West Coast Road Trip Part 1: Lost on the Road to Mt Magnet

It was night time, we were lost on a red dirt road out in the middle of nowhere and we were almost out of petrol and water.

To our left, red lights glowed in the dark like scattered garnets on a velvet cloth. The flickering light told us they were not streetlights but flames. The series of small fires in the neighbouring field were too close together and there were too many of them to be campfires. It was eerie. All we needed now was to hear a report on the radio that a madman with a hook for a hand had escaped from a nearby lunatic asylum and we would know that it was all over.

It was only day one of our road trip. How did it all go so horribly wrong?

What happened is this: in my zeal to save money, when we stopped to refuel at a highway roadhouse I only half filled the tank. The petrol here was 15 cents a litre dearer than in Perth and I began to panic when I saw the rate at which the numbers on the petrol pump were flapping up.

“We’ll just refill properly in Geraldton tomorrow,” I said.

Another one of my great money saving ideas was to only camp in free campsites. We consulted our guide to camping in WA and found one a short way along the Mt Magnet road.

Taking the turnoff just outside Geraldton, we passed a sign warning that there was little drinking water available north of here. “We’ll get water in town tomorrow too,” I said.

The thing is, in Australia, what looks like a very short distance on a map is actually a very big distance on the road. We drove more than 60 km before we found what we thought was the turnoff for the campsite, a rutted red dirt road that crossed the train tracks and disappeared into the darkness.

The campervan juddered and shuddered over the uneven surface taking us further and further away from the main road.

There was no mobile reception and it occurred to me that no one would ever think of looking for us so far from the highway if we broke down now. Or if we ran out of fuel.

“How many kilometres have we done now?” I asked Dave.

“520” he said. “Do you know how many we were on when we stopped for gas?”

“350”

We were both silent for a moment while we did some calculations, because you see, the fuel gauge on the campervan didn’t work. We reckoned we could go 400km on a full tank and the plan was to reset the counter to zero every time we filled up. But since I had only partially refilled the tank last time we stopped…”I think we can go 150km on what I put in,” I said.

“And we’ve already gone 170km since then,” Dave shot back.

Uh oh.

We decided to get back onto the Mt Magnet Road and to try to get to the next town, which was 20km away.

We made it all right but, wouldn’t you know it? Both of the town’s petrol stations were closed for the night.

Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy was known to me as the town where Guy Pearce’s character in Priscilla Queen of the Desert was chased by angry miners. I had no intention of going to backwater Australia where the locals spent their days hacking out tunnels underground and their evenings drinking beer among the surface rubble and beating up the occasional passing transvestite.

Then Gabby and I started planning a road trip that would neatly fill the four days we had until we needed to be back in Adelaide for WOMAD, the world music festival where we were volunteering.

We had both read Bill Bryson’s Down Under and were enamoured with the idea of an outback sunset “a hundred layered shades – glowing pinks, deep purples, careless banners of pure crimson – all on a scale that you cannot imagine”.

Suddenly there was Coober Pedy on the map, so tantalisingly in the middle of nowhere and a two day drive from Adelaide.

To make our trip into the outback affordable we needed to recruit one or two more people to share the cost of car hire and petrol. We advertised on Gumtree and that’s how we found Ruby, an exotic dancer with no nudity complex and a penchant for gambling. With Ruby we discovered the thrill of pub pokies – nothing to do with her source of income but the push button fruit machines that you find in amusement arcades back home.

On the 541km stretch of highway between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy there are only two refuelling stops: Pimba and Glendambo. We missed the turnoff for Pimba and sailed straight past it. I worried that we might do the same with Coober Pedy. I’d heard it was built underground and I imagined the entrance to be a solitary escalator out in the desert that would be almost invisible in the shimmering heat rising off the tarmac. I hoped it would be well signposted.

I needn’t have worried. The conical mounds of pink earth that had been churned up in search of opals signalled our proximity to Coober Pedy long before we saw the numerous advertising billboards that lined the highway on the approach to the town.

Coober Pedy was neither the rough and desperate place I’d expected from Priscilla nor the underground city of my imagination. The pubs, restaurants and bars on the main street were mostly above ground and the people we met in them were pleasant and friendly. There were a few cave-like constructions that served as entrances to underground churches and B&Bs and the dugout homes, designed to protect their inhabitants from the baking desert heat, were identified by the chimneys, aerials and satellite dishes perched on pink slopes. I thought it was charming.

I wanted to buy some postcards to send to friends and family but it was almost impossible to find one showing an attractive image of the town. The photos were of drills and cranes and brutal looking machinery that gave the impression that everything in Coober Pedy was designed to destroy and damage the landscape.

We spent the day underground visiting an old opal mine and a model dugout home. In the evening Gabby and I climbed a hill to watch the outback sunset we had longed for. Like the machinery pictured on the postcards, the mosquitoes in Coober Pedy were brutal: industrial strength with drills for faces. When we came down off that hill our arms were bubbled and bobbled with itchy bites. It was worth it for that outback sunset though, which really was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Tasmania Photo Diary Days 7 & 8

Day 7: I drove back to Hobart stopping off at Ross on the way. I’d read in my lonely planet that the bridge was the third oldest in Australia and one of its most impressive. I wasn’t blown away.

Day 8: I went on a sculpture trail around Battery Point where I learned about the history of Hobart’s waterfront. The sculptures took the form of numbers – weights, measures, dates, quantities and distances – that were important in the development of the waterfront and were made of materials that recalled the eras described. It was very thoughtfully done.

A Communication Mishap

I mentioned already that prior to my Glenrowan road trip there was a trip to Wilsons Prom, which I don’t like to count as an official road trip, partly because neither of us were Australian so we didn’t know about Crowded House and Cheezles, and partly because it was a little bit of a disaster.

I found Sag on Gumtree when I was trying to kick start the universe into providing for me (item 3 on my universe wish-list was a group of nice people with a car that I could travel with). Sag’s advert said he had a car and time on his hands to do some travelling in Victoria.

We met for a coffee to get to know each other a bit and to plan our upcoming trip. He seemed like a nice guy and we got on well, although I did not completely discount the idea that he might be a serial killer. My flat mate reassured me that when you go on a road trip with a stranger, the other person is much more likely to piss you off than kill you. He didn’t have any statistics to back up this claim, but I suspected he was right.

All the same, when Sag picked me up just outside Melbourne city centre I typed the registration of his car into a blank text message. Scrolling through the contacts in my phonebook, I couldn’t think of anyone I could send the text to that wouldn’t either panic unnecessarily or think I was overreacting.

I reasoned that it probably wouldn’t do me much good to send the text anyway. If Sag was a killer, no one would know about it until my body was discovered. Would I really be bothered about whether or not the police could track him down using the registration plate of his car, bearing in mind that I would be dead?

I was just mulling this over, wondering if I owed it to my family to give them a vital clue to help solve my murder, when Sag interrupted my thoughts. “The police in Scotland are very good, aren’t they?”

“I’m sorry, what?” I glanced down at my phonebook again. Maybe I should send that text after all…

“You’ve never heard this before? They are very good at solving cases, if someone gets murdered.”

I knew that Scots had a reputation for being stingy and for drinking whisky, but I didn’t know our police force was renowned. Worried that Sag was calculating how likely it was that he would be caught if he killed me, I decided to play along.

“Yes, that’s right. We have very good police in Scotland. Very good.”

“I thought so. Scotland Yard are very famous.”

Ah.

I tucked my phone back in my pocket. Just a little communication mishap. Nothing to worry about.

It wasn’t until the second communication mishap later that evening that I decided the road trip had earned its little-bit-of-a-disaster label.