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

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