Dreamtime in the Australian Outback | Burned Under

She left me in Perth with nothing but three grand Australian, a hot-rod Visa card sporting a $25,000 redline and a new Suzuki DR650. This kind of two-wheel, wind-in-your-face freedom isn't free. As I'm the one doing the adventuring, a short process of elimination left her to supply the funds. What? Someone has to pay for adventure.

At 3 o'clock in the morning, the Fremantle Doctor roars through the campground. Sections of my tent exceed the speed of sound. The east-west support bow doubles over and the fiberglass rod fractures at the slip joint, sending the ragged edge tearing into the outer rain fly.

__Dawn finds the DR650 blown over. The front brake lever is curled into a C and the bar end has punched cleanly through the foam inner liner of my new helmet.

I pack up what remains of my gear and head north to Cervantes. I rent a particle board palace on the beach, unload my gear and ride to The Pinnacles Desert. There, a dirttrack winds through crazy columns of rock standing proud of the sandy desert floor. My meditative putt is interrupted by an irate Aussie driver yelling at me for riding the wrong direction on the one-way trail.

The road north to Carnarvon is my first taste of the Bessemer blast furnace that is the Australian desert in summer. Through waves of superheated air I count 22 dead kangaroos in a one-kilometer stretch of road. The Grim Reaper rattles his rusty, bloodstained scythe over my shoulder. Nine dead kangaroos, then 12. Extra points for a mummified cow? I call this game "I Spy a Rotting Carcass" and play it all day long.

From Exmouth I circle the North West Cape to Yardie Creek, where the asphalt turns to sand. The matronly Suzuki settles down and for the first time since I bought the tall dirtbike my Thumbelina toes can reach the ground. One-hundred kilometers of coastal dirt road to Coral Bay looks like a toddle on the map, but the Suzuki's weight and the soft beach sand have me in a panic. I've come undone in the outback.

Tired of pussyfooting around, I slide up on the tank and get aggressive. If I'm going to crash, I might as well do it further down the trail. Suzy likes it rough-at 100 kph she planes on top of the pink sand like a 17-foot Boston Whaler crossing a rail yard.

The broiling North West Coastal Highway leads me away from Coral Bay to the very gates of hell: the Nanutarra roadhouse. Gassing the bike, I meet a disgruntled former American trucker. He tells me he earns twice as much driving in Australia. I don't point out that since his tractor is pulling four trailers, he is technically earning half his U.S. wage.

On the road all I can think about is how hot it is. I can't eat. My stomach is in a permanent state of near hurl. I'm scared to stop the bike for fear it will not start or I'll pass out. The quart of water I carry will last maybe an hour out here. A flat tire means certain death. I ride for hundreds of kilometers without seeing a soul. I'm not even halfway to Darwin when I stop to drink the last of my 110-degree water. The still eyes of the last kangaroo to cross the road warn me off. Go boy, or the dingo will gnaw on your clammy corpse, finding little moisture for his efforts. It's so hot even the dingo is bitchy. I can't blame him.

Further north, in the Pilbara region, the temperature plunges to 90 and the terrain gets New Mexico-y. Fuel is the limiting factor in the Australian outback and I run clean out of the stuff in Paraburdoo. The only station in town is closed until tomorrow morning. Clarity is achieved when all options are removed.

The absence of pain is pleasure and the ride to Tom Price is sweet, twisting hills. In Karijini National Park the heat and flies are so maddening I give up on sight-seeing and keep the DR thumping east to pick up the Great Northern Highway. (I've neglected to mention the flies so far only because they are so pervasive it would be like mentioning that Australia has air.)

On the Great Northern I face the furnace again. I'm mentally ready for 110 degrees and the outback delivers in spades. The road rejoins the North West Coastal near Port Hedland, a tidy little mining town where I set a personal record of $200 for an icy cold, air-conditioned motel room. Motorcycle travel on less than $300 a day takes a steady hand on the wallet.

The backs of my hands have burned off due to the lack of gloves, so I've taken to gripping the handlebars upside-down to evenly distribute the cancer. No matter how hot it gets in Australia, a local will tell me it was hotter shortly before I arrived. At the Broome motel the receptionist's hair is gone. The skin on her exposed forearms bubbles and pops, oozing smoldering puss. The smell of sulfur is strong. "You think this is hot?" she says, arching a hairless eyebrow, her crusty lip embers framing charred teeth, "You should have been here last week."

Well-meaning Aussies warn me about the Aborigines: "They will steal everything you own and then bash your head." "They get their government checks on Tuesday and by Wednesday they're stinking drunk and broke." "Whatever you do, stay away from Fitzroy Crossing."

I pull into Fitzroy Crossing. It's Wednesday. At least a hundred Aborigines loiter around the gas station. None of them appear to be drunk. No one bashes my head or steals my bike. No one pays me the slightest attention, not even little kids, who are usually good for an ego-boosting scrum around a motorcycle.

I nod my standard, low-key American "hullo" to the large group encamped near the door. They ignore me and refuse to make eye contact. If this same gang were hanging out at a liquor store in America, I would be the one lowering my eyes. What the hell, I'm not here to build bridges to other cultures, I need fuel.

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.

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.