Finding the way around a new area can be a little daunting at times. There’s a whole raft of suburbs, streets and points of interest to learn, each with their own short cuts and back alleys that only a local knows about. Ever since Moses took a wrong turn getting out of Egypt cartographers have done their best to ease the plight of travelers with maps, globes, charts and the Navman. These technological advances work wonders in cities, large towns and places with phone reception. But as I have discovered, once you arrive in the outback, you enter a world where the norms of modern road navigation cease to exist.
I didn’t realise I’d traveled back in time until I asked for directions. But the second I did I knew I was doomed. Like a modern day ancient mariner (in a car) I’d wander the featureless north west plains looking for road signs that no longer exist, that once pointed to places which have long since turned to dust.
More of a hindrance than a help, here are three typical answers you can expect from a cocky who doesn’t know it’s the 21st century.
- Geographical feature: Locals never give directions from obvious structures like, turn left at the 100m high telecommunications tower. No, they’ll insist instead, that you can’t possibly miss the broken-down windmill that’s three cattle grids along from the concrete culvert after you hit the dirt. My personal favourite though, is when a bend in the road becomes a reference point. How does one judge when a deviation in the road’s path is more than a kink, but less than a corner? And when does a place become so featureless that a bend in the road is noteworthy?
- Owners names: You’ll get puzzled looks when you admit that you’ve never heard of Bill or his property Woollahgoonah. Never mind that he’s been dead for over fifty years, that property will always be known as Bill’s place and never Wooly-what? It’s not even relevant but as you’ll pass it, it’s a good way to know you’re headed in the right direction. If you go by Jim’s place though, you’ve gone too far.
- Road names: As much as this might sound like the obvious choice to navigate by, it is in fact fraught with peril. The problem lies with the need for councils to update their schedule of roads and the reluctance of locals to change the habits of a lifetime. Before it was tarred, the stretch of road between Garah and Mungindi was called, shock horror, the Garah-Mungindi Road. Late last century it was renamed the Carnarvon Highway, but only tourists know this because who else reads a map? There are dozens more minor roads which have changed name on paper only. Just because Hema Maps call it Mosquito Creek Rd doesn’t mean the locals aren’t still calling it the Back Pally Rd. Which was never it’s proper name in the first place.