Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia
But Ve Always Do It Zis Way, Ja
© Jens Hültman
"Fidelity" © Jens Hültman
I got my luggage and walked up to the immigration officer. He laughed at the photo of the long-haired creature in my passport, bearing little resemblance to the short-haired version in front of him.
"Is there something you want to add or tell me?" he asked.
I was about to tell him that in spite of wearing a Collingwood Magpie pin on my jeans jacket, I was a Carlton Blues supporter. Carlton Blues is an Australian Rules football team in Melbourne, which over the years has been very successful. The Magpie pin I was wearing is the symbol of the arch enemy of Carlton, the Collingwood Magpies. The pin was a gift from a former colleague in Melbourne who is a supporter of Collingwood. It was intended as a ritual insult from one friend to another. I wear it for nostalgic reasons.
I refrained from the comment about being a Carlton supporter. The immigration officer might have been a Collingwood fan. They are renowned for their fanaticism and capability of atrocious acts in support of their team. I preferred to enter the country. I smiled and told him that the only thing I wanted to add was that I was glad to be back.
I had set up a meeting in two weeks’ time at Ayer’s Rock. All I needed to do was to fetch a Toyota Landcruiser HJ60 of which I had arranged a long term rent, complete my camping equipment and pick up a Flying Doctors’ radio for emergency communication. Two weeks would give me enough time for shopping, drinks and dinners with old friends in Melbourne. Then I planned to gently drive along the Great Ocean Road, do some sightseeing in Coober Pedy, and spend some days at Ayer’s Rock before taking on the real outback. It would be a piece of cake.
Ha! I had not calculated with the fact that I was dealing with ze Rental Company, ja. Two of the guidebooks about Australia from a leading publishing company specialising in independent travellers’ needs recommend the Rental Company. They describe the Rental Company as a "no hassle" deal. The Rental Company is situated on a farm near a country town outside Melbourne. Two Germans, Kurt und Hartmut, ja, own it. They and their Australian employees operate and run the business. Long term leases of Toyota Landcruisers, Ford Falcons, or Yamaha Enduro motorcycles can be arranged either directly or via their agent in Germany.
The Rental Company’s offer is that Kurt or Hartmut, ja drives to the Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. They pick you up and place you in a local motel so that you can sleep away your jet lag. The next day they equip you with camping equipment, tools and the car you are long term renting from them. Off you go, for a fixed sum for up to six months. The deal is principally not bad, since you are down to thirty dollars a day if you rent a Landcruiser from them for five or six months. Other deals start at seventy to eighty dollars a day. Alternatively, you can go through the trouble of buying and selling a car. You need a considerable amount of cash for buying a used Landcruiser. They cost between five and twenty thousand dollars, depending on the state and age of the vehicle.
I already had somewhere to stay in Melbourne. I had no need for a motel room in a country town. This was hard to explain to their German agency. ‘Ve always do it zis way, ja.’ Rules were there to obey, not to break. Neither did I feel like going out to the countryside just to fetch a car. I proposed that they should give it to me in central Melbourne. The German agency replied that it was very easy for a stranger like me to get lost around the General Post Office in central Melbourne and that it was better to do it like 've always do'. I explained to them that I had been outside the GPO hundreds of times on my way to work ten years ago. This did not help much. 'Ve always do it zis way, ja.'
Finally, I had to agree to go all the way back to the airport to be picked up by them. Then I had to go with them all the way to the farm in the countryside to fetch the car. What the heck! A lost day more or less, the Rental Company did it the way they had decided. No point in arguing about breaking the rules, I wanted the car. Their attitude signalled to me that they were meticulous in their business practices. At least I would not be forced to stay in a motel room one night before the car was handed over. One has to be thankful for even the slightest flexibility when dealing with these kind of people.
After one hour’s anxious wait at the agreed meeting point, a big man with a red beard and a leather cap turned up. It was obvious that this must be Hartmut. It was not very much like a German to be one hour late. I was confused. Hartmut greeted me with a big smile. After an unsuccessful search for a Canadian customer, we left for the farm in a battered old Ford Falcon.
My Toyota Landcruiser turned out to be a fourteen-year-old, beige vehicle from 1983. She was washed and polished, but her interior clearly showed that she had been around for a couple of years. Hartmut regretted the fact that only the door to the driver’s seat could be opened with a key. If I wanted to get into the back door when it was locked, then I had to open the front door and crawl over all my equipment and unlock it from the inside. This would prove to be so annoying that I gave up locking the doors after a while. No one stole anything from me in the outback anyway. I decided to name her Fidelity. My life would depend on her. I wanted to be able to trust her. We are superstitious with names in my family. We had one white dinghy that we named Moby Dick. Subsequently it spent more time under water than on it. When my parents bought a neat twenty-four footer, my mother in an attack of black humour decided that it should be named "Nurse Diesel", after the mad, perverted nurse in Mel Brook’s High Anxiety. The reasons were that:
- The yacht had an inboard diesel motor.
- The younger racing members of the family were not too keen on heavy motors inside a yacht, which would slow its racing performance.
- The white, hospital-like colour of it.
There was nothing but trouble with that yacht’s engine. My parents even had a fire onboard. That is what is in a name if you make the wrong choice. When they got their last yacht, we suffered many headaches before we decided on a name. Then my mother decided that the little girl should be called Niña after one of Columbus’s ships.
'Oh no’, I exclaimed in horror, 'That was the one that sunk and never came back.' I saw my parents going down in a wild sea, never to be found again. My heart beat violently. We rushed to the encyclopaedias. We found out to our relief that Pinta was the one that sunk and never got back. Niña got back all right. Therefore, superstition demanded that the Landcruiser should have a safe, trustworthy name. Fidelity appeared to be a good choice.
Hartmut demonstrated the functionality of Fidelity, for example how to use the 4WD transmission. We went through what kinds of daily, five and ten thousand-kilometre services should be performed as a condition for the contract. The Landcruiser of the 60-series is a very simple and robust construction. Even a complete ignoramus like myself understood the basics. The engine room looked clean and neat, as if it had been serviced. Hartmut told me that he had put on brand new tyres.
The car was obviously old and used. Minor details like the non-functioning locks of the door did not bother me that much, as long as the engine and transmission worked fine and the tyres were new. They appeared to have done a good job. I felt that I was safe. We signed the contract and off I went.
I was happy to be on my way after years of dreaming and planning. This state of mind lasted about thirty minutes. Landcruisers are very big machines. It was scary to drive this big lady the first time. The gears were hard to find, I mistook third for first a number of times, though Landcruisers are so incredibly strong that it hardly matters if you start in the third gear. I was not used to driving a very big vehicle. In addition, I had to drive on the wrong side of the road, in the wrong side of the car. You shift gears with your left hand, and the indicators are on the wrong side of the wheel. My old reflexes did not work for me. Cold sweat was pouring down my back.
Hartmut had shown me that the regular oil meter was kaput. An improvised warning lamp had replaced it. The fuel meter pointed to empty. 'Bloody hell', I thought to myself. 'The fuel meter doesn’t work either. This will be difficult. I’ll need to know when I’m out of fuel.' A diesel engine should never run dry. If it does, it has to have the air pumped out with a hand pump before it can be started again after refilling with fuel. I thought that I should check at a service station if I could top up with diesel, just in case the tank actually was empty after all or if that would get the meter going. To my surprise, I could put eighty-three litres in the eighty-litre tank. I never managed to squeeze that much fuel into that tank again. Fidelity had almost been sucked dry. Nice gesture, Kurt und Hartmut, ja. Was it their definition of good service to send an unsuspecting customer out on the road with an empty tank?
Chapter 3 →