Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 8
The Stars of Warburton

© Jens Hültman

Warburton, Victoria

From Warakurna there are two roads westwards. One is the Great Central Road that continues to Warburton and Laverton. The other one is the original Gunbarrel Highway that continues via Heather Junction towards Wiluna. Only Aborigines can travel on the first part of the Gunbarrel. Ordinary tourists cannot get a permit to travel there. We continued down the Great Central Road toward Warburton. Some twenty kilometres outside Warburton we set up camp under a rock alongside the road. Four o’clock is a very good time to set up camp. It gets dark around six, depending on where you are in a time zone. One hour is required to burn down the fire to coals so you can cook. Then you cook and eat for half an hour, and then you wash up. Then it is six o’clock, time to relax. Time to make coffee, drink beer or whatever.

Chris, Pippa and I collected firewood. I put on my sturdy walking boots and garden gloves, just in case something creepy crawly wanted to say hello. I dug the fire trench with the help of my most beloved tool, the pick. Many people along the way made fun of it, but it is brilliant when you are about to go into battle with the hard Australian soil. I made an extra hole for my camp-oven. I built my fires by starting with paper, fire starters, dry leaves, grass or anything else flammable. Then I added small, dry sticks, then medium and then bigger logs on top of them. Lighter wood is good to get the fire going. Hard, tough wood like mulga and ironwood is perfect for making coals for cooking.

The sun was setting and the rock glowed as magnificently as Uluru. Any old rock will glow in the sunset, but this one felt like it was our own rock. A ute loaded with Aborigines passed by on their way from Warburton to Warakurna. They waved.

Nigel and his family watched me with what I interpreted as curiosity as I cooked a curry in the camp-oven. A camp-oven is not a portable oven. It is a big cast iron pot with a special lid. Hot coals can be placed on top of it. Cooking something like a curry is not hard. As with all cast iron kitchen utensils, you start by pre-heating it. For frying onions, meat etc. you use a big fire. Then when the stew is ready for simmering, you put some coals in the small hole next to the fire and transfer the camp-oven to that one. If you are using the camp-oven to bake or make a roast, then you can put hot coals on the lid and get both bottom and top heat inside.

'Is this really the first time you’ve camped in the bush?’ Pat asked, astounded that she was seeing a male able to cook for himself.

Pat cooks in advance and freezes the various dinners. She keeps them in their portable fridge. A fridge requires an extra battery and/or an external generator. The best generators, sound-wise, are the solar powered ones. The noisy petrol generators are the worst ones, at least as far as other campers are concerned. Pre-cooking minimises bush cooking and is very handy. Pat told me how they had brought big tents and lots of equipment on their first trips into the bush. Now they tried to keep everything as minimal as possible. As my journey continued, I did the same. Less is definitely more in the bush.

We rolled out the swags and erected Pippa’s tent while the dinners cooked. A swag is a true blue Aussie invention that consists of a sack of canvas that can be unzipped, with a mattress inside. The better swags are water-, cold- and mozzy-proof. Some versions are even like a small tent. They are soft and comfortable to sleep in, but very bulky to transport. You more or less need a roof rack.

I set my table, using my tea towel as a tablecloth. A gentleman has to dine in style, even in the Australian wilderness. The curried lamb was excellent, if I do say so myself. Food always tastes better outdoors. Curries are great outback food. Some seasoned outback travellers claim that a hot, spicy curry will last a week without going off.

This was my first night in the bush, and is therefore especially memorable. Few things can compete with an evening around the campfire. A cup of tea or coffee, or a glass of wine or a beer, the stars above you, the collected firewood slowly burning down, small talk about various subjects that come to mind.... Going to bed under the stars is another pleasure. I decided it was time to try yet another gadget, my camping bed. This stretcher proved to be more of a shrinker. Finally, Chris and I managed to erect it. In spite of the persistent resistance this bed put up, it was the best investment I made. Sleeping on it proved to be marvellous. The stars of Warburton shone down on us, more brilliant than the most precious diamond. As you lie in your bed and gaze up, you can see them twinkling at you. This was the definition of happiness. I felt that I was finally on my way to where I had for so long yearned to go.

When you sleep under the stars the flies wake you up first thing in the morning. The only consolation is that there are even more of them around a tourist resort such as Yulara. We had breakfast and then drove into Warburton. Nigel graciously let me take the lead. Being the first vehicle in a convoy is superior since you see more of the landscape and various animals and less of the dust.

Warburton was originally a mission, where well-meaning religious men tried to salvage the locals from hell. It has become an alcohol and drug-ridden place resembling purgatory such that the missionaries could not have dreamt in their worst nightmares. The community is a bit of a distance to the left, and the roadhouse is to the right. It was an even more depressing scene than the one in Warakurna. Gasoline pumps in cages. A corrugated iron fence topped with barbed wire. Signs stated that various things were forbidden. “No photos without permission”. We had to borrow keys to the toilets from the staff. A sullen proprietor filled Fidelity with diesel at a dollar a litre. These men and women are always in a bad mood.

The place looked like Fort Apache. The natives could come storming at any moment and, actually, they did—for their first serving of junk food that day. I tried to say hello to two young men. They ignored me. It was bad vibrations compared to the friendly feeling of Warakurna. One never knows in the bush. Some places are friendly. Some are not. You can tell by the look of the fences and barbed wire. We had coffees and used the toilet. I couldn't wait to get out of the place.

We left Fort Apache and drove forty kilometres out on the Great Central Road. Then Nigel indicated that we were going to the right, north on the Heather Highway. Heather had been the daughter of a superintendent in Warburton. An American oil company built the road. This so-called highway is nothing more than two wheel tracks in the grass. I would not have gone there on my own, not on my first time driving in the bush. I took a deep breath and followed Nigel. The Heather Highway was so badly rutted that I thought Fidelity would shake to pieces. Five hundred kilometres of this was not an encouraging thought. To diminish your agonies when driving on rutted roads, you speed up. The rattling and shaking become less horrible. A speed of about fifty to seventy kph is just right for badly rutted roads. This, however, is the only time when you should speed up. Otherwise, the remedy for obstacles is always to slow down.

Two wild camels passed the track in front of us. This was yet another dream come true—ever since I'd read about them in Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks, the story of a courageous girl who walked with camels from Alice Springs to the Western Australian coast. She had only seen camels in pictures, but travelled out to Alice Springs and managed to learn how to handle them. Then she set out walking with the camels and her dog through the deserts over to Western Australia. Driving the same roads in a few days in a sturdy 4WD vehicle is not much of an adventure compared to that!

The steering was difficult and imprecise. At a service garage later I learnt that a steering damper had gone out. No wonder it had been so hard! The experience reminded me of being the helmsman of a yacht in a gale. It was sweaty work, but possible to cope with. There was no need for the Aggression tape, though—the adrenaline was pumping without any need of artificial stimulation.

We turned left at Heather Junction. We were now definitely on the famous Gunbarrel. Now and then, we came across big wash-outs where you had to slow down to a minimum, gently drive down into the hole and then gently climb out again. This was something different from the day before's driving. You definitely use the 4WD in these conditions. You speed up to dampen the impact of the ruts, but you have to be very careful not to hit a pothole, a wash-out, an anthill, a tree in the middle of the ”road” or any other obstacle. Pat talked to me via a CB-radio, short laconic comments, ”wash-out”, ”corrugations”, ”sand”, ”anthill”, ”going on side-track”....

The side-tracks are interesting. The Gunbarrel has only been graded twice, once in 1958 when Len built the road, once in the '70s. People go off the road and make a side-track in the scrub. When that becomes too badly rutted, they make a new side-track. So then you get side-tracks to the side-tracks. A big cause of the ruts is from the 2WD machos who refuse to use the 4WD transmission, and chop up the roads unnecessarily. The paramilitaries with their huge trucks and monster 4WD buses are another cause.

Road signs are improvised out here. At some places people had set up little warning triangles that alerted you about a pothole or some other obstacle. Sometimes I saw an abandoned fuel tank standing in the middle of the road or a big branch lying across it. This meant 'Slow Down!' Getting closer, I'd find a wash-out that could have swallowed an entire Fidelity. To be trapped in a two-metre-deep hole is no fun out in the bush. One of Nigel’s wisdoms is: If you see a warning sign in the bush, you had better adhere to it.’

Yesterday we had met a few cars and buses, and had been slogging along behind a dust-spewing road train. Out here, though, we were totally on our own. If you travel on remote roads, you have to carry at least five litres of water per person per day, and some extra in case you break down. Some years ago a young Japanese boy almost died on the Gunbarrel. His motorcycle broke down and he was stuck. It started to rain, but he wouldn't drink the water from the mud pools as he thought he'd get sick from it. The last thing you do in the morning after assuring yourself that the vehicle appears to be fit for another day’s journey, is to fill your sport bottle with water or cordial. During a hot day with temperatures getting close to or over 40°C (102°F) inside the car, like the ones on the Gunbarrel, I drank at least three litres while driving. Then I had some more when setting up camp. You are OK if your urine is clear and pale. But if your urine is dark yellow or brown, then ”you’re in the shits, mate”. Dr Nigel has a special wisdom: ”Never go to bed without urinating”. This means that if you cannot have a leak last thing in the evening, then you are dehydrated and need to drink.

If you break down, then there are a few basic methods of gathering water. The simplest is to put a plastic sack over a branch of a tree with leaves. Tie the opening of the sack around the branch. The condensation from the leaves will produce water. Another method is to put leaves in a plastic bowl. You dig a hole for the bowl, cover the surface with a plastic bag, and put a small stone in the middle of the sack. The condensation will produce water that will drip back into the bowl from the plastic sack.

We stopped to have a look at a Len Beadell tree. The Gunbarrel Crew lived on tinned sardines and made improvised signs out of the tins that they bolted into trees along the road. Not all of them are original anymore. Eejits and paramilitaries steal them and take them home as trophies.

After a morning's torture on the bad roads, we reached a small hill, called Mount Beadell, which we climbed. It was a short climb, but our backs dripped sweat in the heat when we reached the summit. A geographical society and some 4WD clubs have erected a Len Beadell memorial at the top of the hill. The view from the top of Mount Beadell over the Gibson Desert is magnificent. Gibson was one of Ernest Giles' unfortunate companions who perished out here. It was not hard to imagine his terrible fate as he tried to follow the track of a horse driven to madness by its thirst. The horse wandered off into the vast nothingness instead of finding its way back to the last water hole. Somewhere out there lie the bones of a man who disappeared.

The Gibson Desert is not a sand desert like the Sahara. It is covered with Spinifex grass and Mulga trees. The landscape and vegetation vary enormously if you keep your eyes open. I guess it takes a special inclination to appreciate this kind of landscape but, to me, standing on Mount Beadell was one of the heights of my journey. There is something about vastness that keeps fascinating me, whether it is the sea, the snowfields in the Alps or the Australian bush. You look at infinity. You stare at the Never Never land and get a feeling of eternity. I felt relaxed, at home, at peace with myself. Nigel and Pat commented that I was different. Some people they had taken along before had felt very uncomfortable out here in the vastness.

Chapter 9 →