Spending summer back in Tasmania I had time to think about our plans for the next year. Looking at a map of Australia it was hard to make decisions about where we would go. I had become accustomed to planning as far as a few days away and it was a system that worked well.
What was certain was that we were booked on the ferry to the mainland on April 15th. I soon realised it didn’t matter so much where we travelled to. What mattered was how we travelled. I wanted this trip to be different.
For the last three years I have had the freedom of being able to be wherever I want to be. But during that time I had become reliant on my smartphone and internet access. In fact, it had become a leash around my neck. If somewhere didn’t have reception I was inclined to keep driving. To return to that comfort of knowing I have my lifeline to the outside world.
The problem was that it had become more than a lifeline – more than a tool to connect me with those I care most about. It had become an idle time waster. I was compelled to check it every waking hour.
Every notification had my attention. This device in my hand told me when I owed it my time. It ruled me. First thing when I woke up. Last thing before I slept. It was like an addiction. In fact I would often check it during the night. I was certain it was affecting my sleep. But I was even more afraid of what else it was affecting. What else am I missing out on in life at the mercy of iShackle.
I decided to find out. I wanted to answer one simple question. Who am I without it?
Hobart → Devonport
It was hard saying goodbye this time.
When we left Hobart in 2015 we had a whole country to explore and everything ahead of us. Over those years we made a new life for ourselves. We returned home and brought with us that new life. It was now the best of both worlds. My family and friends were close by and we were still living in the van.
Getting on that ferry this time felt like I was leaving a lot more behind. Not to mention saying goodbye to Steph again. Had I already found what I set out to find? Willow must cringe whenever she sees that horrid boat.
I have an A3 laminated map of Australia. I bought it at a servo in Jerrimungup, WA when we were stuck there in the floods in 2017. I spend a lot of time tracing the highways with my fingertip without making any solid plans. A decision is best made when it is right in front of you I say.
For example when at an intersection it is best to let your heart do the deciding. Pause for a moment and your hand will start turning the wheel and your fate? will be sealed (or unsealed depending on the road surface). Akin to water divination of the highways. Though I don’t really believe in fate nor divine intervention, I do believe in intuition. Otherwise, I suspect that it could be Willow willing me in the direction of her choosing.
Keep driving and don’t look back – Northbound preferably as winter was fast approaching.
I have a few apps on my phone (iShackle) that help me find interesting places to visit. WikiCamps helps me find laundromats, drinking water, bakeries, water holes, and of course places to camp.
I pointed the map to central Queensland and spotted a lake 100kms west of Charleville on Ambathalla station. Middle of the outback. No phone reception. Nothing. Nestled between cattle stations and flood plains. It was perfect.
So I made a decision. We would travel 2,000 kilometres North to Lake Dartmouth and there we would stay for 30 days. Completely off-grid and disconnected. To experience life unchained.
Devonport → Melbourne
The ferry crossing was uneventful apart from a 3 hour delay. We took a day sailing and I can confidently say I never will again. With a night sailing at least you can sleep to wile away the 12 hours. You can pretend that there aren’t hundreds of people stumbling around the decks trying not to be sick.
Willow spent the voyage in the van and I was so happy when I was allowed to return to the vehicle deck and see that she was okay. We rolled off the boat by eleven and Willow was boarded at the local cat motel the next day.
After three days in Melbourne with friends and a quick visit to my sister in Geelong we were on our way north.
Melbourne → Geelong → Cobram
There are many places you can cross the Murray River into New South Wales. I was drawn to the same spot we crossed back in June 2015. I remember arriving in time to celebrate 30 days on the road. Now it’s over a thousand. As I cooked dinner by the water I wondered if Willow remembered the place.
The problem with outback lakes is that what might appear to be a lake on the map or the satellite imagery might just well be a dried up dust bowl. I needed some local knowledge. I messaged the information centre in Charleville and posed the question.
“Is there water in Dartmouth?”
“Yes.” was their reply and I didn’t push for any more information nor question the source of their data.
The longest I usually stay put is about 10 days. 30 days away from civilisation meant that I would be testing the capabilities of my van. I would have to carry enough food and water, enough petrol for the generator, and most importantly, carry enough cat food.
I have a 55 litre water tank plus a 10 litre jerry can. This would be just enough drinking water. If I ran out I would have to treat water from the lake. Water for washing up and bathing would be taken straight from the lake.
I bought an extra 5 litre jerrycan so I could hold 15 litres of unleaded for the generator.
I started stocking up on food. My plan here was to consider what I would need for my usual 10 day expedition and times it by three. Making the most of fresh fruit and vegetables in the first week, then relying on canned and dried for the rest.
I set a date of May 11th for when we would leave Charleville for Lake Dartmouth. Although it’s a fair distance to travel in 3 weeks it meant we weren’t too rushed (Note that we usually average 50km a day).
Jerilderie → Cobar → Bourke
We arrived in Bourke and I was surprised to find it had a port. What is a port doing in the middle of the outback?
As it goes Port Bourke was one of Australia’s busiest inland ports. The three tiered wharf was constructed in 1897 and was used to transport wool along the Darling River. I walked down the steps to the second tier to take some photos. Moments later a man walks down with his bike by his side. White hair sticking out of his cap. Adorned in a dirtied high vis top and paint splattered trousers.
I said hello, he introduced himself as Jimmy and opened a beer.
Jimmy was 71 years old and rode 200 kilometres a week – with his radio in his backpack and a couple of longnecks. He told me he didn’t worry about money. A guy from the pub owed him a hundred.
‘I’ll get it to you tomorrow.’
‘Forget about it mate, tomorrow is a new day and I have all I need.’
Three local kids sat themselves on the stairs. Jimmy seemed annoyed.
‘Can’t you kids give me some peace?’
He tells me they want some money for a soft drink. They progress closer listening in on our conversation. Jimmy, still annoyed, hands them a dollar each.
One kid asks my name, ‘Are you a cop?’
‘Jimmy why you talk to a white monkey?’
Apparently Jimmy didn’t usually like to mix with white fellas. I asked him where he was from.
’Italy but I was born in Croatia, moved here in 63’. Somehow he ended up in little ol’ Bourke.
His accent was thick and I found him hard to understand. A mixture of Italian, aboriginal, and VB. He lit a cigarette and the kids sat back on the steps watching us expectantly.
‘If I give you this will you piss off? Come on take it.’
One of the kids hesitated.
‘Come on I’m not going to hurt you.’
Frustrated, Jimmy flicked the cigarette over the side of the wharf to the ground below.
‘There, go get it if you want.’
The younger girl jumped down under the pier.
Jimmy had plans for the afternoon. Ride out to Sandy Point on the Darling. Go for a swim and listen to his radio. He produced a knife and sharpener from his bag. If he’s lucky he’ll even catch a roo.
He chucked the now empty beer bottle over the wharf, shook my hand, then carried his bike up on the street and rode off.
The afternoon was slipping away and there were some heavy clouds rolling in so I left. I pulled into the service station and there was a car in front of me at the pumps. I assumed that they were inside paying but after 3 minutes I start to wonder.
I look closer and noticed someone in the driver’s seat. I get out and tap on their window. A woman was sat shuffling documents in her lap, and more hanging off the dashboard.
I startled her.
’I’m so sorry, I got a bit caught up with this paperwork.’
I thought of Jimmy and couldn’t imagine two more contrasting characters.
Bourke → Cunnamulla → Charleville
A week before Dartmouth I dreamt of being in a house. A diamond python was biting me multiple times on the leg. Eventually I wrestled it outside where it took a bird and sat content on the deck.
I’m not one for the meaning of dreams – anyhow there are no diamond pythons in the outback… just death adders, taipans, and brown snakes.
We arrive in Charleville on the 10th of May – last stop and the end of civilisation as I know it. Charleville is a decent size town with two supermarkets and a couple of pubs. The van is laden with supplies as I picked up items on the way up. In town I stock up on all the fresh stuff and even pick up a whole watermelon.
I have a steak burger at the roadhouse before camping in the scrub just out of town. I awake at 5am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I call Steph to say goodbye.
There were just a few jobs to do in the morning. Aquire a vanilla slice from the bakery, pick up a bottle of rum, and do my laundry.
It is midday and everything is packed. I am ready – I think. The only thing to do was to start driving. I pass the sign showing distances to Longreach, Winton, Mt Isa and turn left onto the Adavale Charleville Rd. I was told it was mostly sealed. Emus and cattle line the sides ready to cross at the most inopportune moment.
I watch as the reception bars on my phone slowly disappear and return again. Then disappear completely. No Service.
The road gives way to gravel then soon we were at Langlo crossing. I figure that by the river was a good place to spend the night. It is so quiet. I take a nap and wake up with a really bad feeling. It was sinking in now. 30 days.
What am I doing here?
End of Part 1.