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The Songline Quest: Australian Outback Mountainbiking Expedition 2000

Feral Cat Trees and Other Crimes of the Outback

By Stephanie Gregory

David McLain/Aurora
Hike a bike: Nick Buettner during an early morning ride outside of Alice Springs.
I woke up, slipped into my bike shorts, and snuck out of the tent. It was 6 a.m. and the world felt big. I was still catatonic from yesterday's journey, which took us 400 miles over bitumen highway from the underground opal mining town of Coober Peedy, surreal site of the Mad Max Road Warrior series, north to Stuart's Well, a wild camel park and the only sign of civilization until Alice Springs, 60 miles to the north.

More than seven hours after we pulled into the campsite, I still had road-trip hangover—the impetus behind my 6 a.m. bike ride. It was the dead cats that made me sick. Yesterday we visited the most obscene redneck shrine known to man. Just south of the town of Marla, 14 feral cats in various stages of decomposition were strung to a lone eucalyptus tree, serving as a reminder to outsiders that the outback is an unforgiving place. The sour smell and festering flies emanating from this ode to outlawism were enough to send anyone swirling off-kilter for a couple of days.

With this sick shrine lodged in my memory, I set off for what I expected to be a refreshing dawn adventure along the two-lane Stuart Highway. Instead, I met what seemed to be the remains of Heather and John Christopher McDonald. I assumed they were a couple, but their drivers' licenses didn't immediately affirm that. In fact, all I knew about John and Heather was that they traveled with an eclectic CD collection, including covers from Beck, Bob Marley, and Sade; and carried a hard-cover book on Australian geology, a fanny pack stitched with a Canadian flag, a half-dozen rolls of film, and a cooler full of dry pasta. That's all the ditch would tell me.

If it hadn't been for their cash-deprived, credit card-rich wallets, I never would have known that this tattered pile along the Stuart Highway belonged to the McDonalds. But their shiny, slate-colored surf shorts caught my eye as I cranked past on my yellow Voodoo, happily oblivious to the fact that I was about to unveil a crime scene.

Actually, the pile on the side of the road was less a crime scene than a crime depository. A place where robbers dumped their evidence before it became evidence. The roadside site may have lacked a dead body, but it still creeped me out.

I nervously gathered up the wallets and CDs, pedaled back to the campground and dumped them off with the front desk, who called the cops. With time and imagination on my side, I indulged scenarios of the McDonalds' demise: they were hitchhiking, got lost in the bush, wandered off, and died of thirst; they were kidnapped and their belongings were left to rot in the hot desert sun; they committed a double suicide.

An hour or so later, after I had polished off my oatmeal, a cop car swung by our campsite. The friendly detective reported that the McDonalds had been located in Alice Springs. They weren't dead, they were just penniless, thanks to a few clever pickpockets on their way to a spending binge in Adelaide. It wasn't the dramatic end I was imagining, but it relieved me to know that I hadn't been biking along the road of death. But then again, the feral cat tree proved that anything is possible in the outback.

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