Keys to the Outback

“I can’t believe you left them there,” Jim muttered as I squeezed the handle and pulled hard for a third time.

“What do you mean, you can’t believe it? You can see them as well as I can. You’re not going blind, are you?” The keys were clearly visible in the ignition. People were beginning to stare.

He walked around to my side of the car. “I knew this would happen if I let you drive.”

“It has nothing to do with my driving.” I circled to the passenger side to try that handle again. “My driving was fine. It’s not as though you’ve never locked keys in the car.” I wasn’t entirely certain he ever had, but was willing to gamble on it to make my point. I wanted desperately to defend myself, because I suspected my mistake would have serious consequences.

We had rented our Holden wagon in Darwin, 300 miles away. At first, the man at the A1 Car Rental company tried to give us an old beater: no radio, one broken window, lots of dents, the whole thing covered in powdery red dust. ‘Yir goin’ tuh Katherine? This’s yir car, mate!”

The salesman looked at us incredulously when we complained. After some verbal wrangling, my husband, who is large and can be quite persuasive, managed to get us a late model station wagon with intact windows and a weak-but-functioning air conditioner.

Knowing we were in for long expanses of empty highway, we stopped at the edge of town to top off the fuel tank. “What’s the speed limit, anyway?” Jim asked the attendant.

“What kin ya do, mate?”

‘I said, ‘What’s the speed limit on the highway to Katherine?”’ Jim repeated himself cheerfully. He meets strangers easily.

“What kin ya do?”

We hadn’t anticipated any troubles communicating with the locals on our trip Down Under, but that had been naive. Their accents were difficult to understand, the rhyming slang was impossible to decipher, and the wry Aussie sense of humor kept me off balance. I had become resigned to the fact that I was clueless much of the time, but Jim liked to maintain a sense of control.

About an hour out of Darwin we stopped to take each other’s picture standing next to what the Aussies call “anthills.” These aren’t mere bumps of soft dirt, like American anthills. They are towering structures, sometimes as much as twenty feet high, built by termites out of their own saliva and feces. The resulting substance is so hard that the anthills were ground up and used instead of concrete to make airplane runways during World War II. Or so the Aussies said, and I believed them. 

The instant we climbed out of the car, flies covered us both. Flies! Making themselves at home on my bare arms, crawling up my legs, doing their best to creep into my eyes and mouth. I tried desperately to shoo them away, but the flies were not deterred; they crawled over us with impunity. Billions of them live there; maybe trillions. I read that there are more than 650 separate species in Australia. The air was hot—easily 105 F—and the land stretched out flat and dusty, with sparse vegetation and even fewer animals. I couldn’t imagine how such a lifeless expanse could possibly support those buzzing hordes. What did they eat, anyway, when there were no tourists around?

We snapped our anthill photos fast and hopped back into the car. Hundreds of flies came with us. After some frantic experimentation, involving swatting, speeding, swerving, and swearing, we discovered that the best way to get rid of flies was to open all the windows and drive slowly. Of course this rendered the air conditioner useless, and we were soon dripping with perspiration, which caused the red Outback dust to cake onto our bodies in a most unattractive way.

When I had exterminated all the flies but three, I climbed into the back seat and smashed the last survivors with our A1 rental papers. They left dry, brown smears across the part where we had signed up for extra insurance. Then we rolled up the windows and drove in silence, waiting for the car to cool off. It was too hot to talk.

As it turned out, there was, indeed, no official speed limit on the road to Katherine. Hundreds of miles of open road, dead straight, no highway patrol. The speed limit was whatever you could coax your car to do. I say “coax” because only a fool would take a high performance car on this road.

When we stopped to get the camera, I discovered that the inside of the trunk was covered with fine red dust. The dust was also sucked into our luggage, and, inside that, into the plastic bag I use to protect the camera from dust. It gets into the engine, too, and the brakes. That was why the rental company had at first provided us with a beater for the trip. I began to feel guilty that we were ruining this A1 car for anything but Outback travel.

There were “speed limit” signs on the road: white rectangles with a big black zero in the center, and a slanted black bar crossing the zero. (“What kin ya do?”) Jim took full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and opened it up on the open road. When the speedometer hit 130 kilometers, I looked away. Mostly the trip was OK, and even seemed fairly safe, because there were no other vehicles on the road. A couple of times we hit potholes and bounced hard. Once there was a really loud noise, and when I looked in the mirror I thought I saw something fall off the bottom of the car. It was getting late, and we kept driving until we got to Katherine.

The next morning, the car seemed fine, and we took a dirt road out to Glen Helen, which is an outpost in the middle of nowhere. It consists of one gasoline pump, two camels in a small corral, a permanent-looking “No Vacancy” sign, and a small motel-and-bar combination called the All Seasons Glen Helen Homestead.

There isn’t much to do in Glen Helen, except to take a hike up the gorge, which is a dramatic contrast to the rest of the Outback. It was fun at first: a small stream gurgled along the trail, there were a few hardy plants, and the steep canyon walls sheltered us from the sun. Here and there a gray lizard skittered out of our path, but other than that, it was dead quiet. After a while we were too hot even in the shade, and we were tired and hungry, so we walked back to the roadhouse.

This is when we discovered I had locked the keys in the car. We had left our wallets safely in the glove compartment, since we wouldn’t need them on the hike. No need to carry any more than was necessary. When we returned, we needed money to buy a couple of cold beers and some tucker (food). So there we were, circling the car, tugging the handles, arguing, hot and tired and hungry.

My clothes were sticking to my body. A fly landed on Jim’s face, and walked into his nose. Until you have witnessed it, you cannot imagine how intensely irritable it makes a person when a fly crawls into his nostril and refuses to be dislodged. It was at this point that we had the conversation about my driving.

Several helpful folks wandered over to view the keys dangling from the ignition and offer advice. “Why donja jus use yir spair key, mate?” one asked.

“This woonda happened if you’da left yir windars open,” another offered.

The most practical of the lot suggested we simply throw a brick through the window, “She’ll be right, mate!” When you’re in the Outback, life seems fairly straightforward.

But there were no bricks to be had in Glen Helen, so I went inside, bummed some change, and phoned A1. It turned out the only spare key was in their Alice Springs office, more than 800 miles away. They said they’d send someone right over, as soon as they could round up an airplane. “No worries.”

Waiting for the car keys to be delivered, Jim chatted up the waitress at the All Seasons Glen Helen Homestead – as I recall, he was not speaking to me at that time – and expressed his disgust over the hundreds of flies crawling on the outside of the window.

“Awwr that’s nothin’, mate!” she responded. “In the summa they completely cuvah ervery winda, so no light comes in uh’tall. Keeps the place coolah that way.”

Hours passed. It was late afternoon, and I began to worry about where we would spend the night. There were no vacant rooms at the Homestead, and I was sure the Outback was at least as inhospitable at night as it was during the day. We couldn’t even sleep in the car. There was no one to hitch a ride back to Katherine with; the travelers who were not staying the night had long since left. It was beginning to look like Jim might spend the night with the waitress, but what about me? I tried to remember whether Bedouins or other desert people slept with their camels, but could only dredge up stories of mean-spirited animals that spit and kicked at humans.

I was in the middle of wondering whether lizards, which of course are cold-blooded, would be attracted to my body heat if I were sleeping in the desert, when a cheerful man in short shorts and an A1 shirt appeared and handed Jim the key, no worries. What did we owe him for this extravagant kindness? “Awwr, nothin’ mate.” He gave Jim a friendly slap on the back. “We’ll sen’ja the bill laytah.”

They did, too. Five months later a charge for $65 showed up on my credit card bill. Sixty-five dollars — not even enough to pay for the airplane fuel! The description said simply, “A1 key delivery.” Life is straightforward in the Outback.


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