I squint, rubbing my eyes as if the dust from the red desert had penetrated the windscreen and my sunglasses. But, no, I still can’t make it out. What is that up ahead?
I’ve been driving for miles. The road sign at Alice Springs read ‘Uluru 280 miles’. I must be about half way. Fast driving: there are no speed limits in this desert. The exhilaration of just putting your foot down: adrenaline pumping in tune with the loud music on the radio.
It’s not called the Red Centre for nothing. The soil is red for as far as the eye can see, but I’m surprised there is so much vegetation. Small trees, shrubs clinging precariously to the soil and the occasional flowering bush stain the land regularly.
Thank goodness for air conditioning. The air in the car is cool if not fresh, but can’t protect my eyes from the dazzle. Even with sunglasses firmly in place I still can’t make out that shape.
I hated Darwin. Punishing heat, flies and cockroaches. I swear I even saw, out of the corner of my eye, a bloke with corks on his hat. And I don’t blame him; it saves giving the Australian wave so often it feels as if your arm will drop off.
But one great thing about the Australian roads is the road signs. I just love the animal ones. I looked at the black silhouettes on the familiar yellow diamonds and had no idea what half the animals were. Okay, a kangaroo is easy enough, so are crocodiles. But what the hell were the others? More to the point how big were they? Perhaps, for all we knew, they were as tiny as mice but, like the processions of frogs we get in some parts of England, appear in vast numbers as certain times of the year.
Sadly, we soon learned their size from the roadkill. Wombats are big cuddly animals, Echidna’s are big porcupines that tiptoe slowly past on their claws as if the tarmac burns their feet, and platypuses are just ridiculous.
I’m beginning to brake now. I still can’t tell what’s ahead, but I’m not taking any chances.
I catch my breath. Camels? In Australia? I didn’t see any road signs for camels.
As I slow to a halt and shake my husband awake, the four spindly ships of the desert sail slowly to the side of the road. I get out of the car and the heat hits me like a road train. I move towards the animals, not knowing if they’re likely to attack: up close they’re enormous. They watch me suspiciously. “Mmm”, my husband says, looking bored, “Arabs bought them over to use to cross the desert before there were decent roads.” He goes back to sleep.
As I move to get my camera they take fright and gallop away. I never did get a picture of a camel in Australia.
And I’ve never seen a road sign for one either.