Glittering quartz, starry blackness, baby blue polyester, backgammon marathons, icy bicycles, campsite bars, banana factories, Buffaroos, aboriginal artwork & Uluru.
In 1993 it was still just called Ayers Rock, but there were rumours then that the name was going to be changing to its aboriginal name, Uluru. My mate Graham and I had been picking fruit for a while in the countryside around Adelaide and I’d decided I wanted to go there and climb it for my twenty-fifth birthday.
We packed up our tiny two-man tent and our meagre possessions and spent over a week hitchhiking more than 1,500 kilometres through the middle to the big red centre of Australia.
Barely any traffic would go by; occasionally a long road train would zoom past, swirling up the dust into a thick, choking cloud. We were stuck by the side of the road for a few days, but we were happy and positive and self-sufficient with our little gas-bottle cooker and we had a long-running backgammon marathon to keep us entertained.
After several days’ waiting, we finally got to the campsite near Ayers Rock and had time to set up our tent and relax for a day or two before my actual birthday.
The dark rock loomed in the distance, silent, deserted and monumental.
On the day itself, we woke early, still in the starry blackness, already hiring some bikes with the intent of cycling the ten kilometres to Ayers Rock before sunrise. Being July, the middle of the Australian winter, it was freezing at that time of the morning. We had to wrap our hands in plastic bags so they didn’t stick to the icy metal handlebars.
The dark rock loomed in the distance, silent, deserted and monumental. There was a steep but well-worn trail up to the top. If it had been this day and age it would have been strewn with plastic bottles, but they hadn’t been invented then. It was cold as we climbed to a sheltered plateau and made porridge and coffee on our little stove as it dawned. It was pretty special watching the morning sun crack up the big Ozzie sky.
Later that evening we had a beer in the virtually empty campsite bar. I was feeling a little disappointed with the less then salubrious surroundings, the white plastic tables and chairs and the lack of atmosphere. We eventually got talking to the one guy who came in and was sitting by himself at the bar.
He mentioned he was working in an aboriginal community a few hours west of Ayers Rock; his girlfriend was lonely and did we want to visit? Always up for an adventure, we didn’t take much persuading. We returned to our pitch, rolled our tiny tent into a ball and chucked everything into the back of his jeep.
Within ten minutes we were being bounced around over stony ground through the desert in the semi-darkness. It was late when we arrived at his remote house, where we met his girlfriend and sat up all night drinking rum and playing Yahtzee.
We were stuck by the side of the road for a few days, but we were happy and positive and self-sufficient with our little gas-bottle cooker and we had a long-running backgammon marathon to keep us entertained.
The next day, he took us for a drive. In the middle of nowhere was a small wooden shack brightly painted with incredible Dreamtime dot-work images. A protected area, it was forbidden for us to be seen and explore too much, and we were only the third and fourth white people ever to be there. It was obviously a magical place with powerful energy. Fist-sized chunks of glittering quartz crystals were scattered everywhere.
We stayed a couple of days before we had to continue; there was still a long, lonely highway before we reached the Queensland coast, where we were going to look for other work.
We were stuck for a while at the side of the road again at Threeways, where the single highway leads right to the Queensland coast or heads north to the Northern Territory. After a week, we still hadn’t been picked up. It was becoming desperate, so we decided to split up and catch up with each other later on.
I got a lift first with a friendly driver, Lonnie. I mentioned I was looking for work and he said they needed someone in the roadhouse at Camooweal, a remote spot just over the Queensland border, two hundred kilometres from the nearest town.
At one point I had a go at driving the road train—a huge cab pulling long, multiple trailers used a lot in rural Australia. The steering wheel was massive and heavy, and it was tiring to hold it for very long. Soon after Lonnie took back control, a herd of cows suddenly appeared in the middle of the road in the darkness. We ploughed straight through them, not stopping or feeling the impact. Dark, earthy green splatted up the windscreen, but he nonchalantly flicked the wipers on to scrape some visibility back.
When we stopped at the roadhouse, I jumped out of the truck. The strong, fetid smell was unbearable. Gagging, I ran inside, leaving Lonnie to grab a hose and wash it off. We heard later that several of the herd had been killed and spread over a huge distance.
Soon after Lonnie took back control, a herd of cows suddenly appeared in the middle of the road in the darkness. We ploughed straight through them, not stopping or feeling the impact.
Inside, they questioned who I’d arrived with, asking if he had a yellow Mack. Naively, I assumed they meant a raincoat, so they laughed when I mentioned that I hadn’t noticed what he’d been wearing, oblivious to the name of the truck.
At the roadhouse, they were accustomed to a quick turnover of staff, and I was already behind the counter wearing a zip-up baby blue polyester dress uniform when Graham turned up a few hours later. I was skint, so I knew I would have to stay for a while, but we arranged to meet in Townsville later on once I’d scraped a bit of money together.
It was hard work, long hours and relentless. I was on my feet all day and would have to pretend to go to the toilet just so I could sit down for a break. The day started early: portly truckers would come in at 4 or 5 a.m., scoffing humungous breakfast platefuls of steak, ribs, snags and eggs. There was always a pan of grey tripe in cream sauce bubbling in the bain-marie; the thought of the texture still makes me cringe. By the afternoon, cowboys—drovers—would ride horses for a couple of hours just to prop up the bar there for a few beers.
Home of the mythical Buffaroo, the roadhouse entrance had a giant resin sculpture of a kangaroo with buffalo horns. Next to it was a glass counter displaying leathery drawstring purses made out of kangaroo testicles. I often had nightmares of the Buffaroo hopping in and angrily snatching them back.
Camooweal—population 187—was a weird little place. It had developed in the 1800s as a pastoral centre for outback stations and still had some old-school single-storey timber and corrugated-iron buildings from the era, including the famous Freckletons store.
Next to it was a glass counter displaying leathery drawstring purses made out of kangaroo testicles. I often had nightmares of the Buffaroo hopping in and angrily snatching them back.
On my one day off a week, I walked from one end of town to another, reaching the edges in just a few minutes. In any direction, the houses soon fell away to leave a blank, parched, flat expanse, nothing for miles as far as the eye could see. I could die out there. I could die here too, I thought, bleakly.
As fits a small, remote town, there were quite a few oddballs:—religious freaks, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, rednecks, I met them all. The local librarian was helpful, though; she encouraged me to write a list of all the books I’d like to read, as she could get them sent from Mount Isa, the next big town. There is nothing more frustrating than having a massive cardboard box arrive, containing every book I’ve ever wanted to read, and knowing I wouldn’t be there long enough to even skim through a fraction of them.
I managed six weeks at the job before I decided enough was enough. The bosses were pretty cool, even though I had overstayed my Australian visa by then. They could have found out easily enough, but they happily paid me and even gave me holiday money.
By the time I was ready to leave, Lonnie was driving past again to head back to his house on the Queensland coast, so I jumped in with him and stayed there for a while. Near Townsville, I got the worst job of my life, at the local banana factory. My job was banana washing, where the men would cut giant hands of the fruit into manageable chunks and drop them into a pool of water, which I would then drag out and place on the conveyor belt next to me, ready for packing. I did it for two long, seemingly endless days before I felt suicidal. It put me off bananas for ages; I couldn’t stand the smell of them for years without gagging.
Mahni Dare is an artist from Brighton, on the south coast of the UK. Her favourite city is New York, where she lived for five years, and her favourite country is Mexico, where she also has travelled extensively. She enjoys walking her dog Captain Haribo von Darewolf and is writing a book on travelling, love and the afterlife. This story was a finalist for the 2020 Nowhere Emerging Travel Writers’ Prize.
Lead image: Finn