46. Australian Road Trip: Eighteen Knights in Exmouth. Act I

A Desert Fairy Tale

Sometimes events take on a mystical quality that transcends reality . So far, our journey around Australia has come to resemble a mythological odyssey, what with cyclones, floods, locust plagues and breakdowns. We have left our so called 'comfort zone' so far behind us that we may never find it again. Now, little do we know as we approach the town of Exmouth, that we are about to enter yet another Twighlight Zone, our own ‘fairy tale experience’, more Brothers Grimm than Disney – great material for a story though…

Starring (in order of appearance)

Manu, Eric and Hendrik - Dusty travellers from foreign lands.

Sir Aaron of Exmouth - Tall, dark, handsome, Master Mechanic, King of the Road.

Peter and Malcolm - Sir Aaron’s Squires, The Mechanics

Steve, the exRAC Guy – Jovial, beer loving knower of all things automotive, frequent traveller to exotic South East Asian lands.

Dave - Chatty ex-Londoner, a Dickensian secondhand book dealer who knows everyone in town; know what I mean?

Russell, the Autopro Guy - Also knows everyone in town

Dobbo - Salty Viet Nam War Veteren, an engine tinkering, beer loving fisherman.

Waddy, the Vehicle Tester Guy – who, according to none less than Dobbo, wears extremely tight work shorts, even by WA standards!

Camel - once famous WA surfer, gone troppo)

And so it comes to pass that we drive down into the blue desert, and as we did a month earlier near Pardoo, into the jaws of fate.

The setting sun burning a hole in rainless clouds
The setting sun burning a hole in rainless clouds

Exmouth is our Armegeddon

A markerExmouth Western Australia -
Exmouth WA 6707, Australia
[get directions]

The Exmouth peninsula is a rugged finger of desert that juts into the Indian Ocean.

A Night at Termite Nest

Abandon all hope - Winnie going nowhere
Abandon all hope - Winnie going nowhere
Sundown was never so lonely
Sundown was never so lonely
Dawn at Termite Nest
Dawn at Termite Nest

A penchant for cursing

The final 70 kilometres to Exmouth taunts us from a road sign; the sun hangs low on our left, streaming through the window, scattering dust motes in the cab. We both feel the sudden metallic sigh, the loss of power, the sway of the rear end. We both feel the axle snap…again!….Curses! Well, in fact, I scream the F-word over and over again while pounding the steering wheel in a massive, almost childlike rage, before advancing up the alphabet to scream an even more effective profanity while swapping my banging fists for my head. Meanwhile, the momentum we had gained from the subtle downward slope of the road gradually wears out and we find ourselves coasting feebly into a convenient gravel carpark in the middle of literally nowhere!

That’s us done! This is the end of the road. 69 kilometers down the road is Exmouth, the only town for hundreds of miles… our luck couldn’t even hold out for 69 lousy kilometres in this vast wilderness. It could be worse, I tell myself.

The gravel carpark we have fortunately ground to a halt in is called ‘Termite Nest’ (there is a sign). It makes Pardoo look like Hono-bloody-lulu. Termite Nest is a gravel area about the size of an Olympic pool, it is not even a rest area with a picnic table, fireplace and shade. All that is here is a yellow bin and a small wooden info board that talks about the rather unimpressive, turd-like termite mounds dotted about in the desert. I’ve seen enough effing termite mounds on this journey without breaking down in a car park named after the bloody things!

We are trapped here now. There is no traffic. The sun is turning golden on the horizon, forcing into stark relief, the tufts of spinifex ground cover and the sodding anthills. After a few cigarettes and a beer, I decide to remove the rear wheeI before dark with some crazy notion flying around in my head that I can fix it; half way through I think "naa, no point." I stop and begin to put the nuts back on the wheel.

At the same time a battered old Landcruiser rumbles into the car park. Three dishevelled young men emerge from it, shaking themselves and stretching back into shape. They walk toward us. Me... I’m still sitting in the dust retightening the wheel nuts.

“Hey,” one of them says in a distinctly foreign accent, “Dis iz de guy from de hostel”.

So I am.

“Ya man, dat iz him awright…hello man you remember you let uz use internet in Port Hedland…”

Instant Karma's gonna get ya...

So this is how Karma works - weeks earlier, and against your better judgement, because you’ve been put in charge, you let three dodgy looking travellers into the hostel in the middle of the day, when no one is about, so they can use the internet, because you feel sorry for them.

Now they are here in the lonely desert twilight, like roving angels of the outback, and because I was nice to them, we are effectively rescued. Karma.

And so it goes… Manu and Eric are from France, Hendrik is a Dane. They are weary, dusty, and adrenalin charged. They have driven many miles, from magical Karijini to this very spot, where they plan to sleep tonight before heading into Exmouth in the morning to search for work. They pitch their pup tents on the gravel over by the edge of the desert and later, under the sparkling shroud of the Milky Way, in the flicker of our hurricane lamps, we play guitars, drink beer and swap travellers yarns. Crucially they agree to take one of us into Exmouth in the morning to find help. Sheila must go, as one of us has to stay to guard the vehicle against marauders (Can’t blame me for being paranoid at this point).

Morning happens fast. The sun rises, as do our Euro-heroes. I bring them each a cup of fresh percolated coffee, then Sheila is waving goodbye to me through the dust-scarred back window of their Toyota. I must stay here to guard our home while she rides off with three men to get help. It’s our only way out of the outback.

Enter Sir Aaron

The morning wanes while I battle through a sci-fi novel about evil mobile phones. No fictional story can compete with this reality. Outside it is hot, windy and dusty. I sit inside. I eat toast and drink tea. I smoke a cigarette then another. I sit on the step and read several pages, I read the same paragraphs three times. Then a rig rolls into the pullover in a cloud of dust, the fierce desert wind swirling angry licks of earth-powder as it stops. It’s a long wheelbase Landcruiser towing a tent trailer. A typical Grey Nomad rig.

“You’re heading to Exmouth!” States the man as he steps from his cab. He’s a nuggety old Grey, bereft of any substantial hair on his sun-scoured head. “If you want a free night in the campground, take this receipt,” he says, handing me an invoice. “We paid for two but only stayed for one and the bastards wont give us a refund. Take it, use it, make them let you use it, it’s paid for, make sure they don’t get away with it the bastards, I mean…”

I quickly interject and tell him, “we aren’t going anywhere mate, we are broken down. But thanks so much anyway.” I notice on the invoice that his name is Bob. “Thanks Bob,” I add.

Like most Aussies, Bob is also a Mechanic (Rtd). He doesn’t offer to fix us, but he does recognise our semi-floating axles. I am impressed. Bob and his Missus roll out of Termite Nest, I wave goodbye to them with the Exmouth campsite receipt; a kind gesture and a piece of good, but ultimately useless, luck. You gotta laugh, I am. It’s a funny predicament.

Shortly, another vehicle rolls in from the south. Hiace pop-top, immaculate condition, English couple, mid sixties. I’m sitting on the step of the cursed Winnebago - the woman shouts over the whistling wind and swirling dust clouds, “Is there gas in Exmouth?” Me: (I think – ‘how the f**k should I know lady, I have broken-f**king-down.) Polite to a tee I actually reply - “I don’t know, I’m broken down.”

“Oh, I do hope they have some gas there, we may not have enough to make it further north if not.”

Me -(awww)

“I’m broken down, I say again, but I’m sure there will be gas in Exmouth.” They retreat to the relative dust free security of their van, then, a short while later offer me a cup of tea. “I’m broken down,” I say.

Then, in the shimmering distance, against the line of a low spikey ridge, I see a shiny thing. It materialises out of the road mirage and turns into a Pajero towing a large flatbed trailer. Then, yes, I see her in the front seat, it is Sheila, back with help, yippee! I think. The rig goes around and parks up in front of Winnie.

Sheila almost bounds from the cab of the Toyota as I move, with fake nonchalance from the step, finishing that damned paragraph one more time before closing the book for good.

Then, stark in the blazing midday sun, the tow truck driver emerges. He is a tall dark man. He strides purposefully towards me, hand outstretched. “How’ya going?” he says, “I’m Aaron.”

“This is Aaron, Mick,” says Sheila. (There are lots of ‘Aarons’ here in the Pilbara it seems). This Aaron is well over six foot tall, with a head of thick black hair. He faintly resembles someone famous, a movie star perhaps. He wears dark glass, a blue work shirt and small, tight, blue shorts. His feet are shod in heavy black Redback boots. He gets down in the dirt without a care and peers under the truck while I explain the quick history of our truck-with-no-luck. I think there’s an intrinsic problem somewhere causing this I say knowledgably. “Yes, that’s what I was thinking,” he replies.

We hook up Winnie and Aaron attempts to winch it onto the flatbed. We can see that it isn’t going to fit. “We’ll have to free-tow it” he says. “You done that before?”

(Yea, yea, let’s get on with it I think.) “Sure” I say.

While he rigs up a thick canvas tow rope I roll several fags for the road (definitely no knee-steering and ciggie-rolling during free-towing!) Then, with Sheila seated safely in the Toyota with Aaron and me controlling the hapless Winnebago, we set off slowly onto the highway. It’s 69kms to Exmouth.

Five minutes later, I’m sitting there, steering like a twit, eyes glued to the towrope to make sure it doesn’t go slack, puffing away on my second roll-up already. There’s the flat bed trailer between Winnie and the Toyota, we look like a comedy version of a road train - it’s a strange way to travel indeed. Then, talk about funny noises, there’s a loud metallic twang from behind as something major snaps. Winnie’s rear end suddenly crashes down onto the road and amid mad screeching and scraping of metal on asphalt I wrestle the steering wheel to keep control while flashing the headlights and leaning on the horn to let Aaron know that the rear wheel has fallen off the van and I am doomed. Imagine amplifying the sound of fingernails scrapping slowly down a classroom blackboard… that is the sound Winnie’s rear end is making as we are towed, or rather dragged, along the highway. This is it then - the poxy wheel has come off. We are all but dead. Welcome to the end of the road.

No more rolling for this mobile home

Note the scored asphalt where we were dragged along the highway on the the rear axle.
Note the scored asphalt where we were dragged along the highway on the the rear axle.

Snakes

In the hot afternoon sun, tempered by a brisk desert wind, we search through spinifex and charred acacia stumps for the missing wheel. Aaron strides fearlessly ahead into the scrub, about 100 metres from the roadside, while I step gingerly over the spikey ground in my thongs. Sheila is further along the road too, standing in the waist high bush, scanning for the missing wheel. ‘Watch out for snakes,” I shout. My voice is carried away by the wind. “Snakes!” I scream, “…watch out for them.”

“Snakes?” She shouts, “Yes,” I reply. She is back on the roadside in an instant. Then, from the other side of the road Aaron calls out that he has found the runaway wheel and is soon rolling it out onto the road. The irony of the situation is that it is the other axle that has snapped off, not the troublesome side that Jeff and Jamie at N&L had fixed, it is the other bloody side!!

Once again I am left minding the van while Sheila accompanies Aaron back into town. He says he will send a couple of guys back with the means to load Winnie onto the flat bed. How, I don’t know, but I spend the next three hours reclining in the van. It’s tilted at a crazy angle, due to there being no rear wheel. The interior is in total disarray. I don’t give a shit. I pick another novel from our bookshelf, a medical thriller about nanotechnology, and blot out the reality of our predicament. Every now and then the van shakes madly as trucks and caravans roar past the stricken vehicle which is sitting skew-whiff on the gravel verge of the desert highway. Through the net curtains I catch glimpses of faces in these vehicles, looking at us as they pass in a blur of sympathy and serves-you-right for bringing that heap into the outback. Like a paranoid neighbour on a gossipy street, I remain hidden inside.

The promised 'boys' eventually arrive in Aaron’s Pajero towing the flatbed trailer. Steve and Pete they're called. They’re dust covered Aussie grease-monkeys and they attack the task at hand with vigour and good cheer. Steve is retired but he used to be the local RAC man. He’s rescued all types of vehicles from this desert in his day, now he does it for “fun and a few bucks.” In the back of the flatbed they have a motley selection of long-handled jacks, steel plates and large pieces of wood. I can’t see how it’s possible to get a large three-wheeled Winnebago up a ramp and onto a trailer that is too small for it...

Two hours later and we’re driving down the road toward Exmouth town. Winnie sits up there on the trailer on a ramp made of wood and steel with a pair of jacks holding up the broken corner. It was one of the greatest engineering feats I have ever witnessed and these two blokes just take it in their stride. I join in with their chat as we near the town but actually I’m thinking "what the hell do we do now?"

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