Thursday seems an odd day to start anything, let alone an adventure but that’s just how things turned out. The motorbikes were running well and bore us quickly through the low hills around our city and into the yellow fields of canola beyond. We passed through the old mission town, stopping only for a coffee and felt the strange, cool sensation of the air on our beaded foreheads when we lifted our helmets off for the first time since breakfast.
By afternoon we had left behind even the marginal wheat lands and the bush arrived in all its muted greens and greys. We started to be wary of animals. The sun seemed hotter. There was this faint knot in my stomach occasionally as I saw myself on this red machine pushing impudently across the dry skin of this harsh, indifferent land. But mostly I was excited like a boy.
In the late afternoon we were 500 kilometres from home and we stopped in an old gold mining town for a drink. There was no town left, hadn’t been one for about a hundred years, just this rough and ready roadhouse with some lawn out the back that doubled up as a camping area. The bush stretched out in every direction and in the distance the poppet head of the one remaining mine poked its head silently above the trees.
The old man who served us could have been there since the boom. Lines tracked away from the edges of his lips, his eyes were fixed in a squint from a life in the sun. He was that kind of man the Australian bush used to produce; dry, laconic, every sentence somehow tinged with faint scepticism.
We sat on the veranda and drank weak tea made unfamiliar by the strange tasting water. The old man joined us. He gazed out across the bush. A truck went by heading north.
“I sit out here every morning,” he said slowly.
“That right?” I said.
“Yep. About 5.30 I grab a cup of tea and sit here before the mob arrive and watch the sun come up. Wouldn’t be anywhere else for quids.” He sweeps his arm in a quick arc that indicates the great nothingness around us.
My friend and I are quietly respectful; we picture this solitary tradition stretched across time’s landscape like a long wire fence.
My friend interrupts the silence. “How long have you been here, mate?”
The old man’s stare is fixed on the horizon. He turns to us and says, “What?”
“How long have you been out here?” my friend asks again.
The ancient face, like the land, shows no expression as he pauses to think. Then he replies, “Oh, since about Sunday, I reckon.”