Grand tours: Whatever happens, let's keep this wagon rolling

Writers and their adventures in literature. This week Andrew Stevenson thunders through the Outback on a long-distance coach


Born in Canada, Andrew Stevenson is familiar with wide-open spaces, and has spent his life seeking out the best of them, with India, Africa and Scotland representing some of his childhood homes, while Norway and East Africa were his bases as an employee of the United Nations Development Programme. After gaining his pilot's licence, working as an international development consultant for the Canadian, Norwegian and Swedish governments and travelling through Africa and Asia as a safari guide, Stevenson has tuned his adventurous spirit to Australia. This is an extract from his book 'Beyond the Black Stump; Travels in Outback Australia'.

Born in Canada, Andrew Stevenson is familiar with wide-open spaces, and has spent his life seeking out the best of them, with India, Africa and Scotland representing some of his childhood homes, while Norway and East Africa were his bases as an employee of the United Nations Development Programme. After gaining his pilot's licence, working as an international development consultant for the Canadian, Norwegian and Swedish governments and travelling through Africa and Asia as a safari guide, Stevenson has tuned his adventurous spirit to Australia. This is an extract from his book 'Beyond the Black Stump; Travels in Outback Australia'.

* * *

A rippled pink desert sunrise ignites bastion citadels of termite hills as if red-hot coals burned fiercely within them. Road signs warn of road traffic fifty metres long, or of places where the road is subject to flooding during the Wet. It is impossible to imagine how this area could ever flood. Where does the water come from? Where does it go? Could this immaculate sky be anything but cobalt blue?

Our Coach Captain stares dully through a windscreen, a kaleidoscope of ruptured insect abdomens, thoraxes, heads, legs, wings and guts. A dead bird lies tangled and broken in the giant wiper. Our heroic Coach Captain has been driving for twelve hours when we finally disembark fuzzy-headed in the mining town of Mount Isa. A mechanic drives the bus away to be cleaned and serviced and the Coach Captain presumably dives into bed to be replaced by another.

With daybreak, millions of flies swarm over us. They settle on our faces, up our nostrils, in our ears and eyes. We perform the Australian wave, that constant sideways brushing motion of the hand in front of the face that could pass for a royal greeting. A road train thunders by and hundreds of disturbed pink galahs rise up, as ubiquitous as the flies. Anywhere else, a horde of pink species of cockatoo would attract attention. I cannot help smiling at the sight, excited as a kid.

Our next major stop, at six in the evening, will be Tennant Creek, another mining town just south of the intersection where the east-west road from the East Coast meets the north-south road cutting through the Centre. A sign warns "No fuel for 278 kilometres". The landscape becomes flat savannah, the road a bumpy single sealed track with red dirt on the shoulders. When a road train approaches, our Coach Captain sensibly moves to the shoulder in advance of the opposing vehicle thundering by. Signs warn "Unfenced road, beware of stock". An endless expanse of grass is unbroken by mountains, outcrops or even trees.

As we pass a signpost marking the border with the Northern Territories, our Coach Captain tells us, "Put your watches back half-an-hour and your minds back half-a-century – we're entering the Northern Territories. In 1976 the Aboriginal Land Rights Act handed all reserves and mission lands in the Territories to Aboriginal ownership."

"What do you mean?" I ask, leaning forward in my seat.

The Coach Captain looks over his shoulder. "Unlike the other Australian states, mate, here in the Northern Territories, any land the Aborigines could show traditional ties to, unless already owned, leased, in a town, or set aside for other purposes, was declared open to Aboriginal claims of ownership. Although they're only a quarter of the Territories' population, they have fifty per cent of the land."

Our Coach Captain informs us of all this in a voice devoid of emotion. It's impossible to tell if he is sympathetic to the Aboriginal claims of land ownership or not. Driving a coach half-full of liberal backpackers, and half-full of Australians heading into the Outback to go home for a break or looking for work, he couldn't win whichever side he expressed sympathy for.

On a road that gets increasingly ragged, another sign:

Don't move
insects and diseases
on plants

Is this a warning not to move because there are insects and diseases on plants, or don't move the plants, because they have insects and diseases on them?

A cyclist so loaded with gear she probably has more baggage tucked into her panniers than I do in the baggage compartment under the bus, is buffeted off the ragged shoulder as we thunder past her. I can't imagine cycling through a stretch like this in the heat of the day while transporting a bathtub equivalent of water so as not to dehydrate.

We stop for lunch at a roadhouse. The passengers enter the restaurant, where they sit sleepy-headed while waiting for their meals. I sit at the bar and look at the menu; just five Australian dollars for a huge steak, salad, fried onions and potatoes.

They're giving the food away. "What'll you have mate?" the woman behind the bar asks.

"I'll take your steak."

"Good on yer mate," she says, as if I had made a wise but difficult decision.

"And a beer?"

"Yeah," I reply, not wanting to disappoint her with a bad choice.

A barefoot man so tall he has to duck under the door frame walks into the bar and up to the counter and when the barmaid reappears he asks her for a "slab". She pulls a carton of twenty-four beers out of the cooler and hefts it onto the counter. He pays her, pulls a corner of the box open and drinks down a tinnie, then pulls out another for the road, tucks the slab effortlessly under his arm, walks out to his pick-up, and drives off with a squeal of tyres.

'Beyond the Black Stump; Travels in Outback Australia', by Andrew Stevenson (Travellers Eye, £9.99) is available to readers of 'The Independent on Sunday' at the discounted price of £7.99 (including p&p within UK) by calling 020-8743 3276, 9am-6pm, Monday-Friday

Follow in the footsteps

Great north run

Scotsman John McDouall Stuart was the first explorer to cross Australia from the south to the Northern Territories in the 19th Century. The government of the time wanted to set up a route from Adelaide to the north coast and offered a reward of A$4,000 to the first person to do so. Despite numerous failed attempts, Stuart finally reached the north coast, after a gruelling seven months, on 24 July 1862. His epic journey is remembered in the name of the road that links Adelaide to Darwin, the Stuart Highway.

Getting there

Austravel (0870 166 2070; www.austravel.com) offers various itineraries in the Northern Territories. A 12-day tour starting in Darwin with a visit to the Purnululu National Park and a cruise down the Katherine Gorge, costs £1,860 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights via Brunei, all-inclusive accommodation.

Clare Spurrell

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links