You had to do it. Well, that's what he'd said, anyway. It was just one of those things you just had to do—the stuff of legends. Jason tapped at the tiny fan stuck to the dash, sitting there beating at the heat. The car's fan was blowing too, but any extra was a necessity at this point. The car rumbled across the dirt surface, chipped stone and hard packed earth tinged with red stretching in every direction. Behind them, a plume of orange-red dust billowed in their wake, fanning out to obscure the endless nothingness that stretched from horizon to horizon.
"How many did you say had died out here?" asked Kevin.
"What's that?" said Jason, one hand draped lazily over the top of the steering wheel.
"Deaders. How many?"
"I don't know. Countless, probably. It's not what it used to be. There are one or two famous cases—that family in the '60s—but look at it. It's not hard to imagine. Something happens, you break down. It's not as if you can flag down a passing motorist."
"So tell me why we're doing this again?" said Kevin, only half joking. Jason turned to look at him, one eye still on the line of rutted dirt road that stretched on before them.
"I thought you were up for this."
"Yes, I was, or I am. It's just different once you're out here, I guess. The difference between what you might imagine and the harsh reality."
Jason turned his focus back to the road ahead, if it could be called a road. "Some might call it reality," he said. "The blasted plain. It's like, I don't know, some sort of surrealist hell."
Kevin stretched beside him. Their old wagon, though reliable, wasn't exactly top of the range in the comfort stakes. "Maybe we can stop in a bit and stretch our legs," he said.
"Here? Are you kidding me?"
"Christ, did you see that?" Kevin was pointing off to the west. "It's a bloody dingo."
"Where?" Jason eased his foot off the gas and let the car slide to a stop. Kevin was right. In the middle of a stony expanse stood a solitary four-legged creature staring at them from the distance impassively. The car pinged and ticked around them, the only other sound that of both fans laboring against the temperature. Neither of them moved for several seconds, the dingo standing there as if carved from the landscape itself. Then, as if they had been dismissed, it turned and loped away, across the plain, growing smaller and smaller.
"What the hell?" said Kevin. "Surely it can't live out here."
"Well, it didn't seem to think much of us."
"Ha! Would you?" Kevin said with a short laugh. He pushed open the door and the heat shoved into the car like a giant hand, slapping them both in the face.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I need to stretch my legs. We've got more water in the back, right?"
"Of course we have. Shut the bloody door," said Jason, then watched as Kevin wandered off the track a bit, to euphemistically stretch his legs, giving the desert liquid where there was none apart from the deep artesian water below. Their next bore was about thirty kilometres further on, but they had plenty of water with them and shouldn't need it. Jason reached into the back, snagged a bottle and took a healthy couple of swallows, feeling the sweat beading on his forehead even from the brief exposure to the outside air. Hot inside, but even hotter outside, it discouraged the temptation to open the car window and drive, letting the rushing air cool his skin. The dust was enough of a discouragement on its own. You could taste it, you could smell it, and it got over everything—inside your mouth and nose, filling you with that chalky taste that robbed even more moisture from your tongue.
Kevin got back into the car, followed by another blast of heat.
"Geez, it's hot out there," he said. "So tell me why we're doing this again?" He settled back into his seat, and then turned and reached for a water bottle as well.
Jason gave him a pained look and shook his head. "You know as well as I do. It's just one of those things you've got to do, isn't it?"
One of those things you've got to do…
Kevin and Jason had been friends for years. All of those things you've got to do, like the bungee jumping, the whitewater rafting, the rock climbing, and now this. One of those things you've got to do.
Kevin slapped his hand on the dash a couple of times and then pointed. "Okay, then, James. Forward!" he said.
Forward into the wastelands.
He kicked the car into gear and pulled out onto the road again. The Track ran from Marree to Birdsville, crossing Cooper Creek and Mungerannie, among others. Jason remembered from one of the guides where someone had written that the main problem with The Track was that it took you to Birdsville, not the heat, the risk, the deaths, or the desolation, but Birdsville itself. Destination Birdsville; nothing much there but the famous pub. In the middle of nowhere and nowhere else to go except on or back, just like the cattle men, the mail carriers or the camel trains from all those years ago.
But it was one of those things you had to do. Even now, he was still telling himself that. He glanced over at Kevin, but his friend had settled into the zone of passing sameness again, just staring out at the featureless plains and fanning himself with an old newspaper they'd picked up along the way.
About twenty minutes more of rumbling dust and nothingness, and one of the regularly placed bores hove into view to one side. Little more than a tin roof over some posts and the pump.
"Should we stop?" asked Kevin.
"No, I think we've got enough," said Jason. "Can't stand the taste of bore water anyway. It's always salty."
"At least they're here, though. Imagine when they were doing the mail route with horse and carriage. Not even a fan, and only the bores to look forward to. They must have been mad. Can you imagine it?"
"Don't think I want to," said Jason. Secretly, he was wondering about their own madness around about this time.
For another twenty minutes, they drove on in silence. Sometimes, between friends as long standing as Jason and Kevin, you simply didn't need words anyway. Red brown earth stretched in every direction, the pale-yellow sky beating down upon them with its palpable heat and glare. Every now and again, there would appear that liquid shimmering: colorless, but bending the landscape behind it as the desert mirage showed them tantalizing almost-glimpses of things that were simply not there. Somewhere, somehow in the far, far distance, there might be some reality behind the illusory curtains, but nowhere within reaching. He could only imagine what it must have been like, out here, dying of dehydration, being taunted by some promise of salvation that really wasn't there. It would be the final torture after the realization of your own stupidity for having left your vehicle in the first place. That's what they always said: don't leave your car, stay with it. People never listened though.
The next artesian bore slowly grew shape as they neared. A pump, a tin shed, some signs, but a promise and the security of knowledge that it was there. It was enough. Nothing else. After their solitary accusing denizen of the wastes had wandered off, there had been nothing more either, just the endless stretch of road and plain in front, reaching to a flat-line horizon smudged by the yellow heat. He tracked the bore as they passed it by, looking up to watch its shape disappear, glinting through and then swallowed by the broad fantail of dust behind them. Even that was difficult, as by now, their rear window was coated with the fine particles.
Kevin had watched the passing bore with a look of almost longing on his face, as if something as simple and unremarkable gave him some sort of inexplicable hope in the bleakness all around.
"What are we going to do when we get there?" he finally asked.
"Well, what do you think?" Jason responded. "There's a pub there. Not much else. What do you think we might do?"
"Yeah," Kevin breathed. "A drink. A nice cold drink. And maybe something to eat. Something decent. But, oh, yeah, I can see that nice cold glass, those beads of moisture running down the sides. You're just cruel, Jason. Simply cruel. I can almost taste it now."
All Jason could taste was the dust and the flat aftertaste of lukewarm water out of a plastic bottle. Kevin started drumming lightly on the dash with his fingers to some rhythm inside his own head. It merged with the thrum of rubber on packed earth and the staccato corrugations across the track's surface.
"And after we've done that?"
"Well, I guess we come back. What else is there to do?"
Really, neither of them had thought that far ahead. Stupid, really, but it was the sort of thing that happened when you did things on a whim.
Isn't that what had happened to those people all those years ago: not thinking far enough ahead? Or maybe it was simply a case of just not thinking. Ernie Page, a British migrant had worked in the area for a few years, knew the risks, but he ignored his own rules when their big old Ford broke down. Two days the family had stayed with the car, but then he left it. The story floated up in Jason's head along with that last note that had been found with their abandoned car:
The Page Family of Marree. Ran out of Petrel. Have only sufficient water for two days. December 24.
What a way to spend Christmas.
"Jesus," he said.
"What?" said Kevin.
"No, nothing, I was just thinking."
Ran out of Petrel. It could happen to anyone couldn't it?
There was another subtle irony to the story, too. Their bodies had been found under a coolibah tree, that particular tree that was so iconic in the old song. Under the shade of a coolibah tree. But it had given the Page family little solace on that Christmas or Boxing Day when they'd breathed their last.
Jason tried to shake the thoughts from his mind. Maybe it was just the interminable sameness, inducing a sense of futility, or despair. The bleak landscape beat at his consciousness, sucking away purpose. He cleared his throat. As if to compound his feelings, Kevin asked something else.
"When was the last one?" he said.
"The last what?"
"You know… deader."
"Jesus, Kevin, I don't know. What's with the morbid fascination anyway?"
"Well, you know… it's just…" He shrugged.
Jason turned his gaze purposefully with set lips and narrowed eyes, but Kevin, oblivious, was just watching the road ahead. Jason sighed.
"Actually, it was only a few months ago. I remember reading about it. He was just a kid."
"Yes. He was working as a stockman on some station. He reckoned he wasn't being treated fairly or something, and decided to pack it in. Took off on his own. That was it. They eventually found him, of course. He was only about fifteen."
"No, I'm not kidding. I reckon this place just eats people alive."
It was Kevin's turn to clear his throat. "Did he have a horse?"
"Well, did he have a horse?"
"I guess he did."
"So what happened to the horse?"
"Jesus," said Jason. "I don't know."
"Well, something must have happened to the horse. Did the horse die too?"
"It's not something they exactly write about, you know. I don't know what happened to the bloody horse. Maybe he didn't have a horse. Maybe he took a car." He paused, thinking. "You know, it's a funny thing, though. The Pages apparently had a cat with them. It just wandered off into the desert. They wrote about that. I wonder what happened to the cat."
Kevin turned to look at him then. "A cat? You're kidding."
"Well maybe it survived. Animals have an instinct, don't they? Just like that dingo we saw. It can obviously survive out here. Maybe it's just us humans who don't cut it. The people-eating Track. That's it."
"Well, maybe it's revenge. We're the intruders, after all. Revenge of The Track."
Kevin snorted. "I think somehow that a cat's a bit of an intruder too. Dingoes, they belong, don't they? But a cat…"
"Well, dingoes belong here."
"Not originally, they didn't. Remember, they were supposed to come across the land bridge with the first, original settlers."
"Oh, yeah. That's right. I wonder how long you have to be in a place before you start to belong. Is it years, decades?"
"Well, I know one thing for sure," said Jason.
"Mmmm? And what's that?"
"We don't exactly belong here, either." He gestured with his chin out the front window.
Both of them turned to watch the road ahead, contemplating.
The last statement seemed to have drained them of further speculation. Jason looked up to watch the retreating dust plume in the rear view as he listened to the drum of tires on earth. He turned back to the road, leaned absently over to tap the fan a couple of more times, knowing that nothing he was going to do would make it run any faster, but doing it anyway, almost like a ritual now. Kevin leaned over into the back and pulled out another water bottle, cracked the seal and tilted it back to take a few healthy swallows.
"Geez, it's hot," he said again unnecessarily, pouring a little of the water into his palm and wiping it across his forehead, leaving a muddy streak where the liquid mixed with dust.
Where would the Pages have found a coolibah tree out here? There had been no sign of real vegetation for what seemed like hours; short scrubby grass, a couple of low bushes—but trees? Jason scanned the unending flatness ahead, but there was definitely no sign of anything even resembling a tree.
The words of a song washed through his head and started repeating over and over.
We're on a road to nowhere…
No, he thought. We're already there. We can't be on a road to get there.
He made a low sound deep in his throat and shook his head, trying to rid himself of the lyrics.
"What is it now?" asked Kevin, but Jason merely shook his head again.
"Maybe two, three hours more," he said, changing the subject.
"I don't know. Maybe." He'd lost track of how long they'd actually been driving. "Maybe."
Maybe he ought to let Kevin have a stint behind the wheel too, but at this stage, controlling the vehicle was the only thing giving him some respite from the track unravelling before them.
"What the hell's that?" asked Kevin, peering out through the front window and pointing.
"See that, up ahead?"
Jason leaned forward over the steering wheel, trying to work out what Kevin was pointing at. Further down the track, there was a smudged shape, a blur of orange and red, as if a giant thumb had wiped its print across the place where the track merged with the horizon. It made no sense to him.
"Don't know. Maybe it's another mirage."
"It doesn't look like that."
He was right. All it was a rounded blur of color. As they drove further, the shape grew larger. Whatever it was, not only were they approaching it, but it was approaching them at the same time and with every moment, its hue was becoming more solid, less yellow and more red. Behind it, there was nothing. It had wiped away the horizon and everything before it.
"Oh, shit," said Jason.
"What is it?"
"It's a bloody dust storm."
And in that instant, it was upon them, over them and all around them. Jason eased his foot off the gas, peering forward to try and see through the stuff. It was as if they had driven into the deepest fog, but instead of being gray, it was red, pastel red and pink, almost orange, and it was all around them. He couldn't see the track anymore; he could barely see the front of the car. He hit the brakes, and the car skidded to a stop.
"What are you doing?" said Kevin, a look of panic on his face.
"What do you think I'm doing? I can't drive in this." He gestured through the windscreen. By now, it was hard to tell how much was dust on the glass itself and how much was outside.
"We can't just stop here," said Kevin.
"What do you suggest we do? I drive any further in this and we're liable to hit something. Break an axle or worse. I can't even see the bloody road. Then what do we do?"
As far as he remembered, that's what had happened to the Page's old Ford as well. The sharp stones of the desert floor had broken something. He let his hands drop from the wheel and he stared out into the blanketing red around them. After a moment, he turned off the engine and then killed the fan.
"What are you doing?" said Kevin again, a disbelieving frown all over his face.
"That stuff gets in everything. The fan's just going to suck it inside the car."
"We'll cook in here."
"Yeah, maybe," said Jason. "But it's better than breathing in that. Besides, we've still got this." He tapped again at the little portable fan attached to the dash.
"Shit," said Kevin and turned back to look into the redness, his mouth slightly open.
"Anyway," said Jason. "It can't last forever. We've got plenty of water. We're fine. We'll sit it out and then be on our way. What else can we do?" The sound of dust against the outside of the car was like a whispering susurrus of voices.
"Shit," breathed Kevin again, turning to look in every direction, and then, with nothing to see, slumped back into his seat and returned to watching the nothingness ahead of them.
Instant by instant, the temperature inside the car was starting to rise. Jason could smell their sweat, their bodies, the dry chalkiness of dust. He reached over to grab himself another bottle of water. This was just what they needed. Outside, the sound of dust, that gentle whispering seemed to grow in intensity, mouthing shapeless words that he could almost decipher, and then faded again. He paused before opening his water bottle, listening.
"Do you hear that?" he said.
"What?" Kevin swung to face him, a slight look of worried panic written in the wideness of his eyes.
Again, the sound swelled, then lessened, swelled, and then faded once more.
Kevin was leaning forward in his seat, his shoulders hunched, staring with narrowed eyes out of one side of the front window.
"I thought I saw…"
"Huh?" said Jason.
Kevin pointed at where his attention was focused and Jason leaned over to peer through the obscuring curtain as well. He couldn't be sure, but it looked like…it looked like there were shapes, barely visible, moving across the blank redness, shadows in the dust, slightly darker. The shapes became marginally more well defined, loping, long-legged, one coming into sharper focus, followed by another, and then fading into the dust in front. They were camels. Or at least they looked like camels. It was hard to tell. They were little more than shadows. But camels hadn't trod this route for decades, or at least he didn't think they had.
"Hey!" yelled Kevin. "Hey!" He slapped with his open palm against the side window, once, twice and then again. He reached for the door handle, fumbling with it. Jason grabbed at his shoulder and pulled him back.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Them. They're out there." He reached for the door again, but Jason grabbed him harder.
"They can't be out there," he said. "You can't open the door. Look at that. Look!"
Kevin turned back to the front, but any sign that there had been anything out there ever was gone.
"What the hell?" Kevin shook his head, once, twice. "I'm sorry, man. I thought…" He took a deep breath and slumped back into his seat. "You're right," he said. "It's the bloody Track. It's trying to fool us." He rubbed his hand across his forehead.
The whisper of voices grew loud and then faded. Jason thought he heard words, but they were no words that he could understand. Around them, in every direction, the redness swirled.
Something slapped against the glass beside his head and he swung his face to look. There was something pressed up against the side window, and behind it was a figure, a man, just standing there in the swirling dust. It couldn't be. Jason leaned back from the window, his breath catching in his throat. It was a man, a big-boned man with a pale face, his eyes looking hollow, shadowed, filled with despair. He was mouthing words that Jason couldn't make out. His gaze tracked from the man's face down his arm to whatever it was being pressed against the outside surface of the window itself. It was a scrap of paper, block letters hastily scrawled.
Ran out of Petrel.
Jason's heart went cold in the heat. His gaze held, transfixed by those words on the scrap of paper held flat by the man's hand. He tracked back up to the man's face. Thinning dark hair, short, sat combed over the squarish forehead, not moving, unruffled by the swirling winds around him. Jason's attention went to the man's lips, making out the words, the shapes in the whispering silence.
Help us,said the man's lips. Help us.
Jason shrank from the window, pushing himself as far away as he could from the glass, but then realized that his belt was restraining him, stopping him from moving any further. He fumbled with the buckle, desperately struggling to release the belt, his eyes glued to that scrap of paper held there against the dusty glass.
Ran out of Petrel.
The belt buckle finally popped and he scrambled backwards across the seat, ignoring the gearshift and the brake as they dug into him. Kevin pushed at him from behind, forcing him back towards the door, but Jason fought against his hands.
"What the hell are you doing?" yelled Kevin.
Jason turned back briefly over his shoulder. "Can't you see? Look!" he yelled, then turned back.
Outside the window was nothing but swirling dust. Jason, his mouth gone dry, his throat tight, clambered back off Kevin and into his seat.
His heart was still hammering.
"I-I don't know. I…"
He had been there. The man had been there. Jason had seen him. He swallowed a couple of times, forcing his breathing to steady. He hadn't imagined it. He couldn't have. He looked down at his lap, his fingers clasped together, just simply staring down at them.
It was the bloody Track. It was trying to fool them. They always said weird things went on in the desert. He looked up at Kevin.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I guess…" But his words trailed off to nothing. He turned, once more to face the swirling dust.
The Track had a mind, and it was all around them.
Just never leave your vehicle,he thought. Stay with the car.
Later, much later, as the dust thinned, it revealed a car, slightly angled, sitting at one side of the Track, coated in fine red dust, the windows obscured. Across the plain, a solitary dingo stood watching. It held its gaze for a minute or more, then silently turned, and loped off across the baking stony expanse. If there were any to see it, they might have said that it seemed to be grinning.