Trapped in the Land Down Under, strapped for cash, and with a maniac behind the wheel, would-be hitcher – me – goes troppo.
“Over there is a secret American base,” the sunburnt driver drawled, chucking his lit Winfield out the window (unmindful of the occasional clump of Spinifex grass), pointing way out into the quite empty horizon. “We’ve been hired to paint it!” The other two men, blotto (drunk) before noon, pulled the tabs of their Foster’s and laughed uproariously, heads thrown back as if in great pain. Secret? Not anymore, I figured.
My girlfriend and I were catching a ride with these three Aussies on our way to Coober Pedy, one of the largest opal mining towns in the world, where most residents say goodbye to the great outdoors and live instead in underground caves. Our goal was to hitchhike the 518 miles from Adelaide to Coober Pedy, across one of Australia’s harshest outback landscapes, in one day.
Running low on funds, we planned to pick up some psychedelic fire opals to sell in Sydney. We also planned to route out the legendary lair of Crocodile Harry, a miner and adventurer rumored to have been the prototype of “Crocodile Dundee”, and whose subterranean abode was used in the Mad Max thriller, Beyond Thunderdome. At the speed we were going, we’d get there in no time. Turning off the desert highway onto a trunk road, the Aussies dropped us off at a road station made up of an inn and a petrol pump.
“Sorry we can’t takes ya any farther. Ya know, top secret and stuff.”
Hey, at least it was better than languishing roadside in the hellish blistering sun. Entering the bar – filled with tattooed road warriors, miners, truckies, drifters, and prozzies (prostitutes) – we asked around for rides. No dice. We waited outside on the off chance that a passing “road train” would take us the rest of the way. A few hours later, wild-eyed Bruce and Sheila (not their real names) emerged, towing two kids and two cases of beer over to their decrepit Holden station wagon.
“Please, are you going to Coober Pedy? We’re stuck here!” I said.
“Ya need a lift? No wuckin’ furries, mate, hop in!”
Off we went. Bruce ran on heavy fuel, guzzling beer after beer after beer. Once, I nervously glanced over and Bruce wasn’t there, or at least his head wasn’t. It was buried under the dashboard, while he rummaged around for party tapes.
“I-I-I’ll get those, what tape do you want?”
I intercepted, trying to cajole Bruce to keep his eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel.
“Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. We carry in our hearts our true country, and that cannot be stolen; we follow in the steps of our ancestry, and that cannot be broken!” (Midnight Oil).
Darkness set in. The car’s headlights worked only when Bruce held the lever. With the infernal Bee Gees blasting like a fiery castrato wind, the headlights flashed off and on as though they were disco strobe lights: “O, the Night Fever, Niiiight Feevaaaahah,” we know how to do it, aaaaaaaaaahahahaha!”
Sheila sang along shrilly with near perfect pitch. Worse, there was no “roo bar” to protect the front end of the car, much less us. Maybe we would hit a Big Red kangaroo – a major cause of crashes in the Outback. The story unfolded that Bruce was rescuing Sheila from a violent “dolebludger” boyfriend to hide out in Darwin – a safe haven for criminals throughout Australia. The news that Sheila was also a heroine addict didn’t bolster our confidence in Bruce’s driving.
Hours passed, with beer cans adding up, plus the fear of crashing. We wanted out, but there was nowhere to go. Then, lights in the distance. Coober Pedy, at last! We mumbled goodbye and rushed off to the youth hostelry, located below ground in a cold, damp and defunct opal mine.
The next morning we spotted Bruce, Sheila, and the kids wandering toward us on a dusty street. We hid.
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