Mike's Australia by Mike Dixon - HTML preview
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My friend Paul has a cattle ranch in Queensland's northern gulf country. We first visited him about thirty years ago and made the trip in the family station wagon. It goes without saying that cars were different in those days.
As a young guy, I owned a BSA 350 motor cycle. When my financial situation improved I bought my first car, a Hillman Minx, built to wartime specification. It was a robust vehicle that could be got going with a hand crank when the battery lacked power to turn the starter motor.
I could get the station wagon going by jacking up the front wheels and turning them by hand. If the battery was totally flat and the generator was no longer operating, I could substitute flashlight batteries, linking them in series to achieve 12 volts. They could provide a good enough spark to keep the cylinders firing for a few hours.
I was recently on a bush walk with friends and we came upon a family whose vehicle had broken down. We offered to give them a push and were told that the car was an "automatic". There was no way to engage gears and get the engine to turn over.
The model is being promoted on TV. You've probably seen the adverts. Proud father is out in his new off-road vehicle with his adoring family. He splashes through rivers and climbs impossible mountains. Everyone is delighted and no one gives thought to what would happen if anything went wrong. The guy we met had a flat battery. His problem wasn't serious but he had no way of getting started. In a remote situation that could be catastrophic.
Modern cars are more fuel-efficient than their predecessors and have many other advantages. The improvement has been achieved through enormous technical sophistication. There was a time when mechanics did running repairs on the side of the road. Automobile associations employed people who went around in vans. Quite often they could get a vehicle going again. Now, if you need more than a jump-start or a new fan belt, you'll probably be told to wait for a tow truck.
Our station wagon was very different from the car I drive today. It had front-wheel-drive and low clearance. When I opened the bonnet, I saw things I recognised from my motorcycle days. The engine was uncluttered and it was easy to understand how it worked. When it didn't, it was not difficult to figure out what was wrong. Most of the time, I could do something to get the vehicle going again. That was important because the drive to Paul's place took us through some very difficult country. I'll tell you about the trip because we had a few problems. If you're going bush they could happen to you.
The five of us left Townsville on the first day of the school holidays and drove 900 km (550 miles) to the mining city of Mount Isa, where we camped for the night. Burketown on the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria was our next stop. Up to that point we had been driving on bitumen (tarmac).
There weren't many bitumen-sealed roads in the outback then and there aren't many now. While you are on them you are fairly safe. Most are transcontinental highways and carry a continuous stream of long-distance traffic. If you break down you probably won't have to wait long before someone arrives. On a dirt road you can wait weeks.
We left the bitumen at Burketown and took the dirt road to Doomadgee, which is a small Aboriginal township at the edge of an extensive reserve of land belonging to them as traditional owners. We filled the car with petrol and pressed on westwards. At first the road ran over hard ground. Then it descended into a flat plain and everything suddenly changed. The trees were smaller and the ground beneath our tyres was no longer brown. A vast expanse of light coloured soil lay before us, churned up by the wheels of passing vehicles.
I'd been warned about it. The stuff gets into everything. The grains have the same feel as talcum powder and are of similar composition. In the wet it turns to slush. In the dry it breaks up and blows everywhere. The road had disappeared and a fan of trails spread out. As one route became impassable, drivers made another. Judging from the ruts, most of the vehicles were far larger than ours. I stopped the car and got out.
I wasn't going anywhere unless I was sure I could get through. That meant finding a route where the ground was sufficiently firm to support the car. After half-an-hour of bush bashing I marked out a track. We drove along it and rejoined the road on higher ground.
The going was easy for a while. Then we met another patch of bulldust and got bogged down. The kids knew the routine. They gathered brushwood while my wife and I jacked up one of the front wheels. The brushwood was forced under it and more laid out to form a track. It was now the turn of the other wheel. I reached for my spanner.
"Where the hell had it gone?"
Paul had warned me about bulldust. It swallows things up. He said that when his kids were small he used to tie them to a tree in a situation like this. I thought he was joking. Now I realised he was serious. A toddler could vanish in seconds. I looked around and decided my children were safe. The youngest was ten and too big to be at risk.
We found the spanner and soon had the other wheel raised. Brushwood was placed beneath it and we drove off. The road was firm for a while then we hit sand. I was used to that. It's important to keep up momentum. Get up speed on the firm bits and coast along on the soft. Avoid breaking sharply. Don't oversteer. Let the vehicle find its natural path.
We were going along nicely when a cloud of dust told me another vehicle was coming along behind. It was much bigger than ours and travelling fast. The light was failing and so was my judgement. I moved to the side to let it pass and got stuck. To my relief they stopped to pull us out. We said we were going to stay with Paul and they said they were going to see him too.
We reached Paul's place and our new friends were invited to stay the night. Their original plan had been to drive on but they had a problem. Earlier in the day they had picked up a hitchhiker and he was giving them bad vibes. Paul checked the guy out and decided they weren't imagining things. There was something sinister about the pale-faced man in badly fitting clothes and I'll tell you about him in another story.
I gave the car a thorough check before we left Paul's place. Bulldust can give endless trouble. Imagine tipping a bag of talc on your engine. Think of all the places it might end up. I cleaned filters and blew down every accessible orifice with a pressure hose. Everything had to be got right. The next part of our journey would take us to the far side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The route was sparsely inhabited and we'd be travelling for two days.
We filled our spare fuel tanks. In those days, there weren't many petrol stations in the outback (same as now) and you could not make our sort of journey, in our sort of vehicle, unless you had friends who would top up your tanks. Paul's petrol was delivered in forty-four gallon drums and we tapped into them.
We said goodbye and headed westward. The road was in poor shape but adequate where it wasn't cut by flooding. Heavy rains had fallen the previous night and once-dry creek beds were raging torrents. We camped beside one and waited for the waters to subside.
The next day, I reconnoitred a route and fixed a spare radiator hose to the exhaust pipe, securing the open end well above any water level that we might encounter. That is important because water can be sucked into cylinders.
I put the car into low gear and drove slowly across, keeping the revs up and taking care not to stall. Going slow is important. Taking it at a rush can throw water up over the engine and short out the ignition.
Our next problem was bulldust. Despite my efforts, small amounts remained. Minute particles had penetrated the vitals of my engine. I could wax lyrically on their malign character. Sufficient to say that they'd stuffed my alternator. They had incapacitated the generator that charged the battery that started the engine and sparked the plugs.
I realised something was wrong when the warning light came on. We drove for several hours and the engine began to misfire. I stopped at the top of a hill figuring the battery would regain some of its strength if we let it rest. That worked the first time but not the second and I had to resort to my flashlight batteries, combining them in series to provide 12 volts. Mercifully, the kids had brought along a radio. It had a 9-volt battery and I used that when the first batteries were exhausted.
We limped into Borroloola and went straight to the filling station. A mechanic was on duty and he stripped down the alternator. To my dismay the bearings were crammed full of bulldust and totally wrecked.
"Can a replacement be fitted?"
"It'll take a week to get one sent up from Sydney," he replied. "Your best bet is to go out into the yard and see if you can find one there."
A hundred or so wrecked vehicles littered the dusty space outside. I went from one to the next. The bonnets were open and the engines stripped. There wasn't a single alternator that would fit my car. I gave up and was making my way back to the workshop, feeling despondent, when an image flashed before my eyes. For a moment, I thought I was imagining things. An alternator, just like mine, was poking out of the soil in a chicken pen. I went inside and dug it up. Most was missing but the bit with the bearings was still intact.
It was an amazing piece of luck. The casing was corroded and had to be cracked open before we could get to the bearings. They were taken out, soaked in kerosene and packed with grease. I installed them and they performed flawlessly on the 2000 kilometre drive back to Townsville. Later, when replacing them, in the comfort of my home, I broke one of the brushes that transmit current to the commutator. My car was out of action and I had to ask friends to give me a lift to work.
In retrospect, I feel foolish for taking children on such a trip. My bush skills got us out of a lot of trouble but things could have worked out differently.