Midnight on the Tanami (Final Chapter)
We left Billiluna far later than we had planned. The adrenalin was pumping after two near-setbacks, and we (finally) started making good time on the dirt track to Alice Springs. It was late in the afternoon. The shadows were long and the dirt was red. Our trusty Cruiser Cave Lion fell into a nice rhythm. We were gliding over the dirt.
The conditions of the Tanami Track were much better than we expected. The corrugations were there, but they consistent, with only a few unusually rough patches. We’d lowered our tyre pressure to about 30psi before leaving the bitumen –and of course our Cub Camper Siberian Tiger had a brand new shock – so the going was pretty smooth for a remote Outback track.
In the new tradition of 21st Century travellers, we decided to put our quality family time in the car to good use: we binged on podcasts. In this case, we listened to a series about the trials and tribulations of fledgling online dating business called Dating Ring in the second season of the podcast StartUp.
I don’t know if I’d call it a mistake to drive on into the night. It’s definitely something we don’t normally do, but this wasn’t a normal day. The thing is, beginning at dusk, you really shouldn’t be driving anywhere in Australia outside of the cities. It’s the animals, and kangaroo in particular. The lovable roos, they like to hop along the side of the road, in the same direction you’re driving, just outside the peripheral range of your headlights. They seem to take you in, correctly recognizing two tons of steel hurtling down the road as a threat. But then, inexplicably, they throw caution to the wind and dart across the road right in front of you. Out here, in the Tanami Desert, on a road so isolated we hadn’t seen any cars outside of Billiluna, who knew what we might run into?
By now, it was sundown, and we knew we should probably set up camp. But, Dating Ring had just suffered a major setback. The founders would have to decide whether they could accept an investment with unsavory strings attached, or reject the money and keep their dignity. Even though night was falling, we pressed onward. Just another episode….
The blood moon rose on the horizon, filling our windshield and illuminating a dirt track that seemed to stretch across the desert forever. After taking it in, we pulled over onto a side track to make dinner and camp for the night. We were a couple miles off the Tanami, hidden in the bush, having what was quite possibly the most remote family dinner in history.
We were just about to call it a night. And that’s when we saw the first (moving) cars on the Tanami. Trucks, actually. And, actually we didn’t see them; we heard them on the UHF radio. The talk wasn’t the colorful truckie banter you’d expect. It was about bush fires. My ears perked up. This time of year, in this part of the country, bush fires are a serious topic.I can’t really explain this, but I just had a bad feeling in my stomach. More than likely, it had to do with hearing the trucker say he really ought to report that bush fire. Miranda said to trust my instincts, so we packed back into the car and headed back to the Tanami. It wasn’t three miles before we saw the blaze. Seemingly out of control, spreading through the dry brush – and on the same side of the track where we had been about to call it a night. Miranda and I looked at each other. Whew!
Fires are not totally uncommon driving out here, and the general rule of thumb is that if the fire is on both sides of the road, turn around and drive away fast. If the fire is just on one side of the road, drive by carefully. By the way, this advice was not conveyed to me firsthand by Smokey the Bear, so please don’t rely on it in a serious situation. After we passed the first group of fires, there was clearly another bigger group coming up. What was not clear was whether it was on one side of the road, or had spread to both. I downshifted to turtle speed, ready to turn around if necessary. In the back of my mind I was hoping we didn’t have to turn around. What if the fire behind us had made it across the track, too? This was not going to be a day I’d forget any time soon. As we got closer to the bush fire, we saw it was contained on one side of the road, and that it had only looked like two sides because of a bend. We hurried past.
At this point, I did what any father would do. I told Miranda about the secret stash of licorice I had hidden under her seat for just such a crisis. We dug in. The boys slept. They’ll never know about the secret licorice.
Given that it was now deep into the night and the Tanami was ablaze, Miranda and I decided to put some distance between us and the fire. We drove for about an hour without seeing or hearing a soul and pulled off the track. We made coffee while I refilled our tank with the jerry cans.
It was midnight on the Tanami. We were on the move. Dating Ring was having money problems; one of the founders left the company.
Then Miranda screams.
“It’s a giant white horse!”
I punch the brakes. It wasn’t a unicorn. It was much, much bigger. You know how they’re always saying the kangaroos in the Center are so big they’re like a different species altogether? Well, that is apparently true for wild camels roaming the Center, too.
I slowed Cave Lion to a stop and we were face to face with the largest, most muscular camel I have ever seen. Unfazed by our brights, he stared down at us through the windshield. A kangaroo hopped by. The camel didn’t move.
I inched the car forward. The camel stepped aside. Then he started running – fast – right next to us. He looked over, issuing the challenge. I accelerated just enough to keep up. The camel found another gear. By this point, Miranda and I have lost it. We are in full on guffaw mode. Our son Lake wakes up. He wonders aloud why there is a camel running next to us in the road. Does he know he’s not dreaming?
Do I know I’m not dreaming?
An update to this. Shortly after we finished the track the Tanami was closed temporarily due to bush fires – yikes!