Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Night Driving in the Outback

Written 14 November

Australia. Yes, it’s big. Really big. Continental US big. And so in planning for sections of the trip involving commuting, I planned it as if I was working with something equivalent to the US.

This turned out to be a better approach than those coming from Britain. After all, driving halfway across Britain and back for the purposes of a day trip is quite doable. In Australia, not so much.

But even factoring in distances and driving times correctly, there was one major thing I hadn’t accounted for. It turned out to be a matter of hubris.

When people tend to do something one way, I don’t often assume that they are doing it that way due to logic or circumstance. I attribute a herd mentality and a That’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it style. Sometimes this turns out to be correct. Staying in hostels instead of in cars or parks would be a prime example.

But sometimes I am wrong on a monumental scale. Yes Australia is big. And it can be 1,500 km between places of interest. Or more. And when people say that such a trip will take two days, I scoff. Assuming it is the Outback (and pretty much every drive over 3 hours involves Outback or rural countryside) you can estimate a speed limit of 130km/hr. Knock that down to account for driving breaks to fuel up, get coffee, stretch legs, smoke a cigarette*, grab a bite, and go through construction zones. A safe estimate is using 100km/hr. For 1500 km, that breaks down to a 15 hour drive.

When I did my calculations of driving distances and times and heard the recommendations by the locals that it would take twice as long as I was expecting, I was a bit disappointed. This is a rugged country. And once you get out of the big cities it is populated by some pretty tough people who live off the land – running cattle farms, shearing sheep, farming on hundreds and hundreds of acres. Yet they only seemed to want to drive for about ten hours a day.

I’m tougher than that. I suppose that can also be read as ‘foolhardy’ or ‘headstrong.’ On the US road trip there was a day of epic driving for me. We woke up in Badlands, South Dakota. We hiked out in the park, drove around town, and saw the sights. Jamie fell off a cliff and messed up his ankle so was out for a few days on driving responsibilities. That left just Sam and I. After watching the sunset over the strange formations we got in the car. I got behind the wheel, we pointed the car east, and we drove. More specifically I drove. I burned through the tank. I filled up the tank, emptied my bladder, filled up my coffee cup and headed on. Two tanks down. I filled up x2 and drained x1 again. And we headed on. Across all of South Dakota. Through part of North Dakota. And across half of Minnesota. I drove until well after sunrise, stopping only 45 minutes short of the destination because my eyes were losing the ability to focus. I had put 676 miles on the dial in one straight shot.

So in the Outback, yes we may have had issues with petrol stations being closed and nothing of interest to keep us going other than conversation and music, but those are problems that we – that I – am tough enough to handle.


The reason that people in Australia don’t drive after dark in the Outback is not an internal one. It is external. And the problem is the abrupt switchover between the two. This is a country the size of the US with less than a tenth the population. It means there are vast tracts of land with no people. And though the Outback is unforgiving landscape, it is far from desert. The life it supports is varied and plentiful. And much of it large. Therein lies the problem.

One night in Queensland we drove at dusk. As the sun set the kangaroos came out. We stopped at the next available campsite with shot nerves. In talking to another couple who had come the other direction they finally gave us the answer that I didn’t know we were missing.

“Yeah, so apparently kangaroos are a problem?”

The pensioner chuckled with a full belly laugh. Kangaroos? Hardly! They only come fifth on the list. Wild pigs are the worst. Small, harder to see, and hitting one at speed is like plowing into a boulder. Next come buffalo. As dense as pigs, they may be easier to spot but they don’t move fast and no car will win against them. Third are camels. Huge mass, dense, on stilts. The car will make short work of the legs, and the camel will die, but its final act of vengeance will be coming through the windshield. Fourth, for the same reason, are horses, who at least startle and run off a bit easier. Only then come kangaroos. Then wallabies, which are just smaller and less damaging kangaroos. Emus, again a mass on stilts. And wombats, which are like hitting large rocks – as opposed to boulders – thanks to a very solid pelvis bone.

And when the night falls and the air gets colder, the animals seek out warmth. And where do they find it? Radiating out of the black bitumen. The animals are drawn to the road. And with numbers in the thousands and only the occasional vehicle coming through to scatter them, they have the upper hand. Nature wins this battle.

A road train – a three-trailer, 52-meter long diesel truck can drive through the night. It has tonnes and tonnes of momentum to turn any obstacle into vapor. A larger ute** or an SUV might have a shot. A Subaru station wagon, despite being built to last, is not built to face off against a tonne of meat and bone.

There were two nights when I ignored the stupidity of the task and pushed on. The first, on the way up to Kings Canyon, resulted in us finding the next camping area after dark. Thirty kilometers of kangaroo dodging was enough.

The last fight against nature was in South Australia. We were on our way to the shack where we would be greeted by close friends, a heated house, and a comfortable bed. I didn’t care that we would be getting in after dark. We would be getting in come hell or high water.

The last two hours of the drive tested me in a way I’ve not been tested behind the wheel before. Fourteen years of driving training me to follow the rules of the road were thrown out in favor of new rules. There were no lanes. There was only road and not-road. There were no other cars dumb enough to be out. A straight line was no longer the quickest path between two points. It was now the line, however curved, that avoided obstacles. With a Red Bull coursing through my stomach and adrenaline in my veins, I was playing slalom with a thousand kilogram hunk of metal at half the speed limit.

Sam slept through it.

When we got to our destination, after a few minutes of breathing exercises that allowed me to pry my hands from the steering wheel, she lamented that I should have woken her up to help spot. It would have been no use. The question wasn’t seeing a kangaroo when there appeared to be none. It was figuring out which one of the five I could see might decide to alter course or start moving.

We made it. And I am very much still alive. And perhaps I’ve even learned something. Maybe the next time a solution seems so obvious yet no one else is doing it I will pause and ask why.

* If there are three people in a car driving across Australia, it is a very safe bet that at least one of them smokes and will need a cigarette break.

** Ute = pick-up truck

2 comments on “Night Driving in the Outback

  1. Pingback: Equipping Fozzie | Spin the Globe

  2. Pingback: What I Learned In Oz (pt. 2) | Spin the Globe

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This entry was posted on November 16, 2012 by in Australia, Outback, Queensland (Brisbane), South Australia (Adelaide) and tagged , .

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