Thursday, December 16, 2004

Tuesday December 14 1971 - afternoon. 

Back on the road after lunch. This is the most tiring part of the day. The sun is at its highest and you just want to sleep.

Of course, I did. Uncle’s power of staying awake amazed me. Two thousand miles of alertness. Maybe Aunt was jabbing him the ribs all the way while she smoked her thin cigarettes. The whole journey, she sat up front with him while Danny and I lounged in the rear, alternately falling asleep.

In our more wakeful moments, we noticed there still wasn’t much traffic. In 1971, attempting a crossing of the Nullarbor desert was still a major endeavour due to the unmade road. Not many people had four wheel drive vehicles.

Because there wasn’t a lot of traffic, we got to recognise many of the vehicles travelling our way. They all stopped at the same overnight stops, because there was really no other choice.

This afternoon, there was a white Renault 10 in front of us with an elderly couple in it. We had seen them in the caravan park at Port Augusta and again in Ceduna. They were always driving erratically. Had been doing so for a while.

When I snapped out of one of my little afternoon reveries, the erratic Renault was right in front of us. My uncle was driving evenly, sitting on his maximum speed of around 48 miles an hour (unmade road, caravan). But the Renault kept speeding up and slowing down. Looking at what, exactly? The dust?

Uncle braked, sat back, braked some more. But eventually he had to pass the stop-start Renault.

Mid-manoeuvre, the Renault sped up again. Fools! It was too late to pull in again, so my uncle had to coax a little more speed out of the Chrysler six-cylinder which was already singing the high notes.

The car’s left wheels hit an extra deep pocket of gravel. It lurched one way. The caravan lurched the other way.

The caravan jack-knifed. My uncle wrestled the beast. The beast wrestled back. My uncle kept wrestling. We ran off the road.

After an eternity that lasted maybe eight seconds, he somehow found a straight line in the dust. He dragged the car and van to a stop, whoa! He switched off the engine. He got out of the car.

He sat down on a log. His forehead was sweating. He mopped it with a handkerchief. We had come that close to losing the 'van altogether. And he knew it.

The Renault 10 had just putted away, oblivious, its idiotic four-cylinder rear engine popping up and down like an over-enthusiastic marching band.

My aunt lit up a smoke. My cousin and I took off our shirts. It was unbearably hot and the sweat was turning the dust on our backs into soup that ran down our spines and into our shorts.

After a while, we got cold drinks from the caravan; and then after a longer while, we carefully pulled back onto the road and resumed.

The dusty unmade highway stretched on into the afternoon. Now the sun was in front of us, drawing us on like land-moths to a flame in the western sky. The flame went west faster than we did and an hour or two later we rumbled across dust and small stones into Eucla.

We found the caravan park easily enough and panted to a stop at the ‘Stop Here To Register’ sign. My uncle and aunt went into the office.

Across the way, a white Renault 10 was parked in a camping bay, trunk lid up and front doors open. Next to the car, a flustered man was fiddling about trying to put up a tent, which kept falling down. A frowning woman appeared to be helping but clearly wasn’t. She was jabbing her finger at the tent and her mouth was snapping open and shut.

After we berthed the 'van, my uncle did his daily post-journey check of the car. One hubcap missing, no doubt during the earlier incident.

But a little while later - uh, oh: we noticed a smell.

The fuel tank is leaking.


On my cousin's cassette player:

nights in white satin
never reaching the end
letters I've written
never meaning to send
beauty I'd always missed
with these eyes before
just what the truth is
I can't say any more

is it time for a nap yet? i think so

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