It’s Eric’s turn to learn how to drive on the left, and it appears he’s drawn the short straw as it’s raining heavily and steadily and the highway winds sharply up into the granite mountains just outside town. After a half hour or so the terrain evens out into… yellow grass crossed with eucalyptus and dotted with sheep, only wet this time. We cross the Murray River (Australia’s biggest) and begin our long south-easterly journey by passing the Coorong, a 90-mile-long salt lagoon separated from the ocean by a long string of dunes. The landscape is marshy, washed white and gray in the rain. Midway down the Coorong we stop for a rest break at the first motel we find. The burly proprietor eyes us suspiciously; as the owner of the only motel on this desolate stretch of road he knows darn well we’re just there to use the bathroom. We emerge to order a few beers at the bar, and he starts to warm up to us, trading stories about his experiences driving on the right-hand side in the States.
The Coorong gets to be very salty in the summer months, when the trapped seawater evaporates and leaves the minerals behind. The breeze coming off the lagoon is toxic to plants and the tea trees to the left of the road are bent inland, bleached and crooked like witch skeletons.
We pass plenty of kangaroo-crossing signs, and a lot of flattened roos, but we see no live marsupials. These animals must be like deer in the States – all over the road at night, but never around in the day, when you’d be happy to see one.
We reach Robe about a half hour after Kingston. This is another fishing and vacation town, with blue-green ocean water and a few boats anchored off the beach. The rain has let up but it’s still overcast and gusty, so we park at a pub by the water to check out the room rates and ease our thirst from the drive. It’s a sparse betting crowd in the bar area; there are several horse races on the TV screens ringing the room, and the locals are watching intently. Even the women look salty. Melanie and I order half-pints from the bartender and Eric finds some freak green bottled liquor drink in a refrigerator behind the bar. We all tear into little packs of cashews.
For whatever reason we pass on this particular hotel and head off to explore the little town on foot. Not a lot of action going on, and it seems like a lot of pubs are shuttered – not out of business, just closed right now. It starts to rain a bit and we decide on the , a little courtyard of cottages behind a restaurant and bottle shop. We get a 2-bedroom loft for $A140, with a table on the ground floor perfect for cards. The restaurant serves dinner from six PM until eight, which fits fine into our schedule… tonight. As we freshen up the local news tells us that the rain has started again in the Northern Territories and Queensland, and those areas are experiencing the worst flooding in fifty years. We count ourselves lucky to be dealing with intermittent squalls and this breeze.
We load up on good seafood in the dark dining area by the bar. We’ve seen some Local Hero-style businesses on this trip, where one guy acts as the innkeeper, chef, camel driver and chief accountant, and when the bartender directs us outside and around the building to the bottle shop we expect him to sneak through a hidden door and be waiting for us in the store.
He just follows us out into the rain. The secret door doesn’t work. We pass on the Lemon Ruskis for one night and stock up on ale and Kahlua drinks.
There’s no stereo in the loft but there is a clock radio, and I just so happen to have one of those FM car adapters for CD players. I rig my new minidisc player to run all distorted through the clock radio, and we play cards to the heavy drinking mix I put together for this kind of night. Lots of Guns ‘N Roses, Local H and yes, AC/DC. Surprisingly nobody stops by the open door to tell us to shut the hell up.
We sleep drunkenly to the sound of rain and the wind knocking the low branches of a nut tree against the roof above our beds.