Monday, August 18, 2008

What's a mate for?

If you live in the United Kingdom, a "big drive" consists of ten or fifteen miles between your, and a neighbouring, village. For this you will invariably pack a thermos of tea and a travel rug, (plus a couple of sandwiches if you're really organised). I know this, because when I lived in England, my wife's relatives, for their annual vacation, would load up the car with a panoply of camping equipment, food for a fortnight, and a trailer-boat on the back, and drive exactly five miles down the road to a camping spot by the river. I'm not kidding.

Once, after we'd stayed at their place for the weekend, they were horrified that I could even contemplate the idea of driving fifty miles back to London at ten o'clock on a Sunday night. When I assured them that that was, indeed, our plan, Freda bustled off into the kitchen, furiously making sandwiches and boiling water for a thermos, in order to determine that we would not die of a malingering death by starvation during a trip she no doubt considered the province of fools and colonials.


Leigh and I had just covered seven hundred and fifty kilometres since we'd decamped, at dawn that morning, from a beautiful little spot on the south coast of New South Wales.

"Big drive," I remarked to my mate as we climbed out of the car at Wilson's Promontory.

"Fucking thirsty, Loz," he replied. Leigh and I had an understanding on our trip. I wouldn't smoke cigarettes in the car, and he wouldn't insist on having a beer while I was driving. This worked spectacularly well, I have to say - I cut down on smoking, and Leigh found that sobriety wasn't as bad as he'd imagined it, all those years ago. 

I was pretty thirsty, too, so , instead of pulling out all of the camping gear and setting up, we just unfolded a couple of camping chairs, opened the esky, and ripped into a number of beers. It was late afternoon, and we realised we'd have to get the tents out, sooner or later, and get ourselves organised, but, for the moment, we were luxuriating in that beautiful lethargy that comes from sitting in a car for seven or eight hours with the road trawling interminably past. It had been a great day, actually - we had both encountered territory through which neither of us had ever travelled. It was the first stage of our adventure, and we were, at last, into the zone of the unknown. I'm always excited by getting to a brand new place, and this was no exception.

Wilson's Promontory (or just "The Prom", as it's known by locals), is the southernmost tip of the Australian mainland. It is a huge national park, brilliantly foreseen as a national treasure by our ancestors: vast, magnificently wild, and possessed of some of the most exquisite scenery on the planet. As you drive in, great plateaus of acacia, bottlebrush, banksia and spotted gum give way to creek valleys dominated by water-plants: sedge and native lilies, with ducks and swans feeding on the abundant life. You round a bend, and finally, a seascape of wild water, huge swells and massive, soaring granite island-plugs ripping their way out of the ocean reminds you, once and for all, of your ridiculous insignificance. We were enchanted.

"This," opined Leigh, pointing to a chattering mob of southern rosellas, as he settled into beer number five, "is going to be a bloody good stop-over, Loz."

I was just starting to get that rosy glow happening myself, and I could not but agree. "You're right, mate; now, how about we get organised? A man occasionally needs to eat."

At the mention of food, Leigh became rather more animated. "Perfect, mate - let's get these tents up, then it's my specialty for dinner: beef a la Sackville."

We dragged the tent bags out of the car, dumped their contents onto the ground, and then a very strange thing happened.

It started to blow a gale. Not just one of your run-of-the-mill, piddling little autumn zephyrs, though; we had innocently found ourselves, at one of the wildest places in the entire country, in the teeth of the biggest hurricane to hit Victoria in forty-five years. 

And we were pissed. You see, we hadn't calculated the combination of meagre food intake, long hours in the car and a setting sun on the body. Those five beers had, effectively, done the job of a full-bore night on the tiles. And the wind blew harder.

Stupidly, we threw caution to the wind (where it blew away across the ocean at something approaching the speed of sound), and got down to the drunken business of erecting not one, but two tents in one-hundred knot winds. I was lying across the polyester base of my tent, desperately attempting to hammer a stake into the ground. Leigh was wrestling with one of those collapsible, flexible tent frames, which was acting like a rodeo cowboy's lariat in the gale, whipping him soundly around the head and shoulders. He struggled to, and eventually got, the things through the tent fly and anchored them, suffering numerous cuts and abrasions in the process. The whole time, he hooted and cackled with hysterical, insane laughter. Meanwhile, I'd managed to bang the tent pegs into the ground, suffering only a thumb that was twice the size of normal and bleeding like an abattoir's blood-bin. It was freezing; my blood developed a crust of ice immediately upon oozing out of my throbbing hand, and we still had one tent to go.

We were working on the second tent. By now, the gale was blowing so fiercely that entire tree-limbs were cavorting across the sky; any normal human, I thought,  would have been safely at the bottom of a nuclear fallout shelter. Which reminded me: where was Leigh? The bastard had disappeared. I kept working, idiotically trying to mangle my thumb even more. Suddenly, Leigh appeared, carrying a familiar object in each hand.

"Hey mate," he screamed above the wail of the storm, "would you like a glass of red?"

It started to rain. A million jagged ice-needles started hitting us horizontally. I forced myself to believe in God for a second, just so I could abuse the fuck out of him. Leigh, meanwhile, calmly sipped at his wine with a look of total bliss on his ugly mug.

We got the second tent up, eventually, and they were both billowing and bulging as every gust flattened them before they could pop up again. If the elements had added just a touch of snow to the proceedings, we could have been at the south col of Everest. I was worried about staying alive for another three or four minutes, but Leigh was in camping heaven.

"This is fucking brilliant, Loz," he screamed at me again, falling into great cackling shudders of laughter. I was thinking that "brilliant" was the sort of word that could be applied to the downward thrust of a tent peg through the insane little gnome's forehead, but before I could bring that ambition to a satisfactory resolution he was away again, rattling around in the kitchen box. He dumped several articles of kit into a plastic garbage bag, motioned towards me with his free arm, and was away up the track.

"Fuck this for a joke," I thought to myself, and dived into the comparative safety and warmth of the Volvo. After another two hastily-downed glasses of wine, I was feeling somewhat less concerned that a tidal-wave was about to appear over the dunes in front of us and wash everything to kingdom come. Suddenly, Leigh re-appeared at the window, grinning. I cautiously opened it about a millimetre, and he yelled "Dinner's on!"

I got out and battled my way into the wind, behind the chortling and singing little bastard, until we came across the camping area's laundry block. Inside, everything was quiet. Heat from the recently-used dryers permeated the room. On top of two adjacent washing machines was a table-cloth, immaculately laid with plates, knives and forks, a bottle of Penfold's, and a great, steaming tureen from which emanated one of the most delicious odours I have ever smelt. Leigh motioned me to a high stool beside the "table". He poured two glasses of wine, handed me one, and intoned

"Bon appetit, my friend".


RT NZ 8teist said...

Hi Laurie ,I`d just like to second what Sharon said said on the previous thread .
I drove from Geraldton to Alice Springs in 86 ,had a great time ,your stories are bringing all those memories back.
NZ is a bit like the UK ,you cant go for 5 mins without seeing a shop ,house or whatever, driving across the Nullabor just blew me away,a couple of days driving and only seeing another car once in awhile,pubs and gas stations every 500 k ,awesome. Can`t wait to do it again and I will sooner or later.

Cheers Rodger :)

Jonathan said...

I'll have you know that I never have a thermos or a travel rug in my car! Although this may be because my entire life usually happens within a radius of five or so miles from my flat.

Steve said...

You're making me homesick you old bastard!!! But don't panic - I'll be home soon... Just give me another 6 months to properly unhinge American culture. I'll be back by Australia Day!
(Can't wait to have a decent beer with you and Leigh.)
Give my love to all at home.

Lee said...

If you live in the United Kingdom, a "big drive" consists of ten or fifteen miles between yours, and a neighbouring, village.

True, but such a drive would take 3 hours due to traffic :)

I admit I once use to think that driving to the next city was a 'big deal', now living in Aus I drive a similar distance and think it is just 'down the road'

For this you will invariably pack a thermos of tea and a travel rug, (plus a couple of sandwiches if you're really organised).

Never did that... we had shops and service stations ever 20 miles on the motorway - why would I need to do that?

Nice read BTW