After a long wait, Forrest finally arrived in Darwin from Singapore by sea and we took a flight from India to Australia to
rendezvous with our beloved. Darwin is the only city in Australia that was bombed during World War II. The city was also completely destroyed by a fierce cyclone in 1974. Our first impression on landing in Darwin was how expensive this city is. A 5 minute taxi ride for 20 dollars; an innocent happy meal at McDonalds for 12 dollars; a regular half day tour around the city for close to 150 dollars. We wanted to put Sanjay in a ‘Death cage’ with crocodiles but 20 minutes in the ‘death cage’ cost 200 dollars so we passed on it! What are we going to do? Budget cuts. That was the first setback. Our budget was completely thrown away and from the minute we landed in Australia we realised that it was going to be a very very tight budgeted journey. In fact, it came to us as a rude shock that we didn’t even have enough funding to complete the Australian leg. We started feeling low from day one but tried to keep each other pepped up. We decided to go grocery shopping and stock up food rations in our backpackers’ lodge. Our breakfasts, lunches and dinners will all happen using our rationed stock. Once we hit the road, we would bring out our stove and start cooking wherever we bunked overnight.
After waiting for 2 days for the vehicle to get unloaded from the ship, we finally walked up to the Toll Marine Logistics offices at Francis Bay Terminal to get clearance of Forrest. All 3 of us were very anxious to see our car. We had last seen our car in Singapore when we had dropped it off at the port to be loaded on a Darwin bound ship. Thanks to a lot of delays, it had taken over one month for it to reach Darwin. We entered the port and walked up to the warehouse where Forrest was parked. My heart skipped a beat when I saw it from a distance. Familiarity, home and the most important member of the Great Indian World Trip was parked right in front of us. The car looked just how we had left it except that there was a lot of rust coating on the exterior due to it being exposed to salt water on the sea.
Australia has very strict regulations when it comes to bringing foreign vehicles into their country. They do a ‘Quarantine’ check which involves examining the car minutely for any trace of soil, mud, seed, insects or any biodegradable products. An officer from the Department of Agriculture was looking at the vehicle when we arrived. He found some fluff (like pollen) on the radiator and carefully put it in a test tube.
“This might be dangerous and pollute our environment. We need to send it to the lab for testing” he explained.
In my mind, it was simply pollen or fluff that had turned black because of being stuck on the radiator for so long. He carried on checking the car and finally found what he was looking for.
“Ah, look at this! So much mud underneath your vehicle mate!” he had crawled under the car and found some mud stuck in a corner near the chassis. He proudly showed off the mud to me and declared that we had failed the quarantine inspection.
“You need to get your car cleaned thoroughly before we can let you drive it on our roads. Please have it cleaned and then book another appointment with our office” He said and left.
Our frustration was building up. We could deal with substandard meals, we could deal with below average accommodations but we couldn’t deal with sitting in a town waiting helplessly to get access to our own vehicle. We had already been in Darwin for 4 days. First 2 days we had waited for the vehicle to be uploaded from the ship, next 2 days had gone in taking Quarantine and custom appointments. The car’s battery had gone dead, the quarantine inspection had failed, the windscreen wash container had broken and leaked, the cleaning guys were not available to prepare the car for next inspection, all in all, we were going to be sitting in one of the most expensive and remotest towns of Australia for close to a week doing nothing. Adding up the inspection costs, the new battery, the cleaning costs, we were down 1000 dollars already and still didn’t have the clearance to drive.
The following day, we once again went to the port for another round of inspection. The
inspector once again crawled under the car and once again he found traces of mud. My heart sank. We had paid 300 dollars to get the car cleaned but obviously it wasn’t clean enough. But he seemed a bit kind and asked the port guys to clean it in some corners in front of him. After half an hour cleaning, he walked up to me and said,
“Your vehicle is cleared now. Have a safe trip in Australia.”
Phew! Freedom. That was my first reaction. Sitting in a tiny room for a week without our car made us feel handicapped. We quickly made all the payments, thanked the port guys and finally switched on the ignition for the first time in Australia and drove out of the port. Our first stop was the Motor Vehicle Registry (MVR) office where we had to go to buy insurance. We reached the office at 5 PM and were told that the office was about the close and it being a Friday we should report back on Monday!
“No, no, no, another 2 bloody days in Darwin for nothing!” I was very frustrated.
“I am feeling tired sitting and doing nothing” Sanjay said
There was nothing we could do. We had accept reality and come to peace with the fact that we were going to be spending another couple of days in Darwin. We had arrived on a Monday and would most likely leave on a Monday.
But Darwin had others plans for us. What happened over the next 2 hours and over the next 2 days was absolutely worth the delay! We had forgotten that a journey is all about experiences, about unexpected and unplanned situations. As a traveller, you never know what the next minute or the next hour has in store for you. We can make all our plans with utmost details and we feel broken when things don’t turn out the way they were supposed to be, but we forget that god has something better in store for us.
While driving to the MVR office that evening, a truck stopped at a traffic light and honked at us. I looked and saw an Indian guy smiling and waving at us. I waved back and as the lights turned green, we moved on. At the next lights, he parked behind us and quickly ran out to meet us. He was a dark, red eyed, serious looking, bearded South Indian man almost my age.
“Hi guys, I am Santosh, this car is from India?” he asked excitedly
We chatted for a few minutes and then the light turned green again.
“I will follow you to the MVR office and meet you there.” he said
He waited for us till we came out of the MVR office feeling disappointed. We had no idea what we were going to do in the next 2 days while we waited for Monday. But Santosh was a godsend for us. What happened in the next 2 days made our stay in Darwin worth the while. But before I talk about Santosh, there was another interesting person who walked up to us at the MVR office.
“Hello, is that your car parked outside?” a middle aged Australian lady asked me with a broad smile on her face.
“Yes, it is” I replied smiling
She asked me about what we were doing, the theme of our journey, the route etc.
“My name is CJ. I am from the Liberal Party of Northern Territory State. I think what you guys are doing is incredible. We have a party conference in 2 hours where the Ministers, MPs and the Chief Minister of our state will be coming. I would like to invite you guys to come there so we can all give you an official welcome to Australia”
For a minute I thought she was joking, I didn’t know how to react, she had just seen our car and now she wants us to meet the MPs and Chief Minister of the state?
“Umm, are you sure, well, yes, I guess we can come, it will be an honour” I managed to reply
She gave me the hotel details where we should reach after 2 hours. Since we had nothing to do, we decided to go and at least checkout what this meeting is all about. We walked out of MVR where Santosh was waiting for us. He was waiting impatiently for us and was very curious to know everything about our journey. He invited us for lunch to his place and we agreed to that as well since we had nothing else to do over the weekend.
It was decided that after our meeting with the MPs, Santosh will pick us up from our hotel and take us to his home. Our spirits were completely broken, we had already been stuck in Darwin for 5 days, we were running short on money, we were not able to eat well, we didn’t get clearance of our vehicle, we were itching to hit the road but were helpless. We went to the hotel and asked for CJ. She quickly came to see us with her signature smile. She walked up to me quickly, hugged me and kissed me.
“I cannot believe you are here. Oh thank you so much for coming at such a short notice. I have already told the Ministers about you and the Chief Minister is very eager to meet you guys. Please wait here, let me go and call him quickly” She said and walked away. We didn’t know how to react and just played along.
After a few minutes, Adam Giles, Chief Minister of the Northern Territory state of Australia
walked out to meet us. A tall, well built man, he shook our hands and asked us about our journey. We chatted with him for a few minutes, Prasad even took a few takes on his camera asking the CM to wish us all the best.
“What are you doing, don’t keep asking him for retakes” I said to Prasad when he continued asking the CM to repeat the same lines again and again.
“Tushar, when the camera is rolling, everyone has time. Don’t worry, he won’t go anywhere” Prasad whispered to me
He was absolutely right! The CM gave us all the time we needed to record his interview and once we were done with him, CJ told me that we have to quickly follow her in the banquet room where all senior members of the Liberal Party were having a conference. None us of were prepared for what happened next. We walked into the conference room, and as if by cue, more than 100 party members stood up, gave us a standing ovation and started cheering and clapping.
“Welcome to Australia guys. It is a vast country, and when you start driving, beware of the kangaroos and don’t drive in the night” one of the senior party members announced on the microphone.
“Thank you for your kindness. We cannot wait to explore your beautiful country” I said amidst huge applause. We left the banquet after only a few minutes but we left feeling very proud of us and of our country. We had just experienced something that we could never ever dream about. To receive a standing ovation from all senior members of the ruling part in Australia was not on our agenda. The delay caused due to quarantine and insurance is what made it happen. This is what the journey is about. Everything happens for a reason. Had we received our car on time, had we been able to get insurance on time, we would have missed out on these moments. We left the hotel with our heads held high and went back to our lodge feeling very proud. Our spirits were suddenly lifted and we didn’t mind the delay in Darwin anymore.
Soon after, Santosh came to pick us up and drove us to his home. A cute bunglow with a front and a back garden, we entered his driveway and were greeted by Hibi, his Taiwanese girlfriend.
“These guys are from my country. They are driving all around the world” he proudly told Hibi. In the next couple of hours, Santosh didn’t speak much. He spent all his time in the kitchen with Hibi preparing a feast for us. Chicken Tikka, Lamb Chops, Kashmiri Pulao, Greek Salad, Beans, Chicken Curry and Keema, he prepared all this in a matter of hours only for us. The weekend was spent with Santosh and his friends.
We stayed back for dinner as well and had a classic Australian bar-be-que. Next day, he took us for sightseeing in Darwin. We had thought that the weekend would be a drag but meeting Santosh had changed everything. I have never met a more selfless, humble, honest, caring, passionate and emotional person in my life who would go out of his way for complete strangers. From the word go, he kept giving and giving. He would have a constant smile on his face all the time but his eyes looked sad, very sad. On asking him about his life, he told us that his father had lost everything during floods in South India a few years back and soon after, he passed away. The family had to sell their family home and move out.
“I had no choice but to leave India to make money for my family. My life’s goal is to buy back our family home. It has been many years but I am not able to accumulate enough money. I miss India, I miss my mother and my sister. The day I get enough funds to buy back my father’s home, I will go back to India” he told us slowly
People like Santosh are rare. Meeting him made us realise that every Indian living abroad has his own story to tell. It is not as rosy and happy as it looks from the outside. Some leave their motherland out of choice, others leave because they have no other choice.
Monday arrived, and keeping our fingers crossed, we drove to the MVR office first thing in
the morning. Within an hour, we got the insurance and all the necessary paperwork. We couldn’t believe it. We finally had the clearance to drive out of Darwin. We had spent 7 days in a city where we had planned to stay for a maximum of 2 days. Without Forrest, we felt handicapped. We were not made to sit in a tiny backpackers’ room. But patience is the key. We had to accept our situation and wait. Our wait was finally over. We rushed back to the hotel, packed our bags and wanted to leave Darwin as soon as we could. It almost felt like we have gained independence. Santosh came to say goodbye and brought a huge stock of food and drinks for us.
“This is for the road. Please keep in touch and we will definitely meet once you return back to Darwin after driving all over Australia” he said
He followed us to the petrol station where he even paid for our first fuelling. When we kept insisting him not to pay, he said,
“It will be a disgrace for all Indians in Australia if we cannot even contribute this much for fellow Indians doing such an incredible journey.”
We said an emotional goodbye to Santosh, switched on the ignition, drove out of Darwin and were soon driving through the Australian Outback.