Published: August 7th 2010February 28th 2010
Not Quite the Back of Beyond
Scratching an itch, Grampians National Park
My Norwegian driving mate was on fire. After taking it easy for the first couple of thousand kilometres, he could no longer keep his Viking, rally driving genes in check. The way we were going, you could easily mistake the Ford Falcon for a Focus and my buddy for Henning Solberg. But there were no titles for us at the end of this run. No champagne bottles to be opened and drenched on some scantily dressed hotties. We were on the way to the back of beyond and, if lucky, we were going to see some of the best Aussie vistas and animals. And that's when it happened.
When you rent a wreck, erm, old car, with over 350.000 kilometres on the clock, you're prepared to face a repair or two. In the back of your mind you leave room for something to go wrong and prepare solutions. Heading west through NSW, the towns were getting to be thin on the ground until they were over a hundred kilometres apart. We took the usual precautions, refueled at every possible chance, stocked up on water and food supplies and drove only during the day to avoid collisions with wandering wildlife, a
Life Finds a Way
Walls of China, Mungo National Park
serious threat in these parts. Truth be told, in case of a breakdown we would not have to wait more than half an hour for a vehicle to come by and assist us. The road was sealed and in case of an accident a flying doctor could be on the scene in no time. But we were going to go off-road and things were about to get hairy.
We paid the national park authorities in Broken Hill a visit. The road in from the north and out to the south was open. Sections around the river were closed due to recent flooding as were the camping sites (read: oil drum fire pits) in that area. The rest was open to exploration. Stocking up on a week's supply of water, potatoes and some lamb chops and chicken for more immediate consumption, we carefully loaded them into the old banger and set off. Our destination: Kinchega and, further south, Mungo National Parks. The first is known for its abundant marsupial wildlife, the second for aboriginal archaeological remains. And the route leading to, from and between them is all but unsealed.
As Henning Solberg flew over a slight rise, expertly steering
Outback, a few hundred km East of Broken Hill
the station wagon into the left corner that followed, our car took on another dimension. Having gotten used to the relative quiet of the 4.0 l V6, we were quite surprised to hear the engine take on the airs of a turbo. All noise and no muscle, though. A pit stop was in order. After letting the car cool down a little we repeated our daily ritual of checking up on all the fluids. Water? Fine. Engine oil? Fine. Power steering fluid? Gone. Damn! The one thing we hadn't checked before and didn't keep a stock of.
One hundred kilometres out of Broken Hill, twenty kilometres from desolate Kinchega NP and a few hundred kilometres of desert tracks to Mildura, we were at a crossroads. Turn back now or try 'limping' around the park before returning for repairs. Not wanting to have our fabulous lamb chops go to waste, we settled on spending the night in the park.
The car growled and the animals fled. We had to be quick with our cameras before they ran out of sight. There would be no sneaking up on any critters with this beast. Still, kangaroos, emus and birds were plenty.
Desolate and Quiet
Walls of China, Mungo NP
The park was a definition of solitude, no doubt helped by the remote location and recent flooding which had led to the temporary closure of some roads in the area. Getting around without a four-wheel drive vehicle was not recommended.
That night we re-read the rental agreement. In Broken Hill we only filled up with steering wheel fluid, there would be no repairs. According to the terms of our contract we were not supposed to be here. Neither were we supposed to drive more than half a kilometre off a sealed road to a campground. We couldn't officially drive a car into a repair shop until we were safely on the coast somewhere, over a thousand kilometres away. It was clear we were in the wrong but to get to the coast we would be passing so tantalizingly close to Mungo NP that it would be unthinkable not to go there. A new plan was hatched. We would follow the Silver City Highway down to Mildura and take a shorter route up to Mungo from there. The plan seemed to work, the car was doing well. It was two hundred kilometres before the noise returned, the fluid gone. We
stocked up in town and headed back into the Outback. This time it was rain that would cause us problems.
Fresh off the sealed road, the dark sky we had been keeping an eye on in the distance, dropped its load on us, turning the path into mud. A solitary 4WD coming from the other direction assured us we should still be able to reach the park but Solberg didn't fancy his chances in these conditions. Every rally driver has his preferred type of road surface...
As the rain regressed and the sun came out, nature showed us one of its more spectacular sides. The colours of the otherwise desolate scrub land around us seemed as saturated as an Andy Warhol print when the late evening light illuminated it. The mud was not too thick but we made it to the park headquarters only to find that the circular route through the park, crossing a dune area referred to as the Great Wall of China, was closed due to the conditions. Tight on time, we toured the near side of the dunes then spent the rest of the morning bonding with the nature around us. It was hard
After the Rain
Nearing Mungo NP
enough having to deal with mosquitoes at night and swarms of flies during the day, but here we were consistently under attack from a flock of birds as we attempted to have a meal. They seemed to settle down after we overfed them on flavourless Australian bread and we were free to finish off our lamb chops in peace.
We did not know what to expect from the Grampians. For over a thousand kilometers the land around us had been as flat as a pancake. Then, suddenly, we noticed a mass of land rudely breaking from the horizon. We immediately knew this was it. A giant, forested Uluru in the midst of the Victorian landscape with kangaroos darting across the road, begging for us to pulverize them with the car. The atmosphere was eerie. Green shoots grew out of black, parched trees and ground. A recent fire had taken its tole but nature was fast regenerating. The altitude did wonders too. Gone were the mozzies and flies that had plagued us of late and in came the cold. For the first time on the trip we donned jumpers, socks and all as we curled up inside our tents.
Destruction and Life
A never-ending cycle. Nearing Mungo NP
Down on the coast we spent a good half day cleaning the car, removing traces of tell-tale red soil. We were fairly certain we could now bring it in for repairs. But how time consuming would these be? We had a flight to Tasmania in a few days and still wanted to visit a couple of National Parks before that. We took a gamble, stocked up on a few litres of power steering fluid and kept going. Destination: the Great Ocean Road.
Rain, strong winds and the cold meant we were back to sleeping in the heated car. I was brushing my teeth in the visitor's information centre toilets in the morning when I noticed the janitor show a disturbing interest in me. Turns out he only wanted to help. The national park guards had apparently taken down the number plates of the vehicles in the visitor’s car park in the night and would do so again in around ten minutes. All drivers found to have spent the night here would be fined. Good man.
We re-parked just off the main road, knowing full well the regular police would not be around to issue us a ticket and
watched the first morning rays hit the Twelve Apostles, the rather misleadingly named eight rock stacks jutting from the cold waters of the Great Australian Bight (notice how everything in Australia gets labeled 'Great'). Solberg seemed pleased.
Reaching Melbourne what hit us first was the price of a dorm bed. On top of that the hostels were packed full of loud youths. It seemed like everyone on their Gap Year Adventure had decided to descend on the city at once and their gibberish filled the air and clogged our ears. The two of us were unanimous, no way would we spend 30+ AUD on a bed in places like these. After gracing our stomachs with some sublime bulgogi and managing our ablutions in a back alley, we retired to the car we had conveniently 'left' on Lonsdale Street in the CBD. I say conveniently because our story was that it broke down right there and then. We called the emergency roadside assistance number we'd been given. The bogan mechanic gave the car a glance, came up with a diagnosis and gave us the O.K. to drive it the short distance to our rental agency in the morning. Their office
was only a few blocks away and the car was apparently in good enough condition to make it there. Of course it is, bogan man. It was in good enough condition to drive over 2.500km in such a state. Just add automatic transmission fluid, sucker.
As we put back the seats for the night and were about to shut our eyes, a police van, lights flashing, pulled up in front of our car. Ready to explain our engine trouble and how we were stuck, unable to move the car, we noticed, they weren't after us. As we gazed through half open eyelids, a giant iron door opened and an armoured truck they had been escorting drove through. We peered at the sign above. Central Bank
. Hum, perhaps not the best place to have a break down and be parked all night. When they left, we moved the car half a block down the street and finally called it a day.
The guys at the Melbourne office turned out to be the nicest guys we'd ever met in the car business. Our ride took a couple of hours to fix and while this was going on we got to
More Lush than Expected
After driving for days across a vast expanse of dry, parhced land, the Grampians seemd like a mirage. Here McKenzie Falls shares its bounty with visitors
surf the net for free and were given information on all the places worth visiting in and around Melbourne. James, who had worked as a hostel manager in the city even called around for us when we returned the car a day later and found us the best beds at agreeable prices. But first we had one more attraction to visit.
I had been to Phillip Island twenty years ago and remembered it fondly. Why wouldn't I, after I made an easy 10 AUD off my dad for spotting the first koala in the wild. Things have changed in the last two decades. The koalas seemed to be concentrated in the pay areas of the island, the nightly penguin parade was now priced and commercialised beyond belief and the people we were about to meet could have come straight from a Jerry Springer episode. Let's call them Jack and Jill.
Jack is a simpleton at best, a bogan at worst. He's unemployed, or should I say unemployable and hates foreigners because they take Aussie jobs. Lucky for me my accent stood up and I wasn't one of the enemies. Jill, in case her half retarded appearance hadn't given
Looking Out Over the Devastation
A fire the previous year destroyed the lush eucalyptus forests of the Grampians. But the vegetation, used to these condtions, will soon recover. Wildlife, like this kookaburra, is already returning
it away, reiterated that she was of aboriginal descent. They were both married, though not to each other and on the Island for a short break. This land is my land
she said over and over. My ancestors owned this island!
she shouted and took slugs from a bottle of cheap whiskey with her partner in adultery.
I excused myself and took refuge at the barbecue area where R. and I were about to indulge in a grilled extravaganza. He couldn't believe my story. That is until Jack and Jill found us. This land is my land!
repeated Jill, while Jack was just happy he wasn't the centre of attention for a change and took generous gulps of fire water. I was afraid they may discover R. to be an enemy
but they were too far gone for that. The bigger the country, the crazier the people...