Once upon a time, there was an opportunity to deliver a V8 Jaguar Sovereign from Perth to Broome, as quickly as possible. I lived to write a tale, in fact I even recorded a six part radio programme for the ABC. Herewith the tale of taking an iron cat north through the wild west.
Daybreak. Perth begins to stir. A Jaguar down on Barrack Street, lurks beneath copper sails. The cat lives faraway in Broome, 2,210 kilometres north and it’s time to go home.
Guildford is quiet, the Swan River tranquil and the vines in full leaf as we hit the Great Northern Highway. Radio reception fades, but it’s irrelevant, for the winding tree lined highway is a driver’s road and we are learning of each other, the Jaguar and I.
Enormously competent, the pedigree of the sure-footed cat, is that of the true long distance runner. There is none of the maniacal snorting and straining of the breathless sprint, just a subdued far-off rumble of predatory power and presence. The V8 torque dismisses hills, it’s only overtaking that brings awareness of the beast within. Pedal to the metal unleashes a snarl to raise the hairs on the neck of any die-hard Bathurst fan. Then cruising silence. A bit like a jungle attack. So quick, so lethal. “Jesus! What happened?”
The trees step back and the severe architecture of Benedictine Catholicism defiantly straddles the land. Small eddies of dust and leaves whirl across the street and the sequential pattern of windows in a New Norcia building speak of past lessons on perspective and line.
That beautiful haunting Sting melody “Fields of Gold,” comes to mind, as golden crops blur in peripheral vision. Birds feed upon scattered grain. 28’s too slow to escape, galahs just managing to flee. Crows? They scream obscenities and disdainfully hop to one side.
Somewhere along this beautiful road, intensive agriculture gives way to pastoral lease. We have reached a sympathetic understanding the Jaguar and I. As with all thoroughbreds, there must be time off the leash. Time to run. Time to hear the blood pump and the beat of the heart. Time for music, to soothe the savage beast.
“… And the tide rushes in, washing my troubles away and I’m really not so sure …” The soaring melodies of the Moody Blues fill the car. 160km/h is effortless. Time passes, time to pass. The five speed gearbox automatically drops two gears, the V8 roars and leaps. A glance at the speedo. 220km/h and still climbing. Back into the lane, ease off the loud pedal. 200km/h seems like 100km/h. Leave it there. A herd of wild goats glance warily at the cat, savage death just metres away.
Breakaway country and a different sort of gold. Mt Magnet has slipped inexorably by,. “… And the only thing I knew how to do, was to keep on keeping on …” Dylan rages across eight speakers. I glance at the dashboard clock, Bob might be “right outside of Delacroix,” but I’m closing rapidly on Meekatharra.
The landscape shimmers into a surreal blue and white haze. Somewhere, back down the track, perhaps Cue, I’ve taken a chance on next week’s Lotto and a couple of photos, as legendary gold mines slowly form and then fade in the haze. Inside the car, it’s 19c, outside, the temperature hovers around 35c. The road is deserted and the speedometer relegated to fourth place, as my eyes sweep the tarmac ahead, the tachometer and the temperature gauge.
The air is hot and still in Meekatharra, even the crows have cried enough. Replete and refreshed, the cat rests in the shade. Should I ask her to run further in such a fierce sun? The first stroke of the key brings a rumble of agreement from the heart of the beast.
After several mediocre years, U2 have found their lost soul. The sprawling wall of Irish rock music reverberates around the cabin. Kite is a tour de force, as is the eagle, on the carcass, on the road ahead. Callipers bite hard into four massive ventilated discs, hauling two tonne from warp speed to none. The eagle debates whether to cede or fight, then slowly, dangerously slowly, begins a wise flight of retreat. Jaguars however, do not take carrion and in the mirrors, the eagle reclaims possession.
“G.L.O.R.I.A. Gloria, G.L.O.R.I.A, Gloria” Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker, a stunning blues combination. On a road as deserted as this, the Jaguar is quietly and safely capable of cruising at 200 – 220km/h. There is something primordial and deeply satisfying in the combination of great speed and the insistent rhythm and beat of great blues music.
Lightening forks across a foreboding prematurely dark sky. The gamble. Stay at Kumarina, or make for the comfort of Newman? The cat surges forward and we run. The dramatic sky calls for equally dramatic music. Track 13, Nessun Dorma. I will dwell on this moment for years to come. Rain begins a hesitant dance upon the screen, Pavarotti is at full voice and there are goose bumps on my arms.
Overseas, a similar Jaguar had proven wonderfully sure-footed in torrential rain, although wiper blade capability restricted speed to around 160km/h. But here in West Oz, as we cross the Tropic of Capricorn, the torrent becomes such, that preternatural visibility is about four metres. Even 20km/h is too fast. Driving is unsafe at any speed. Nature wins and her two subjects huddle on the side of the road.
Time and storm pass. Wet, bedraggled and chastened, the cat and I seek sanctuary in Newman. Early next morning the sky is cobalt blue, not a trace of the previous night’s fury, not even a pool of water. The scenery is spectacular and the road, ahh, the road! Drivers around the world would weep at this place. Climbing up one side of Mt Newman, then across the Ophthalmia Range and down the pass to the Fortescue River flood plain, the long elegant curves and wide, wide straights present a road to beat all roads.
“Pleased to meet you …” Richards riff cuts in, as Jagger pauses. In front of us, there are two triple road trains on a sweeping right hander. That spine tingling roar, as the guttural V8 hammers out a message of supremacy. Back into the left hand lane, the needle still climbing, then in fluid motion, out to the right and past the second rig. An air horn slices through the Pilbara air, the Kenworth headlights momentarily flash in salute … “Please allow me to introduce myself …”
Half way down the pass through Munjina Gorge, I simply have to stop. It is too beautiful not to record on film. Rivers of spinifex and boulders tumble down the sides of the ravine. Red rock defines the edge of a vivid blue sky and strangely, the ribbon of highway seems somehow to belong, as if the Earth has said, “I will allow you to worship here, at the altar of true majesty.” Nature has humbled me once again.
As I stand besotted beside the car, I recognise the sound of a Cummins engine and the oil muted scream of a Road Ranger gearbox, as a Newman bound road train works hard up the pass. A mutual wave of acknowledgment. Somehow, I want to tell him that once his life was mine and that the driver inside never really dies.
The turn off to Karijini National Park evokes memories of another past, that of a tour guide driver and a coach company long gone. And Wittenoom, a now desolate space, reeking blue death amidst the false god of profit. Perhaps some things are best left as nature saw fit. Buried.
At Auski Roadhouse, a fellow traveller pulls in. He raves about the sound of the car as we had swept past. I rave about the scenery. Unfortunately, the road from here to Port Hedland is mind numbingly straight and flat, with just the occasional teasing glimpse of mesa country. My thoughts instinctively turn to cattle and cowboys and the ballads of Marty Robbins. El Paso never sounded so damn good. As Kristofferson once said, “If it sounds country man, that’s what it is!”
Mountains of salt and crushed iron ore. Monster trains, monster ships. Everything about Port Hedland screams hard yakka. Been there, done that. Broome beckons, 610 kilometres away. Unfortunately, the road ahead makes the Nullarbor look interesting. But on the bright side, the Jag can easily and safely travel the road, by daylight, in about three and a half hours, stopping for a drink along the way.
Easing out onto Australia’s Number One highway, the Cat seems to sense home is possible by this evening. Pausing at De Grey River, I look across to the old railway bridge and remember the days when the bridge served both train and road vehicles. Another time, a million years ago.
Slipping back into the driver’s seat, a new CD rumbles through the air, the unforgettable bass riff of “Gimme Some Loving.” The Spencer Davis Group takes me away, just as they did thirty five years ago, only back then, cars didn’t have sound systems like this, hell, most houses didn’t have a sound system like this!
Some time later, Jimmy Barnes “Soul Deep” album thunders round the cabin and it’s time to cut loose. 180km/h, 190, 200, 220, 230, 240. I remember the quiet English boffin, with one hand on the wheel, explaining that cars with a few kilometres under the belt, often achieve considerably more. … “I love you baby, river deep, mountain high …”
Back to reality, there ain’t too many rivers and mountains around. There is a lone Greyhound, but no match for the ferric feline, it fades out of sight as quickly as it appeared. At Sandfire Roadhouse, the cat drinks long and hard, 300 kilometres from anywhere. The explorer Leichhardt wrote in his diary of this place “… the very sand seemed on fire.” I know just the track, Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting for the Miracle,” a magnificent seven and a half minute opus of desert music, “… The sands of time were falling from your fingers and your thumb ..”
A black speck in front of me wanders to the far side of the road. As the Jaguar closes, the dark spectre shape shifts into an elderly ragtop Suzuki 4WD. The driver is obviously drifting in and out of fatigue and perhaps heat induced sleep. Flashing headlights, I warily slow down and draw along side.
She has seen me and yells out she’s OK. But I think she is not, remembering an effete art critic, who thought he too was in control of this road. However the sanctuary of Roebuck Roadhouse is only 15 minutes away. Leading her to safety, she agrees to rest overnight.
Broome, 30 kilometres! It is that mellow time of the day, as the sunsets and we cruising under dark clouds rolling across a blood red indigo sky, The beast is almost home and the savage V8 soothed by a laid back Mark Knopfler telling it “The Way It Is.” Stunning cords from a silver guitar and overwhelming lyrics for a driver who recently stood drained, upon the battlefield at Culloden. “And high on the wind, the highland drums begin to roll. And something from the past just comes and stares into my soul.”
The tropical paradise that is Broome comes into view. I switch on the radio, “Treaty yeah. Treaty yeah …” Yothu Yindi. Way to go! One last triumphant surge of the mighty V8, didgeridoos wail over a pounding bass and the Jaguar is home.