Travelling around Oz in GEG was often like cruising in Iron Bark. GEG was not into speed, but would doggedly continue when many a more flash and expensive vehicle would have given up the ghost. She had no luxuries, but was essentially comfortable. She was strongly built and simple (apart from her electronic fuel ignition, about which more later). She was neither new nor fashionable, and throughout the whole 20,000 km trip, we would meet people who said, ‛You’re surely not driving around Australia in that?’. (We didn't have extra-wheels, or extra-wide tyres. Nor did we have a snorkel, roof rack or any other of the accoutrements that real four-wheel drive vehicles had. Even the spotlights fell off after the first bit of real dirt road!) However, after she had towed her third vehicle in half an hour, out of a veritable sandpit, one of the rescuees stated, ‛Now that’s a real car,’
and indeed, she seemed to required little more than petrol and the occasional top-up of oil and water. Cheap and reliable – like the ideal cruising boat. ‛Driving off the bitumen’ also resembles sea cruising. You give passing vehicles a friendly wave. You start fretting about where to spend the night a couple of hours before sundown and occasionally end up in less than ideal surroundings – gravel pits in this way of life –
And like real cruising, we had to provision for several days without refrigeration,
hunt out laundrettes, watch our water consumption and look out for weather – some of the dirt roads that we travelled would be completely impassable after only a few mm of rain.
Of course, there were a lot of differences, too. It's an incredibly expensive way to travel – we spent more on fuel in 8 weeks than we would spend in 8 years, sailing, although, to be fair, we were travelling between the end of June and the end of September 2008, when the cost of petrol was at and all time high! We covered vast distances at great speed, so that while we saw a lot of the country, it was more like a series of snapshots than a detailed appreciation. On the other hand, if we felt tired of driving, we could stop – we didn’t have to wait until we found a safe haven to drop the hook. Overall, it was a wonderful thing to do once, but unlike cruising under sail, there was not much of a sense of achievement. It was partly for this reason, that driving on the dirt roads is so satisfying – at least there is some challenge to it. The most mundane day sail is positively exacting compared with driving along a well-made, hard-top road – especially in Oz where there is so little traffic. We left on 22nd June and set of NW into the heart of Queensland. Away from the coastline and along the Divide, we encountered well-wooded country and rolling scenery, but soon we were into a much flatter landscape. Horizons are often a long way off in Oz; roads run on to vanishing point,
and I found it difficult to believe that what looked like desert to me, was in fact cattle country – as Trevor described it: ‛a rabbit would take a cut lunch to cross one of these paddocks’.
The real desert was covered in vegetation – scrub that can tolerate minuscule rainfall and fierce, unremitting sunshine.
These small towns often had English names that conjured up in my mind a completely different image,such as Ilfracombe – a quaint little place,whose main claim to fame was ‛a mile of old vehicles’, which lined its only street. A far cry from the seaside town of stone buildings in faraway Devon.
The drive across the central deserts along deserted and dusty roads was incredible. We saw perhaps a dozen vehicles in a day. Outside Boulia, a crude sign announced ‛Next Fuel 460 kms’.
In the ‛dusty Diamantina’, ’roos bounded along beside us, then, with suicidal tendencies suddenly crossed the road.
Huge road trains swamped us in clouds of dust.
from one side to the other to avoid potholes, frequently filled with ‛bull dust’,a trap for the unwary, because the holes could be half a metre deep, but the soft dust made them appear innocently smooth. It was a strange experience to be barrelling along on the wrong side of the road for several km at a time, seeking out the better going.
Alice has a horrifyingly high rate of crime and is on the ‛not recommended’ list for tourists in many countries. That the Aboriginal people are in a sorry state would be a masterpiece of understatement, but no-one seems to know how to give them back their sense of purpose. You can hardly blame them for preferring to eat out of tins rather than to spend days searching for food that is barely sufficient to keep body and soul together, but like most people, they need some purpose in life. There is a confusing double-think at all levels: ‛No-one is asking them to become black white fellas’ is something I heard frequently, and yet the same people would say, ‛We need more and better jobs for Aboriginal people.’ And yet surely working at a job from 9 to 5, five days a week is exactly what white fellas do and not at all what black fellas did. It’s not lack of money, that’s the problem, it’s that life has no meaning for many of them. And problems of the spirit take a lot more fixing than problems of the bank balance.
White Australians, with their belief in ‛ a fair go’ are confused and embarrassed by the situation, but I also found a surprising proportion very racist. I can understand that the word ‛Aboriginal’ is a mouthful and I enjoy the Aussie way of shortening words for convenience, but even so, I could never hear people say ‛Abo’,without wincing. No doubt one could say ‛nigger’ without meaning to be pejorative, but it’s hardly respectful.
There are two reasons for going to Alice: it is the centre of this vast country, and it’s the gateway to the famous Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is now more commonly known. Rising out of apparently limitless spinifex plains, it is a startling sight – a huge, red monolith in the middle of nowhere.
constant stream of tourists, hauling their unfit and overweight bodies up the side of Uluru, by a rope, held in place with large stanchions hammered into the rock itself. It was not a pretty sight and we didn’t join in, but contented ourselves with viewing it from the roadside and driving on. It dominated the landscape for several hours until the scrub blocked it from sight.
One of the things that I had not expected in Australia, was the vast number of trees that cover so much of the country. While there were many scrubby little bushes growing no more than waist high, much of the landscape was covered in trees that were far too tall to see over, and in many places positively grand in their appearance.
After Uluru, we were on the Central Highway, which in the Northern Territory was little more than a rough track. While no part of it actually required us to use four-wheel drive, a less robust vehicle would have struggled to survive its ruts and corrugation. As we crossed the Great Victoria Desert to the gold fields of Western Australia, the road improved dramatically and we stopped to look at the litter of abandoned mine workings – old and new – that dotted the country,
through the Pilbara and Kimberley. WA is even bigger than Queensland
– and this northern part is remote and untouched. Red rock and spinifex,
aboriginal rock art,
boab trees, wonderful birds and, in the Kimberley, masses of running water – a delight
after all the arid country we had traversed. Although it was mid winter, the sun was hot enough that it was glorious to be able to swim - or even to wash our hands,
crocodiles permitting. Saltwater crocodiles are fearsome beasts and can travel a long way up the rivers. Even their small freshwater cousins grow to 2 metres.
We rarely saw the sea in the Kimberley and Top End, because big tides and mangroves keep the road well inland.
We travelled along the Gibb River Road, notorious for the number of punctures it causes. GEG didn't survive unscathed, but we drove this road with old tyres and the one that shredded itself was so worn, it was probably illegal.
A few days later GEG's electronic fuel ignition ceased functioning. After 3 days of fiddling, Trevor got it going long enough for us to limp back to the bitumen. We needed a tow truck to take us the 100 km to Katherine, the nearest town, where he spent 4 days sorting out the problem with help from experts mechanical and electrical, and a computer program. At the end of the process, poorer, wiser and with bloody knuckles, Trevor said that he knew what the F in EFI stood for! As always: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
There had been plenty of rain in this area, and our days were enlivened by creek crossings, some deep enough to lap over the door sills.
Now we needed our 4WD and high ground clearance. The Kimberley was amazing: rushing water and abundant life contrasting with arid hillsides. To be there in the Wet when the summer rains cut off much of this country for weeks, must be an unforgettable experience.
On across the north of the country almost to Darwin, before turning south, back into Queensland. The lovely wetlands and tumbling rivers were left behind and water was again a rare commodity. We stopped by a grateful oasis on the Diamantina, alive with parrots, pelicans and spoonbills. This was the billabong
of Waltzing Matilda and we camped 'under the shade of a coolabar tree'. A few thousand more kilometres, and we were back to Iron Bark. Our sturdy little home seemed very luxurious after 2 months living in a tent and cooking on wood
fires. But now we need to get on with the chipping and painting.