Exclusive Look Inside: Outback Outlaw

Outlaw of the Outback

The world blurred sideways in the dark of the night. Neon and stars spun in a great kaleidoscope of colours. Liquor and beer churned in his stomach, and though deep inside of him he was still as sane and rational a man as he always had been, the only sound he could force out of his mouth was wild laughter.
Paul Onions was on his holidays.

The first few days had been the dullest, arriving in Sydney, scouting around for a place to sleep, then scouting again for a place to sleep that cost half as much so there’d be twice as much money for beer. The young air-conditioning engineer had managed to acquire a six-month travel visa to Australia, and he meant to see as much of that beautiful country as possible before his visa ran out. 

For the past few weeks, he’d stayed in a backpacker’s hostel in Kings Cross, Sydney. He liked that it cost only pennies to stay there. Liked that it was central enough that he could get right out the door and see the sights when he rolled out of bed. It sure beat camping out or sleeping rough, like he’d been worried he might have to on occasion. But the best part of a hostel, anywhere in the world, was the friends that you made while crammed into a space with new and different people. Given the limited space, everyone pretty much slept on top of one another and you couldn’t help but see and hear each other’s comings and goings. It was like a boarding school dormitory for adults, so it was a small wonder that despite the language barriers, everyone ended up as friends. Or if not friends, at least close enough to go out for a drink with when nobody else was about.

By day they all went out sightseeing—visiting the local landmarks and wonders of the world—but by night when all the lazy Europeans finally rolled out of their beds and hangovers, the party started. Shots and beers. Cigarette smoke permeated every fibre of his clothes and every strand of his hair. Music pulsing and thumping to the rhythm of his heartbeat. There was nowhere in the world with a nightlife like Sydney’s, and they were all only going to be there once in their lives. Was it any wonder that when the time came to the party, they partied hard?

Partying was a little bit too hard for Paul’s bank account, unfortunately.

He’d been saving up for a year to fund this backpacking trip, keeping every penny he made working part-time while he was a student, squirrelling away birthday money, Christmas gifts, everything he could scrape together. Before he’d even gotten on the plane, he had it all neatly divided into six chunks of spending money to get him through each month in Australia. Exactly what he needed to last until his flight back home. But that had been when the journey was abstract. When he’d thought that he’d be all alone, hiking and looking at big rocks and waving at kangaroos. Things that he still planned on doing, amazing things he’d never be able to do anywhere else in the world, but things that didn’t cost any money. As it turned out, not travelling all over the place to see all the sights were a bit more expensive since partying doesn’t come cheap. The trouble was, he was having one hell of a good time and he didn’t want to let his new friends down or make them feel sorry for him and buy his drinks. He just wanted to have a good time. He was on the holiday of a lifetime—shouldn’t he have a good time?

By night, he certainly thought so. When he was bouncing to the music and the pretty girls were smiling and the beer tasted good, he knew with absolute certainty enjoyed only by the young that this was what life was all about. But come morning, when his head pounded and his plans for the rest of his trip were coming apart at the seams, it occurred to him that he could have had half as good a time for twice as long and still been quite content.

Even living frugally for the rest of his trip wasn’t going to make ends meet. He’d eaten through months of savings in weeks. If he meant to keep on with his Australian adventure in any form, he needed a cash injection. His family back home were not going to send him money to drink. His friends had never been as smart with their money as him, probably because they weren’t all planning a big blow-out trip to Australia. 

If he wanted money, he was going to have to work for it. That had always been his philosophy in life, so he had no trouble getting up one morning, despite an agonizing hangover, to look for something he could turn his hand to that might help him pad out his dwindling savings.

At first, he went it alone, but a quick tour around town revealed that the one thing that Sydney was not lacking in was air-conditioner engineers. Everywhere had to be air-conditioned, and everyone had a guy they knew who handled it for them. Paul didn’t know if it was one guy who worked like the devil, or if there was an engineer on every street corner. Regardless, there was no hope in hell of him getting a job in his field, and even less of a chance anyone was willing to pay him under the table considering he wasn’t even certified to do the work by the local associations or unions. 

So, he turned to his new friends for advice. Some of them had local friends who might be able to hook him up, others were hardcore backpackers who’d been travelling for years together, picking up odd jobs as they went to keep the train rolling long after what they’d put aside for their original trips had run dry.

The local friends couldn’t do much to help him—it wasn’t peak season for tourists, which meant that a lot of the part-time work that did pop up in Sydney just wasn’t available. Even if it was, nobody was likely to hire a foreign worker when there were a ton of Australian kids ready and waiting who were far less liable to vanish overnight having decided they wanted to see a new town.

The full-time backpackers, though, had some solid ideas on what he could do to cover his costs. Most of them had picked up dozens of jobs over the years, filling in the gaps that every local economy had. All the jobs that locals didn’t want to get their hands dirty with, or that didn’t last long enough for the average person to be interested in committing to, were readily available to travellers if they just knew where to look, and his new friends, happily, knew just where to look.

The first thing to do was get out of the city. Cities had nothing for people like them. Cities were already packed to bursting with teenagers seeking weekend work, students slotting odd jobs and paid chores in around their schedules, not to mention the usual hordes of the unemployed that you could find anywhere. Suburbia was even worse—there were far fewer businesses, and the ones that were there were already overloaded with locals looking for an easy gig. No. If an itinerant worker wanted to find some money, and this was true pretty much anywhere in the world, they needed to head out into the country. There, the human population was much thinner and every individual who was willing to work suddenly came at a premium.

It was fruit picking season in the farms of New South Wales, and while there was usually an influx of labour from Asia to ensure nothing rotted on the vine, there was always room for more bodies in the fields. It paid poorly for how hard the work was, and when all the fruit was picked, the job was over and you had to move on. Nobody who lived locally wanted anything to do with that kind of work, but for Paul, it was perfect! He’d get away from the temptations of town, bank enough cash to cover him an extra month or two, and then jump right back into the party when his work was done. It seemed to be an ideal solution. Except he had no way to get out there to where the farms that needed workers were located. There was a bus service in town, but that only got you to suburbia. There were flights out of town, but that only took you to another city. If you wanted to get out into wild spaces between the cities, you needed somebody local to give you a ride. Walking was considered tantamount to suicide given the vast expanses of Australia that were devoid of human life. You could hike for an entire day and never see another living soul, never mind the scorching heat and potentially hostile indigenous wildlife.

The idea of taking a taxi was bandied around, but that only became economical if they could get a few people all heading out together, and even then, it would probably cost them a day’s worth of wages or more. His friends weren’t interested in looking for work since they still had plenty of money to play with, so it looked like Paul would be going it alone.

Still, despite these road bumps, Paul wasn’t worried at all. The people of Australia were the nicest, friendliest, most welcoming folks he had ever met in his life, and he felt like he could trust them with just about anything. If he had to rely on the kindness of strangers to make his way to where he was going, then there wasn’t a doubt in his mind he was going to make it there just fine. If the Australians he’d already met were any indication, they’d probably take him out for dinner and a few beers before dropping him off. These people were unreal, veritable living saints compared to the dour faces of home. He put it down to all the sunshine.

So, with all his plans laid out and his still-hungover friends sleeping it off in the hostel, Paul set out for the edge of town. He hopped buses until he made it to the furthest outskirts of suburbia, and then he casually strolled along the motorway. In the early morning, it felt just like home. The cool air tinged with a breath of the sea, the sun hanging low. He wasn’t making any great progress along his way, but the plan wasn’t to walk. Every time a car rolled by, he’d stick up his thumb and give them his most hopeful smile.

He didn’t need all of them to stop, he didn’t need most of them to stop, he just needed one.

But as the day stretched out, increasingly behind him, he began to question the wisdom of his plan. He knew the direction that he was headed was north, vaguely. He knew that he’d been heading that way all day. But looking out over the side of the road he could see nothing but forest and scrubland as far as the eye could see. The outback that he’d heard so much about didn’t look so alien to his eyes. There were vast swathes of it that just looked like England—grass and trees, albeit a lot more of them. Here and there, there were some plants he didn’t recognise or a birdcall he couldn’t quite pinpoint but for the most part, the country was just the country. Nothing new. He was disappointed not to see a kangaroo or two roaming around, though if he’d thought about it, he probably would have realised the only kangaroos that hung around next to a busy road were roadkill.

The sun had passed its zenith and was creeping down towards the horizon, and still, he trudged on. He’d brought himself drinking water and some little snacks to tide him over until he arrived at his destination, but now for the first time, he was confronted with the cold reality that maybe nobody was going to pick him up at all.

It would be a long cold night out here. The weather might have been warmer than home in the daytime, but by night the autumnal season became ever more apparent. Paul had thought of Australia as nothing but sun-kissed beaches. He hadn’t even brought a jacket along with him. He was starting to regret that now as his teeth began to chatter and, still, nobody stopped to pick him up.

This far out there was no sign that man had ever touched the land except the road he was still bumbling along. Just as he was about to give up hope, a silver four-by-four came rumbling to a halt at the side of the road, startling him out of his reverie. ‘You need a ride?’…

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