Everything happens for a reason they say – there’s always a silver lining. Our silver lining happens to have off-road tyres underneath and a tent on top.
One summer afternoon in Sydney, two city slickers sat wondering what do next, as an employer had just handed us a redundancy letter and things were about to get tight, financially speaking.
By dinnertime we’d made the decision to stop worrying about how we were going to pay the rent, instead scratching together a plan to hit the road and take a job on the other side of the continent, living rent-free in our rooftop tent. It was all my girlfriend Kim’s idea and what a damn fine idea it was. There’s always a catch however and after all the equipment preparation and downsizing of our belongings, we would only have 11 days to cover some 6,500km of forgotten backroads and dusty outback tracks, crossing the country almost corner to corner. Suffice to say, we certainly didn’t ease gently into life on the road but boy was it exciting!
Clearing out our cosy suburban home, closing the doors to our little business and rehoming our two plump chickens, Kim and I quickly worked at repurposing our daily driver – the FJ Cruiser, into a bulletproof rig ready to get us into places most only dream of going, and more importantly – back again. It would be just big enough to call home for two, but not for three. Sorry chooks.
Jobless, homeless and with Kim overseas for a family wedding in the last few weeks before our departure, I found myself couch-surfing with family and working on finishing the build of the FJ. Soon every waking hour was spent sourcing, designing and installing kit, devising methods for water storage and lighting, weatherproofing and equipping our living and sleeping space for use day in and day out. We had downsized our 2-bedroom home worth of belongings down to what keepsakes could fit into an old box trailer. We would stash that trailer on a friend’s farm upstate before steering west towards the inland desert regions, ready for what new adventures which might lay ahead.
Now space in the FJ is tight at the best of times, so the choice of equipment and how it was packed was decided based on its degree of usefulness. At least that is how I justified building a wine-rack into the base of the wardrobe cabinet. Now c’mon, a wine-rack is a necessity in remote areas where you may not be able to resupply for a while… right? We sure had to be pragmatic and imaginative and I must say it’s a superbly rewarding process stripping your life back to the bare essentials. Ideally, every item would have a dual purpose and if seldom used it would be jettisoned along the way.
We were packing for searing hot days and cold winter nights, for the dryness of the outback and the unforgiving humidity of the tropics. Who knew how long we might be on the road? After all, we had no intentions of returning to the big smoke any time soon, so we treated this as a sort of ongoing mobile relocation. Life, on the road.
Departure day arrived, we said our goodbyes and rolled out of town simply buzzing with energy. Our route took us north on Highway 1 past the sparkling blue waters of the east coast of NSW. We stopped awhile amongst the sweet smelling sugarcane fields of southern QLD before steering west onto smaller back roads, traffic thinning as we wound our way past small dots on the map. A mob of quaint little places seemed to be right out of another time, country Australia hitting us like a breath of fresh air with its hospitality not only recharging us but it was downright enchanting.
Fast stretches of blacktop skirted by Eucalypt forest soon gave way to tired and potholed b-roads. There were mountain passes and the seemingly endless plains of wheat fields, the agricultural heartland broken up by the occasional stop at a local pub for the obligatory beer and meat pie in a blur of one, two, and three horse towns. We spent afternoons kicking back, free camping along mighty rivers and on huge outback cattle stations – cooking food over a coal fire and marvelling at the number of stars in the night sky outside of the cities.
The fit-out of the vehicle was already proving to be sweet apart from some running modifications to the 12V system to keep the fridge powered while off-grid, and we were living like kings in our own little slice of freedom. Long days were spent flying down long straight roads, the iPod getting a thorough workout from hip-hop to country and everything in between. Far from bored, we sat wide-eyed with wonder at all of the new scenery we were absorbing, meeting new folks each day most of whom thought we were mad for undertaking such a long drive just to take a job in the middle of nowhere.
Dirt roads became badly maintained outback tracks. Tyre punctures weren’t uncommon along corrugated roads where graders left sharp stone shards along the way. We had to think carefully about our fuel range on some stretches with up to 1050km between fuel stations, figuring our range to be about 1100km. So, when the fuel light finally came on in the back of beyond, it sure did produce some top-notch sphincter palpitations.
History will tell that a charming barkeep named Bundy tried really hard to convince us to fill our fuel tanks there at Birdsville and go hard on either the TAA or French line across the Simpson Desert, rather than taking the ‘easy’ route via Boulia.
After a dozen cold beers and a hot roast meal, I gotta say that something about of that Birdsville pub had me inspired to have a crack at the desert crossing. Maybe the rafters lined with battered cowboy hats scrawled with the names of their former owners all of whom had been patrons of this bar a long time ago – or maybe it had been Bundy tracing that route out for us with his finger on the paper Simpson Desert map pinned up on the pub wall. You don’t find yourself at Birdsville every day, after all. We were well prepared, and it was the most direct route. Not to mention it is one of the most coveted adventures on this continent. There were other people in town setting off tomorrow so we wouldn’t be risking travelling alone. Up at sunrise with our tyres down, we arrived at the ‘road outta town’, soon frustrated to learn that all routes across the sand remained closed due to unseasonal downpours over the last few days. Oh well, them’s the brakes I s’pose.
Come to think, getting across to Birdsville had taken a lot of careful driving and horsepower with straits of half-mile-long standing water over soft mud thus making the simple traversing of an outback dustbowl a potential nightmare. Point-it-and-plant-your-foot stuff, it was all about momentum. We soon learnt that we in our FJ were one of the last vehicles to get through to Birdsville before that whole road in was shut down and labelled ‘impassable’ till it dried out. I tell you what – navigating these conditions under our own steam produced adrenalin which I’ll never forget. Not a bit of it. The tense yet exciting experience of scrambling across those lonely plains will stay with me forever.
Over The Border
Resupplying in ‘The Alice’ we were soon adjusting to the sight of red dirt and wide-open spaces, breathing it in like fresh air after the hustle and bustle down south. Good town Alice, we’ll get back and check it out more I think, maybe grab some mates and launch a boat up the Todd someday. For now, we steered North-West and as we did, the fuel got more expensive, the roadhouse burgers got bigger and the starved wild dogs skulked more menacingly along the roadside. We wound our way past quiet remote communities and up towards the wild Kimberley region, travelling the Tanami Desert track which was a dream – a smooth graded dirt highway of endless big skies and high speeds, at least till the last 20km of which some genius had obliterated with some less-than-average grader operating skills
So, close to the border but after a full hour and a half of mishaps with flat tyres, flying ‘Roo jacks and a lot of swearing, we rolled into Halls Creek Toyota with parched throats and one less 285×70 all-terrain tyre. Sitting atop his bonnet in front of us in the queue was a tired bloke with four rapidly deflating tyres on a 200-series cruiser, his roof rack strapped down through the windows with a ratchet strap and his bulbar just held on with rope. Missing a few driving lights and half an aerial, we wondered where the hell did this guy just come in from? After a quick chat, he filled us in with a colourful account of rushing along the Canning stock route, in a modern V8 diesel. At this point, we looked at his poor rig and felt a bit less sore about our $500 bill from ‘Hell’s Crack Toyota’ for a single tyre.
Rolling onward, dusty colourless sands became a vivid red ochre colour as we blazed a trail west towards the coast at Derby, soon turning onto the Gibb River Road ready to hook into life in outback W.A.
The weather-beaten bush which dotted the Kimberley scrub gives the impression that you might as well be on the moon. Snakes crossed our path as we camped our way through National Parks and wilderness areas, while huge birds of prey hunted overhead. It was humbling to be so small and fleeting, in such a huge and timeless place.
The outback we had always imagined in our heads – the romanticised outback – deep into which Malcolm Douglas and David Attenborough ventured on our televisions as a kid, had nothing on the real thing. It was dry, it was rugged. The heat and the flies and the rough roads were nothing short of inhospitable. I’ll tell you what though, it was real. It excited us beyond belief, the feeling we got realising that it would be our new home turf (for the next while at least) was like a drug. We were hooked on it.
After burning through some 1500 litres of unleaded fuel since departing Sydney, we rolled in off the mighty Gibb River Road and introduced ourselves to our soon-to-be colleagues at the Mount Barnett Roadhouse. Here we were. We’d gone bush. Everything was new and we couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into the experience.
Once settled in, we were pleased to find that living out of our new rooftop tent was really comfortable in practice, the mesh on all sides allowing the cool evening breeze coming across the Kimberley to take the sting out of the dry season heat while we slept. We soon got to know many of the folks within and around the local aboriginal community, making acquaintances slowly but surely and feeling very grateful to be living on their country, calling the Kimberley home for a bit. This really is one of the wildest places I have ever travelled to. Up there with the Sahara in that it is hot, dry, rough and a long way from anywhere. It does however have a certain beauty beneath all this, a beauty that you will not find anywhere else. It gets under your skin, and I reckon you’ve just got to see it for yourself.
The limitation of having your home attached to the roof became quickly apparent, with weather in the mid 30’s for most of the season and pushing up to and above the 40-degree Celsius mark within months of our arrival, there was no easy way to keep our ‘home’ set up and also be able to go down the 5km dirt track to cool off at the waterhole after each day’s work. We were very lucky that the gorgeous family we lived with, our lovely new managers, let us use their camper trailer as home base so we could keep the RTT packed up for weekends away. We made use of this by piling in the truck of an afternoon, cheeky local kids sat up on Kim’s lap as we rattled our way down the track for an afternoon splash down at Manning Gorge.
We relished these quiet times, swimming, hiking and learning about the local history and culture. Equally though, some of the more out-there experiences which we had access to really lit the fire of adventure under us. Exploring remote gorges on the back of quad bikes, viewing the vast station from a helicopter during a raging bushfire, pulling out bogged road trains with a snatch strap and a Landcruiser, this was simply business as usual for those living and working out here. If you told friends back at home though, they might believe you, but they couldn’t even begin to imagine how much fun it was.