LUCKY WE BOUGHT A JEEP
Who the hell was this guy? Where was the country hospitality? Had we really just dug ourselves out of the mud to be beaten at the finishing line by this asshole?
“Yeh no problems…you’ve got a Jeep,” she said
We were at the Tilpa pub demolishing a steak sandwich. I licked beetroot juice and fried egg from my fingers and considered the gathering clouds. The front was just over an hour away and we still had 140km of dirt road lined with mudflats. I looked at dad who glanced over his shoulder and took a long swig from his beer. Never one to take a backwards step, dad would push on.
The barmaid, a single mother in her mid 30’s sat in the corner of the bar bathing her child in a tub, cooing to him softly as she sponged his forehead. The humidity was building. We drained our beers and made for the door – thanking the cook on our way out.
The Jeep rocketed over a dirt road freshly graded for the Christmas traffic. I checked the rear view mirror. Red dust circulated in our wake while ahead the clouds darkened. We’d be right. We had the Jeep. Two weeks previous I’d made the same journey in the opposite direction. We’d crossed one cattle grate after another, dodging a legion of goats and a kangaroo or two underneath a cloudless sky. When it came time to make camp – I steered the Jeep confidently through low-lying scrub with dad’s words ringing in my ears…there’s nothing the Jeep can’t do. We were about to test that theory.
As we watched the rain approach, the road turned from red dirt to a fine grey dust that would soon turn to mud at the first sign of rain. The clouds loomed and the temperature dropped from 34 to 27 in a matter of moments. “This might make for good photos” dad said as I reached for my camera, snapping a few photos as it started to spit. I checked my phone. No service.
The rain came suddenly, splashing mud onto our windscreen – obscuring our view. Dad hunched over the steering wheel, elbows out, teeth gritted, urging the Jeep forward as the road became increasingly heavy. It was like trying to drive on an ice rink, the Jeep fishtailed dangerously, careering from side to side with nothing to grip. With each correction we avoided the mud pits that lined the road. If we lost control and slid off the crown, it was all over.
We passed a two-wheel drive Mazda, bogged on the side of the road. If we stopped we’d never get going again so we sailed past. Too busy gawking at the poor bastards we’d just left behind, we missed the flood plane sign. That is to say…I missed the flood plane sign. Dad was otherwise occupied at the helm of our sinking ship while the lookout had been slacking on the job. If a responsible adult had been present, (a title neither dad or I qualify for) we would have stopped and assessed the condition of the road before proceeding.
It was impossible. Dad desperately tried to keep course while the Jeep slid sideward into the gutter. We were going nowhere. The rain had started to ease but the damage had been done. We were bogged.
The moral of the story is to always be prepared for the worst. While we had enough food and water to keep us going, we hadn’t packed the maxi tracks. Truth be told, we don’t even own maxi tracks – so we did the next best thing and found an old gutter from a downpipe left as wreckage on the side of the road and a long plank of wood. We dug out the back wheels, dad on his hands and knees eating shit in a pool of mud. We lodged our makeshift maxi track under the back tyres and dad jumped back into the captain’s seat. I was feeling positive. The Jeep fired to life, the wheels spun, mud sprayed, the engine strained. Nothing.
Dad got out of the car and we both stood back to survey the damage, silently contemplating our next move. I still had faith. After all …the Jeep can do anything right…RIGHT?! I looked over at dad and wondered if he still believed it. I was impressed though; despite the drawn expression, there had been no swearing or lost tempers. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere, covered head to toe in mud and getting on with it.
We repositioned the back rails and laid a track of dried reeds in the hope it would give the front tires traction. We gave it another crack, the Jeep fired to life, the wheels spun, the mud sprayed, the engine strained and the jeep lurched forward. For a whole 5 meters and a victorious few seconds we were free. But once up there was nowhere to go but back down and the Jeep slid even further into the mud pit. This time there was swearing and dad stomped off into the surrounding scrub looking for answers.
I looked up to see the owner of the Mazda we had left behind in a spray of mud walking towards us. At least he was trying to. A big red kangaroo stood in his way, staring him down. As soon as the rain started, every living thing for miles around headed clear of the storm. This mass exit was unnerving, like Noah’s Ark except we hadn’t made the list. We were the dickheads headed straight into the storm. Cockatoos, snakes, rabbits, wallabies and some of the biggest kangaroos I’ve ever seen. It seemed that while most of his mates had made a run for it, Big Red had decided to stand and fight, ready to wage a war on the world, more specifically on Ben. If Ben moved left, Big Red moved left. If Ben moved right, Big Red had him covered. It was a stand off. I called dad over to watch. It occurred to me at the time that there was nothing more Australian than being stranded in the middle of the outback, covered in mud, watching a fight between a kangaroo and some bloke. Ben raised his arms and waved them in the air, a tactic we later learned was an attempt to make himself appear threatening. Big Red remained cool, calm and collected; I swear, I even saw him fake a left jab. Dad and I pissed ourselves laughing, yet again failing to even attempt a rescue. Eventually, Ben conceded defeat and retreated to the safety of his vehicle where his fiancé had witnessed the entire episode. She was unimpressed. Big Red left in disgust, the victor to an opponent who refused to step up to the plate.
With Big Red out of the way, Ben seized the opportunity and made a run for it. Traversing the 100m of mud between his vehicle and ours. He was on his way to Broken Hill with his fiancé. They had hoped to make the sculptures by sunset. No chance. His fiancé had already cracked open the champagne and Ben assured us he had plenty of cold beer. What more do you need?
With Ben as our wingman, Dad and I made one last attempt to leverage the Jeep from its mud bath. I thrashed the engine while dad and Ben pushed. Nothing. For the first time…we considered the possibility that we might be there for the long haul. Ben had been in contact with a local property owner who told us there was another inch of rain on its way that evening. Our prospects didn’t look great. I checked my phone for the first time since the rain started. I had one bar. A lifeline. I called the Wilcannia police station. “What’s your name, how many people are there, how old are you and how long have you been there?” I eventually got my message across in a series of staccato bursts hindered by dodgy reception. I presumed they would send someone to give us a hand. “Yeh we might send someone in the morning,” said the voice on the end of the line. I presumed wrong.
With the prospect of an overnight stay, I attempted to clean up, bathing in a puddle on the side of the road. The mud was like glue. It had dried to form clay shoes that looked like Hobbit feet. It was in my hair, on my face, under my nails. Dad looked on skeptically…questioning the rationality of attempting to wash mud off with muddy water. “We’ll be shitting mud for days,” said dad, ever the eloquent wordsmith. I changed into fresh clothes while swatting at flies, the muddy water having dried to form a second skin that was attracting my own swarm. Dad wandered off in search of reliable phone reception and I headed in the opposite direction to hit Ben up for that beer.
Ben’s fiancé was perched on the front of their stranded vehicle serenely sipping champagne. I noticed that unlike me she did not have hobbit feet and had not adopted a family of flies. I’ve always marveled at women who possess the ability to remain put together in any given situation. I am definitely not one of them. Given the opportunity, I turn primal within a moments notice, casting off any lady like illusions I may or may not have managed to cultivate. Unlike Dad and I – they seemed to have accepted their predicament with grace and good spirits, resigned to the fact they would be spending the night. We shared a laugh over Ben’s altercation with Big Red and chatted about their plans for the rest of the trip. If we had to spend the night, at least we would be in good company.
When I got back, dad was wandering up and down the road poking at the mud with his hobbit feat. It was over an hour since the rain had stopped and the sludge had firmed up somewhat. “Want to give it another crack?” Dad nodded, sliding into the drivers seat. He fired the Jeep to life and the car rocked forwards almost a foot. It was progress. With each attempt we were a little closer until finally dad floored the accelerator and the Jeep dragged itself up and out, shooting forward like a bull out of a gate. In the excitement, I lost my footing and face planted into the mud. What did I say about being put together?
Dad stopped 100m up the road, clear of the flood plane sign and waited for me to catch up. I’m surprised he let me get in the car; I was like a little feral bush baby trying to hitch a ride. I crawled into the passenger side, grinning with a sense of accomplishment. “Nice work dad,” I beamed, he looked worried, oblivious to my verbal high fives.
We crawled along at walking pace, the Jeep fishtailing dangerously, threatening all the while to slide off the road. I got out and walked alongside the car barking orders.
“Straighten your wheels.”
“Turn to your left.”
But the Jeep slid further and further off the crown of the road. We were dying a slow death, losing the battle in increments. Dad stopped, got out of the car, pulled out the camp chairs and placed them in the middle of the road. He walked back to the car, got his iPad out, took a seat and started checking his emails. I watched this performance with amusement. Dad had obviously reached his tipping point and decided he’d had enough reality for one day. I got my camera out to document the moment. It was an adult tantrum if ever I saw one. A silent fuck you to the car, the rain and to life in general.
“Are you going to set the tent up Poss?” Momentarily raising his head in my direction.
“Aaahh nope – I will not be setting the tent up,” I replied incredulously.
Dad had to be in Broken Hill the next morning to scatter his father’s ashes and damned if we were going to miss it but now was not the time to push the point. We needed to take a breather.
I sat down and got my phone out. When in doubt, refer to Google.
4WD traction in mud… I typed, scrolling through to an article that seemed appropriate.
“A sudden downpour on a country road or bush track can create a driving hazard, because clay or dirt surfaces turn into paste that has the friction of soap.
You need to drive very carefully in these circumstances, staying on the ‘crown’ of the road, to avoid sliding into the table drain.
The dark grey soils common around rivers, creeks or channels – even dried up ones are notoriously difficult to handle when wet. The best driving option in black soil country is; don’t. Wait a day or so, if you can.”
I laughed out loud and read the passage to dad. Maybe he was right…we were done. I fished out a can of tuna from the back of the car and took a seat next to dad.
I was finishing up my lunch when we heard it, the high-pitched whine of an engine in stress. It was coming towards us and fast. We scrambled to clear the road, just in time to see a 4WD round the bend, hiding. Never once slowing down, he skidded to the left, expertly bypassing the Jeep in a move that can only be described as 4WD ballet. We stood in his wake, biting dust as he hit the accelerator and sped off into the distance, pulling to a stop near the cattle grate a 100m up the road.
“Now that was skill,” dad said, still staring at the car.
“Mad skills,” I replied
The driver of the vehicle got out and strode towards us, extending a hand and introducing himself. I missed his name but it doesn’t matter because I will forever remember him as The Outback Angel.
The masterful driving we had just witnessed was all the more impressive considering his car was only working in 2WD oh and he was dragging a trailer.
“ You can get through no worries,” he reassured us, “have you let your tyres down yet?”
We hadn’t. He produced a screwdriver from thin air and started doing it for us. The car was his son’s – he was driving it all the way from the Gold Coast to Perth, a solid 4,379 km drive – a struggle for the mere mortal but all in a weeks work for The Outback Angel. He jumped on the back of our car and told us to accelerate hard; we needed to spin the wheels so they could grip the harder soil beneath the sludge. With the tyres down and The Outback Angel instructing us, we made the crown of the road. As we approached the cattle grate he jumped off and waved us farewell. I’m not sure, but I think he might have disappeared in a shimmer of light, a mirage of our own imagination.
We called the relatives in Broken Hill to inform them that we might still make it yet. Of course, we weren’t home free, the road was still treacherously slick with mud, with large passages entirely under water and with dusk approaching, the kangaroos would be out in force. The Outback Angel had left us with strict instructions there was to be no sudden breaking or sharp turns. It was about this time as the light started to leak from the sky that I decided to take over the driving. This wasn’t because dad was tired; I just wanted to have a crack. I have always considered myself to be a good driver. My grandpa told me I was a good driver so it must be true. Not everyone would agree but that’s probably because they don’t appreciate my more…‘aggressive’ style of driving. My clean record speaks for itself.
I’m not going to make comment on how dad felt about the next 20 minutes of his life but I personally found the experience to be exhilarating. There was mud and water flying everywhere and I am proud to say I kept my cool the first, second and the third time the back tyres slid out from underneath us. The kangaroos watched safely from the sidelines and lo and behold, we made it onto the highway in one piece. I don’t want to say I told you so but there we have it.
We arrived back into Wilcannia just as the sun was setting and headed straight to the petrol station, the only petrol station in town. It was closed. Nothing had been easy. We needed at least 10 more liters to get to Broken Hill and we had to put air in our tyres. We pulled up to inspect the Jeep and plan our next move. Nicknamed the orange Jaffa, now the Jeep looked more like an oversized turd on wheels, it was almost entirely covered in mud inside and out. Dad and I looked much the same. We’d lost both mudguards, leaving the back wheels exposed but otherwise unharmed. I specifically remember the sound of them snapping off as I launched the Jeep into a puddle of water that could have doubled as a mini lake. Dad was using the hose as a makeshift shower when the owner of the petrol station ambled over to suss us out. I have no idea what his name was so I’m going to call him ‘No Chance’. No Chance had clearly knocked off work for the day, beer in hand – kicking it in a pair of stubbie shorts, wife beater and double pluggers. Come to think of it, this might be his work attire. Dad engaged him in a male bonding session, recalling the events of the day and mentioning we needed to get to Broken Hill to scatter his fathers ashes the following day. This was only going to happen if we could pump the tyres up and acquire at least 10 liters of petrol. Dad paused, the question hanging in the air. “No Chance,” he replied, staring into his beer. Just to paint you a picture, we were standing not even 5 meters from the petrol pump. Who the hell was this guy? Where was the country hospitality? Had we really just dug ourselves out of the mud to be beaten at the finishing line by this asshole? No Chance took a long swig of his beer as he turned to leave. No well wishes or – good luck mate, sorry I couldn’t help you out…nothing. Not a single fuck was given.
Dad and I got back into the Jeep in silence, dad shaking his head in disbelief. The police had asked us to drop by so we made this our next port of call. The Sargent I had been communicating with during the day turned out to be a handsome lad – over 6ft tall with blonde hair and blue eyes. It was my turn to bust out the charm. Dad stood there like an awkward outsider as I answered questions and relayed our requests. Yes he could help us out. He smiled. I smiled. Dad looked at his feet.
We followed the police car a few km out of town, dad glancing nervously at the petrol gauge. We pulled up at a small property littered with heavy machinery to be greeted by the largest dog I have ever seen. More of a small horse than a dog really. The cute policeman introduced us to an old bloke who looked a bit like Santa and spoke with a strong Irish accent. He was happy to help us out. Irish Santa led the way while dad followed in the car. I patted the small horse and took a moment to consider our day thus far. There had been a myriad of characters to mark our journey, the single mother at the Tilpa pub, Ben and his fiancé, Big Red, The Outback Angel, No Chance, The Cute Policeman and Irish Santa. What an adventure. I was sure the story would become family folklore.
We made it to Broken Hill by 11:30pm that evening, thoroughly exhausted. After a blissfully hot shower, I collapsed into bed. Too tired to even eat, I fell asleep with a bowl of pasta in my lap. As we left Wilcannia, the cute policeman had told us there were still 12 vehicles stuck on the dirt road. We were the only ones to make it out. I cast a sympathetic thought to those still stuck in the mud as I drifted off to sleep. Lucky we bought a Jeep I thought…