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?”
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.
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.