What not to do when travelling through the outback.
On the road. 200km down, 1400km to go. Carnarvon to Broome; a long, punishing stretch of highway. Night approaches. Driving in the outback is measured not in kilometres, but cans of beer. I’m on my fourth, and I’m going to have to keep driving well into the night to make it to the destination on time.
A detour leads off the highway and into Pannawonica. It’s Australia’s richest town, based on the median weekly income of the 650 resident miners. In the darkness, I can just make out a sign marking the entrance to the township. It reads: ‘Pannawonica - Let our minors become miners.’
Dongas; chemical storage plants; medical centres. An eerie quiet envelops the glowing incandescence and rugged lattice networks of iron ore processing plants. A road sign points down a corrugated track in the direction of Millstream National Park.
What would be a pleasant daytime drive through tablelands, ephemeral rivers, and across vast red country is just a dark and bumpy track. 40 kilometres up the road. Almost midnight. The car begins to wobble preternaturally, and then suddenly, the wheel comes flying off and the car skids to a halt in a cloud of dust!
Scouting around the scrub for the missing wheel; all I can find is spinifex and a large olive python on the road. 40 minutes later it’s located. Refitting it poses a series of problems. The nuts have rattled off the studs; one of the studs has snapped clean off; and the jack is broken beyond repair.
There’s no other option but to camp on the track beside the spinifex and snakes. A few hours of restless sleep, and at 6am, the sun begins to show its teeth. Day time temperatures out here often soar into the high forties, and there’s only got three litres of water between two people and a dog.
A short walk to the top of a hill reveals our dire predicament. We’re way out in the Pilbara. There’s no one round for miles. Climbing an ant hill, mobile service flickering in and out of range. In the distance, I can just make out what looks like a homestead! Hurrah!
Running down the hill, past termite mounds, over rocky red earth and cattle tracks, through the spinifex and towards the infrastructure! Upon approach, it’s just an empty stock pen. There’s nothing there but a dry water trough.
Walking back to the road, hope fading. Heat and dust. Depression sets in. Suddenly, a dune flag moves over the top of the hill. Human life! We’re saved! Sprinting back to the car, and two mine workers have already refitted the tyre.
“Call me blisters ey,” I say, approaching the miners.
“Show up after all the hard work’s done.”
We’re mobile again! They offer us a parting gift of sweet, icy cold water from their cooler, and they’re off into the dusty distance. Back on the road!
The car has other ideas. Turning the ignition on, she lies lifeless on the road. The gearbox is stuck in fourth gear. Stepping out of the car, a string of curse words echo from my mouth and into the hot, unforgiving air of this bloody country. Arghhhhhhh!!!
Revving the car up to 6000rpm, and it crawls into action. We hobble back to town. It’s Sunday, but a mining town is evidently a great place to break down. A Rio Tinto Garage is still open. The mechanic replaces the missing studs and we’re back on the road.
It’s 10am at the time of departure. Limping back to the highway, defeated, and only first, second and fifth gears engage! 900km to go! Second gear, then straight into fifth! The car whines and rattles and hums. Don’t stop! Almost there! It’s just up the road!