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Wednesday, January 21, 2004
The middle road

There is only one North-South road through the middle of Australia. It runs from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs. This latter town is a stepping off point for Uluru (Ayer's Rock) and King's Canyon both of which I visited and of which more anon. The main road is metalled the whole way and I travelled along a great deal of it. According to the maps, the road goes through several deserts but I could detect little change as we crossed the boundaries: the landscape was uniformly inhospitable. One could see dead or dying farm animals beside the road and these creatures served only to emphasise the harshness of the environment. From Port Augusta, ‘The Crossroads of Australia’, one rounds a corner and suddenly, within a kilometre, one’s in the outback.

This road is used by comparatively little traffic and I found myself seeing no vehicles at all for quite long periods. One of the most intimidating is the road train. Consisting of a prime-mover and three or four trailers connected together these vehicles, fifty or sixty metres long, are frightening to encounter. The backmost trailer 'fishtails' unless the driver accelerates hard and one feels obliged to give these leviathans every inch of carriageway possible. One cyclist (a cyclist, for heaven’s sake) came rather too close to one and was virtually blown off his machine. Being overtaken by or overtaking one of these vehicles is truly worrying.

For many years, there has been a railway line, albeit single-tracked, from Adelaide to Alice Springs and many people had dreamt of the day when the Alice Springs-Darwin link would be completed. Well, I was privileged to be driving along the road at the same time as the inaugural freight train left Adelaide for Darwin - the line opened last week. I probably even saw it from a distance; it was over a kilometre long and pulled by three engines. Perhaps the newly completed railway line will banish the frightening road trains from this road altogether.

At one rest stop, I got into conversation with a bloke who said he had lost his job as a road train driver because of the new railway line. He was driving a car, with his wife, to somewhere in Queensland where he lives. Normally, it would be possible to drive across from Darwin to (say) Brisbane but the road was flooded (well-reported on the local national news) so they were having to drive almost from North to South to use another route. By my calculation, this would mean at least three and possibly five days extra driving. What a country!

Having driven long distances elsewhere, in the US for example, I am acutely aware of the contrast: one constantly senses the harshness of nature in remoter Australia. And yet, I have never been off a metalled road; there are other roads that are more inaccessible and more treacherous. One understands the call of the wild and one appreciates the civilization – air conditioned cars and smooth roads - that make it all possible. And if I have become no more enamoured of the Mitsubishi Magma (sic) Veranda (sic) that I’m driving, at least I appreciate its reliability and the steadiness of cups of tea in the cupholders. To have a breakdown out in the wilds, with skilled assistance a day or more away, would not be enjoyable. Nor would it be acceptable to have a vehicle that slops your tea all over the place, wherever you are.

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