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Published: July 23rd 2009
Not Your Ordinary Highway Sign
Still haven't seen one hopping around yet...
“Whatever you do, watch out for the blacks.” The comment caught me off guard. I had been in town out for less than two hours. The bartender was warning me about my next stop where I would do nothing more but fill up the tank. “Even when you go into pay, lock your car. They’re everywhere.” He unsettled me, although temporarily. I took another sip of Tooheys and deduced he was speaking of the Aborigines. My only contact with one prior was squeezing by the doorman at a nightspot in Sydney. I remember my nose rubbing against the man’s upper chest.
I had already decided I was going to like Cobar, no more than a whistling intersection and gateway to Australia’s empty and incomprehensible vastness. I like Cobar by and large because it isn’t Sydney. I aimed to be as far away from the metropolis as possible. Cobar is an awfully good start. The bartender chimed in again, “What do you and your accent want next?” I pointed and the bulky and portly man in a grey tank top pulled another drink. His fluffy white goatee nearly extended to the height of the taps. The overfilled soaked glass hit the bar
The Road to Cobar
Let's absorb the excitement together...
towel. “Do you like it here, mate?”
“Yes, I do.” It was a simple (and true) answer to a simple question. In the more remote parts of New South Wales, nothing more is expected or necessary.
“How was your trip? Where did you come in from?”
I replied Sydney, though very well could have mentioned my American background. He was trying to make polite conversation and having success. “Nerve-wracking, to be honest.”
“Why? There’s no problem, especially on this side of the mountains after Bathurst. Easy drive.” That might be true. But for an American who dares to rent a car and fight the instinct to flinch right in intense traffic, I though it a huge accomplishment. I was never truly comfortable until I had come upon open road with few vehicles to disturb me, either ahead of me, oncoming, or behind me.
Picking up the car could not have been easier. In fact, I was handed the keys to a snappy 2009 Toyota hatchback. Good, I thought. Given the low rate for the time I wanted to drive around Australia, I was willing to ignore the bright yellow logo of the Bayswater agency emblazoned on the white door: “No Birds”. Huh? I didn’t get it. It looked stupid and everyone (included prospective thieves) would know I was not an off-duty police officer. I would not have to worry about maintenance problems with it, considering I intended to swing through the far corners of the state. I was to learn later that I also had to bear in mind the basics about rural travel, especially carrying water and the distances between gas stations.
The attendant finished entering my details into the system. With a jolly, “Let’s have her a look before you’re off”, we went to inspect the car and signed more pieces of paper. I was the second driver in the history of the car. This would not take long. I pressed the key to unlock all the doors, then opened the left front door. I hesitated before tossing in my daypack and shutting the door. “Everything OK, there?” he cried out.
“Yep, just loading up.” He took my larger back and put in the trunk. What I failed to mention to him is that I tossed my pack on the front passenger seat where I expected the steering wheel to be. I sighed and a wave of apprehension came over me. Was I up to this? I jumped in the right side and sat down in front of the controls. My breathing was heavy, my heart raced. Then I looking down to my left and I saw it! I almost screamed so loud, it would have been heard through the closed windows. I pumped my fist as if I had won round the world airline tickets. “Yeessss!!!” The gearshift! It was an automatic transmission! I might be able to pull this off after all.
But there was more. I called the attendant over. “Excuse me, could you get me on the way out of town, to Bathurst?”
“Yeah, mate. No problem. You just go through the Blue Mountains. Easy.” He pulled out a map and penned in my route. I gazed at the clock on the dashboard display: eight fourteen in the morning. Outside on William Street it was the height of rush hour. The arrows he indicated would send me right through the heart of the beast. “Just do a U-turn”, without killing any pedestrians or causing head-on collisions, he failed to add, “and head into the city. Here at George St-” My blood pressure rose to the level of a sumo wrestler.
“George Street” I interrupted. “I make a left on George and how far do I go until something happens?” I knew the theory of getting out of town, a city of 4.2 million devoid of highways out of town in that direction. I had walked the route enough to be familiar with it.
“At the station, get on Broadway, and then you’re all set, mate!”
“Sure, mate!” His jovial attitude could not ease my tension.
I pulled the car out and verbally commanded myself to make the left turn by crossing over traffic when the coast was clear. After that success, the U-turn went off without anyone having to call an orthopedic surgeon. The traffic whizzed by. I was in it. I planted my eyes on a taxi and stayed behind it. Though I was in the taxi lane, I did not care. I passed tall buildings and veered off once, only to correct myself. A van honked its horn, but I could not flinch. I was holding the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles were a pale ivory. I had to pee badly. A catheter would have been great. And perhaps some Depends for the other nervous involuntary release I was holding back.
Only when the road became a suburban divided highway at Parramatta did I release my tight grip on the wheel. I dove into a McDonald’s to relieve myself and breathe a bit. I can do this. Two hours later, I adjusted well enough. But wherever it happened to become sunset, I would get off the road, no questions or debate. I still do not put down the blinker properly; it is where the wiper controls should be. When I want to turn right, other motorists paying attention to me believe it might be raining. I am not ready to do this at night. I’m glad I took the insurance.
The Great Western Hotel anchors Cobar’s main (and only) junction some four hundred miles west of Sydney. It was the first accommodation I came upon. In no mood to hunt for anything else in the waning minutes of daylight, I paid the fifty dollars for the expected substandard room, the type of faded and neglected splendor I savor. Upstairs I found the glory my cash got for me. A dark room of four beds, the carpet (its color of unknown origins) was pocked with circular stains. It reminded me immediately of the floor of any middle school hallway scarred with spots of chewing gum. One of the TV’s rabbit ears was snapped off. There was no remote to the set, just the UHF and VHF knobs that need to be twisted manually. The tank in the toilet hissed continually. I could manage opening the French door to the upper covered veranda, a classic symbol of rural Australian architecture. Nothing moved or slithered on the floor. My sleeping chamber was cold and I sought out blankets in the other musty and vacant rooms. At 9:30 in the evening, Cobar’s sidewalks roll up on a weeknight. Management locks the doors, preventing escape.
It took little time for the fifty-eight year old inspector of natural gas equipment to find me and force me to talk. After a week among millions, he accomplished in two minutes what no one in a city of millions could. He made himself approachable. I already liked him. His discerning physical characteristic was that his eyelid completely and permanently covered his right pupil. “Welcome to the Outback!” he proclaimed, and followed up with how much he liked his time in Idaho in another lifetime, as he put it. Cobar bores him to tears. For tonight only, I was his antidote to the tedium.
“Life has changed for you, Theo?”
“Oh, greatly! I came here when I was a nineteen-year-old backpacker, back when backpacking wasn’t a beaten path of tourist ghettos and lunch specials at cafés. Back then, Australia was a wide open country without the cheap college students looking to kill time between university degrees.”
I liked this guy instantly. He tapped into the last twenty years of my leisure time. We’d be here for a while. “There is a lot we could discuss about that, Theo.”
I came here from Holland and married an Australian girl. Then”
“Ho- Holland?” My eyebrows spiked. At least I would have something invigorating to talk about over my filling, yet bland bangers and mash. “Whereabouts?”
“Tilburg.” Near my old stomping ground. Between Maastricht and Antwerp, I had been many times.
I started calling out towns in the vicinity. “So you know Etten Leur, Roosendaal, Eindoven, Breda, and Roermond?” His eyebrows shot up higher than mine and he put down his cold glass. Before he could blurt out anything else, I asked, “Sprek jij Nederlands?”
“Ja!” We went on in Dutch about abbeys and the February carnival every year in the south of the country. The other men in the bar, mostly construction workers and all locals, looked at us perplexed. Is this what people from Darwin spoke after too much exposure to the sun?
“So, what is it about Wilcannia that I need to know about?” I had no plans to stop, but to fill up.
“The blacks, I told you.” I paused to let him elaborate. “Look, mate, there’s nothing there, and the blacks have run amok, I tell you. You can get robbed, clubbed, or they’ll harass you.”
“Why?” Do whites steal around here?”
“Nah, it’s the blacks. Watch out. Can’t really blame them. The State sent them there on the dole. They don’t want to be there, just hang out, cause trouble. They stick together, have no concept of money. They don’t think like we do. They don’t work, completely unproductive. Just be careful.” I wasn’t scared, but maybe I should have been. I’ve learned to be alert no matter what type of people is a possible threat, even ones I never see coming.
I took my last swig. “Night.”
Before turning in, Theo led me to his laptop with a consistent Internet connection. In Cobar, it’s best to bring your own adapter. I had an urgent message to send Ray. He wasn’t going to be happy about it at all. While riding the subway, a thief craftily separated me from a very valuable piece of property he lent me. I inhaled and typed the words, knowing full well that come morning, his response would not be favorable. Though out of my control, I slept poorly. I feared a nasty repercussion.
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