Pinkawillinie. Karkoo. Koonibba. Eucla. The names don’t exactly roll off the tongue, and seem almost comically made-up, like some down-under, straight-to-tv cartoon movie. But they’re real and really do exist – I know, I’ve been there. Let’s just pick one at random and see what we have: Gundagai.
Ok, so we’ve just had lunch at Wagga Wagga and my buddy Ben says we’ve got to take a little detour and go see the Dog on the Tucker Box, 5 miles from Gundagai. I’m like what the heck is a tucker box?
He said it’s Australian slang for a lunch box, and there’s a famous song about it. I said ok, let’s go. But first a bit about lunch – have you ever had Vegemite? It’s horrible across all dimensions – texture, taste, color and smell – but for some reason Australians love it. I’m reading the ingredients off the label now – “Made from concentrated yeast extract.” You know what that means? I’ll tell you what that means: when they’re making beer and empty a huge vat, there’s a thin crusty scum of fermented hops spooge on the bottom. They scrape that crud up and put it in jars. That’s Vegemite. Here’s some flavor flav:
“Some blokes I know have stacks of luck, no matter where they fall,
But there was I, Lord love a duck, no bloody luck at all.
I couldn't heat a pot of tea or keep me trousers dry,
And me dog shat in me tucker-box five miles from Gundagai.”
Kimba. We had just left Adelaide, where we almost saw the Grand Prix and were heading west (with the night!) to eventually end up in Fremantle for the America’s Cup. Oh, let me backtrack. I was in Australia visiting a friend in Sydney after quitting my job at The Japan Times, when I decided to buy a motorcycle and drive across the entire continent to see some old sailor pals in Perth. I had been working in Newport, RI a few years earlier and I knew those guys – Dennis Connor, Jack Sutphen and the whole Stars & Stripes crew – when they lost in ’83. You should have been there when the winged-keel Australia II wonder won – stunning damn unbelievable agony!
Anyway, we’re heading up and over the bight on highway A1 to Port Augusta and I felt for a minute like I was in France or Italy: wineries all over the place. All up and down the hills as far as the eye could see were trellised grape vines. Bullamankanka Red, anyone? We were supposed to meet “Dave the wine guy” who was a friend of Bruce Kinlin, a childhood friend, and get a tour, but never ended up connecting. So the whole rest of the trip he became the mystery man. To this day I still ask Bruce about him since I haven’t yet met Dave the wine guy. Yet.
When you get to Kimba, you’re basically and kind of literally turning the corner: the Nullarbor Plain (from Latin nullus “no”, and arbor “tree”) located on the great Australian Bight lies miles and miles ahead. “Crossing the Nullarbor” is the quintessential right of passage for most Aussies. We'd been warned about how dangerous it was, but what they didn't tell us is how unbelievably cold the desert is. In the photo above, our hero is wearing every article of clothing he owned, including his foul-weather gear. Still froze his toes off.
Most "stations", which are technically towns, consist of a small shack with a gas pump out front and a couple of skinny dogs lying around in the shade. Sometimes there’ll be another shack or two out back, which are either tool sheds or a motel, depending. We pulled up to the pump and there was a hand-painted sign that read: "Just toot and we’re oot.” We tooted and oot they came. We asked if we could stay for the night and they said yes. We asked if there was a place to eat and they said we could eat with them, which we did. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but fried-up dingo stew doesn’t do it for me.
When we got to our room, we fell on the beds exhausted. There was an ancient black and white tv, and Ben turned it on just for yucks and the movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes came on. I don’t know what kind of life you’ve lived, or if you’ve ever ridden a motorcycle over thousands of miles of scrub desert in the cold, but the memory of watching that film in the dimming twilight in a shack out back in the outback, unshowered, unshaved, tired and wild is one of my fondest.
The next morning we said our goodbyes and got on the road early after a ploughman’s lunch for breakfast, and the next station was about 120 miles away. My motorcycle wouldn’t make it that far, and since that was the distance between most stations, I carried a Coke can for the whole rest of the trip filled with gasoline on my lap which was just enough extra to make it. The story is about Kimba, which we just left, but let me just tell you one other sidebar tidbit before we get too far out of town.
There’s only one highway in Southern Australia, A1, so anyone going anywhere takes it. Huge roadtrains – tractor-trailer trucks with two or three trailers hooked together come barreling down like banshees on the flapping edge of Armegeddon, and blow past you on your puny motorcycle like you’re standing still, or come at you the other way and literally blow you off the road. They all have “boong” bars on the front and you’ll see dead kangaroos splattered across them, blood and fur and guts, and goo. They don't even slow down. In fact, every hundred or so feet along the highway you’d see dead kangaroos in various states of decay and death; some fresh enough to eat; others looking like dried up leather suitcases full of old bones. All over the place, thousands of them. I’m not kidding, they looked like surreal outdoor abstract animal art.
So we get to the next station, Poochers or Wirrulla or Whereever, and as we’re fueling up this “ute” pulls in. A ute is an Australian pickup truck, but sometimes they’re lean and low and look like El Caminos. This one had a covered bed and the ambulance-style doors on the back had wire mesh. It looked like a big dog carrier with a padlock on it. We said hello, like everyone in Australia does, and didn’t take much notice of it. As we continued our way to Perth, we would see it at several of the stations along the way, because they were going the same way we were going, and there’s only one way to go, and we’d always say hello to the blokes.
Later, when we were in Perth, we read that the notorious serial killer David Birnie had recently been captured and brought back for trial. Ask anyone down under about him – he’s as (in)famous as they come.
The point of this story is, oh yeah, I just remembered. Fast forward 30 years: about a month ago I got an order for a One Up! from a woman in Kimba, Australia, and I wrote a short note along with it that said I had been there, and since there are only 636 people in the town, I'd probably met someone she knew all those years ago. She wrote back and said I had definitely met someone she knew, her mother actually, and... I was her father!
The point is it’s a wonderful world and so much fun – just be careful whenever you brachiate, Tarzan!