Air Conditioned Nightmare
Photos and text by Amar Dev Dhindsa
Monday 1:30pm – Darwin Bus Stop
The air is thick and warm, like pea and ham soup. Beads of sweat trickle down my chest as I sit in the shade of a tree and wait for the bus. Destination: Melbourne. Distance: 3742 kilometres. Direction: South.
I had run out of money and had already travelled nearly eight or nine thousand kilometres in the last two months. I could stay and work but the thought of another farm job was enough to drive me out of town. Mangoes, bananas, asparagus, lychees, blueberries, grapes, melons, tomatoes…you name it, I’ve picked it. Enough was enough. I’m headed home.
The bus is being loaded and so is the nicotine. The smokers stand around and inhale with the desperation of the condemned. They are trying their best to get as much nicotine aboard before they have to get aboard. Nostrils flare as dragon-like plumes of smoke emerge. Winnie Blues, Horizon 50s, Marlboro.
A group of five kids hanging around. I just hope none of them end up sitting near me. The only thing worse than having to make inane conversation is a kid screaming in a confined space.
One of the boys has his leg in a cast. He glances around, strolls past me and shows me his middle finger. I smile at him. Judging by his cast, the last person doesn’t seem to have taken too lightly to his gesture. Another kid kicks a cigarette butt around and practices stubbing it out, just like mummy.
A handful of the usual backpacker types hand around in a group. You know the type: European, sun tanned, singlets, Birkenstock sandals, daypack and Lonely Planet guide. One of them wears a white T-shirt that reads: Johnson and Johnson. What more can I say?
I’ve armed myself with a few accessories for the trip: ear plugs, water bottle and a small library; Sweet Chillies, The Hard Years, Ruins of Kush and Henry Miller’s The Air Conditioned Nightmare.
The fat driver, dressed in a blue short sleeve shirt, stubby shorts, shiny black shoes and spotless knee-length white socks, very officiously strides up to his bus and calls everybody to step aboard. He has an impressive gut, tattooed forearms, 70’s porn star moustache and wears aviator sunglasses.
“Welcome aboard. Seat 39.”
The driver manoeuvres his girth down the aisle and does a head count. Another guy who looks just like him and is dressed in the same uniform steps aboard. They look like gingerbread men, cut out of the same mould. After a bit of a chat one settles in the driver’s seat and we pull out onto the tarmac.
Red roofs and tropical green trees. Darwin flashes past. The engine growls and the air conditioning hums.
In a sing song tone the driver introduces himself and his look alike. His name is Rob and the other guy is Craig. He then tells us all about the kind of drinks we are allowed to have aboard, what we can eat, when we are going to stop, how to use the toilet and of course, ‘the most important part of the coach’, the air conditioner. He warns us to remain seated at all times because he might have to brake hard to avoid hitting kangaroos, emus and free range cattle.
I begin to tune out but am immediately drawn back in when he mentions that we are going to pull into Adelaide on Wednesday. Wednesday? Today is Monday!
I sink back in my seat in despair. Tin roofed houses, mud splattered utes, yellow road signs, dense tropical vegetation, trucks, petrol stations and my constant companion over the last couple of months, the white line on the black road.
I avoid looking at the book cover in the netted pouch in front of me – The Air Conditioned Nightmare.
The ring of metal tools and the odd grunt indicates the boys in blue have got to work. Dark sweat patches mark their backs and arm pits. Tires are changed, bolts tightened and half an hour later we step on board again.
The cool, air-conditioned air dries the sweat off my brow. The door hisses shut, the indicator beeps, the engine growls and we are on the road again. Rob apologises for the delay.
Monday 4:10pm – Adelaide River Roadhouse
A display tower has postcards of Darwin, Uluru, g-stringed bathing beauties, and of crocodiles. One has a picture of a chicken between a croc’s jaws is accompanied by the caption: ‘Feathered Burger’. Another with a croc rearing out of the water to grab a suspended piece of meat reads: “Jumping Crocs”. I buy a drink and sit in the sun. Beads of sweat build up almost immediately.
Rob and Craig emerge from the building and everyone follows them. As we get going, we have a show of hands for a film. I raise my arm. Craig slides in a tape into the video and flicks the overhead television on: The Adventures of Huck Finn. Great!
Monday 5:30pm – Katherine BP Petrol Station
Outside, a tracksuit-clad woman stubs out a cigarette and herds her two kids aboard. A group of Aboriginal men sit on the pavement outside a closed shop called ‘Creative Native’. They stare blankly as the bus pulls past.
Deserted streets, parked utes covered in red bull dust, satellite dishes perched on unpainted tin roofs, neon signed video parlour, a couple of small birds swoop an eagle. A long haired man in a white hat waves as we pass. I smile and wave back.
Rich red earth, deep tropical green, mango trees, creeks run full, parallel sweeps of power lines, road signs and the long white line. I’m hungry. The Cherry Ripe chocolate I ate did nothing for me. All I can think about is food.
Monday 8:00pm – Mataranka Roadhouse
I order a plain Buffalo Burger, $4.50, take a ticket and sit down to salivate for a while. Yellow fluoro lights, plastic chairs and lino tables. I flick through a ragged copy of an old Who Weekly magazine.
A beautiful, suntanned girl with long dark hair sits a couple of tables across from me. Her boyfriend has his back to me. She looks up and catches me looking at her. We both smile.
Tuesday 3:00am – Tennant Creek Bus Station
I feel like a ghost. Step off the bus into a fluoro lit twilight inhabited by a crowd of other zombies. Everyone looks like I feel. No one speaks. Wide eyed, they shuffle around to find a place to sit and sleep. They look like extras on the set of The City of the Living Dead. The stars on the set seem to be the boys in blue. They are the only ones who walk around with any air of purpose. They meet, exchange secret hand shakes, talk and laugh. Amazingly, they all look the same. I wonder what the job specs for bus drivers in these parts reads like.
The station toilets are filthy and crammed with miles of toilet paper. The stench is overpowering.
Since all the plastic seats are occupied I sit on the top of a short flight of stairs. A girl, half asleep, misses a step and nearly falls. We exchange smiles. The mother-of-five takes her brood to the toilet. They are all groggy and comply without any resistance. Even the boy with the leg cast limps along obediently. I can see why some parents want to drug their kids with Ritalin.
At the centre of the station a meter length of metal pipe sits in a glass display cabinet. A short write-up explains that this is a section of the 1500 kilometre-long pipeline that runs between the Amadeus Basin and Darwin. In a New York gallery, Jeff Koons could get away with this, but at 3am in Tennant Creek, a length of metal pipe doesn’t seem much more than what it is.
A girl suddenly gets up, grabs her bags and marches out of the terminal towards the row of parked busses. This starts a general stampede. Everyone grabs their belongings and follows the girl. I do too. False alarm. No bus was leaving. All the zombies file back into the terminal. Although sleepy, everyone is very jumpy. Who could blame them? Who the hell would want to be abandoned in Tennant Creek?
Back on board, I curl myself onto two seats and go through the Kama Sutra once again. No position works so I sit up and watch the sliver of silver moon hanging over the black plains. Both the sky and the land are black, two different kinds of black. One has a feeling of infinity, the other a solid, finite mass.
Tuesday 9:00am – Alice Springs
We have a two-hour stop. I get out to stretch my legs and walk around. The light, warm desert air is such a relief after the heavy tropical soup of Darwin. My legs feel heavy and my brain feels dead.
Down the main street: Aboriginal art; Aboriginal art; tours; souvenirs; Aboriginal art; travel centre; opals; Aboriginal art; newsagent. I duck in to pick up a newspaper, something I haven’t done in a couple of months. They have a copy of The Age, The Saturday Age. A few days old, but coming from where I have, last month’s paper would seem fresh to me.
“That’ll be $3.95”
At Red Earth Café, the last item on the A-frame menu board outside reads: “This cafe is for sale”. Am tempted to go in and order a café but I don’t. Haven’t got the energy to joke around. I order a cappuccino instead and brace myself for another $3.95 shock. $1.80. Phew! A powerful dose of caffeine and glucose races through my deprived system. I order another one.
Still have an hour left and I’ve already been though the interesting sections of the paper. Same old, same old. I open up The Air Conditioned Nightmare and start where I had left off. Reading Miller is like listening to an the ravings of enlightened maniac.
Back on board I learn we have come some 1400 kilometres. That means I still have 2500 to go. I notice the bus drivers in these parts refer to distance in days rather than hours or kilometres.
Earlier we stopped at Erlundunda, the turn off for Uluru. A gas station, roadhouse and intersection suspended in a sea of awesome nothingness. Welcome to what some of the locals call GAFA: the Great Australian Fuck All.
Rob tells us to add another hour to our watches because we are now on South Australian time. He also informs us that Craig is going to sleep in his bed at the rear of the bus so please could we keep the noise down. Noise? What noise? Had I missed the party?
Wind blown plastic bags cling to rusted barbwire fences. Flat, pinkie brown plains stretch to the horizon and beyond; not a bird or a cloud in the sky. Rob tells us to enjoy the countryside and then puts on a film: Endless Summer II.
Tuesday 6:20pm – Another Roadhouse
As the bus pulls into the parking bay Rob tells us that we are going to have a break. The smokers jump to it. Before the bus has stopped they are already standing in the aisles. A couple of them already have unlit cigarettes between their lips and lighters in their hands.
The roadhouse decor lets us know in no uncertain terms that we are in cattle country. Old leather saddles, shackles, whips, rusted spurs, mounted bull horns, metal bits, harnesses, various leather straps, paintings and photographs of cattle musters cover every vertical inch of the walls. The usual roadhouse fare is on offer here. No feral Buffalo Burger though, only prime beef.
I’ve started to smell of stale sweat and my breath stinks like a wheelie bin that’s been sitting in the afternoon sun. My skin feels stiff and dull. Every time I see myself in the toilet mirror I look worse. It must have something to do with urinating. Got to stop it. Got to keep reading. Keep my mind occupied. Keep it from turning on me.
Watched the film Stargate. Seems the Yanks missed out on saving the Israelites back in BC, so they though they’d have a go through Hollywood. It was pathetic cross between Indiana Jones, Star Wars and a Vietnam film. Heavy on special effects, light on story line.
My stomach growls. Coober Pedy is the dinner stop.
Tuesday 9:40pm – Coober Pedy
The brakes are applied and the smokers enthusiastically lead the exodus. I’ve seen the look in their eyes and have made it a point never to get in their way. A warm sunset paints the prefab buildings pink. Air vents crane their metal necks out of the ground to reveal the presence of the famous underground dwellings of the locals.
I order a pizza at the roadhouse, Margarita with extra cheese, and take a short walk down the road to an elevated lookout. The place is amazingly quiet. Pinkie cream gravel crunches underfoot. A couple of the other inmates join me and together we watch the sun dip below the horizon.
Dogs bark and cars swish past into the empty distance. Street lights flick on. A serpentine roadtrain, back lit by a golden sky, roars into town. In the distance a dust trail betrays the presence of another speeding vehicle fleeing the emptiness. Back at the roadhouse I wolf down my pizza and end up with a burnt palate from the hot cheese. An ice-cold orange juice soothes the burn.
Accents from all over fill the air-conditioned interior. Everyone seems to be talking in pidgin, many even though they do not have to. An Aussie guy in a worn T-shirt at the next table is telling a clean cut Japanese backpacker what a difficult childhood he had, how hard he had to work and what a loser his dad was. The Japanese guy nods and listens attentively. He smiles and laughs at every pause.
Rob and Craig get up and march out. The engine coughs and growls to life. Lights are switched on and the air conditioning purrs. It’s time to go.
Tuesday 11:45pm – Yet Another Bloody Roadhouse
A few passengers alight as Craig refuels the bus. Smokers, a safe distance away, inhale and exhale for all they’re worth. Two dogs, Blue Heelers, jump off the back of a dusty white ute. One barks excitedly and circles the other. The other one just stands there and snaps at it. Someone whistles and throws an empty soft drink bottle. The dog barks in excitement and chases it into the darkness.
Shadowy figures mingle near the line of dormant semi-trailers. One by one, their engines fire up, lights come on and they sleepily shudder out of their parking bays. Huge trailers, lit up like giant horizontal Christmas trees, follow each other round corners and onto the road. They slowly accelerate and are soon swallowed by the darkness.
The bus horn is tooted and we step out of the warm summer night into the cool interior. After the last cigarette has been stepped on, the door hisses shut and we pull out onto the highway.
Wednesday 7:30am – Adelaide
My skin goose bumps as I step out into the cool morning air. After travelling for a couple of months in tropical weather, the cold feels strange.
I head to the toilet and brush my teeth for the first time in 3000 kilometres. I feel like an archaeologist clearing an old tomb. Gradually the white of my teeth emerge from under a thick layer of who knows what. I wash my face, wet my hair and begin to feel really clean till the silence of the toilet is shattered by the sound of someone emptying his bowels. I grab my things and leave.
I transfer my battered rucksack to the luggage hold of the Melbourne-bound Greyhound bus and set off to find somewhere to eat breakfast. Croissants, coffee and an up-to-date version of The Australian. I do my figures and find that I have only 725 kilometres to go. No problem. I have survived the last 3000 so I am sure to last the final leg.
Another dose of caffeine makes me feel relatively human. The sun climbs over the top of a building and streams in through the cafe window.
Wednesday 12:00pm – Bridge Town
Back on the bus I have to put up with the film, Casper the Friendly Ghost. Why the hell do they subject us to these damn films? Despite the fact that no one on the service looks like they are younger than 18 years, they insist on catering to the lowest possible age group.
The countryside is very familiar now: lush green fields, weatherboard and bluestone houses, fat cows, wheat fields and the names of towns on the road signs.
I have an interesting conversation about politics and life in Sri Lanka with a well-educated gent from the war-torn island nation. He is the first person to sit in the seat next to me.
Wednesday 4:15pm – Ararat BP Station
An advertisement for a possible night out on the town: Jail House Rock Festival – Ararat – Three days of fun featuring Eddie Youngblood and Elvis – the Golden Years in Concert. Bookings essential.
I have a coffee since the bus driver recommended it. It’s dreadful. Figure he must get a commission on the sale of every lousy cup.
It’s strange that even though I am filthy I don’t feel it any more. I suppose I have become one with my dirt. It’s grown on me over the last 3500 kilometres.
Only two and a half hours to go! Time seems to be slowing down and distance lengthening. Impatience makes each second’s presence felt.
Wednesday 7:30pm – Spencer Street Bus Station, Melbourne
I’m dirty. I’m hungry. I stink. I need a hot bath, a full table of food and lots of sleep. Instead I sit on a plastic seat at the bus stop and write these words. I savour the last bit of energy and excitement of travel. I suppose this is why I do it. This is why I endured the air-conditioned nightmare.