The (Seriously, Truly, Very) Fatal Shore

Australia's full of things waiting to sting, prong, chomp, drown, or lay you out with a toxic nip. People go missing there all the time. But the beer is cold. The sun mostly shines. And the author figures if he can remember to never leave the asphalt, he just might make it back alive.

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

"I just want you to know," said a voice in my ear as Qantas flight 406 popped corklike out of a tower of monsoonal cumulonimbus, presenting the window passengers with a sudden view of emerald mountains rising almost sheer from a pewter sea, "that if it comes to it, you may have all my urine."

I turned from the window to give this remark the attention it deserved and found myself staring at the solemn countenance of Allan Sherwin, my English friend and temporary traveling companion. It would be incorrect to say that I was surprised to find him sitting beside me, because we had met in Sydney by design and boarded the flight together, but there was nonetheless a certain residual measure of unexpectedness—a kind of pinch-me quality—in finding him seated there. Ten days earlier, on a stopover in London, I had met Allan to discuss some project he had in mind. (He is a television producer by profession; we became friends while working together on a series for the BBC.) There, in a pub on the Old Brompton Road, I had told him of my interest in Australia and my plans to tackle its formidable desert regions. In order to deepen his admiration for me, I had also told him some stories of travelers who had come undone in Australia's unforgiving interior. One of these involved an expedition in the 1850s led by a surveyor named Robert Austin that grew so lost and short of water in the arid wastes beyond Mount Magnet in Western Australia that the members were reduced to drinking their own and their horses' urine. The story had affected Allan so powerfully that he had announced at once his intention to accompany me through the perilous desert, in the role of driver and scout. I had, of course, tried to dissuade him, if only for his own safety, but he would have none of it. Clearly the story was still much on his mind, judging by his kind offer.

"Thank you," I replied. "That's very generous of you."

He gave me a nod that had a touch of the regal about it. "It's what friends are for."

"And you may have as much of mine as I can spare."

Another regal nod.

The plan, to which he was now resolutely attached, was to accompany me first to northern Queensland, where we would relax for a day amid the fertile shoals of the Great Barrier Reef before setting off for Cooktown, a semi—ghost town in the jungle some way north of Cairns. This warm-up adventure completed, we would fly on to Darwin in the Northern Territory—the "Top End" as it is known to Australians—for the thousand-mile drive through the scorched red center to Alice Springs and mighty Uluru, the more respectful, Aborigine name for Ayers Rock. At that point, the heroic Mr. Sherwin would fly back to England and leave me to continue on through the western deserts on my own.

"You know," I added reassuringly, "I don't suppose it will actually be necessary to drink urine on this trip. The infrastructure of the arid regions is much improved since the 1850s. I understand they have Coca-Cola now."

"Still, the offer is there."


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