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Written 15 November
One does not simply point a car into the middle of nowhere and drive.
It can be done. And in retrospect, I could have done it. After all, nothing really went wrong in the Outback. No extra parts were needed. There were no breakdowns. Yet, were the situation reversed and I broke down in the heat without water and without hope, my last thousand thoughts would have been about the ways in which my stinginess resulted in my death. It would have been a my-kingdom-for-a-horse moment, or series of moments. And then I would die, desiccated by the unforgiving landscape.
That is all a bit melodramatic. After all, I don’t have a 4×4. I was not trying to drive across the Simpson Desert. I am not going to be able to escape people on long-forgotten cattle drive tracks. I am driving on bitumen. I am taking the major routes between towns. Granted, “major” has a different definition out of the big cities. One lane in each direction is pretty big when you look at the other options. For stretches of hours between fuel stations in the middle of Queensland, in places that look flat and dry and desolate yet are populated by more “Floodway” signs than vehicles, the government has given up on trying to maintain a developed nation road. For long stretches the road is one lane wide, with about a car’s width of hard-pack dirt on either side. You drive down the middle until you see an oncoming vehicle* and you each move over. It is a slight nuisance to have to slow down and move over onto the “shoulder” when another car comes. Mainly the annoyance comes from the fact that as soon as you pass you are driving into a giant dust cloud that takes a few seconds to settle into visibility again. On the plus side, you’ve already retaliated by doing the same to them in advance.
But even so, even without truly going off the grid, I prepared for the Outback trip to go wrong. It would be two months, loading my car up with adults I didn’t know and their stuff, driving between outpost “towns” in landscape I had never encountered, seeing sights, stopping for whatever seemed interesting, and probably making some questionable life decisions. I didn’t know in advance what they would be, but the chance of going a couple months without them was pretty slim.
And so I loaded up the car with the necessities.
Admittedly my list of necessities was a bit different from Hunter S. Thompson’s. Then again, I wasn’t going off in search of the American Dream. I was off towards the modern American version of the Australian Dream. Or maybe it was the American Dream set in a different country. Whatever I was searching for, it wasn’t going to require a trunk full of drugs. If nothing else I needed the space for camping gear and clothes.
On top of the car went the roof-rack first. It seemed a more logical place than its previous location of the trunk.
Attached to this was a jerry can and a spare tyre**. Neither of these were particularly great or useful items. The tyre was just that – a tyre. There was no wheel in the middle. It was just a spare donut, in case we lost two tyres and had someone around who could fit this on. The jerry can was even more useless. It stated “Diesel Only.” My car took unleaded. Then again, the longest distance we would be going between service stations turned out to be 276km. My car went at least 550km on a tank. I guess the jerry can could have been used as a bartering item at some point. Beggars can’t be choosers. I suppose neither can thieves.***
In the spare wheel well was the actual spare wheel and tyre. Around this I crammed some emergency survival gear. Radiator hoses in case the fitted ones burst. And a fan belt to charge the alternator. The internet told me that a car can be driven with most other things broken, albeit uncomfortably, if required. But without the ability to cool the engine and charge the battery, the car would at best die and at worst melt / burst into flames. Given that we were to be in the desert, the car didn’t need any help in the spontaneous combustion department.
Also around the wheel went an air compressor. To increase traction on sand and soft soil, in case we got stuck, you’re supposed to let air out of the tyres. Makes sense. The problem then becomes driving on solid ground again under-inflated. Again, best case scenario is really bad fuel economy that might leave us stranded between fuel stations. Worst case scenario would be melting tyres. Really, a decent amount of prevention for the Outback is ensuring your car doesn’t change state from solid to liquid and/or plasma.
The jack compartment got spare rope for the roof rack and any other things we could think to tie. I suppose had we a tent emergency we could create a lean-to with this and a tarp. Then again, we would probably have needed a tarp for that.
The tire-iron****compartment got a tow rope. The Subaru is powerful and has a trailer hitch. However, the tow rope was more in the interest of soliciting help from others in bigger vehicles as they passed our stranded vehicle. Amazingly, despite taking the 2WD over some 4WD recommended tracks, and one of the drivers hitting the dirt shoulder at over 100 km/hr, we never ended up stuck in sand or dust.
To further the preparations for the unforgiving sun, from the same source as the jerry can came two 5L water coolers. In addition to these I saved every screw-top bottle we used along the way to fill up with water. By the time we rolled back into Sydney there was carrying capacity for at least 25L of water in the car. Had we been stranded, we would have been hydrated.
A sun screen for the back window and the rear passenger windows made the list. They would shield the direct sunlight from coming in. Then again, I got nothing to shield the windows on the sides of the car that go into the trunk of the wagon. But it was usually so filled up with stuff I just tried to put light colored things in those spaces.
There was an esky as well, generally filled with some things that we were hoping to keep at a constant temperature rather than letting them boil during the days. It didn’t usually work since we were too cheap / lazy to buy ice.
There were plates for four, cups for five, cutlery for fewer, and a camp stove with pots and pans. There really isn’t much point to having food you can’t use.
If you end up waylaid in the Outback, the official method of signaling help is to start a tyre fire. People see a plume of black smoke and they come quickly. “Tyre fire” has always equated to putting a road flare in a spare donut for me. Road flares are apparently not a thing out here. I suppose if we had needed to we could just leave the tyre in the sun long enough. Or, failing that, use a lighter and any paper. Really, things in the Outback don’t need much help going up in flames in the dry season.
Noticeably absent from this list are jumper cables. The battery was strong and only died once. It didn’t die from age or mechanical fault. It died because we were idiots and charged our devices off it until it ran out of juice. But the car is manual, which means if you can get it going to about 10km/hr you can do a rolling start to kick it on. Easy if there is a hill. Still doable if you have three people.
The other main safety tip, aside from not driving at night, and telling people where you are going and when to expect you back in touch, is to never leave your vehicle in the event of a breakdown. Cars are reflective and large and show up to a helicopter quite easily. You are small and matte and don’t. In every case of a car dying out in the great Australian wilderness, the vehicle is found. If people stay with it, they are too. If not, sometimes the people are found a few days or weeks later, desiccated by the sun and the heat. Sometimes they aren’t.
Had the vehicle broken down, we had survival supplies. The rope and clothes and tents could have been set up to provide shade. The copious amounts of water would have kept us hydrated for a while. The copious amounts of food would have kept us with calories (e.g. energy). The portable speakers would have given us music. The alcohol would have provided us a temptation to resist due to the threat of dehydration. And there was a first aid kit to patch up any damage from a minor spin out and getting banged around. And the industrial bucket of sunblock would have shielded us from the Sun’s spiteful deathrays.
Had all gone horribly wrong, we would have been able to make it until help found us. We actually would have been able to make it for nearly a week. But given that we didn’t go off the beaten track, the longest we actually went without seeing another vehicle was about 2 hours. Eh. Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to not ending up like a mummy minus the gauze.
* One other vehicle out here constitutes traffic. If you can see two other vehicles at the same time, you’ve got heavy traffic.
** Stupid British/Australian spellings and pronunciations have infiltrated my brain. They’ll be in there for a while. At least as long as I’m writing about Australia.
*** I requisitioned (a much nicer word than stole) this jerry can from an abandoned vehicle outside of the hostel in Sydney. The 4×4 sat there, slashed tyres, unmoved, for at least 3 months before I took it. That doesn’t make it right, it just makes me not care.
**** I saw ‘tyre’ spelled out plenty. I never saw ‘tire-iron’ written. While I’m sure they maintain consistency, I can still in good conscience mix the two like this.