Painted deserts & missing jacks
This is Mike’s latest report from the 2014 Trans-Oceania cycling expedition
Heading into our rest day in Coober Pedy, a few of us decided that we would rent a car in town and venture out to the highly recommended ‘Painted Desert’. The trip would be about 170 km out and then a meandering route home along isolated tracks. In order to make the most of the experience we thought we would leave the campsite at 4am in order to arrive at the main viewpoint just as the sun rose. We picked up our fully-kitted out 4×4 and slipped into our tents to try to get some sleep.
We all awoke in the pitch black and started out. For the first couple hours we sped through the night, the surrounding countryside barely lit by a half-moon. We drove through dry creek beds & stopped to check directions at the rare signposts. The wind whistled across the barren landscape and we encountered not one other living being. We turned off our unpaved road and onto a small single lane track that stretched out off into the distance. And lo and behold, as the sun peeked over the horizon, we pulled into the observation area overlooking the Painted Desert.
The sight that greeted our eyes was well worth the early start; other-worldly shapes and an unending palette of muted colours. Reds, oranges, greens, blues, grays, purples all blended together into a spectacular backdrop. The five of us scrambled around taking photos and just soaking in the eerie beauty. After almost an hour we headed back to the vehicle, eager to continue our journey through Southern Australia’s Outback.
Fate, however, had other plans for us. As we approached our 4×4 I noticed the rear left tire was flat. Ok, a bit of pain but no real problem as we had two spares mounted on the back. We opened the tailgate and immediately found the tool kit. Right next to it was another compartment, obviously for the jack. We opened it and there was silence as we stared at the empty space. No jack.
Here we stood, about 150 km from the nearest town with no cell service. We had seen absolutely nobody on the road and, in any case, it was off-season. The guys at camp knew that we were here but they would not even really think anything was up for 12 hours. We had some pop and snacks. We could be here for a while. We searched the rest of the 4×4 for the missing jack but came up empty-handed.
Just before we arrived at the Painted Desert we had noticed a small sign at the side of the track that indicated that there was a homestead in about 13 km. We had no idea what this meant. Would anybody be home? Would they have a jack or a way of communicating with the outside world? We talked it over and decided, to drive there on the flat tire. After a few kms the rubber was disintegrating so we had to stop. Looks like we were walking. We had the idea to drive up on the dirt mound lining the track. Doing this meant the vehicle was on an angle and after sliding a spare tire under the chassis to keep the car elevated, we started digging under the flat. It had to be deep enough to allow the new tire to fit on.
It took about an hour but eventually we got the tire on and we were ready to go. We felt like Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’ when he finally gets wood to light and screams out triumphantly “I have made fire”! Mind you we were still far from anywhere and we still had no jack. Tentatively, we began the 90km journey back to the Stuart Highway and hoped for the best.
The drive was gorgeous. The scenery was stupendous. The light, the colours, the complete and absolute desolation was amazing. The track wandered up and over small hills, each crest revealing another of nature’s visual masterpieces. Eagles perched on rocky outcroppings and spindly trees were silhouetted against the azure sky. Cycling along the Stuart Highway you would have no idea that this existed just a few kilometres away.
Eventually, almost reluctantly, we reached the highway and decided to celebrate with some fries at a Roadhouse. They tasted delicious and we emerged, ready to return to Coober Pedy and to rid ourselves of our jack-less vehicle. Thoughts of checking out some other scenic but isolated sights had long ago been put aside. As I walked towards the car, I thought my eyes were deceiving me…now the other rear tire looked very low! How could this be? We decided to pump it up and drive back as quickly as possible.
We stole a quick look at the tire on the road home and each time it looked flatter and flatter. Somehow we made it back to the rental car depot before it lost all pressure. We got out of the car, ready for a fight. How dare they send tourists into the Outback without a jack! Were they insane? We politely brought up this incredible oversight to the representative at the counter. Only to have him respond in a laid-back Aussie voice, “of course, there is a jack mate”. He then proceeded to take us out and show us where it was – a small compartment that we had checked, but just not well enough! He was impressed by the way we had managed to change a tire without the proper tools but was polite enough not to comment on how we got ourselves into the situation in the first place.
In the end we had to pay for two wrecked tires (apparently they usually only get about 4 flats a year, sigh) but gained some valuable insight into our own ability to think outside the box and deal with adverse circumstances. Yes, “We have changed a tire!”