Wednesday morning, 15 December 1971
It was five in the morning when we slipped out of Eucla under the heavy cover of an oppressive darkness, car headlights blazing. The sultry heat hung over the desert like a wet tent. The landscape fell behind us faster than yesterday because we were back on a real road again and the tyres were humming instead of crunching.
At six o’clock, Uncle switched off the lights as the first rays of the sun slowly throttled the long shadows. Black turned to gold. Seven o’clock passed, eight o’clock. If it was hot earlier, now it was like someone had switched on an oven. At twenty minutes past ten, the Valiant rolled to a stop off the road at Madura, a town that was just a fuel stop. We parked in the shade of nothing and climbed out of the sticky car into more heat. You could just about pick it up in your hands. We took refuge in the van where it might have been 95 instead of 100.
Aunt pulled a meal out of nowhere as she did the whole journey; simple fare such as cheese, cold meat and salad sandwiches, tinned fruit, fruit cake, hot tea. It was endless. I don’t recall seeing a supermarket. We sat at the fold-down table in the caravan, trying not to melt over our early lunch, and sweating drips that turned to little streams flowing onto the cushions of textured vinyl in flecked cream with black piping. A small fan moved some hot air around.
While Uncle rested, tired from the hot early drive, my cousin and I went to climb a long, low hill across the highway. We thought we might be able to see the Southern Ocean, or Perth, or wild camels. Halfway up, stumbling between some straggly low trees, I walked into something soft and velvety and sticky. The soft and sticky thing was as big as a hammock. I kind of bounced off it, except it stuck to me. In the middle of the hammock, a long, fat, black leg stretched itself out. The other seven legs just stayed where they were. I didn’t have to count eight. I knew. You always know. It was about the size of a crow and the same colour. I reeled backwards. Part of the web was still stuck to me. I flicked it off. That got the spider going. It jerked around like a dog doing circles before lying down. Maybe it was annoyed. Maybe it was going to bite me. Maybe I would die before I could get back to the caravan. It was impossibly nimble for its size. Then it stopped moving and just rocked there in the heat and stared at me. I stared back. The spider won the staring competition, but only because it had more eyes than me. My cousin laughed. “They’re harmless, remember? They only eat birds.”
We went back down the hill. Uncle was just closing up the caravan. He fired up the Valiant and off we went again; west, west, west.
That night after dinner, from way over the other side of the caravan park, we could see Uncle sitting on a deck chair next to the open door of the caravan; Aunt next to him, rolling tomorrow’s cigarettes. She rolled all her own cigarettes, making them curiously thin and storing them in an aluminium flip-top tin. She was a tiny slip of a woman in her forties with short dark curly hair and olive skin, and she always wore simple sundresses with flat shoes. Ever ready with a wisecrack, she was just like her younger brother, my father. Her husband was fifty, white-haired, calm. Cousin and I watched them for a minute and then continued on our usual evening walk.
Wednesday afternoon, 15 December 1971
Delirium now. Two in the afternoon. We stopped at Water Tank. Is it a place or just a water tank? Don't know. I mentally gave it a capital W and T anyway. It was a wire-fenced square compound with a corrugated iron roof over a tank and a rudimentary pump, drawing water from some subterranean aquifer. I suppose an aquifer is subterranean by definition. What do you think, cousin? He’s a man of few words. The water tasted rusty, like it had old ploughs in it.
More red flat landscape and then we are rolling through Balladonia and the name sounds like a fictional land where songwriters go to write movie soundtracks, but it was just a Mobil roadhouse frying in the sun - 105 degrees - with its red flying horse sign blown down by some long-gone storm. Delirium. The road went straight for ninety miles and I had the sensation of standing still while the desert went past. Deserts are supposed to be made of sand, I raved quietly to myself. Cousin was fast asleep now and his head lolled on my shoulder. In front, Uncle's head was a statue. The car radio crackled and that was all the noise there was apart from the tyres. Time stood still. The sun burnt my arm on the sill of the window. I moved it. Sand would not be as infuriating as dust, I raved on, which is finer and hangs in the air like a hot, red fog. Man, the size of that spider. I shivered, even in the heat. My cousin woke.
Slowly, the red landscape changed. Spinifex or saltbush or whatever it was called turned to low shrub, and the low shrub turned to small trees. Still straggly and parched, but small trees nevertheless. Then - bang - the Eyre Highway ended at Norseman, a town that was more Sahara than Scandinavia. At the caravan park, the usual ‘All Visitors Must Report Here’ sign greeted us at an office that was an old caravan. A propped-up clothesline was strung along the side for visitors' use. That made it a four-star resort instead of three. Sure enough, the Renault was parked across the way. He seemed to have figured out the tent. Only took him half of Australia. By Perth he’ll be an expert.
I headed straight to the shower block to try and shed some dust.
I stripped off and stepped into the concrete shower cubicle, turned on the water and watched the dust flowing red down my trunk and my legs, through my toes and out the drain hole. Norseman’s water supply is salt water, and the water from the cold tap was warm. It made my body feel stickier and saltier than before. I finished my shower and sandpapered my naked body with my towel.