Once you really start to get into the South Australian outback, the road itself becomes a living thing, almost. It ties you to the landscape - flat and straight, so straight that for mile after mile you seem to be disappearing towards a never-arriving horizon. A bend is a novelty; you almost want to shout with glee as you move the steering wheel an inch to one side. The road is just about the only thing that reminds you that other beings inhabit the earth.
We'd been driving like this for hours when we came across a place called Parachilna. It was getting late, and no time to be out on the road at roo o'clock, unless you were driving a huge rig that could just scoop them out of the way like cow-catchers on an old railway locomotive. (Dead kangaroos litter the highway out there; in one hour you can see a kangaroo in all possible states of decomposition.)
Parachilna was famous, we'd been told by our little travel book. It had a pub. The pub served what it called "feral food", which was an unintentional irony, I'm sure, because the food it referred to consisted almost entirely of native species of animal: roo, crocodile, emu and so-on. We rolled off the highway into the town, which was adorned by the pub, and an old, abandoned and dilapidated school yard, where the classrooms were boarded up and falling down at the same time. The only building worthy of not being scuttled was the old washroom. The place had been turned into a camping ground. There was absolutely nothing else there.
The ground was made of sand and rock. The only vegetation in the entire place was one or two stumpy little trees that clung miserably to life in the face of a howling easterly wind pouring down from the Flinders Ranges, away in the distance. There was dust everywhere.
"This," I said to Leigh as we climbed out of the Volvo, "is as close as I want to come to hell in this life."
"Amen to that, brother," he replied, "but I tell you what - I could eat the crutch out of an old lady's nightgown through a cane chair."
(My mate Leigh is probably one of the most astute, intelligent and funny people I've ever met. But when he's hungry, it is unwise to get between him and a side of beef, if you know what I mean. He reckons that anyone who spends more than two hours between feeds is probably doing damage to several major internal organs.)
We hit the pub, which happened to be the most fascinating of places. A small bar, adorned with the most bizarre furnishings: bits of corrugated iron nailed to the walls; framed mementos of movie stars who had rested here; parts of the skeletons of long-dead and unrecognisable animals (probably eaten by the guests) - I fell in love with it immediately. As usual, there was a barmaid, and a reasonably young bloke with a beer in his hand chatting her up.
When you're a stranger in these parts, the locals are usually brilliantly friendly, no matter if you've seen Wolf Creek or not. It was no exception at the Parachilna Hotel - we were immediately welcomed by the assembled crew, and, de rigeur, had to swap stories on the spot. Asked where we were headed, we replied "Birdsville." This excited much animated conversation by the locals, because Birdsville was a further seven hundred kilometres away through the Simpson Desert, and you don't go out there unless you really know your business. Otherwise, you die.
So we asked about pitching a tent in the old school yard.
"Go ahead," said the barmaid, "I think the hot water's on."
We climbed back into the Volvo and crept up the track, being buffeted by a wind which threatened to give the car a thorough sand-blasting. The camp-site was impossible; you couldn't get a peg in the ground for love nor money, so we ended up just dragging big pieces of rock onto the guy ropes and hoping for the best.
Once the tents were reasonably ship-shape, we returned to the pub.
"Dinner?", asked the barmaid. We were led into a long room furnished with bare timber tables and benches; lots of them too. It was obvious this place catered for a mass of people in high tourist season; tonight it was just us. Another young woman came over to take our order. We decided on the "Feral antipasto for two", and Leigh told the waitress "How about we get started on that and then we'll think about mains?"
"Oh yeah," she replied with a knowing smirk.
"What was all that about?" I said.
"I think she fancies me," replied Leigh. Hmm, I thought: tall, blonde, very pretty, about twenty-two or three, versus dishevelled, gnomish, travel-stained senior citizen; yep, that'll work!
The platter arrived. It was about the size of a pair of elephant ears (African, not Indian), loaded to the gunwales with an enormous variety of foodstuffs. Seared medallions of kangaroo-rump rubbed shoulders, so to speak, with fat slabs of pan-fried crocodile. A huge tub of emu pate sat in the middle of the plate, surrounded by fresh-water crayfish, creamy chunks of goat cheese, and lashings of artichokes, peppers, avocados and radish. It radiated "coronary occlusion."
"Jesus wept!" cried Leigh, as he dived into the cornucopia with the alacrity of a seventeen year-old given the keys to Anna Kournikova's underpants.
Half an hour later, I was in another dimension; buttons were popping, my eyeballs were bursting out of their sockets, and if someone had even mentioned "Just another tiny wafer, Monsieur," I would have done a Mr Creosote all over the Parachilna Hotel. Leigh just kept on ploughing it in, until finally he, too, groaned to a standstill.
We sat back, drawing on huge pints of Coopers. I was considering the possibility that I may not have to eat again until about 2012. At last, Leigh managed to murmur
"Fuck... me... dead. I don't know about you, Loz, but I think we're gonna have to come back again tomorrow night!"
The waitress, noticing our condition, came over with her little notepad in hand.
"And now," she enquired sweetly, "what would sirs like for mains?" .