This was to be a trip for pleasure, a trip where I could relax and pass on some of the knowledge gained from previous times I had spent in the desert. It would be a chance to teach my grandsons not only the practical skills of survival in the harsh environment but also to try and pass on some of the spiritual attachment to country. How mistaken was I!
Firstly, by the time I reached Windorah I was sick and continued to get worse as the trip progressed. In hindsight I realise I was not just sick but very sick indeed. The ‘flu like symptoms just got worse and worse – I lost my appetite, I lost my sense of smell. I had periods of nausea and vomiting and found it very difficult to concentrate. I could no longer walk more than 30 metres. I had no strength and had to sleep sitting up otherwise I felt like I was choking. I was continually coughing up green rubbish from my lungs. So I did not get much sleep. I kept thinking it was the ‘flu and would start getting better the next day. But it never did, just kept getting worse.
It is easy to put the bits together in hindsight. A week before I left I had had my second Covid shot. Despite the very close contact of our group no one else got my “’flu”. I completely lost my sense of smell. While I did not realise it, my ability to concentrate was very badly effected – I was operating on ‘auto pilot’. This is of course the Covid ‘brain fog’ referred to in the literature.
1. The boys from the bush
It was indeed a reaction to the second Covid vaccination. Several days in the hospital on my return plus numerous blood tests for infections all revealed nothing. By this time I was slowly getting better. Some eight weeks after my first symptoms I was well enough to travel around and took a very short trip of about 5 days to Maytown and the Starke track (Cooktown). The first few days were almost impossible and I needed help to set up and pack up my camp, for this I thank the two friends with me. But by the time we were back in Cooktown I realised I was finally getting better.
Back to my desert trip, or at least as much as I can remember
The major reason for this trip was to take my grandsons into the central desert, to places they had never been. And at the same time teach them how to drive the desert, how to read the country and interpret what they were seeing. Now I had had a well known “4WD Influencer” after me for some time to let him come on a desert trip with me. So I told him I was going and agreed he could join us. I had arranged for my grandsons (plus two friends) to drive my other car on this trip, a Discovery 2. So at this time I had my Discovery 3, the boys in the Discovery 2 plus the Landcruiser (call sign, Wheels). I did think I needed a few extra vehicles more to help me look after the “boys”(call sign Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shortened to Ninjas). So three more vehicles were quickly invited. One was a friend from Melbourne (call sign Iceman in a Land Rover Defender), another a friend from Sydney (Lone Ranger in a petrol Pajero) and one from Brisbane (Runner in a Dmax).
Of course you should never count on all going according to plan. The day after leaving Brisbane we ran into rain and it just kept raining. We arrived in Windorah to find the road through to Birdsville cut by floods and “may be open by Monday” - if it stopped raining. It was Friday so that meant at least three days in Windorah and then no guarantee of the road being opened on Monday. So after a quick think we decided to reverse our route and go in via Batton Hill and the Hay River rather than come out that way. We could actually catch two of the others before they reached Windorah and divert them to Longreach where we would all rendezvous and head for Jervois. Jervois is at the top end of the Hay River track which meets the Madigan near the M Tree on the Hay River channel.
Our first camp was on the bank of the Hay River after fueling up at Jervois, and it was our first taste of what was to come. In the morning with ice on the tents we discover that the temperature is -3.6 degrees, no wonder we felt cold. Little did we know that would be our warmest night as each successive night for a week got colder ultimately reaching minus 9 degrees. I had made what was to become my contribution to our camp the previous night by doing nothing, just crouching over the fire trying to get warm. I felt the cold dreadfully and seemed to be unable to get warm, a problem that continued for many weeks.
It was a gentle and delightful drive down the Hale, sand hills on each side and the river gums lining the dry bed of the river. We camped that night near Dingo Well so those who desired could have a bath. The country was truly beautiful, so beautiful that I could still appreciate it despite the fact that I was getting sicker.
We detoured to visit Lake Caroline where we paused for lunch. I showed those present how to knap a quartz core to produce stone cutting tools so sharp you could cut yourself easily. Easy enough to make the cutting tools, somewhat more difficult to catch something to cut up for lunch – for us we used a knife and cut up something out of the fridge for lunch! I had last visited Lake Caroline some 25 years ago so it was comforting to see little had changed apart from the fact that there was now a “road”. On our first visit, there was no track and we had struggled up following the banks and the bed of the Hay. The going then had been very tough but not so now.
Our camp after Lake Caroline was on a small claypan surrounded by small river gums with the sandhills to the east glistening in the afternoon sun. The trees along the bed of the Hay were getting smaller and more scraggily as we moved south into the desert proper. The next day we were soon at the turnoff to the Madigan Line and more familiar territory since we had come through here less than two years ago. We had a short run westward to our turnoff south. It was in fact a bit of a struggle because the track had been very badly cut up – we later learned a convoy of nine camper trailers had been through just a week before us which explained the massive holes dug into the track through the sand hills. I was driving on autopilot as each day I got sicker.
We turned south. I had appointed Wheels to lead as he had driven cross country before and he had plentiful nav equipment. The first leg was pretty much along dune corridors which made the navigation fairly easy. Although cross country the driving was easy and we soon arrived at our camp site where we would have a lay day to let all recover. And to let me see if I could get over my “’flu”. What a beautiful spot. The next day I spent by the fire just looking out at the sandhills while the crew went off exploring. Too soon the sun set over the sand hill to our west and the temperature began to fall sharply. Minus 7 that night and I was glad to get up at dawn and move to the fire when I heard someone stoking it up. I was sicker than ever but time to move on. The Ninjas made short work of our tent and packed everything away. Wheels declared he had led for long enough and it was someone else’s turn. With none who had any real experience that meant it was down to me so I just hoped I could manage. I still could not concentrate and was having difficulty remembering but fortunately, by instinct, I seemed to be able to go in the right direction.
We were now having to cross sand hills and were in country that required a fair amount of driving skills. I worried about the Ninjas but incredibly they seemed to be doing well with just the odd sandhill presenting a problem. We had a discussion that morning about tyre pressures but they seemed to be coping with their tyres at 24 psi. Their vehicle the Discovery 2 TD5 was easily the oldest vehicle and my biggest concern but we had set up the packing so that their primary load was fuel, over 300 litres.
2. Might be a bit much!
This meant that by this stage that was nearly gone so that the D2 was actually now fairly lightly loaded which certainly helped. By this stage my grandson, Will had pretty much mastered the driving skills needed, and more importantly, was driving in a style to protect the vehicle. We only managed a short distance that day, apart from the driving being much harder we had our first puncture and I was actually still getting sicker. Time to camp.
What a terrible night! I just could not get warm and only managed to doze off from time to time sitting up. I was actually glad to get up and move to the fire as the dawn broke. We had only managed about 30 kms the previous day and I wondered how I would manage today. We did have some time constraints as Iceman had to be in Alice Springs by the end of the week, so we could not really afford to go too slowly.
While I had kept a close eye on the fuel consumption of my D3 and the Ninja’s D2, I had not done so for the rest of the group. I had of course checked their fuel loads and consumption at the planning stage but had not paid too much attention since. So first job today was to stock take fuel and calculate consumption to date. It transpired that all vehicles with the exception of the Cruiser were fine, however it did appear that Wheels would be struggling to reach Birdsville. He would get close but probably run out between Poeppel’s Corner and Big Red. Fortunately Runner in the Dmax had more than enough and was able to give Wheels enough fuel to get him into Birdsville while the rest of us were fine. In second and third place in the Fuel Stakes were the Defender and the D2 using about half the fuel used by the Pajero and the Cruiser. A clear first place was the Dmax who used about 3 to 5 percent less than the Defender. My Disco 3 was not too far off, about 10% more than the front runners.
Our toughest day was ahead as we struggled cross country through the “bad lands” south of Geosurvey Hill. Worse still, I had to pull rank as Wheels was adamant that we should go a different route. By this stage I had realised that Wheels did not really understand the desert which resulted in his navigation skills being dubious. Unfortunately I was still too sick to actually care what he thought and too sick to bother with any explanation or reasoned discussion – so I just stated ‘follow me’! By the evening we were back on the main shot line south and had finished the struggles over the dunes.
Our camp that night was on an old airstrip on a vast open interdunal plain. And just perhaps I was starting to think I would survive!
The following day a gentle drive south saw us back on the main East-West track, the French Line. Now the Big Red Bash was taking place and the French Line had been largely destroyed by those travelling to take part. Many of course, were towing camper vans so the sandhills were cut up very badly. The poor old D2 was in trouble with the combination of holes, ruts, large corrugations and very soft, churned up sand leading to a broken rear spring. We were able to clamp the broken ends together and hoped that would get us into Birdsville about two days drive. With fingers crossed we checked it that evening at camp and it seemed to be holding. Our camp was a bit quiet that evening, all being well we would make Birdsville tomorrow. But if the D2 did not make it we would have just enough seats to squeeze everyone in and leave the D2 – the problem had been exacerbated by the decision of Wheels to leave us and press on towards Birdsville. We would still have just enough room for all in the remaining three cars, the Lone Ranger would have room for four persons at a pinch! When the Lone Ranger, despite pressure from his friend Wheels, elected to stay with the group we did hear strains of the William Tell Overture and ‘Hi ho and away Silver..’, or was I having another delusion?
3. Nope, we are going this way!
There can be only one leader on these expeditions and, while the expedition leader cannot force anyone, it is expected that all act for the benefit of the group. Of course my seeming arrogance and dictatorial action regarding the route may have impacted heavily on Wheels, as had my open criticism of his fuel shortage. My only excuse for decisions, which I would normally gently lead the group to, was that I was very, very sick.
In hindsight it is obvious that I could simply not have done the trip without my wife Barb and my grandsons Will and Jake. Together with the rest of the Ninjas they helped Barb set up and pack up the camp each day while I crouched and shivered by the campfire. They carried my load and made it possible.
4. The boys are back in (near) town!
Never mind, we all made Birdsville intact as I played Lee Kernaghan “ We’re the boys from the bush and we’re back in town, we’re life members of the outback club..”. And there is always a next time.