Dreamtime in the Australian Outback | Burned Under

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Joe Gresh

The Man runs the only game in town. He sells gas, booze and porn. There's not much else I need. Inside, I can't make out what a trio of Aborigines and the white clerk are arguing about. The clerk ignores the Abos, takes my money, "G'day mate," and goes back to the argument. It's a scene that repeats itself nearly every time I pull into these isolated northern roadhouses: I need fuel, arguing Aborigines, "G'day mate" ... the beat goes on.

Halls Creek to Katherine is a dream ride. Clouds build and a gentle rain falls, bringing on a cool 70 degrees. Past Lake Argyle, I shiver in my wet clothes. My rain suit is dry, securely packed away under spare inner tubes, power bars and chain lube. Crayola-scented canyons bob and weave along the Victoria Highway. This section is the green bomb and the tough desert miles fade from memory. An immaculate roadhouse at Victoria River Crossing serves up good food and, like a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, I start believing Australia is really serious about changing this time.

The turn north to Darwin proves I've been fooled again. Ride in from the unpopulated outback and Darwin blows any preconceived notions of an end-of-the-road backwater. Shopping malls and suburbia line Stuart Highway, leading into the designer coffee shop-based economy of downtown Darwin. Consumer society is winning the hearts and minds of the outback Aussies. I can't wait to get out of here.

Back on the Stuart, I bypass Arnhem Highway and Kakadu National Park. It's too hot and those soul-stirring, 10,000-year-old rock art paintings aren't going anywhere. Australia is huge and I am shedding large chunks of it that I dreamed of visiting. My only goal now is to get somewhere clement.

One more gauntlet to run: straight through the arid heart of Australia to the Red Center. The long, straight road wavers. Or maybe it's me. A glistening wet spot keeps pace ahead, always a few hundred yards out of reach. Sun-bleached kangaroo skeletons hold up cardboard signs as I ride past: "Will work toward a solution."

The 2 x 4 seat on the DR is too intimate. Just now, the narrow Suzuki calves my body into two, entrails spilling over the rear wheel, tangling in the O-ring chain. The big thumper plows on riderless into Alice Springs.

A cold front moving through Alice makes tenting possible. I camp at another spotlessly clean Big Four campground near the mountain gap that marks the southern border of town. The bike gets a new tire, I get to eat food and read newspapers. Alice Springs is a wonderful place and I could live here forever, but my wife refuses to forward her paychecks. After three days recuperating, I push on.

Making for Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock) I stop for gas. The regular-unleaded pumps are locked. The clerk comes out and opens the padlock: Unleaded gas is for white people only. Opal-a non-huffable, less efficient blend-is sold to Aborigines because regular unleaded has become the drug of choice among the natives since alcohol sales were restricted. The clerk warns me I could be bashed in the head for a gallon of gas. I add her contribution to the ever-growing list of things I've been told could kill me in Australia: spiders, snakes, bull dust, jumping crocs, the sun, kangaroos, jelly fish and driving while tired.

The Aussies are guilt ridden over their past treatment of native Australians. To make up for it, they are building million-dollar interpretative cultural centers at a breakneck pace. Each center celebrates a different tribe, but the twigs and scrimshaw entombed inside these sarcophagi all tell the same story: Things were good; whitey showed up; things went bad.

Uluru means different things to different people. To the natives it is a sacred place of ancient ritual. To others, a spiritual experience or an invigorating climb. To me it means 25 bucks to enter Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. I never feel anything like the hand of God at these mystical spots. I assume he's got a good reason for not clewing me in.

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