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Three Hundred Kilometers

May 15, 2013

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Three Hundred Kilometers

By Jan Špaček, 2013

Thanks to all those who helped me on my way*

(Pdf)

I.

The scenery didn’t change for hundreds of kilometers.

I liked it that way.

It didn’t distract my thoughts. It reminded me of being out at sea, with no land to be seen in any direction.

Occasionally there were bushes that grew quite high, usually in areas of low altitude or in places that experienced occasional rain, but mostly there lay flat, open desert dotted with sparse knee-high bushes and stubborn herbs growing out of tired red gravel, stretching from both sides of the road to the horizon. Most of the time there was no grass at all so the bare red dirt or pebbles could always be seen.

The sky was free of clouds since I left Port Augusta, so the only thing that kept changing during my journey was the position of the sun, rising on my right side, reaching its apex still in front of me and finally setting on my left.

It would be over four thousand kilometers through this desert before I’d reach the ocean on the other side.

I usually awoke a few hours before sunrise because no matter what I did my camping equipment couldn’t keep me warm enough during the night, especially since I punctured my inflatable sleeping mat on some thorns just after entering the desert.

When the cold woke me up in the night, and that happened almost every night after Port Augusta, I couldn’t heat myself up enough to get back to sleep. In the beginning I tried to blow up my mattress every time it deflated, but it held air only for a half hour or so, after which I would lose heat to the ground.

Once I tried to hide my face inside of a sleeping bag to warm myself up with my breath. That worked fine and I could fall asleep, but only to wake an hour later in a completely wet and cold sleeping bag. My breath condensed straight away on the inner layers of my sleeping bag, making it useless. In those nights when I was already awake and shivering, the only way I could warm up was to continue my journey. The worst part after I awoke was changing from my sleeping clothes into riding gear. I did so still lying under the covers.

The ‘getting dressed ritual’ took me about a half hour. I preheated each piece of clothing inside my sleeping bag before I put it on, but it didn’t have that much of an effect given the fact my riding outfits were all dirty, salty and sweaty from days on the road and damp from the night air. Putting on each soggy piece always made me clench my muscles and shiver violently, until I heated up that particular article of clothing. Then I repeated this process for the next piece. When my transformation was finished I curled back into my cocoon in the fetal position for another ten minutes and gathered the energy to finally emerge into the freezing night.

I then packed up my tent, which glittered with frost in the darkness, reflecting the cold white light of my LED headlamp.

When all my belongings were secured I scraped the frost from my saddle and handle bars with the sleeve of my windbreaker and pushed my bike through the gravel to the road.

The first part of my trip was tough. Since Adelaide it had rained every day, and every night the temperature dropped below zero. My equipment wasn’t that good so it was no surprise that I got a cold and by the time I arrived in Port Augusta it had developed into a rather fine fever.

It would’ve been stupid to continue further into the desert in the condition I was in so I spent two days in bed in a backpacker’s camp cabin waiting for my fever to drop.

I knew that it would take over one week to fully recover from a cold in this weather. But I also didn’t want to stay in bed. There was a desert waiting for me so I decided to move on just after my fever had passed. I thought that in one week I could make it into a much fairer climate.

This estimation proved to be quite inaccurate. It didn’t get much warmer until I passed the MacDonnell Ranges in the middle of Australia. So I left the comfort of a bed and roof over my head, coughing and sneezing, and I hit the road.

At least I discovered that there was no more rain in the desert and after the sun rose my days were pleasant. It wasn’t long before my cough got much better and I was gaining new strength.

I can’t say that I was that excited to see the first signs advertising ‘opal mining’ and Coober Pedy’s services. I was getting into a daily routine: waking up to a desert winter, observing the bright arc of the Milky Way, watching stars fade away from the east horizon, freezing my ass off on a bike. Heating in the morning sun, then getting off the bike and having breakfast on the dirt next to the road. Then there was the all-day ride with stops to eat and rest and finally finding a nice spot for a campsite in the evening. This was followed by the preparation of a campfire, a hot dinner then a few hours of a sleep. The town would interrupt it all.

Towns were a necessary annoyance on my trip, as I was five days into the desert since leaving Port Augusta and I needed to buy new supplies and to do some laundry.

The last day before reaching Cooper Pedy I had cereals mixed with cold rain water from parking lot tanks for breakfast and lunch since I’d eaten all my other supplies.

They said that the desert in that area was the driest place in Australia and I believed it. By the time I got to Coober Pedy the skin on my fingers had hardened and shrunk, both lips felt like sandpaper and my lower lip was painfully cracked. The complete lack of moisture in the air irritated my throat and had caused scabs to form in my nose. I made a mental note to buy some lip balm when I got to a shop.

I arrived early before the sun had reached its zenith after one hundred and twenty kilometers on the road – the last ten of which were through all those famous opal digging sites with shafts thirty meter deep.

I was told later by a hobo in a Laundromat that those shafts were very convenient for hiding dead bodies: ‘If you throw him in and pile thirty meters of stones over him, nobody is going to ever find him again. There’s half a million holes around here. Nobody’s going to find him again…’

Coober Pedy was a small opal mining colony on the Stuart highway situated between Alice Springs and Port Augusta. Only a small proportion of people actually lived off the opals. Most of the inhabitants who ran any kind of business lived by providing accommodation and services to tourist and travelers – mainly grey nomads, who are retired Aussies traveling with caravans. The city looked quite exotic to me. It consisted mainly of single story metal shacks scattered in the desert with the occasional burst of greenery yielding to dirt and omnipresent garbage.

After a tour around town I decided on accommodation in the form of a dugout with a Star Wars battleship parked on its front yard, apparently left there after shooting a scene about some desert planet.  It cost me twenty bucks to rent a bed from a guy from Sri Lanka who rant that backpacker’s accommodation and opal shop, both of which were excavated out of a slope of a limestone hill. He was very polite to me after finding out that I had traveled on a bike from Adelaide and my plan was to go all the way up to Darwin. When I saw his awe I decided not to mention that my plan wasn’t actually to go straight north on the Stuart Highway, but to do it hard way and take a detour across the Tanami Desert. After further inquiries about my journey, which I answered politely but briefly, he even shook my hand covered in a layer of sweat mixed with road dirt built up over the previous five days with admiration, closed the opal shop and insisted on personally assisting me with accommodation.

The dugout was a hall about twenty meters long with alcoves on both sides separated from a main hall by curtains. In each alcove were two metal bunk beds anchored straight in rock with old sweat-stained mattresses. The hall was lit by one row of white fluorescent lights. The walls of this cave were bare rough ginger-stained limestone with marks left by a digging machine. The floor was smooth dark grey concrete.

After unpacking my stuff and taking a shower in a bathroom adjacent to the main dugout I had to go to the city centre to do my laundry while keeping an eye on one hobo – the one who told me about ‘hiding a dead body in one of those shafts’ – and then I did the necessary grocery shopping. Among other things I bought lot of Heinz Beanz cans and some cans called ‘angus steak and potato’. I took my time with everything I did that day. I was in no hurry.  Once I had done all the chores I had for that day I just sat on a bench, soaked myself in sunshine and watched people go by. And I wasn’t the only one with lot of time to spare. There were lots of Aborigines strolling around, sitting right in the dirt, chatting to their peers, boozing and then getting up and slowly moving on. They somewhat reminded me of crows sitting there in the dirt, all black with black clothing and croaking with their harsh voices.

When the sun got low I permitted myself to spend some extra money on dinner. I went to a local bistro and after calculating which food would provide me with the most energy for the least amount of money I bought a large salami pizza and a coke. I stuffed myself and went to sleep just after sunset, as I was used to from outdoors.

It was chilly in that cave. The limestone walls were cold to touch, but still it was warmer than outside and once I got into a sleeping bag, the temperature was just fine. The cave was blocking all the sounds from the outside world and it was completely dark after I switched off the light. I felt asleep within a few minutes of getting into a bed.

Then suddenly I was woken by somebody trying to open the door. I always slept lightly and I woke when I hurt suspicious sounds. That was pretty useful in the wild, when I had to be ready to scare off dingoes that tried to sneak in to steal my food, but it was pretty annoying in a civilized world when sounds in the night usually didn’t mean harm.

I stared into the darkness and listened to the sounds. Then I checked the time. It was only 9 pm. I recognized some voices outside in a parking lot and then somebody tried to open the door again. I got up and went to the door, reaching for the walls in the darkness as I walked. I didn’t switch on the light. I didn’t want them to know about me yet. I stopped next to the door and listened to the conversation they had outside. There were two girls’ voices and one guy’s. From their conversation I understood that they were looking for a place to stay. So I switched on the light and opened the door.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi, excuse me, is there a reception?” said a pretty brunette in her twenties.

“Yes, over there in that opal shop.” I pointed to the shop opposite the star ship.

“There is no one in there,” said the other girl with short-cut blond hair.

“Well I think that you could stay for a night and pay him in the morning,” I said and then I smiled and added as an afterthought “… or if I were you, I would wake up early and spend a night for free.”

“Yes, I suppose, we could try that,” said brunette smiling back at me. We introduced ourselves and as usually I immediately forget their names. So I will just call them simply blonde, brunette and Asian guy in this story – that is how I keep them in my memory anyway.

They moved into the free alcoves further in the cave and began to prepare their evening meals and took turns in a shower. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep until they switched off the light so I joined them in the kitchen corner and sit on a sofa opposite the stove.

“So how do you guys know each other?” I asked Asian guy and blonde my usual conversation starter, leaned back on the sofa and stretched my legs beneath a low table in front of me.

“I posted an ad that I am looking for guys who would join me on a trip and they replied,” said blonde over her shoulder while cooking instant noodles.

“So you’re travel around Australia in a van?” I said.

“Yeah, we started in Darwin, then traveled to Perth, Adelaide, now we are going to see Ayers Rock and then we are going back to Darwin. And how about you?”

“I am going just from Adelaide to Darwin.” I didn’t say any more – I wanted them to ask me.

“…so you are hitch hiking? I haven’t seen another car in the parking lot …” she said.

“No actually I am riding on my bicycle.”

“You mean like a push bike?!” exclaimed Asian guy and sat next to me on the sofa. “Awesome!”

“Yeah, I have it further in the cave,” I said pointing with my thumb behind my back.

“Can I look at it?” he said excitedly and jumped back on his feet.

“Sure,” I said smiling and he went. I found his reaction surprising, but not much. I was used to some people getting excited about my bike.

Meanwhile the blonde girl finished cooking her noodles, took the pot off the stove and sat opposite me on an armchair and put her noodles on a low table between us.

“So you are travelling all alone?” she asked and started her supper.

“Yes I am, I like it much better that way.”

“Why?” she said while slurping her soup.

“Well because I don’t have to wait for somebody else. Or even worse – somebody could be waiting for me. I wouldn’t like that,” I said smiling. That was the reason I usually gave people, but the real reason was that I really didn’t need anyone to be with me, to engage me in conversations I wasn’t interested in or to be bothered by their stink in my tent, or, even worse, what if they snored or made weird noises in the night … I liked to meet people, I even liked to have a conversation with them sometimes, well at least as long as they had a point, I was interested in them or I was drunk, but only in small doses. To spend months with someone – that would be a big commitment.

“Wow that is awesome! Your bike is soo heavy! How many kilos is it?” shouted Asian from the back of the dugout. I got up lazily from my comfortable spot and left the blonde girl to her dinner.

“I don’t know. Now it isn’t even loaded. It weighed sixty kilos when I started from Adelaide.”

“Sixty kilos! That is awesome man! I wouldn’t be strong enough to ride this bike.”

“You would get use to it. It is quite hard to turn with all that weight on the front wheel, but you would get used to it and besides Australia is flat so once you get it moving, the weight doesn’t matter. But it is hard to lift it over a barbwire fence, to build a tent further away from the road, you know? But I guess you wouldn’t have to do that.”

“We saw this one guy on a push bike in the desert and I was like thinking that that is a real way to travel. You really feel each mile. We just sit in a van, but you really like … feel each push to the pedals,” he said while holding on to handlebars with both hands and pretending to perform an extremely heavy push to the pedals with his right leg in the air. I was getting slightly embarrassed by his excitement so I didn’t reply to this, and he just continued. “You are like some kind of superhero.”

In the beginning of our conversation my ego feasted on his praise, but now it was getting ironic. I remembered what Philippe said. (Philippe was a French fellow, a long-distance cyclist, anarchist, philosopher and homeless man I met in Sweden a year earlier, when I was cycling around the Baltic Sea. He wouldn’t say that he was a philosopher – he was too much of an anarchist to make such a statement, but by all definitions he was one.)

He said, “Remember this Jan: the ego is a beast. It never has enough.” That was one of the few things about which I agreed with him. In most cases this was very true for me, but in this case my ego had had enough.

“So … what about you? What do you do?” I asked him the first thing which came to my mind, to change the subject, and made a move towards the kitchen corner, away from my bike.

“I am a cleaner, I clean offices,” he said fast and quietly with his gaze fixed to the floor, then he released the handlebars and joined me on my walk back to the kitchen. Then he asked me, “And what do you do?” I saw that he didn’t want to discuss his life, so I didn’t inquire further and answered him.

“Well I am student. I am working on my PhD,” I said regretting that I hadn’t made up something less interesting when I saw his eyes widen with an excitement.

“What do you study?” His interest was again at its peak.

“Molecular biology and genetics,” I said. “Or, to be precise, its genomics and proteomics now” I saw that he didn’t follow me so I added “I could say that I play with DNA,” and sat back on the couch.

The girls changed places. Now there was brunette fresh from the shower preparing her meal. I sat back on the sofa, rested my head and stretched my legs. Asian sat next to me and started to explain with great enthusiasm everything he had learned about me to the brunette. And again I felt both embarrassed and pleased. I didn’t need to say anything – the conversation was flowing between them, so I just listened half lying on the couch and nodded my head from time to time when she looked at me to confirm what he was saying.

Finally it was time for the Asian to take a shower. The blonde went straight into one of the alcoves to prepare for the night and I remained alone with brunette, who took a seat on the armchair opposite to me. We were silent for a while. She was sitting cross-legged with her arms placed on the armrests. Her long hair was unstrained, all nice and wavy after fanning and was falling all the way down to her breasts. She was plainly staring into my eyes. I found it uncomfortable after a few seconds so I yawned and lazily closed my eyes, to mask that I was stared down by her and the fact that I wasn’t able to come up with something to say.

“That is very interesting.” She said awkwardly to break the silence. She was apparently addressing my trip. I just opened my eyes and didn’t know what to say. Again I just smiled back at her and she continued. “I would never do it myself, but it is interesting.”

“Well, that is because you are a girl,” I said stupidly and she looked at me questioningly, so I continued to cover that up. “You don’t have this feeling in you which makes you just want to go.” I paused for a while to think and then added, “Maybe it is something in genetics. Like guys have this feeling which make them go and girls are more like waiting on a spot,” I said and finished this sentence in my mind with ‘for guys’.

“I don’t think it is like that,” she defended her gender. “I think that girls don’t do that because it is dangerous to go alone.”

“Oh, come on! Here in Australia? There aren’t any dangerous animals or if they are dangerous, it doesn’t matter if you are boy or girl – they would kill you anyway. And people here are fairly civilized. I’d say that it’s as dangerous to ride across Australia alone as to spend the same time in a city alone.”

“Well maybe you are right, but I don’t think you can separate it like that. There are guys who wouldn’t do it and there are girls who would.”

“Well of course, but those are in minority,” I said.

“I wouldn’t be so sure …” she said and after finding me not giving her any more of a response to this matter she continued before the awkward silence could fall between us again. “So you said that you are a molecular biologist? I guess that you must be very smart to be a scientist, ” she said and smiled at me.

“One doesn’t have to be smart to be scientist, but I am,” I said, smiled back at her and felt pretty stupid for saying that. Silence crept between us again. She was staring in my eyes throughout the conversation. I managed to look back during our talk, but now I found it uncomfortable again. I wanted to come up with a new, interesting subject, but I didn’t find one so I just asked about her. She told me that she studied psychology. I was glad. I told her that psychology was my hobby. I told her that before I started to study psychology I had a hard time understanding why people did what they do and sometimes I still had trouble understanding them anyway. I give her the example of Milgram’s obedience experiments, which could explain a lot of things, for example how in the Second World War ordinary people could be manipulated to kill Jews in camps without regret. Although the main reason why I was telling her all this wasn’t to share a very interesting piece of information but only to keep saying something and to avoid uncomfortable silence, I found it disappointing that she didn’t know about Milgram even though she was doing a master’s degree in psychology. So I went on and explained to her this important part of human knowledge. It seemed to me that I was boring her with this topic. She finished hers noodles during my monologue and then asked me what I ate when I am out there. That was disappointing for me. I was beginning to hope for a more interesting conversation than this.

“Well I have some sliced bread and tuna cans or I eat bread with honey or peanut butter and also I carry dried fruits and mixed nuts with me. And then there are always instant Chinese noodles,” I said, pointing to her empty bowl. “And I just bought some cans with Beanz and some canned beef.”

“I am a vegetarian. Kind of … I sometimes eat meat, but only if I know that the animal didn’t suffer … I am from a farm so I ate our beef, because I know they didn’t suffer, you know? I don’t have a problem with eating a meat as long as I know they have been properly killed.”

“I completely understand your point of view. I don’t like animals to suffer unnecessarily either. And also I think that all meat eaters should be able to kill for meat. Not to do it every time, that would be just stupid. To do it just once – that makes you really think about it. I think that if somebody isn’t a vegetarian but wouldn’t be able to kill for his meat, than he is a hypocrite.”

“I wouldn’t be able to kill a chicken, probably,” she said.

“Well but you are a vegetarian,” I said, and she looked reassured. “In Czech, we eat a carp at Christmas every year, and by tradition we always buy it alive. The first year I had to kill it, I didn’t have a problem doing it, but I wanted to be really sure that I killed it good. So when I smacked its head with a mallet I put all my strength into it and it just exploded all over the bathroom.” I smiled to this silly memory, which was perhaps improper while talking to a vegetarian girl, but thanks to my chronic deficiency of empathy, I continued on with that story- “This overkill was based on bad experiences I had with rats. Have you noticed that idiom” I interrupted my story “– it’s nice, when you can use something like an idiom and simultaneously mean it literarily.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed, your English is very good,” she said.

“Anyway I have a snake and it is sometimes hard to get rats, so when there is an opportunity I buy more of them –”

“What kind of snake do you have?” she interrupted me.

“A boa constrictor, she is pretty big now – quite a lot over two meters and pretty heavy. Anyway, the first time I bought more rats than she could eat – there was ten of them, she ate three and I had to kill the rest. I knew the theory and I saw my friend do it before, but to do it yourself isn’t easy the first time. You have to swing them by the tail and hit their head against something solid.” I performed the move and hit the edge of the table in front of me with the imaginary rat while the blonde came back to join us and sat next to me on the sofa. “That is a pretty sure and quick death for them. So I took them one by one and put them into a pile in a plastic bag – since there was blood oozing from their mouths and it would get messy otherwise. I felt pretty bad with the first one, but you get used to it pretty fast when you see that it works well. But just as I killed the last one, I noticed that one of the rats was beginning to move in that pile in the plastic bag. I got sick when I saw that. I didn’t have a problem with smacking their heads, because I thought I was doing it right, but when I saw that the rat suffered and then it woke up in that pile of bloody bodies … I got really sick. So I took that rat and gave it two more swings and then crushed its neck with pliers and I did this with all the rest of the rats just to be sure. When I was done with them, I saw how messy it got. There was blood all over the balcony and my windows.”  I got carried away with this story so much that I didn’t notice the expression on the blonde’s face. So I added quietly with an expression of remorse on my face, “I was really shaken by this experience.” I had to do some more explaining for blonde so she wouldn’t think that I was some kind of sadistic savage. It didn’t help much though. But my brunette understood the point I was trying to make – I hoped.

When Asian guy came back from a shower, he joined us and we talked for a while. The brunette didn’t take her eyes off me for a second and it made me think what my intentions with her were. For sure I liked her, that was why I stayed there for so long and why I talked to her in the first place. It was quiet plain to me that she was interested in me too. But it was now about eleven in the evening and I was getting pretty tired, and besides, I hadn’t chosen the best topics of conversation, had I? Lecturing and killing weren’t the best choices for turning a girl on. It would probably be possible to seduce her yet and then sleep with her in one of the empty alcoves, but I knew that I would be too shy to hit on her in front of her friends so we would have to wait until they’d gone to sleep. And I guessed that Asian guy would like to hear all my stories and wouldn’t go to sleep until very late and then I would be too tired to enjoy sex with her anyway. Besides, there was still a chance of her refusing me in the end and then all the effort would be wasted and my ego would suffer. So based on these thoughts I excused myself with a polite lie. I told them that I would like to stay and talk to them a little longer, but I was too tired for that. I wished all three of them good night, smiled back to my brunette for the last time and went to sleep.

I wasn’t able to fall asleep until they switched off the light, which was one hour later. I played with a thought that the brunette could come to me after her friends had fallen asleep, but then I thought it unlikely. Besides, what had she done to make me this sure that she wanted me? She had only stared at me all the time. That Asian guy was hitting on me much more than she was. Then I thought maybe he would surprise me in the night instead of her and then I had to put a hand over my mouth to not to make a sound while laughing. Although I was very tired I stayed awake until they switched out the light and stopped moving about.

Most likely they decided to follow my advice and leave without paying, because their alarm went off a good deal before sunrise. It took one of them a full thirty seconds before stopping it. I actually thought about getting up, walking over there and switching it off for them. Then they turned on the light and began to pack. I listened to their every move. They tried to move quietly and spoke only in whispers so as not to wake me. I appreciated that gesture and for a moment I was deciding whether to get up to wish them farewell. I decided not to. The bed was too comfortable. When they sneaked out I felt asleep again.

It was nine in the morning when I woke up. I was surprised to sleep so long. I felt good and healthy. A night in a bed had restored my energy. I felt that I was going to do well over hundred kilometers before finding a place for the night. I ate Chinese noodles for breakfast, since it was much easier to boil water here on a stove than outside, hid my stuff and provisions for a week in a bush and went to return the keys to the dugout and bathroom to that Sri Lankan owner.

He was shining with happiness when I entered his shop.

“How did you sleep? Well? Was the water in the shower hot enough?” he asked me with great care and broad smiles.

“I slept well, thank you, the water in shower was just perfect,” I returned his smiles and his keys. Then suddenly his face had changed almost to anger. “I saw a van parked in the parking lot. Did you let somebody in?” There was no point of lying to him about this so I played honest and stupid.

“Yes, there was this group of two girls and one boy. They asked me where the reception was and I told them that it was over here. But you were already closed, so I told them that it would be probably ok to pay in the morning.” I looked at him innocently and the grim look on his face was beginning to melt.

“They left before I got here,” he said

“Really, they did?” I said with a horrified expression

“Yes, some people are like that,” he said, calm again. “Sometimes there are people who come in late in the evening and leave very early to escape paying.”

“Really? I wouldn’t even think about that.” I raised my eyebrows and shook my head while saying this.

“Yes, some people aren’t as nice as you are,” he said, smiling at me again. I thanked him one more time out of politeness and he thanked me too. We shook our hands and I was back on the road.

II.

It was an unpleasant cold windy morning. The low clouds were flown fast by the wind to the southwest. There was a lot of dust in the air so even in those rare occasions when the sun wasn’t blocked by low clouds, the light was dim and without heat. I started with a mind set on a long journey ahead of me, so I pushed against the wind. I was doing only some twelve kilometers per hour when the wind was constant, but each strong gust slowed me to a walking speed and blinded me with sand and dust. After half hour of hard ride I saw a sign saying ‘Coober Pedy 5 km’ in the opposite direction. I got off the bike, put on one more layer of clothing and ate a snack – bread and tuna can. I decided then to give up, to find a place to camp and to wait till the wind calmed down. It would be a waste of energy to fight that weather. I got on the bike again and continued my ride through the opal fields. They stretched from horizon to horizon. Mounds of rubble left after drilling those shafts looked as if some kind of giant desert moles lived there. All along the road were barbwire fences and signs saying ‘opal mining – do not trespass’. These signs and fences wouldn’t hold me back if I really wanted to pass them, but I was looking for a nice spot somewhere – these fields had to end somewhere near. So I pressed on, while the wind was getting stronger.

After another half hour of riding I saw a car parked in a gateway to one of the opal fields and I presumed that it would be the car of the owner of that field. I got off the road to meet him.

“Hello!” I shouted over the wind to a man in a cowboy hat, who was just behind a fence, searching through the nearest pile of rubble and didn’t see me approaching.

He turned to me and said “Hi!” and walked towards me.

“Pretty windy today, isn’t it?” I said.

“Yeah, bloody wind,” he said.

“I was wondering, would you mind if I stop here, put up a tent and wait till the wind stops?” I asked him.

“I wouldn’t care less. It’s not my field. I just stopped here to look for opals,” he said.

“Oh, I see. Have you found any?” I asked.

“Yeah, you can find some for yourself if you look around,” he said and showed me a handful of limestone rocks, some of which had a slight shade of green to them, “and I don’t think they would mind if you put up your tent here. Those signs are there just for legal purposes – in case somebody falls in.  Just don’t run around and don’t walk backwards. Those shafts are pretty deep,” he said seriously.

“I’ll look out for those shafts, then,” I said, pushed my bike towards the fence and took a careful step over the barbwire, choosing a gap between two spikes. I stood with each leg on one side of the fence, lowering it a little with my butt, then I lifted my bike and carried it over it in one smooth motion. It was heavy with all the water and food, but I didn’t want to look like a sissy in front of this bearded cowboy. He asked me about my trip, so I told him a short version of my story, to which he replied with ‘hmm’, then we said goodbye and I pushed my bike further to the opal field to not to be seen from the road. It was a relatively new field – greenery hadn’t yet had time to grow over piles of dirty white limestone rubble which blended with the overcast sky on the horizon.

I chose a place to put up my tent behind one particularly large pile and checked whether it could be seen from any point of the road. When I found that I was perfectly hidden, I changed out of my cycling clothes and went to look for those opals. Within an hour I had a nice collection of interesting looking rocks, none of which was an opal, although I suspected one small quartz stone of a tiny bit of opalescence. After an unsuccessful opal hunt I moved into the tent and ate few slices of bread with tuna while listening to William Gipson’s Neuromancer. I liked his juicy, almost synesthetic descriptions and his thoughts behind the story.

I listened to audio books a lot during my trips and I associated certain books and stories with different landscapes. For example I have connected hills before Port Augusta with ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, better known as Blade Runner, and then before this I have vivid pictures of me pushing a bike through sand on one country road a hundred kilometers north of Adelaide while listening to Hyperion, which was a great book. Really nice stories, but the ending was bad. I would like it even more if Simmons didn’t put the stories in the frame like he did. And there were many more connections like these from my trip around the Baltic Sea. There were five hundred kilometers of Kurt Vonnegut’s books in forests of central Sweden and Irving’s Widow for a Year in the north of Finland. I especially remember how ‘Mole man heard her made a sound like someone trying not to make a sound’ in a small hunting shack late in the night, since the story was too good to go to sleep earlier and it was pretty scary to listen to it alone in the middle of the nowhere. And of course there always will be Daenerys Targarien and her dragons being born in south Finland. Sometimes those connections weren’t so pleasant. I remember listening to Ender’s Game, the book I felt in love with, on the intercontinental flight from London to Singapore while trying not to make a contact with a middle aged-women’s hip which was overflowing under my armrest to my side of the seat. That book worked very well to move me from that unpleasant smelly sweaty neighborhood into interstellar spaceships.

All of these books were in English. I don’t remember the last time I read a book or listened to a book in Czech. It’s partially due to me wanting to practice my English and partially because it was much easier to get a good book in the original or English translation then in Czech.

Well for now it was Neuromancer with its ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel’. I paused my MP3 player after the first and sadly only passage where Molly and Case made love and went to look outside. The weather didn’t change much, the wind was still strong, now blowing straight from the north. “Damn, if this wind blew from the opposite side I could easily do two hundred kilometers today,” I said to myself and went to check on my bike since there were crows croaking around it, and I wanted to find out what they were up to.

And of course – they were there for a reason. When I previously picked my bread and tuna I hadn’t closed my bags and those bastards had managed to pull a whole half kilo packet of bread out, open it and scatter slices all over the place. They say that crows are the most intelligent birds, but these dummies didn’t just eat a few slices. They had to pull nearly all of them out of the packet and peck into each of them. So I packed the leftovers, shouted at the crows ‘Get lost’, to which they croaked something certainly impolite back at me and stayed where they were. I gave them one really evil look and walked back to my tent. But just before I moved in I noticed that a case to which I was packing my tent was missing – I had fastened it onto my handlebars and the wind or those stupid crows had loosened it. Most likely it had been swept by the wind to the south, so I ran up to the top of the nearest pile of rubble to look for it. When I reached the top I made a small avalanche of rocks and dirt fall to the opposite side, straight to a three-meter wide circular shaft which was so deep I couldn’t see its bottom. That made my heart skip a beat. If I slipped there, that would be nasty. I imagined myself in the bottom of that pit. Nobody would ever find me. There were half a million of these shafts around Coober Pedy if that hobo in Laundromat could be trusted with his information. Besides, my tent and bike were hidden pretty well. There was no mobile phone service and also my phone was switched off and in my tent. Trying to get out would be pretty useless without any climbing gear. And even if I had any climbing gear, that would be thirty meters to climb. And then I smiled at my ignorance. Of course, if fell in I wouldn’t have to solve the problem of how to get out. Falling thirty meters to the limestone bedrock would be pretty certain death. Then I imagined what would happen next. If the owner of that field found me by the smell, the most reasonable solution would be to throw the rest of my stuff after me and then pile up the limestone over me. I would be missed, but with no proof of my death, which was good. That would give my parents some consolation.

I returned to my tent and my mind wandered back to that previous evening. Of course I regretted my decision. That brunette was hot! I should have set my personality to a different mode from the beginning – my cocky funny extrovert personality which I use for parties would have a much better chance with her. Instead it was my shy introvert self.

I let my imagination flow over that scenario. I imagined our conversation taking a different path. I would invite her to sit next to me for some silly reason and then I would slowly escalate from slight brush of a hand to a touch. And of course she would pretend some resistance before letting me kiss her, but she would want it as badly as I would and after while we would move to my part of the cave …

When I didn’t need to think about that any longer, I admitted to myself that I imagined it quiet unrealistically. Of course it was most likely she would need at least a few hours of cheap jokes and haptic communication to feel comfortable enough with me for sex. Then I fell asleep and slept until late afternoon. When I got off the tent, the wind was over, there were a few clouds scattered on the sky and the sun was still above the horizon but it would set within an hour. I then had dinner. A can of Beanz eaten with a white plastic spoon I stole from Quantas airways, bread and dried fruits. I packed my tent, which was now without casing, so I just tied it with a piece of string. Then I packed the rest of my stuff and got back on the road. I felt well and rested and I was playing with the thought that I might ride all night and perhaps beat my old record and do three hundred kilometers in one trip. ‘Why not? I’m pretty healthy and I have enough food. Australia is flat and a head wind in the night is improbable. There is no reason why I couldn’t ride all night and then perhaps see how far I have gotten the next day.’

III.

So I rode while listening to a Neuromancer. I decided to make stops every hour and to eat properly so I would have enough energy for a night ride. The first stop was just after sunset, when Molly was explaining Armitage’s military history to Case. I liked how Gipson was always mentioning Styrofoam and temper foam based on his prediction that future was going to be full of these, for him brand new, materials and everybody was going to use them. After finishing a can of Beanz I got back on my bike.

It was getting dark fast now, so I switched on my red rear light and dressed in a reflective jacket and put on my headlamp over my black woolen cap to be seen by passing cars, which were less and less frequent. When it got really dark I could always enjoy night solitude for a half hour between passes. I noticed that they were riding in small groups much more often than during the day. Perhaps they got together because the faster ones didn’t want to overtake the slower ones or road trains in the night.

I enjoyed myself then. It was a nice evening, the stars were slowly popping up followed by the bright Milky Way. I liked how the Milky Way started as a great arch over me and then was falling and rotating all the night to the south and west until just before sunrise an upside-down Orion popped over the north horizon. And then there was the moon, which didn’t rise till late in the night. The first time I saw it, while freezing in the early morning, I thought that the moon was waning and that it wasn’t going to shine on my way next week. But the opposite was true. Of course, when the moon formed a C it was waxing when you were looking at it from Down Under.

It was getting cold, but not gradually. Since there was no wind to mix the air properly, there were pockets of cold air in some places. I noticed that these pockets always formed around creeks. And to ride inside one of these was like stepping into a big refrigerator. The temperature difference was really sudden.

I was puzzled by this a little, so I paused the Neuromancer and I imagined how this interesting arrangement had happened. I saw in my mind how the air flowed through the landscape. How cold air flew from the higher places and ran like water to lower ones and formed these pools. But this didn’t explain the origin of the cold air at the first place. So I imagined it on a molecular level. I saw fast air molecules which were hitting the cold sand, which had already radiated its heat off into space. Upon hitting it, molecules of air lost their kinetic energy to it and then they were bouncing off the ground and flying back up, but since they were slower they didn’t collide with other air molecules so often, which lead to formation of denser gas near the ground first, which then flowed like water.

It was completely dark and those pools of cold air were getting bigger and more frequent. After a while I entered one pool of cold air and was surprised by an even colder pocket within it. When I got back to warmer air I stopped only for a second, since it wasn’t yet time to take a break according to my plan and I put on my white long sleeve T-shirt. When I was about to get back on my bike I noticed some flashes on the south horizon.

It was beautiful. It was a lightning storm behind the horizon under the bright stars. I switched off my headlamp and just stared at it with awe. There were three bright yellow flashes every second. I watched it until I got cold and started to shiver a bit. It was still 10 minutes to the planned stop, but I didn’t care. I wanted to watch it longer so I decided to promote this to the official stop and to ride for 70 minutes next time. I took out a can of ‘beef and potatoes’ and my stolen Quantas plastic spoon and ate my hourly delivered snack while watching this show. It was so beautiful that I switched off my MP3 player to enjoy it properly. There was no sound in the desert now. The storm was too far away, the air didn’t blow and it was too cold for any kind of crickets. All other animals were sleeping now, or hunting silently. I watched all that beauty and had a hard time swallowing since the content of that can was really awful.

The meat was stringy, the sauce was with burned flavor and the potatoes were just tasteless. But the worst thing was that it had the temperature of the surrounding air, which was about ten degrees Celsius, so all the fat from that can congealed in big lumps which tasted like wax and were sticking to my teeth and tongue. I ate it all and scraped all the fat from the lid and then licked my spoon clean, since that fat was what was going to keep me warm later in the night.

I gave that spectacle one last look and got back in the saddle all shivering and eager to warm myself up by pedaling. I didn’t switch on my Mp3 player again. I was in a good mood for thinking. I started from that lightning storm and kept asking myself ‘why?’ to test my knowledge of nature. I wanted to find out what I didn’t understand yet and to see how deep I could get with my knowledge. I started with how static electricity accumulated in the clouds and why it discharged in the lighting – why it didn’t discharged continually with small sparks. I didn’t have to think about this question at all. An image of a Van de Graaf generator popped in my mind and there was my answer. The charge was accumulating in the cloud until the potential difference was big enough to ionize a future pathway of the electrical discharge.

Since the energy obviously came from the Sun in the first place, I wanted to know how much of the total energy radiated by the Sun hits the Earth, so I made this model in my head: I projected Earth as a disk on the surface of a big ball. That ball had a radius of one hundred and fifty million kilometers and the Earth disk projection had a radius of six thousand kilometers. I wanted to know the ratio only in order of magnitude. Also I wasn’t sure how to calculate the surface of the ball and I had to make all the calculations in my mind, so I made some approximations, to make it easier. I imagined that large ball and transformed it into a cube with a diameter of two hundred million kilometers and started to calculate its surface. “That would be two multiplied by ten to the power of … that’s six, seven, eight zeros, to the power of eight, which squared is four multiplied by ten to the power of sixteen, then multiply this by six to get all of the plains – that is … four by six is twenty four, let’s say twenty five, that is two twenty-five multiplied by ten to the power of, what was it? Oh, yes eight so, sixteen. So the surface of that cube is twenty-five multiplied by ten to the power of sixteen square kilometers”, I wrote the result over that cube in my mind “and now for the Earth disc, which is six thousand squared and multiplied by pi, let’s say multiplied by three, which is thirty six … that’s thousands, so thirty six million multiplied by three, that is a hundred million or so, which is ten to the power of six, seven, eight,” I said and marked ten to the power of eight next to that little speck of the disc Earth in my model. “Now the cube was twenty-five multiplied by ten to the power of sixteen and Earth is ten to the power of eight. Or better cube two point five multiplied by ten to the power of seventeen divided by ten to the power of eight, so Earth is receiving two point five billionths of the energy radiated by the sun.” That was impossible for me to imagine clearly, since I had no models to compare these large numbers to, so I imagined one square meter – that was to represent the surface of the Earth and then an area with two point five billion square meters, which was a square with a side of fifty kilometers. After being satisfied that I could imagine this I probed my knowledge of nuclear fission and quantum tunneling, which was pretty weak. I knew this field only from popular science books and I was missing a mathematical knowledge, which was necessary for understanding this physics. I considered getting a master’s degree in physics, but I knew I would be too lazy to do that and that made me a little sad. Then I recapitulated my knowledge of cosmology reaching all the way back to the big bang – to that place in the universe where God could still be hidden. Oh yes, I used this opportunity to mock human beliefs.

“It is funny how in the beginning there were gods to explain everything, but science destroyed most of them. There was a whole array of gods of a massive discharge of static electricity accumulated in clouds due to friction – Zeus and Perun, those are ones I know about, but I bet that there were many more of these, because storms are awesome and if I was to create any religion back then lightning would have to be explained in it. There were gods making sure the sun rises every morning, and gods responsible for the planets, moon and stars, but these were killed early by the first astronomers. And then Laplace with his knowledge based on Newton’s work dismissed a need for a god in all the sky mechanics with his famous reply to Napoleon. Then there were gods responsible for the creation of the Earth a few thousand years ago, but geologists slew them. The divine power of living organisms to be the only source of organic molecules was dismissed by this German guy by creating urea centuries ago. Then of course some gods took responsibility for all those diverse animals and plants, but good old Darwin smashed them all for good with his Origin of Species and Craig Venter would soon do the same to the act of the creation of the life itself. A god as a provider of human goodness and morality was proved to be wrong by game theory, sociology and statistics. And also statistics proved that gods don’t listen to prayers, or if they do, they choose to help mostly wealthy westerners while killing off poor people with hunger and diseases.

“It is kind of sad to be a scientist now, when there is only a handful of the big gods remaining to be hunted down. For example gods of some physics constants and gods responsible for the Big Bang. Maybe there is still a god preaching ‘life exists only on Earth’. I would like to help to kill that one. That would be interesting. That is one of the reasons why I want to get to Mars, as soon as Elon Musk or somebody else makes it possible. And there is a really big god who is saying that human consciousness is sacred, but it will yield when there is the first computer begging us to not to switch it off. And of course there is the God almighty, the one protecting all the smaller ones. The God of ignorance and lack of critical thinking will be there with us for a long time, or more likely forever.”

I stopped again for the next planned snack. I wasn’t hungry yet but I had to keep myself disciplined. Eating was important. Another can of cold beef would make me sick. So I went for Beanz again. The night was downright cold. It wasn’t freezing but it was pretty close to it. I had only cycling gloves on my hands, which didn’t protect me much against the cold. I solved that as I usually did by putting each of my hands in a pair of socks. I could not grab handlebars properly, but it was OK. My feet and legs were numb so from that point I had to get off the bike more frequently to exercise my legs a bit. But still I had done sixty-seven kilometers since I started and I was still full of energy. With all those Beanz in my system I felt like I could ride all night. I ate over two kilos of canned beans and meat plus a few slices of  bread and two hundred grams of dried mixed fruits within three hours. That made me feel pretty full. When I belched, after finishing that can of Beanz, the third for that night, I felt that burned beef sauce and congealed fat and it made me quite sick. But I was no sissy, was I? So I belched again, looked at the beauty of the desert night sky and I held it in and got back on the bike.

My balls were freezing. Since I wasn’t wearing any underwear there was only this thin layer of elastic cloth separating my junk from the wind and temperatures were approaching zero. I could put on my outdoor pants, but they would slow me down by brushing over my thighs and knees. So I solved it by holding the handlebars with one hand in two layers of socks and I cradled my balls with the other thumbless hand.

Then I noticed that there was something falling from the sky. I didn’t know what it was but it was getting more and more frequent and then I rode into a fog. The narrow beam of my LED headlamp solidified into a cone of white light and everything was much dimmer. When I looked up to see the stars I could see only a white mist reflecting my headlamp light and that something falling at me. Also I had a hard time seeing where I was going. I oriented myself only by a white line, which I could see only five meters ahead. It was always a long white line paused by short black asphalt. It went white – white – white – white – black – white – white – white – white – black.

Sometimes when I looked sideways to the dark my light was reflected back at me from the eyes of some animals. There were few foxes, and perhaps wild cats, but mostly cows with their big far-apart eyes. That was interesting, how during the day it was enough to stop a bike some fifty meters away of them to scare them off but during the night cows wouldn’t move until you were really close to them. And they would stare at you all the time.

I smiled when I remembered how scared I was first time I saw a calf in the early morning a few days before and confused it for a really big dingo. Oh yes, I was still afraid of wild dingoes back then, because I didn’t know enough about them. I learned about their cheeky but cowardly behavior much later – when I was in the Tanami gold mines. But when I saw some eyes which could be a dingo’s in that foggy night, that scared me enough to release my balls, to grab my handle bars firmly with both hands and to make a few faster strokes to the pedals.

My stops were getting more frequent. I stopped each time cars were passing because drivers rarely switched off their high beams and it blinded me for a few seconds each time. I drank water or I pretended to be drinking while they were passing so they would not stop and want to help me or something when they saw me standing there. Also my feet were freezing and it was pretty painful so I stopped my bike every twenty minutes and took a small walk to get some blood flowing through them. I was at ninety kilometers when I started to cough again. It was most likely thanks to the cold water I was drinking, although I always took only a few sips at a time, heating them in my mouth before swallowing them.

I could tell that it was below zero now and I still had only my cycling shorts on so it was no surprise to me when my left ball decided to retreat from my scrotum up to my belly. It was uncomfortable as always so I stopped and squeezed it back out, but it was no use. It was back inside the moment I got back in the saddle. So I was riding with the remaining ball cradled in one hand, with the other hand loosely lying on the handle bars, since socks were preventing me from gribbing it properly, with visibility limited to the five meter cone of white fog and something which looked like snow falling on me. My feet were numb and I was already making stops every ten minutes to massage my legs. But my spirits were still high and I had good speed. I also knew that I still could put on my trousers, so there were still reserves on which I could draw.

It was when I was at the hundredth kilometer that it dawned on me – those things falling from the sky which looked like snow was ash and this fog, that wasn’t fog at all – it was a smoke. That was probably also the reason I was coughing so much. There must have been a bush fire somewhere to the north and that had then been blown to that region by the strong north wind during the day. Of course it was ash and smoke. Strangely the smoke didn’t smell like smoke, but it was perhaps because it had been in the atmosphere so long that all aromatic molecules had been released from it and taken somewhere else by a giant gas chromatography of the sky.

I put on my trousers when the second ball found its way up. That was so uncomfortable to have them both inside! That was first time I admitted to myself that I might not be able to make those three hundred kilometers in that night. And since I knew that it was going to get even colder in the night and my feet already hurt, I projected that suffering further. Then I said to myself that that night was not a night to break my record. One hundred and five kilometers was a nice daily trip and it was time to get to the tent.

In the moment when the thought of going to sleep came over my mind I decided that it was the very best idea I had had that day. So I just turned off the road into high bushes. To my surprise there was grass in small patches on the ground. I made it some five hundred meters into a bush, to not to be woken by passing road trains, put up my tent, ate the fourth can of Beanz and without even bothering to change clothes I crawled into a sleeping bag. I fell asleep almost immediately.

I was woken by really strange sounds. My heart was beating, good old adrenaline was already in my system and I was ready to fight or fly. I quickly and quietly freed myself from my sleeping bag, grabbed my pepper spray and headlamp, both of which I kept in a tent pocket just next to my head, and then I listened in the darkness. And then again – the sound a crazy donkey would make with very rapid cadence and very lou. Then it turned into a very long moo and then it started all again: “AHEE – AHEEE – AHEEE – MOO!” I was reassured that that noise was from a pretty far distance, but it was very noisy compared to the complete silence of the night. My nerves calmed down a bit. I put on my shoes, which I was using as a pillow, and got off the tent. I made a circle around it. It was still very dark night with that smoke still hanging in the air and I could see only contours of the nearest bushes and I more felt than saw a presence of my tent. I didn’t want to switch on my headlamp. It didn’t feel right to disturb the night. My guts were telling me that it would be best to not to give notice of myself then. I went back to the tent shivering with cold, when that crazy cow started all over again: “AHEE – AHEE – AHEE – AHEEMOOOO!”

“Did it sound closer to me now or not? Fuck you, you stupid cow! – Oh, do they fuck in the night? Probably not, then what is this sound? Is she giving birth? That would most likely be a difficult birth then … What else could it be? A cow warrior calling to arms! Or a crazy cow laughing – and I am the first human to ever hear it.” It stopped as soon as it started. I calmed down a bit, but couldn’t fall asleep yet. I was listening to the night in the complete darkness of my tent.

Half hour or so later my eyes were closing again and I fell asleep. And again I was woken by a sound. It was the sound of broken twig this time. Again I was standing in front of my tent fully alert within seconds with pepper spray ready in my hand. This time I switched on the light, because I could see a shadow of a cow pretty close to me. When light hit that cow’s head its eyes reflected it back to me but it didn’t move a bit even though it was only some five meters away from me, already losing itself in the mist. Shit I was scared! Still holding pepper spray in my hand I went and broke a long twig from a nearest bush and went towards that cow. I knew that I had to scare it off if I wanted to get any more sleep. So I was slowly approaching it, step by step, yet it didn’t move a single bit. I repeated to myself: if it started towards me I had to jump sideways for I knew that if something was going to happen it would happen fast. When I was two meters away from it I said pretty quietly “Go away.” It didn’t move and kept staring into my headlamp. Its eyes looked really creepy as they were reflecting the light back at me. I raised my voice as well as that twig in my hand: “Go away!” It breathed out loudly and turned its head and started to walk away slowly. Thud – thud – thud its hoofs made in the dirt, quieter and quieter as it went. I was surprised to find it so difficult to shout in the night. That had to be some old fear passed on from my ancient ancestors. A scream in the night would attract possible predators. And this instinct was preventing me from shouting even when I knew that in Australia there weren’t any predators capable of hunting down a man.

(For those who don’t believe me I would recommend going alone far into a deserted location somewhere in nature in the foggy night and then trying to shout something! See for yourself how hard it is …)

I gathered all my courage based on the knowledge that there was no logical reason for my fear and shouted aloud “Yeah, Fuck you!” after that receding cow which was already lost in the smoke, to scare it a little bit more. It made it walk a little faster – thud, thud, thud. I noticed that my breath condensed in the air. I checked my bike and there was already a thin layer of frost on my saddle.

I got back to the tent and checked my mobile phone. It was half past two, and there was no service. I was thinking about those cows. “What is it that makes them braver than I am? Why they are scared off easily during the day but at night they just don’t give a fuck? Perhaps cows can’t see properly in the dark and then running away from a possible predator with better eyesight would be a pretty risky business with a low probability of escaping and a high probability of injuring themselves. Maybe that is why these animals when they face danger in the night just wait for whatever the attacker is going to do. Yeah – that is a probable explanation. Facing an attacker gives cows better chances of defending themselves since they can use their horns. So if some cow appears next time I will try not to push it too much – since they are probably really scared off me too, but their natural response is to hold their position and then attack only if necessary. And besides, my overreaction is most likely based only on the fact that I don’t know cows. How often do they kill someone? Well you never hear in the news that there has been yet another brutal cow attack on an unarmed civilian.”

I could reason with logic that these cows were pretty harmless, but still … For example what if one of those cows got really scared and ran over my tent while I was still in it. It would be enough if they only hurt me somehow. It was still a half kilometer to the road on which only two road trains passed per hour, in which time I would bleed internally to death from a punctured lung or something. I hated my brain for going through these improbable scenarios. Well I have to say, it took me much longer before I could fall asleep again. But that wasn’t the end of the cow horrors for that night, oh no, that was just the beginning…

This time it was a group of cows and I woke up when I heard their steps behind my tent wall: thud – thud – thud. And then loud exhaling and sniffing. They were so close I could hear their bellies rumbling. I don’t know if my adrenals had run out of adrenalin or I managed to persuade myself with logic that these cows were basically harmless, but I didn’t get a proper kick out of it this time. I was startled and out of the tent in seconds, of course, but I wasn’t as scared as I was previously.

So there I was shining a light into those big far apart cows’ eyes and they just stood there. I moved away from them this time – to give them plenty of room to maneuver away. But they didn’t move. So I started to talk to them calmly. “Just go away.” Funny that I was speaking to them in English. Well they were Aussies cows after all, so English was their official language. “Just go away, see – I have a pepper spray. So … go away” But they were hard to persuade. When I shone my light into their eyes they just lowered their heads near the ground and stood on the spot. That made me feel much less confident. So I walked a little further away, I was starting to get very cold and asked them again to leave, again with no effect.

“Damn you stupid cows!” I shouted aloud and I lost my nerves.

Suddenly I knew that those sound I heard for the first time were the sounds of a mating bull full of testosterone and willing to protect his cows and he was one of these three staring at me with their heads near to the ground and perhaps he was deciding in his big stupid head whether to attack me or not.

Again I know that this was pretty improbable, but in that misty night that seemed a pretty real scenario to me.

I walked quickly to my tent, which was toward the cows, and started to pack: sleeping bag, deflated mattress and Czech army knife. I kept checking the cows. They were standing still on the same spot with their heads low. I started to pack my tent. It was done in five minutes and I was ready to push my bike away. Those cows were blocking one of the paths to the road between the bushes so I started to the north, parallel to the road and I navigated my way through the brush.

As I walked, there still were more bushes emerging from the black of the night and smoke. I had to change direction from time to time because some of those bushes were blocking my way, but I was still keeping in my mind the general direction to the road. It took a fairly long time, but I had gone pretty far from the road in the first place. I expected my beam of light to strike white lines of the road any time soon, but it didn’t seem to come. “Well it must be near now”, I was telling myself again and again as I walked. After twenty minutes I pulled out my GPS navigation. It was half past three – the time I was usually starting my day. The time when it was already useless to try to get some sleep, because I wouldn’t get warm enough anyway. When it finally caught a satellite signal I found that I was walking to the south with the Stuart Highway two hundred meters to my right. I didn’t believe it so I walked back and forth to make sure. I didn’t understand how it was possible. I was sure that I was heading in the right direction, but I had made a half circle without knowing about it. It was pretty disturbing to get lost like that, to be betrayed by my senses. Luckily my GPS worked well so I corrected my direction and got back to the road.

IV.

The burned grass wasn’t falling from the sky anymore but smoke still lingered in the air. I was going slowly now. I didn’t care about my total distance anymore. I just wanted to make it through till the morning. When I saw the next road train coming I got off the bike and I drank. The water was icy cold and it hurt my throat and made me cough. Just behind that road train went a herd of cars. I decided that there was another reason for that. Those cars were running together because the drivers were scared of the night. A fellow stranger traveler would give them some comfort. I exercised my legs and tried to warm up my feet a bit. It helped a little. Then I got back on my bike and I went on. The white line appeared from the milky darkness in front of me and I followed it. White – white – white – white – black it went.

I retreated into my imagination. I went back to the place I had been already many times before. It was the beginning of my planned sci-fi book:

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning. Where am I?” I asked and raised myself up from the bed on my elbows.

From my perspective writing sci-fi was the hardest kind of the fiction writing and I still wasn’t sure if I would be up to the task. Writing a trash sci-fi novel – sure, anyone with a bit of patience could do that. But to write it and to make reader believe and love it, that was hard, especially when the reader was someone who liked to think about what he read and also judged the book by consistency of the world created. With normal fiction, the author just has to create a believable plot and characters. The environment of the story isn’t a fiction – the author just used what was already known. To write science fiction, I mean good science fiction, the author has to create not only credible characters, but also a believable universe with its set of rules. Before I flew to Australia I decided that I’d dedicate some time to thinking about that. I already knew what I wanted to say with my book. The main idea was already there, so I only had to think about how to say it. I always created a plot in my mind and then looked for flaws in it. If there were any I dismissed it or changed it. I did this for hours each day. I was getting closer and closer to the final structure of the book and I liked it. That night I already knew how the main story went and I was satisfied with it so I could work on the details. Sometimes I went through the middle sections or thought about technologies I would mention, but I tended to slip to the beginning. I liked that part very much, perhaps because it was trashy. I asked myself why I would say that. What was trashy about the beginning? Was it not believable? Why? Was it because it was too unreal, too good to be related to normal life, which was always messy? Yes, that was perhaps the reason. The beginning of my book was almost a fairytale. I would have to mess it up properly before writing it down, but for the present moment I was happy to linger in that fairytale land I created to escape reality. I could already see every detail as a movie in my imagination. I just had to describe it with words …

“I am not sure where we are,” she said. She was sitting on the floor, hugging her knees and resting her back against the white wall. She was beautiful.

“Is this a computer simulation?” I asked.

“That’s what I thought at first, but the resolution is too good. You can smell and feel everything. I’m still not sure.” She said and stroked her left forearm with the other hand.

“Yes, this looks too good to be a simulation. So you have been to the computer simulation before?” I asked her and I unconsciously stroked my forearm too.

I was still undecided whether I should write it as a first or third person novel. Of course the first person would feel more natural for me, since it would be strongly autobiographical, but the third person would allow me to describe the world from different perspectives. Finally I decided on a third person narrator. So I knew what and how. I still had to decide when. But this when wasn’t connected to the book’s content. The book would be placed in an undecided year in the not too distant future. I didn’t know when I would find the time to write it, since such a work would need my full dedication. Perhaps I would have to take a long holiday one year, but what I knew for sure was that I would have to be quick about it, because the topic of artificial consciences will lose the status of sci-fi within the next few decades. I was rethinking the beginning again and again, ignoring my choice of a third person narrator. I ignored the cold and pain and I enjoyed a nice conversation with a girl who maybe liked me:

“Yes I was. I don’t like simulations. They make me feel claustrophobic,” she said and pulled her knees closer to her chest.

“Let me look around,” I said and got of the bed. It was a small room with a bed in one corner. There was a small table, a chair, and that was it. There were no windows or wardrobes, only an open door leading to the corridor.

“There is the second room, down the hall,” she said and got up. She went to the door and I followed her. I smelled her scent while she was passing through the door in front of me. If this was a computer simulation, it was very good one indeed I thought.

I had to get off the bike, my feet hurt me too much to ride any longer. I sat on the edge of the road, took my shoes off and massaged my feet with my currently thumbless hands. The constant pressure from the pedals and the freezing temperature were causing me great deal of pain. I had to do something about that. My shoes were summer cycling shoes, providing maximum air ventilation, which was good when you wanted to eliminate sweating but not so good for a winter night. I decided to try to put plastic bags over my socks, in my shoes, to keep some warmth inside. So I took the socks off my hands and went through my stuff. I found and used a shopping bag from Coles and I put on my other foot a plastic bag from that toast bread those crows had scattered on that opal field earlier in the afternoon. Then I put my feet into the shoes and I tore the rest of that Coles’ plastic bag away so it wouldn’t get caught into the chain. It felt warmer, but still it didn’t prevent me from injuring my feet. I damaged my nerves and permanently lost sensitivity in my little fingers and the outer edges of my feet that night.

“How did you get in here?” I asked her as we were walking down the doorless hall.

“I don’t know,” she said. “How about you? Do you remember how you got in here?”

“I don’t know how I got here but I have several ideas,” I said when we arrived in a room which looked precisely the same as the previous one. “Well this looks like a simulation to me. There are no other rooms or any entrance …” I said and looked at her. She looked sad, so I added, “But it looks pretty real. And we will have to do some sort of test before we are sure that this it is a simulation.”

I was tired. I didn’t want to drink, since it was causing me to cough. I forgot to eat to keep my energy high. I was just following that line: white – white – white – white – black.

I was losing speed. I was down to seventeen kilometers per hour. The smoke was clearing little by little. It was some two hours till the dawn and I had a hundred and forty-eight kilometers on my speedometer. It was obvious that I would just fall of my bike when the sun rises. No chance to beat my record.

“Well there goes my plan to ride for three hundred kilometers tonight. That’s how it always is with me. I always plan things which are beyond my abilities. I’m always optimistic in the beginning, not seeing reasons why I would fail and then there comes the bitter realization that I can’t do it.

“But I wanted to test what I was capable of and tonight I would reach deep into my reserves. But it is not how I wanted to try it.

“Oh bollocks! Stop whining and think about something else again!” I thought and switched back to my imagination.

“So how did you happen to be here?” she asked me.

“Well I work for Soyeri. If this is a simulation, then it is most likely run by their new supercomputer,” I said. “So I would expect you to be working for them too.”

“Yes, I work for them,” she said, sat on her bed and pulled her legs up to her chest.

“What did you worked on?” I asked her to get her mind working on something else.

“I was in the design department,” She said.

“Of what ship? Was it the one with a particle accelerator engine, because it was my idea.” I said enthusiastically and immediately felt stupid for bragging about that.

“Yes it was,” she said and smiled at me.

The next road train was coming towards me. I got on the shoulder of the road and prepared my water bottle to pretend I was drinking. I looked about. The smoke was very thin now and I could see the brightest stars and it was possible to distinguish the horizon from the sky. The road train honked at me as it passed. It was terribly loud and deep. I never liked drivers who honked at me. It was like it wasn’t enough for him to blind me with his reflectors, he had to disable my hearing too.

“Fuck you!” I shouted at the truck as it passed me with an ongoing scream of the horn.

I got cramp in my thigh when I swung my leg over the bicycle seat.

I waited until it passed and I moved on.

I looked at the stars again. There he was. Orion with his chest still behind the horizon, but I could not be mistaken. That was his belt and his sword. It would be dawn soon. My eyes were closing now. I thought that if it was just a tiny bit warmer I would fall asleep while riding.

White – white – white – white – black. I had to stop very often then. My fingers hurt me when I pulled the brake and again when I tried to straighten them back. I got off the bike and I just pushed it to the north.

I walked and pushed my bike for five minutes and then rode for ten and then I repeated it all over again.

White – white – white – white – black.

V.

The air was clear. I could see the Milky Way clearly and thousands of stars all around the sky. I had wanted to learn the south hemisphere constellations before I went, but I hadn’t…

I imagined myself, how I was trying to cross the smallest continent of a planet which orbits a star of insignificant properties which along with half a trillion others stars of the Milky Way orbits the galaxy’s centre. Our galaxy was one hundred thousand light years large, a distance impossible for me to imagine yet it was only a tiny fraction of the visible universe. The first evidence of life on Earth was from three point eight billion years ago, which was also beyond any visual models I could create in my mind, thus impossible for me to fully comprehend. But still I was a direct descendent of this first life. There was an unbroken chain of living cells dividing and passing its genetic information from generation to generation. I was the end point of the thread running unbroken through those eons of time and all living things on Earth were end points of their line branching off mine closer or further off in the past.

White – white – black!

I pressed my brakes but my hands were too weak to squeeze them firmly enough. I managed to stop my bike only centimeters before the dark shadow of a black cow carcass which was lying with its back to me in a pool of blood which looked like tar. It was lying there on its left side with its hind legs smashed and crushed by a road train into a grotesque position and they were reaching to the middle of my lane. They were sticking behind the cow, making it look like a bipedal cartoon figure captured in motion while dancing. Its head was lying in the dirt over the edge of the road. It was quite small for a cow, yet too big to be called a calf. It hadn’t grown its horns yet and it was a female. I backed a little to ride around it and I noticed that its chest rose. I couldn’t move. I just watched that wreck of an animal and she did it again. She inhaled and exhaled. I knew what I had to do. I had no option. Suddenly I was shivering all over my body. I got off my bike, letting it fall to the ground. I tore the socks and cycling gloves off my hands and pulled out my knife. The fastest way to kill was to stop the blood flow to the brain. The brain cells would be deprived of oxygen and it would black out and die within seconds. I had to cut through both neck arteries. I wasn’t sure about their exact position in a cow, but I knew that if I hacked all its neck to the bone I would not miss them. I fell on my knees behind her. I put my left hand to her neck. Her hide was thick, oily and full of dust and I could smell how she reeked of shit and blood. I put my knife on her neck and noticed that she was looking at me. Her right black eye was bulging out, showing lots of white as it rolled to see me. I pressed my knife to her neck and nothing happened. I tried to saw through it but her skin wouldn’t yield. The hide was too thick, my knife was too dull and I was too week. She jerked with fear and made a feeble attempt to escape, but her pain paralyzed her on the spot. Fuck it was morbid! Within seconds I knew that I had to stab her. Stopping her heart would have the same effect as cutting her. I moved on my knees, scraping them on the asphalt, about which I didn’t care. I estimated the middle of her chest and felt for a rib with my left hand. I put the point of my knife into a groove between the two ribs. Then I clutched my knife with both hands and I leaned over them and pressed my knife down with my whole body. I felt in my chest as her skin resisted my knife for a split second and then how my knife ripped it and went in through the softer tissues within. It went all the way. She exhaled loudly with my push. I closed my eyes. I was kneeling and bent low over her. I was sick and felt extremely weak, shivering all over my body. When I loosened the pressure the rib cage went back up! She drew another breath with my knife inside her chest! I was torturing her! An image of a deer with a target marked on its side popped into my head in a fraction of a second. Fuck, the heart is much higher than that. I pulled out my knife. It made me even sicker when I felt how it touched a bone on its way up. There was little bit of black foam at the wound and the blade of my knife was smeared red. I moved on my knees a little bit to the left, towards her head and felt for the ribs again. I was scared to look at her head. I knew she was popping her eye at me. I just repeated what I did before. As my knife went in I focused to feel any change in tissue density – whether I felt the tip of my blade puncture the heart. I didn’t feel anything. Fuck! I might not have pierced her heart again! I was too scared to lower the pressure. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stab her again. I remained bent over her and was pushing down with all my strength. “Please die,” I whispered. I panicked when I felt a twitch of her muscles in my chest. I kept pushing on the top of my knife with my chest and moved myself back and forth. The butt of my knife was bruising my sternum as the blade moved inside her ribcage. I stayed still then. There was no response from her now. I stayed in that position for a while to be sure. She was dead. It might’ve been twenty seconds from the moment I first laid my hand on its neck, but it felt much longer. I was exhausted to the point I considered just leaning a little bit further on that warm carcass and falling asleep.

I ordered myself to get off my knees. I noticed that my hands were all sticky with blood, which was drying fast. I bent over the remains again and wiped the blood into its thick oily fur. Then I pulled my knife out and wiped it too. I decided that it would be dangerous for other drivers to leave this black cow in the middle of the road so I circled around its head and took it by a front leg and pulled. It could only weighed two hundred kilos, but my hands were too weak from the cold to hold onto that leg strongly enough. It just slid from my hands and the hoof knocked on the asphalt. ‘Knock’ – it sounded very loud. I gave it up and went back to my bike. I picked it up and pushed it around that carcass. My rear tire went through that pool of petroleum blood and marked the road each time it rolled with the bloody part down again.

I got on it and I rode.

I noticed that Orion’s shoulders had finally got over the horizon. The dawn was near. I looked to the east and I more felt than saw that it was getting brighter.

After all the stars had faded and it had gotten sufficiently bright that I could no longer see a lighter patch where the beam of my headlamp hit the asphalt, I got off the road. It was a region with high bushes and no grass – just the red dirt. There was a barbwire fence running parallel to the road. It was too close to the road to not to be seen by strangers passing by on Stuart Highway. So I got off the bike and laid it on the ground just next to the fence. Then I lay on the ground next to it and crawled underneath the fence. Then I pulled my bike after me and went further into the desert.

I built my tent with my weary hands on a spot which I was sure would be hit by the first sunlight and I crawled in. I unrolled my punctured mattress and unpacked my summer sleeping bag. I took my shoes off and threw away those plastic bags. I snuggled into my sleeping bag and put my shoes comfortably under my head. I was starving. I just pinched my belly and I found that I still had enough fat reserves under my skin so it was ok to starve for another couple of hours. I covered my face with my sleeping bag – I didn’t care about getting it wet due to condensation, I wanted to warm up immediately. I didn’t think about anything else but the present moment. The smell of that cow’s blood and oily hair filled the tent with a rich smell, but I didn’t care. I fell asleep when the first sun rays hit the wall of my tent and I was happy.

*Dedication:

I thank Katka and her family, who were my hosts upon my arrival in Adelaide and took great care of me. Your kids were awesome and I always smile when I remember how they played hide and seek with their daddy.

Thanks to Lukáš who was the reason I stayed in Alice Springs much longer than I originally planned. I am looking forward to see you again mate!

I thank the volunteers and staff at the art centre in Yuendumu whom I met only by an accident, but who provided me with a shelter when I wandered into Yuendumu in the night. I spent an interesting ten days with you guys – learning new things, and I enjoyed our discussions.

I thank my beautiful hostesses Kate, Suzy and Lidia from Darwin. I had a great time while staying with you. You are most certainly welcome at my place any time you get over here.

I thank you Victor for giving my bike another half-year ride from Singapore to Chengdu. We have to get together and have a talk over more than a few beers!

I thank the miners from all three Tanami gold mines who provided me with free food, shower, shelter and beers after I trespassed into the vicinity of the mines.

And I thank my parents, who helped me finance this trip, and Mirek – my boss from the lab, who granted me two months’ leave holiday, from which I returned after nearly eighty days.

Click here for photos.

Share this story with your friends if you liked it. If you really liked it you can leave comment on the facebook wall of this trip: www.facebook.com/napricaustralii. Like the page, if you don’t want to miss next stories.

From → Across Australia

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