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13. Australian Road Trip: Snowy Mountain breakdown
A Lesson Learned in the Bush
Leaving Ballarat and the 'Goldfields', we pass through that other grand Victorian gold rush town, Bendigo, then cut across the centre of the state. Our next destination is the Great Dividing Range, the massive spine of mountains that runs for thousands of kilometres, from Far North Queensland to here, in the far south. In particular, we are planning to cut through that part of the Range known as the 'Roof of Australia', the Snowy Mountains.
Christmas is less than two weeks away and we need to return to Sydney to celebrate my first Christmas back home for nearly two decades. Of course it is summer Down Under so there is no chance of a 'white Christmas' in the Snowy Mountains, though in the winter the area of snow coverage here is greater than Switzerland, and there is a thriving and vibrant ski industry. So, we enter this last phase of our first stage of our Around Australia Road Trip with urgency, altitude and, on my part, a slight hangover.
Famous Last Words...
The Hills Have Eyes.
After an evening spent emptying tinnies with a group of feral stockcar racers in a motel carpark in Benalla, we head north, stopping on the way for a photo in front of the Big Ned Kelly in Glenrowan.
For those born on another planet, Ned Kelly is arguably Australia's most famous son. In his short life, this Irish/Australian fought against the Crown and the law, killing police, robbing trains and attempting to forment a working class revolution that still has resonance today. Not only that, Ned Kelly wore a suit of armour and is accredited with some really cool last words, spoken on the gallows in Melbourne Gaol in 1880 - "Such is Life." (The modern equivalent to this could be "Shit happens.")
From Glenrowan we leave the main highway and disappear into beautiful and sparsely populated countryside, sliding effortlessly along a winding road through a landscape of golden grasslands and forested hills that skirt the misty blue mountain ranges to the east. It’s a beautiful day: not too hot, with fluffy clouds scudding across an azure sky, spring flowers in abundance, a light breeze stirring the stately gums that line the roadside. The road later follows the shoreline of Lake Hume, a man-made reservoir in the Murray River Valley. Gaunt, skeletal trees rise from the sparkling waters and grim fence posts speak of submerged fields and drowned townships. There is something vaguely spooky about this empty hill country; a feeling enhanced by the fact that we appear to be the only vehicle on the road.
Peter Carey's Booker Prize winning novel
More about Ned Kelly
The story of Ned Kelly is one of Australia's great narratives and has been the subject of novels, films and socio-political debate. Ned Kelly is part of the Australia psyche; in many ways he helps define Australian attitude and behaviour.
Ned's exploits were well documented at the time, so there are many excellent historical accounts, complete with gory press photos and eyewitness accounts. New York-based Aussie Author Peter Carey wrote a Booker Prize winning novel (opposite) which captures not only the spirit of the Kelly Gang but Ned's voice in all it's primitive, colonial eloquence.
Cinema hasn't been that kind, though I personally loved the 60's version which, controversially starred Mick Jagger as the eponymous hero. The latest film version, more an adventure romp, stars the late, great Heath Ledger - watch 'em both!
Cover version of the Red Gum song
Red Gum, Aussie Republican folk band with a great song about Ned Kelly
High above the flooded towns, the rugged mountain ranges
Up, up and up.
The road begins to rise, at first gently and later with attitude, and still our stout van keeps rolling. We fill up in “The Town that was Moved in the Fifties,” where we obey the “Last petrol before Corryong” sign. We go on. The sun is bright and high in a clear afternoon sky, and hope, and luck is on our side as we emerge from a steep wooded hill to see an old pub at the hamlet of Koetang. It is the classic Aussie bush-pub, a single-story, ramshackle structure with a tin roof and a covered verandah all round. Inside it is cooled by fans and has a rustic, homely feel to it. The beer is icy cold. A Pizza and a couple of VBs (Victoria Bitter) later and we are back on the lonely road. Corryong comes and goes and some miles later a sign directs us to turn right up a long, steep road toward Khancoban. A couple of hours later and we are camped in the hot afternoon sunshine on the shores of another manmade lake; mountains encircle us and there is a stillness in the air disturbed only by the bother of flies. Eventually those evil insects retire and we watch the canopy of stars unfold above us on a clear mountain night. One car travels past, its headlights briefly pan across the campsite like the beam from a lighthouse before its taillights are swallowed up into the immense black wilderness that lurks beyond Khancoban.
Rousing Aussie film based on a famous poem by Banjo Patterson
Who, what or where, is Tom Groggin
In the morning we are up and away before the flies arise. Immediately out of Khancoban the road gets serious. It narrows and rises steeply for some kilometres, a deep ravine forming below as we ascend. Then it crests and goes down - a long, winding, drive-it-in-first-gear hill that eventually crosses a narrow bridge over a swirling torrent of snow-melt before rising again. So it goes: up, up up, then down again. Each corner requiring a gear change, each hill taking its toll on our van.
Have you ever smelt the aroma of burning clutch? It smells especially nasty when you are 50 kilometres from civilisation in any direction and are on what is probably the steepest and most twisted hill in all of Australia. It is a hill that doesn’t relent in it’s upward ascent until it reaches the appropriately named “Dead Horse Gap”, a place so rugged that even the wild brumbies that live in these mountains get trapped and die there in the winter. It is here, at Tom Groggin Rest Stop, almost exactly halfway between Khancoban and Jindabyne, that our Round Australia Road Trip grinds to an abrupt and ignoble halt.
A minute’s silence.
Looking on the bright side, at least we have broken down at a convenient place in the wilderness. Tom Groggins has a large shady picnic area and a rudimentary but clean toilet block. It set in a deep valley, and has the Upper Murray River running beside to add to the scenic value.
Tom Groggin - Halfway between the Middle of Nowhere and The Black Stump
Tom Groggin rest stop is actually situated to the west of the marker (A) at the corner point of the Alpine Way, just down from the Murry Gorge.
The exact location of Tom Groggins
What to do? Aside from panic and cry, we carefully weigh up our options. They are -
- Get on the mobile and call for help - Not possible – there is no signal in the bush.
- Attempt to drive back to Khancoban - Not possible, no clutch
- Continue on the road to Jindabyne (58km) - Not possible, No clutch.
- Wait and see what happens - Maybe the clutch will repair itself after a bit of rest - Not possible.
- Hitch-hike to Jindabyne to get help - A very good idea but it would mean abandoning ship with the fear of returning some days later and finding it a stripped and burnt out shell. Neither of us wants to stay out here alone while the other goes for help.
- Wait for a works truck to come by - We are in a national park after all, so there is a good chance there will be a Parks vehicle or Works Truck coming past at some time. They could then radio for help or even, if equipped with a towbar, haul us up the hill to safety. I like this plan. It contains a bit of Plan Number Four too, the ‘Wait and See’ option. It doesn’t admit defeat and it could, if we can wangle it, mean a free tow out of the valley. It means we can just sit tight and wait. I will scan the road for the appropriate vehicle and Sheila can chill out with a good book in the shade until help arrives.
Things to do at Tom Groggin Picnic spot
- Have a picnic
- Check out the river (fish if you have the kit)
- Get to know the kangaroos that abound there
- Listen for other vehicles coming, way off in the distance
- Take advantage of the relatively clean and hygenic bush toilet
- Kill flies
Good views and friendly locals
The Trial and Execution of Plan Six
So we go with Plan Six. We push the van to a better spot in some shade, but still near enough to the turn-off so we can be seen from the road. I then stand confidently up at the roadside by the entrance to the rest area, awaiting the arrival of a large truck with flashing yellow lights and a towbar.
There are however, circumstances that we don’t count on. For one, it is very hot, despite being high up in the mountains. Tom Groggin sits in a deep sheltered valley, where the sun bores down with ferocious intensity. By noon there is little if any shade and I didn’t expect the flies, so horrendous further south, to be so bad at this altitude. Wrong – they are breeding as I look at them. Fast moving, irritating, infuriating, buzzing little carriers of insanity. I stand there waving them away in a frenzy and am so distracted that I miss the first vehicle that suddenly appears out of the forest, rounds the broad bend where I stand, and gets swallowed by the forest again as it heads up the hill toward Dead Horse Gap and Thredbo.
Sheila meanwhile, has retreated to the relatively fly-free-zone of the van, though is soon oven-like within and I can hear her swearing bitterly at flies that still manage to find their way inside.
Then a big 4x4 comes into view. It has a logo on the side door and three people within. I run onto the road and flag them down. A cool breeze emerges from the air-conditioned interior when the driver opens his window. I tell him our plight.
“You wont find any help in Thredbo this time of year mate.” He says. “Only find a towtruck in Jindabyne, if you’re lucky. They don’t like coming out this far.”
I ask him if he would try to call a tow truck for us at Jindy and he says he will do his best. Then they are gone. The afternoon wears on. I push the van to a shadier spot and then the kangaroos come out. First a mother with a joey in her pouch hangs about curiously. Then more and more of the creatures congregate in the undergrowth and on the natural grass lawns that carpet the site.
During the whole afternoon barely a dozen vehicles come past, in either direction, and it becomes apparent that without extreme patience and extraordinary luck, Option 6 is to be a failure. Then things take a turn for the surreal. At about 3pm I hear a motor gearing down, far off in the distance. A few minutes later a boy on a BMX bike appears from the Thredbo direction, closely trailed by an old black Holden sedan. The bizarre convoy swings into the picnic site and comes to a halt next to us.
The bike rider is a twenty-something lad in a baseball cap, t-shirt and jeans, the driver of the car is dressed in a similar manner. The biker has just ridden his BMX down the steepest hill in Australia! The driver of the car says that he had reached speeds of 80km per hour. The rubber on his tyre is worn to cloth, his brakes stink and I can see the adrenalin oozing from his pores. The driver of the car is likewise excited and reckons that his brakes were so hot you could fry an egg on them. We chat casually while they wait for things to cool down. They are a pair of young P-platers from Melbourne risking their lives in pursuit of speed on wheels. Half an hour later and they are off. The BMX goes in the boot of the black car and they wish us luck. The roadster fish-tails out of Tom Groggin and screeches up the hill toward Khancoban, leaving a cloud of blue smoke and a pair of black rubber streaks 100 metres long on the asphalt. For several minutes after they disappear into the bush I can hear the engine revving and the tyres screeching until it fades to nothingness and the buzz of flies and click of cicadas reclaim the silence.
I go back to killing flies to pass the time. Then a big maroon 4x4 with yellow lights on the roof and two men inside wearing high visibility jackets turns into the site. I signal them and they just wave back and continue past me into the further reaches of the picnic area. While I scratched my head in confusion, another 4x4 hurtles past on the highway, a National Parks logo on its side. I wave in a rather sad and futile way as it powers up the hill, I have missed the most likely rescuer so far…. Ah woe is me.
Sheila and I wonder about the earlier truck that went somewhere in the bush behind us. I stand on the gravel track blocking their way if they should return. Eventually they do and this time I stop them. Tell them the story and like auto mechanics they tut, shake their heads, and draw breath through their teeth at the severity of our situation. “Anything’s possible for a price mate” says the driver.
“OK, how much to tow us out of here then mate?” I responded.
“I’d need a new clutch too if I tried that mate.” He replies.
He does agree to contact a tow truck in Jindabyne. I am finally ready to give up the vigil. Inside the van Sheila has managed to kill all the stowaway flies and despite the heat it is relatively comfortable in there now. All we can do is sit and wait for help to arrive, unless that mythical Works Truck with the static towbar suddenly appears.
As the afternoon turns to evening we push the van to a more pleasant picnic spot under some trees. We are less visible from the road here and have access to a campfire and a view of the rapidly flowing headwaters of the upper Murray River just 50m below. Kangaroos are all around us now, alternating between grazing and staring curiously at us. I crack a cold beer and for the first time that day we both manage to relax in the fly-free coolness of the coming night. Then it begins to rain.
A heavy downpour forces us into the van where we cook a tasty meal of sausages, eggs and fried potatoes. I drink some red wine and later, when the rain stops I take a walk in the fading light into the forest behind the picnic site. The landscape soon opens up a short way on to reveal a vast grassy meadow, studded with gum trees and dotted with the curious heads of countless kangaroos. Rozellas squawk and dart amongst the trees and a gentle stillness lays over the wilderness while the mountains encircling us loom black and foreboding.
Incident with the White Dog
At 9pm we sit huddled in the safety of our broken home and arrange ourselves in the cramped confines to watch a DVD. We go through our library of films, avoiding anything that might scare, depress or sadden us.
No sooner have the introductory credits to a classic British comedy rolled than a blinding flash of lightning followed by a terrifying crash of thunder erupts all around us. The steady patter of rain on the roof suddenly becomes a thunderous drumming and more lightning signals a massive storm overhead.
Then, through the rain lashed window, in the wet gloom of darkness I can see a white creature lurking over by the camp fireplace. At first I think it is just a crazy kangaroo but a strobe of lightning reveals it to be a dog of some kind. A dingo perhaps. Fear sends a shiver through me and Sheila turns pale in the ghost dog’s presence. “Shut off the light!” I whisper. “Don’t go out there Mick,” Sheila pleads as I prepare to open the sliding door. Then she gets REALLY scared when I arm myself with our tomahawk.
This is palatable fear that I am feeling. I have brought us both here and despite knowing that the odds of anything nasty happening to us are slim, I can’t help thinking about the Peter Falconio incident and then there’s that Wolf Creek film we saw for a laugh a few weeks ago. I’ve travelled enough in Australia to know the stories and legends of the bush. I also know enough to be scared-ish; the thunder, lightning and lashing rain doesn’t help either.
From the darkened interior of the van I check outside through all the windows before sliding silently out of the side door. The animal is still snuffling nonchalantly around the fireplace. I check behind me and tip-toe closer, tomahawk at the ready. I can now see that it is indeed a dog, a domestic pet about the size of a husky, not a dingo at all.
But what does that mean? In this tumultuous storm, in a place so wild and remote, where we are supposed to be the only humans, I can only guess as to where this dog has come from. There must be an owner somewhere near. Perhaps a deranged bushman is hiding in the trees watching us and, waiting for a chance to attack.
I shine the torch around the bush, while the white dog snuffles closer and closer to the van. Sheila, meanwhile is pleading with me to come inside and lock the door. I finally obey, relatively satisfied that no humans are lurking in the vicinity, though the dog remains a mystery. We forget our DVD and huddle in the locked van as thunder and lightning continue to echo about the hills. Eventually we make up the bed, and with all doors locked and curtains drawn; and torch, tomahawk, big stick and knife stashed about the bed within easy reach, we attempted to rest. Drowsiness turns into dream-adled sleep.
I awake to see stars in the sky through a slit in the curtains. Then flashes appear. I get up on one elbow and peer out into the night. There are masses of stars up above but the flashes are bright and constant. Somewhere over the mountains, a major storm is punishing the wilderness. It is 3am. I doze again. At about 5am the storm hits us good and proper. Cataclysmic thunder claps crack through the valley and are quickly drowned by the torrential rain that batters the earth. Just as it is as heavy as you could imagine rain can get, it gets heavier. Then it turns to hail, thick round golf balls rattle down on our flimsy roof while water drips through the thin canvas sides of the pop-up. We lower the roof and weather the assault until the rain eases and the storm passes. Then it comes again with equal ferocity. We fear the nearby river might rise, or a flash flood will surge through the valley, swallowing us up like a tsunami.
The breaking of dawn finally brings peace. We emerge from the van into the dripping forest, wet and bedraggled Kangaroos greet us, and suddenly a 4x4 emerges from the depths of the forest behind Tom Groggin, splashing through the puddles as it goes. A small white dog has its nose pressed up against the back window as it drives onto the highway and heads up the hill toward Thredbo.
That’s it. There’s nothing left for us to do. We pack our valuables – and after devouring a substantial breakfast, lock the van and stand out on the roadside with our thumbs out. The first vehicle along is a 4x4 and it stops. That’s what people mostly do out in the bush. They stop and help. Our rescuer sums it up for us as we pull away from Tom Groggins. “You guys are lucky” he says. “This is the bush out here and anything can happen”. He’s right. Anything can happen and it did.
The Wolf Creek movie again...
The sad and horrific true story of an Outback murder mystery
Dead Horse Gap to Jindabyne and Back
As we climb the big hill to Thredbo it becomes apparent that we would never have made it more than a hundred metres up the road with anything less than 100% of a clutch. Dead Horse Gap is indeed a forlorn and desolate place, deserving of its name. The road from Tom Groggin climbs from a lush forested valley to a high altitude land of rocky tors and stunted snow gums at the edge of the tree-line. Thredbo, trendiest town in Australia during the ski season is a ghost town in the spring. Once past the quiet resort the road eases to a gentle downward grade. The landscape opens up to become picturesque grazing land, dotted with homesteads, cattle and sheep. Finally we come over a hill and there is Jindabyne, a modern township spread along the shores of a huge man-made lake. We are dropped off outside the tourist information centre.
After finding a phone number from the local garage I call the tow truck. Here’s the rub. The guy says that he has been expecting our call. “I knew you were down at Groggins” he explains, “A couple of people passed on your message, but there’s no way I can drive down there on spec – you might have managed to get it fixed or gone back to Khancoban or whatever. Only go out if I can speak to the client in person mate.”
So there you have it. We certainly did the right thing coming into town. Half an hour later Mick the tow truck guy turns up in a big flatbed truck. We store all our stuff in the Tourist Info centre and while I accompany him back to Tom Groggin to retrieve the van, Sheila goes off in search of accommodation.
The journey back into the mountains is quite exciting for me. Firstly, I know I am going to be able to rescue our van and, as I’m not driving, I can relax and enjoy the scenery and some good old fashioned conversation with Tow Truck Mick who has lived in Jindabyne for many years. He pushes the big flatbed around the tight bends with a local’s familiarity and I find myself clenching every part of my body as we negotiate the incredibly tight hairpins on the final descent to Tom Groggin. At the breakdown site the flies greet us with a lusty hunger. The van is winched onto the flatbed and we begin the painfully slow ascent back up that confounded mountain. It takes over an hour. Every time Mick changes gear, which is often, I pray that we don’t roll backwards, that his clutch doesn’t fail – the precipice that the road is balanced on is truly hair raising.
As luck would have it, Tow Truck Mick is also a mechanic so all we have to do now is wait around until he puts in a new clutch. I manage to find Sheila who has been wandering around town. The bad news is that there's not much to do in Jindabyne during the off-season and despite the constant sunshine there is persitant gale blowing down from the mountains and across the lake. Nevertheless we are relieved that our van is safe and in good hands, we are safe and, though thoroughly chastised for my folly at attempting the Alpine Way with less than 100% clutch function, are feeling positive about the experience. Yep.
There are lessons to be learned from this escapade. Never underestimate this country. It’s big and it’s wild and it is unforgiving if you mess up. Don’t rely on the usual things like the AA and mobile phones either. Most of all, if you do mess up, be prepared to be a bit scared, and carry a big stick.