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Roadtrip Australia: Van-Tastic Northern Territory - WILLIE & ANDREW Americans Willie and Andrew embark on the ultimate Aussie roadtrip as they motor around Northern Territory with Van-Tastic Adventures for six action-packed, free-wheeling weeks of adventure.


AUSTRALIA | Wednesday, 31 March 2010 | Views [1585] | Comments [3]

Willie and I picked up Geoff the van yesterday morning, officially kicking off our adventure into the Northern Territory. The first goal? To drive north from Adelaide along the Stuart Highway, through the mining town of Coober Pedy, and up to Uluru. Which, assuming I have even a basic understanding of how a road atlas works, means we’ll be driving about 1500 kilometers as quickly as we can. We’re looking at 20 hours on the road in three days. 

So it wasn’t great that we didn’t have a chance to leave Adelaide until the sun had already begun to set. But we did manage to get in a solid four hours of the journey before Monday ended.

Cruising our way through the Australian Outback has been a singular experience. I’ve never felt so alone in such a large area. We can see for miles in every direction, over shrubs and sand and trees (it’s greener than you’d expect). We can see for miles on the flat road before us. We can see for miles on the flat road behind us. And there’s rarely any company.

Sometimes we see road trains, large and beastly trucks carrying three full trailers behind them. The wind they create is so powerful that Geoff sometimes swerves involuntarily moments after the road trains pass. Every 40 kilometers or so, there are rest stops littered with warnings: “Drowsy Drivers Die.” “Fatigue is Fatal.” “Stop. Revive. Survive.” Then, every 150 km or so, we’ll pass a bloody kangaroo corpse, roadkill left to rot where the asphalt mixes with the sand. Sometimes we’ll pass a town that looks huge on the map, but when we arrive it proudly boasts a population of 30. Glendambo was one of these towns. It also laid claim to 22,500 sheep and 2,000,000 flies. Approximately.

The bugs are another story completely. When we ride with the windows down, the wind rushing in with such a roar we have to shout to be heard, it’s almost as if we don’t have a care in the world save for what song we’re going to play next. But when we slow down… Everything changes. The flies pour in through the cracks as we hasten to roll up the windows. They’ll swarm around us, buzzing in our ears and crawling over our lips. They’ll burst out of the air conditioning vents in place of a breeze. They’re incessant and they’re everywhere.

Nightdriving is different. Out in the desert under a new moon, with no lights around for miles, you’re forced to drive through a pitch black nothing. Sometimes you’ll see a road train in the distance, and the light encompasses them in a hazy glow that slowly comes up over the ridge. Alien-like. But normally all we see is the road before us and hints of the bush to our left and our right. The wildlife comes out. Animals I’ve never seen before, seemingly half-squirrel and half-fox, dart across the roads. Rabbits scurry. And the kangaroos come out. They stand by the side of the highway, visible in the headlights for only seconds before you’ve passed them, their eyes catching the light and echoing it back at us, two glowing circles in the night. 

At one point, while trying to turn on the high beams, Willie accidentally turned off all the lights entirely for one terrifying, blissful second. There was the instant fear that we would run into countless animals, spin off the road and flip into the sand. Our stomachs dropped. But there was also the sensation of floating. There were the stars, suddenly bright and visible, more than I’ve ever seen before in my entire life, so clear we could even make out the hazy clouds of solar debris and astral fields and other space phenomena that I will never fully comprehend. Then the lights came back on.

We hadn’t meant to drive at night, but at the time it seemed like there weren’t any other options. Things hadn’t gone very well when we’d stopped in Port Augusta to sleep for the night. We refilled our fuel tank at a BP station (gas is twice as much here as it is in the States) and then asked the attendant where the cheapest place to stay was. He told us we could park behind the gas station and stay til morning. We thanked him and retired to Geoff. 

That’s when things got rough.

The way Geoff is set up is this: three people can sit, buckled, in the front. Behind the seats are some toiletry/kitchen supplies. A sink with running water, a small refrigerator, a microwave, some cupboards. Behind those are lockers lying horizontally on the floor. In the day, we can use them as benches. At night, it transforms into a bed. Then we pull out additional boards to create a kind of loft in the top of the van, so each passenger has their own sleeping space.

So Willie was sleeping on the bottom. I was sleeping on thin boards three feet above him, boards that were already bending slightly. We fell asleep around midnight.

At two in the morning, we woke to an earthquake. Seemingly. Our bags were falling over, clattering onto the floor, plates spilling out with a crash. We heard the keys jingle as they fell away, and then they were lost. The walls shook. We struggled for balance.

Then it all stopped.

“What just happened?” one of us said.

“I don’t know,” said the other. 

And then it started again. The walls shaking, the floor jumping. We struggled to get up, disoriented in the dark, struggled to—

Then we heard the voices.

“Drive it, film it, win it!” they chanted. Shouting Van-tastic’s catchphrase, painted onto the side of Geoff. “Drive it, film it, win it!”

All of our shades were drawn. We couldn’t see a thing. But we could hear the voices, and we could feel them pushing the van back and forth, hard enough that we feared it would tip.

“If you don’t drive it, I will!” someone shouted.

The shaking stopped again.

Willie and I got up. Turned on the lights. One of us said, “We have to leave.” The words lingered, but not the voice. I have no clue whose idea it was.

But the keys were missing, lost somewhere in the luggage now covering the van’s floor.

The walls shook again.

“Aw, you need a light?!” someone shouted.

“Drive it, film it, win it!”

My bag slid, and beneath it: the keys. I grabbed them, threw them to Willie. We crawled through the cabin and into the front seats. Buckles on, ignition roars, and then we were off, moving as fast as we could muster through the parking lot. 

But the windows were fogging up. We couldn’t see a thing. It was dangerous to drive any further. We could hear voices behind us, about to give chase. So we wiped off what we could and drove directly in front of the gas station, right in the lights, where everyone could see us, where we hoped nobody would harass us, where we could wait for the de-humidifier to work.

There was a rapping on the window.

We looked over, and they stood. Two guys, early twenties, dressed in rugby polos with collars popped. Bright blue eyes, each of them, one of them a little bug-eyed. Tousled blonde hair, both of them, with dark tans and bright white grins. A girl behind them, laughing.

They knocked again.

The windows were still too foggy to see through. 

We cracked the window. He said in soft, sweet Australian accent: “We’re done, mate. Just having a bit of fun. We’ll let you go have a sleep now.”

Sure. The windows cleared and we drove off into the night, through the murk, for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers, until “Drowsy Drivers Die” started to seem all too real. We pulled off into a rest station, essentially an empty parking lot in the middle of the desert. We turned off our lights and we went back to bed for an all-too-brief two hours.

On our first night in Australia, at a youth hostel, one our roommates regaled us with tales of drop bears, vicious creatures that would plummet through the treetops, latch onto your face, and rip out your throat. His story climaxed with: “Ah, that’s a load of shit. Welcome to Australia, where taking the piss is the national sport.”

Truer words have not been spoken.

By: Andrew Adams

Tags: adelaide, australia, backpackers, coober pedy, northern territory, oz, roadtrip, travel, van-tastic adventures, worldnomads.com



Andrew! Your writing is gorgeous and drop bears will haunt my dreams forever
in awe and totally relating to the momentarily loss of light in the van drive (love that his name is Geoff by the way, but will not call him that. .....for fear of getting too emotionally attached)
and was terrified at the earthquake of locals! but laughed out loud at the harmless ending

stay safe!! no more drowsy driving

  Morgan Apr 1, 2010 6:13 PM


Loved it - what a great writer you are - couldn't stop reading.

  Jan Apr 1, 2010 9:41 PM


Andrew, you're a great writer! I wasn't able to follow along while you were on the trip, so i just decided to start from the beginning and read all the posts together. I can tell already it was an awesome experience. Jealous.

  Donnalie May 21, 2010 2:40 AM

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