Ready to Roll

Finding a path to Ayers Rock

“Its all sorted, the fuels going back in and it starts every time”

They were the words we’d wanted to hear, albeit not too loudly with our slightly fuzzy heads.

It was 11am, the time we were supposed to be getting the car back to my mate Neil almost 500km away in Alice Springs. Instead, we were finishing up breakfast at the Ayers Rock Resort backpackers lodge near Uluru having been stranded overnight thanks to a worn out fuel pump on the Mitsubishi Pajero Neil had lent me.

We’d actually managed to make the most of a bad situation, although it cost a fair bit in beer. Having checked in at the lodge, we headed straight to the bar to drown our sorrows after a day in the outback we were better off forgetting. We are still pretty sure it was laughing at the Sorry book, letters from people plagued with bad luck after stealing rocks and sand from the sacred Uluru, that saw us copping our own major dose of bad luck by conking out right next to Ayers Rock.

A little reminder of our big problem…

Helping us drown our sorrows was Kurt, the mechanic who came to rescue us, and whose garage is the only one for some 500km or so. He came along to the pub with another mechanic from his garage, and spent some time talking and joking with us. It was a busy night – there were a number of tours staying at the place, so it was lively too. Kurt told us how his daughter was a supermodel, even appearing in issues of Vogue, and that his dad was someone who invented the famous road trains, the two or three trailer-long lorries that run up and down the country on the Stuart Highway. He also told us how breaking down in the outback could have been a lot worse – on a rough track some 300km away, he could still be the man called to fetch the stranded tourists, at a cost of more than $4 a kilometre! That’s the equivalent of around £750 before there’s any work done. Painful – and quite a bit more than a tow from the M1!

We actually did pretty well at turning a negative into a positive, with a great night all round. Dan and Laura treated me to drinks in return for stumping up the cash for the tow, and there were a fair number of tours staying at the resort, so it turned into a lively and entertaining evening.

It was a rude awakening the following morning, however, when despite being in a male dorm, someone, clearly on a dawn tour to Ayers Rock, decided it would be a great idea to start drying his hair with a hairdryer. Now, there are certain protocols to follow when it comes to backpacker dorm etiquette – mainly centred around not waking other people up. Both Dan and I woke up with the same reaction, firstly one of thinking it was a mixed sex dorm and wondering ‘what on earth do you think you’re doing at this ungodly hour making all that noise, go to the bathroom’, quickly followed by ‘you’re a bloke, what on earth do you think you’re doing with a hairdryer in a backpack’.

Kurt the mechanic, and our repaired rocket, as he called it

It was just before midday before Kurt picked us up and handed over the key to Neils car. Thankfully, it started like a dream, its V6 engine purring away, a sound we had been longing to hear just 24 hours before. It had come at a cost though – in the form of a bill for over $1,000 for the repairs. Neil had given me his credit card details, which was promptly dented. I still feel bad, although as Kurt said, the fuel pump had been on its way out and would have still happened even if Neil had come along on the trip with us.

Really sorry Neil…

For me, however, it felt like taking the school pet home for a weekend – it was always a nice thing to do, and great to have a little hammy running around for a few days, but there was always that risk that it would die on you, leaving you with the prospect of having to go back to lessons with a dead hamster carcass in a margarine tub. Never a good thing.

Thankfully, our loaned pet had been brought back to life by Kurt and his team, and before we left he proudly showed us a copy of Vogue magazine, complete with pages of full-page spreads showing his beautiful daughter modelling thousands of pounds worth of dresses. We all shook hands with him and he wished us well for our journey. He might have just made a pretty penny out of our bad luck, but he was a thoroughly nice bloke.

Dan and Laura on the walk around the base

Back on the road, we headed back to Uluru to finish off the day we had started before our bad luck hit. We went up to The Rock for the first time to see it close up, its surface a mass of layered sandstone with an incredible colour. It almost has the same colour and appearance of rusting metal, with millions of patches of rock peeling away in the scorching desert heat.

One of the sandblasted caves

Around the base are some amazing curved caves, blasted away by the forces of wind and sand being shot against the rock for thousands of years. Inside many of them, Aboriginal artworks still remain from the historical owners of the site, who to this day still regard the rock as one of their most sacred sites.

We found a watering hole at the base of Uluru – the rock becomes a mass of cascading waterfalls during the occasional rainstorm that passes through – and for many years, animals and humans have relied on it to survive. Below the surface, tadpoles thrive, a fantastic example of how life can begin despite the harsh, hot conditions this area is permanently subjected to.

The one thing I will say is that there is no shortage of flies in the area. The whole of the red centre is plagued by the things, but whereas normally you can bat them away, they are particularly persistent in this part of the world. Everywhere you see people, you see hands and arms being wafted around near a face. Its jokingly known as the Aussie Wave, and I was particularly good at it by the end of the morning. You do get used to the little blighters going into your nose, mouth and ears a little after a while, but its still a bit grim.

Flies. Buzz off.

With one last look at Ayers Rock from a viewing area, we climbed back in the car and made our way towards the Stuart Highway, where we’d find a turnoff north to Kings Canyon, another site of incredible beauty that is a must-see while in the area.

A last photo of us at Ayers Rock

The Rock disappears into the distance in the wing mirror

Before we reached the turnoff, we passed the man we’d seen walking and pulling a cart on the way to Uluru. We looked at each other in the car – even since we saw him two days ago, he’d walked miles. I was intrigued, and my journalist head went into action.

“I’m turning round to speak to him,” I told Dan and Laura, who were both as interested to find out his story.

Making a large turn in the middle of the desert highway, I doubled back and slowed down beside him.

“How far are you walking?” I shouted out of the lowered window.

At first he looked a little unsure of us, but in broken English I was sure I heard ‘to Europe’.

A combination of flies trying to attack me, trying to keep a lookout for cars and my general interest in this walking man meant it was much safer to pull off the road, so I went ahead of him and pulled onto the dusty run-off.

With Masahito Yoshida , who is walking around the world

I could see that the man was smiling, well tanned and sporting a hat. His bright green t-shirt was teeming with flies as he lifted his metal handlebar above his head and freed himself from his interesting life on wheels.

“I’m walking around the world, around our planet,” he said.

Masahito’s life in a cart

Suddenly, I knew this man wasn’t messing around. I looked at the wheels of his cart – they were bald. Stickers from across Europe and Canada were plastered all over it, beneath a tent and basic food supplies. I looked at his shoes, but they were surprisingly new.

“I’m from Japan,” he tells us.

“I have been walking for three years, through Europe, Canada and now through Australia. I want to see Ayers Rock,” he continues, with remarkable frankness.

We’re captivated. Before us is a real-life Forrest Gump, a man who turned his back on life at home and went for a walk. And just kept walking.

He handed me a card with his website blog address. His name is Masahito Yoshida, 30 years old, the same as me, but on an incredible journey of human endurance and achievement. He then asks if he can take our picture- our picture. Somehow, it felt strange meeting someone doing something so incredible, yet he was so happy to meet us.

He pulled out an expensive-looking digital SLR camera and says he’s taking photographs of the amazing people he meets on the journey, the people he says he would never had met had he not taken up his epic walk.

Masahito left his home in Japan in 2008 with the hope of changing his life. More than 22,400km and four continents later, we found him in the middle of his 4,200km walk to Darwin from Melbourne.

He has already walked from Shanghai in China, through through Asia and Europe, ending in Lisbon. In Bulgaria, while travelling through the mountains, he suffered frostbite that left him in hospital for eight days. In Russia he was punched in the face, in the Ukraine his rickshaw was stolen before being recovered by police, and in Canada he had to escape the advances of a hungry grizzly bear that sniffed out a sausage in his tent.

From Australia he will fly to Singapore and walk back to Shanghai, hoping to be back home by the end of the year. It really is an incredible story. One man, one planet, and his own thoughts while he walks around it for four years. A man who set out to cross the paths of other travellers, and while my journey will never come anywhere close to his feat, for just a few minutes I felt privileged that our paths had crossed.

I feel that more people should know about Masahito’s story – he hopes to release a book when he completes it, including photographs of all the people and places he’s come across. How on earth he manages to pluck up the willpower to wake up every morning and set off on yet another mammoth walk really is beyond me.

We asked if he needed any food or water, but he politely declined.

“Is there a supermarket at Ayers Rock,” he simply asked us.

Continuing his trek into the horizon

We told him there was, exchanged all of our details for his records, shook hands and he smiled as once again he lifted his cart handlebar over his head and walked off towards the horizon. I watched and admired him – its not everyday you meet someone who is walking around the world, and now we had been part of his story, just as much as he is part of ours. You can follow him and his journey at http://alkinist2.blog135.fc2.com/

Back in the car, Masahito’s story had reinvigorated our love of the journey. Alice Springs may have been more than 500km away still, but we were loving life on the road in the outback. The only problem now was that of time – it was late afternoon before we arrived at Kings Canyon, and we watched as the sun set over the deep red ridges.

The moon rises over Kings Canyon

We carried on to the Kings Canyon resort to get some fuel for the homeward leg of the trip. At $2.23+ a litre, its not cheap, so we filled the tank to three quarters and brushed off the advice from the attendant that we shouldn’t be driving through the outback after dark.

Kings Canyon

It was a fact that had been drilled into me in advice throughout backpacking guides and books, but I knew Neil needed the car in the morning. I rang him for advice.

“The only thing to be careful of is the wildlife. Kangaroos tend to get confused, and instead of jumping out of the way, they jump at you,” he said.

“Go steady and be on the lookout for all the creatures and you’ll be fine.”

What he didn’t realise was that I was taking a 200km dirt track back to Alice, a common road in the outback, but one that needed a lot of care during the day, let alone at night. In the pitch black night, with nothing around for miles, I turned the spotlights and full beam on and kept to a steady 80km/hr. It wasn’t long before we saw the first bit of wildlife on the road – dingoes. Then there was a camel. Then a family of kangaroos, all jumping around the road in no particular order, and not making much of an effort to get out of the way. Further along there were wild horses and cattle.

Emergency noodles for tea – sneaking into a campsite to use facilities!

Looking out for random Australian wildlife was only part of the task. Badly corrugated dust roads, potholes, sudden dips and sharp bends through mountains meant my driving ability was put to the test. Having never driven a 4×4 properly before, I quickly became accustomed to it.

After four more hours on the road, I noticed a problem. The fuel gauge had dropped to a quarter, and we were still some 120km away from Alice Springs. The map said there was a petrol station on the way. There was – but it was closed.

Noodle and leftovers time!

With 90km left to go, the petrol gauge was dropping ever lower. I dropped the car into two wheel drive mode, with a theory it would use less fuel, turned off all the air conditioning, and drove with my foot as light as a feather on the accelerator. I decided not to worry Dan and Laura too much about it, but then I had to break my silence.

“Guys, I’m a bit worried we’re not going to make it back,” I said.

“We really can’t have any more bad luck,” said Laura, telling us to think positive.

Thankfully we spotted this little Roo and his friends in time!

We continued past kilometre markers – 80km, 70km, 60km…by now the needle was about to hit the bottom. Any downhill stretch of road I coasted down, knowing it was taking us that little bit further to the Alice. We still had no phone coverage, no way of ringing for help if we became stranded, and we’d only passed six cars in the entire night of driving. And worst of all, I’d have to tell Neil of yet another calamity if the worst came to the worst.

50km, 40km, 30km…the distance markers continue passing at nervewrackingly slow intervals, made worse by how I was keeping speed down to conserve fuel.

“I’ve done a few 10k runs,” said Dan.

“I could run it from here if I had to,” he said, mentally preparing himself for a midnight jog for a Jerry can.

Suddenly, a red light appeared on the horizon – a radio mast in Alice Springs. We knew we were nearly back. Street lights began to appear, and then houses and other cars. We were running on vapours, but somehow, and against the odds if I’m honest, I’d managed to limp the gas-guzzling machine and its occupants back to safety, and a welcome drink at the fuel pump.

After three days, 1,414 kilometres of hard driving, a dodgy fuel pump and numerous bits of bad luck, we had made it back. The red centre and Ayers Rock were among the sights I was most looking forward to seeing, and they did not disappoint. A brilliant few days that we will all remember, not just for the magnificent views, but for the experiences we had all shared together. It might have been daunting to break down in the outback, stranding us hundreds of kilometres from base, or worried us that we’d run out of fuel, but we had got through it. And, on top of all that,  we met a man who was walking around the world.

Now, you don’t get that on the tour

Neil and his car…

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