Sunday, 10 August 2008

End of the Adventure (Chapter 14 - The End)

After the stimulation of the tropical north and the delightful company of the aborigines, the trip south again-despite the distance and the terrain-seemed rather an anticlimax. By now, anyway, we were quite used to making the most extraordinary demands on our Prima scooter, and another thousand-odd miles seemed merely a hop. Half an hour after rejoining our little machine, which had been garaged a stone's throw from Darwin's stockaded civil prison, the gear was packed, Nita was firmly ensconced, and the engine was ticking over erratically, voicing its displeasure at having been laid up.

Four days later we reached Alice Springs-more commonly called 'The Alice'-an over-publicized township which proved (save for the Flying Doctor Memorial Church) to be a disappointment. The usual assortment of coffee-bars and chromium-plate seemed strangely out of place in the majestic tranquil desert among the Macdonnell Ranges. The church was the exception: although ultra-modern in design-symbolically incorporating the suggestion of an aircraft wing in the construction-it did not appear misplaced. At the entrance was a lily pool of remembrance, while inside a little museum behind the altar contained some of the early equipment used by John Flynn, including a pedal radio set and the great man's swag and blackened billy. This unique and functional memorial was built entirely by the people of Alice Springs on a voluntary basis. It seemed all the nicer when one heard about that.

From one hundred degrees of arid heat we went southwards again aboard the 'Ghan' railway for four hundred miles; then there was another ride through South Australia towards the greatest contrast of the whole trip: a contrast which came as a shock after living for months in the briefest of clothing. For as we re-entered Victoria we were met by a howling snowstorm which lasted for three days and had us shivering constantly and stopping every few miles to make roaring fires at the roadside.

We arrived in Melbourne, two very dejected and half-frozen creatures, at eleven o'clock at night. Desperately I searched through our papers and found the scrap which had been given to me by Jack Kelley-the Mobilgas Rally driver-so long ago in far-away Darwin. I huddled in the 'phone booth, glad for a moment to cut off the biting wind.

'Marriott! Sure I remember. Come right on out. We'll have bowls of hot soup and a roaring fire to greet you. Sure you can find the way now?' I answered that warm, friendly voice, saying that wild horses couldn't stop us, and rang off.

So, fittingly in a country with a reputation for its hospitality, we spent the last six weeks of our Australian venture with two of the most friendly people one could hope to meet, in Australia or anywhere-Jack and Lila Kelley of Preston, Melbourne.

Jack's hastily given promise during our brief Darwin encounter was kept to the full. After lavishing their hospitality on us (it was heavenly to sit round a roaring fire in a cosy room, sipping hot soup, after battling in the teeth of a snowstorm for so long) they presented us with the key of Jack and Lila's luxury caravan, with the words, 'It's yours for as long as you want it.' This was, indeed, great generosity.

And so the six weeks passed. We wrote a great many notes, organized the processing and packing of our film, spent most week-ends as guests of our wonderful hosts, and toured the Victorian countryside, generally acclimatizing ourselves once again to city life.

One night I was dragged hastily from our extremely comfortable quarters to watch the path of the first Russian Sputnik as it raced across the sky; at the time I had been engrossed in studying some of the photographs of our aborigines-the most primitive people on earth. The sudden revelation of the first earth satellite zipping over Melbourne was most disturbing.

It also seemed incongruous that, only a few days previously, an expedition a couple of hundred miles from Alice Springs had reported making contact with a tribe of aborigines who had never before seen white men. There were very few details of the discovery at that time, other than that the tribesmen had been almost mesmerized at the sight of the wheels on the expedition trucks. As I watched the fast-travelling light in the sky, I wondered what those primitive men would think (were it possible to explain the technicalities) of their white brothers' latest achievement.

Possibly, we are in the last generation of those who will find adventure on this planet, and future exploration will be limitless. But at that moment, puny as our own efforts seemed, our desire to see over the next horizon had been more than fulfilled.

As the Southampton-bound liner pulled away from the Melbourne wharf, breaking the brightly coloured streamers, and echoing the cheers of those left behind, the faces of our friends gradually merged with the rest of the crowd. It was with mixed feelings that we prepared for the next six weeks of shipboard tedium.

Our adventure was over. The tiny vehicle that had made our journey possible lay once again in the hold beneath us, with nearly thirty thousand miles to its credit. Perhaps not a wise choice for the venture we had undertaken, but with our limited resources, the only possible one.

As we watched the nose of the ship ploughing through the choppy sea of the Great Australian Bight, we thought of the many anxious moments we had undergone in remote and outlandish places, and how thinly lined our pockets were. But, as Livingstone declared, 'the mere animal pleasure of travelling in a wild, unexplored country is very great'.