Hitching a ride on the Murchison

Sun pierces my parched skin while grit kicks up from the Murchison Highway. As I pace back in 40 degree heat, I think of a million other places I’d rather be. The black bitumen cushions my lethargy underfoot and the horizon struggles to keep itself intact. He’s the only one who is driving past since I started walking about an hour ago but – just my luck – in the opposite direction. Will he stop?
He’s belting the highway like an outlaw on the run. His brazen Holden rumbles while jagged contours scream signs of a backyard panel job. I swing around, hoping he acknowledges my urgent thumb. Brakes screech and, in a torrent of dirt, the backside of his Holden swerves to the left. Doubt evaporates.
He winds down the window to reveal a wire beard and a gaze that sideswipes my enthusiasm. My stomach sinks. “You need help?” He growls. “Yeah,” I blurt. “My parents’ ute is bogged about five kays off the highway.” I point into the distance. “Can you drive me back into town?” He contemplates my request, studying the highway. After a slight nod, he motions me to climb into the back.
The car’s boney frame pierces my back as I lunge into the seat. The door refuses to shut into place so I’m left to muscle its weight; every jolt from a gearshift threatens to fling it open at any moment. My knuckles whiten from my exertion and the utter peculiarity of this situation.
The car door has distracted me because it takes me a few seconds to realise that my driver’s interpretation of ‘town’ is the polar opposite to mine. “Town’s that way,” I quip as I fling my head back into the sights of his rearview. A menacing gaze returns to darken his eyes. Like a stroke of lightning, his arm snatches the ball of the gear-stick and the Holden bucks itself to a halt before its tyres retrace their tracks. “So, where were you off to before your parents got bogged?” He asks as his gaze gradually eases.
Earlier that morning, my step-dad flogged the accelerator so we could flee our sleepy town of Mount Magnet for a day of four-wheeled driving. A stubborn sunrise was perched over the desert’s expanse as our ute roared into fifth gear to leave weary heads with their slumber in houses cupping the end of Main Street and the start of the Murchison Highway.
Now, stale air whistles through a gap of an unknown window to rattle me with little thought for cool or calm. “We were heading out to the mountains,” I mumble to my driver. A freakish wet season meant many off-road tracks were reduced to nothing more than sludge and muck. Within minutes of venturing off the highway, our ute had sunk into a pit and my step-dad was left to scream every obscenity under the sun. He had sprung out of the ute and into knee-high gunk. He reached for the nearest dead bough and wedged it between the tyre and a plank of ply he had rummaged from the ute’s tray.
“And he let you hitch-hike back to town, just like that?” My driver loosens his neck to catch my eyes before rolling his head in the direction of the windscreen. I had never thought twice about jumping into a car with a complete stranger. With thousands of kilometres of desert surrounding our every move, it suddenly dawned on me that he could do whatever he wanted with me. The Holden hiccups to a tamer pace, obeying passing signs. Speed drops to an assuring 60 kilometres and my driver drops me off at the nearest pub so I can locate back-up. I’m safe and sound in Mount Magnet again.

J de Jonge

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