A red cloud of fine dust swirls outside my open window, dancing over the spinifex covered plains like the brush strokes of an over enthusiastic painter. This tenacious red dirt has found its way into every crack and crevice in Terrance, our 1999 series Land Cruiser Troop Carrier. It covers his wheels, infiltrates our food boxes, and has even found a way to permeate our skin. Yet, even as it begins to permanently dye my socks, I love it. I love the brilliance of the color it adds to this landscape of ancient rock and angry shrubs. I love the stunning sunsets it helps create, the deep rust of the iron ore in the land lending a vibrancy to the sky that even Photoshop cannot rival.
I’m lost in my own world of sweet nothings directed towards dirt when Terrance comes to a sudden halt, quickly jerking me back into the hot reality of the long drive from Exmouth, Western Australia to Karijini National Park.
“Why’d we stop?” I ask Kane, who is currently unsticking himself from the sodden driver’s seat.
“You’re learning to drive Terrance,” he answers matter-of-factly.
“WHAT?” My eyeballs bug out in a passable imitation of a chihuahua.
“Why not?” He counters. “It’s a long, empty road. It’s as good of a place as any.”
He’s right, I think. It is straight and safe and he has been driving the whole way for a couple thousand kilometers, but why now? Why not later? Like, quite possibly indefinitely later…
“Come on, in you get,” he prods. I contemplate refusing to move like a petulant child, but decide this may reflect poorly on my character, so I take a deep breath and say, “okay.”
I am not a natural-born driver. If I could avoid driving a car forever I would. In fact, during my four years of university I almost exclusively rode a bike and I loved it. But, as the massive distances between water sources and any form of civilization out here suggest, this is not a trip that can be done by bike. I glare at the spinifex with its microscopic thorns, a plant so truly horrible that only termites can digest it, and realize I probably should learn to drive Terrance, if only to avoid having to live off spinifex if Kane were to be grievously injured.
“Okay remember, clutch in, shift, clutch off, accelerator on. Try not to stall.”
The view from Terrance’s cockpit is a strange one, much higher from the ground than I’m used to in the little Prius I drive back home. I follow Kane’s instructions and the car shudders to life, his massive engine grumbling like the old man he is. Slowly we roll forward and I start to shift upwards, to get us into a gear high enough for highway driving.
“Like this?” I yell, hopeful over the roar of the engine.
“No, no, no, you’re riding the accelerator, you’ll blow out his gear box.”
“WHAT?” I start to panic slightly, there is a car cresting the hill behind us and if I don’t get it together they are going to be on us soon. Images of flattened cars dance through my head like a macabre parade. Oh God we are going to die…
“It’s okay, just drive!” Kane calls, trying to get me to focus on driving rather than our imminent demise.
“Agh, there’s a car coming!”
“It doesn’t matter, just get up to gear!” Gear box be damned, I jerk, jiggle, and jump us into fifth, the car now a safe distance behind us.
“I thought you said you knew how to drive manual!” Kane asks in exasperation when we are finally chugging along smoothly.
“I thought that a tractor was almost a manual!” In my defense, a tractor does have a clutch, but it only has two gears, drive and reserve. I was not prepared for six gears and a finicky old gear box that will cost thousands of dollars to fix if I break it.
“That’s okay,” he says as we both begin to relax into the calm monotony of country driving. “You’ll learn and that was a good first attempt. Learning to drive manual in this old thing is about as hard as it gets.”
Not to mention that I’m driving a massive car on the wrong side of the road, I think to myself, but instead I respond, “Thanks, but you’re right this is nothing like a tractor.”
Two hours later I’m singing along to the radio at the top of my lungs while Kane is cozily reading in the passenger seat. The red dirt world is rolling past, the landscape far more diverse than I had thought while ignoring it from the passenger seat. Surprisingly, I’m quite enjoying myself. This is what a road trip should be, I think, just Kane, me, the car and hundreds of kilometers of open road, not another human in sight. Hell even the spinifex is looking inviting.
“This woman is my destiny, she said ooo ooo shut up and dance with me,” I half-scream, half-sing, my beautifully off tune voice grating against the melodic crooning of Walk the Moon. Then, after hours of straight, there’s a turn approaching.
“Kane we have to turn, what do I do?”
He stirs from his comatose position, “Just down shift to second to take the turn.”
“I don’t know how to down shift!”
“Just reverse what I taught you to shift up.”
“I can’t,” I cry as the turn looms large in the not-so-far-away distance. My revery on the road has been replaced by pure small dog style panic. I have no idea what he means. Yup we are definitely going to die now.
“Just slow down, the turn is coming up fast!” Kane yells, starting to mimic my white knuckled panic.
“But I can’t down shift!”
The turn is almost on us and we are still going 80 kilometers per hour.
“Just break and clutch!”
“Break and clutch! Pull over!”
I throw in the break and clutch at the same time, yank us to the side, and jerk to a too-fast stop on the shoulder, about 100 meters from the turn. Terrance grumbles angrily at me as a red dirt cloud engulfs the car, searching for more surfaces to colonize. Kane and I breathe simultaneous sighs of relief.
“It’s okay, you’ll do better next time.”
We both laugh, the shaky, nervous laughs of those who have just cheated death, and I hand back control of the car to Kane.
“Ya, better next time,” I agree as I settle back into the comfortable safety of the passenger’s seat. As we trundle into town all I can think is, Oh God, how I am I going to survive roundabouts?