Brace yourself. Buckle up your seatbelts. Stock up all your rations. Next 1 week is going to need a lot of food, fuel and
nerves. After the Great Social World Trip meeting and eating at homes of NRIs in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, it was time to get back on the road. It was time to test our mental and physical capacity as we started driving out of South Australia and into Western Australia – The largest state of Australia. If separated from the rest of the country, Western Australia will be the 10th largest country in the world. That’s right, it is that big!
Soon after leaving Adelaide we joined The Great Ocean Road, rated as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The road hugs the South Eastern coast on one side and on the other side it is covered with hills. But more than been an incredibly beautiful drive, the road is also the largest war memorial in the world. The project was conceived to give employment and to rehabilitate soldiers who returned to Australia after World War 1. The road is built by soldiers and is dedicated to soldiers killed during the war.
We stopped for the night in a small town called Ceduna, which is known as the Oyster
Capital of Australia. Far away from the bustling crowds, if you want to spend a few days in solitude, walking in the bushes or running along an empty beach, go to Ceduna. For the first time in my life, I tried a raw oyster. First impression? Umm…Disgusting. It was slimy, watery, smelled like…umm, sea food. The drive from South Australia to Western Australia took us through the Eyre Highway. In my opinion, this highway should be rated as the greatest drive in the world. If you don’t mind straight lonely roads, highways that double as air strips, snakes crawling on the roads, hundreds of miles of coastline for company and nothingness for days, you will fall in love with Eyre highway.
Think about the straightest road on which you have driven. Take a minute. Think. Where? When? How long was it? 1 km? 2 km? Maybe a bit more? How about 146 km of straightness! Eyre highway took us on the longest straight road of Australia popularly known as ’90 mile straight’. For 146 km there is no turn, no bends, not even the slightest curve. If your car has good wheel alignment and doesn’t even have a steering wheel, you can actually go to sleep and wake up without crashing into anything. The drive was so straight that it started getting a bit boring but then guess who appeared to give us company? A 3 feet long black desert snake. Before we realised, we drove over it but fortunately without running the tyres over its’ body.
“That’s a snake, that’s a snake in the middle of the road!” I shouted looking at the rear view mirror.
“Turn back quickly, let’s click a few pics” Prasad was ready with his camera
I took a U turn, and stopped the car at a safe distance from the snake. We got out
carefully, umm, actually I didn’t, Sanjay and Prasad did. From the car I saw that the snake made a sudden movement which kind of made me jump even inside the car. It looked angry and changed its posture. It kind of stood up a bit and was almost looking like it was ready to charge. Sanjay and Prasad took a few steps back and quickly returned to the car. Just after they returned, the snake again went flat on the ground and sat still. Though we were excited to have seen a desert snake, but it was clear that the snake didn’t appreciate it much. It seemed like we were disturbing it’s natural habitat.
Great Australian Bight. Have you heard of it? Probably not. At least, I hadn’t. It is a large open bay area running along the Southern Ocean for approx 200 km. We could see the ocean at a small distance on our left but there didn’t seem any access to go any closer. The water looked very blue. We were driving in peak summer under a bright sun working hard to bake us, but that made the water shimmer like silver dots.
“Look, a dirt road, that will probably go near the ocean” Sanjay pointed and took a left turn off the highway. He was right. We drove for just about a km and then we saw the greatest view of our lives. It was in front of us. It was completed unexpected. It was rare. It was a reward. We were about 100 feet above the sea on a cliff. In front of us, down below, as far as the eye could see, was ocean. Blue waters. But not just a single shade of blue. Light blue, navy blue, sky blue, dark blue, shimmering, sparkling but calm blue. The world seemed to have stopped at that point. All we could hear was the sound of the water hitting the cliff and the wind. No other sound. Nothing around us. No tourists, no vehicles, no fencing to protect us from driving over the cliff by accident. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a place unexpectedly which make us feel emotions that are also unexpected. All of us became silent for a few minutes, we didn’t talk, we didn’t take any pictures, we simply looked. I stared at the ocean for a few minutes. Ocean, cliff, wind and me. All of us walked away and stood on our own. It was soothing, It was calming, It was a feeling of pure happiness.
Back on the road, we reached the border between South Australia and Western Australia
where a Quarantine checkpoint awaited us. Western Australia is extremely strict about their environment and taking any fruits, vegetables or livestock is not allowed. An officer checked our vehicle througouhly, asked us to open our bags, took a good look inside and once he was satisfied that we were clean, he let us go. We had entered the largest state of Australia. Something changed. We felt more lonely, we felt more disconnected from the world. All around us was infinite open land. A long, lonely road cutting through the desert was the only sign of any humans having been through here.
We were getting used to the loneliness, when a signboard caught our attention. It read, “Road Strip 500 m ahead”. There was an image of an aircraft on the board. The highway doubled as an airstrip. In that remote, desolate region, where the roads are straight and the cars are few, parts of the highway have been designed for aircrafts to make emergency landings. The bushes around the 2 km strip had been cleared, zebra crossings marked the beginning and end of the strip, reflectors on both sides of the road added the much needed ‘runway’ flavour. The tarmac also felt smoother than the rest of the highway. I couldn’t help look at the sky looking out for some tiny aircraft that might just be coming down on that runway where we were parked.
We continued straight west and as the sun started coming down, the blinding rays hit us directly in the eye and made it very difficult to see anything.
“When you drive in Western Australia, leave by 4 AM and reach your destination by 4 PM. The sunlight is so strong that you will not be able to see anything” Sanjiv ji had told us, warned us and advised us. Did we listen? No. Did we start early? No. We continued driving carefully and after a couple of hours when the sun calmed down, the drive got more comfortable. Our night halt was in a town called Albany where we stayed in a Caravan Park. Australia has thousands of Caravan Parks where you can rent cabins equipped with a small kitchen but shared bathrooms. Every park also has powered and unpowered sights which are basically open areas where you can park your own caravan and get a water and electricity connection. Since Australians’ love their barbeque and there was a barbeque setup in our caravan park, we decided to give it a try. We parked our car and went for a walk in the town centre looking for a grocery store.
“Gday guys, is that your vehicle with the world trip stickers on it?” A middle aged Australian couple stopped their car and asked us. We chatted with them for a few minutes and the offered to give us a lift to the grocery store.
“We were on our way to buy some meat for barbeque” we replied
“We were on our way to buy some Indian Curry for dinner” they said
On the way, they told us that they had visited India many times and loved everything about
India. We decided to mix up our food and spend the evening together. We still hadn’t asked their names. The Great Indian World Trip! Memorable, unexpected, interesting, exciting, it feels like someone handpicked all the nicest people of the world and put them at exactly the spots where we needed them. Peter and Gil, as they are called, took us for a small tour of their city, bought lots of Indian food for us and then we went back to our Caravan Park. The evening was spent mostly talking about their experiences in India. It was a proud moment for us to hear an Australian couple go on raving about our great nation. We drank, we ate, we talked, we sang and in the end, we hugged and said goodbyes.
“Thanks for a lovely evening guys” we said
“No, we should thank you. When we left home today to get some Indian food, we didn’t know the food will be accompanied by 3 Indians as well!” they laughed
Next day, we drove to Perth where we stayed with Sanjay’s childhood friend Anil and his wife Preeti. Both are seasoned professionals. Anil works for Telstra, the largest telecom company in Australia and Preeti works as an immigration consultant. Now some women like cooking, some love cooking and then there are women like Preeti, who live to cook. She seemed happiest when she was cooking.
“Anil, you are a very lucky man” I laughed
“We are in Australia. We cannot leave without trying a Kangaroo” Sanjay said
So Anil got Kangaroo meat which once again, we barbequed. We were very excited and
curious to try it. I am very clear about one thing. Try everything at least once. Be it horse milk, camel milk, spiders, oysters or a Kangaroo! I put a piece in my mouth and chewed on it. Fabulous. It was very delicious, juicy and a bit like mutton. Loved it. Another tick in the box. We thanked Anil and Preeti, took the big box of chicken biryani which Preeti prepared for us at 5 AM. Another town, another Indian family, another great experience.
The real test of driving in Western Australia began. We left Perth and had to take 3 days to drive through the Great Sandy Desert, the second largest desert in Australia. The remoteness, loneliness and silence driving along the desert is eerie. If you car breaks down, if you lose your way, if you fall sick, you are as good as dead. No phone signals, no cars or trucks, no fuel stations for 250-300 km. After 9 hours on the road, we reached a tiny roadhouse but they had no rooms left. It was 5 PM and there was no accommodation for another 700 km.
“Guys, I live in Karatha which is 700km from here, you will not find any hotel there also. You can come and stay at my house. Here, take my number” A strong, well built, bald, middle aged, tattooed Australian man in a pickup truck approached us and gave us his number.
“Sure, thank you, we will call you when we reach Karatha” Sanjay said.
“Umm, I don’t have a good feeling about it. Remember Wolfe Creek?” Sanjay said.
Only one day back, we had seen an Australian movie called Wolfe Creek where 3 friends go on a road trip through the Great Sandy Desert, their car breaks down, a guy in a pickup offers help, takes them to his house where they spend the night and in the morning, 2 of them are murdered. Movie was based on a true story and was filmed in the same area through which we were passing.
“Bad idea. So, there is no accommodation after 700 km also. How far is Broome?” I asked Sanjay
“From Perth, Broome is 2400 km. We have done 900 till now. So another 1500 km” he replied
“It is 6 PM. If we go straight to Broome, it should take us another 18 hours and we will reach by tomorrow afternoon. What do you think?” I asked
“Let’s do it” Sanjay replied. Decision made. We would drive overnight through one of the remotest and loneliest regions of the world. We were going to expose ourselves to risk, to danger maybe, but it was thrilling, it was exciting, it was needed and as far as we knew, we had no other option. We started driving and mentally prepared ourselves to go a long way nonstop. Soon it got dark, the rare truck or car that we would see every half an hour or so also disappeared. It was a full moon night, millions of stars lit up the sky and it looked very festive. We were in a great mood, the drive was going very smooth and we were simply enjoying this experience which was totally unplanned. We reached Karatha around 2 AM and while looking for a fuel station, we spotted a McDonalds. The manger was an Indian guy. On seeing our vehicle, he flashed a big smile and offered us drinks and food. “Would you like any coffee, tea, burgers? It’s all on the house for you” he said.
“Just coffee will be fine, thanks” I replied
His name was Happy, a 28 year old young boy from Chandigarh. Meeting an Indian at 2 AM in a small unheard of desert town working as a store Manager in McDonalds. Isn’t this journey worth all the effort?
“I like India, I miss India, the people, the warmth, the love, the friendship, the bond. I miss all of that. But here I make good money. I live in this small town because money is better here compared to big cities. I don’t mind it.” He said
We chatted with Happy for a bit, took pictures, got directions to the fuel station and left.
Sanjay took over the wheel and I slept. At 4 AM, I woke up. All of us have developed a tendency to wake up when the car stops. The car was parked on the side of the highway, Sanjay and Prasad were not in the car. All around me was darkness. I was in deep sleep and not sure if it was a dream or reality. I heard some noises from outside and opened the door to take a look. Sanjay and Prasad were fixing something towards the rear of the car.
“What happened? Is everything ok?” I asked. What a stupid question.
“We got hit by a Kangaroo. It has cracked the bumper. ” Sanjay said
I went out to take a look at the damage and it didn’t look good. The bumper had come off on the left side and Sanjay was looking for something to tie it with.
“It was a medium sized Kangaroo hiding in the bushes. I saw it sitting there, it jumped after we had almost crossed it but it jumped a bit too early and hit the left side bumper.” Sanjay said
We used some Mseal, tape and zip ties to keep the bumper together. We decided to get it fixed in Darwin and started driving again.
“During dusk and down, a lot of Kangaroos come out on the highways”
“Never drive in the night otherwise you will get hit by a Kangaroo”
“Kangaroos can cause severe damage to your car”
How many times had we been warned about this? Every single person we met in Australia had warned us about avoiding overnight driving specially to avoid getting hit by a Kangaroo. Did we listen? Again, no. We paid the price, we got punished, we broke our own rule also of not doing night driving in a foreign country.
Rest of the morning and day went without any incident and by 1 PM next day, we reached Broome. We had driven 30 hours straight, covered 2400 km and crossed through the Great Sandy Desert in one day and a few hours. A journey that we had planned to do in 3 days. Broome is one of the most popular beach towns in Australia and we got a chance to relax for a few days. Unfortunately, it was too hot and low season, so the town was pretty much dead. But that didn’t stop us from going to the beach. I saw the most incredible sunset and took off for a quick run on the beach watching the sun set behind the Indian Ocean. Being a hot region, Broome is also home to a Mango Winery. Something I had not heard of before. Mango Wine? We went for a wine tasting session and tried a few different types. It had a sweet umm mangoiee flavour. That’s the best I can describe it. Please consult Wine experts to know more about the subtle flavours and combinations.
We continued our journey back towards Darwin. We had covered most of Australia and were only 300 km from Darwin when we stopped in a small town called Katherine for lunch.
“A tourist doesn’t know where he has been, a traveller doesn’t know where he is going.” Or should I say, a traveller doesn’t know who he is going to meet.
“A slim, young Indian guy came to me smiling. Paaji, is that car from Dilli?” he asked.
After 30 minutes, we were in Rocky’s house and having tea with him and his wife Khushi. He didn’t let us leave Katherine without visiting his house. The excitement and happiness that I saw on his face was priceless. He was in complete disbelief.
“Look at my hands, I have goose bumps listening to what you are doing” he said to me. He works for a tyre repair company and on seeing the condition of our spare tyres, he said
“Your spare tyres won’t last in Africa. Let’s go to my workshop, I will replace both spare tyres.”
“Umm, Rocky, thanks, we will manage, we don’t need new tyres” I replied
“Tushar bhai, please let me do it. A little gift from me. Your spare tyres are not in good condition. Please. I won’t take no for an answer”
Remember when I said, all the nicest people have been handpicked and carefully plotted at different locations for us?
We reached Darwin later that evening, got the car serviced and dropped it off at the Port for Africa. We will rendezvous with Forrest towards end of January 2014 in Mombasa now. We spent our Christmas with friends we made in Darwin. Santosh, Ricky, Pir and Gagan. Rocky, Khushi and their friend Manjinder also joined us from Katherine. Each one of them went to drop us off at the airport at 4 in the morning for our flight back home. On the way, someone asked me,
“So Tushar, what was the best part about Australia?”
I kept thinking of all the lovely places, the great drives, the beautiful cities, the thrilling deserts. But then I smiled and said…It is the Indians living here.