For Jamie Duncan, driving isn’t transport. It’s entertainment. One day he started from his home in Bendigo, in the Australian state of Victoria, turned west, and barrelled through lonesome territory to wherever. And back.
Ever since I got my driver’s licence eons ago, I’ve taken long solo road trips I dubbed “travelling picture shows”. The idea is to cover as much ground as possible in a single day. Non-stop.
When my mob went to visit family interstate and left me alone, I saw my chance and took it. I filled up my trusty Falcon on Saturday morning and headed north. A few hours later I hit the verdant grapevines of Mildura, the scene of many sun-bleached childhood family holidays.
No time to stay, though. Food, fuel and go. I drifted over the Murray River to Wentworth and turned off at the Perry Sandhills, an ancient complex of ochre sand dunes, and headed west into unknown territory.
On the lonely road to the South Australian river town of Renmark, there was nothing to see but a vast plain with saltbush and spinifex, the crackling car radio (locked to AM, because FM and iPods are for sooks), and the biggest sky you have ever seen.
Out here, drivers wave to one another – a custom that dates back to the early days of overland travel when the bloke you wave to now might be the bloke who helps you out of trouble later. After a year of above-average rain, the scrub was alive. The plains were covered in grass and wildlife.
There was little to mark the NSW-SA border – a small white cairn, a fence, a cattle grid and a slightly menacing sign warning me not to bring fruit or a hundred other things into SA. The Man was nowhere to be seen, but I ate on the NSW side.
As I blasted into SA, the scenery changed. Open plains became rocky hills and the Murray top the south dropped into a wide, rugged gorge. With no other visual references, it became impossible to judge distances.
I arrived at Renmark to the same sensory overload of green I experienced at Mildura. The Chaffeys – Canadian irrigators who opened up the region to irrigation – established Renmark and Mildura. The towns share leafy settings, neat grids of American-style avenoos, numbered streets and a laid back atmosphere.
I gassed up again and headed east along the Sturt Highway. At the Victorian border, I turned north on Border Road, with wheatfields to my left and twisted Mallee country and a gnarled border fence on my right (“To keep the South Australians in or the Victorians out?” I wondered).
Just ahead an emu hurdled the fence, intent on the safety of the scrub, as I barrelled by a craggy original survey marker made of piled rocks. The track ran out about 2km short of my goal, on the edge of the gorge. I was as far away from Melbourne as I could be while still in Victoria, but a million miles from everything as the sinking sun bathed the valley in gold and a lone eagle circled above.
I could have stayed in that spot all night, but as dusk descended I still had six hours ahead to get home. I covered 1400km in 19 hours that day. The travelling picture show isn’t for everyone but perpetual motion in unfamiliar country stirs in me the explorer I never became.
Pictures and story: ©Jamie Duncan 2012