July 2008

Nicholas Hogg

features

Close Encounter

Barely twenty years old, I left the teeming streets of London for the lonely expanse of the Australian outback. I would buy a motorbike in Darwin, ride the sealed highway south to Alice Springs, and then cut across the top of the Simpson Desert along the desolate Plenty Highway to Mt Isa. It was an ambitious plan to beat the heat and isolation of a region where earlier explorers had vanished without a trace.

How differently it would all turn out. A crash in the wilderness would inspire part of my novel, Show Me the Sky, but what happened before the wreck would be too fabulous for conventional fiction.

Buying the bike was easy. They say a fool and his money are easily parted, and when young man with adventure on his mind feels like Dennis Hopper on the test ride, the job of a salesman is easy. I paid $2,000 for a Suzuki 650 GTX, glittering spokes and shiny chrome included. It looked fantastic. And it would break down two weeks later, the hard earned cash I saved for the trip by dodging taxis and buses as a motorbike courier turning to rust in the Australian outback -- if only I had known then that bad experience often inspires better writing.

Arriving in Darwin, jetlagged and hung over from sitting between four Irish girls making full use of the complimentary drinks, I rocked up in the same hostel room as Dave and Bruce, two city slickers who had dropped out of the Sydney rat race for a year on the road. Instead of the German, who had snorted, “Impossible!” when I told him the desert route I was planning, Dave and Bruce gave my trip a, “She’ll be right” assurance before escorting me on my first tour into the bush.

Heading south to Lichfield Park, opening up the throttle and firing a healthy bam bam bam across the dusty hills, I began to feel the true immensity of the country. I could ride parallel with their jeep, cruising in the emptiness of the oncoming lane. The horizon was unbroken except for the buckling heat blur rising from the asphalt, and only a single storm cloud towered in the distance. Bruce drove, and Dave now hung out of the window, pointing and shouting incoherently at the blackening vision.

When we slowed to turn off the highway onto a dirt road towards the park, I heard him shout, “Bushfire!” Flakes of ash floated under the visor and into my eyes. We came across a charred clearing that smouldered like the remains of a settlement pillaged and burned by marauding raiders. Further into the bush, the flames were leaping from branch to branch, licking over us as we bounced along the potholed road. A tree I stopped in front of to have my photo taken literally exploded as I rode away.

Apparently normal during the dry season, Dave and Bruce carried on to the camp, unconcerned by the blaze tearing through the park around us. Chased by flames along corrugated roads had been bone-jarring riding, and a few cold beers and a glowing campfire were all the evening needed.

We camped by a spring where fish have evolved like a hidden tribe. Species only existing in certain creeks of the park had lived in perfect isolation for millennia. The freshwater source also meant that the giant saltwater crocs that stalk the estuaries wouldn’t be lurking here -- fingers crossed -- and we stripped off and plunged into the icy water, washing off the dust, smoke and sweat of the day. Later that night, after a fire-baked damper of beer and raisins, we sat by the pool and watched fish ripple the surface, shimmering the fantastic mirror of stars reflected from the sky above.

I had never seen the universe so clearly, or truly grasped the position of our planet on the spiral arm of the Milky Way, until I saw the night sky in Australia. We sat around the fire, listening to the crack of splitting wood, naming the constellations we knew and looking out for shooting stars or satellites.

Then, beyond the tops of the trees, brighter than any star or satellite, a ball of white light scored the sky from east to west -- at least six times -- bouncing on each turn as though pinball ricocheting in the bumpers. Speechless, we froze and watched it vanish over the horizon before gripping each and shouting, “Did you see it? Did you see it?”

If I had been alone, I wouldn't have believed my eyes. Only wackos believe in UFOs, visits from little green men. Or Richard Dreyfuss, chasing Steven Spielberg's organ playing aliens across America. So when we saw something in the sky, an Unidentified Flying Object, what did we do?

We jumped about like children, gibbering over each other’s descriptions, checking we had all seen the same thing and not hallucinated. Once we caught our breath and realised what had just happened, the feelings of fear and isolation began. In the middle of the bush, hundreds of kilometres from civilisation, the stories of abductions became more than science fiction. We agreed nothing man made could travel that fast, or turn so quickly, and talked about ball lightning, flying saucers, top secret weapons, and whatever outlandish theory we could conjure up to explain the unexplainable. All of us trembled the long night away in our tents, too macho to admit our fear until daybreak.

Back in Darwin they thought we were practical jokers or mad. But I was also a sceptic of UFO tales until the 'light.' Now Dave and Bruce were heading in a different direction, and it was time for me to venture on alone. Although I would lose touch with the both of them, two years later I bumped into Bruce in a crowded London lift. We had shouted, “We saw a UFO!!” in front of the other passengers before even greeting each other.

In the following week of solo riding and desert camping, before the bike died on the edge of a barren highway and I would have an idea for a character in Show Me the Sky, the stars burned with deeper meaning, a real fear of what was out there. And not necessarily 'others,' those 'little green men,' but the enormity of the unknown.

The protagonist in my novel is a young British motorcyclist, a man in Terra Incognita. After crashing in the desert, he soon becomes acutely aware of his race to be rescued before running out of water, and begins scribbling a fevered letter to his girlfriend, not only to tell her how much he loves her, but also as an effort to connect with another in what is an alien environment. In part, the awe that such space inspires was piqued by the UFO, and it was in the writing of these chapters that I had chance to revisit my own anxiety of being utterly alone under a massive sky.

With hindsight that fear was steely personality building, perhaps the very beginnings of a novel, being a writer. But I was almost glad when I had to bury the Suzuki in the sand and hitch-hike the rest of the way to Alice Springs, taking some comfort again in the company of others, hiding for a while from the size of the universe.

Nicholas Hogg is the award winning author of Show Me the Sky, recently published by Canongate. You can read more about him at www.nicholashogg.com.