Australia is the population of Southern California, squeezed into a space the size of the continental United States. It is not, as one would say, “crowded.”
Most of the population lives in Sydney, most of the rest live within a few miles of the Ocean. I mean, let’s be honest, wouldn’t you? Suffice it to say, with a sparse population spread far around, there are lots of roads filled with nothing but views of the horizon. It’s glorious.
It also means vast expanses of gorgeous unmolested terrain. Some of which, you need to hike to. Umm…
Having driven across the US twice in each direction, only west Texas and northern Nevada come close to the solitude of Australian highways.
And the craziest part, I wasn’t even near the really rural areas. The “Outback”. But it was still something to behold.
Though I never considered any of the Mad Max movies to be top 10 favorites of mine (though I love them), it’s clear they were highly influential in my development.
Perhaps that’s where my love of post-apocalyptic fiction comes from. I’ve seen them all so many times, the desolation of this mythical Australia seemed something that couldn’t be in the real world. And while I missed out on seeing the towns where the first movies were shot, I can start to understand where George Miller got the idea.
After the Great Ocean Road, Marie-Eve, Cathe and I continued on to Adelaide, a lovely city with some cool buildings.
Cathe left us to head west to meet friends in Perth. Marie-Eve and I relaxed at Henley beach before exploring Adelaide a bit.
The next day, we were headed for the Grampians, a national park a few hours outside Melbourne. A six hour straight shot across farm and open land.
There are few things I love more than a hard burn though long miles (sorry, kilometers). Crank the music, sing at the top of your lungs, and drive.
I’ve never understood why people find this boring. Sure, it’s mostly flat, but so what? You can look to the horizon in every direction. See the trees and landscape change. Feel the grain of the pavement through your feet and hands. The wind in your hair (so to speak).
Here, you get to marvel at Australian homesteaders bending the land to their will. Trees planted as wind-breaks. Massive silos looming over the surrounding land like skyscrapers of grain. There’s a desolate beauty to it all. Flat farm houses, beaten down by sun and heat, claiming a tiny spec of the wilderness. Seemingly empty towns, population in the triple digits. Communities probably not much different than similar towns in the US, or anywhere.
Like so many things in Australia, the roads are different. Lacking the need for expansive, high-volume, multi-lane highways, the main road connecting two major towns like Adelaide and Melbourne is a mere one lane in each direction… with no divider.
Every kilometer there’s a sign warning of the dangers of falling asleep. Every 10k or so are lovely rest areas, with trees, picnic tables, and usually toilets. “A microsleep can kill in seconds.” “The only cure for fatigue is sleep.” “Tiredness can kill. Take a break.” Pithy, morbid, and repetitive, I initially thought these were state marketing gone awry. But seeing the signs over and over and over and over, they start to penetrate your brain. I certainly stopped more often than I would have at home. Perhaps this was the poor ride of our campervan. Or maybe the regular passing of tremendous multi-trailer semis passing centimeters from my window, at a delta V of over 220 kph.
I’ve written before about places I’ve been where I achieved a contented calmness. Some might call this a zen-like state of being. I found that in Cherbourg. I found that in Nice. I found it here, miles from nowhere, in the flat hot pan of Rockatansky’s racetrack.
From Love to Hate
The Grampians National Park is a rare peppering of mountains on this unusually flat continent. Densely blanketed with trees, it’s a different kind of beauty than one might expect from Aus. It’s funny how jaded I am to mountains, having grown up hiking the White Mountains, and living within sight of the San Gabriels, of which even Mt Wilson is taller than the tallest of Grampian peaks (by almost 2,000 feet).
But there’s no questioning the beauty.
Our campsite was either adorably rural, or a terrifying cold-open to a second-rate slasher movie. It did sit on the edge of some beautiful countryside.
The drinking water was filtered rain, the showers were barely-touched lake water, richly brown with “tannins”. There was just one couple in the park (seemingly, the owners front yard), but a half dozen aged and decaying trailers littered the landscape. Peculiar, to say the least.
But there were kangaroos. At sunset, a family took shade and had a meal, joey in her mom’s pouch, across a small pond from us.
The next morning we were up before dawn to see the sunrise on the hills, and nearly stumbled upon a male who seemed just as confused to see us as we were excited to see him.
The sunrise was so epic, a pair of ‘roos even sat together to watch it.
We had a lot to see in a day, as we had to get back to Melbourne that night.
Marie-Eve is all about the sports, has a degree in it, and exercises profusely. I’m lighter and in much better shape than I used to be, but I don’t do “up”. I have the atrophied quad muscles of someone who sits at a desk for 12 hours a day, and then goes and sits on a couch. I’ve walked 30 miles in a day with no problem, but add a few flights of stairs, and I’m out.
So it’s probably no surprise, I hate hiking. Haaaaaate. Not in a nerdy “I don’t like being outside” way. No, I love being outside. Ideally, walking.
Adding the “up” part ruins it, as my heartrate spikes rapidly to inestimable tachycardic levels. I know I’m out of shape, but dammit I’m trying and I don’t need reminding of my sloth.
But I knew Marie-Eve loves hiking, and she certainly didn’t love being in a car for 6 hours with my music (and singing).
Also, if I’m travelling with someone who wants to do something, I’m going to do it too. Why not? And, I thought, I’ve climbed a few things recently. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
I was wrong.
When I climbed the hills of Nice and Marseille, it was autumn, with pleasantly soft sun and cool Mediterranean breezes. Not, say, the searing fierceness of an Australian summer day, with the vile rays of a hateful sun, not far removed from Earth’s perihelion.
Drenched in sweat and gasping the breath, I stopped repeatedly. A sorry and embarrassing sight, I’m sure, to the eyes of everyone, including Marie-Eve. To her lovely credit, she never said so, even trying to offer advice. She is, after all, a trainer.
But dammit I tried. Yolo and all that. This, not travelling, not anything else, is me outside my comfort zone. I don’t fear anything I can do with my mind, but if it involves my body doing anything but being a sack of pasty meat, I’m terrified.
And I made it…
…on that hill. Knees hurting from the decent, we drove to MacKensie Falls, which our guidebook said had “a billion steps”. I might be remembering that wrong. Once again, dammit, I was here and I was going to do it. Especially since Marie-Eve seemed more refreshed than when we’d started.
The trip down exacerbated the aches in my knees (remember, they don’t do much, normally). The falls were lovely (aren’t they all?) and I got some great photos.
Pretty sure I died on the way back up. At one point, after what I know was Marie-Eve’s attempt to cheer me on, I sat down on a tiny shaded section of trail, heart exploding from my chest, and wheezed.
But I got up. Ya gotta, ya know? Not least because, what, it’s not like I could sleep there.
Knowing Your Strengths and Knowing Your Weaknesses
I am not an athletic person. Never have been. I’m sure you’re all expecting me to say something like “and never will be.”
Except… I don’t know that. After my friend Lauren ran the LA Marathon, I joked I wouldn’t be able to walk a marathon. Yet last June, I walked 30 miles in a day.
Do I want to run a marathon, or be the person who climbs a mountain? Well no, honestly. I don’t have any interest. But I think it’s important to make that distinction. As much as my flabby body lets me down, I know that if I wanted to (or what I’m sure is increasingly likely, needed to) I could get into shape.
The mind drives this meatbus, and it can drive it anywhere.
But personally, I’d much rather let it drive a car.