Editor’s note: Jeremy Hart, an occasional contributor to Wired.com, is driving around the world with a few mates in a pair of Ford Fiestas. He’s filing occasional reports from the road.
The final lap. The last hurrah. The end zone. All your nearly-there sentiments apply as we approach the end of this round-the-world drive, except having Australia as the final leg is like getting to the week before Christmas only to find that there’s really seven months, not seven days, to go.
Oz is a massive place. Sure, it may be not much bigger than the United States, but imagine Darwin at the top end is Los Angeles and Sydney is Miami. And instead of thousands of towns and cities dotted between the two, sprinkle just a few dozen.
The Outback is Crocodile Dundee country except guys like Peter Saltmarsh are the real deal. Hours after sipping tea at Raffles in Singapore we are out on the Adelaide River near Darwin with 25-foot crocs trying to take a chunk out of Peter’s boat.
“We used to swim here as kids but since the estuarine crocodile has been protected, the population has exploded,” he says. “They are the ultimate survivor. They can drop their heart rate down to one beat a minute and go for a year and a half without food.”
On the Stuart Highway, which bisects Australia, we fight for asphalt against some of the largest trucks in the world. Australian road trains have as many as four trailers. They’re 20 times the length of our little Fiestas.
Passing these leviathans takes bravery and commitment. They run at 65 mph. The speed limit is 80 mph (at one time there were no speed limits, but now only Germany and the Isle of Man have that distinction), so we need at least a mile of room to pass them. With the highway being just two lanes wide, there is no escape. Huge truck to the left. Rugged desert to the right.
Road trains run day and night. However, anyone driving a car at night in the Outback has a death wish. Kangaroos hopping across the bush with no regard for traffic and with a suicidal fascination for headlights make driving after dark a game of Russian roulette. Little wonder ultrasonic gadgets designed to frighten animals are a popular tool in these parts.
A thousand miles from any ocean, Alice Springs is the biggest outpost in the Outback. It is a major hub for Aboriginal or indigenous artists who travel from their desert communities to sell their works. Aboriginal art took millennia to make the jump from cave to canvas and now it extends to our cars.
“When Aboriginal artists started to experiment with canvas and other media, it opened things up,” said Kit Ballan, owner of Alice Springs artists’ workshop and gallery BPG. “You’d go out to communities and see old bits of car with painting on.”
Damien Marks Tjangala is an artist from a community southwest of Alice. He remembers being allowed by his grandfather to not only paint bits of old car but his grandfather’s entire car.
“I don’t know where it is now,” he says, hunched over the bonnet of our green Ford Fiesta creating his latest piece of automobile art before we make the final sprint for Sydney. He likes the medium he’s working with.
“The green is nice,” he says as he starts a traditional Western Desert painting. He has ochres and white and black to depict bush life. “This is a bush turkey and this is a waterhole.” The turkey, to a Western eye, is the footprint of a bird. The waterhole is a vibrant series of concentric dots, largely white.
Once all the dead bugs and dust are cleared from the bonnet he masks it off. Joylene Reid Napangati paints the right side of the car. Her deep blacks appear much more contemporary than Damien’s earthy tones on the left. The two artists spend an hour and a half turning a bare bonnet into a fusion of two artistic styles. Damien’s teenage niece and nephew watch avidly as he works. They’re more interested in the car than the artwork. They have no dreams of becoming artists but they like the idea of a painted car.
The question then, do we keep the art on the car? These cars have an unmistakably Outback Australian character now. The decision is made for us as we hit a rainstorm near the mining town of Coober Pedy in South Australia. Sadly, covering the paint would have been impossible. The rain washes some of it away.
Coober Pedy in South Australia is the opal capital of the world. Underneath a landscape that resembles the surface of the moon lies billions of dollars worth of the semi-precious stones.
“Forever, prospectors have been coming here hoping to become millionaires,” says Welshman Phil Lewis. “And in the boom years of the seventies, maybe five of the 1,500 miners here would each year become millionaires. I’ve done all right myself.”
Phil stands in the living room of his home on the outskirts of town. It is a town of cave dwellers. He, like many here, lives beneath ground. The walls and ceiling of the house are rough hewn sandstone. The cave house has all the mod cons, with wiring and pipes sunk deep into the rock. Phil’s neighbour also has a garage cut out of the rock.
Coober Pedy was one location used for the iconic Aussie road warrior films Mad Max. The Hollywood of the Outback is Silverton, near Broken Hill. Mel Gibson and the Mad Max crew made it home in the early eighties. Now there is talk of Mad Max 4, possibly starring Charlize Theron, being shot here soon. The Mad Max museum just opened in Silverton. It has taken a Max-obsessed Brit named Adrian Bennett to create a shrine to the movies.
“People kept saying, ‘You’ve got all this stuff in relation to Mad Max and why don’t you put it on display?’” says Bennett, who has three replicas of the Ford XBGT Interceptor (an Aussie-built car loosely based on the Mustang Mach 1), a handful of dune buggies and bikes used in the three films. The original XBGT, ironically, is housed not far from Bennett’s hometown in the UK.
Our last weird and wonderful story is at Magnetic Hill in South Australia. There is a belief that magnetized rock in the hill is strong enough to pull a car up hill. I tried it. See for yourself.
Desert turns to farmland as Sydney beckons. After almost two months on the road the crew are itching to get to the finish line – Sydney Harbour Bridge. But at the same time the return to normal life will seem mundane.
Hanging out with Jay Leno and Ireland’s most famous matchmaker, having artists paint on our cars, driving the Nurburgring and the autobahn in one day, washing the cars by elephant and having a Turkish taxi driver belly dance for us has made this round-the-world drive a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It is frustrating that people on Sydney’s streets have no idea we have just driven from the far side of the Pacific to this side and what adventures we have encountered on the way. But that’s the beauty of this expedition. It was just a few friends out for a drive in perfectly ordinary cars. With nothing more than checking tires, topping up oil and changing a flat, it’s an expedition anyone could have done in their own Fiesta.
Photos and videos courtesy Jeremy Hart