Karijini was when disaster struck. On the way from Kalamina Gorge to Fortescue Camp I blew a rear tyre, but because of the way your back end slides over dirt roads, I didn't realise until I'd reached the camp, when I saw this lacerated and melted tyre hanging limply round the wheel hub. Cursing, because I'd only got new tyres in Perth and they still had plenty of tread left, I hoisted out the jack and set to work, but however high I jacked the car, I couldn't get the tyre to lift: it just stayed on the ground. Stumped, I assumed I'd smashed the rear axle or the suspension; this looked serious.
Just as I was trying to decide whether to panic, kick the car or make a cup of tea – all good reactions to a motoring problem when you're a huge distance from anything remotely civilised – a car pulled up containing a couple of Swiss girls. After I explained my problem, they very kindly offered to drive me down to the ranger's office, some 21km away, where I borrowed the ranger's phone to ring the RAC; by this time it was about five o'clock in the evening.
Now I've been on the receiving end of the AA's help in the UK, but considering the distances involved in this country, and the fact that I was about as stranded as it's possible to get in non-desert Australia, the RAC's service was pretty impressive. They took all my details and said they'd try to sort something out and would let the ranger know what was happening, and as she was visiting my campsite in the morning, she could tell me what was happening. Meanwhile the girls and I returned to camp, and I offered to cook for all of us as a thank you for helping me out.
Can you believe that these two – Eve and Sybil – only had an apple between them? To me this was bordering on the insane, so my offer of a rather tasty fettuccine with sour cream, mushrooms, broccoli, onions and mixed vegetables, plus some beef for the non-vegetarians among us, was pretty welcome, and yet again I discovered that things always work out; they needed food and I needed help, and everyone came out smiling. They were excellent company, and all of a sudden the prospect of having to resurrect poor old Oz in the morning lost its edge.
Off to Tom Price
The next day saw me waiting for the pick-up truck in the boiling sun, and eventually this old guy turned up with his winch and hooks. Imagine my embarrassment when he hoisted it up onto his truck, and took a look; the axle was fine, and he couldn't see any problems with it. We put on the spare tyre and it seemed to drive perfectly. I simply hadn't put the jack on the right spot; I'd put it under bodywork, rather than chassis, and this, of course, makes quite a difference, as I'd been jacking up the car body instead of the chassis. It would be an understatement to say that I felt like a total muppet.
Anyway, I still needed a new tyre – you don't go driving through the bush without at least one spare tyre – so I followed the pick-up man back to Tom Price, some 130km away. All the way I was gearing up for the cost of this fiasco and silently kicking myself; the pick-up man was charging A$1.75 per kilometre for his 260km round trip, and I still needed a new tyre on top of that. This was going to cost me a lot of money.
Imagine my amazement when the RAC said they'd pay for the whole pick-up cost – my policy said they would only pay for 100km of towing, but who was I to argue? – so all I had to do was buy a new tyre for just over A$100, and that was me dealt with. I'd gone from a possible disaster to an escape with the minimum price possible; I couldn't believe my luck, and while I was there I got the same garage to fix a loose plate under the car that was nearly coming off.
So I'll be taking those dirt roads a little more slowly, I think. They play havoc with your tyres and suspension, and if I had a posh car, I'd keep it well clear. You're not allowed to take hired cars onto dirt roads, and now I know why.
Plans Going Astray
I'm still in Tom Price, staying in a wonderful caravan park just by Mt Nameless, a huge, jutting, red mountain outside town. I've had a shower, washed my hair, and even washed my clothes, though the dreaded red dust is absolutely everywhere; even my black clothes are going red, though don't ask me how. The car engine is red, and the paintwork is that yucky sort of brown you get when you mix red and green, but what the hell; it's worth it.
But I've just been planning the next stage of my trip, and it's hit me that it all had to be too good to be true. I've simply run out of time; looking at the calendar, there is no way I can complete a whole circuit of Australia without growing wings or extending my visa, both of which are pretty impossible. It's a shame, because there's something cool about having driven round an entire continent, but I have to draw the line somewhere between the quality of travel and the amount of travel.
The part of the journey I've decided to sacrifice is the east coast, so from Darwin I'll drive down through the centre (which I was going to do as far as Uluru anyway), and I'll keep on going to Adelaide. The only part of the journey I'll be repeating is the Adelaide-Melbourne section, which can be driven in a day anyway, and if Dave and Karen are about, we could have a little reunion.
That way I still get to see the Red Centre, which is supposed to be really interesting, and I omit the most touristy area of the whole country, the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. Although the Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation, Cairns and Brisbane are supposed to be great, I can always visit the area later on in life, but I don't think I'll be able to go bushwalking in the Pilbara again, at least, not so easily. I'm disappointed, but there's nothing that I'd change if I had my time again – except, perhaps, not spending a month getting the car ready, but that was unavoidable – so I can hardly complain. I'll still have done the country justice.
The reason for the change of plan? I'd entered one figure wrong in my spreadsheet – or, rather, I'd forgotten to change the dates once I'd decided to stay in the Pilbara for the bushwalk – and I only spotted the error when I settled in Tom Price to fix up the car and review my plans. It's another valuable lesson: don't trust computers, because they're only as reliable as you are. There is a positive side to this, too: the shorter route is also considerably cheaper, as I'll be saving a heap of petrol. My car costs about A$8 of petrol per 100km, which is very cheap by British standards, but when you consider that I'll be omitting 4000km by leaving out the east coast, that's a lot of money saved. Besides, I have an excuse to return to Australia in the future: to explore Queensland!
However, I didn't arrive at this decision lightly. On my first night in Tom Price I sat and brooded, really annoyed at the prospect of having to drop Queensland from the itinerary. When I woke up the next day, I was in a foul mood, and decided to head up to the Millstream-Chichester National Park, between Tom Price and Karratha, to occupy my troubled mind
To get there, you need to get a (free) permit for the private mining road that heads north from Tom Price, which I duly did by visiting Hammersley Iron Pty Ltd1. I then set off in search of the mining road.
Could I find it? Could I hell, and before I knew it I was on the road back to Karijini. I backed up for a while and tried to find the turning, but I didn't know where I'd gone wrong, and I just flipped. All the pent up anger over the blown tyre, the change of plans, the lack of money in my account... it all came to a head, and I sat in the car, punching the steering wheel and shouting 'Aaargh' until I was hoarse. I was angry with myself, and my complete inability to get anything right.
Luckily Karijini had a solution in the form of Mt Bruce, and after pounding my way to the top of the mountain and taking some time out to explore some more gorges, I was ready for my second attempt to reach Millstream-Chichester.
1 If you've ever wondered what Pty Ltd stands for – it's after every company name in Australia, like just Ltd in the UK – it's 'Proprietary Limited', and much like limited companies back home, these are companies that have limited liability for shareholders, in return for certain restrictions.