The scene: it’s April 2015, and Bobby Dazzler has headed off on yet another Outback adventure, with three intrepid neo-Viking travellers from Denmark on board. On our second day out of Sydney, we had left behind the mountains and the western slopes, and were starting to enjoy the plains country, with that marvellous 360° horizon and “big sky”, harbingers of the Outback. We had, with much excitement, seen our first kangaroos and emus, and by nightfall had arrived in Willandra National Park (700 kms west of Sydney). The final 80 kms from Hillston had been driven under threatening clouds, but we had a comfortable cottage to stay in, and after a pleasant meal and a few bush poems, we retired for the night.
Now, read on …..
I awoke to the sound of the creaking door on the outside dunny. It was 7am, and the clouds were still there. There had obviously been some overnight rain, but it had stopped, and when we left at 10am, there had been no further rain. I was well aware that the road to Mossgiel is an unsealed so-called “dry weather” road, but my assessment was that the rain had not been sufficient to close the road. We had about 75 kms to go to our morning tea with my dear friend Loma Marshall.
The first 30 kms took us out of the Park and along the Trida Road to where it meets the Mossgiel Road. All well – things were looking good, only another 45 kms to Loma’s. But we hadn’t gone more than another six or eight kms when the rain started coming down in buckets – and the road started to shows its wet weather manners. Even with 4wd, it was hard work staying on the crown of the road, and after a while we slipped into some deep mud, and came to a halt.
Despite engaging low-range 4wd, we were unable to drive out of it, and there was nothing for it but to get out and clear the wheels enough to give us some traction and get going again. At least the rain wasn’t as heavy as it had been. But the mud was as sticky as anything I’d ever seen, and I was wondering just how far we were going to get in these challenging conditions.
It was impossible to get back into the car without bringing in great clods of muds on your shoes. The steering wheel and gear stick were soon festooned with mud (which, when dry, was like dry porridge in a saucepan, only much harder to remove.) It was fortunate that there were a few short stretches of road which seemed to be built with a certain amount of gravel, and we could stop there and get out onto more or less firm ground.
Finding some vegetation to put under the wheels to help get a grip was very difficult. The country out there is mostly treeless. The ground cover is quite thin, and slogging through the soggy ground to collect a bit was hard work. But the worst part was that even after we’d collected a bit, and managed to get under way again, we’d be back in the same situation just a couple of kms later, and would have to repeat the whole exhausting and time-consuming process.
Then the situation got more complicated. Someone said they could smell burning rubber. We gradually worked out that this was due to a wheel arch getting completely packed tight with mud, and the wheel rubbing against it. And if this wasn’t remedied, sooner or later, the mud would press so hard against the wheel that the wheel would no longer be able to turn, so that we would lose not only traction but also steering. Each time the car started slithering all over the road, we would sooner or later hit a particularly soft patch and come to a halt, sometimes with the engine racing but the car not moving.
The hours were passing, but we realised that if we were to make any headway, we’d have to remove the wheels that were jammed, dig out the tightly compacted mud, then replace the wheel. This we did several times, but as you can probably imagine, this was a very labour-and-time-intensive procedure, and very muddy into the bargain.
Just putting the jack in the correct position under the car when everything in sight is heavily coated with mud was difficult to say the least. (I was glad I’d packed a board to put under the jack! It’s discouraging when you see the base of the jack slowly disappearing into the mud!)
A slightly off-centre jack placement was probably what caused the car to slip off the jack at one stage when I was manoeuvring a wheel (which had been removed) back into position. The mudguard came down and pinned my fingers between it and the top of the tyre. My cry of “Fingers!!” brought a quick response from one of my passengers, who used a tyre lever to prise up the mudguard enough for me to withdraw my fingers. Fortunately, there was no serious damage – only some bruising.
It was getting dark. We’d had nothing to eat since breakfast. It was still raining, although not as heavily as earlier. We had not seen another car on the road all day, so there was no prospect of someone coming along and offering us a lift. When we slipped into the drain beside the road and got solidly bogged once again, I decided we had to review our situation. I figured we were only about three or four kms from Loma’s house. So I announced, “I think we’ll have to leave the car here, and walk to Loma’s.”
The only real alternative was to sleep in the car, but that didn’t present as an attractive alternative to the possibility of a bed and something to eat at Loma’s. And so the decision was made. Walking in the dark for perhaps an hour or so on a muddy and very slippery road was not compatible with carrying a heavy bag, so we took only basics with us. A couple of torches helped, but it’s amazing how disorienting it is to walk in such circumstances. Although I knew we had to get to a T-intersection with a sealed road before Loma’s place, after about an hour’s walking, I became quite sure we must have somehow missed Loma’s place. Fortunately the others insisted we keep going, particularly because they had seen what appeared to be car headlights in the far distance, presumably travelling on the aforementioned sealed road.
I always tell my passengers that because of the nature of such an Outback trip, it’s not possible to guarantee either the route we will take or the schedule we will follow. No doubt at about this stage the Danes were wondering whether they could even be confident about their survival! This was certainly the most challenging situation I had encountered in 25 years of travelling in the Outback.
After about another half an hour of walking, we reached the sealed road, and it was then only a few minutes’ walk to Loma’s house. Hallelujah! But there were no lights on. It was by now about 9.45pm, so maybe Loma had gone to bed. But she had been about to move to a new place closer to her daughter, so maybe she’d already moved. (It was several days since I’d spoken to her.)
Perhaps I should tell you at this point that Loma, aged 84, is a retired drover, and lives by herself, some 50 kms from the nearest shop (Ivanhoe). The mail man calls by a couple of times a week, and will bring her groceries, etc when required. She has a menagerie of dogs, chooks, cows, poddy lambs, etc. and a pet goat called “Sheba”. I first met Loma about 12 years ago, and we’ve become good friends – but that’s another story.
We arrived at the back door of the house, the dogs started barking, and I called out to reassure her that it was “us” (who had supposed to arrive for morning tea!), and not some nasty unwelcome visitors. Soon a light came on, and Loma appeared. I was greatly relieved!
After introductions and the removal of mud-caked shoes and some muddy garments, we were welcomed into the kitchen, where Loma soon had the old fuel stove under way, and mugs of soup for all! Wow, did that taste good! And we could sleep in the guest room, as long as two of us shared a double bed. Loma rustled up some more food, and then, with great gratitude to Loma expressed by all, it was time for bed. Our bedroom was decorated with floor-to-ceiling pictures cut out from magazines.
The following morning dawned grey and wet – it was still raining. The vague plan I had made before going to sleep was for us to walk back to the car, extract it from the bog, and then drive on the by then somewhat drier road to the sealed road. But it was now clear that the place where the car was marooned would by now be even muddier than when we left it.
Loma, being the trooper that she is, fed us breakfast, and suggested we sit tight at least until the rain stopped. “And when might that be?” “Crikey, who knows? This arvo? The weekend?” (I can mention here that the Danes found Loma’s true-blue Outback accent virtually incomprehensible, which was probably a good thing, since they didn’t cotton on to some of her dire predictions.)
After helping tidy up after breakfast, and draping assorted items of damp clothing around the place to dry out, the Danes produced a chess set, and, since they were all enthusiastic chess players, launched into serious play.
I mooched around, feeling quite stymied by the circumstances we now found ourselves in. I know Loma to be one tough lady, not easily perturbed by events that would totally flummox the average Joe (or Josephine). But she doesn’t own a car, so she couldn’t drive us out to where our car was, even if the weather improved. Her only means of transport is a quad bike, and after taking it out for a short test run that morning, announced that it was a bit too slippery and boggy to go far on it.
After lunch, Loma told me she thought that a nearby farmer called David – a “decent bloke” – might be able to help us. We phoned him and explained our predicament. Without hesitation, he said that if it stopped raining overnight, he’d take us down to the stranded car, and see if he could pull us out. Dave certainly sounded like a decent bloke to me!
Early the following morning, the rain had mercifully stopped. Dave phoned, obviously sensitive to the possibility that Loma, in the process of feeding four uninvited guests, might just be running a bit short of tucker, and why don’t we come down to his place for breakfast. Well, is the Pope a Catholic?
Soon Dave arrived in his trusty ute, which looked like it had done the hard yards, and much more. Two of us in the front, and the other two in the back with the tools and stuff, and off we went to Dave’s place, a couple of kms away (on the sealed road). There we met his wife Barbara, who had prepared a delicious bacon and eggs breakfast for us. Dave and Barbara run merino sheep, so we got a guided tour of the shearing shed, plus an account of their innovative approach to sheep farming, eg. no sheep dogs(!)
Then, off to our poor old car. Dave could see that the dirt road was still pretty treacherous, and with his large chunky mud tyres, chose to drive along near the road, but not on it. When we finally got to the car, we were told we’d actually walked seven kms to get to Loma’s! (Later accounts had this distance reported as 17 kms!)
We did some preliminary digging of mud out of the wheel arches. Dave positioned his ute well off the road, so that my car would be pulled away from the road, not onto it, then rigged up about ten metres of chain, plus a snatch strap to connect the two vehicles. I was told to get into my vehicle, and be ready to give it plenty of revs. The snatch strap works like a very strong rubber band, which initially stretches, and then jerks the bogged vehicles out of trouble. That’s just what it did, and we were soon bouncing along behind Dave’s vehicle, and before long back at the sealed road.
When we got to Dave’s place, he hooked up a pressure hose (fortunately the tanks were full!), and we spent an hour or so hosing the mud out of the wheel arches, and off the windows. I’d be surprised if we removed less than about 40 kgs of the stuff! Of course, it’s important to clear the lumps of mud from the inside of the wheels, since they make your wheels very unbalanced, and cause strong vibration in the steering.
After conveying our profuse thanks to Barbara and Dave, we drove back to Loma’s, packed up our odds and ends, and prepared for a long and roundabout trip to Broken Hill, via Hay and Mildura. (The dirt road from Ivanhoe to Menindee, which we had planned to take, was officially closed.) We were all in debt to Loma, and will never forget her remarkable hospitality and kindness to four blokes in a spot of trouble.
At the end of our trip twelve days later (during which time we had driven through the Flinders Ranges, walked on Lake Eyre, seen wedge-tailed eagles soaring above us, gone swimming in the Strzelecki Desert, attended an Anzac Day dawn service at Tibooburra, and visited an underground home at White Cliffs) the Danes kept remarking on how easy going and unflappable most Aussies – particularly the Outback kind – seem to be. I think they’re right, and I rather like it that way.
No doubt the stories are even now doing the rounds in Denmark of how these three Danes narrowly avoided a lingering death in the mud of Outback Australia, walking 27 kms in the dark and the rain, and finally finding refuge in the home of this amazing 34-year-old (!) woman who fed them and nursed them back to health. Great material for a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale!
(Photos by H Andersen (not that one) and R Brennan.)