I hitched a lift to Katherine almost immediately. The ride was uneventful. Kyle, the driver, talked for fifteen minutes about Paul's Iced Coffee. No, they don’t do chocolate flavor. Yes, it comes in different sized cartons. No, they don't do bottles. I drifted off to sleep.
In Katherine the next morning I waited as hundreds of cars cruised passed along with three hours. Nobody stopped. Perhaps they thought I was looking for a ride all the way to Darwin and didn't want to commit to 300km with an odd-looking stranger. So I gathered some sticks from beside the road and made a sign that said:
Pine Creek in only 90km up the road. After another hour I stopped waving courteously at passing traffic and started swearing. Eventually, a slow-spoken bloke in an old Land Cruiser picked me up. He was on his way from the west coast to the east coast: Cunnanurra to Brisbane via Darin. He was a carpenter, had been building houses for an indigenous community. I didn't catch his name. As usual my narcolepsy overtook me.
I stayed the night in Pine Creek and had dinner at a pub that's built out of anthills. Pine Creek is the gateway to Kakadu Nation Park. There's a road that branches off the Stuart Highway towards Jabiru, on the far side of the park, but it's deserted this time of year as people head south for the wet season. Folk were saying I'd be lucky to get a lift out there. But I tried anyway. There were still a few days before I needed to be in Darwin. Taking the scenic route through Kakadu was a bit of a risk, but why not?
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I waited at the turnoff to the Kakadu highway for a few hours. It was a peaceful place to sit - under a tree with insects buzzing in my ears and clouds drifting across the horizon for miles. Finally an old sedan turned off the main road and pointed in my direction. It pulled up beside me. Inside was a family heading only as far as the Mary River Roadhouse. They told me it's in the middle of nowhere and hundreds of kilometers from Jabiru, but I jumped in anyway. I was sandwiched in the back seat between Lorraine and her uncle. He had some kind of skin disease. Leprosy perhaps. Every patch of exposed skin was covered in bulbous warts, some the size of golf balls. He told me it didn't hurt. Lorraine was going to see her young son in Mary River. She and her uncle were sipping cans of VB and passing a water bottle filled with white cask wine back and forth. The smell of booze mingled with the smell of sweat. I couldn't tell if it was theirs or mine.
They dropped me at the MR Roadhouse and I waited for hours in the wet heat. Some German girls in a hire-van were going my way but had no room for me. A few blackfellas began trickling in to buy booze and they sat chatting for a while. It turned out they were taking two cars to Jabiru. One was full but other was a Land Cruiser with bench seats in the back. The driver was a young bloke called Josh. His mates said he should take me if I paid for fuel. I hadn't done that at all throughout the trip, but given the circumstances I agreed. However, when we arrived at the service station in Cooinda Josh said not to bother about fuel, he had enough to get to Jabiru. So I bought some cold drinks and we were on our way. There were two girls in the front with him, possibly relatives. None of them talked much so I just sat in the back and soaked up the scenery.