The restorative power of the wilderness
A gruelling drive through the stark Australian bush helped Lizzie Pook soothe the sting of grief.
It was 8538 kilometres. Ninety-two hours of hot, sticky driving through a land of nothingness. We had marked our route in pencil on a paper map, worn at the seams with the unfolding and refolding of ritualised, nervous excitement.
We were young then. But old enough to wave a licence at the man in the car hire shop and take temporary ownership of the small, white vehicle which we were to drive through the bug-filled Australian bush. “Pretty long drive,” he acknowledged, thrusting the paperwork in our direction and nodding towards the door.
We’d always been more than close, my twin sister and I. It was a relationship that was difficult to define or explain to others. But setting off on that road trip, from the busy streets of Sydney to the remote port of Darwin (and back!), we had no idea how much our bond would be fortified.
Our dad had died four years earlier. And while my sister had fought her own personal demons – often calling me at 2am to tell me she felt that she was dying – I had pin-balled through university in a miasma of Snakebite stains, bad hook-ups and missed opportunities. We had both veered off-piste. And the only way to get back on track was to just drive straight.
The outback is an ever-shifting landscape. A dusty rotation of rusts and terracottas and caramels and pinks. We drove all day, every day for two weeks. Waking at 5am to make an early start on the long, straight roads. It was hot. And the cloying fug left a blurry film on the horizon. We saw eagles that, from a distance, looked to be the size of men. We came across angry lone buffalo, thundering their way through the bush in the stagnant heat.
One day, after driving for six hours without seeing so much as an emu on the horizon, we came across a “UFO Research Station” in the middle of the bush. We parked the car and popped in to use the bathroom. It was filled with green alien light-pulls and UFO toilet roll holders. There was no one there. But crudely-made posters informed us that this isolated part of the bush was ‘awash’ with Unidentified Flying Objects. Truckers passing through, we learnt, often saw ‘eerie lights’ hanging in the sky or the flash of a laser beam cutting across the clear, star-speckled night.
In Alice Springs we saw blood. When a drink-fuelled argument between two strangers went awry, a knife was slipped out of a pocket and a man was stabbed in the chest. He fell to the ground in a pool of the warm, inky stuff. “An inch from the heart” said the policeman as I made my witness statement. His words would roll around in my head for the rest of the trip. “An inch.” “An inch.”
About an hour out of Tennant Creek we struck a kangaroo, shrieking as I pummelled desperately on the brakes. Our eyes lingered on the wing mirror to see if it had survived. After a short while it hauled itself up, limped to the side of the road and then collapsed. It didn’t move again.
Later, 700km north in a town called Katherine, we checked into a run-down hostel; a squat, grey building with rusting hinges and cracked windows. That evening a man sat for hours outside our room. When we eventually emerged he leered at us, all gums and wet lips. “Don’t listen to the voices in my head,” he said, eyes flashing. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
And every night for those two weeks, as the sun went down, casting jagged shadows across the amber dirt, we’d roll into a different outback town – the petrol tank creaking with thirst, just like our throats. Until eventually, we arrived in Darwin, exhausted, slightly wild-eyed and, although we may not have known it then, different inside.
It was a difficult, long trip. Bleak but beautiful and brilliant, I should say. I’d started that journey as less than my former self. But with every kilometre on the clock and every inch of my skin warmed by the Australian sun, I was being rebuilt.
Back then, I had been fractured by grief; and through the cracks any sense of confidence and self-assuredness had seeped out. But Australia soothed my soul. That trip, for all its eccentricities, punctuated by moments of abject terror and sheer joy, started me on the process of realising that grief is manageable. It bolstered my confidence and planted a seed of adventure in me that has not gone away. And, most importantly, it reminded me that, with my sister at my side, nothing, absolutely no distance is too far to drive.