Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 9
She'll Be Right

© Jens Hültman

Camels Along the Gunbarrel

Camels Grazing Along the Gunbarrel Highway

We had a quick lunch with fruit and water, then rattled on and set up camp at Geraldton Bore. Pat taught me yet another of their neat little tricks for bush survival, namely to use wet tissues to wash your hands before dinner, instead of the precious water. The only water you get out here is the fifty litres-per-person you have brought along in your water tanks.

I was tired after the very hard drive that day and felt like pampering myself with a mug of hot cocoa and an orange. This was the ultimate luxury for my parents after the war when they could get these articles again after years of deprivation. It was as if it was the Holy Communion. Hot cocoa and oranges corresponds in my family to Marcel Proust’s nostalgia about the Madeleine cakes. Not only are the memories of tastes and scents redolent of your childhood, it is also passed on from generation to generation.

Before dinner, I entertained the family with some schnapps that I had brought along. I sang the traditional ritual dirty drinking songs in Swedish. My hosts gazed at me with that look you reserve for eccentric ethnics who insist on clinging to the strange rites and customs of the home country. The night was cloudy, so there were no stars to gaze at. Nevertheless, I had no problem whatsoever falling asleep after the hard day's drive.

Up and away early in the morning. Check that there is fuel, oil and water in the truck. First the car, then you. Eat breakfast. Wash up. Break camp and pack the car. Put out the fire by covering it with sand and pouring the remaining dishwater over it. I used every litre of water repeatedly for various purposes. Walk around the car with your back to it, and check that you have not forgotten anything. Fill the water bottle. Off you go before it hots up. Soon the sweat will be pouring from your back due to the scorching heat in a car turned into a baking oven.

It was still overcast. We drove on and passed the Gary Highway that goes north, up to the now abandoned Canning Stock Route. Out here in 1977 a search party brought back the last nomadic couple, returning them to their relatives in Wiluna. Warri and Yatungka had run off from their tribe because they had broken the very strict and almost incomprehensible incest rules. In their old age, the tribe forgave them. A good friend of Warri's, Mudjon, arranged a search party together with some white Australians to bring them back safely. W.J. Peasley in The Last of the Nomads superbly describes the story.

We traversed the Mangkili Claypan. Robyn Davidson calls it ”the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen”. We had so far not met another vehicle nor seen any sign of life other than the two camels crossing the Heather Highway. Then suddenly a cloud of dust advanced toward us. In the outback you stop and try to figure out what the other vehicle will do. As the dust cloud grew nearer, we saw to our astonishment that this was a maniac who was dragging along a caravan. I had smashed the left mirror the day before when I had the choice between hitting a bush and bumping down into a wash-out, and had chosen to avoid the wash-out. Towing a caravan in these conditions gave the impression of being the work of a refugee from a lunatic asylum.

An elderly gentleman in an Akubra and his skinny wife stepped out. They were from Queensland. They were returning from their daughter’s wedding in Kalgoorlie, a gold mining town in southern Western Australia. We asked him if it wasn't difficult towing a caravan in these conditions.

' No worries!’ said the gentleman. ‘Just drive slowly and she’ll be right. As long as I have cold stubbies in the fridge, no worries, mate.’ The conversation shifted to Aborigines. The gentleman and his wife did not like them. The wife told us about when they had helped an Aboriginal woman and her family whose car had broken down by the roadside. Maintaining things built by whitefellas is not a strong Aboriginal quality. Their old bombs constantly break down. They leave their lemons along the roadside for anyone to scavenge parts. The wife had offered the Aboriginal family tea and sugar. The sugar had been unrefined brown sugar direct from some Queensland sugar plant. The Aboriginal woman took the sugar and threw it away. The sad thing about this story is that the white woman tried to be nice, the Aboriginal woman thought she was being poisoned, and both walked away with the impression that the other kind are bastards. The gentleman got so upset by the story that he continued to rage about an Aboriginal cultural centre that had been built-in Kalgoorlie for a million dollars. He could not understand what the coons would do with it. I could not understand why he cared. What would he do if his subgroup of Queenslanders had a cultural centre? Go there and discuss the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre?

Nigel and Pat hold the Aboriginal people of the outback in high regard. Nigel has worked as a forensic pathologist in the outback together with Aboriginal trackers many times. I could see that he and Pat did not like the turn of the discussion much. None of us said anything. You can't teach old dogs new ideas.

We bid farewell to the gentleman and his wife. They chugged along the corrugations, potholes, anthills, wash-outs and sand-stretches like a waggling old elephant with a fat butt.

Too Fast in the Bush

We took off and passed a most delightful grass plain, covered with pale yellow Spinifex-grass. The road improved, since we were getting into Wiluna Shire and closer to the Carnegie cattle station. Nigel granted me the privilege of driving as the first vehicle. Driving on a graded road again was a relief. If the road improved, the landscape did not, however. The closer you come to cattle land, the more barren and boring the landscape becomes. It is under constant attack from the cattle, which will eat anything they can find.

Access to water meant more big animals. A camel majestically traversed the road paying as much attention to Fidelity as Marie-Antoinette to the French peasants. Kangaroos and wallabies bounded in front of the car. I drove into Carnegie cattle station with an almost empty tank. The station manager’s wife sold diesel at a dollar ten per litre. It costs seventy-five cents in Melbourne. You do not argue about the price in the bush. She filled diesel from huge tanks on legs. I often wondered how much rust and how many litres I got in my fuel tank from these bush barrels. The metres are often primitive-looking devices.

We were the entertainment of the day. They started a lengthy discussion about the deteriorating Flying Doctors’ service, vital to the outback community. They continued to discuss the Queensland couple and the state of the road. Wiluna Shire maintains the road as far east as the grader operator can be bothered to drive. Thereafter, it is the responsibility of the Aboriginal Warburton community, who do not give a damn since only white 4WD travellers use it.

Inevitably, the land rights discussion came up. Aborigines can claim Crown land as their own if they can prove that they are the traditional owners. Many tourist attractions, national parks and some pastoral leases are on crown land. The station manager’s wife told us about another station that had been divided into two halves, where the Aborigines got one part. The rest was too small to maintain cattle, no-one wanted to buy the lease. The lessors had therefore practically been ruined by the Aboriginal takeover but they could get no compensation from the state. Taking sides in these conflicts is not easy, since both sides have valid points.

Nigel et al continued to the store. Fidelity eagerly swallowed the diesel that poured into her. The station manager’s wife and I talked about camels. They cause damage for the pastoralists since the camels can walk into barbed wire fences and just continue to drag them along for kilometres. The fences separate different herds of cattle and give different areas a chance to rejuvenate. I mentioned Robyn Davidson. The station manager’s wife sneered. ‘That girl had backup.’ But the truth is that she lived a lot off the land, e.g. by shooting rabbits. Walking with three camels through the desert from Alice Springs to the Western Australian coast is no small achievement. The backup she had was forced upon her, since she had a deal with a magazine that wanted photographs and sent along a photographer.

The station manager’s wife told me about two English boys who had started in Broome and then made it all the way down the Canning Stock Route through the Great Western Desert with camels. This is the ultimate adventure. If you drive the Canning from Wiluna to Halls Creek, or the other way, you have to arrange a fuel dump at a well out in the desert or you will be stuck out there. 'And they were what we would call ”raw prawns"’, she added. Which is a wonderful expression for Poms who have arrived down under and not yet had their pasty English skin turned into the colour of a boiled lobster.

'My friends are English’, I told the station manager’s wife, as if she could not have guessed from their accent. I reckon they are more Australian than most Australians’, she replied. “Real Australians” travel the bush in a Landcruiser with a diesel engine. They talk on the Flying Doctors’ radio. They know their ewes from their heifers. They wear battered old Akubras. They drink beer and eat overcooked steaks. They watch the footy and cricket. They dislike Frogs, Wogs, Abos, and Asians. ' Fair dinkum, mate, what da ya reckon, ayh?'

Can a descendant of Italians who reads Marcel Proust, has graduated from university, never watches the footy, knows the difference between a Beaujolais and a Bordeaux and enjoys travelling in Europe, ever be a "Real Australian”? Probably not. Yet, there will be more and more of these people and fewer of the bush people in Australia's multicultural future.

I told the lady how grateful I was for having Nigel and his family along and that I wouldn’t have done the Gunbarrel on my own. 'Why not?’ she asked. ‘If you had broken down, we would have come out and fetched ya. No worries.’ This is typical of the people in the bush. They might not be the most enthusiastic supporters of Aboriginal land rights, but they would go more than out of their way to help a stranger in difficulty. She told me that during peak season up to a hundred vehicles per day could pass by. At that point, I finally realised that I was not an Explorer or Adventurer, just yet another “ bloody tourist”. She added that she had nothing against the tourists that passed through, since they were mostly ”the right kind”. That meant Australian middle-class with money enough to buy a huge 4WD vehicle.

I bought Len Beadell’s book Too long in the Bush in her little store, which is about the construction of the Gunbarrel. It gave me many good laughs as I read it.

On we went, on our way towards Wiluna. The road had improved considerably. We could drive at ninety kph. Too late, I discovered that I was rushing into a dry riverbed at the Harry Johnston Water. I hit the brakes and the clutch and slid into the one and only (and very small) tree that was standing next to the track. That young tree met a premature death. Landcruisers are great at collisions like this. I hardly felt the bump. I went out. Fidelity’s right front guard had been smashed in. The top of the snorkel was off and the right rear window had fallen out. I cursed myself, thought of the entertaining story this would turn into for future travel companions of Nigel and his family, started Fidelity and drove over to the by now very excited family. They asked me if I was all right, to which I just muttered and cursed. I sat down to calm myself. Was this worse than being chased by an avalanche? I decided it wasn't as bad and, since I had survived that, I should be able to survive a minor incident like this.

Young master Chris crawled under the car. He concluded that it did not look too bad. The crash had not caused any internal damages except the dint in the front guard and the window that fell out. However, Chris discovered that there was an old leak in the front diff. The oil and grease leaked badly from the right front hub. These problems do not show up until you have used the 4WD transmission for a while. It turned out that the breather hose to the front diff was attached with a too-small nipple. The faulty nipple was attached with some blue silicon. Some bush mechanic had done a patch sometime during Fidelity’s history. Since the overheated oil in the front diff could not expand into the breather hose as it was supposed to, it leaked out around the hubs instead. This can lead to the bearings in the front wheel seizing. Just how much fun that would be in the middle of the desert or way out in a rainforest is easy to figure out.

Nigel got upset and told me how criminal it was of the rental company to send me out in the desert with a vehicle like this. I would be told the same story repeatedly while talking to various car mechanics. ‘Don’t take this vehicle out into the desert’ as Toyota in Broome put it. Nigel and Chris figured out a new patch for the leaking diff, while Pat and Pippa helped me to cover the rear window with a plastic sack. We found some parts of the smashed top of the snorkel. It didn't look too bad. Look at it as a learning experience’, said Nigel, encouraging and positive as always. 'A bloody thousand dollar learning experience’, I muttered.

In the end, it turned out to be a six hundred and fifty dollar learning experience. Conclusion: When you see a line of trees in the bush in front of you, slow down, because that is a dry river bed and terrible things can happen if you rush into them. Especially if you are driving one of Kurt und Hartmut’s, ja vehicles with a faulty front diff and under-dimensioned brake discs. After that, I feared dips and riverbeds. I was painstakingly careful with slowing down. The rest of the day was a long, gruelling drive on gravel roads. We passed Wiluna, which featured the same barbed wire-topped fences as in Warburton.

Nigel and Pat had once camped at the Wiluna caravan park. The police had been around every fifteen minutes to check that they were all right. We camped outside Wiluna near a river instead. 'Watch out for tiger snakes down there’, was Nigel’s jolly advice. Tiger snakes are the only species of snake in Australia that attack unprovoked. No-one in our little party felt like going down to the river. Normally, you don't have to worry about snakes since you never see them. They get out of your way if they feel you coming. Nigel ordered medication with Swedish schnapps as a remedy for the day’s adventures.

Rising the next damp morning was slow. We drove off towards Meekathara. Never had I seen so many road kills. I came close to contributing to the grisly statistics myself many times because kangaroos and wallabies were jumping in front of the car from the left and the right. Kangaroos are ‘a damn stupid breed of animal’ as the Australians put it. Once they get in front of the car, they can keep on jumping in front of you for kilometres.

When we entered Meekathara, I had driven just over five thousand kilometres since leaving Melbourne. About one thousand kilometres had been on gravel and dirt roads and on tracks that looked like God and the grader operator had forgotten them. I had not yet tried rock climbing with a Landcruiser or wet river crossings, but I had had a go at most other outback obstacles. Nigel and his family had given me a crash course in bush travelling. Without them, the rest of the journey would have been considerably more difficult. From now on I used them as my lifeline, as a moral support and for tourist information. They comforted me when I was sad and upset about Fidelity’s deteriorating state. They backed me up in my conflicts with the rental company. They provided a feeling of safety when taking on risky outback tracks. They helped me with suggestions as to what to see in the various places I visited. All this, they did for a person who was almost a complete stranger to them. I will be forever grateful.

Chapter 10