Big Red

Mark writes about the perils of long distance driving in outback New South Wales.

Author: Mark Seymour.

Date: 2 December 2008.

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Article Text

Excerpt from the forthcoming book:
“Tarago Diaries”

It came in from the left… up over the bonnet straight into the windscreen. The whole van shuddered. We swerved, fishtailed, Cam grinding the wheel, trying to keep the thing straight while the roo thrashed around on the bonnet..The glass splintered and heaved, a leg smashed through in the centre then the roo scrambled for traction, the leg sawing back and forth across the glass, Maz on the passenger side, with his hands over his head as the leg sprayed blood into the front seat. Cam swerved wildly, trying to find the road. The Tarago fishtailed back to the left, he corrected, threw the wheel hard the other way then it was all over as fast as the thing had landed. It pulled its leg out and took off. Cam pulled over, left the engine running. The four of us sat there dumb with the shock of it. The desert chill came in through the hole where the roo’s leg had been.

The glass was in millions of pieces but frozen inside the frame except for the clear spot in front of Cam. It was designed that way… to shatter on impact and leave a clear spot to see through…

He put his head on the wheel. We were fried, boozed, winding down on the wrong side of midnight, an hour out of Broken Hill on the Barrier highway heading for Sydney.
“Where did that come from?”

Nobody moved. Cam left the engine running, head lights still on high beam, the highway going on into the dark with the low scrub on either side of the white posts. The air was full of insects. Locusts. We sat in the cold, still, helpless.

“What if it’s still alive?”
“So, we should check.”
“Hey Cam.”
“Can you still drive?”
He pointed at the unbroken bit in front of his face. “Through that,” he said.
“Come on.”

I opened the side door and climbed out. There was no point in sitting there but I wasn’t sure why. I must’ve had some vague notion about putting a wounded animal out of its misery bearing in mind that the thing looked like it was as big as a horse and we weren’t carrying a gun. I stood in the dark looking out across the scrub… there was no moon so you couldn’t see much, just vague shadows and the dark shape of short trees and tangled undergrowth. The air was still and cold and full of locusts brushed against my face. I Looked at my watch. Just after two. Checked the mobile. No reception. Vodaphone. Everybody climbed out. Came round to my side. We all stood there looking at the scrub.

I asked the question again. “What if it’s still alive?”
Nobody answered. Maz started shuffling in the gravel,… then he started walking back along the road. “Anyone got a torch?”
Nobody did but there was still the red glow of the tail lights to search by.

We watched him moving slowly along the side of the road until he was just out of reach of the lights…Then he stopped.
Favaro lit a fag. “Listen,” he said.
He took a drag. “Thought I heard something.”
I couldn’t hear anything. “Fuck it’s cold,” I said.
“Sshh..” from Maz.
I sidled up to Favaro and whispered, “Can I have one?”
“Sshh..” Maz again. He was leaning over trying to see into the scrub without actually walking into it. The thing had to be just out there. It couldn’t have gone far. Then I heard it. We all did. Heads turned. We all walked slowly towards the sound. Maz stepped into the scrub.

It was a low scratching sound. Like a spade across gravel… mechanical, an unlikely steady rhythm for an animal in pain. We hung together ’round Maz, looking dumbly out into the dark. Maz took another step into the bush, slightly ahead of us, leaning forward. “There it is” he said and pointed into the blackness. There was a vague moving shadow and a low rhythmic breathing. It was panting softly, with an odd low sigh every so often. It sounded like a person. A runner at the end of a race. And the scratching sound.

“Fuck that. What are we gonna do? Put it out of its misery? We can’t even see it.”

Maz disappeared. There was a scrambling noise. The scratching became frantic, brutal. Dust began to rise out of the bushes then a thumping you could feel through the ground. Maz came lurching out of the dark followed by the roo. It was huge. In the glow of the Tarago’s tail lights it was all red and mad, scrambling forward on one good leg, the other one dangling but still falling into place, which made it bounce sideways out into the road, pivoting on one leg, trying to get the other one to work. We all backed off in different directions. Then the thing propped on the white line in the middle of the road, blood pouring out of one eye, down over its shoulder. It looked at us. Tall, it’s neck arched down, it licked the blood on its shoulder. It brought one of its paws up to the bleeding eye…

A big Red. There were stories of them disembowelling a man. Maz was closest. It turned to look at Maz. He was on the other side of us… He took another step back then the roo seemed to settle on its haunches, gazing now across the road as if it was waiting for something. But it was breathing hard. Vapour billowed from its mouth. It was in pain for sure and the red glow of the Tarago’s tail-lights glistened in its eyes as it stared out into the dark…

“Looks alright. Maybe it’s not that bad.”
“Are you kidding? We were doing a hundred and thirty.”
Nobody moved. We all stood around it, intimidated. It was a big animal. Bigger than any of us. Even Maz. And we were in awe too. It was the scale of the thing. It had dignity. With it’s great muscular shoulders, the arch of its neck and the height of it. Close to a couple of metres. And its silence made the magnitude of it’s suffering all the more powerful. It wasn’t interested in lying down and dying quietly. It looked juiced up ready for anything, snorting blood and air, the big eyes glistening.

“I’m not going anywhere near it…”
It remained still, as if in thought, staring out across the road into the scrub, it’s head up, sniffing sometimes, nostrils expanding…
Then Favaro broke the ice.
“This is dumb. We’re freezing our tits off.”
He turned and walked back to the van. Then Cam, then me. Maz stayed a bit longer. I turned to watch it again then Maz moved too. He took a wide birth round behind it then when he reached me we stood there together looking back at it.
It was breathing heavily now.

“What if it doesn’t move?” he said.
I said, “What do you mean?”
“What if it can’t move?”
We kept watching it.
“We should get it off the road.”
I walked back to the driver’s side window and knocked on it.
Cam had his head resting on the wheel again. He looked out at me. His eyes were blood shot. He wound the window down. “What?”
“Ar you sure you’re alright?”
“We should get it off the road.”
“It’ll get hit.”
“It’s going to die anyway.”
“We don’t know that.”
He stared at me.
Then he got out. Favaro too. We walked back to where Maz was standing.
“What if we all get behind it and make a lot of noise?” he said then walked back ’round behind it. The roo didn’t move. He looked back when he was well on its other side then said, “Come on,” beckoning with his hand. We edged over too. The thing was still propped, its breath coming now in short sighs, clearly in pain.
“we’ve just gotta get it off the road..”
nobody did anything.
“come on.”
“Come on what?”

Something held us back. The night, the Cold darkness, desert noises, the whirring of locusts, the air still and heavy, the roo’s heavy breathing, wheezing now, blood pooling beneath it, apparently from a hidden wound, it’s right leg splayed oddly. I was standing directly behind it.
“well? What now?”
“we make a lot of noise.”
“to scare it off the road.”

By now we were talking freely, urgently. It hadn’t moved and none of us did. We all just stood there looking at the thing. Somebody had to do something. What if a truck came along? I stepped forward and yelled..
it stayed where it was. So I had another go.
I waved my arms around. I don’t know why did that. It couldn’t see me. I was behind it.
Nothing. Not a wriggle.
“Shoo?” This from Favaro. He laughed.
“and you think ‘shoo” is gonna do it?”
“Well no one else is doing anything.”
Then Maz said, “Okay. On the count of three everybody start yelling… 1…2…3..”

Then everybody screamed, leaping around, clapping hands,

“Move you fuckwit… get off the road, Go… AAAGH…”
Nothing. Not even it’s tail moved. Not its head either.
“Okay. Give it another blast. 1….2….3…”
Or words to that effect.
So we went longer, moved right in behind it, as we became more confident.
It remained where it was.
“This is stupid,” I said.

I looked at my watch again. A little after two.
“We’ve got to get moving. Hey Cam? Are you okay to drive?”
“Yeah. Come on.”
We walked back to the tarago.
Cam went round to the front and stared at the windscreen.
“This is a bit dicey,” he said.
“There’s gonna be more of them. I won’t be able to see over to the side of the road right?”
He walked around to the passenger side. Poked at the shattered glass. It flexed slightly.
“We should knock it out.”
“What? We’ll freeze.”
“Yeah. But if we don’t I’ll have drive so slowly It’ll take forever to get to Sydney.”
Then he climbed into the passenger side and started kicking the glass out. It came away in soft sheets, the tiny beads of glass clattering on the metal as they cascaded down onto the road. The others opened up the back and started rummaging for jackets. I took another look back at the roo on the off chance it might’ve shifted, even a little. Maybe it was catatonic. Brain dead or something. I brought this up when we moved off.

“Maybe that’s how they die..?”
“What do you mean?”
“On their feet. Like horses..”
I took one last look out the back window. It was a dark shape in the middle off the road.
and the hum of the road took over. Cam kept it at eighty in case another one decided to cross the road. We fell silent, staring out through the empty windscreen with the cold desert air blasting into the cabin. And there were plenty off them now, their bodies glowing white and ghostly along the edge of the highway. Cam slowed to around sixty. Stayed at that speed until they vanished, then sped up again but then they would re-appear, standing in small groups, looking out at us, their ears pricked up, eyes glowing. And we all watched, transfixed by the possibility of another collision. Favaro lit up again, opened the window slightly to let the smoke out.

“I read this really interesting article about them on the web,” said Cam.
“It’s the death instinct.”
He let this hang for a second for effect. He was perked up now, peering forward over the wheel.
“They’re actually drawn to the headlights. It’s actually the light. There’s something about the headlights that hypnotizes them.”

“Yeah. That sounds right. We used to go roo shooting up north at home. And they actually would not move once you got the spotlight on them. You could go almost right up to them in fact.”

“You shot roos?”
“Well no. My Dad did. I watched. I was only eleven.”
“Your dad shot roos?”
“Yeah… So?”
“Wow what? It’s no big deal. He had a licence. He did it to make money… They can be a big problem. Like what just happened.”

About a half hour later a big mob came in from the left but further up the road. We saw them coming in the dim light.. Hundreds of them. Ghostly runners bounding through the headlights. Cam slowed down but they continued to pour across the road. We had to stop. We sat there on the side of the road until they were gone.

After that we started and stopped until the novelty wore off. Then it got tedious. Nobody spoke. Favaro put his head against the pillar and dozed. As the dawn began to glow in the sky ahead of us the full flatness of the desert began to spread out, the Barrier highway going on dead straight, without a kink or a dip. And then they stopped coming. When the sun was clear enough above the horizon we could see the beginnings of Wilcania, a few stunted shacks through the gums then the road turned south towards Sydney and cleared. All around us the desert was empty of movement. There was only the low scrub and the red dust. Still and silent. We picked up speed. As the sun rose higher the air was blasting in through the empty windscreen, hot, dry and relentless.

Maz and Favaro were dozing off. Along the road, there was the odd bloodied mass of fur and bone and offal, sometimes in the middle, sometimes a lump on the side.

Dead roo.