The searing temperatures of the mid-Australian outback sap my energy. The Stuart Highway stretches ad infinitum and the monotony of the featureless landscape and intense heat are getting to me. The endless pinky tarmac hums beneath my tyres, soporifically willing me to let my eyes close. Just for a moment. Close.
Alone in a slow-cooking van of the very highest backpacker quality, I put another tape into the slot, all windows wound down flush to the bodywork, mosquito net flapping like a sail in the back. The vermilion dust all around – on everything I touch, in everything I eat and in every crevice of me and my van. Sleepy. Close. Just for a second.
I lean out of the window but it doesn’t help; the experience is like staring into a hair-dryer, with the setting stuck on Too Hot. Sleepy. Hot, heavy eyelid rims.
The horizon is always a simmering haze and the road ahead is ruler drawn. I fail to notice the devil’s own transport behind me until the roar fills my own vehicle and his chrome bull bars loom through my back window. Fifty metres of road train pass in a shattering rain of dust and pebbledash. The top of his wheels align themselves to my roofrack. Shiiiiit!
Go on. Close. One second won’t matter. Eyes will feel less itchy and heavy if you do. I pour some warm water out of a plastic bottle onto my head, rub my eyes, and then see somebody on the barren dust. A hitchhiker. I find it strange to have to drive the van, actually slow down, change gear and stop.
He is scruffy, Irish and bothered by the flies. I pull my shirt away from my sticky back. Off again. Soon, I notice his eyes closing and catch him looking longingly at the mattress in the back. “I’m knackered,” he says. “I’d be more help if I get some kip now and drive later on. Refreshed like.”
“Fine,” I nod, inwardly un-fine. Closey closey eyes. Go on…
A terrible stench fills the van. The hellish aroma wakes me up. We whizz past a swollen bull, inflated like a Goodyear blimp and heinously rotting in the heat. Nightmarish birds hover for a feed.
Entirely awake now, my right arm burnt to a crisp to match the outback hues, I notice black clouds on the horizon. Rain? Surely not. The cloud is moving fast and I anticipate the novel movement of flicking the windscreen wiper switch – until I smell the smoke.
As acrid as the decomposing innards of the bull that came off second best to a road train; yet this smell is different. It’s the wafting stink of impending death to all those who cannot run fast enough. I consult my rear view mirror, hoping that this might be the moment when my co-pilot might snap into action. What happens in a bush fire exactly? Everything burns! Calm. It’s a long way away yet.
Unlike any other outback vista, a wall of fire moves bloody quickly. I call out. “Ahem, hello!” What is his name? “Christ!” The flame is gorging on the scrub to the left of us. It’s all around! It’s on the road! The ROAD is burning! Smoke is stinging and blinding my eyes, by now ineffectually wide with terror. Sleep, except for the eternal kind, is now far from my mind.
“The tyres are melting!” I scream in absolute sheer panic. I feel the van give in to the sluggish pull of the bubbling tarmac. My feet are bare. I’ll burn to death if I leave the van; I’ll burn to death if I stay put. We’re slowing. My hot tears of panic help clear smoke from my eyes and then I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Let her out!” his accent commands. I push my foot down and we surge forward, hurtling through the wall of all-consuming flames. His voice murmurs: “Now we’re sucking diesel,” as he turns back round to find a comfortable spot to sleep again.
Rigid with shock, I drive until we reach a feral outpost. We stop. My unflustered, well–rested companion climbs out. He mentions that the fire had been good craic. Would I like him to drive for a bit?
I move into the back and find that I can’t sleep. Eventually I push the visions of death by incineration to the back of my mind and persuade my eyes to close, the endless pinky tarmac humming beneath the tyres.