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Take the long road home

Warren Pole conquers some residual fears about getting kicked by a kangaroo to drive the arrow-straight Highway One in Australia.

Any fool can hang onto a steering wheel and plant the throttle, but it takes a smooth operator to demolish a corner at pace, which is why the real thrill of driving often lies in the twisty stuff. Driving without corners is like cereal without milk - plain wrong. In the wilds of the outback of Australia, just between Balladonia and Caiguna, lies Australia's unbending glory, because it is here that Highway One runs arrow-straight for 146.6 mind-numbing kilometres. Welcome to the longest straight road in Australia and, in common with the Harad road a little closer to home in Saudi Arabia - which is reputed to stretch for more than 250km without a kink - one of the oddest driving experiences on the planet. Having already driven the 1,000km from Perth to Balladonia in Australia's interior - a lonely staging post that is home to a solitary roadhouse, a large plastic whale, and little else - I already had an inkling of how tough crossing this vast country could be.

After a night's sleep in one of the roadhouse's joyless rooms (think 1970s young offender's institute meets Eighties carpet showroom) I awoke to enjoy a heart-stopping, deep-fried trucker's breakfast. Stomach groaning, I eased myself into the air-conditioned comfort of my chariot for this epic drive, a new Mercedes E250 CDI, glad of its spacious seats and easy-going manners. Although looking somewhat out of place in this Mad Max landscape, the plush Mercedes had happily swallowed the miles thus far in fuss-free fashion. Now, caked in crusted bugs and outback filth, it was ready for the challenge of the giant straight.

I turned out of the roadhouse and soon it was nothing but a dot on the horizon in my mirrors. Then, without warning or fanfare, a sign flashed into view ahead: "Ninety mile straight. Australia's longest straight road, 146.6km". Blink and I could have missed it. You would think the only landmark for several hundred kilometres in any direction would warrant more of an introduction, but then outback Aussies are a stoic bunch.

Even when Nasa accidentally dropped its Skylab Space Station here in 1979, all the local authorities did was fine the US government $400 for littering. The fine was quietly written off three months later. Either way, the longest straight had officially begun and staring down the barrel of a road that stretches in a straight line to a fine point on the horizon is an amusing novelty at first. With so much vision ahead and not a sign of another living soul in any direction, it's only seconds before my right foot is responding to the most primitive of urges. Unconsciously, it's headed for the floor and easing the Mercedes' speedo up around the dial.

As 200kph wavers into view on the clock, I still feel like I'm standing still. With no other vehicles, no corners, and a resolutely unchanging desert scrub vista stretching away to either side of me, I'm stripped of all the usual references to speed. It's surreal in the extreme. I focus on the horizon in a bid to claw my senses back into action, but nothing happens. Instead, life gets weirder because of the mind-bending scale of things, which means the vanishing point I am now looking to, where the road crests a lone rise in the far distance, is some 40km away. But at this distance, it's nothing but a blurred spot wavering among the smudged colours of the desert and a violently shimmering heat haze.

I back the speedo down and check my watch. Only ten minutes gone. In a desperate bid to occupy myself, I see how long I can steer with my knees. Five minutes later and it's clear that, without any corners, this isn't the challenge it seemed and I return my hands to the wheel. Ten minutes later and I've exhausted all entertainment options, having scrolled through my entire iPod, worked through every menu on the sat-nav and even read a chapter of my book.

The cruise control comes next, but doesn't last long. With it engaged, my removal from the driving process has become complete and I feel like a passenger despite being the only person in the car. I hastily flick it off and hit the accelerator again to reassure myself I'm still driving. And all the while the road goes on, the scenery blurs by, and the only noticeable change from where I'm sitting is the sullen ticking over of the kilometres on the dashboard. I can feel the dark corners of my mind gently tugging at their moorings as the monotony builds.

Then a shadow ahead grabs my attention. At first it's a tree, then it's a car, then, shape-shifting again as light and distance play cruel games with my vision, it's a giant black eagle. I blink and look again. It's still there, and as I thunder closer the scene is unearthed in all its grisly glory. Because it is indeed a huge eagle, and it's hunched over a dead kangaroo that has been smeared across the opposite carriageway and burst open by a heavy impact, most probably with a road train. These are the giant haulage trucks which are the lifeblood of Australia. Too big to swerve, too heavy to stop, when wildlife jumps in front of one of these it never ends well for the animal in question.

From its perch atop the unlucky kangaroo, the eagle is happily making lunch of its innards and as I speed past just feet from this macabre scene, the giant bird doesn't even flinch. It merely casts a disapproving glance in my direction before carrying on with its feed. It's a stark reminder that death is never far away on a drive like this, because although the landscape is bereft of human life, it is teeming with wildlife. From camels to kangaroos and snakes to wombats, there's no shortage of roadkill eager to wrongfoot the inattentive motorist.

Wombats are so dense they can easily rip a car's wheel off, which is bad news when the nearest landline phone is a hundred clicks away and your mobile phone hasn't seen a signal all day. But the kangaroos are worse, especially at night. Mesmerised by headlights, they leap from the shadows at oncoming cars and, weighing up to 90kg, cause more than a dent if a collision follows. If they come through the windscreen they can destroy a car from the inside out with their powerful kicking as they try and thrash their way to safety. If that happens, you'll want to make a swift exit before they mince you up along with your seat trim.

Then, as these dark thoughts settle in my mind and I fight to maintain focus on the road ahead, it happens. At first I think it's another heat haze mirage, but it's not: it's a corner. Only a gentle left hand twist, but it's glorious, heralding as it does the end of the strangest hour behind the wheel I've ever had. I punch the ceiling both in celebration and relief, glad to have survived this most unusual of roads.

Then I look further ahead and my heart sinks, because all I can see is straight again, as far as the horizon. The longest straight may be over, but this is still a big country. I've still got a long way to go, and the quickest way between two points is still a straight line. I press my foot to the floor and settle in again.

motoring@thenational.ae

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