Vlastik Skvaril – Gear box troubles in the outback!

Posted on August 29, 2008 by


Out of civilization

This is it! Almost immediately after leaving Laverton, we run out of sealed road. The surface does not look too bad and as we found out there was a grader working next 50 km of the road making it as good as a bitumen. After that it was a different story. Some parts of the road reasonable, some quite corrugated. But as everyone tells us, this is a beauty, just wait to see what it looks like when you cross to Northern Territory! Well that’s a long way, no point to worry about it. One very pleasing aspect was no dead animals on the road. But they were replaced by “dead” cars. I lost count how many of them are rusting away on both sides of the road. Even a smashed caravan, or what was left of it.

My thought went back to the number of killed eagles before Laverton. Back in Tasmania, we are really looking after these magnificent birds. When Forestry Tasmania is going to log some parts of the forest, they sent a helicopter to search for any possible nesting eagles. If the find any, they immediately declare 500 m exclusion zone to protect the birds. And here they are dying in such numbers on the roads!

About 40 km past Laverton, the vegetation is more plentiful. But I am not sure if the grasses are edible for the animals. We also came across a beautiful rock formation. The night was very peaceful night at a roadside, well hidden from the road, though here is not much traffic. Around 15 – 20 cars passed all day. The wind is still the same, this time much welcome. We are heading north/east so it is now a cross wind. This is good, since passing cars generate a lot of dust. I run on the right side of the road and Jo stops on the same side. The dust is thus blown away from us.

The weather is warmer, night still cold, 4-5 deg C in the morning but it is warming much quicker and the jumper goes off after about half hour of running. We are really enjoying it at this moment.

Second morning after leaving Laverton we stopped at Cosmo – Newberry, a small aboriginal town with about 50 residents. Nice, tidy town, started as a Mission. People were friendly. We visited the school, a very pleasant occasion again to talk to the students. There was a smaller number than normally (15) since some of them went to a funeral to Laverton, but it was still worth the visit. One big bonus of the visit for us was a treatment for our feet by a visiting Podiatrist from Perth. He saw me on the road and when we arrived he sent a message by one of the locals to come to seem him and get some care for our feet. It was most appreciated, will not have to worry about our toenails for a while!

He told me a sad story, I do not remember the name and all the details but it was about an engineer who proposed a huge, long pipe to bring water to the city. As always it had a lot of skeptics and critics but he did manage to find investors and built the pipe. After completion he turned the tap on and waited for the water to flow. The first day nothing happened, which was no surprise. Second day nothing again and he started to worry. The third day still nothing and the ridicule was coming from all corners. He started to lose confidence himself and could not take it any more. He shot himself. The forth day the water started flowing!

The wind continues to blow from east but not as strong. It is still very cold in the morning but I am taking my jumper off after less than hour of running. Even could put shorts on during the day, but by 3.30 pm it start cooling off even while the sun is still high. By 6 pm it is dark. The next three nights we camp in the bush, always able to find a place well hidden from the road.

The road is not very busy , the first car usually does not appear before 9.30 am. For interest we started to count them – on average 15 cars per day. It is enough to feel some comfort in the case something goes wrong, but enough to be a nuisance. Some of them stop, talk to us and donate money, some at least ask if we are OK.

One of the car was the Police. They stopped at our campervan and talk to Jo, making notes about our whereabouts for next few days and offered some advice about the area. They asked us to pour the unleaded fuel from the jerry can to our tank when filling at the next roadhouse and replace it with opal. They said that there is a lot of problems with sniffing petrol around Warburton and someone would be likely trying to steal it from the top of our van. But they had some good news for us too. Next Tuesday, the 19th August, just when we will be at Warburton, they are organizing a disco for the youngsters and will use it to do some fundraising for Canteen. Now we have at least one reason to be looking forward to be passing through Warburton.

The country around is very dry and the shrubs and trees are very small. Then suddenly I can see from a distance a line of large trees doing very well. It is a river bed, without any water, but clearly visible are the signs of a raging current during wet season. That is also the time when the road would be impassable. I guess there must be enough underground water left to support the trees. They look very healthy.

After seeing footprints of camels for few weeks, finally we have seen a heard of them, some 100 meters from the road and soon after another one, standing in the middle of the road and no hurry to leave. We have been told to watch out for them, there will be many more around.

On Friday 15th August, we finished the day at Tjukayirla Roadhouse. With Caravan Park and powered site, it was a Paradise after 4 days camping on a roadside. The shower was most welcome and they let us stay free which was much appreciated. There was also a very good company around, a couple of German tourists who were very friendly people. Another couple from Perth and even a man we met at Bramwell Junction, near the Tip of Cape York, during our run a couple of years ago. He was there with tractors from WA traveling from Cape to Cape, raising money for flying Doctors. It is a small world.

A couple of resident emus provided some entertainment. They even tried to pick up the leaves from the pictures of the forests on our van. I had to chase them away very quickly!

We are not in a hurry to leave Tjukayirla, this is my chance to catch up with writing and downloading pictures from my camera, ready to post on my website when we have the first opportunity. We also took the chance to have some freshly cooked meal. We decided for hamburgers. They were the largest and most delicious we have had for years!

The chance to send emails was most welcome. I had wireless connection just outside the roadhouse but it was very weak. I had to make several attempts to send them. In that situation it was unthinkable to try to post anything on my website.

The night was again much colder, around zero and the headwind much stronger. I had to put a jacket on the top of the jumper to block the wind getting right to the skin. The road was OK for a while, until there was a lot of corrugation as well as sand patches. Combined with undulating terrain it made the running more challenging. But we are still making good progress.

Jo has been worried about this part of the trip for a long time. Now, after hearing all the bad stories about the area around Warburton, even I have some concerns. I would not mention it in front of Jo though! I am still putting on a brave face. Everyone we talk to is warning us, even the Police. Tourists would not stay overnight outside camping grounds at Roadhouses, which look more like fortresses than camping grounds. But we have no choice. The distance between them is anything up to 250 kilometers. I cannot run it in one day! I am saying this now only because by the time I will post it on my web site, we will be safely out of here. I certainly would not like to have our family and friends unnecessary worried. All we can do now is to find each day the safest, well hidden spot and hope for the best.

The day before we reached Warburton was the most challenging so far. The wind was even stronger. I found it very hard to run, after only few hundred meters each time I had to slow down to walking. After two and half hour I had covered only 18 kilometers and felt as if I had already completed sixty. This was the moment when I started asking myself “What am I doing here?”, Gravel in the shoes, hard running in sand or gravel, concerns about our safety due to the horror stories we heard about this area. I was not a happy man. But I also knew that this sort of moments will inevitably happen. I knew I had to get through it. And I did. After a short break I noticed that the wind started to moderate and could run much better. I had to motivate myself. One of the tricks I found useful in the past, especially during the race through Simpson Desert, is to pretend that you are enthusiastic about what you doing and believe it or not, you actually will become enthusiastic!

By midday I had completed 30 kilometers. I was back in control. I knew, what I was doing here and was enjoying every moment of it.

We found a good campsite for the last night before Warburton but I did not feel safe any more. The occupants of the few cars that stopped to talk to us had all the same message: Don’t hang around Warburton longer than you have to. When the morning came I was relieved. Tonight we will be in the safety of the Caravan Park. It was a beautiful morning, only light easterly wind. We were on the road at 6.30 already, by 10am I was running in shorts only. A perfect day, everything looked rosy. That was until we reached the sign advising that it is only 5 kilometers to Warburton. That was when the concerns returned. The large sign was more like a sieve, riddled with bullet holes obviously shot from both side. Not an encouraging sign. Soon after we settled in the caravan park and I was very relaxed. The management asked us to take down from the top of our van the jerry cans and lock them inside the van overnight, but I did it only to comply with their request. I could not see how anyone would try to steel them while we are sleeping inside without us noticing it. We were camped under a light but there were no other campers, only few other people in the cabins, obviously living there. The aboriginal community is the largest in this area and close to the road. The roadhouse is where they do their shopping so there are always many around. But mostly they look friendly and I would not expect any trouble.

But the first signs of trouble appeared shortly after dark. We were sitting inside because it was so cold. Suddenly we though we heard some noise from outside so I went to check on it. I saw a hooded man walking by towards the back of the park. I did not think much of it and went back to the van. Not long after we heard another noise. It sounded as if the back door was not closed properly and rattled a bit. Once again I went out to check and saw the same person standing about 10 meters from the van. He did not look like being in a hurry to disappear. I still thought that he might be someone just looking around and checking that everything is OK. Very naïve, I know now. The third time another noise alerted us I went out again and noticed the lid on the box on the front of the van was open and now there was no doubt that someone is trying to steal something. And the person I saw again was heading towards the gate. Before he disappeared I had a chance to yell at him and verbally threatened him that if he comes back again, he will be very sorry. I did not expect him to come back again. He should have seen that there is nothing worth of stealing. When I checked the box and found that nothing was missing, I laughed the whole episode off. There was really nothing to steal as I keep in the box water for radiator, oil, water hose and things like that and that was why I did not even bother to lock it. I slept peacefully until almost exactly at midnight I woke up with strange feeling that something was not quite right. I quickly opened the sliding door and heard someone running away. By the time I got out I could see anyone but in the light I saw a piece of plastic hose lying next to the can. The fuel tank lock was forced open and the cap removed. The hose was dry so I assumed that I woke up early enough to stop him from sucking out the petrol. The gauge confirmed that the tank was still full so apart from damage to the lock nothing else happened. But we had enough. We unplugged the power cord and moved our van next to the manager’s house which was better lit and had a fence with a guard dog inside. Needless to say that in spite of this we still could not get much sleep. I promised Jo, that the next day we will drive to the next roadhouse at Warakurna. She did not want to think about camping on the roadside the next night. We also heard about some other problems in the community the same night. We did not even ask the policeman what happened with the disco and fundraising he told us about few days before. Since then I heard that some people drive to Laverton and back(some 1,100 km) nonstop to bring unleaded petrol and sell it in the community for $80 – 100!

In the morning we were in a hurry to get away from this place. We did let the management know about what happened. They called the Police and I told him what happened but what could they do anyway? But everyone, including the policeman assured us, that once we get out of Warburton we will have no problems. And they stressed again, that even here the people will not hurt anyone. The only problem is with the sniffing of petrol and stealing. With this assurance, I was confident that all will be OK. But it was not easy to convince Jo. She still wanted me to stop running in time to drive to Warakurna. For lunch we stopped at a nice spot away from the road. Soon after an aborigine arrived to have his lunch break as well. I went to talk to him and found him to be a very nice and interesting person. He had a little dog with him. As he explained it wasn’t his dog but one of about six he looks after when their owners go away without providing for them. He always buys some food so they all come to him when in need. There were some signs at that place with aboriginal words and I asked him how to pronounce them. He surprised me when he said that he lives now at the community called Jamieson for seven years but he does not understand their “lingo” as he said. He comes from Queensland but does not understand his parent’s lingo either. It was a very interesting story how he got to Jamieson, it included some cartons of beer and strange coincidences. He was a very good story teller and quite knowledgeable. He works for the Roads Department and was very critical of the young people who do not want to work and even more upset about the Government that gives them money without them earning it. He said that the Government is a part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. At the end he proved his kindness by donating $25 to Canteen even without us asking for it. The signs on the van gave him enough information about what we are doing. I was very happy we met him. It made up for the previous night at Warburton. After that I managed to talk Jo into camping at a roadside even though she kept reminding me about my promise the previous night. She was still very scarred all night, but accepted it. That is what I call courage. We could stay on our schedule and I am very happy about it. Even though I believe most people would understand if we drove away in such circumstances.

The roadside camping for next three nights was very peaceful. We found good spots hidden from the road, including a quarry. After two days of calm weather the wind suddenly turned into gale force during the first night. I was woken up by the noise and shaking of the van. There were no stars to be seen, the sky covered with heavy clouds. I was waiting for any sign of rain, ready to drive quickly to the road. This place was about 300 meters downhill from the road and I would not like to be stuck there, possibly for days, if it rained. With the first daylight at about 6 am we could see the heavy, threatening clouds. Had a small breakfast to be ready to start running by 6.30. Suddenly the clouds started to break up so quickly, I never seen anything like that before. I had hardly enough time to take a couple of pictures before the sky was all blue again.

We have been starting earlier now. I expected the days to start getting longer but instead they are getting shorter! I could not understand it. At 5.45 pm it is already dark.

Without any further significant events apart from seeing more camels around the road we made it to Warakurna. The first thing to do was to change out time to Central Australian Time by moving the clock one and half hour forward. Now I understand why the days were getting shorter. We have been on the road now already 35 days and covered 2,333 kilometers moving eastwards without changing time. Now it makes all sense. The daylight lasts till 7 pm!

While in Warakurna we used the opportunity to visit Giles Weather Station situated only few hundreds meters from here. Very interesting watching the release of the balloons measuring temperature, pressure and humidity up to the height of 35 kilometers before they burst and seeing how the station operates. I also now know how strong is the wind I have been running into most of the time – 15 to 20 knots!

The aboriginal community of Warakurna is about 2 km from the roadhouse. They are here most of the time but there are no signs of any problems. The camping ground and the roadhouse are well looked after, no fences obviously needed. Overall it is a very good place to spend a night.

We woke up to a calm morning. The wind is not as strong and there are surprisingly some clouds around. The countryside has started to change as we are heading towards Northern Territory border. There are patches of forests, more ranges appear, and with the red rock face they are looking very pretty. We also saw more camels today. It must be plenty of them here. It is a big change to see so many hills after more than 2,000 of flat country. Although I was surprised to learn that the altitude at the Giles Weather Station was almost 600 meters so we did a fair bit of claiming over the distance from the sea level.

The first morning after leaving Warakurna we woke up to minus 5 degrees in the van. I could not believe it, no sign of frost – of course there is no moisture to form it. Another traveler confirmed that he checked minus seven at Docker River. The country is beautiful, the roads are horror. The second night we arrived at a lovely camping ground near Docker River. We wanted to refuel but the shop was closed – no petrol sale either – although it should have been open. There are people in the shop but when I tried to get some answer if they were going to open at all, the answer was only: “The shop is closed today!” Never mind, we have enough fuel to get to Yulara.

There were some other campers so Jo was very happy to have a company. Later in the evening a couple of tractors arrived. They were the same we met two years ago at Bramwell Junction near the Top of Cape York. They do big trips with their Chamberlains across Australia every two years to raise money for Flying Doctors and Children’s Hospital. Again, it is a small world. Again we saw many camels wandering across the camping ground.

The next morning we left again with the first light. It was a beautiful morning and almost no wind. Lovely mountains all around, I really enjoyed every minute of it. We had only a cup of coffee and a biscuits for breakfast as we wanted to be on the way. After about 30 km Jo was going to prepare breakfast and took to drive another 3 km ahead to get it ready. I noticed that after few hundred meters she stopped and started again. When I reached the spot, I noticed a small pool of oil. I was trying to convince myself that it wasn’t from our campervan but when I caught up with her, even from a distance I could see a pool of oil under the vehicle at least 30 cm in diameter. We were still 180 km from sealed roads and I could imagine the problem if we broke down at that place. I had no other choice but to jump into the van and drive like a maniac towards Ayers Rock before all the oil is gone. I knew that the closer we get, the better. The road between WA/NT border and Yulara is a horror story. The biggest obstacle are deep sands. We came across two trucks bogged down close together and I had to get pass them without slowing down, otherwise I would joined them there and with every minute we were losing more oil and our chances to make it to Ayers Rock would diminish. It was very scary, there was not much room left, the vehicle sliding all over the road and I had to find the proverbial hole in the needle. When I hit the bank on the side of the first vehicle, I thought we were either going to be bogged or will hit the truck. To our great relieve we made it pass them and the race against the time continued. I was thinking of myself as being a rally driver and must admit, to my embarrassment, that I enjoyed it in spite of the situation being so serious. Must be something wrong with me! We had still more than 100 km of very rough roads ahead and I am trying to enjoy it! It was very tough on all the gear in the van, things flying all over the place, but I had to keep going. Eventually we made it to Ayers Rock Resort where there is an Auto Repair Service, but had to bring it back the next morning. Meanwhile we settled in the Caravan Park for the night. I already knew, that we would be stuck here for some time so I was trying to find some suitable accommodation. The cabins were all booked out so I asked about the tents which lined up one of the tracks in the park. They said that they were not being rented out because they were not in top condition but I managed to talk them into letting us stay in one of them. It was a bit of shock to be charged $90 for one night plus 90c for paying with a credit card, but it is the only alternative and in spite of paying so much, we have at least chance to put in some of our gear and use the barbecues outside to cook some food from out tins. Everything is so expensive here, I cannot imagine paying for meals.

A short while ago I got a call from the workshop that the news is bad. The gearbox is cracked and they haven’t got another. They suggested to have the van towed to Alice Springs at the cost of $1,600, but it would not solve anything, because in Alice they didn’t have one either. I promptly contacted our mechanic in Burnie Michael French and he is chasing one. He is a great man and I am sure, that we can sort it out with his help. Our sons Petr and Vlastik will do anything too help with the situation so I am relaxed, there is nothing more I can do. The only thing I will try to talk to the manager here to try to get a better deal on the tent accommodation. They are only 2×2 meters tens with two single beds and small coffee tables. That is all that can fit in. I hope they will be sensible.

28th of August, it is my birthday. I was hoping to spend it on the road running but it was not meant to be. Any donation to Canteen would be a great present!

Yesterday was a very productive day. Michael did indeed found a gear box for our van in South Australia and it is already on the way. Almost unbelievable to achieve in one day what many others would consider impossible. It will hopefully arrive on Friday and will be fitted on Monday fingers crossed! That would mean six nights in this camping ground. I got another idea. Since no work can be done on the campervan till the gear box arrives, I checked on the feasibility of bringing it back and stay in it until then. The cost of transporting it here – about 5 km – was $60. Powered site is $36 as against tent $90. The saving over 6 nights is $240! This again proves that all is relative. When we arrived here $36 per night seemed expensive in comparison with other caravan parks. Now in comparison with the tent it seems to be bargain!

We are now trying to enjoy our forced holiday. We feel good, have done all we could and thinking that it would do no good to be upset. We see the glass as half full. It could have been much worse. If this happened somewhere around Warburton, more than 500 km each direction from civilization, that would be reason to feel desperate. But not here.

Jo is trying to get rid of most of the dust and sand inside the van. I ran yesterday twice to the workshop and back, visited an aboriginal Nyangatjara College, covering in total about 25 km. I will keep running every day trying to make up for what I missed by driving to here and also not to get too lazy. Today I visited local Yulara Primary School to keep spreading the message about Canteen and Tasmania.

I had to seek shelter on the way back from school from a storm and brief heavy shower. The air smells so fresh now after a month of dry, dusty conditions. Tonight we might indulge ourselves by going to Outback Pioneer Hotel for BBQ where you can choose your meat including kangaroo, emu, crocodile or more traditional beef, lamb, fish or sausages. Then you cook it yourself on a BBQ and choose anything from full salad bar. Might as well make most of our stay here.

Today is day No 40 and the distance I have run is 2,496 km. We will get behind, but I am confident, that we will catch up before we get to Byron Bay.