This article (and more to come!) was made possible by Travellers Autobarn, who very generously supplied a van
Driving a van across Australia isn’t really about seeing stuff. It’s about eating hot chips. Hot chips at fuel stops. Hot chips at kiosks. You eat hot chips when you’re hungry, hot chips when you’re not. Even when you order something that isn’t hot chips—something nice, something made from salad—it’ll always come with a big old plate of hot chips: bain-marie fresh and frosted in chicken salt. And you’ll eat the fucking things even though you hate them, because that’s what driving across Australia is.
But of course, driving across Australia isn’t all fun and games. There are crocodiles to deal with, and dickheads who climb Uluru. But for the most part driving across Australia is an intensely wild experience that gives you a feeling without a name. It’s a special feeling, and you get it after leaving the blue ocean and driving for two weeks across 360-degree ochre-toned moonscapes, and then arriving at another ocean. And this makes you feel sort of irrelevant, but happy.
Anyway, for me this trip came about because it was winter in Melbourne I needed to get out. So I asked a van company called Travellers Autobarn if they’d give me a van in exchange for some really fun content and several hyperlinks. And they said yes. Travellers Autobarn!
So now, here’s some stuff I learned after driving across Australia.
First, You’ll Need a Travel Buddy
Don’t go alone. You’ll need someone to talk to and assist with memory formation. But be aware that whoever you take will be bobbing into your peripheral vision for the entire duration of the trip. This is a roll of the dice for them, as well as you, so make absolutely sure they’re cool and they think you’re cool.
For me, that person was my girlfriend Maggie, featured in the above photo doing a kind of Jetstar jump (lookin’ great babe!) For the rest of you, idk. Just make sure your travel buddy fulfils the below:
- They’re fun.
- They’re not broke.
- They’re the kind of person who will find beauty and humour in the kitch and often hopeless towns of outback Australia.
After securing a travel buddy it’s time to realise that Australia is nice.
Maggie and I drove from Darwin to Melbourne. The Northern Territory coastline is like one of those illustrations you see in children’s books about dinosaurs. It’s all mud and steam and giant lizards chomping on baby’s clothes and palm trees set against bubblegum sunsets. Only instead of smoking volcanoes in the background, imagine pubs. Hundreds of pubs. And they’re all serving novelty meats like buffalo and emu soaked in diane sauce—with chips.
And then if you go through the middle part of Australia, you’ll discover it’s red. The red is a fine dust that gets in your car and inside your mind. You’ll dream in bloody monochrome and regularly wash your car. And at night, when you park beneath what looks like a giant paint can explosion across the ceiling of a warehouse, you’ll sit beside your campfire and watch the saltbush shadows flicker all the way to the horizon. It’s a kind of cathedral, really.
And just a note on Uluru: That thing is enormous and all built from the same rock. It’s not comprised of little bits. It’s just one blob of rust-coloured ice cream. And another note on Uluru: it’s magic. Like actual, proper magic. So don’t climb it because the traditional owners have posted some really sad, polite signs asking people not to. And climbing it stops the magic from working.
Step Four: Don’t Force Your Stupid Music Onto Nice People Trapped in Vans
So you’re driving with the one person who still tolerates and appreciates you after 3,000 kilometres and you get a little itch inside your brain. And the itch says: PUT ON RADIOHEAD.
Okay, I’m talking about myself. But I’m also talking about every Radiohead fan in the world because Radiohead fans always try to make everyone listen to Radiohead. No other type of fan enjoys a recruitment drive as much as a Radiohead fan. They’re insatiable. They’re monsters. And I recently realised that playing music purely for recruitment purposes is a bad reason to play music.
It started when I popped on some Radiohead. Not for me. I’d heard that fucking band enough to last me a lifetime. But for Maggie. And I started with a little something from In Rainbows—which is a blazing album but also quite accessible, but not like Pablo Honey accessible, which basically isn’t even Radiohead. And I was watching Maggie from the corner of my eye while driving. Just seeing if she was nodding her head or tapping a foot or listening in some small but vital way.
But there was nothing. She stretched and put a foot on the dashboard. Her foot wasn’t tapping. So I turned the music up a bit. Just one or two notches, and began humming the melody to highlight some of its more innovative passages. Maggie pulled out her phone. She opened Instagram. This wasn’t going well. I cleared my voice…
“This song here…” I announced, picking up the phone on its AUX leesh and skipping forward, trying to find the right song while trying to drive. “This song here is probably one of the best songs in like, 20 years.”
“Yeah, it’s called 'Weird Fishes'. That’s such a cool name right?”
This really wasn’t going well. Through sideways eyes I could see Maggie doing her super ninja Instagram thing. Her hyper-efficient finger movements: liking, scrolling, commenting, all with supernatural speed and accuracy. How do girls get so good at Instagram? Where do they learn to do that? And meanwhile, “Weird Fishes” was halfway through—and coming up to the really good bit—but there was no way Maggie was ready for the really good bit. She was too busy and hadn’t followed the journey to appreciate the build up. Too busy for the best song in easily the last 20 years. Well, I thought, not on my watch. And so I turned it up just a bit more…
“Yeah so this music is depressing.” Maggie announced, reaching for the volume. “But I appreciate what you’re trying to do.” And she gave me a little smile.
And with those words came a moment of clarity. I was being a knob. Because who enjoys music when they’re hearing it for the first time? No one. Who enjoys music when they’re hearing it for the first time and having it rammed down their ears by a guy who won’t take a hint over the top of a loud engine? Absolutely no one ever.
And that’s how I learned to not force music down people’s ears.
Step Four: Listen to Podcasts
Unlike Radiohead, podcasts can be enjoyed quickly by anyone. And now, bear with me as this article transitions into quite a dry list of podcast recommendations. Because aside from chips, road trips are also about podcasts.
- Radiolab, is a bunch of insanely moving stories about life science and assembled with the production values of a feature film. We listened to a lot of this and sometimes I wept.
- This American Life, which is Ira Glass speaking just below the frequency of a six-cylinder engine.
- Invisibilia, which is a dive into psychological phenomenon that make you go jeeeez.
- For Love and Radio, which allegedly “explores life's gray areas” but I didn’t think it really did that—maybe it was more just stories about people making bad choices?
- 99% Invisible, which is about all the invisible ways that industrial and architectural design have affected your life. Like the invention on the air conditioner! I won’t give away the punchline but those fuckers are influential. Like you know how old apartment buildings all have courtyards in the middle but new apartments don’t? That’s been an architectural shift driven entirely by the invention of air conditioners. I mean, I won’t go on, but wow.
Step Five: You Will Lose All Your Possessions and You Need to Be Cool With That
You see that photo of a drawer? See how it’s full of stuff? That’s how all van storage spaces look after two weeks of driving. There’s just stuff everywhere, which is the same as nothing anywhere. All the stuff you own will be missing. Your toothbrush, wallet, phone charger, toilet rolls, AUX cable, sunglasses, and all the things that make life easier will have vanished. There will just be a big van full of everything, but nothing.
Step Six: Feel That Feeling Without a Name
Finally, after weeks of driving, you hit civilisation. And suddenly you’re in an office, putting a crumpet back into the toaster because it’s a bit on the rare side and someone asks “how was the trip?”
And honestly, it’s a bit hard to answer. Because driving across Australia is a bit like not being in Australia. Sure, the outback is a familiar tableau of kangaroos and beer, but those cliches underplay the sheer sense of time and scale. The real Australia is bigger and weirder than cliches. The real Australia is sprinkled with roadkill and burned-out cars. The real Australia feels angry and a bit nuts, and looks like a million ruined settlements from people who did racist things. But it’s also deeply beautiful and really, if for nothing else, I recommend driving across it for the forced introspection and the chips.
This article was made possible by Travellers Autobarn who offer a range of vans for travelling this giant country of ours