At the very top of the Flinders Ranges, before you run out into the Strzelecki Desert, is a place called Arkaroola.
For some hours we'd been driving, at a very slow pace, through the driest landscape I've ever seen, due to the fact that we'd already shredded one tyre, and the others were in danger of giving up the ghost any second. The track was composed largely of broken glass, razor blades and six-inch nails, with occasional pieces of exploded ordinance shrapnel sticking out of the middle. The only wildlife in attendance was a succession of kamikaze emus, who would suddenly appear on the track in front of the car and play chicken (although I suppose they'd call it "emu") by galloping as fast as they could in a zig-zag pattern until they were nudged out of the way by the bumper bar. They were, quite possibly, the stupidest animals I have ever seen.
"Jesus, Loz, Burke and Wills must've been pretty bad shots. One of these things would keep you alive for weeks!" Leigh was in adventure heaven, as usual; he has an amazing capacity to be perpetually, er, amazed. (For overseas readers, Burke and Wills were Australia's quintessential folkloric explorers. They set out from Adelaide to discover the north coast of the continent, wandered around in the desert for several months and died like the ridiculous, ignorant fools they were.)
The only concession to vegetation were the great lines of river red gum, demarcating creek beds which were as dry as the Moon. It was a wonder that these fabulous trees could hang on through a drought which had not seen a single drop of rain for over nine years. But they did; their roots must have been so far down that they were able, barely, to pull some moisture from the ground. Even so, many of them looked like they were about to succumb.
"How are we going, mate?" I asked Leigh, as he perused the map.
"Well, according to this, Loz, we're about half-way between 'At a Loss' and 'Completely Fucked' ", he replied, then dissolved into great hooting gales of laughter. Irrepressibly, he continued: "So, as the navigator, I recommend that we stop for a beer."
This seemed like a good plan; after all, we had 1) plenty of beer, and 2) no fucking idea where we were. After a while, under the shade of a big river red, and a couple of beers under our belts, life was seeming pretty comfortable, if possibly tenuous. We heard a vehicle approaching.
An old, beaten-up Landcruiser pulled up next to us, populated by a few blackfellers.
"Gooday", said the driver, as they all climbed out. "Wher're you boys headed?"
"Arkaroola," we replied in unison, "if we can ever find out how to get there," added Leigh.
"No probs," said the driver, "just keep going on this road, go through our place, then turn off when you get to the start of the Strzelecki Track. Too easy."
"Thanks, mate," I replied. "You blokes like a beer?"
"No thanks, mate; we're a dry community. But you fellers are welcome to have one." At that, they all relieved themselves at the side of the road, climbed back into their truck, and headed off with a wave and "Good luck."
"Nice fellers," remarked Leigh. I could not but agree, and we got on our way again.
We arrived at Arkaroola as the Moon was coming up over a moonscape; I know that sounds preposterous, but Arkaroola is a seriously weird-looking joint. It was once a grazing property, but plenty of different minerals were subsequently discovered there: lead, silver, zinc, etc., so the entire place, stuck out in the middle of nowhere, is an abandoned mine, with pits and holes and slag-heaps everywhere. And it was dry: an aridity that sucks the breath out of you, and allows no moisture to gather anywhere on your body. If you're sweating, you won't notice it, because your perspiration is immediately evaporated.
Stuck in the middle of this wasteland is a resort. Now, I should explain something of the history of the place. It is owned by a family, descendants of the original land-holders, and in the 1930s, after it was realised that no-one was ever going to make a buck out of either as a farm or a mine, it should be bequeathed to the community as a nature park. So, for about seventy years or so, Arkaroola has been a reserve. In the 1970s it was decided to exploit the emerging tourist trade, and construction of the resort was begun. And, as Damon Runyon might have said, it was no sort of resort as to have any pretensions about. It was basically corrugated iron and slabs of red gum. Inside, it was luxurious only compared with the fact that if you were outside of it you'd be dead within three days, either from thirst or emu attack.
We walked up to a massive counter made of great slabs of red gum, polished like a mirror. A very pretty young woman gave us a grin and said "You blokes look like you need a drink. Find a seat; I'll bring you a beer." She didn't have to tell us twice. We appeared to be the only "guests", so we sauntered around the place looking at glass-cased displays of various minerals, posters and maps on the walls laying out the history of the place, etc. It reminded me of a cross between a mineralogical museum and a shearing shed, which was pretty much what it was, come to think of it.
"Well, Loz, we can either eat here at $40 a head, or we can cook something ourselves." Leigh, as is his wont, had investigated the menu as the first point of call. We were directed to the salubrious camping ground, some five hundred metres from the resort building. We drove up to it, and found a place that resembled, quite remarkably, the photo at the top of this story. It was the worst camp-site I've ever put a tent on, and that, in itself, is a wonderful thing, because it is always good to have nodes of comparison in one's life, I've found. Next time I'm struggling to erect a tent in two hundred knot winds half-way up a mountain in a blizzard with the possibility of avalanche any second I'll be able to say to myself: "Ah, but remember Arkaroola."
The only thing to do was to get as drunk as possible, and I must say, in this, we were unsurpassed.
When I woke up the next morning and peered out of my tent, nothing had changed. Arkaroola had not, overnight, magically turned itself into some Elysian field of plenty. It was still dry, windswept and lifeless. Without saying a word to each other, we packed up the camping gear, loaded the Volvo, and left that place to the vagaries of sun, wind and emu.
On the way out, we came across the same mob of blackfellers. We both stopped, got out and sat down for a chat.
"So you got to Arkaroola all right, then? What'd you think of it?"
"Well, quite frankly," I said, "it was pretty uninspiring."
The driver turned around to his mates as if he were an interpreter. "See," he said, "even whitefellers think Arkaroola's a shithole."