Two good mates take on an outback odyssey
TURNING off your car ignition is not usually a big deal but at the end of an epic road trip across Australia, arriving back in your home driveway becomes a poignant moment of reflection.
What started as a wild idea over a beer with a mate - to escape our busy, domestic lives for two weeks and roam the outback - had become reality and now it was over.
While many just talk and dream about the great, Australian road trip, we did it - a daunting drive from our homes in Mittagong, south of Sydney, all the way to the top of Kakadu - and back. All up, 8600km, including side trips - all in 15 days.
Day one of our daring adventure began with a restful bush camp beside the Murray at Robinvale before we pushed north-west through Renmark, Burra, Port Augusta and Cooper Pedy along the seemingly endless, black belt which connects Australia's top and bottom - the Stuart Hwy.
The lure of the open road and the big horizons of the outback was compelling.
Two mates chasing freedom and adventure on a 'boy's trip' across the continent. As we ate up the 'ks', we played music, loudly, solved world problems, shared life stories, laughed till it hurt, daydreamed out the window, ate too many roadhouse meals, slapped together sausage camp dinners in world record time, toasted sunsets over campfires, stayed in some dodgy motels when camping seemed too hard, shaved our full heads of hair as a desert dare, encountered swarms of flies immune to Aeroguard, visited pubs in the middle of nowhere and met so many colourful characters along the way - each with an emotive back story worthy of reality TV treatment.
And when something interesting grabbed our attention, like the eye-dazzlingly white expanse of Lake Hart, a huge salt lake near Woomera, we stopped and stared in awe.
While our destination was Kakadu and its wild swimming holesour trip was all about the journey - the magic of unfolding scenery, the overwhelming scale of our great continent, the simple joys of moments unplanned and our own pursuit of happiness. Each day promised new discoveries.
Finally crossing into the Northern Territory, we treated ourselves to a bit of luxury with a night at the Double Tree by Hilton in Alice Springs, with its soft beds, fine dining restaurant, inviting resort pool and relaxing jacuzzi. Back to camping, we pushed further north past the intriguing Devil's Marbles boulders at Tennant Creek, with a soak in the tropical, thermal pools at Mataranka before arriving at tropical Katherine for a two-day stay at the boutique Cicada Lodge at Nitmiluk Gorge.
The highlight here was a Nitmiluk Tours helicopter ride to a remote waterfall and swimming hole in the gorge and a dip at the paradisiacal Southern Rockhole waterfall.
And then, far from home at the other end of Australia, we were in Kakadu - Australia's largest national park, embracing 20,000 square kilometres of timeless landscapes, fresh and lush and pumping with water after the summer wet.
Based at Cooinda Lodge for two nights, we busily bagged a series of experiences we had dreamt about - swimming at impossibly beautiful waterfalls - Motor Car Falls was our favourite - seeing crocodiles on the Yellow Water Billabong and flying over spectacular Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls with Kakadu Air - another must if you want to take in the majesty of Kakadu but are short of time - or need to drive over 4000km back home as we did.
While our trip north was filled with anticipation, our journey back south the same way was more melancholic and on the last night, camped by the Murray again near Mildura, we relaxed by the campfire and reflected on our great escapade, vowing - from now on - to feel the freedom of the open road every year. In the endless pursuit of happiness.