Midnight on the Tanami – Part Two
If you haven’t yet – check out part one
The shock was down. The bushes on our shock, in fact, had completely disintegrated. I turned to Miranda and gave the universal sign for dismay: thumbs down.
This was not a life threatening tragedy, but also not something we wanted to leave until after crossing the remaining 950kms of the Tanami Desert. Also consider, that I thought the only meaning of the word bushes was the shrubbery kind, until very recently. We took a moment to process the situation at Wolfe Creek Crater, trying to keep our heads.
I slipped an Oreo out of our emergency supplies. I took a bite.
“I think we have a spare shock in the wayback,” Miranda said. “You just need to take off the old one and put it on — and we’ll be good to go.”
I could see a gleam in Miranda’s eye similar to the other day, when she rewired the fridge in our car. Or the time when she fixed the key fob with a soldering iron. “This is going to be a real bush mechanic situation!” she said, enthusiastically.
Me, I thought to myself: What happens when I pull apart this shock and then can’t get the new one on, and then we’re stuck at Wolfe Creek Crater at night under the blood red moon. Did I mention this was the night of the blood red moon? Then I ate the rest of the emergency Oreo. The die was cast.
Deep in the recesses of our “wayback”, I pulled out a toolbox and a spare set of shocks. (Thanks again Vic Widman, this time for recommending we bring extra camper shocks into the bush).
Now all I had to do was figure out how to get the new shock onto the camper. Amazingly, a fellow traveller rolled up. He came by to see if I needed a hand. Seeing that we had the extra shock, he said: “She’ll be alright” – apparently not aware of the fact that the only things I have built in the last decade are spreadsheets and ramshackle smokers. He stayed to make sure I could do it, talking photography with Miranda and lending a hand when I needed. It was another example of the friendliness we have encountered throughout our travels in Australia. An hour and another picnic later and we were on our way.
As we left Wolfe Creek Crater, our heads were still in the right place, and Miranda and I looked at each other with a sigh of releif. Well, that was an adventure we weren’t expecting! We returned to the Tanami and headed into the desert in the afternoon. Another hour or two passed, and the long stretch of the track with no fuel was quickly approaching. We consulted our handy dandy HEMA Map, and turned to turn into the last town on the track with fuel, Billiluna. Our map showed the fuel station at Billiluna was open from 8-11AM and 2-4PM on weekdays. It was 3PM, and Monday, so we were maybe behind schedule but otherwise looking good.
Now, you have to remember that we were still a little on edge from the shock, and the main thing going through my mind was anxiety about successfully getting fuel. A few days before, in Purnululu National Park, a ranger had told us he thought that the stretch of no fuel on the Tanami was more like 1,000kms, which, if true, would have meant that Miranda, Lake, Finn, and I would have to turn around and drive all the way back to Halls Creek, buy a few more jerry cans, and try again. We really, really did not want to do this.
The first thing Miranda and I noticed as we headed into Billiluna was abandoned cars. They were plentiful. Some on the grass. Some on the side of the road. Some in ditches. They were so numerous, in fact, that I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was a chance there wasn’t fuel here anymore, after all. Maybe all these cars were left by travellers like me. Travellers who headed up the Tanami with their handy dandy HEMA Maps, riding on fumes as they arrived in Billiluna, their last hope. And then maybe they realized there was no fuel, cried softly, turned, and simply walked slowly away into the desert….
Another observation adding to our growing wariness: the abandoned cars were not in good shape. Most were rusted. Some had scorched scars, apparently having blown up, crashed or set on fire. Some were set on cinderblocks. I get that it’s a remote community, and what are you going to do – call a tow truck a thousand kms to the nearest dump, but since we were already anxious about the fuel, it was still a bit unnerving . As I drove past one car on cinderblocks,there was actually a guy sitting in it, and I started to wonder… Maybe this guy is just waiting for the day a tyre truck rolls into Billiluna on fumes, only to be abandoned with no hope for diesel. Then, jackpot! I’m back baby!
The other thing I noticed was a healthy dog population. Dogs ruled the road here. And rather than thinking the obvious thing – dogs are man’s best friend, and probably help alert people in a remote community to the presence of outsiders or threatening wild animals – I let my brain continue down its leery track. Apparently since there is no fuel here, the dogs of Billiluna have no fear of being run down.
We circled Billilluna twice, slowly, attracting the stares of several locals. We were looking for the fuel station, but couldn’t find it. Anxiety was starting to build at this point. All that stuff I just thought about there not being any fuel here, and the dog comments — I was just joking about that. Surely there was fuel, right? We were pretty far away from Halls Creek, and had just enough fuel to turn around, but there was no way we could make it down the Tanami without fueling up at Billiluna. We had to do something. Finally, I saw an old lady sitting on her porch. She seemed friendly enough, so I got out, scratched her dog behind the ears and asked, “Excuse me, ma’am, is there a place to get fuel here?”
She took a breath and looked around, like she wasn’t exactly sure herself. I let my anxiety imagine she was thinking: Fool. There hasn’t been fuel here for years. Why do think there are all these cars just sitting here rusting? But instead she smiled and pointed out a house down the block. “Station’s closed,” she said, adding helpfully “Guy who owns it lives there. He’s home.”
So we moseyed on over to the guy-who-owns-it’s house.
I walked up to the door. I knocked. I waited. No sound. I turned back toward the car. Then, I heard some movement. A bare white chest carried a head that peered out of the shadows.
“How you going?” I asked. A standard greeting. “Sorry to disturb you, but I heard you might be able to help me with fuel? I’m looking for diesel.”
Silence. Then I was informed that the station was closed. I squirmed. Eventually I got out that I’m sorry but I thought it was open from 2-4 on weekdays?
The man looked at me with a hard stare. I took a breath. He took a breath. I considered offering him an Oreo.
“Today’s a public holiday,” he said, looking very ornery.
A few moments passed as this sunk in.
Synapses flashed in my brain. What holiday was this? Do we need to camp here and wait for tomorrow? I was about to turn and break the bad news to Miranda, but then I remembered a conversation over a beer a few days ago. This upcoming weekend was among the biggest of the year for Aussie football fans. If there’s one thing that’s universal everywhere we go, it’s a love of sport.
“Think West Coast will win The Finals?” I asked.
They were magic words. I smiled hopefully, sensing his guard falling slightly. Yep, Grizzly Adams likes the footy.
“No. But if you can pay cash I’ll fill you up. Meet me over there,” he said, pointing out the station I had been unable to identify in two laps around Billiluna.
This was a fantastic development and another unexpected stroke of Australian hospitality and good naturedness. We had seriously lucked out, and this gentleman, who seemed ready to eliminate me just moments ago, was now doing us a huge favor. I realized he hadn’t looked ornery because he hated outsiders. He had looked ornery because Grizzly Adams had been knocking on his door, waking him up from a nap on his day off.
As I drove over to the station, Miranda and I dealt with the new pressing problem of the moment: calculating the exorbitant cost of filling up our tank at outback, prices by cash (I think it was something like $2.75 per liter – that’s well over $10 per gallon). We found ourselves scrambling for change. I asked for $70 at first to see how much more we needed, and meanwhile Miranda is sorting the change from our laundry bag into $5 stacks. Taking this scene in, our host was now grinning ear to ear as I emptied my pockets to give him about $35 in change ranging from $0.20 pieces to $2 coins…
We headed out of Billiluna pretty quickly after that, trying to remember to Google what public holiday had nearly foiled our desert crossing as soon as we got service. It would not be until well past midnight when we would learn that it was the Queen’s Birthday, which was also celebrated on June 8 – go figure! But things would get even weirder than the Queen having two birthdays for Cave Lion on the Tanami. Stay tuned!
Part 3 and the final installment to come tomorrow!