“You don’t get this on the tour,”
The immortal words of my mate Dan as he dusts down his hands after pushing a 4×4 around a car park. Our 4×4.
Its never good when you break down. Infact, its horrendous when you break down. I remember once hauling a load of stuff down to Southampton for Uni when my Ford Escort conked out in the fast lane near junction 13 of the M1. Nobody would let my dying car onto the hard shoulder. Terrifying.
But thanks to the UK being highly populated, you’re never really that far from help. Unless you’re in the Shetlands or somewhere – I could imagine that being a bit of a pain – on the whole there’s usually a mechanic around.
The Australian outback, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. Break down here, and it could be hours before anyone drives past to even notice that you’ve got a problem. Even then, they might just drive by and leave you as a tasty snack for the circling vultures above.
In a nutshell, the outback is really not somewhere that you want to be breaking down. Especially when it’s not your car.
You can probably guess what’s coming next?
That’s right, my bad luck on two wheels this trip has suddenly made the move to four wheeled transport – and it left us stranded in the red centre, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere resembling a city.
My stay in Alice Springs began with a long overdue catch up with Neil, a good mate from years back during my days at Pizza Hut in Grimsby. Back then, I was at college studying my A-levels, had just learned how to drive, was living with my parents and somehow working out what to do with my life. Neil was pretty much in the same position, and we first met serving stuffed crusts and Super Supremes to the paying public.
We had a brilliant team at the Victoria Street restaurant back then, a team that didn’t really change much over the two years most of us worked there before heading off to university. For many of us, it was our first job, and we had a ball. We worked hard – the restaurant was consistently among the best in the country, and we won awards for our customer service – but we also played hard too. Finishing late, we’d often head over to the nearby Gullivers nightclub for a beer, no doubt ending the night with the familiar beat of the Cranberries ‘Zombie’ ringing through our ears.
When I first started, I was told it was a team that laughs together, cries together and falls over together, and I was soon a part of it. By day we were running the restaurant, by night and at weekends we were all out together and enjoying each others company.
But as everyone headed off to university, slowly the team was split up. Gradually, some of us lost touch, and one of those was Neil, someone who I always looked forward to working with as he was one of the funniest, helpful, and most kind-hearted members of the crew, who was always making me laugh.
Time went by, and while a few of us kept in touch, whatever happened to Neil remained a bit of a mystery. I knew he headed off to Europe somewhere, but he’d hardly been seen or heard from since. Until Facebook came about that is, when suddenly, a couple of years ago, his familiar face popped up.
Somehow, Neil found his way to Alice Springs, slap bang in the middle of Australia, and a town that he has grown to love, and made it his home. It’s a far cry from his Cleethorpes upbringing.
Having started my travels, I got the following message from Neil last November.
“Hey Phyllis (his name for me from years gone by) I’m probably not the only one hating you for your extravagant work trip right now! I see you are well and living your dreams these days, good for you mate.”
What followed, aside from me reassuring him the BBC licence payer wasn’t funding my travels for work, was an exchange where we were finally back in touch. It ended with Neil saying if I made it to his part of the world, to get in touch.
As I stepped of the Ghan train into the hot Alice Springs sun, I was certainly in his part of the world, and he’d offered me a place to stay. After around 13 years, in the carpark of a hostel that I’d been hanging around at with some friends, we met once again, his tall frame and familiar smile and laugh taking me back to the times we’d be larking around in the kitchen or staffroom of the restaurant back home.
“Mate, its so good to see you again,” we both said, laughing at how the circumstances led to us meeting on the opposite side of the world, and quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.
We spent the night reliving old times and laughing about all our memories together, reminding each other of funny stories and the people we worked with. We laughed at how we would get the kitchen to make a ‘mistake’ pizza, so that we could deliberately stick it in an area near the freezer, out of sight from customers, and quickly munch away.
“We almost had to inhale it so that it was gone by the time you got to the next customer’s table,” we joked, remembering how Neil would down countless espressos and coffees from the machine to keep him awake, and how his jeans were once wet by a prankster and placed in the walk-in freezer.
“They were good times, man,” he smiled, taking another drag from his cigarette.
Neil hasn’t changed, and is still the kind-hearted, generous bloke that I knew in the late 1990s. I had planned to take a tour to Uluru – Ayers Rock – at a cost of $355, along with my friends Dan and Laura who I met in Adelaide. But Neil offered me the use of his car, a Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4, for the trip, an offer that was too good to refuse.
And so, early the next morning, I loaded his car with sleeping bags and clothes, and set off to pick up my friends from Toddy’s hostel in the town and off we went down the Stuart Highway, passing huge road trains, desert and bush, on our way to perhaps the most famous rock in the world.
It was a long drive, some 440km just to the national park, but with good company and an exciting few days ahead, it passed quickly. After about four hours, we began to notice a huge rock on the horizon.
“There it is, Ayers Rock,” we all said in unison. It was huge, dominating the horizon, but in the back of my mind I knew we were still more than 150km away. Perhaps the road loops around the back? Perhaps the size of the thing means you can see it from so far away?
In any case, I waited for a bit of road so that we could pull over with a good view and turned off at the side onto the deep red dust and sand.
There then followed around 20 minutes of photos and smiles, looking at what the three of us had been wanting to tick off the list in Australia. We got back in the car and drove on, only for us to pass a sign about 100 metres over the crest of a hill.
“Mt Connor lookout, 300m on left”
It wasn’t Ayers Rock. We all felt a bit stupid, but at the same time, found it hilarious.
“You wouldn’t get that on the tour,” said Dan. He was right.
We motored on, driving along seemingly endless straight roads, with little in the way of scenery aside from the occasional mountain range, trees and bushes. At one point we passed a man, in the middle of the outback, walking along pulling a trailer. A bit odd, but we left him to it.
“There, through the trees,” I said to Dan. “I think I can see it”
This time we knew it was the right rock. The familiar curved edges and rounded tops of Ayers Rock – or Uluru, to use its Aboriginal name – were a dark outline on the horizon, still many kilometres away, but after hours of driving it was a great sight to see.
As we got closer, it seemed to just grow and grow. I didn’t know what to expect really – I knew it would just be a big lump in the ground, but when you approach, it’s the overall size that takes your breath away – its something that just doesn’t come across nomatter how many times you see it on photographs or on the tv.
There is also the wonder as to how, when all around is flat for many, many miles, this huge rock came to be in the middle of the desert. For me, that was difficult to get my head around – it doesn’t seem to conform to any of the geological norms that we have come to expect, the sides are smooth and rounded, there are few signs of any layering and there’s no evidence of other mountains around it.
Infact, once upon a time, Uluru was part of a range, but the composition of its sandstone led to its survival, while all other rocks and mountains around eroded away.
We drove another 30km or so to another rock formation known as the Olgas, which are visible from Uluru. These were perculiar, and if I’m honest, almost more interesting than the famous Ayers Rock because of the strange shapes and domes which stand so tall. As we walked around, the wind funnelled between the gulleys that separated the domes and the sound filled the desert around us.
The sun began to set, so we dashed back to Uluru to watch as the terracotta red sandstone changed through a whole range of colours as the sun sank down from the sky behind us.
First a deep browny red, through to a range of orange colours, before changing into a deep red as the daylight slipped away. We watched until it got dark, Uluru turning into a shade of purple as the stars and moon began to shine.
We made our way to a nearby campsite, had a barbecue and went to bed relatively early, getting up at 6am and making our way back to the site for sunrise.
Again, the colours in the sky and on Uluru were spectacular, a whole variety of blues, pinks, purples and reds. In the distance, the Olgas seemed to get sunlight first, before our star rose above the horizon again behind us and beamed light upon the rock and the miles and miles of outback wilderness.
With nothing in the way of human settlements around, its easy to see how this whole process of sunrise and sunset, the glow of the rock and the arid, occasionally windswept desert plains have been on this repetitive cycle for millions of years. It would have looked just the same back then as it does now.
After showers and breakfast back at the campsite, we had a whole day ahead – Uluru, a walk around the base, perhaps another visit to the Olgas and then onward to Kings Canyon and back to Alice Springs in the evening.
We visited the cultural centre in the Uluru National Park, a place where you can learn about the Aboriginal people who own the land this huge solo mountain sits in. Inside, there was a register to sign to say that you haven’t climbed the rock – it is seen as a sacred site by the indigenous people, and encourage against walking on it. There was also a ‘Sorry’ book, which intrigued me.
Inside were pages and pages of letters from people all over the world with almost unbelievable lists of bad luck. The common factor – they had all taken rocks or sand from the site as a souvenir. Now, this is something that I would be likely to do, thanks to my collection of bits and bobs from around the world back home. However, even I know the significance of Uluru to the people here, so my pockets would remain empty.
For those a little less thoughtful, rocks and sand made their way to all corners of the globe as their little bit of Uluru. But reading stories of how friends, relatives and pets suddenly died when they returned, or how they themselves were struck down by illness or misfortune, was an eye opener. Coincidence, maybe? The reason why their letters were on show is because they were so convinced that Uluru had cursed them, they had sent the rocks and sand back for the park wardens to return.
Indeed, underneath this book of confession was a huge pile of rocks and sand that had once been taken away, but now returned to its rightful place.
Dan and I spent a long time reading through the letters, even laughing at some of the tales – it includes stories from people noticing weird things happening at home, noises, movements, that kind of thing. We walked away from the book and back to the car, looking forward to a walk around part of Uluru’s base. I turned the ignition. Nothing happened.
I looked at Dan.
“Ah, could you imagine,” we laughed together.
I turned the key again. The started motor fired. The engine didn’t.
By the third attempt, the laughter had stopped. It was now beyond a temporary mis-start. This was a major problem.
I got out and spent about half an hour with my head under the bonnet, removing spark plug connectors, rubbing them down, checking oil, pressing fuses, even rocking the car while trying to start it to see if that would help. It didn’t. We were stuck.
We began to worry. There was no mobile phone coverage, I had no details for any breakdown cover, no way of finding out a garage number, and nobody else who was passing by seemed to care. And we were losing time to see the rest of the area. Thankfully the cultural centre had a payphone. I rang Neil to tell him we had a bit of a problem. I described the symptoms.
“You know, it did this a few months back with me. I left it 10 minutes and it started again,” he said.
It filled me with a bit of hope. I’d tried most things I could think of, so we left it and looked at the huge rock dominating the view through the window.
I tried again. Nothing.
A French couple came over and said they had a number for a local mechanic – local being about 30km away – but we might need it. In the meantime, we tried push-starting the vehicle with their help. Its an automatic, and I didn’t really know how to, but I put it in neutral and tried starting the engine as I slowly trundled around the car park thanks to Dan and the French guy pushing at the back. Still nothing.
“You don’t get this on the tour,” said Dan, ruefully.
By now, we knew we needed help. I rang Neil again to tell him the bad news. Thankfully, he thinks he has a two year breakdown policy, so he gives me the details and I rang the company.
“Sorry sir, the policy expired on April 19,” came the not so helpful response. I asked if there was anything they could do, afterall, it was less than two weeks ago. In a nutshell, she said no. The bad luck continued. Could this be payback from the Rock for laughing at the Sorry book?!
There was nothing for it, I had to ring the garage based near the resort, a good 20 minutes away. I spoke to Kurt, a mechanic, who told me it was a $99 callout and just over $100 for the tow. I had no option, and he told me he’d be with in just over an hour.
By now it was early afternoon, and I was gutted. Gutted for Neil, as I knew there was probably an over-inflated outback repair bill heading his way, gutted for Dan and Laura as I’d managed to get them stranded in the desert, and gutted for myself as I knew this was in danger of ruining my visit to somewhere I had been so looking forward to seeing.
We cheered ourselves up by getting something to eat, having spotted some public barbecues. Except they wouldn’t work either. Yet more bad luck. I remembered Neil said there was a portable stove in the boot of the car, so we got that out and made some burgers while we waited for the mechanic.
Kurt turned up a while later, tall, fair haired and with a big smile and arm outstretched, he shook my hand and I showed him to the car. He did a lot of the same checks as me, before crawling under the back of the car and kicking it. He asked me to try starting the engine at the same time. Still nothing.
“I think your fuel pump’s gone,” he said. “It’ll have to come back on the trailer.”
And so, with yet more pushing, we manoeuvred the car to Kurts truck, and with a powerful winch attached, I steered it onto the back.
It was a sad sight to see all of our belongings in the back of the car, now helplessly strapped onto the back of a lorry as it awaits its diagnosis quite a few miles down the road. The next problem was that Kurt could only take two of us to the garage with him in the cab, and so Laura volunteered to stay and get a lift back with someone. She argued that it might be easier for a girl to get help.
As Dan and I chatted to Kurt in the truck on the way to the garage, talking about our lives back home, how we met in Adelaide and how we were thinking of doing a bus trip to Uluru, I muttered that we wouldn’t have had this experience on a tour. Dan laughed.
At the garage, Laura turned up at the same time as us, a couple had seen the predicament we were in and offered to help, following us all the way to the village. The car was checked over, and soon the fuel pump theory was proven.
“With labour, you’re looking at about $900 plus tax,” said Kurt, telling me that it could have been a lot worse after fitting a two-grand part on a Landrover Discovery that afternoon.
“But we need to get onto it soon – its half four now and the freight leaves Alice Springs at 5pm.”
I agreed and rang Neil to break the news. He took it amazingly well – there was a sharp intake of breath at first, but I don’t blame him. We were stuck overnight while the part arrived from the shop more than 400km away.
“Stranded in the outback. You don’t get that on a tour,” we joked.
Kurt drove us to a nearby backpacker lodge where we would stay for the night. We might be stuck in the outback, but we decided to make the most of it. We went straight to the bar and ordered a beer. We needed one!