Friendship takes flight in the Outback

Halfway across Australia on a solo bicycle trip, the author was starved for company - until he met an odd bird on the highway.

Late in the day, I turned off the road for a short ride to the Great Australian Bight on the coast. Rugged cliffs offered a spectacular view. It was the only relief I had enjoyed from the bush flies for several weeks. After eating a snack, I pedaled back toward the main road.

At the juncture of the highway, a large emu stood in my way. He was black-feathered, stood five feet tall, and looked to weigh more than 90 pounds. The bird walked right up to me, expecting a handout. He had panhandled other tourists who had stopped at these scenic turnouts. I gave him a piece of my apple.

After taking a few pictures, I decided to be on my way. The bird began running alongside me. My bike had 18 gears, so I started cranking it up the freewheel. With every increase in speed from me, the emu ran faster. With nothing else to do, I decided to see how fast the bird could run. I clicked into high gear, and held a good 24 miles per hour for 100 yards or so. It didn't faze the emu. He thumped along with me, not even breathing hard. I, however, was gasping and sweating like a horse. Enough of this!

I slowed down to my usual 12 m.p.h. The emu again matched my pace. What the devil?! If he didn't mind running alongside me, I didn't mind his company. I talked to him - asking about his family and kids.

"How's your mother-in-law?" I asked. "Get along with her pretty well? How does she deal with this heat? Any of your kids play cricket?"

After no answer, I continued, "Do you know of any ice-cold swimming pools around here, buddy? Have any friends who sell Dreamsicles? Man, could I curl my tongue around one right about now."

The emu never looked over during the whole conversation, but kept perfect stride with me.

This new partnership continued for 30 miles. I really enjoyed George's (his new name) company. But it was time to call it a day, so I turned off the highway and pitched my tent well off the road. George walked into the bush with me and stood while I cooked dinner. I threw him another piece of apple.

An hour later, with the sun set, George's black silhouette pressed against the sky as he seemed to stand guard outside my tent.

"You don't have to stay here all night, George," I told him. "Go find your friends. I'm out of apples."

George didn't budge. I finished dinner and went to bed with him standing outside my tent. Around 3 a.m., I woke up. A glance outside my tent revealed George standing guard. I felt safe.

Next morning, I woke up with my new friend standing in the same spot.

"G'day, George," I said. "This is going to be a test of your character to run 90 miles today, mate."

George snaked his beak down to my tent flap.

"OK, you want some food," I said. "Just wait till I finish eating, OK?!"

"Crazy bird," I said to myself. "This is outrageous. I'm out in the middle of nowhere, 12,000 miles from home. And here you stand guard over my tent all night, and all you want is a piece of apple. It's a cheap price to pay for your friendship, George."

"Squaaaaaak...."

"I couldn't agree with you more," I answered. "But you gotta work on your vowels, my friend."

I packed my gear and walked out to the road with George following. I fed him a piece of bread. He again took up his effortless stride alongside my bike. It was like having my own dog as my best friend and traveling companion. After an hour, I stopped for a drink from one of the five one-gallon water jugs I had to carry in the 100-degree heat. I squirted water into George's face. He pranced around in a circle like a banshee, crowing a weird sound. He loved the water.

"You're one crazy bird," I said. "Here, have another shot."

I squirted a steady stream into his face. He opened his beak and caught the water like a funnel. It drained down his throat. When half my bottle was gone, I stopped. He flapped his wings and danced around some more, squawking happily. He loved the attention. We were buddies.

Minutes later, I pedaled west, with a blazing sun rising high in the sky. Sweat dripped off my nose and chin. I looked for George, but he wasn't with me. I looked back. He was gone. "I'll be darned," I said. "I was enjoying George's company." I turned in a big circle on the highway, but no George was in sight. The Outback stretched to the four horizons.

Some joy faded from me when George quit our partnership. Loneliness crept in again, but I told myself that it was better to have enjoyed him for a while than never to have met him at all. He proved one lesson to me that day: All great journeys through life are better when shared by two.

I looked around one more time, but the Outback rippled in the heat waves. Better get on with it. I had half a continent to go.

Alone.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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