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Published: July 24th 2009
No Margin of Error
Bring water with you on a road trip, lots of water...
The fuel gauge read over two thirds. All I needed to do was get to the next town. According to my road map, there was a gas station one hundred ninety kilometers away. I started out and only cast a limited glance at the gas station. Soon enough it and Cobar were a disintegrating dot in my rearview mirror. Ahead of me lay four hundred sixty kilometers of hostile, arid, and stunted wilderness. Oncoming vehicles make their presence known every ten or fifteen minutes. The only ones westbound are diesel trucks making deliveries to outlying communities. Itching to reach Broken Hill by mid afternoon, I opened up the four cylinder engine; no obstacles, vehicular or animal, would get in my way. Once out of town, there are no speed cameras to photograph offenders. At one hundred forty kilometers an hour, I would make very good time. Little did I realize that even with a brand new rental, such speeds consume fuel at a ravenous rate.
Visibility in the Australian openness can reach as far as thirty kilometers. I can see cars coming minutes before we actually cross just feet from each other. I grip the wheel intensely when freight trucks approach
This is not where you want to break down...
and thunder by; the draft they create tosses the hatchback close to the side ditch. I nervously brace then jerk the car back onto the center of the road. From the western slope of the Blue Mountains, the Mitchell Highway slices through rolling farmland comparable to Central Pennsylvania. As far west as Trangie, just before the turnoff for Cobar on the Barrier Highway, the landscape devolves further. Ranchers of Eastern Texas between San Antonio and Houston would feel right at home. However, after Cobar, it is pure Outback. Vegetation becomes brittle and hunched trees of pale green foliage. Spaces between scarce and parched plant life are wider and the Martian color ground is exposed to the brutal sun. River beds are dry and the paucity of water is intimidating. A breakdown out here is not like getting a flat tire in the Berkshires. If not properly prepared or equipped it is easy to envision how folks can perish.
Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about. I zipped along at a brisk pace making good time. The fuel gauge dipped below one third, having taken quite the plunge since Cobar. Still I made no connection between my high rate of speed and the red arrow plummeting towards ‘E’. I was convinced that it didn’t matter. Approaching Emmdale, I had nothing to worry about. The sign for the price of a liter of gas was well polished. The price for regular unleaded and diesel were current. The service plaza on the left side of the highway was well-maintained. I looked around and noticed something rather peculiar. It was empty, empty of trucks, cars, or other service vehicles. The screen door to the shop was shut tight. The pumps were inoperable. My heart sank. At the same time I did the mathematics in my head. If the gauge was accurate, could I make it to Wilcannia without running out of gas? If I did exhaust every last drop, could I make it close enough to town and call for help? I had a half-liter of water and only a bag of chips. I had not eaten breakfast thinking I’ll grab a bite in Wilcannia. All of a sudden I regretted that innocent and flippant glance at the gas station when leaving Cobar. I turned left onto the highway having to make one hundred kilometers on less than a quarter tank. Recalling only how quickly I had gone through gas in the past two hours and not employing common sense, I mildly panicked and drove as quickly as I could, wanting to get to Wilcannia in an anxious game of musical chairs. When the music stopped (or my engine for that matter), would there be a pump on the rear passenger side of my hatchback? I foolishly surged forward. My only company on the side of the road was the carcasses of wild dogs and skeletons of marsupials ravaged by winged scavangers. It was starting to get bleak.
The bright needle dipped uncomfortably below one eighth. At a rest area, a couple had pulled over to take photographs. Perhaps they like many who travel the Outback are carrying a few extra liters of gas. I arrived at the rear of the pavilion where the wife was posing without being noticed.
“Good Morning!” They returned the greeting apprehensively. Until I explained my situation, they were weary of my intentions. There was no one else around for miles. “Maybe you can help me.” Their shoulder blades relaxed at the sound of my accent. “I am low on petrol, about one eighth, even worse, headed for Wilcannia.
The husband took over and sympathetically replied, “Sorry. We’ve got the tank full, but we cannot siphon it for you.” We walked together to the edge of the highway devoid of traffic and studied the signpost for Wilcannia. It read fifty-five. “Chances are” he added, “you can make it. Just go real slow, nothing above one hundred. In fact, keep it at ninety.” I made a nervous trip to the compost toilet and then hit the road, slowly.
At ninety kilometers, the gauge hardly budged downward. I coasted after reaching crests of small hills. Following the sage advice I received, I made it to Wilcannia without incident. Never was I so happy to arrive in a town so utterly cheerless and dismal. Well before eleven in the morning, soiled and dark figures loitered at street corners. Idle women in shabby clothing herded several children at time. An assembly of ragged men leaned into a street sign. Each held in his right hand a bottle wrapped in a brown bag. The wind whistled high pitch solitary notes. All of them were Aborigines.
I went into the sandwich shop adjacent to the gas station. Before I did, I locked my car.
While in line to pay for a day-old pizza roll, the dark man behind me belched. The wind of his burp wreaked of Jim Beam. His ladyfriend cracked a smile at me, proudly showing off two eroding teeth dangling from her upper palate. Children of both races ran around the store unrestrained. I dashed back to my car and took to Broken Hill with a full tank while leaving screech marks. As I mulled over my ten-minute encounter with Wilcannia, I thought of the bartender at the Great Western Hotel in Cobar. Come to think of it, the white folks did not look all that better.
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