THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Wednesday, 21 March

More excello and more long blacks. And more lovely bacon. There is to be a cab in our future, for the less city driving by me, the better. We have a 10:30 appointment at the Justin Art House Museum, located in a suburb about 20 minutes from the Hotel Windsock*. Leah and Charles Justin built the house specifically to serve their collection of contemporary abstract art. Leah graciously greets us at the door, then ushers us into a black room with two rows of orange chairs. . Opposite, a wall-size video is playing: a four by eight grid of human figures dressed in black lies against a white background stretching and contracting, randomly contorting into fetal position. One by one each winks out, disappears. It’s mesmerizing at first.

By now ten of us are seated in the orange chairs, with Charles leading us in a stiff discussion about what we see. Then we move up a flight of stairs to a red room filled with black-and-white paintings. Each piece merits a thorough discussion. I’m enjoying this. Close reading or close looking is all the same exercise to me – brain drawing: filling in blanks or turning over an image to see the bottom or listing synonyms or making educated guesses. Fun. Some of the work the Justins have collected is truly lovely. I’m the only man in the audience: Ali’s the only person under 50.

After this lively exchange, we adjourn to their apartment on the top floor, where a bountiful spread of canapés covers the dining table. It’s a gorgeous, light-filled space with bright colors and art everywhere. Clearly, they love what they’re doing. They don’t throw great wads of cash around; most of the pieces cost in the range of several thousand dollars. Their eye is highly personal, yet acute and practiced. A house museum, what a concept. Back to the Windsor for lunch and a rest.

Late in the afternoon, Ali and I walk to the State Library of Victoria to find the death mask and armor (!) of Ned Kelly, the last (d. 1880) and most famous bushranger and folk hero (and eloquent psychopath). A lot of space here is devoted to this outlaw and murderer. The armor, for God’s sake, the armor. In their final showdown with the law, he and his gang wore ungainly, patently ridiculous, iron get-ups made from ploughs and boiler plate. Very Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’m sure the two of us haven’t seen the last of Mister Kelly.

Ned Kelly is but one element of the encyclopedic display in this fourth floor gallery that wraps around the vast dome of the Library’s Main Reading Room. Looking down, wooden tables surround a large podium arrayed in a snowflake pattern. Students peer into laptops. Ali finds more reading material in the Library’s bookstore. So do I.

Dinner options in Melbourne are dauntingly multitudinous. This is a sophisticated town in so many ways. I shepherd us toward Cookie, which the guidebooks all agree is a decent Thai establishment. First, it doesn’t seem to be at the address given. Ha! It’s on the first (second) floor. And Second, seating is mystifying; we inadvertently seat ourselves in the ‘reservations-only’ section and get shooed to the bar. Oh, the hipster hubbub. After fumbling over the menu which promises much savory goodness, it became apparent the ordering process takes place at the bar. How many challenges do we have to overcome in order to get fed? The bartender tends to us pretty quickly. He’s chatty and kindly with colorful arms. The food is delicious and the hipster/kitsch Indochinese decor endearing.

* When Ali and I traveled in Sicily two years ago, the curious prevalence of windsocks became a recurring joke. And obviously a joke that can withstand a good belaboring.

 

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Tuesday, 20 March

I slept uneasily due to fretfulness. Boy, is that a fucking waste of time and energy. Stepping out of the hotel and turning the corner reveals a café that advertises an ‘excello’ breakfast, the main ingredients of which are fabulous coffee and BACON. I pledge allegiance to Australian bacon. What it might lack in ‘crispy’, it more than makes up in ‘porky’.

We amble down to the National Gallery of Victoria, the NGV, to see what we might see. A wonderful and exhaustive exhibit of art and artifacts from Australia’s colonial past, 1770-1861, fills the museum. Much of what’s here belongs to the period before Melbourne was founded in 1835. The profound strangeness of pre-colonial Australia and the implacable cultural juggernaut of Britannia fascinates, repels, and discombobulates in equal measure. Right as we enter, a long row of Aboriginal shields sets a tone of resistance that colors the whole history lesson. Then, on the third floor, current Aboriginal artists have been asked to respond to the story below and what we see is fierce, funny, and furious. In the museum store we discover many beauties. Look! Dame Edna potholders on sale! Now they belong to me.

Heading back to the hotel, we detour up Hosier Lane, a back alley and graffiti heaven. A fellow on a cherry picker is putting the finishing touches on an enormous portrait of Biggie Smalls, the one with the crown. Groups of schoolkids are hanging out, fooling around and smoking or texting and just being cool by association. Ali is most impressed. We fade back to the Windsor to put our feet up and our heads down. I need this. Thus rested, we go in search of more postage; quite a flurry of postcard composition has been going on at the dining room table.

The true nature of our present mission is to buy sheets and towels for our forthcoming voyage on the Murray River. The houseboat we’ve rented won’t supply linen. A nearby Target has just what we’re looking for. Heeding the muse of practicality, a small suitcase gets bought to carry our burgeoning tchotchke collection.

Consolidating our purchases in the handy little suitcase, we roll on down the street looking for some place for dinner.A stylish-looking Italian bistro beckons. Yeah, but sometimes stylish only pretends to have a decent kitchen. So what: I’m starving. We fall for the tasting menu, which is very good until it sucks.

Goodnight.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Monday, 19 March

God, what a cozy night! The elemental wind raised a ruckus and rattled the windows, but I slept protoplasmically due in part to my nocturnal Australian poetry ritual. Many swagmen doing jolly and unjolly things. Breakfast is served up at the café at nine o’clock. Long blacks and flat whites all around, plus the settling of last night’s bill.

Ali and I stow our bags and walk the grounds. We climb the tight spiral of the lighthouse stairs and peer into the dark horizon. This vantage offers us the opportunity to flip the bird at the elbow-y couple who pushed us out of the way on their way down the stairs. They’re taking each other’s picture standing in front of the lighthouse. I hope you like your tainted souvenir!

This lightstation on Cape Otway has been, and still is, vital in keeping ships off the rocks. The Bass Strait, separating Tasmania from the mainland, is one hundred and sixty miles of treachery, treacherous not because of its width, but its relative shallowness and the pounding of the Roaring Forties, the perpetual westerly gale of this latitude in the Southern Hemisphere. Last night’s storm really dramatized the importance and majesty of this lonely place. Stepping inside the station’s telegraph office and cottage, which operated for about seventy years, gave insight on this isolated, crazy, little community at the end of the world. People in thrall to the elements.

Then, we’re off to complete the Great Ocean Road, with Melbourne our destination. From here on, the road becomes pretty hair-raising; for instead of winding along to top of bluffs, the bluffs are gone and it’s all hairpins on steep slopes that slip into the sea. I drive with all the power vested in me. We stop for lunch in Apollo Bay, a beach resort town just starting to nod out after the high season. After the meal, we poke around the shops. I find a clever and handsome garment, a navy-blue cotton jacket that zips up the side, the purchase of which supports the tagging of Great White sharks. Shark tagging: now there’s a job.

Prior to Melbourne we intend to visit the National Wool Museum in Geelong. For almost one hundred years Australia was the world’s primary source for wool and Geelong its main manufacturing and export center. The centerpiece of the Museum is an operational 1910 carpet loom, the most spectacular piece of machinery I have ever seen, with the possible exception of the Mighty Wurlitzers at Radio City Music Hall. It’s bigger than a bus. Seven colors of yarn (each color unreeling from forty big bobbins) stream into an incomprehensibly complicated loom and out rolls an exquisite runner called Manor House. The museum covers every possible aspect of the wool industry. Now I know what a teasel is and exactly what it does. It’s my secret.

Thus begins the final leg of our journey to the big city. I’m driving and, while Ali’s navigational skills are peerless, this is freeway and city traffic with conflicted signage, so – tension. We pull up to the Hotel Windsor emotionally drenched. The guy at the reception looks at us like we have multiple heads. “You’re in the Duke of Windsor suite? That books for $2000 a night.” “Well,” I reply, “I reserved it online six months ago. I got a discounted rate.” “It’s my favorite room in the hotel,” he said, softening a bit. The suite has a living room with a fireplace. And a goddamn dining room. The second bedroom, though, is ridiculous, sparer than a dorm room; a single bed, a fold-top desk, and a safe. That’s it. No chair. Most likely, it had been a dressing room back in the days of multiple suitcase travel. Needless to say, our new digs are just a little de trop. Ali claims the big bedroom, though I appeal to her generosity to share some closet space.

I enjoy booking a grand hotel once a trip, because nothing speaks to the romance of travel like a lobby with a grand staircase. The Windsor was built in 1884 and is slowly being restored to its High Victorian glamour. It’s the last 19thcentury hotel of its size and reputation operating in Australia. The Constitution of Australia consolidating the seven colonies was drafted here in 1898, no doubt because the hotel sits right opposite the Old Parliament building. One fascinating note: Shortly after it was built, it was bought by a leader of the temperance movement and renamed ‘The Grand Coffee Palace’.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Sunday, 18 March

Not-so speedy getaway. Ali slept shitty. No spiders, just exogenous crap. A short walk from the hotel (after an epic conversation with the proprietors – last night’s many bushfires further inland, the possum family in their roof at home, tourist season in Port Fairy, the Great Ocean Road), we nail a hearty breakfast and some postage stamps and are on our way.

The Hyundai passes many cows, a prelude to entry into Warrnambool (pronounced – Warnable), home to CheeseWorld, a major roadside attraction dedicated to curds and, probably, whey. The Uebergang family has been local milk moguls for quite a few generations and pride themselves particularly on their milkshakes. We depart with much cheesy swag and milk moustaches on our faces.

Warrnambool’s the western terminus of the Great Ocean Road (actually Portland is, but nevermind). We’re driving that train, high on, um, cheese beverage. Along the GOR there are many scenic turn-offs with paths to promontories. The storm clouds that threatened earlier blow away all of a sudden, but the wind does not subside. The true magic of the day becomes apparent at the Bay of Islands, our first overlook. We stand on a great bluff with a panorama of scudding clouds and frantic teal blue surf that batters golden limestone towers before expiring on an inaccessible beach. The sunshine and bluster could not be more bracing. The more easterly we drive, the more formations to stop and gape at. Particularly striking is London Bridge, which had been a double-arched peninsula until the landward arch collapsed stranding two hikers in the 90s.

The final group of towers is the famous Twelve Apostles. Simple observation discloses four and a half Apostles. Apparently, this is the third most popular attraction in Australia, after the Sydney Opera House and Uluru. Busloads of heedless wankers disgorge here, stalling in the middle of the walkway to obliviously wave their selfie sticks. A smidgen of superficial guidebook research reveals that the original name for the Apostles was Sow and Piglets.

We’re cranky now. Reconnoitering the seaside hamlet of Port Campbell for sustenance proves fruitless as the town is suffering from a power outage. The wind today has been relentless, more challenging than we knew. We rip into the remaining banana bread. The turnoff to the Cape Otway Lightstation winds through temperate rain forest. The eucalypts here are astoundingly tall and slender, with scant foliage. Their white bark stands in stark contrast to the blue blue sky and the canopy bows and ripples like a vast curtain of gray-green lace. The road has become unsealed due to ongoing construction/reconstruction. We are undaunted, despite the Hyundai’s modest transmission. We know mud: this ain’t no MUD. We arrive at the gate just as the guy is shutting and locking it. But. But. But. It’s only 3:30. Apologetically, he explains that they’re closing the road on account of mud-related trauma.

So, we’re in, yet we have no dinner, having had no lunch. Kindly staff gives/sells us a couple chicken-y wraps and a pasta salad left over in the café’s larder. We’ve brought a bottle of Pellegrino along, thank God. The wind blows and blows, but we sleep very soundly.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Saturday, 17 March

We break our fast with French press coffee and Adelaide’s banana bread, which is better the second day. As I’m dumping out the coffee grounds, the glass insert slips into the sink and shatters. Shit. I leave $30AUD under a pile of the remains. We’re ready to go in jiffy. Alice, though, is profoundly grumpy, no – fixated. Her sleep was disrupted by the discovery of a ‘fist-sized’ spider on the wall on her way to the bathroom. Australia’s poisonous spiders may be small, but the big ones will give you a coronary. Perhaps to distract her, I remind her of our commitment to the Naracoorte Caves. I hear they have serious bats. Bats = mammals that fly. We subsequently enroll our bunny-asses on the 11:30 Bat Cave tour. The bats are not actually visitable, for repeated human intrusion would bring a quick end to the bat habitat. However, there’s a constant video feed from their cave, so our tour can view the critters remotely in black-and-white while the ranger talks animatedly. Confirmed – bats are really strange and Batman jokes are lame.

From here, a rickety staircase leads down into the bats’ winter palace. It’s only perhaps thirty feet underground; so sunlight penetrates. Nevertheless the bats love it. On the ‘off season’ you can even get married in this cave. Most of the cave’s formations have been knocked off and purloined. The most intriguing theft, however, was that of the partly calcified body of an aboriginal stolen by a sideshow impresario in the 19th century, returned, then re-stolen and never recovered. Periodically, paleontologists dig through the deep strata in the various caves here, uncovering hundreds of thousands of years of the fossil record to reveal skeletons of extinct megafauna, like the giant short-faced kangaroo and the marsupial lion, as well as countless smaller species.

Eastward Ho. Outside the town of Mount Gambier, is Blue Lake, a crater lake that turns an unearthly blue for five months of the year before reverting to steel gray. Yup, sure is weirdly blue, especially since we’ve got leaden overcast above us. We roll into Port Fairy in the late afternoon, acclimate to tonight’s digs, then stroll up the main street of this seasonal tourist town. For tonight’s meal, I hear Coffin Sally’s has good pizza.

Back at the hotel, I try to bring this thing up to date, but weariness prevails. Outside, however, some gents, not dudes, gents are having an animated and prolonged late-night chinwag. Fuck ‘em. Let the rain begin! Weather to sleep by.

 

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Friday, 16 March

So, I returned to the bakery to pick up breakfast and for the road, a picnic, and for future breakfasts, a half-loaf (better than none) of banana bread. The drive from Adelaide east to Coonawarra will take about four hours and we must get there before 5pm to retrieve the house keys being held at a general store. The plan is for me to rent Hertz’s latest car after breakfast and retrieve Ali and our belongings at the Fire Station.

Hertz politely downgrades my upgrade as I explain my reluctance to drive an SUV (or ‘Ute’ in Australian). They then decline to approve Ali as an alternate driver unless she’s present. Duh. My drive back to the Fire Station is a fucking cauchemar. Construction along the median of North Terrace has eliminated one’s ability to make a left turn anywhere. I make my way slowly and carefully as I futz with Google Maps on my lap and when I arrive I’m pretty fucking wound up. Ali’s ability to soothe fury has limits, which ironically helps me walk back this anger. Back to Hertz. Up a one-way street the wrong way. Fuck you all. Paperwork accomplished.

On the road, at last. The Hertz agent suggested turning off for a rest stop at a town called Hahndorf. It had been settled by Germans in the 19thcentury and was now an old agricultural town reimagined theme park-style to provoke spending on bullshit. We’re here before noon on a Friday and there’s not a parking space to be had. We end up gnawing on our sandwiches in a grocery store parking lot on the outskirts of town. Food brings a modicum of relief and we’re sailing down the highway again with the crew of the Rocinante (see: Leviathan Wakes, the audiobook).

The landscape of long, pale yellow slopes dotted with substantial trees gives way to the green geometries of vineyards. Because of the perfect climate and soil across southern Australia, its wines have garnered a world-class reputation. We pass the entrance to the Naracoorte Caves, vowing to return tomorrow. For many kilometers, this road cuts through endless rows of grape vines, hemmed at each shoulder by luscious hedges of red floribunda roses.

It’s about a quarter to five when I pull the car in front of the Coonawarra Store after slowly passing by once, as if casing the joint. “I thought that was you,” says the brown-haired lady behind the counter. “We got here as fast as we could,” I reply. When we locate the house, we can’t seem to find the door to which the key applies. The front door is a total bust, but finally the door by the carport responds favorably to my fumbling. The house is a one-story sprawl, with four bedrooms, a ‘great’ room, a kitchen, dining room and a number of useless chambers furnished in useless eclecticism. And a single bath with corresponding commode booth, Aussie-style.

Ali suggests we cook ourselves supper, so we hop in the Hyundai and head for the IGA in Penola, the next town over. Spaghetti Fiesta! I fix dinner and run a load of wash while Ali sits transfixed by an incomprehensible game show called Think Tank, which may be the mutant offspring of Hollywood Squares, Jeopardy, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I poke my head in periodically, only to be mystified. Dinner is carbo-yummy. Somehow, it has become nighttime. I arrange the damp laundry on a drying rack and retire with my copy of 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Thursday, 15 March

Because we bought ground coffee last night, I could French-press something semi-decent to start my day. A good bakery a couple of blocks up O’Connell Street makes a fine flat white and toasts the banana bread. I want to go to there.

Adelaide is one of the few Australian cities without a convict history. It was laid out by idealists in the early 19th century in a figure-eight pattern, two urban centers, South and North, surrounded by a serpentine of parkland. The Fire Station Inn is in North Adelaide, while the institutions of commerce and learning are a twenty-five minute walk downhill, in South Adelaide. Like many cities in Australia, Adelaide suffered post-war indignities as gorgeous homes and mercantile buildings were replaced by blocky eyesores. We pass what used to be a hospital with turrets and balconies and elaborate gingerbread filigree. Under one dormer, stone letters declare – Elder Laboratory. It speaks to me.

We’re aiming for the Art Gallery of South Australia, which, I believe, has a show up from Musée d’Orsay. On the way, we step into a used bookshop chockablock full of old Aussie tomes. I find my way to the fiction section and discover a signed first edition of Edmund White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples. I’ll take you home, I will. The proprietor feels compelled to tell us about a going-out-of-biz sale that their second location is having. He expounds at length concerning the directions to this gold mine of weary titles. We give him our puppy-like attention, then continue on to the Art Gallery, drained of our humanity.

This may be why an eager docent pegs us as two people in need of a hyper-detailed schematic for navigating the Art Gallery’s collection. He marks a route on the map with a dotted line that loops over itself as it wanders from floor to floor. It seems the Parisian treasures won’t show up until the end of the month. We were misinformed. The current show moves through the galleries thematically, one high-toned concept after another – Death, Rapture, Toil, etc. Goddamn, if this doesn’t work in an entertaining and surprising fashion. Most of the work is Australian with a smattering of ‘school of – ’ European pieces. We have a great old time.

Ali turns and asks, “Where’s your book?” “Oh, shit. I left it in the bathroom by the entrance.” Phew. It’s still there in its brown paper wrapping. Some light lunch is enjoyed on the patio and we stroll a little further down North Terrace to Ayers House, home of Sir Henry Ayers, for whom that Rock was named. He was a 19th century immigrant Irishman made good, becoming a copper baron, politician, and knight. The house has been restored with care and affection. It’s a modest (Think Graceland, but with a ballroom), two-story High Victorian home. I love house tours; this one is self-guided. Throughout the house, they’ve encouraged school children to leave comment cards by the exhibits that intrigue them. “I want to live in this room for a week.” “Where is the refrigerator?” “This dress would fit my mum but my dad wouldn’t like it.”

Time for a little shopping. Walking down the Rundle Street pedestrian mall, the bistros and hip clothing stores gradually succumb to brand retailers. We slip into one store with its own brand of funky clothing. Ali finds a terrific dress with a recurring Godzilla pattern. Very flattering and nerdy: the pirate bunny one, not so much. For me, there’s a jaunty, black watch cap. Finding a restroom in this maelstrom of commerce is not easy, but we do. Also, more coffee. Also, a 1500-piece jigsaw puzzle.

This time of day, finding a cab requires dexterity and perseverance. After a few false starts, we’re on our way back to the Fire Station Inn to put our feet up. A good Indian restaurant a few blocks north on O’Connell beckons. Meanwhile, I’ve done a load of whites for the third time due to my inability to understand how a goddamn washer/dryer combo works. If I could only make it stop.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Wednesday, 14 March

I wake up at 2am and can’t get back to sleep. This bed is an anti-bed: it’s aggressively unsupportive, on top of which, the Australian hospitality industry seems to have no knowledge of, or use for, fitted sheets. This bottom sheet bunches at my midsection while coiling around my feet. I lie there hating all things as I pull my laptop onto my stomach, poke at my emails, and fume. I guess I’ll start my day with some instant fucking coffee and journal writing. My packing is brisk and resentful. We’re on the road by 6am, gassing up the muddy Kluger in the dark, then heading east into the rising sun. Ali drops off to sleep and I somehow keep the vehicle on the left. We arrive back in Alice with 90 minutes to spare. The Kluger that started out shiny gray now looks like Fred Flintstone’s adobe automobile. At the airport, we grab a free table at the quick sandwich place. While chewing thoughtfully, I turn to face a small commotion. A little boy with a handful of Smarties meets my gaze and wails, which amuses Ali greatly. Our flight is much shorter that I had imagined, which amuses me.

G’day, Adelaide. We cab to the Fire Station Inn. We will spend a couple of days here in Adelaide in a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of, yes, a restored firehouse. The flat on the first floor will let you sleep with the fire engine. Looking through the window at the fabulous red truck, I am blindsided by a boyish yearning to be a fireman. Everything is here, except the dalmation. An early and hearty dinner, then bed. I’m fucking pooped. Planes fly over our heads every ten minutes for about an hour, then stop. We’re in a flight path of Adelaide’s not-big airport.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Tuesday, 13 March

We are slow to get moving this morning due to the implacable nature of exhaustion. My left ‘index’ toe is fucked: I have the black toenail that runners can get from bad shoes (but I love my Cons) or just running. Coffee, please. At breakfast, we strike up a conversation with an Australian woman and her mum at the next table. She’s able to confirm the lame, semi-extortionary disappointment of some of the resort’s highly touted special event add-ons. Both tables kvell about the Outback Sky Journey, though.

Today we intend to hike a portion of the trails of Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas), a collection of massive sandstone domes forty-five kilometers west of Uluru. Visible across the scrub plain as a mass of purple mounds nestling and jostling under the fiery sun, the closer we get the more fantastic and breathtaking they become. But if God successfully made a loaf of bread with Uluru, he really botched his Kata Tjuta dinner roll experiment. The Valley of the Winds trail is closed (heat advisory), but we persevere. It turns out the 7K interior loop is what’s closed, but people nevertheless are hoofing it up to the first overlook. We hydrate along, submitting to the indignities of the flies. At the crest, we are treated to an epic vista of red domes receding one either side of a yellow-green and undulating valley. A German woman takes our picture and we hers. She agrees to remove her fly hat.

We are very satisfied to have tackled (nudged) the Olgas. Lunch we take at the Aboriginal Cultural Center between Uluru and Kata Tjuta. There are some helpful displays, enlightening and sometimes amusing. Aboriginal life has strange rules and customs, all of which relate directly to the harsh environment and the incomprehensible antiquity of the culture, and none of which have any Western analogs. I feel sort of abashed. At the store a small, square, painted panel, signed and everything, appeals to me. The artist also turned twisted sticks into wonderful snakes, but they are too complicated to transport. I buy Ali her very own bilby, a small, big-eared marsupial. It’s an early night because we have a long drive back to Alice tomorrow to catch the flight to Adelaide.

THE OUTBACK AND SO FORTH – Monday, 12 March

Well, today marks my thirty-third year of sobriety. So it’s fitting, I guess, that Alice and I should attempt to hike the six-mile perimeter of Uluru. This will be one of those ‘because it’s there’ endeavors. Uluru is a stupendous monolith though not the biggest in Australia; that’s Mount Augustus in WA. Photos give you some idea how solitary this colossus is, but in life, its immensity is so abrupt and discombobulating that the only solution is to abandon our adobe-encrusted Kluger in the parking lot, take couple deep breaths, and start walking. It’s a matter of adjusting to the scale of the thing.

In 1985, ‘ownership’ of the Rock was ‘returned’ to the aboriginal people. We look with scorn at the stream of white folks climbing the sandstone face of the Rock after being asked over and over again not to. I wish they’d rip out the cables and forbid those heedless fuckers from tromping over this ancient territory. And this October, they will.

Our pace is brisk as we round the first third, but we quickly realize that we got a late start. The day grows hotter and hotter and the path edges closer to Uluru itself, a sump of incandescence. Ali had filled her backpack with what I thought at the time was an excess of water, but she was so right. We’re rapidly evaporating. There’s only the weediest shade, which we cleave to at every opportunity. Along the way, various spots have been designated by the aboriginal people as sacred, sacred specifically to men or to women, or even to grandmas. Hikers are requested not to trespass and to refrain from photography. I aspirate one – two – three goddamn flies. Ali, not being a mouth-breather, is spared.

We are beginning to assume every distant juncture of rock, desert, and sky to be a major turn; perhaps the HALF-WAY POINT! Scoffing at other hikers is one way to buoy our spirits, and so is drinking water. Look! There’s a shelter with shade and a fucking map. We ARE half-way. Rejoice. It feels breezier on this side, though our path is much closer to the Rock. It’s hot to the touch. By the time we’ve determined that we’re in the final third, our asses are both dragging and sorry. Do we crawl across the parking lot to the car? No, but we’re completely glassy-eyed and wobbly in a jubilant way.

I can’t speak for Ali, but I collapsed on my bed. It took a supreme act of will to bend down and untie my sneakers. Supreme Act of Will #2 – shower. And then a nap. There’s a knock at the door. I rise from my horizontal, semi-comatose state and in bursts the mini-bar guy. He takes one look at me naked and vanishes. Oh, I’m awake: so awake in fact that only doing laundry could modulate this state of high alert. The front desk apologizes for the intrusion when I complain. They send us a plate of cheese.

After dinner, we are privy to the Outback Sky Journey, which is a pat description for two guys with powerful telescopes in a dark corner of the resort property. The Milky Way unfurls across the southern sky. The Centauri, Alpha and Beta, two bright stars in close proximity to one another, point to the Southern Cross, the North Star of the Southern Hemisphere. The constellation Orion’s visible, tilted in a crazy way, but Jupiter, the coy gasbag, remains hidden by a tree. Through the telescope, we are offered glimpses of nebulae (the middle point in Orion’s belt), star clusters, and the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small one, two small, irregular, nearby galaxies. The show is wonderfully entertaining and, like, cosmic.

Sleep.