Dreamtime in the Australian Outback | Burned Under

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Joe Gresh

The unbearable heat behind me at last, I troll into the pockmarked town of Coober Pedy. This place is a right royal mess and I love it. Scraggly dogs and wasted Aborigines stumble through sand-blown streets mouthing semi-threatening babble in unknowable tongues. Spoil cones from countless mines litter the landscape. Opal-the stone, not the fuel-is the big dig here. This is the end-of-the-world movie capital and Mel Gibson is their patron saint. I ride around town looking for Thunderdome.

Unbelievably, south of Coober the land becomes even harsher. Not a single tree colonizes this inhospitable area. Large, mushy salt flats break up this moonscape ride and a steady gale from the south works against me.

An invisible line is crossed and the greenery returns. From Port Augusta, the Country Bear Jamboree wineries and the human population increase until I am dead stopped in Adelaide city gridlock.

I head east along the Princes Highway, paralleling the coast. My attitude has improved along with the weather. This is the spot-tay for summer riding in Oz and I am The Mac Daddy. I'm stylish and comfortable in a sweater, jacket and gloves. Even the 'Zook's merciless seat is merely cruel now. Cloyingly neat coastal towns culminate at the start of the Great Ocean Road in Warrnambool. Running along the Bass Strait, the only thing stopping me from riding all the way to the Antarctic is 5000 miles of cold water, spectacular views and my own God-given ability to control a plug-heavy dirtbike. I give the Suzuki's reins a tug and stop at every lay-by to ogle the Southern Ocean's slow, majestic destruction of the Australian continent. They call it progress.

Today is Sorry Day. The new prime minister, Mr. Rudd, on behalf of the government, apologizes to the Aborigines for forcibly taking their multiracial children and adopting them out to white families. It was an officially sanctioned attempt to breed out of existence the original inhabitants of Australia. Mr. Rudd's speech is plain and to the point. The news cameras pan across huge crowds gathered on the lawns of Parliament. Black faces, white faces and everything-in-between faces stream with joyful tears. From my motel room far away in Queenscliff, I can see it's a big deal for Australians.

When the opposition leader, Mr. Nelson, apologizes, it's not quite the same. His party has not sensed the country's mood and cannot contain the urge to poke a stick at the Abos, even for a day. Nelson's speech is a laundry list of the failings of the Aboriginal race since their arrival on the continent fifty millennia ago, which he says he's sorry for. Joy turns to anger outside Parliament. On this, their one day of national atonement, the Aborigines are getting nagged.

Things start to get crowded near Geelong, so I turn north to ride a little history. Unless you count the Aboriginal Dreamtime, nothing much happened in Australia until the criminals were dumped here. The problem for the home team was the lack of a written language; eternal silhouettes of a hand couldn't spin history in their favor. I end up in Ballarat, home of the Eureka miner rebellion, which has a super-creepy, reincarnated 1860s mining town with actors playing old-timey people. Like 19th century Wal-Mart greeters, they walk around play-chopping wood, play-mining and play-interacting with tourists. The place gives me real-nightmares.

What other little modern history there is consists almost entirely of Ned Kelly. Ned is Robin Hood, Billy the Kid and Elvis rolled into one, which is how I end up sitting next to a pressure-treated, telephone-pole effigy of the man in Glenrowan.

Eventually, I end up orbiting Melbourne until it's time to fly home. Is it possible to get too much motorcycle riding? South to the coast and Marlo for a wedding reception I wasn't invited to, then north through the Australian Alps for a little dirt riding. I bop along from Orbost to Bonang to Wulgulmerang to Jindabyne-riding the unpronounceable trail.

Between Thredbo and Khancoban, I rip down the mountain on one of the world's all-time best motorcycle roads. The Suzuki grunts from hairpin to hairpin, shuddering the front tire deep into the turns. I recklessly pass slow-moving SUVs in order to conserve big momentum. Stuff's happening fast now and I come off turn number 237 carrying so much mo' I scrape past a Land Cruiser in the middle of a blind turn. Cliff or sky-there's no exit strategy now. I'm way over on the wrong side of the road, committed to the death line. Holy crap-what the hell am I doing? No one comes the other way. Was that the hand-of-God thing? 'Cause I'm too freaked out to tell. Back off Mac Daddy, back off. I blow by my gas stop in Khancoban, embarrassed to face the justifiably homicidal Land Cruiser driver plodding along somewhere behind me.

That scare in the Alps has washed all the fight out of me. I drift slowly westward along the banks of the mighty Murray River, alluvial moto-flotsam eddying in small riverside towns. I've been in Australia so long it seems like home. The people are wonderful; everyone I have met is kind and friendly. They don't act like con-spawn at all. If I were 20 years old, I'd move here in a heartbeat. I'm getting misty, and weird; stopping and placing my hand on the road, outlining my own eternal silhouette in time. Conscious of my breathing, I pay attention to people when they speak. I've got to absorb this place, this now. I don't want Dreamtime to end.

I know I'll be back one day. As soon as she gets that second job.

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