The Australian motorway. Bruce Highway. Northern Queensland. Shimmering pools of mirage water. Our car’s front wheels seemed almost to splash through them.


South through this part of Queensland there is a long flat sun-scorched savanna of dry washes and sandy gulches, dry riverbeds and dusty grasses, and we passed through it at top speed, testing our new red rental car, stretching its legs a bit.

We drove by a man wearing a pith helmet, suspenders over a white T-shirt, and Ugg boots: riding atop a penny-farthing, one of those 19th century bicycles with the huge front wheel – the kind you need a ladder to get on – pedaling furiously.

There was a straight line of shimmering road. (Spotted on a bumper sticker: “Of course I’m drunk – I’m not a stunt driver.” And another: “Don’t laugh – Your daughter could be inside.” The famous Aussie sense of humo(u)r.) There was a cemetery of dead bleached trees frozen in macabre poses. There were riparian lines of living trees that looked like cottonwoods, cutting through a parched plain of stunted brush and meter-, or meter-and-a-half-tall termite mounds. The mounds looked like stalagmites. The brush and the small trees seemed to gasp for water.


There was a broken line of ruddy hillsides on the western horizon. There was a hot sirocco-like wind feeding the fire of burning canefields that smoked in the middle distance.

There were smoking forests too, burning across shoulders of brown-red hills. There was grove after grove of roadside eucalypts with blackened trunks, standing charred amid plumes of smoldering earth. All undergrowth was gone. We didn’t know if this was planned or wild fire. With bushfires blazing everywhere – but especially in Victoria and Tasmania – it’s hard to know what’s intentional and what has the potential to wreak havoc. Over Townsville, Queensland’s Second City, there was a pale gauzy haze from the constant conflagration.

Forming a backdrop to the metropolis was a ridge of low rocky hills. There was a sparseness of trees that resembled the hair on a mangy dog.


We came thundering like a train out of the desert at top speed through pit stops and roadhouse oases like Gumlu and Ilbilbie and out again in a flash. Back into the Wasteland. There was a salt smell to the air as we realized the sea was only a mile or two to our left.