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Published: December 23rd 2016
After enjoying a few refreshing days in the cool, Atherton Tablelands, we decided it was high time we began our journey through the outback to Alice Springs and the Red Centre. We had chosen to travel along the Savannah Way, a road that crosses the whole of the north of Australia from Cairns to Broome in Western Australia. The highway quickly leaves the lush, mountainous landscape behind and opens up to flat, grassy plains and dusty, scrubby forests. We passed through the small outback towns of Mount Surprise, Georgetown and Croydon, many of which were little more than roadhouses, but some offered the weary traveller free outdoor swimming pools. Our nights were spent in roadside rest areas, often very much in the middle of nowhere and full of wildlife – howling dingoes, kangaroos and an abundance of colourful birds.
After driving through the outback for two or three days, we arrived at the Gulf of Carpentaria, having stopped briefly in the small town of Normanton to say hello to “Krys” the crocodile, a supposedly life-sized statue of the largest recorded croc in the world, shot in the local river in the fifties by crocodile hunter Krystina Pawlowski. At 8.64 metres
long, Kyrs was quite a monster. We visited the coastal town of Karumba, a hot and dusty place on the Gulf, famous for barramundi fishing, although having just seen the size of Kyrs, Ross would not even venture onto the beach let alone into the water to fish.
From Karumba the Savannah Way becomes unsealed, so we set off south to join the more major Flinders Highway at the mining town of Mount Isa. From Mount Isa we continued our journey west and quickly crossed the state border into the Northern Territory. The landscape became progressively drier and more desert like. After a particularly long and straight day’s drive, we rewarded ourselves with a huge roadhouse burger with “the lot” – egg, beetroot, salad, bacon, cheese, onion rings… It was everything that Ross remembered a roadhouse burger to be.
Feeling pretty pleased with our progress so far, we passed the small town of Tennant Creek and set off south on the Stuart Highway, the main north to south route from Darwin to Adelaide. Our first stop along this route was at the Devil’s marbles (or Karlu Karlu), piles of gigantic orange boulders stacked on top of one another
and believed to be the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent by the local aboriginal people. The boulders were spectacular to see against the blue desert sky and gave us our first taste of impressive scenery of the Red Centre. As it was only mid-afternoon at this point and the Devil’s Marbles’ campsite was very busy, we made the fateful decision to get another couple of hundred kilometres down the road before nightfall. So we set off, past the UFO hotspot of Wycliffe Well Roadhouse, where aliens are apparently frequently seen (their beer must be pretty strong stuff) and into the remote, no mobile phone reception zone halfway between Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. It was here that our van started behaving a little oddly. It seemed to lose power, the seatbelt warning light flashed on and then it limped to a rather smoky stop. We quickly grabbed all our valuables, some food and water, evacuated the van and waited to see whether our home of wheels was going to go up in flames and with two gas cylinders on board it would have been quite a spectacular blaze.
After ten minutes or so without the van catching on fire,
we ventured back inside and tried to start it up again. The van was now completely dead and we were a little bit stumped as to what to do as we had no phone reception. As it was late in the day and we were reluctant to leave the vehicle overnight, we decided to flag down a passing car and ask them to contact the rental company that offered 24 hour roadside assistance. We spoke to a very concerned mother and daughter who promised us they would make the call as soon as they found phone signal, so we sat back and waited for roadside assistance. We waited and we waited and eventually a truck driver stopped to check all was ok, we told him what had happened and he also promised to contact the rental company just to make sure they knew we needed assistance and were sending someone out.
Before our van had completely conked out we had managed to get it safely off the highway, but unfortunately not far enough away to be able to safely sleep in it. Out here the lorries or “road trains” haul multiple trailers and can be up to 50 metres
long and we definitely didn’t want to be hit by one of those. So every time we saw a vehicle approaching we hopped out the van and waited for it to pass, or thunder by in the case of the road trains, before jumping back in. This is a very tedious way to spend a night and by the morning, when still no roadside assistance had materialised, we decided to abandon the van and hitch down to the nearest roadhouse at Barrow Creek 70 kilometres south. We caught a lift with a military man who was driving all the way from Darwin to just below Sydney in one go, it was only going to take him another day and a half of continuous driving from where he picked us up he told us, the same journey would take us another month.
After speaking directly to the rental company ourselves, they sent a recovery truck out to come and pick us up and collect the van from the side of the road. Eight hours later and around 24 hours after we broke down, the recovery truck finally arrived to take us around 250 kilometres back north to Tennant Creek. So
much for making such good progress.
Two days later and with a new alternator we were back on the road again heading south, successfully passing the spot where we’d spent the night, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn again and finally arriving at Alice Springs, albeit now with the engine warning light illuminated.
Things we have learnt during our hours and hours of driving through the Australian outback:
- It’s not a very good idea to simply ignore the battery warning light on a vehicle and hope the problem goes away by itself. Particularly if you intend to drive through the remote Australian outback…
- The alternator is a pretty essential piece of kit.
- You can see the headlights of approaching vehicles at night on the Stuart Highway for around 15 to 20 minutes before you can hear the vehicle, so for a while the lights seem to be floating, soundlessly on the horizon. Are these lights what people keep on mistaking for UFOs?
- Our good Samaritans who promised to call the rental company’s 24 hour roadside assistance helpline did make those calls, the roadside assistance decided not to act on them.
- Drivers wave at passing vehicles on outback roads. Most backpackers you pass on the road in the Red Centre have been driving for such a long time they have developed some inventive and slightly insane waves.
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