Two Yankees and 14 days in a borrowed Land Cruiser
Nothing now but the greatest good luck can now save any of us; and as for myself, I may live four or five days if the weather continues warm. My pulse are at forty-eight, and very weak, and my legs and arms are nearly skin and bone … starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant.
–William John Wills, June 26, 1861
We had spent the last week following the trail of Robert Burke and John Wills from Melbourne to Innamincka, on the banks of Cooper Creek. It was here that Burke and Wills breathed their last breath; their emaciated bodies being put to rest by the lone survivor, John King. One afternoon, sitting next to the grave of Burke, we tried to imagine the strife and struggle they endured in their last days. John Wills, as he penned his last journal entry, had a clear vision of the future. He died on June 28.
Currently in the middle of the Simpson Desert, we were a hundred miles from the nearest settlement. Fourteen hours earlier, on the previous afternoon, our alternator died. Mud, dust, more mud, and sticky brushes had rendered it DOA. We’d worked into the night in an attempt to resuscitate the lifeblood of our vehicle’s electrical system. Time under the hood of our dead vehicle gave us plenty of opportunity to think about that afternoon with Burke’s headstone. Unlike Burke, we had a satellite phone, plenty of food, and the French Line track received a fair amount of traffic. It is not likely that anyone would be writing our obituaries any time soon: but the 100 miles to town did pose a concern.
The other part of “we” was fellow Four Wheeler contributor Ned “Master Mechanic” Bacon. After Ned’s trail fix (I had put on the camp skirt and made dinner), we couldn’t wait until morning to know if we’d be walking back to Birdsville; Ned gingerly turned the key. We did a little victory dance around a bottle of Bundaberg Rum as the engine fired and the charge gauge jumped straight to 14 volts. Crossing the Simpson, which I’d been denied on previous treks, would be ours.
Australia had emerged from a decade-long drought with a vengeance. The blue lines on the map, which usually indicate a dry creek or lake, now had meaning. Low areas between the Simpson’s 1,000-plus north-south running sand dunes offered lots of bogging and slogging. To add to the snotty mess, it began to rain; and rained all day. If we made it to the Mount Dare Roadhouse this night, another 150 kilometers, we’d treat ourselves to one of their famous Australian steak dinners.
In the desert, life is spelled w-a-t-e-r. Without it, your cattle and sheep die, your chickens die, your crops die, and you need to find another place to live. Dalhousie Springs is a good example of the gift of life in the desert. A collection of 60 artesian springs, Dalhousie, is the largest of the Mound Spring system, and provided water for Simpson Desert livestock prior to the drilling of the current bore system. We passed the decaying ruins of the old cattle station en route to Mt. Dare.
Aussie Speak, the Old Ghan, and Alice Springs
In their typical non-conforming fashion, Australians have developed a new word to define just about every aspect of life in the Outback. In their direct and good-natured way they’ll lay down a gauntlet of Aussie nomenclature that will leave you quite confused. I received this greeting on a previous trek through Queensland in 2000:
“G’day mate … Ya on ya pat? … Good on ya!! Pull a tennie from the esky and join us for some tucker. Ya good on the fang? Take a squiz at the snags on the barbie, no salad pushers here mate.” If this made no sense to you, no worries; let me translate from Aussie speak to proper English.
“Hi friend, are you traveling alone?” You see, Aussies like things that rhyme, so follow along: “pat,” as in Pat Malone, rhymes with alone. So if you are traveling alone you are “on your Pat.” Make sense? Okay, not really. But when you pass through the equatorial zones heading for the land down under, the world takes on a different look; toilets flush backwards, they drive on the wrong side of the road, and the Big Dipper is nowhere to be found. I’ll continue: “Grab a beer from the ice chest and join us for dinner. Are you hungry? Check out the hot dogs on the BBQ, no vegetarians here ay?” Ahhh, Australia, it’s a place everyone should experience at least once: And as for the Aussies, they have a perpetually comic nature and have a way of finding humor in just about anything (you would too if your gene pool was spilled over from a river of British convicts).
Example: One of Australia’s national heroes is Ned Kelly, a bank robber. Kelly, who was wanted for the murder of three police officers, slipped on a suit of armor and, with two guns drawn, charged straight into the pointed guns of a 30-man posse. It must have run in the family; Kelly had been born to an Irish convict father. By the way, he survived with only minor gunshot wounds … but was hanged shortly after.
Pulling into Mt. Dare in a torrential downpour, we slopped our way through the red mud to the pub. Sporting a traditional Aussie duster and Akubra full-brim hat, the publican greeted us, “G’day boys, it’s a bloody mess out there, they’ll be shut’n the road I reckon, lucky you got here … come on in.” We’d successfully crossed 500-plus kilometers of the Simpson’s dunes and bogs; it was time for a steak, a shower, and considering the 4 inches of standing mud, a room.
The Ghan railroad, which ran between Port Augusta in the south to Alice Springs in the north, introduced Central Australia to the conveniences of modern life. Prior to the Ghan, it was a multi-week horseback or camel ride to Alice Springs. Distances between sheep stations, which are often ten thousand square kilometers, were so great that it was not uncommon for grown adults to have never visited a city.
We crossed into the Northern Territory and pulled onto the Old Ghan rail bed heading north towards Alice Springs. We’d been warned of getting tire punctures from the thousands of railroad spikes left over from when they pulled the tracks. We attempted to dodge them at first, a futile effort, and ended up tossing caution to the wind and trusting that our BFGoodrich Mud-Terrains would prevail. We were also warned that if we got stuck, it might be a day or so before another car came by.
About mid-day, we came upon our first traffic jam; a family towing a camp trailer with an SUV. They were off the road and main track and buried up to the frame. In the process of pulling them out, we found ourselves in a bog as well. Fortunately, we’d borrowed the Land Cruiser from ARB and it was stocked with a pile of recovery straps and winch line extenders; we needed all of them to reach the one worthy tree. Three hours later, with every person and bit of gear a bloody muddy mess (a set of Maxtrax worked wonders for this recovery), the family was on their merry way.
I’m not sure why, but Alice Springs has been on my bucket list. Maybe it’s their annual boat race in a dry riverbed. In any account, it would be the only town of substance in our foreseeable future and a good place to top off supplies. Our next destination would be Uluru (Ayres Rock), a magnificent sandstone monolith some 450 kilometers to the southwest: by paved road, which is boring.