The Lost Highway

Previously: Trouble in the Oasis Leaving Bedourie, Queensland – September When travelling, a vast amount of time is spent figuring out how to get from one point to the next – it’s by nature the definition of travel, I guess. For some, there are bus and train timetables, airfares, and accomodation to consider, while for us – who carry our home on wheels like a snail carries its shell – our itinerary’s only dependence is whether I can be bothered driving and in which direction I feel inclined to be driving in. As serendipitous as it might sound, this method is not without a backbone of three parts in which the flesh of our seemingly random travel plans are flung onto. One part – and of the most importance – is the weather of the destination, of which is generally determined by how North or South it is. One part is the conditions of the roads to get there – whether it be rough gravel or easy driving sealed highways. And one part is whichever way the steering wheel so divines. ‘She practically drives herself,’ I think, as the van pulls out onto the highway out of Bedourie.

Divination of the Roads

So, as much as a water diviner uses a stick to find water, I use the steering wheel to find our next destination. And of course, just like real water divination, a certain amount of self-deception is required to proceed with the confidence that I’m going in the right direction, for no one can prove me wrong when I get there. In another month the hot desert days will be hitting the forties and the roads will be getting wet with summer rain. We are being pulled back to the coast.
Where is it?
Other places we have visited
But where exactly? The location on the coast shall be determined by the lowest latitude that palms trees grow – for I have a hunger for a coconut. I figure that Yeppoon is a safe bet, so if we are to make it on to the Landsborough then Capricorn Highways, we will be on our way. The road from Bedourie to Winton is sealed. The alternative is to go back around to Windorah then up through Jundah and Stonehenge, but we’d be faced with hundreds of kilometres of gravel. Although we are up against 1455km to get to the coast, the roads are easy-driving and we have a month to do it in. But as we pass the Tropic of Capricorn there is one thing I didn’t count on. Some highways are lost highways.

Like a rogue wave

We reach Boulia in the afternoon and pull into a quiet camp near the racecourse. I crawl into bed and I sleep. When I awake it’s dark. The set sun now only a glimmer of orange light thinly spread out over the length of the horizon. The air is still but I can hear the brakes of a road-train as it pulls into refuel at the roadstop in town. Willow is calling for her dinner as I rattle the biscuits into her bowl. I place it down and she looks up at me waiting for a pat as if to say thanks before she starts eating – whoever called cats ungrateful, certainly not this one. And I sleep again. The next day we say goodbye to Channel Country as we leave Boulia on Winton Road. The treeless plains are now covered in tussock, though the sky still muddied and paled by the desert dust. Where are we heading? The coast. Yeppoon. Yes, but where are we actually heading? I don’t know. The van cruises along the single lane sealed highway. The earth so flat that I am denied any vantage point to consider my placement upon it. And then it hits me like a rogue wave.

* * *

Tumbling, not drowning

I couldn’t recall holding my breath. The force of the waves crashing around me pull me down as I lose all notion of which way was up. The breaking swell above me sounds like muffled thunder and there I roll. With the cool clear Tasmanian water now whitewash above, I’m gripping at sand below as the last of the waves momentum passes, giving its last breath as I nearly run out of mine. My chest heaves with the motion of respiration – powerless at the mercy of the ocean. Peaceful. I surface out of the whitewash seconds before becoming driftwood – a boy, 9 years old, strawberry blond hair, screams with joy. I grab the cord around my ankle, pull myself onto the bodyboard, paddle back out to sea and do it all over again. I fall asleep to the sound of those waves, sunscreen still on my skin and sand in my ears. As I close my eyes I see the ripples in the sand and the sway of the East Coast sheoaks and know that everything is okay.

* * *

Just a deck of cards and a bottle o’ wine

I think we’re lost. What do you mean? Everything’s changed. I don’t know where we are going. Just keep driving straight ahead. I don’t know if it’s that simple. We arrive in Winton and I head to the swimming pool. The little community pool has only just opened for the season. I jump in gasping and realise it will be many weeks before the unheated water warms up. I start my laps knowing that the warm dry air will be waiting for me when I get out. In the next town along I find the same swimming pool at the same temperature. And as it did before, the outback air dries me as I get out of the water of whatever town I’m in and I think about everything I left behind in Bedourie. The friends, the swimming pool that was so nice and warm, and the familiarity. If I had just shut my mouth I’d still have a job there. Idiot. One must be stoic, I tell myself, to let the past go. Not to dwell or deliberate. But what if I had smashed his jukebox? I imagined – ol’ no-fuse Jim sitting down with his guitar at the bar for one of his few pleasures of playing along to his favourite songs and realising it had been ruined. The only consolation being that I did spend an afternoon reading the cobweb strewn manual and figured out how to load an album onto it. Now, on a rarely played slot you can hear the bonus disc of Jeff Buckley’s 1994 rock classic, Grace. So, I guess my mark was left.

Keep driving

Two weeks since leaving Bedourie we arrive in Emerald. It’s one of those mornings where I put cumin on my oats instead of cinnamon. I eat it anyway… stoically, as if to reinforce to myself that life is not always the ups and downs of a wave or roller coaster ride. But more like a teacup ride as it twists unpredictably in near slow motion – the muffled voices of those around you coming in and out of range. When you’re on top it’s hard to imagine what life is like below. And when you’re under it’s hard to imagine a time when those waves weren’t crashing over you. But what I know now – that I didn’t for many years – is that waves pass and things get better, then they get worse, but then they get better again. Yes, I know where I am now – and that’s okay. It’s not easy finding happiness. And when I do, it’s held like the sand slipping through the clenched fist of a child’s hand in the surf. Don’t I know that I must keep pursuing it, keep grabbing at it – for it can never be held for long. But what a stupid metaphor. We are still hundreds of kilometres from the coast. So I drive, and drive, and in the next town I swim – 10 laps, 20 laps, 30 laps – and then drive some more. Another town, another 400km, and another swimming pool – 30 laps, 40 laps. The tendons in my shoulder feel like they are ripping apart, but I am stubborn. We pass all the same towns we visited back in 2016 when we were on our way to the Northern Territory. The park I filled up the tank with water, the place I bought a cheap sparkling wine and a supermarket cheesecake for my birthday. On a still outback evening, for absolutely no reason at all –  like the passing of an ill-wind of a storm that was never really there – something changes. Remember every single thing you ever worried about. Yeah? Every one of those things turned out alright. I guess. So we keep driving.


At a camp outside of Duaringa, Willow jumps onto the bench in the van and boops her nose on mine. Though we are nearing the coast the air is still so dry that static electricity is generated as I pat her, and discharges as our noses meet. The small sparks don’t seem to worry her as she gets her daily boop quota in. Boop early, and boop often – I believe is her motto. I pull down the laminated roadmap of Australia that hangs under the cupboards. I see how far we have come this year – thousands of kilometres through central Queensland. The dusty roads. The hot water bores. The treeless plains – and of course, the people we met along the way. We continue along the Capricorn Way through the towns blossoming with bougainvillea and the air sweet with frangipani. The flatness of the desert soon gives way to rolling hills and I know that we will be coming across the great dividing range. Passing through Rockhampton we find the road through to Yeppoon and the small mountains left as remnants of extinct volcanos – one catches my eye. I find a road to the base and start walking along a track through the shaded forest. The track takes a hard right and I clamber up. Past a bluff, I lose the track to the overgrown scrub and find my own way to the top. The branches scrape my back and my sweaty t-shirt is now covered in the white tea-tree petals. I labour for air as I reach the top. I sit next to the old crumpled trig station and revel in what is before me. A verdant paradise of a palette of greens I forgot had existed. The fig trees, pony tail palms, and of course the coconut palms and their awaiting fruits. But beyond that even better still, it was the ocean. The Capricorn Coast. The next day we make it to Yeppoon and the beach, and I find that coconut. Down the beach is a grove of palms.  I shake the fallen fruit to find the juiciest ones to carry back with me to the van. Willow inspects them for quality before I crack one open and feast on the flesh. What an absurd moment. Sitting in the dunes with my cat eating a coconut. A quiet celebration of the fact that we had made it. A month ago we were on the outskirts of the Simpson Desert, a year ago – in a forest in South Australia. And next year? Who knows where we will be. But one thing I know for sure – all have mercy on whoever next presses 8602 on the jukebox at the Royal Hotel Bedourie. Now boy’s don’t start to ramblin’ round On this road of sin are you sorrow bound Take my advice or you’ll curse the day You started rollin’ down that lost highway

* * *

Thank you for reading! It means so much to me that you are along on our adventures. I hope that you have enjoyed hearing the words behind the photos of our trip to the desert this year. Now that we are on the East Coast I will be focused on bringing you stories of the cats we meet and the humans that share their lives. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss a thing! Also, if we are near your town and you have a cat with a story to tell, please get in touch!
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