Roads less travelled-the Australian outback

There are two roads between Karijini National Park and Millstream National Park, Western Australia - one is sealed and takes about six hours. The other is unsealed, corrugated and takes about half the time – unless, of course, something goes wrong.

Karijini NP had unnerved us by its intensity and haunting beauty. Its extraordinary wonders - towering red iron-banded gorges, waterfalls plunging from the skies, and blissful pools of jade water – were hidden within a dusty, hard and magnificently inhospitable landscape. All around echoed murmurs of an unimaginably ancient and mysterious past. I was still shaking off my unease as we left, eager to arrive at Millstream National Park – which our guide book promised to be a ‘tropical oasis’ in this unsympathetic, parched land.

The plain, flat landscape passed by on an endless loop, like a 50’s cartoon background. Like most days in the arid Australian outback the sun blazed down, blurring the horizon. Clumps of spiky spinifex jutted out from the dry, red earth and the road carved through the land like the corrugated indentation left behind by a mythical snake. The sheer desolate immensity of this place made me feel stripped naked, unprotected and exposed; it evoked this sense of vulnerability.

Unable to hear each other unless we yelled, we sat wordlessly bouncing along like marbles in a kid’s pocket. I was jolted out of my vacant nothingness-gazing with a sickening crash as the car dragged suddenly to the left.

“Flat tyre?” I yelled.

My husband visibly struggled with the wheel as two more loud snaps were heard. Then I saw the look of panic that you never want to see in your husband’s eyes.

“Noooo, far worse,” was Ant’s belated reply when we finally ground to a halt.

Ten metres behind, with its nose slammed into the earth lay our camper trailer. The tow bar had strangely lost its pin and slipped from the car. The safety chains had been severed by an impact so hard that the steel frame had buckled.

The winds swept low and slow, and the midday sun burnt the edges of everything as I swirled in disbelief. A snake took refuge under a tussock of spinifex. The only other sign of life was a giant wedged-tail eagle circling gracefully, yet disconcertingly, above. The temperature hovered around the 40 degree mark, but out here it can reach 55oC. There was no mobile reception and no settlement for hours by car - unimaginable on foot. Ant did his best to forestall panic by mumbling words hinting at a plan, and looking unconvincingly as if he knew how to operate the high-lift jack.

The kids began to complain, “I’m hot! I’m hungry!”

I repressed the urge to cry.

Saint Scott appeared as a vision of distant rumbling and a growing dust-cloud. Standing on the verge we waved our hands idiotically, imagining he might not see us. He slowed his truck.

Leaning through the opened window, he murmured laconically “Need a hand?”

Fervently we nodded our heads. “Please! Yes! Thank you!” we stammered.

Typically ‘outback’ in his green mining kit, committed beard and hard, weathered skin; his large capable arms and hands immediately reduced our state of panic. A man of few words, he introduced himself as Scott and began repairing our trailer with calm, measured confidence. He dismissed our jack, opting for his hydraulic lift which magically resurrected our camper trailer from its burial spot.

As he removed the bolt from his own tow bar to replace ours, I nervously checked “Are you sure, can we give you some money?”

“Nah - company’ll cover it,” he replied nonchalantly.

“Guess you’ll be needin’ them chains welded back on too hey?” He arced up his welder, and with a flick he donned his visor and a sun-bright halo sparked around his head.

And then, “Sorry I can’t fix them connections for ya lights- don’t have the right wires.”

We stifled an astonished laugh at the absurdity of this man’s generosity.

Saint Scott climbed back in his truck and disappeared into the red dust as rapidly as he had appeared.

With our saviour gone an eerie silence exuded fsrom the heat-infected barren land. The fear of spending the night in this inhospitable place still hung heavily. The vast vistas now passed in slow–mo as Ant crawled - slowly and deliberately - over the corrugated road. And I thought... perhaps the roads less travelled in these parts, were less travelled for very good reasons.

S Duthie

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