Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 3
Broken Down Engine Blues

© Jens Hültman

Grampians National Park

Grampians National Park viewed from north of Boroka Peak
by Joe Ritson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

On the Friday, I drove out to Seaford to pick up a Flying Doctors’, or High Frequency, radio. The Flying Doctors’ network operates all over Australia and has saved many people in trouble out in the bush. To bring a radio along had been more or less a demand from friends and family. The Australian deserts seemed to be a dangerous place to them.

I am suspicious of radios, which II regard as a false security. I suspected that good bushman-ship and common sense would be better life insurance than a radio. If you start thinking in the back of your mind that someone will come and get you out of trouble if you have behaved like an idiot, then you soon start to behave like an idiot and no one will come for you.

In spite of my hesitations, I had rented a radio from an electronics company. To my surprise, it was ready for pick-up. What had happened to Melbourne while I was gone? Where was the usual true blue, "She’ll be right, come back another day" attitude?

Pete, the manager, demonstrated the functionality of the radio. He was a white-haired man in his fifties who spoke a language so studded with colloquialisms that you needed a slang dictionary to understand him. I was glad I had lived in Melbourne before. There was no way a stranger from overseas would have understood much. He could not understand why I was going out in the bush. 'There’s nothing out there, mate", he told me, "just miles and miles of empty scrub.' He still does not know how wrong he is about that statement.

Fidelity was stone dead when I tried to start her again. The starter motor said chunck, but did not attempt to start the engine. Pete came out and gave it a go, but without success. The batteries were not flat. You have dual batteries in an outback vehicle; if one goes flat, you can always use the other one to start the engine. Pete asked his serviceman Tony, who himself owned a Landcruiser, to give it a go. Tony managed to short-circuit the starter motor and Fidelity started hesitantly. It was as if she had had a heart attack and got her pump started again by electric shocks by some paramedics on the roadside. Pete called an auto-electrician he knew. We drove off to his workshop.

The Seaford auto-electrician concluded that the starter motor was worn out and that it had to be replaced. He proposed that I let an auto-electrician in town change it for me. Fidelity was shock started again. I drove back into town with a heavy heart. Poor old Fidelity. Poor old me.

A local auto-electrician, Graham told me the same story as his colleague out in Seaford. The starter motor had to be replaced. This would cost me five hundred and twenty five dollars. He advised me 'not to go off the Melbourne tram rails', that is, to not leave the city. The car needed to be fixed. He could do it. On Monday.... I had planned to leave town the next day, Saturday. This was a bit of a blow. I did not want to pay five hundred and twenty five dollars out of my travel budget. I did not want to wait in Melbourne. The schedule was going down the gurgler.

I made a call to the Rental Company. Kurt answered. First, he accused me of having run the batteries flat. I told him nothing was wrong with the batteries, and that two independent auto-electricians and an electrician who himself owned a Landcruiser had told me that the starter motor needed to be replaced.

'Ach ja', objected Kurt, 'zis Australian so-called experts can’t be trusted. Zey know nozing about Landcruisers, ja. Zey are just fishing for money, ja.' I insisted, and referred to the five thousand-kilometre warranty. Kurt retreated and regretted the incident. 'Zis zings happen, ja', he said, 'but we can’t rip every starting motor out and check it.' Fair enough. He assured me that this was, after all, part of the five thousand-kilometre warranty on the engine and transmission, as it was stated in the contract. I would have to pay for the repairs now, and then I could recoup the money later when I returned the car. The adrenaline level in my veins decreased to a normal level.

Four days later a wonder occurred. Graham the Auto-Electrician was finally finished with the car, I could pack my stuff and go. You pack heavy things low and in the centre of the car, in order to keep the centre of gravity low. The car will perform better then and sway around less. Everything should be as attached as possible. The rattling and shaking on tortured dirt roads can otherwise rearrange everything the way God had intended it to be packed in the first place. Dangerous things that could come flying into your neck, in case of an emergency braking, should be secured.

I left town in heavy rain with a heavily-loaded Fidelity. One had to be careful in corners, so that the high vehicle would not tip over. The rain stopped. I drove through the undulating countryside in the Grampians. Two more days until I was going to get close to the outback. I slowed in the setting sun to avoid hitting any jumping, two-legged animals. I had not even left Victoria, but at least I was on my way. Australia is big. Driving from Melbourne to Uluru takes at least four days. Maybe you can do it in three if you push yourself. Travelling long distances in a car requires patience and a good set of cassette tapes to play. The line of bitumen seems to go on forever. You travel from small town to small town, from roadhouse to roadhouse in a desperate attempt to get somewhere. You pass small places like Glendambo and Marla. Small town routine: Go to roadhouse. Fill diesel. Use their toilet. Buy junk food and soft drinks. Chat with the locals about the road conditions.

It is no problem along the main highways of Australia, but you should always be prepared on the dirt roads in the centre. Get back in car. Decide what cassette to play. Play the cassette, start driving, and numb yourself for the boredom of endless kilometres to the next town. Avoid driving too fast in a Landcruiser or you will quickly consume your fuel, which is dear out in the bush. Out here, it is road train country. Judging from the descriptions in the guidebooks I had read, I had imagined them to be the size of Leviathan. They turned out to be nothing but a big truck with three trailers. Australians from the cities are impressed by road trains that they meet on the highways. They tell each other exaggerated stories about how big and dangerous they are. On a bitumen road, you just keep to the left and avoid them. You should, however, be more careful on dirt roads. When they approach you on a narrow gravel road, surrounded by a cloud of dust and smoke, they remind me of a heavy metal band from the '80s, who enter the stage to the sound of the Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in a cloud of smoke. You must stop, drive off the road and let them pass. There is no way they can brake for you.

And they have another resemblance to heavy metal bands. The drivers are often on speed in order to cope with driving for days on the long, murderous stretches. Amphetamines make the Australian transport industry tick. Imagine the experience of meeting fifty tons aiming at you at one hundred and twenty kilometres an hour, when you know there is probably a guy wired up on speed behind the wheel.

On a long and boring stretch in Western Australia, a Coca-Cola truck suddenly switched sides of the road and drove right towards me. I swung out to the left. He followed. I hit the brakes and drove off the edge of the road. He shifted back to his side of the road and disappeared. I never saw his face. I guess he needed to kill boredom. My heart beat violently. If I am going to die, then it is not by the hand of a Coca-Cola truck driver, hearing "Always Coca Cola" as the last music in my life.

Most people on the road are friendlier. You know you are in the bush when people start waving to you. They do not exactly do that in rush hour in Melbourne. Tourists, both Australian and overseas visitors, raise their whole arm and wave. Bush people save their energy by lifting a finger from the wheel. Some bastards are so lazy that they do not even lift a finger.

On the road, I had a close encounter with the Australian fauna, lying rotting on or next to the road. A typical sight on the road is a dead kangaroo carcass with a flock of crows or a wedge-tailed eagle feeding on it. I had to slow down to avoid bumping into the carcass or in the worst case kill the eagle. Road patrols travel from carcass to carcass and drag them off the road in more populated areas.

If the sight of the rotting road kill does not make you throw up, then you can try to eat at a "true blue fair dinkum what do ya reckon" roadhouse. I had my first encounter with one of these horror institutions while driving from Melbourne towards Adelaide. I stopped at a Shell service station. Many trucks had parked there. A myth is circulating that where the truckies stop, that is where you get good food. The thin, permed, female proprietor had decorated the interior with various obnoxious signs like "Power of the Pussy" etc. Her T-shirt said "51% Sweetheart 49% Bitch, Don’t change the balance". She stared at me with hostility and aggression as I ordered from the menu. The balance seemed to have been changed to 99% bitch.

The tables were full of magazines about trucks, naked women and footy. The food was prepared by dipping everything in frying oil. The conversation between the female proprietor and the truckies was so raw that it is not fit for print. It consisted of hurling a constant stream of sexually oriented insults at each other. The exchange did not give the impression of being good-humoured or well meant. It had an aggressive tone to it. The food was revolting. Whoever came up with the idea that truck drivers' preferences in food should be trusted at all, should be executed slowly and painfully, preferably by being forced to eat forever at the "Power of the Pussy" roadhouse. Rather than frequenting the same roadhouses as Anglo truck drivers visit, one should shy away from them as much as you would shy away from The Best of Dolly Parton.

McDonald’s has something going for it, after all.

Chapter 4