Which Way to Lyndhurst?
You might be wondering after reading about our adventures in Kingoonya – how did this crazy family of city slickers from Brooklyn make it through the Outback from Longreach through the Strzelecki desert anyway? Shouldn’t they be crow food? It’s a good question! Fortunately for all involved, our travels through the Outback involved no snakes other than this one fascinating piece of art near the beginning of our journey.
The thing about driving in remote areas is that it’s really key not to be an idiot. Mistakes take on a much larger meaning when you’re 400kms from civilization. A few good examples of things to avoid include: 1) ignoring crocodile threat signs – always a bad idea; 2) actually knowing how to turn on / engage your four wheel drive before you leave the paved road; and 3) not taking a precaution for something because you think: “Hey, I’m in good shape, worst case scenario I can walk it.” These sound simple, I know, but you would be surprised at the amount of times we were told horror stories of Europeans, Canadians, and even our own countrymen not making it out of the Outback on account of doing these very same things. To be fair, I didn’t specifically hear of a Canadian doing something foolish, but I suspect one did, and, for once, decided it was OK just this time to let everyone assume he was an American…. Zing!
Regardless, we did not want our adventure to become a story that began like this: “Don’t be like those foolish Americans who went in the outback with their twins…”Knowing we were not from these parts, and that book smarts and spreadsheets don’t necessarily help much when you break down in the middle of nowhere, Miranda and I went to a lot of effort to be as prepared as possible as we set out into wide open country. (Read: Miranda went to a lot of effort, and I was impressed by her planning). We were not keen on becoming a permanent part of this baking desert landscape, like this guy, whom we came across on The Strzelecki Track:
Some of the key preparations we took involved bringing a week’s worth of water, a first aid kit, desert comms including a nifty SPOT device we could activate in the event of an emergency, and lots of spare parts for our Cruiser, among other things. Most importantly we asked experts like our friend Vic from Great Divide Tours (who has helped us heaps as you can see in our earlier posts) what we needed to plan for- and what we needed to be wary of- when exploring Australia off-road and in remote areas. We also came prepared with both the hard copy and GPS versions of HEMA maps – a move I thought was overkill until this particular trip – read on to learn why!
We loved driving through Outback Queensland. The small communities we passed through along the way were full of friendly people who took pride in being great hosts. And the drive was the kind of beautiful that is more an experience than a pretty picture. It’s the way the side of the road moves softly from scrubby to dusty to sandy and back again, alternating from brown to yellow to red, with the hues of each changing depending on the shadows and position of the sun. It’s the general effect of the changing mineral content mixing with the air in the slow bake of the sun throughout the day.
After our enjoyable stop in the iconic outback destination of Birdsville, home to famous races, a friendly pub, scorching heat and dust, we set out southward across even more desolate and inhospitable country, heading down a lonely dirt track across the South Australian border to Innamincka, which would be our launching point for the Strzelecki Track. Innamincka is a small town of about 130 people, and the local pub was a bustle on the Friday night we rolled into town. After a Cooper’s Pale Ale and a meal we headed to our campsite at the Town Commons, which was a nice campground by the river, teeming with birds and incredible red gum trees with twisted shapes formed from battling the wind and lack of water.
The Strzelecki Track is a desolate road that takes you from Innamincka to Lyndhurst, and was made famous by a cow thief, Harry Redford, who became a folk hero after leading a thousand stolen cattle through the barren wasteland that he was apparently acquitted at trial despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt. I imagine the jury read the verdict as “good on ya.” I can only imagine how a cow thieves made it through this path. I took a very brief jog one day on our journey to see how it felt and spent 20 minutes recovering in the aircon. Camel thieves, perhaps.
You might be wondering what we do on drives through the desert? Me, I stare at my surroundings in awe and try to compel everyone else in the car to talk about how neat it is to see such a barren landscape that it feels like you can actually see the earth curve on the horizon. Miranda, she humors my commentary and also enjoys the landscape- especially when there is red dirt to be seen. We also partook in a few podcasts – Serial, of course! Lake and Finn? Well, they enjoy the scenery occasionally, but mostly they enjoy sticker books, imaginary games with Magnetiles and toy figures, and book tapes. During this trip they followed the story of Odysseus from Troy back home to Ithaca, peppering me with background questions as we drove along. It was kind of amazing for me that they became so deeply engaged in the Odyssey while we are all involved in our own epic journey in a desert that definitely was miles from Brooklyn.
Lake and Finn were so engaged in the Odyssey that they barely noticed when Miranda and I began doing incredibly foolish things – just as we had tried not to do- in the middle of the desert – Yikes!
It all started at lunchtime at the well-known Merty Merty Dune, a striking large red sand dune alongside the track. I popped out of the car into the blazing heat, loping up and over the dunes with the camera while Miranda went around to the back of the Cruiser to get lunch ready for the boys.
Here’s the thing. It’s always the incredibly mundane things that hurt you badly. Just before we left on our trip, I had one of the worst cuts of my life while making Lake a cheese sandwich. We know that things move around in the back car while we drive, especially when we’re not on bitumen. But sometimes you just don’t remember, and as soon as Miranda opened the back, before she could do anything, our backpack fell on her foot. I heard a serious cry of pain. Miranda was down, possibly with the bone at the top of her foot broken, not capable of walking. We were in the desert. Despite all our planning efforts – which yes, did include extensive packing and a drawer system in the way back to prevent just this kind of injury- we had managed to incur an injury doing the most mundane act!
Suddenly the what-ifs started creeping into my brain. Where is that satellite phone again? Maybe it’s not such a good idea to run off over the dunes anymore- time to assess the situation and move on. We propped Mirm’s foot on the dash, and headed out. Miranda winced with every corrugation on the track, and I was getting very concerned.
It turned out Miranda’s foot was only deeply bruised, but we didn’t know this, and in our panic to get back in the safety of the car and moving on towards a place where we could see a doctor if we needed to, we made a wrong turn. Foolish move número dos. Neither of us noticed the error as we drove over stunning red dunes for the next 50 kilometers. Then Miranda pointed out our HEMA maps was showing us going the wrong way! Who would have thought there was another dirt track out there among the dunes?
Then we started calculating our remaining fuel. Panic is one of those things you have to force yourself to swallow down and ignore so you can think straight. We attempted to do so. We should have had ample fuel, but these off the track dunes were steep, using more fuel, and the round trip of our navigational error was about 100km – almost 20% of our tank in flat off-road conditions. Although the track did get traffic from time to time, we hadn’t seen another automobile since we turned onto the track. If we made another wrong turn, we might find ourselves being the foolish tourists walking out of the desert! When we got back to the main track, we had to make a decision: either retrace 40% of the trip to Innamincka, which we would surely make, but would be over rough and often corrugated roads, or press further, challenging our fuel tank on a track where the quality improves as you head toward Lyndhurst. We did some quick math and I determined that we should be able to make it Lyndhurst with 50kms of gas to spare, which seemed ample, so after a short debate we pushed onward…
Then HEMA started to come in handy. HEMA Maps is the serious mapping company in Australia, on road and off, and we were very glad to have one in our Cruiser – if only we’d been looking at it earlier! The GPS we were using hadn’t had the software updated in a while, and lost track of where we were, missing a few turns and being generally unreliable for this stage – this can happen when you fail to update the maps software, as we had. But the worst was, after we switched to the fuel sub-tank, the GPS got confused and added 80kms to our projected route. More than our 50km buffer – Yikes! It was as if, like Odysseus, we had offended the gods, and they decided to make our journey longer in turn! Fortunately we pulled out our trusty HEMA physical map, and rechecked all of our calculations. We pressed on after camping for the night in the Montecollina Bore. Somehow we were able to forget about our potential fuel issues in the Bore. Miranda’s foot was feeling better, though she was still not fully ambulatory, and we were all fascinated by the hundreds of birds that seemed to come from nowhere to play in the bore. There were little white parrots and pink parrots, all making beautiful sounds, singing and chirping in the desert.
We were fascinated by their interplay. It was as if they were taking organized turns in the pool. A group would fly to the edge of the water from the dunes, sing and play in the water, and then head back to the dunes as another group flew forward. Talk about an oasis! Lake and Finn (and Poppa) found about 500 birds gathering in the dunes behind the Bore, perhaps waiting their turn, and decided it was a great time to run full speed into the flock, sending them all scurrying upwards! It was quite a site (and sound!).
The next morning I packed up as quickly as possible while Miranda entertained the boys and rested her foot. The sun was coming up quickly and the cool desert night had transformed into head. There wasn’t much shade, it being the desert and all, so I used what I could and worked under shadow of the cruiser and camper. I put Cave Lion in gear and turned onto the track, wondering if she’d make it, or whether I would suffer the indignity of having to call for help just 30kms out of Lyndhurst. I need not tell you which intrepid traveller had assured the other that he was good with numbers and that we had “plenty” of diesel. Gulp.
I’m happy to report that after a few hours the GPS miraculously switched back to a forecast that matched our own calculations. Whew! We rolled into Lyndhurst, sighs all around, ready for a shower and an ice cold stubby! Miranda’s foot healed in a few days, and now I continually make the joke that objects may have moved in the way back compartment during our journey, so please be careful when opening the rear hatch…. I am still waiting for a laugh on that one!