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U3A Writing: A Journey Through Hell

John Leary tells of a nightmare journey.

On December 4, 2004, a total eclipse of the sun occurred over Australia. Astronomers calculated that the path of the shadow would pass directly over the town of Ceduna, on the Great Australian Bight, so that town promoted itself as “the Eclipse centre of Australia” and encouraged people to be there. I was one who took the bait. My son was living in Perth at the time, and I figured I could be in Ceduna for the eclipse then make my way across the Nullarbor to spend Christmas with him.

Unfortunately that plan co-incided with a family tragedy here in Mildura. My niece’s four year old daughter caught chicken pox, and it killed her. I attended her funeral on Saturday December 1st, and I left for Ceduna the next day. I did not realise that I was infected with the same virus. Indeed, having had chicken pox when I was a child, I did not even think I could catch it again.

The eclipse was quite spectacular. I watched it from Ceduna’s beachfront along with several thousand other people. The sky did the right thing by clearing itself of clouds late in the day and we all enjoyed a very good view.

Next morning I awoke in my tent feeling unwell, but I put this down to a post eclipse hangover and took little notice of it. In the afternoon I left town and began my journey towards W.A. I slept in my van that night near a railway line in the wheat country. I did not feel any better when I awoke, but I set off hoping I would soon cheer up.

That was the beginning of several days in hell. It took quite a while for me to realise I was ill. I had an awful headache which I blamed on the glare of the summer light. I was uncomfortably hot, so I thought my car’s air-conditioning had failed. I kept seeing mirages on the open, straight road – I did not realise I was hallucinating. I had little appetite and found it difficult to avoid being physically ill after eating - I thought I was being car-sick. I was terribly thirsty. Each night when I slept I experienced horrible nightmares and long periods of insomnia. The worst symptoms were in my head: I lost all confidence, I was sure I would get lost or run out of fuel, I was also afraid my car would not start each morning.

It wasn’t till I noticed an itchy rash on my neck and scalp that I realised the truth, I had chickenpox. This was a frightening realisation in view of what had happened to the little girl in Mildura. But I had to keep going, there are no doctors on the Nullarbor.

At Norseman (the end of the Nullarbor), I visited the hospital. It was Sunday morning and only one sister was on duty. I explained my predicament and asked her to admit me. She was reluctant to do this, perhaps she didn’t have that sort of authority, or maybe she did not wish to call an off-duty doctor. She asked where I was heading. I told her Esperance. She gave me one large tablet. “When you get there,” she said, “book into a motel. Take this tablet and go to bed. You will sleep very well and when you wake you’ll be a bit better. You will recover after that.”

She was more-or-less correct. I slept for nearly two days in the Esperance motel, and found after that that the hell that had been my journey had dissipated.

I took several further days to reach Perth, and I do not remember much about the country I travelled through. When I reached my son’s house, I was exhausted but relieved to be there. I rested for a few days, but by Christmas I was well and able to enjoy myself.

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