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November 2008

Nicholas Hogg
Terra Incognita
16 June 2002

Dearest Monique, I’m alone but not afraid. Not afraid, because with a pen and paper, the means to write a letter, I have a lightning rod to your soul. Company and love in the middle of a desert.
sky 336
Extract from the novel SHOW ME THE SKY

Last night I camped between the Aboriginal communities of Arlparra and Alpurrurulam, at least 200 km from the next fuel stop. And this is the real red centre, dinosaur country, a landscape forged by the weight of ancient seas. I expect to see a stegosaurus snuffling through the bush any moment.

I slept on the groundsheet of the tent, dreams filled with shooting stars and thoughts of you. The warmth of the rising sun, along one side of my body, was as though you’d eased into my sleeping bag during the night.

Life was good. I stoked the embers and boiled water for a coffee. I was riding across a barren and desolate road to you. How precious the world had become. Tiny birds chirped in the branches of a red river gum. Lizards scurried between the dunes. From the simmering distance, a mob of kangaroos watched as I checked the oil, softened the shocks, adjusted the panniers and rang the air with a pitch-perfect engine.

Fast and fearless, I rode all morning, slipping and sliding on the drifted sand. Rested at midday beneath another gum, drank a litre of water and again checked the oil and panniers. After an hour soft sand turned to rutted dirt and potholes. Vibrations rattled every bone in my body, and I stopped once more to check the fittings, worried the bike would disintegrate in my hands. Every nut and bolt had been loosened by the shuddering ride. The engine block was only a few turns from falling off the frame.

I scanned the lie of a dried-up creek bed, smoothed by the last rains that washed along the narrow, shallow banks. But the creek was omitted from my map, so I climbed the higher branches of the gum and followed the watermark to the horizon. The compass needle and creek pointed the same direction as the highway. I declared the ghost of a river my road and revved up the engine.

You’d be the first to warn about veering from the known track in a featureless landscape. I can hear you now, cursing the brash Englishman, telling me that the testosterone adventurer is doomed.

You’re right.

I checked the compass again and eased back the throttle. The packed sand of the creek bed rode smoother than the corrugated track, only the occasional rock or dead branch to avoid. I wove the natural highway, content, even a little smug, that others would struggle on the bombed-out road while I took the scenic route.

Though what others? I’d passed a German couple in a 4WD yesterday, sharing pleasantries and a peanut butter sandwich, all three of us disappointed to have converged, to have our hectare of personal space intruded.

But today, no one. The world my own.

After an hour I stopped and again checked the compass and the direction of the creek. Then, for the last time I rode on, cruising my private highway, a happy fool beneath the searing sun, painting pictures of Paris, making love to you in a rented room.

And then suddenly the earth was in my mouth. The sky beneath my feet. After a slow, rocky section, the creek bed had smoothed out again. Yes, I was riding too fast, but this wasn’t why I crashed. I crashed because I’d seen death, a skeleton, a fossil of a human being suspended in the eroded bank. In the split second I glimpsed the corpse, I thought it some desert soul escaping from the underworld. I tensed with shock, clipped a boulder and flew. Bits of metal and broken mirror glittered in the air. I saw myself tumble and roll like a stand-in double, the slow-mo scene as bike and body crumpled.

That machine comes to rest with the ousted rider is the curse of the motorcyclist. No matter what speed or terrain they part upon, the smash and tumble always seems to end in an embrace of engine and body.

I was pinned by my bike in the dried-up creek. When I came round, I thought I was dead. How could I be in my body and staring at my head, set down on the sand?

I was looking at the empty helmet, wrenched from my skull by the force of the impact, a fist-sized gash in the left side. Trapped, no ambulance blaring to the rescue, I was happy.

Happy to be alive.

Until I wrestled the engine from my dislocated shoulder, turned and scrabbled to see the dead wasn’t chasing, I didn’t even feel the break in my shin.

I dropped to my knees in pain. I swore so loud that if the rotten body possessed a soul, it would’ve been shaken from the 12 bones. When I grasped it was nothing but hollow marrow, I cursed the empty sky, stranded and broken. I was sat between the body and bike, gripping fists of dirt. Yes, close to crying.

Before I worked out how to resolve a wreck into rescue, I wanted to know who had ended my adventure, who had delayed my rendezvous with you.

I crawled across the creek bed, the two ends of my tibia grating, scorching pain, my separated shoulder useless. I should’ve been taking stock of the bike, my food and water, painkillers. But I wanted to touch this attempt at resurrection, confirm it was real, no trick of the desert on a lonely mind.

All flesh was gone, polished by the soil and its hungry microbes, the wind and the rain and the flaming sun. Though the earth still claimed the bones, something of a life remained in the angle of resting. The left leg, arm, shoulder and ribs lay wedged in the dirt. The distended fingers of the right hand reached out from the bank, almost a Michelangelo touch of the light, but clutching, and missing, at something or someone.

I almost shook hands, welcomed myself to the dead. But this wasn’t my final resting place, and to greet this corpse would be to make myself too comfortable. Instead I ran my fingertips along the femur, the blade of the pelvis and the knobbly spine. Feeling this relic of a life, all my own pain was suspended. Who was buried here? Why? And for how long? I thought Aborigines burned their dead.

Then I saw it, glinting from inside the ribcage. A silver cross. I reached into the heart space, and delicately pinched the flash of silver between my thumb and forefinger. Then I pulled my hand back, slowly, careful as a man defusing a bomb, conscious I was defiling the dead, robbing a grave.

I held it to the light as though it would deliver me from the accident, to a hospital bed with crisp white sheets, into your arms. I turned it between my fingers and rubbed the precious metal – solid silver, crudely finished with a loop at the top to thread on to a necklace. The band must have decayed, and the cross fallen through the ribs like a coin through a grate. I scratched away the covering of clay, blew off the dirt to find engraving on the reverse: By order of the London Mission Society, 1834.

A dead reverend in the desert. And he had God on his side. I’m sure the skull was grinning, mocking the living. But then all our gleaned jaws seem to smile at eternity. ‘I’m still in better fucking shape than you,’ I shouted, the words lost in all that sky.

I crawled back to the wreck, my life. Suddenly the pain returned. My shin felt as though an axe were embedded halfway between the knee and ankle, and my shoulder felt plain wrong, the ball free of the socket. And I was healthier than my machine. No, the bike would never be ridden again. The twisted forks pressed the front wheel against the engine block. Fuel leaked from the ruptured tank and spare jerry can. The exhaust had come clean off, and tiny fragments of the wing mirrors sparkled on the red sand. If it were a horse, it would be shot.

After I pulled the First Aid kit from the top box and popped a handful of painkillers, I hauled the panniers clear of the mangled metal and stuffed a torn T-shirt into the petrol tank.

Yes, I flicked my lighter and lit the fuse. The bike was dead. I wanted it to have a glorious, flaming end. Not decades of rust in the desert wind. In Easy Rider, Peter Fonda burns out like a landed comet, a ball of fire billowing across the highway. This is the best part of the film, when the dream of freedom is granted.

Insanity, I can hear you exclaim, sacrificing my bike. Like a Bedouin killing his camel, a sailor sinking his ship. But the plume of smoke is a beacon, an SOS on the cloudless blue. Just as I dropped down into a small trench, the tank exploded like a cannon.

The race for my survival has begun.

© Nicholas Hogg 2008

Win a copy of this book - entries close 5 August 2008