myself), the idea of hitch-hiking would only stretch to what they had seen in a movie or had been told by their parents. More often than not there would be a negative connotation attached to anybody that stood on the side of a road with their thumb out – mainly because you were brought up to think that they were completely insane.

But the truth is that they're out there – especially on the one road that connects Adelaide to Darwin. If anything, they are just another novelty that can be added to a long list of strange attractions that you see when driving north.

But when you are down and out yourself, and low on money, they suddenly don't appear as harmful as they did when you were a child. I had often seen them scattered on the road that connected my small suburb with the next biggest suburb, and always asked my parents what they were doing. At the time I couldn't help but think that they were crazy, especially when thinking about it in hindsight and knowing that they were so close to bus stops and train stations. My parents probably made a good judgement call not to pick these ones up.

But on the drive to Darwin there was nobody to tell us who we should and shouldn't pick up, and at the time we definitely wanted to test the boundaries. But Jake and I had already pushed these limits by (1) deciding to drive to Darwin in the first place, and (2) by deciding to do it with only a couple of hundred dollars to our name.

Luckily, when we left Tasmania we found a transient German back-packer that was more than willing to join us for the trip up north. We had met Yannick on the first day that we had arrived in Cradoc in Tasmania, and spent just under a month with him slavin' under Helen's rule. He was probably the most efficient German back-packer that I had ever come across, even if Germany is already miles more efficient than any other nation in their everyday life.

He had come to Australia with no plans, but had bought a tent, pots and pans to prepare him for any situation that Australia might have thrown at him. Like a complete vagabond he had these pots and pans tied to his backpack, as well as his sturdy walking boots. He found most of his clothes out of the lost and found box in the Tassie hostel and definitely had no problem in rocking out some black business pants and a tight Puma t-shirt all the way across the country.

And so it was in the middle of the Australian desert that the three of us found ourselves. We were crossing the country in a 1990 model Honda Prelude sports car with an esky full of beers and mini diet cokes which Yannick would slam when he was in the drivers seat. The car had essentially been our home for the 2 odd weeks that it took to travel 3,000 kilometres, with only the odd roadhouse separated between 500 kilometres of paved and potholed road to keep us amused.

But this was Australia, and if you wanted to get to Darwin by car you were forced to travel straight through the countries centre. It's a stretch of road that has actually been known to kill humans as well as wildlife, and aside from some dead Kangaroos, a pack or two of stray cows, and some aimlessly roaming Aboriginals there is basically just a whole lot of nothingness. Our small sports car was all that separated the three of us shirtless backpackers from the very serious idea that without ample food, water, petrol and sleep we would most likely die.

This particular day was no different. We had just spend the night pulled over to the side of the road after burning out of Cooper Pedy as fast as we had entered. This is because Cooper Pedy is just a downright terrifying place to find yourself, and there are three simple reasons for this. The first is that over 60% of its inhabitants live in underground houses, making the entire town look like a ghost-town because every house is hidden under huge dirt mounds. The second is because the only people who live there are either Greek or Aboriginal. I found this to be a strange mix, but it actually makes a little sense. The Greeks had arrived decades ago in the hope of mining some opals, but the reality of the situation (which they were quickly realising) was that it was next to impossible to find anything – even in the centre of the country. The fact that the Aboriginals merely co-existed with the Greeks marks probably one of the only places in the world where this would also be a reality.

But the third reason is what made us bust as quickly as we had entered. Unfortunately for the three of us (but especially for Jake and Yannick), we had never been exposed to Aboriginals in such high numbers. And these weren't the ones who were a part of the dumbed down story we received in high school about Australia's history – these were the goon drinking, petrol huffing and drunken violent types who gave you the feeling that something wasn't right. I think Jake was shocked into a reality that he never knew, and even when we got offered a camp-site behind the town Jeweller we knew that we needed to get the hell out of there.

After a night of cooking burgers on a grill we had taken from an old BBQ in Tasmania, we hit the road. We were about 200 kilometres south of the South Australian/Northern Territory boarder when we spotted a rough figure standing on the side of the road. The sun was blazing as per usual, and all that we could see was that it looked like a woman on account of the short shorts and crop top they were wearing. I thought that she was smokin' hot from afar on account of my quite alarmingly poor eyesight. We all gazed as she had her thumb stuck out in true fashion. At that moment I had no problem with attempting to squish her in the back with me, mainly because we hadn't yet seen a hitch-hiker but also because I couldn't help let my imagination run wild.

But as she approached closer and closer her faint outline became more defined. The no hair thing became a reality, but by that point we had already begun pulling over so it was kind of too late to pull back out onto the road and floor it (even if it was kind of what we wanted to do). She murmured a thank-you as we pushed all of our bags on top of each other and moved the esky into the front seat. I moved into the middle and lay down my own towel for her to sit on. This was a bad move – the sweat of a random hitch-hiker is just plain rank. But in any case she squished on in and we continued our journey.

I think the three of us at that point were amazed at how some bald-headed woman could survive on the side of the road with no hat, clothes or money. Well, that's a lie really because she did have clothes - one whole item to be precise. For however long this woman had been waiting on the highway underneath a harsh 45 degree sun that blazed for 18 hours a day all that she needed was some ratty t-shirt stuffed into a plastic bag.

But up until we passed over a slight hill and saw her in the distance none of these issues were even known to us. I think that once we had made the decision to pull over we realised quite quickly that we had made a terrible mistake. Only 5 minutes prior we were cruising, listening to Dead Meadow as loud as possible, banging on an esky for a drum and watching Yannick slam diet cokes.

Life became hard in the back seat. Whilst Jake was driving contently and Yannick was reading his book on British Imperialism I could barely move. With fear that any part of my body would come into contact with her white, scaly and clearly sun-damaged skin I sat as far away from her as possible. I literally just had to sit there gazing into the distance with a glare similar to that of Puddy from Seinfeld.

At one point she fell asleep and naturally I had a cheeky look at her. I studied her pretty intensely. I looked at the faded gecko tattoo that she had on her forearm and also into her well-guarded plastic bag to see if any other little surprises lay in there. I could only see the shirt, with items like a phone or a wallet seeming to be non-existent. It was as if she had had no experiences whatsoever besides being stranded in the outback hoping to catch a lift to Darwin. She never really spoke and we never really found out what she was doing, who was she or where she was going. The only noises I really recall were a couple of screams.

So for 200 kilometres it should be known that I sat there in silence, although sometimes gazing and at other times studying the hitcher beside me. 200 kilometres is a long time, especially for me. I always have to talk, even if it's about shit (which most of the time it is.) I think I would rather wreck my life through saying absolute lies than not talk at all. Actually, I wouldn't rather it but it tends to happen.

But over time I became used to seeing her scaly skin and I was actually starting to come to terms with the fact that she may never leave until we reached Darwin. But that was still over 1000 kilometres away. I started to imagine setting up the tent with her, cooking burgers and drinking beers. Maybe she would become infatuated with us and never want to leave.

Luckily I was brought out of this quick trance as Jake swerved off the road – but this wasn't an unusual occurrence. Driving day in, day out through the outback can take its toll you, especially when there isn't anything to look at besides endless red dirt and one stretch of straight highway.

But fortunately enough we had a system for dealing with it. Whenever Jake's eyes began to close I would always hit him, either from the back-seat or from the passenger seat – where ever I could reach in a good smack, really. In this particular case it was enough to wake him, even if he did swerve off the road, pass the one meter strip of stone that lay on either side of the highway and start heading for the shrubbery. The hitch-hiker didn't approve.

'WHAT THE FUCK!!' She screamed. 'STOP THE FUCKING CAR!! DON'T YOU GUYS KNOW HOW TO DRIVE?!'

I jumped out of my seat higher than I thought was physically possible. We all pissed ourselves laughing as we stopped the car. We just couldn't help it. If some random weird looking Aussie came hurtling into your life, and you stupidly decided to pick them up, tell me you wouldn't be in stitches if you almost killed the poor bitch.

But after all, she wasn't our problem. We were doing her a favour, and as far as we were concerned anything that happened was just part of another experience for all of us. We laughed again stupidly at how serious the situation could have been, and switched drivers.

Yannick jumped on in, fresh as a daisy. But just as a side note it should be pointed out that German's have a ridiculous stamina anyway. They can drive for up to 10 hours and only ever need a bottle of water to keep them energised. I don't know what it is, but somehow they just never get tired.

As we pulled out everything slowly began to return to normal. The tunes were cranked back up, cigarettes were lit and I was back to feeling extremely uncomfortable and bored.

But there was one more thing that made me laugh a little bit inside. I started to realise that because Yannick was German he was used to driving on the other side of the road. As a result, all of his driving in Australia had been quite disjointed because he was always having to swerve back onto the road. We had another German friend that we taught to drive in Tasmania and she just couldn't get the hang of driving on the left-hand side. No judgement though, at least they could both work a gear-box unlike myself.

Surely enough, our bald friend let out a few more screams and gasps as a result of Yannick's swerving. I felt her hands clench up and her back tighten as she waited to be let out. But we all just found it hilarious. We most certainly could've told her, but on account of her behaviour only 5 minutes prior we thought we'd keep this one a secret.

Soon enough we began to see more and more signs that indicated that a town was close. Even if the signs were only a 'K' with a '150' written underneath it you would still get a little excited because you knew that humans had actually been there at some point in time.

Eventually we pulled into a large roadhouse in the town of Kulgara. It didn't even have to be said that we were letting her go - it was implied and clearly indicated. She was terrified, and we completely knew it.

We pulled up to the gas tank and all piled out. I threw my sweaty towel in the back as I attempted to hide it away from everybody's view.

We pulled out one hour later to find her on the road again, thumb out. We sped past with a courtesy beep that really said 'good luck with finding anybody who would wanna pick you up again.' And that was the last we ever saw of her. One week later we did have the thought to look for her around the parks and bridges in Darwin, but a part of us wasn't even sure if she had made it. Perhaps she was still somewhere along that barren highway with her thumb out, hoping for a ride.

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