They thought we were slightly nuts.
Six of us, all students at the University of Adelaide — three Americans (Jonny, Kate, and myself) one Brit (Carrie-Ann), one Canadian (Taylor), and one Aussie (Jakob) who had made the trip before — were making a five day round-trip from Adelaide, north through 1500 kilometers of empty desert, in the middle of the Australian summer, without air-conditioning. We were headed to Uluru, the giant red monolith also known as Ayers Rock, sacred to Aboriginal tribes and as much an Australian icon as the kangaroo.
“Are you sure about this trip?” My aunt asked me warily over a cup of tea in their cottage in the Adelaide Hills. “The outback can be quite dangerous.” I did my best to reassure my Australian aunt and uncle that we had a flawless route map complete with multiple campsites in each town, a foot-long grocery list that included gallons of water and sunscreen, and most importantly, a zero-liability rental insurance policy on our campervan. Regardless, Australians know better than to trek into the outback without a guide in November, one of the hottest months of the year. “Whatever you do,” she said over the phone the night before, “don’t drive at night.”
We picked up our campervan in Adelaide and set off through the city, eager to reach our first destination, Coober Pedy, by nightfall. After a brief stop in Port Augusta, we were soon in the true outback, where red sand lined the road, gas stations were few and far between, and passing drivers always waved, happy to see another sign of human life.
When Bill Bryson wrote in Down Under, “the great virtue about driving through emptiness is that when you come to anything - anything at all - that might be called a diversion you get disproportionately excited,” he was probably referring to the abundance of unintentionally hilarious road signs. There were signs reminding us that Drowsy Drivers Die, to Never Leave The Vehicle if we broke down, and that walking backwards around mine shafts can result in death. There were also the “Caution, Cattle” variations: “Caution, Cattle X-ing”, “Caution, Cattle Jumping”, and our favorite “Caution, Cattle Keeping it Real”.
At six o’clock, we realized the day’s ten-hour drive was a bad idea, and everyone started to fade in the November heat. Carrie-Ann, Taylor, Jakob and Kate sprawled out on the cushioned benches in the back, trying to catch a breeze from the van’s tiny sliding windows, while I rode up front with Jonny. My eyelids, along with the sun, were starting to droop when something with spindly legs darted in front of the van. “JONNY!” I screamed as he hit the brakes. One of the back seat cushions hurtled down the aisle taking Kate, who had been half asleep, with it. She slammed into the dashboard, luckily cushion-first, and I looked up in time to see an emu dart into the bush. Minus a nasty jab from the gear shift Kate was fine, but up-right seating positions and safety belts were unanimously decided upon.
Not 80 kilometers outside Coober Pedy our headlights caught the tail-end of a large cow keeping it real in the middle of the road. Jonny swerved so hard the van nearly flipped. We braced ourselves from being thrown on the floor or pelted with groceries and water bottles tumbling from the cabinets. Skidding onto the shoulder, we got out to walk off the adrenaline. The desert was black, not even a flicker of light from a distant town. If we had rolled, we might have been stranded for hours or possibly a day or two, with nonfunctioning cell phones, a dinky first aid kit, and a dozen frozen sausages for food.