Driving on the Other Side

Driver's Side
Driver’s Side

The drive yesterday through the Australian outback was an adventure.

We made the nearly 6-hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru via car. The car was, more or less, a station wagon. That was a good choice. The trip was 462.9 kilometers across the Australian outback. 924 kilometers total. It seemed like a daunting distance when I first planned to tackle the drive. Then, driving on the opposite side of the road from the passenger side of the vehicle was just an added occupational hazard, or so I thought.

Getting into the car at the airport was somewhat intimidating. First, my 6’ 7” frame slid into the seat of the low rider like an oversized burrito into a long paper wrapper. The company I work for strongly encourages the use of rentals where economical. Fitting my body into a rental is usually a challenge. AVIS knows this as I make note of it on nearly every rental I book. In this case, I was riding somewhere near the ground. I thought for sure that I would be dragging my rear along the road. Images of a doggo dragging itself along a brand-new carpet by its front paws were rolling through my mind. Once in the car, it was a nice ride. Squeezing in was a sight to behold, I’m sure. Extraction would prove even more difficult.

We planned to take the trip south from Alice Springs along National Highway 87, also known as the Stuart Highway, then via State Route 4 to Uluru. It is clearly the easiest route. While I had received a suggestion from a tour mate from our Katherine Gorge tour about Kings Canyon, I had read reports that without a 4×4, it was likely too inconvenient unless you had time to burn. We did not.

We set out at 6 a.m., after a buffet breakfast at the Hilton that was a sight to behold. I had plenty of coffee, plenty of eggs, and a heaping portion of hash browns which made me feel like I was in America again. No bacon, though. I really miss Iowa bacon.

The initial drive was somewhere between an exercise in concentration and a white-knuckle roller coaster ride. The road out of Alice Springs, having been traveled by a number of heavy trucks, was undulating. As I ramped each hump, my innards felt each strongly, then weakly, then again. It was harrowing. Only once did I nearly take the quick route to the ditch. My mother let out a yelp. She used my first name. The long one.

It was then that we came up on an Australian road train. I don’t remember reading about these in the online tourist manuals. I might have just skipped that part. It looked like any typical semi on the website. I was improperly prepared for the Australian road train. The longest of these trains is 53.5 meters. “That isn’t that big”, I thought.

Then, you try passing one.

You begin to realize, as you do that conversion to feet, that the total distance is 175.5 feet. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. But then you think, well, I am going 130 km/hr, 81 miles per hour. In my imagination this was going to go very quickly. As I was following this truck, he had slowed to 110 kph, I became anxious to pass. The internal pep talk was strong. My hands were tingly. At the encouragement of my mother, I was assured that we would survive.

I passed on several opportunities. They just didn’t seem like good choices. Peeking around the right of the truck I saw my opportunity. We were at the top of a relatively long hill. I stepped on it.

My mother shrieked. So, I stepped harder. We could have sung the entire Star-Spangled Banner in the time it took to pass. I thought about what the half-life of uranium is. I thought about my children growing up without a father. I thought about Vegemite.

Merging back in the front of the truck was as smooth as silk. I wondered briefly if the truck was leaving an asphalt wake behind it. The rest of the drive to our first stop was smooth.

Twenty-five minutes later my heart rate returned to normal and the sweat I squeezed out of my hands had fully dried on the steering wheel leaving little circles of salt. I had done it. I was driving in Australia.  It made me appreciate how stepping outside of your comfort zone is often necessary in order to achieve progress. To pass the competition, it is important to study the way forward and occasionally take a calculated, and educated, risk. Weighing the options is critical, but experiencing a word of encouragement coming from the seat next to you makes the difference.

I looked at my mother. Perhaps she will make it to age 100 after all.