It was time for me to leave Adelaide and start my journey driving around Australia. After I checked out of my Airbnb, I drove to my friend Matt’s house. He drove us to a cafe for breakfast while he told me how his job was stressing him out.
I told Matt about my upcoming adventure in the outback. He showed me a video of him driving through flooded waters when he was stationed in a remote town for two years. It was nuts! The police department gives them a vehicle properly equipped (Toyota Prado) for the outback because the roads flood every year in many parts. The video looked like he was driving through a river, but it was actually a flooded red dirt road.
I had fun talking with Matt. He told me about his upcoming plans to go to Mexico and the U.S. He loved the Cheesecake Factory. Matt was the second Australian male who talked about their love of the restaurant.
I told Matt that I had watched the movie Wolf Creek, which is about an outback serial killer. The intro to the film said it was based on a true story, which scared the crap out of me. However, I Googled it afterward and found out that it’s fictional. The writer just used some elements of actual serial killers in Australia. There was one killer who was just outside of Sydney in the Blue Mountains. From 1989 until 1993, he used to pick up backpackers, and then he’d murder them. Sometimes he used them as target practice.
Once I saw the movie, I went down a rabbit hole, discovering the serial killer history in Australia. Another well-known serial killer is actually a group of four men (known as The Snowtown Murders). From 1992 until 1999, they killed people around the Adelaide area and would put their bodies in barrels of acid. They stored the barrels in an abandoned bank vault in Snowtown. Then, they’d cash their social security checks. They had designated jobs – one did the torturing, and one was the killer.
Every year, an average of 38,000 people go missing in Australia. Hundreds are never found. As of January 2018, there were 2,000 unsolved missing persons and 500 unidentified remains. The vast majority of Australia is a remote desert, making it the perfect place to kill and hide a body. Around 70% of the country is considered the outback, and only 3% of the population lives there. Australia is the 6th largest country in landmass. While some people say 50% is inhabitable, others say 90% of it is deemed to be uninhabitable.
While I was there, a girl from Belgium was coming back to Australia to testify about her kidnapping. In 2017, she was a 24-year-old backpacker looking for farm work and connected with a man over a job listing site. The man picked her up to take her to the farm, but then tied her up in a pig barn, sexually assaulted her, and left her there while he attended to his family (who had no idea what he was doing).
The girl was able to break free from the restraints and send an email from her laptop to people saying she was kidnapped. Unfortunately, she had no idea where she was. Little did she know, the barn was not far from the house where the family lived. She knew that a red pickup truck picked her up, and a search was on the way. She went back into her restraints while she waited for help. The man was pulled over and questioned by the police. That spooked him, and he went back and released the girl. She was eventually saved, and the police arrested him. The trial was coming up, so the poor girl had to fly back to testify.
A month later, an 18-year-old European backpacker went missing. There were notices on T.V. and Facebook groups. He was last seen on the east coast, walking back to his hostel. They released a photo of him at a store buying alcohol shortly before he disappeared. He was never found, and the search was called off.
Hearing all of these stories was nerve-wracking. The writer/director of Wolf Creek said he made the movie because he was tired of the Australian outback being glamorized with movies like Crocodile Dundee, characters like Steve Irwin, and tourism sites like Lonely Planet encouraging backpackers. He felt that there were many rednecks in the outback and that it often wasn’t a safe place.
I told Matt that I was a little nervous about driving into the outback alone with this history of missing (and murdered people). He said, ‘Don’t worry. You only have like a 20% chance of being killed by a serial killer.” My eyes opened wide. “What?!” Matt laughed. I exclaimed, “Well, good thing I have an Australian police officer friend who will avenge my death!”
After breakfast, I went back to Matt’s house while I decided where I was going next. Matt recommended that I drive through Clare, just north of Adelaide, because it is wine country and beautiful. I decided to take his advice.
During the drive, it was raining on and off. I felt a lot more comfortable driving my Subaru Outback because it wasn’t as wide as the rental that I had two weeks earlier. Once I exited the highway, I was driving on country roads that winded around farms and wineries.
I arrived at a motel in Clare at 4:30 pm. It was a cute motel on top of a hill that had lamas in the yard. I went into town and ordered a pizza for takeout. Then I relaxed in my room, when all of a sudden, it was thundering and lightning. I opened the door and watched the rain pouring down. The storm was so strong that it cut the cable out for a little bit.
The next morning, I checked out of the motel and drove to Snowtown. There were only two main streets that made up the town. It was like a ghost town. There was hardly anything open, and it gave me the creeps. I wanted to see what it was like because that’s where the bodies were found, but there wasn’t much to see.
Next, I drove to Gladstone. It was also a tiny town, so I kept driving. The scenery was beautiful as I climbed up and down small mountains. The roads were nearly empty, making it feel peaceful. I stopped at the top of one mountain, and I could see the ocean.
When I got to Port Augusta, I went to Service S.A. to register my car. Once that was complete, I checked into my next motel. It was crappy, dated, and eerie.
After grabbing some dinner, I talked with my friend, Brittany. She was living in New Zealand and had wanted to come along for some of the outback trips. I had been so busy getting a car in Adelaide, that I didn’t message about details until then. I planned on driving west, north, and then east until I got to Darwin. Then I planned on driving down the middle of Australia to Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock.
However, as I talked with Brittany, I looked through guidebooks that I had just purchased and realized that I might need to change that route. I thought she could fly into Alice Springs or Darwin in a couple of months, but flights were $2,000 because it’s remote and the city closest to Uluru.
After much discussion, we realized the best route would be to head north to Uluru first, and then do a counterclockwise loop around the country. That path would enable Brittany to see the “red center” and spend 12 days with me exploring part of the outback. The cheapest and closest airport for Brittany to fly into was Adelaide. I was regretting my decision to leave Adelaide without a plan. I had been feeling like I was getting behind schedule because I only had four and a half months left on my visa and still wanted to drive around the country. But a little planning first would have helped.
Instead, I agreed to drive the four hours back to Adelaide and pick Brittany up at the airport in two days. She was awesome in getting a quick tourist visa and plane ticket on short notice. The next morning, I drove back to Adelaide, but this time I took the main highway to save on time.
The road was mostly flat with large farms in the area. Occasionally, gigantic farm machinery was on the road. A couple of times, a police officer would slowly pass me and point his finger to pull to the shoulder. Cars behind me followed suit, and we all sat on the gravel shoulder. Once we were pulled to the side, a massive piece of machinery came from the opposite direction. It took up both lanes and some of the shoulder on their side, so it was wise that we all pulled over.
I almost ran out of gas because I couldn’t find a gas station. I was trying to gauge how many kilometers I could drive on a tank, and when the low fuel light came on, there wasn’t a station around. After 647 kilometers (402 miles), I finally found one and filled up. I put 55 liters (23 gallons) in for A$79. From that point on, I knew I needed to treat it like the time I drove to Alaska – fill up once the gas tank is half empty.
Australians call gas stations “petrol stations” because, as my friend Matt says, “It’s not gas. You’re putting in petrol.” I couldn’t get myself to say “petrol” instead of gas, so when I walked inside, I said, “Fuel on pump 6.” That would be my go-to phrase. The other strange thing about buying gas in Australia is that they don’t offer “pay at the pump.” You don’t prepay (except for a few places). You just pump and then go inside and pay.
In the U.S., almost every gas station is “pay at the pump.” I didn’t mind this in Australia because I always needed to use the restroom and often wanted to buy a drink. The sign instructed me not to move my car until I had paid because someone could come up to the pump, which would confuse them if I hadn’t paid yet. In the U.S., people get angry if you leave your car at the pump and go inside to use the restroom (or even pay). Now, I could take my time without dealing with pushy customers.
The frustrating thing about the gas stations in Australia is that there aren’t nozzles that allow you to pump without holding the handle. I had to squeeze the handle the whole time. In the U.S., I can use a lever to keep the gas flowing while I wash the windshield. Maybe they exist in Australia, and I just couldn’t figure it out.
When I arrived in Adelaide, I went to a camping store to buy a few things that would allow me to camp in the outback. I also went to the Salvation Army and got some C.D.s and a folding chair. I drove around to a few stores to get items and then picked up dinner. I arrived at my Airbnb with my Vietnamese food.
The host, Jo, was there to greet me. She showed me my room and where the bathroom was. I threw in some laundry and talked to her while we both ate. Jo had brown hair, appeared to be in her 50s, was reasonably tall, fit, and dressed in stylish jeans and a tucked-in shirt. She was smart and classy.
Jo previously worked with medical companies (ultrasound machines), but she recently transitioned to being a life coach. She said it was a scary transition and has been a lot of work. Jo told me how she became a single mom when her kids were three and five years old. Now, the kids were out of the house, and one even recently got married. Now, she’s an empty nester.
Jo told me that when she started offering a room in her house on Airbnb, friends wondered why and asked if people stole things from her. She said she’d had a great experience so far. Most of her guests are Europeans. Jo said it’s not often that she gets Americans. I explained that it’s because of the lack of vacation time that we get. She’s been to the U.S. a few times (Portland, L.A., and San Francisco), but mostly just for work.
I told her that I was about to drive into the outback, and she cautioned me, saying many of her guests head to the outback, and they’re often not prepared. Having two to three days of food and water in your car was the most important thing. Also, it was important not to leave your vehicle if your car broke down. Many people die because they go in search of water, which they don’t find. Instead, they get lost and perish from dehydration or being bit by a poisonous snake or spider. I had seen on the news that it was essential to stay with your car because it’s easier to spot a large vehicle, and it might take a few days to find you.
I asked Joe why most of the businesses in Adelaide close at 5:00 pm. I couldn’t understand how people had time to get things like groceries. In the U.S., I often didn’t get off work until 6:00 pm. Jo explained that they don’t work as many hours in Australia because it’s not healthy. I agreed and told her that many Americans work so much that it contributes to divorces. Jo pointed out that some stores are open on Sunday now, and she thinks it’s sad when she sees families shopping on a Sunday like it’s a family outing. She said, “They should be at the beach or having family time.” I sighed, “Shopping is definitely a family outing in the U.S.”
I talked with Jo about my travels and my life decisions (leaving my job to travel). She was encouraging, and it helped to talk through things with her. She will make a great life coach. I was surprised by how much I spoke to Jo. I apologized and explained that I must have been pretty lonely over the last few weeks and needed someone to talk to. People are always showing up in my life just when I need it.
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