11 January 2016: Alice Springs
“Do you know your driver’s licence has expired” Corey’s pleasant voice softly floats up from the keyboard where he is busily entering my details in preparation of me embarking on a 1551 km ride in a ‘relocation camper’ from Alice Springs to Adelaide.
My head slowly sinks until my forehead rests on the top of the counter in Apollo Camper’s Alice Springs office as I reply with an equally soft “I did not know my driver’s licence has expired”.
For I know, as does Corey, that no car hire company, no insurance company and no traffic police officer can or will accept an invalid drivers’ licence.
In a show of sympathy Corey makes a call or two but, as expected, whoever he called merely reiterates what we already know.
Quarter of an hour after I arrived at Apollo’s office I am trudging the 2500 m back to Haven Backpackers working on Plan B: how to get a valid drivers’ licence in a shorter time as possible, like an hour or so?
Back at Haven I ask the day manager “Have you booked out my bed yet?” “Err” a quick glance “no.”
His eyes and expression are asking the Obvious Question. “My drivers’ licence has expired” I explain.
“Oh shit”. Yeah, oh shit.
It’s 0630 in Country Bumfuck Hick Town Perth Western Australia. Any possible solution to getting valid drivers’ licence lies in Country Bumfuck Hick Town Perth Western Australia.
I dig out my phone and computer and go to work. A two pronged approach. Corey says that an emailed scan of my Dutch drivers’ licence would suffice.
Prong One: phone Roz, wake her up, and tell her she has the unenviable task of taking on the ever increasing number of boxes and parcels sent by me or sent to me and find my Dutch drivers’ licence.
Prong Two: Google ‘renew online WA drivers’ licence’ and see if miracles still happen in Country Bumfuck Hick Town Perth Western Australia, if they ever did.
My Dear and Lovely Father normally informs me well in advance that my Australian drivers’ licence is up for renewal. Well, he has Alzheimer’s and somewhere in Baz and Roz’s house is a letter addressed to me informing me I need to renew my drivers’ licence.
Roz, given it is 0630 in the morning is decidedly pleasant and above all understanding. And she takes on The Boxes and The Parcels. I’ve a good idea which box it should be found. The rest is up to her. She’ll call me back.
Prong Two. It seems I must be ‘registered’ to renew online. OK, I’ll register. Then I am informed that my login details will be sent direct to the address at which my licence is registered. Good, but, err, I need my licence to get to that address. I keep digging. Takes a while but I finally work out I don’t have to register to pay, since I can pay with credit card. Great. It may still all work out, yet.
However, The System comes back and tells me that either because a (new) photo and/or a signature is required, I godda do it person.
Back to Prong One.
The phone rings. Roz is holding in her hand a document that she does not understand a word of. “Has it got Rijbewijs written on it” as I try to imagine how to pronounce ‘rijbewijs’ using English pronunciation. Roz is on the ball and she now has my Dutch driver’s licence. Step two: create a legible digital copy and email it.
Roz is on the ball. Her phone has a scanner app and just a couple of days ago she played around with it. And within but a few minutes I have another call from Roz questioning what Corey’s address is coz her email bounced back. Sure enough I have two emails, one with the front and other with the rear of the licence perfectly legible. Very fast.
I forward it to Corey, call him who then opens it and confirms I may walk the 2500 m back to Apollo’s office and pick up my camper.
Two hours after Corey calmly informed me my driver’s licence had expired I drive out of Apollo’s yard behind the wheel of a camper equal to many a small apartment I’ve lived in in the Netherlands.
12 January, 2016: Marla
Heading south from Marla. It is one of those hot days. Blistering hot. Brain-frying hot. Before midday it’s over 40 C. Since I’m heading south I don’t have that sun straight in through the plate-glass windscreen. I shut all the curtains in the back to prevent it heating up. Or perhaps better to say, to keep the heat-up to tolerable levels.
The Sprinter’s air-conditioning is directed directly at me, keeping me at a reasonable comfort level.
After two hours I pull into a rest-area for a quick break. Finches are around. Desert or Zebra, I’m not sure. They alight on top of the water tank and literally stare at me as if to say … “Eh! Y’know, givvus some water!”
Before I take a seat under the shelter in the parking area I release some water from the water tank into a small bowl under the tap.
Then one hops (and I mean ‘hop’) to the edge of the tank and peers down at the tap. She looks first with eye, then the other, then changes position a bit and repeats until finally dropping down to land on the edge of the water container.
28 seconds later there’s a good dozen flapping around the water container trying to work out how to get some water.
I look up and there must be dozens on top of the tank also trying to work out how or perhaps when they are gonna get some water. For it is pretty crowded down at the bowl.
They scatter when I get up. I regret not having the camera with me. Delightful to see.
Coober Pedy. One of two Australian opal meccas, Andamooka being the other. Australia produces 90% of the world’s opals from these mineral fields.
For the life of me I do not understand why anyone can like Coober Pedy. it’s a shithole. For quite possibly a 1000 km2 around Coober Pedy it is an unmitigated and evidently accepted mining-environment catastrophe.
The town is a very good validation of the mentality of the people who consider it perfectly acceptable to create a 1000 km2 of unmitigated and absolutely unrehabilitated mining-environmental disaster.
And it is booming. E V E R Y O N E in the backpackers and beyond who knew I was heading south said “Oh, you’re gonna go to Coober Pedy!” with shiny eyes and enthusiastic expressions.
Coober Pedy has some charms, all to do with ‘Underground’: mines (obviously), dwellings, churches, museums, shops, souvenir shops and a vast array of other tourist traps. But what surrounds these is awful. It’s a mining town. And a not-particularly well looked after mining town. Possibly because unlike most other mines in Australia, no ‘Major’ mining company is in charge. Opal mining is done by the little guy. And they do not work together to create a nice, liveable town.
It’s really hot in Coober Pedy and I rapidly understand that my thought to lunch here is not gonna work out. There is no shade. There are very few trees at all. If I do not park Beast in the shade, even with the engine running in the back it’ll be a sauna. Only the two front seats are cool.
There are three caravan parks in Coober Pedy. Caravan parks have powered sites. How much would one charge for one hour of power? Then I can run my fat airconditioner and eat in relative comfort.
Big 4 caravan park. Beautifully landscaped. Kept clean and neat and organised, just like how Coober Pedy should be.
The airconditioner in the office is flat out but it is cool. The overweight, nay obese woman behind the desk and I share humorous banter about the heat. “How much would you charge me for an hour of power so I can have lunch in the back of my van in relative comfort?” I ask after the giggle dies down.
To cut a long story short it came down to “Oh, well, I … ummm … I’d have to charge you for a full night.”
“A full night?”
“Err, yes. I mean I would charge you only an unpowered site, since it’s only for an hour”. She actually smiles at me in a manner that suggests she’s really doing me a favour.
“Why would you charge me for a whole night?”
“Well, what’s to stop you using all the facilities, like a shower or something?”
“It’s likely I’ll use the toilets, but the rest? I’m driving south. I want to eat my lunch and leave. But even if I do, surely 5$ would cover it.”
“Yes, well, umm, I still have to charge you one night”
“And how much is it for an unpowered site for one night?”
At least she’s no longer looking at me as this is some kind of bargain.
“I, umm, err, don’t … have the authority … y’know, I can’t … “
A lot of responses go through my head. I mean, a L O T. “That is a lot of money, for one hour for lunch”
I don’t, however, have it in me to do this. To patiently lead this bizarre person and their outrageous and ridiculous decision and price through to the realm of reality and sense. I just don’t have it in me. There are reasons why certain people end up in shitholes. And it is not because they are inherently sensible and smart and are able to make intelligent and rational decisions. Generally they are in lonely, isolated, dusty, dirty, treeless, fucking-hot shitholes coz it’s the only places that’ll accept them.
I don’t like Coober Pedy anyway. It was supposed to be a convenient place for lunch. Was. Now it’s unbelievable. I do try the next caravan park. But it’s closed. I give up on Coober Pedy point Beast south on the Stuart Highway and look for the next suitable stop.
Five minutes later I carefully park Beast’s ass towards the sun, keep the motor running, the airco on full bore directed down the cavernous interior and overlook where 15 year old William (Will) Hutchinson found the first opal leading to today’s Coober Pedy opal field.
12 January, 2016: Glendambo
When I first drove up the Stuart Highway, waaay back in January 1985 it was a dirt road and a poorly maintained one. The new asphalt was being built and no-one could see any sense in grading a old dirt road which is soon to be replaced by fat-black asphalt.
All the little roadhouse stops along the gravel road were relocated. Glendambo is one of the ‘new places’ built to take the load. Nowadays it’s a roadhouse and a large caravan park coupled to a hotel/motel. The caravan park and hotel/motel are large sprawling affairs with sufficient room to cater for hundreds. Perhaps, thirty years ago, when the asphalt was opened it needed all the space. Now there’s a not a blade of grass around and but a few trees. Standing in the late afternoon heat imagining what it would be like to camp here with my Hillebergs Soulo tent I am very grateful to simply plug Beast in and sit inside in sublime comfort.
A sense of life and living seems to have been bled out of Glendambo, as Coober Pedy, 254 km to the north, secures a stranglehold on the lucrative tourist trade along the Stuart Highway. With modern vehicles and a good asphalt road there’s little reason to break the 540 km between the city of Port Augusta and Coober Pedy.
13 January, 2016: Adelaide
I end up parking The Beast outside Stuart’s house which gives me access to a decent shower, good plumbing, good company and a bed in The Beast. By some freak of outstanding parking prowess I managed to get The Beast right under the big trees which line Byron Road without damaging the fragile fibreglass top. Not quite sure how I did that in truth. I figure my Earth Mother Queen allowed the top to pass undamaged through the fat trunks rather than have me explain to Apollo the damage to their quarter of a million-dollar vehicle.
Next day, the 14th January I follow Emily, the silky Voice of Directions in my Garmin Montana 650T, to Port Adelaide Backpackers where I park where a large sign is (trying) to tell me that I shouldn’t park. I figure that for the ten minutes I expect to be here that no-one is going to care.
That lasts the time it takes me to get out of The Beast and begin to make my way to the Backpacker’s entrance. Derek, the manager, tells me they need access to the roller door smack in front of The Beast. Whoops … wrong call.
Derek, hearing my tale of but a few minutes gives me ten minutes.
Just after booking in and moving all my bags into the ten-person dorm my ten minutes are up and I deftly, and rather gingerly, manoeuvre The Beast into the small streets in the Port and without further mishap or near-misses drive the three kilometres to Apollo’s Adelaide depot.
I am very glad to get rid of The Beast. Massive and impressive it may be, but it’s a whale to drive. Small wheels, particularly the dual rear ones, results in The Beast rolling from side to side on poor sections of the asphalt. The hire contract I had to sign specifically tells me I can only drive on asphalt. One look at The Beast and any sensible driver will come to exactly the same conclusion. I am also only allowed to drive between dawn and dusk. Also dead sensible advice.
With an average fuel economy of 14 litres per 100 kilometres it kinda comes out at 100$ per day to drive. Since the day temperature was over 40 C, whilst the front was nicely airconditioned unless I can connect The Beast to power the rear of it is waaay tooo hot to sit in comfortably. That adds about 27$ per night, of which there were two. Then comes food.
It was great to do the drive and see the country slide on by but it comes out a lot more expensive than flying.
The single worst aspect of The Beast was Tunes. The USB input into the Mercedes Sprinter’s integrated media-system did not recognise my USB stick returning a friendly “Device Not Recognised” message. Which means I run the risk of no music for my 1551 km road trip, since there’s no radio-coverage either. Music and roadtrips are as integrated as toothpaste and toothbrushes. It is not possible to have one without the other and enjoy the result.
Eventually I find there’s a USB input in the media centre in the rear of The Beast. There are certain limitations to this arrangement. Namely I can only plug in the USB-stick, choose what seems to be a decent volume and hope every song is a good one coz once I’m driving I can do nothing about the music. It is good to have tunes though.
If I do another camper relocation I’ll opt for a smaller one.
Port Adelaide Backpackers has, like most urban backpackers in Australia, a core community of long-term residents who, here, are mostly Australian. As well as the usual random tourists who stay but a short time. The rear-courtyard, entirely enclosed by the building itself and the rear fence and wall of the adjacent building, is the stronghold of the long-termers. Here they gather, smoke cigarettes, drink illicit booze and talk in loud hawkish Strine almost incomprehensible to the foreigner.
I hang around with the long-termers.
At first I was a bit intimidated. These are long-term unemployed people struggling to exist on inadequate government support whilst trying to rebuild lives blighted by a combination of poor judgement and shear bad luck. Their language is an art. Booming voices, more curse and swear words and idioms than hair on a dog. Half the time I don’t understand what they are saying. Half the time I’m not sure if they have intentions that aren’t going to be good for any innocent bystander. Another half of the time I’m caught by their sense of humour.
Finally, after a good day or two of indepth immersion my ear gets tuned in and I finally get a grip on what they are really saying.
Cut out the swear and curse words, understand the idioms and they are pretty much talking life stories which are, arguably, a L O T more colourful than most, but are otherwise as normal as anyone’s. They are trying to sort out their lives, they are looking for work, they lament the economy, they wish their relationships had turned out better than it did, they hope to get a decent place if they get a decent job, they wish they could see more of their kids of which they are proud, they aren’t (particularly) racist, they aren’t (particularly) sexist or misogynist, they aren’t a particularly homogenous group either. There’s some women involved, who easily hold their own. There’s a couple of Aborigines, who rightfully pull up any racist comments which tend not to not come from the core group but rather from floaters on the peripheries. There’s a few hardy backpackers involved too including Italians, English and Me.
The BBQ is right there, right in the courtyard. It makes it impossible to use without The Group somehow taking a part. Day 1, when I used it the comments were good-natured and they were curious about what I was cooking since there was not a lot of meat involved.
Today when I went out there I find the BBQ had been used and not cleaned. It turns out by The Group when they were pretty drunk last night. As I face off the dirty BBQ the Group get into action. Tammy tells me how it should be cleaned, Jon heads into the kitchen to hunt appropriate cleaning utensils, Matt deals with the all-but-overflowing oil-sump. Before I know it the BBQ is clean and I can begin.
As I cook there are endless comments and jokes and fun poked at me for everything. Part of the narrative. Part of the Group.
I enjoy it but I would not want to get on the wrong side of any of them. They are all streetwise. Survivors. I truly wish them success on their many-faceted journeys.
Day 1 I went to Happy Hour in the Commercial with Derek. Interesting place. Very limited demographic. White, working class. There are rules involved and I’m not sure of them. The laughter is loud and conversation boisterous. Not taking part in others’ conversations is impossible. They are loud and absolutely lacking any self-consciousness. I hear tales of people receiving a righteous thump, others of betrayal when she did something she shouldn’t have and what he did was simply wrong, L O T S about The Boss The Company The Work, as well as tons of comments of various governments of various political persuasions.
I opt for a survival approach. I laugh at their jokes, I sympathise with their travails, I agree that their beer tastes great, I basically don’t contradict anything they say. I survive. It was a good night. Enjoyed it. It set up a successful immersion in The Core Group at the backpackers.
Days 1 and 2 I was pretty much alone in my 10-bed dorm. Yesterday Stuart turned up for the evening. I show him my empty dorm, we joke about it, having such a large room all to myself. Then we go out. Two hours later I return to get something, punch in the door-code, open the door and are confronted with a veritable wall of people, clothes and bags. A full dorm, every bed taken. I do a double take thinking I have the wrong room but the code unequivocal. I am in the right room. I just don’t recognise it. They stay out late, the come back late, they sleep late. They are out again tonight. Backpackers. Young backpackers.
My last day in the Port before I encamp to Stuart’s more salubrious suburban setting. The Group are not staying in the backpackers because they enjoy it. They are here because it’s the cheapest place to stay whilst they try to figure how to get employment, how to stay in employment when they have it, navigate through various intricate government bureaucratic red-tape to claim the money they need to survive which always seems to arrive late (if at all) and is never be the amount that should be paid, various degrees and levels of entanglement with The Law including complying with parole requirements, avoiding Queensland because of the large number of outstanding traffic violations, anecdotes of narcotic and alcohol oblivion which would render pretty much anyone homeless, and other entanglements which do sound like something happened once-upon-a-time but are resurrected with a different tense depending on the conversation around the table.
They are perpetually broke. An abundance of cigarette haze around the table one day. No smoke at all the next. No money for a new packet. Cheap brutal wine drunk fast, fast drunk. Next day, grim faces, no alcohol.
I mention to T and J that I’m thinking to buy some wine for the group. The Port Backpackers is licenced and there are foreboding signs everywhere telling of the laws broken and the consequences of drinking alcohol purchased from elsewhere. Everyone drinks their own booze however. I am no exception. My plan is to buy a cask of wine, place it on the table and let everyone help themselves.
T and J thinks this is a great idea, only, skip the group. “Let’s just ‘us’ drink it?” T suggests. Since it’s a Sunday the local bottle shop has closed early. That leaves either the hotels where I can buy takeway. Or a bottleshop further afield. I find myself in the back seat of T’s Toyota. Although I ask, I am not quite sure why¸ since there are purchase wine opportunities within walking distance.
We’re taking J someplace for some reason. She gives a running commentary of the small suburban side streets we navigate through though on occasion she’s hiding below the dash since there’s someone out there she does not want to know she’s around. I can ask direct questions but I do not get a direct answer. Something about a guy. Lover supplier client … I don’t know.
We park at the end of a cul-de-sac overlooking the 6 lane. J wanders off to meet whoever. We couldn’t drop her outside the house but we can pick her up, please wait for a message.
T and I enjoy a Coopers Stout and miss the message. J wanders up gesticulating at her phone. Whatever she did, did not take long. Back in the car, beers in laps, we return to the Port.
We end up on a nicely renovated promenade looking west across Gawler Reach as the sun sets behind the new generation of apartments at New Port. The first obvious sign of the inevitable gentrification the Port will go through.
Here on the grass we spread towels, connect a small speaker to a phone for some tunes, role endless cigarettes, the odd joint, say Hi! to passing pedestrians, with kids’ noise from the playground light in the background. It is a beautiful warm evening, the company great, the wine OK the smokes and joints fun.
T and J, who are not a couple, are not staying in the backpackers tonight. Instead they are going to sleep out on top of the car-ramp which once-upon-a-time got cars in and out of ferries here at the wharf. Presumably left here after the renovations as a reminder of when this particular wharf was far busier.
Both are broke. Being Sunday there’s no way to get access to any money, “Which’ll be in me account by midnight” T insists. The Backpackers’ manager couldn’t give them another night on credit, so wild camping on a 20 m tall spindly car-ramp it is.
I try to imagine living such a life. This is J’s home town. She’s spent her life here, married and raised three kids. Yet, tonight, she’s in the control room of a derelict car-ramp. T’s on the run from Queensland where various ghosts haunt him. Fifteen years of parole he has to navigate through.
There’s no doubt about it, the ‘he’ and ‘him’ I hear in the hurried secretive conversation between T&J refers to me. Something I wouldn’t do couldn’t do shouldn’t do, I can’t quite figure it out. She seems more reluctant than he, but for what?
Finally, in this very public space, with a kids’ playground just over there, a promenade right there and we very visibly spread out on towels J turns her back to me and gets busy with something whilst J and I continue the conversation.
I am curious as to what it is the J doesn’t mind the rest of the world seeing but doesn’t want me too.
I peak over her shoulder and find myself staring into an abyss the likes of which I haven’t seen for decades.
On the ground between J’s legs is a small box. On the lid of the box she is carefully grinding small crystals with an almost opal-like translucent gloss. “They’re too big” she explains.
It explains a lot.
It’s hard enough to build a life again after losing work, being kicked-out of a home, escaping some social context which has netted you only trouble, without also nurturing a methamphetamine addiction.
Having ground the crystals down to an appropriate size J heads off to the car to complete the process of heating, melting, drawing into the syringe and injecting, in more discrete circumstances. Shortly after T heads over and both come back a lot chirpier and euphoric. Wired.
Both are long term users. Physically both look reasonably healthy. But I am sure too much of their limited incomes goes into this habit.
Methamphetamine has a fearsome reputation and is clearly THE drug blighting Australia at the moment. Cheap, easy to mass produce and supply from within Australia and with other euphoric party drugs, like cocaine, far too expensive, it is pervasive. And now it’s my turn …
It’s not the first time I’ve stared into an Abyss: Bangkok with its heroin, Manila with its shabu (also methamphetamine), Edinburgh with its speed and ecstasy and Amsterdam with its cocaine and everything else. Some I’ve tried. Some I have not. Methamphetamine is one of the ‘have not, will not’ variety.
T&J do not offer me any. And I do not ask.
They can be as wired as they want. But I am not going to join them on the top of the car-ramp because I cannot afford the cost of a bed in a dorm in a backpackers.
Slightly hungover. Must have been something I ate.
The 150 bus from the Port to Adelaide Central. Then the Clarence Park station on the Seaford metro.
That’s the plan at least. I make it to Adelaide Central before cost of public transport rises too high, so I stick my head in a taxi and find out it’s around 20$. Much less than the value of the alcohol which may be contributing to my current fudgy mood.
The taxi driver barely reacts when I ask what to do with my bags, and does not get out to help me open the boot of the car and load my bags into it.
20$ we’re parked outside Stuart’s house and I hand across my card to pay, get out, leaving the door open, open the boot and remove my bags unassisted, leaving the boot open. I drop my bags at Stuart’s door and return to finalise payment. Card safely in hand when the driver asked “Aren’t you going to close the door?” I reply “No. Had you helped with my bags you could have closed them yourself” and walked back to Stuart’s house to the sounds of mumbles and grumbles and vague obscenities but he had to get out of his taxi to close the doors.
I am not sure when next I’ll be in Adelaide. Aside of booking tickets to Indonesia, I go through all the stuff I’ve left at Stuart’s. Some are thrown away. The rest packed in a huge duffel bag for transport to Perth to join the rest of my gear at my father’s place.
23 January, 2016.
It takes three hours to fly from Adelaide to Perth, crossing from one state to another. Three hours from Amsterdam and I’m in Turkey, having crossed like six or more countries, depending on route. Australia is a B I G country.
Next stop is Perth, to spend time with my dad.
23 Jan. 16, Virgin Airlines flight VN 719 enroute Perth