Hitchhike to Gehenna
Robert Pickles (University of Chichester, UK)
I’d been standing beside the road for two hours. It must have been a hundred in the shade except there wasn’t any. Barely a tree stood in the landscape, certainly no grass, just dust and dirt and the feeling that you were close to the ends of the earth. A dozen cars passed before a shabby looking ute slowed and pulled over. When the dust cleared I noticed a long crack in the windscreen and a bumper sticker that said Fuck Off. We’re Full. A smear of blood down the side made me wonder what I might be getting myself into. Goatee beards strung from grubby jowls made the occupants look like roadies returning from a ZZ Top concert.
‘Where ya headed mate?’
‘No worries. Hop in.’
I opened the back door, mindful this might be the last journey I ever took. The driver put the pick-up into gear and we took off in a cloud of dust. The passenger turned.
‘G’day. Nathan. He’s Roobar.’
‘Hi. Eddie. What’s that smell?’
I looked at him, bewildered.
‘In the tray. At the back.’
‘Oath mate. Pass a beer, will ya? In the esky there.’
I leant down and took two bottles from a shabby polystyrene cooler on the floor.
‘Have one yerself, if ya like.’
It was too early, but I didn’t want to look a fool so I twisted the top from a bottle and took a long swig. As I wiped my mouth, I noticed that the bands of their leather hats were stained dark with sweat and dust. I turned and stared at the feet and ears. I needed to know more.
‘Can anyone shoot kangaroos?’
‘Nah, mate,’ said Nathan. ‘We get paid by the government. You need a licence but.’
‘But what?’ I said, hoping for an answer to the oft-used open-ended sentence.
He missed it, then nudged his companion. ‘They’re protected in some parts of ‘straya, but not round heeya. Besides, we’re the best shots west of Dubbo!’
Roobar laughed, drained his bottle and tossed it passed Nathan, aiming for the open window, but it hit the side pillar and smashed, showering both of them in glass and beer.
‘Ah shit! Ya dickhead!’
The pick-up swerved off the road in a snaking blur of red dust. Every muscle in my body went taught as we waited for the roll, but the rear wheels gripped and shot us back up onto the road.
‘Bloody crab holes,’ said Roobar, as if nothing much had happened.
I breathed a sigh of relief and searched for a seat belt.
Nathan opened another beer, turned and continued. ‘Tell ya what mate, it’s the best bloody job in the world.’
‘Oh?’ I replied.
‘On the grog, out in the bush, shootin’ roos ‘n’ that. Oftentimes we’ll finish ‘em off with a knife.’
‘Amazing,’ I lied.
‘Sometimes the sheilas come too.’
‘Wow,’ I said, lying again.
The floor of the pick-up was covered with rubbish, most of which consisted of food wrappers, empty beer cans and cartridge cases. A magazine caught my eye. Guns, Girls ‘n’ Pigs. The front cover showed a pretty girl in cowboy boots and frilly knickers astride a hairy, dead pig, one hand clasped suggestively around a thick black telescopic sight. Her large breasts were doing there best to escape from her tasselled, suede jacket.
A short while later we rolled into the dusty car park of a run down motel. Nathan explained the urgent need to finish off a drinking competition and ordered two jugs of beer and a bottle of rum. We sat down and the rum was poured. I picked up my glass and examined what looked like the brackish water that seeps from the gates of a refuse tip on a hot day. I took a sip and flinched. It was pungent and acidic. They downed their glasses in one. After polishing off both jugs and the bottle, Nathan stood to go to the toilet, but collapsed on the floor. Roobar went over and tugged at his shirt.
‘Nathe. Ma-ate. We gotta git back to work. Git up ya fackin drongo.’
Roobar turned and steadied himself, focussing his gaze on me. ‘Give us a hand with dickhead here, will ya?’
A police officer at the bar took little notice as we dragged Nathan across the floor, outside and up into the cab.
‘Look here,’ said Roobar, pulling back a canvas tarpaulin from a steel cage at the back of the ute. Inside were three gruesome looking dogs who looked as though they’d quite like me for dinner. Roobar saw me catching flies. ‘Nggnnahh, dun worry ‘bout them mate.’
‘Pig dogs. See. That one’s Bull, that one’s Killer, and she’s just a bitch … aher, aher.’
‘Orr mate, when they get stuck into a big boar you should hear the noise … like the sound of someone’s kid been tortured.’
I stared at the dogs, unable to respond. Roobar slapped me on the back and pulled himself up into the cab. ‘Thanks for your help, mate.’
I watched the tail lights swerve and grow dim. I booked a room in the motel, had a shower and fell asleep.
In the morning I found a café and had breakfast before doing a bit of exploring. Coober Pedy is in the South Australian desert and famous for its unrelenting heat and gemstones. Odd buildings are plonked in the middle of nowhere and lots of people live beneath the ground because it is so hot. I bought a can of drink and stood outside a shop, its filthy windows plastered with billposters of missing persons. The landscape was littered with the discarded junk from mining—rusting cranes, trucks and oil drums, along with hundreds of broken dreams in the shape of conical slag heaps. An old guy dressed in ripped red shorts and a blue singlet walked by drinking from a brown paper bag. He was painfully thin and his bare feet were cauterized and taut. A long grey beard hung from his chin. There were no teeth, just gums.
‘G’day mate,’ he said.
‘Hi,’ I replied.
‘How ya garn?’
He held out the bottle.
‘What is it?’
‘Port, a sorts.’
‘No, thanks. Bit early.’
He leant against the wall beside me.
‘Gonna be a scorcher today.’
The sky was deep blue. It was already too hot to scratch.
‘You on holidays then?’
‘Where you from?’
‘What ya think of the place?’
I didn’t want to offend, so replied, ‘It’s okay … dusty and hot, but okay.’
He lifted his tatty yellow cap and wiped the sweat from his brow. ‘Proper shithouse if you ask me. Full of flamin’ nutjobs.’
‘Mate, how would you like living on stale bread and rum while digging holes in rocks in fifty degree heat?’
‘Is that what people do?’
‘Mostly. I did.’
‘You were a miner?’
‘For me sins, yes. Bruce, me brother, as well.’
‘How did it go?’
‘Not good mate, not good.’
‘He got the fever.’
‘Nah, ya dickhead, opal fever.’ He took a long swig and continued. ‘A form of blindness you could call it … greed too. Bruce was a good bloke, but a silly bastard. Ran up a lot of debt and bad feeling around town. Took to the booze in the end. Got the fever. Lost the plot.’
‘Someone got ‘im.’
‘Out there,’ he pointed. ‘You’ve seen ‘em.’
I waited for a moment while he took another long swig.
‘Stick a dynamite up yer arse, shove in the back and boom, you’re gone.’ He had another swig then shuffled off towards the pub. ‘Take care, mate.’
I walked back to the motel, settled the bill and collected my things.
My next lift dropped me at yet another roadhouse. My room had a single bed, side table and lamp. The carpet was sticky and the walls the colour of calf scour. A net curtain hung from the rail like the flayed, peppered skin of an animal, shot through.
A noise woke me at 3:00 a.m. I rolled over and tried to sleep, but each yearning grunt and thrust from the room next door was followed by howls of pain disguised as pleasure. I visualised the scene—an empty wine cask, drug taking paraphernalia and the unwanted guest—a truckie or salesman away from home. I turned on the sticky mattress and felt the bugs squash and scuttle.
In the morning I took a shower and went to the roadhouse for breakfast. It was early but the sun was fierce. Swarms of flies descended on my fresh, pink skin. A huge road-train rumbled to a stop in a swirl of dust and diesel fumes, its unshorn cargo packed to the seams, bleating to death in the heat. I bought a bottle of water and went outside.
There was an Aboriginal girl hanging around the car park. A polka dot dress hung from her shoulders. Her hair was tangled. Her lips bruised. Dirty feet and flip-flops. A rough night.
‘Thirsty?’ I asked.
She nodded. I handed her the bottle. She drank, long, greedy gulps.
‘None your business.’
We watched another truck pull in.
‘Where you headed?’ I asked.
‘None your business either.’
I smiled and we stood in silence for a moment.
‘Waitin’ for udda mob,’ she mumbled.
‘Are you hungry?’
‘You wan’ summa me?’ she asked.
‘No. I’m just being friendly.’
‘Huh. Gubbah all the same.’
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Whassit to you?’
‘Like I said, I’m just being friendly.’
‘Got any bacca?’
I passed her a cigarette.
I took it back, lit and returned it.
‘Cardy for short. Means dawn but.’
A flock of pink galahs screeched in the trees above.
‘Where you garn?’ she said.
I looked up the highway. The tarmac shimmered and lost its way in the heat. ‘Ayers Rock.’
‘Dingo ‘ll sort ya.’
‘Him fullu yonder.’
A blurred image appeared through the haze, materialising into a big white ute that pulled over on the red cinder. The girl walked over and opened the passenger door, not expecting an old Aboriginal man to fall out and hit the ground like a dusty corpse. The driver rushed around to the passenger side and dropped to his knees. He was Aboriginal too, short and strong with a mop of black and grey hair.
‘Facken oath. Bobby, you alright mate?’ He lifted the old man up and winked at the girl. ‘G’day, Cardy. How you garn?’
‘Bin betta,’ she said.
He turned towards me with a bright, friendly smile. ‘G’day mate. Dingo.’
I put out my hand, ‘Eddie.’
‘Where you headed?’ he asked.
‘Uluru. Is he okay?’
‘He’ll be right. Too much grog. I can drop ya near the rock if ya like?’
I helped him heave Bobby back into the pick-up and we set off down the highway. Cardinia sat quietly and Bobby cuddled up beside me, rasping his grey stubble against my neck.
‘Taking this mob back to their community,’ said Dingo. ‘The back there is full of plants ‘n’ that, y’knar?’
I turned and looked through the window at the back of the cab. The pick-up was towing a long trailer covered with a green tarpaulin.
‘We bin on the road since sun up … s’why Bobby there is gone already, mate.’
We continued in silence.
‘So what you doin’ in Aussie?’
‘Just travelling around. Always wanted to come here. Crocodile Dundee and all that.’
‘Mate,’ he said, ‘the Outback? You’d be better off up that Surfers I reckon … paradise they call it … never bin but, geez, imagine all them bewt sheilas.’
‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘but I’d rather experience the real Australia.’
There was a pause. Dingo shook his head. ‘The real ‘straya? Huh, you’ll find that out here, mate, no worries.’ He leaned down and grabbed a bottle from a cooler between his callused bare feet. ‘Not many sheilas though!’
We laughed. Dingo passed the bottle.
‘Dis the real stuff, mate. None for you though, Cardy.’
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Darwin stubby. Six per cent.’
The bottle was huge and reminded me of the flagons of cider I had bought in my youth, sneaking behind the bike sheds before the school disco. I pulled off the cap and we passed the bottle between us until it was finished. Another was opened, and another. Cardy tossed the empties out the window, aiming at trees and road signs, her face lighting up at the exploding glass.
When we arrived at the settlement there was a lot of noise and shouting as people gathered around to see what was in the pick-up. A dozen Aboriginal men clamoured over, not for the beautiful plants and greenery, but the remains of the alcohol.
I took in the surroundings. Half a dozen run-down bungalows were arranged around a swimming pool that was now like a sewer, its water black and rancid with rubbish and burnt pieces of kangaroo. A group of Aboriginal women were sitting beneath a tree, surrounded by scabby dogs and emaciated puppies. Some children sat motionless beside a burnt out car, sniffing petrol. One’s hair was matted with dried blood. Cardinia walked past. I raised my hand to wave, but she was lost already.
After unloading the trailer, Dingo took me to a quiet area behind some rocks. We sat down in the shade beside a small fire and he placed a blackened billycan over the coals. A moment of silence passed.
‘You’ll want a strong cuppa now I’d reckon?’
I took a deep breath. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. You guys are doing it tough.’
‘Aussie guvmnt don’ care ‘bout us mob.’
‘It’s not like that everywhere is it?’
‘Mate, wait till you get up north, you ain’t seen nothing yet.’
He dropped me under some tall gum trees ready for my next lift.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘No worries. You have a good time down under, and watch yerself, eh.’
‘Maybe I’ll see you on the road again some time.’
‘Yeah. I hope so.’
I watched the truck meld into a purple sun. Evening was drawing in and the road beckoned.
I finally reached Uluru late that night after a non-eventful lift with two park rangers who talked non-stop about the beauty of the Outback.
‘You gonna climb the rock are ya, mate?’ one asked.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I read the indigenous people don’t agree.’
‘Dun worry ‘bout the Abo’s mate. It’s all a media beat up.’
‘Don’t they regard it as sacred?’
‘My arse,’ one replied. ‘All they want is money for grog.’
They dropped me outside a motel and I thanked them for the lift.
I woke late the next day and had brunch while watching tourists snake their way, ant-like, up and down the huge, rust-coloured monolith. I was tempted to join them but decided to respect the wishes of the Anangu. I would take a walk around the base later that day, when the tourists had gone and it was cooler.
The path hugged the side of the rock, close enough to reach out every now and then and touch the rough, porous surface. I walked for an hour until I came to a small waterhole surrounded by clumps of spinifex grass. Wallaby footprints peppered the sand. On the far side was a small cave, partly hidden by an overhanging gum tree. I hid my backpack, slipped off my boots and socks, rolled up my jeans and stepped in. The water was cool and refreshing. When I reached the cave I was disappointed to find that it didn’t go back all that far. I was hoping to find some rock art or signs of ancient inhabitation, but there was none. I sat down and watched the ripples soften out to the edges of the pool, leaving a glassy, quintessentially Australia reflection—deep ochre rock edged with white-barked trees against an impossibly azure sky. I closed my eyes and thought about the thousands, maybe millions of tons of prehistoric rock that lay behind me. I was surrounded by a primordial landscape that was far, far older than the little pubs in Sussex or London that had previously captured my heart, or the cathedral in Salisbury where I had once felt close to something I did not understand. Before long, I was fast asleep.
I woke with a jolt. For a moment I was unsure where I was. My skin was clammy. It felt as though something; a spirit perhaps, had entered and then left me. I stood up, trying find my bearings and remembered reading about the ‘Ayers Rock Curse’, where people’s lives had changed for the worse after disturbing sacred land or water, or from taking souvenirs such as sand or pieces of rock. I was freezing—the warmth of my body drawn out by the sand. The sun was edging toward the horizon. I looked across the pool. My boots and socks were in the water. Someone had been here. I waded to the other side but could not find any footprints. Thankfully, my backpack was still there. I hurried back to the trees where Dingo had dropped me, half expecting to be jumped at any moment. There were no cars or people in the car park. I had no choice but to start walking.
Within half an hour it started to get dark. A few cars went by so I stuck my thumb out, but they kept going. When night fell I started to really worry. I dropped my pack by the side of the road and sat down. A rising moon illuminated the landscape, creating shadows black with myths and terror. A bird cried out and I almost did too. I’d all but given up when some lights appeared on the horizon. I put my thumb out and was first blinded by the full beam, then surprised to see the truck slow and stop up ahead. I grabbed my pack and ran over. The truck glowed red beneath a dozen bright lights. I stopped, breathless, and looked up. This was my only chance. I climbed the steps to the cab, but when I opened the door I almost fell back.
‘Where ya headed?’ the bearded driver asked, holding a sawn off shotgun.
‘North, north to Darwin,’ I spluttered.
The noise from the engine drowned out my reply.
‘And why’s that then?’
‘I’m backpacking, you know, around Australia. I’m English.’
I didn’t like the way it was going. The last eight months had taught me that some Australians disliked the English. I looked round. I could hop down and run for it but he’d pick me off easily. Not only that, the bush was pitch black and terrifying.
‘What’s in yer pack?’
‘Just clothes and stuff.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘No worries then. Hop in.’
He pulled the shotgun back and fixed it in a holder by his side. ‘Can’t be too careful these days.’
I climbed into the cab and tried to lighten the atmosphere. ‘Phew, am I glad you stopped. Not sure what I would have done if you hadn’t.’
He put the truck into low gear and pulled away. ‘Reckon you got lucky. I’m hauling this rig all the way up to the East Arm. What the hell you doing roight out here anyways?’
‘It’s a long story. I got a lift with some Aboriginals who dropped me at the rock. I went for a walk but ended up having a kip for longer than I meant to.’
‘Mate,’ he said, shaking his head and changing up through the gears, ‘you wouldn’t catch me out there on my own, not at night. If the Abos didn’t get yer, the dingoes would.’
‘Bloody oath,’ he said, sucking air through the gaps in his clenched teeth. ‘Or the Bunyip.’
I wasn’t sure what a Bunyip was, but didn’t like the sound of it. ‘Bunyip?’
‘Come out the ground when there’s nothin’ there.’
I smiled, hoping to catch him out. But his face remained determined.
‘Mongrels ‘ll suck the blood right out a ya.’
We continued in a straight line, the bank of spotlights on the front picking out distant kangaroos and other critters too quick to be identified. Now I was looking for Bunyips and telling myself I’d never sleep outside again, not in Australia at least.
The truck was laden with steel girders bound for Darwin. After a couple of hours my head started to drop, which the driver noticed.
‘Mate,’ he hollered above the din of the engine, ‘I wun be sleeping at all tonight so hop in the back if ya like.’
The rear of his cab had a big bed. A pile of clothes in the corner made it a bit whiffy. A soft glow from the dashboard filtered through the yellow net curtains, illuminating a selection of pictures from girlie magazines awkwardly taped to the wall. The gentle rocking of the cab and reassuring rumble of the engine deep below soon had me drifting off to the muted sounds of Kasey Chambers, but my dreams were addled. I tossed and turned in that stuffy cocoon for what felt like hours.
When I woke it was light. I felt odd. Strange dreams lingered with me. As I turned I noticed a plastic bag sticking out from under the mattress. I teased it out. Inside was a polka dot dress, soaked in blood.
My throat felt dry. My heart pounded in my chest.
‘Jesus,’ I whispered.
Cardinia’s dress. I peered through the curtains. The driver was humming to a song on the radio. He couldn’t see me. What were my choices? He had a gun after all. Before I could decide what to do, the truck began to slow. The driver was changing down through the gears and pulling over.
When I looked up I saw his reflection in the rear view mirror.
He was staring straight at me. And smiling.
Robert is a London based writer undertaking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. He spent fifteen years in Australia and still misses the coffee. His first novel (set in Oz) was signed by a London agent and will, one day (he hopes) be published.