Updated: Jul 2, 2020
I think we have a new meaning for the dreaded phrase 'the ‘C’ word' now, whether this is an improvement or not on the previous #1 spot is a debate I certainly don’t want to enter today. Regardless of any opinion on that, it is undisputed that this new ‘C’ word has affected the entire world, well, the human world at least. Most recently this new crisis has affected me in the form of an epic, unplanned 3150km journey from the south of Australia to the northern tropics. Here’s what happened:
If someone had asked me 6 months ago where I thought I would be today, I would have answered something like ‘Hopefully I’m driving a brand new bus through some part of the USA that I’ve never been to before, checking out some new places!’. However, my present reality is that I’m sitting at a desk in a motel room in Mission Beach Queensland, Australia under a police directive to quarantine for 14 days. Under the circumstances, I don’t think I could be in a much better spot and in a short 7 days time I will be free to leave the room and finally see some of my new surrounds. (Under strict social distancing guidelines of course, and only under the scope of buying essential food or taking some essential exercise along the beautiful, palm lined beaches!)
COVI....No, not saying it! Let’s call it Mr ‘C’.
Mr ‘C’ is not totally to blame for me being here instead of the US, I was originally planning to be in Oz for just a few months before my US work visa came through, then I would fly over to Nashville and start the next phase of my life over there. But it’s funny how life has a way of grabbing you by the balls sometimes and dragging you off in some totally unknown direction. (Actually, that’s one of my favourite things about life!)
So, a little background... I work for a company that has agreed to transfer me from my previous post in Europe to their new office in the USA. I finished up in Europe last December then flew to Adelaide, Australia to spend some time with family & friends. I bought a camper van and planned a trip along the south and west coast of the country, but then things started changing.
1) My visa was denied by the US immigration department which didn’t mean my US plans were over, but it meant plan B had to come into action and a different type of visa would be applied for next. This meant a longer waiting period for me, so I decided to change my plans a little and took a casual job in Adelaide driving regional coaches within South Australia. I figured it would be a good idea to earn some money first to compensate for the longer waiting period, and then head off on the coastal trip.
2) Then there were some more changes. Mr ‘C’ was starting to cause chaos overseas and there were rumours starting about the restriction of movement across state borders here in Australia. I was starting to consider taking off on my trip sooner rather than later in case the borders close, but also worried about walking away from a job when things were becoming so uncertain. I decided to stay in Adelaide and stay with the job, but then the company stood me down. (Lack of customers.)
3) By this stage I felt like both of my balls were firmly in the grip of life’s hands and I had absolutely no control any more over the future. I went into a kind of survival headspace and tried to decided on something very basic: If total lockdown comes and lasts 6 months or more, where do I want to be? The answer was: Away from large groups of people, join a small community please!
I took off north out of Adelaide just after lunch time, stopping for some supplies along the way. Adelaide is sometimes known as the 20 minute city because you can reach the ocean, the hills or the outback within 20 mins of driving. (Maybe a little longer these days!) I drove for a couple of hours and decided to stop for some fast food in a small, regional town called Port Pirie. As I was driving through the town the van started to misfire, badly. I was totally shocked because I’d spent the last 2 months replacing parts, tuning, road testing and basically preparing it for a long road trip. I thought it was in excellent shape, and then this happens! I went through a Mc Donald’s drive through and then parked up to try and decide what to do. As I was sipping my coffee I went through all of the options in my head about possible causes and came up with only one, the coil lead. I had replaced all of the other ’spark’ components recently, so this had to be it.
I spent the night in Pt Pirie with the plan to go visit a local auto parts store as soon as it opens the following morning. With the engine issues pushed to the back of my mind for the moment, I found myself thinking more about my eventual destination. I was aiming for a small community somewhere, but I hadn’t really considered the reality of living in the van as winter approaches. I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere for 6 months in the cold, so I decided before I went to sleep that if the van is fine tomorrow, I’ll head to tropical north Queensland. At least up there if I am stuck for 6 months or longer, it’s warm and still comfortable to do the whole ‘van life’ thing.
The next morning I bought and fitted a lead kit and then started on my way out of town.... it still misfired. As the Scots would say, ‘I was f#&king raging!’, so I went back to my happy place at Mc Donalds with a fresh cup of coffee, and back to the mental drawing board. After some time to calm down I came to the conclusion that it can’t be anything serious. After all, I knew the history of the engine and I knew it was in great shape. I’d recently replaced the fuel filter so it couldn’t be that, so it had to be something like a vapour lock in the fuel system or a mild issue with the carburettor. The misfire was intermittent although relatively severe when happening, but it had also been a lot better in the morning after the overnight stop. It hadn’t missed a beat on the highway from Adelaide up to Pt Pirie, so I thought stuff it, let’s just keep going. The next town up the road was Port Augusta, which is about an hour on the highway. I decided that if it makes it without issue to Pt Augusta, then I’ll keep going. As fate would have it, it ran like a dream the whole way, no sign of a misfire. I refuelled at Pt Augusta, did a good check around the entire van and then headed north into the outback interior of central Australia.
Leigh Creek Resort (The welcome sign on the main road.) Those thinking that it was selfish/dangerous for me to travel during that time I’d point out the following:
Schools were open, small public gatherings were still permitted.
I was in good health (Thankfully am still.)
I only stopped for essential supplies, used gloves and lots of hand sanitiser.
I will be totally honest here and say that I was NOT prepared for the condition of the road that I was about to contend with. Had I done some better preparation rather than just casually deciding to take on a 3000+km outback trip in a Nissan Urvan whilst falling asleep the night before, I may have decided on something different.
Below is a video I took at the start of the quite well known Marree to Birdsville track. ‘Track’ being the perfect describing word for this 600km+ outback road.
When I came to Marree I spoke to the local Police Officer who was controlling access to the outback on this track. At that time there was a tightening of the borders, so she asked me my reason for wanting to travel to Queensland. I told her the reason as I described above in this blog, namely that I don’t want to be stuck living in a van for the entire winter, which is looking like a possibility if the borders shut. The Officer was understanding and radioed through to the Birdsville police that I was coming up the track.
Looking back on this exchange of words, that officer must have had a good old laugh at me driving off into the distance. I didn’t even realise at this point that the road would turn to dirt, let alone how rough it was going to get!
Around 2 hours into the dirt road the sun began to set, and I decided to pull over for the night. I had already learnt a harsh lesson about speed on these roads after driving into a flood section too quickly and burying the bottom of the engine into a pile of big rocks! Until that point I had been doing 80-90km/h to minimise the vibration of the corrugated nature of the road, plus the other flood sections had been smooth dips that you just drive in and out of without issue. This one was different, I came over the edge and saw the rocks, but had no time to slow down. As the engine sump connected with the rocks it was like someone had stepped on the brakes for a second, quite a loud bang too! The van pushed through but I had to pull over and check when I came out the other side, fully expecting the sump to be torn off. It was still there, although a slightly different shape. Lesson learnt!
There is one roadhouse between Marree and Birdsville, located around 3.5hrs south of the border, it’s called Mungerannie. Phil is the guy that runs the place and has been there for around 13 years so he tells me. I was so happy to see the signs for this desert oasis because I was starting to doubt that I had enough fuel to make it to Birdsville. Phil had placed signs around 100km out from his roadhouse, just simple signs that would say simple things like ‘bacon & egg roll?’, then another 20km along another saying ‘fresh coffee?’, ‘fuel?’, ‘ice cold beer?’....you get the idea. I was waiting for the last sign to say something like ‘well keep on dreamin’ sucker!’, but as funny as that would be it was much nicer to see the building below come into view.
As I pulled up to the fuel pumps I saw a guy appear out of seemingly nowhere, looking like I’d woken him up from a very short sleep after a very heavy party. This turned out to be Phil. I went inside and chatted to him for a while in what must be the most iconic outback pub in Australia. This pub was covered all over inside with all types of underwear, postcards, money from different parts of the world, and notes from travellers from all over the world. There were 2 dips in the wooden floor that kept drawing my attention, I was told they are from motorbikes doing burnouts, INSIDE the bar. You can imagine the type of evenings that go on at this place after a few beers can’t you! I wish I had taken more pictures, but I wasn’t there for fun, I was there for fuel and coffee....the essentials. The only reason I got the pictures posted here below is because there was a couple from Queensland there leaving around the same time as me. On those roads you don’t want to be following anyone otherwise you just swallow and breathe their dust for hours, so I waited... and took some pictures.
I’d noticed when I was turning into Phil's roadhouse at Mungerannie that the road signs were indicating 4WD vehicles only on the rest of the track north to Birdsville. I was quite worried about the van getting even more of a beating so I asked Phil. He said to pay no attention to the sign and that I ‘should’ be fine... Great. Phil also warned me about the police officer in Birdsville, hinted that I might have a tough time with him... Also great.
When I finally made it to the border I was fully intending to get out and kiss the bitumen, but at that very moment my phone came into signal and started ringing! At the end of that call the van was getting quite hot, so I gave up on the road kissing idea and continued into Birdsville.
I wish I could have gotten some better video clips of the roads at their worst, but those roads required both hands on the wheel at all times, and 100% concentration for 100’s of kilometres at a time. To the right is a very short video that I attempted to shoot when the roads started to get quite bad. After this they got worse...
I was expecting to see police protecting the border as I arrived into Birdsville, but there was nobody. I drove slowly into town and stopped at the small, family run fuel station to refill. There was nobody on the streets, no cars driving around at all. As I was filling the van I heard a car pull into the station and a voice trying to get my attention. I looked up to see a police officer in his 4WD. He looked friendly enough, I was friendly back and agreed to head over to the police station once I was done getting fuel, to 'check-in and have a chat'.
I walked into the shop to pay for the fuel and was presented with an elderly couple behind the counter. I said hello and smiled as I walked in and headed to the fridge to select a cold drink. I turned around because I hadn’t received a reply to my greeting, to find them both staring at me like I was an alien. It was a strange experience. It made me think of the TV series 'The Walking Dead’, whenever humans come in contact with other humans they are super cautious about being robbed. I handed over my card to pay, the lady carefully took the card from me with her gloved hands and immediately sanitised the card before using it on the machine. It was the first time I’d seen people so scared of Mr ‘C’. It became common for the rest of my journey in the small towns to see people reacting that way to travellers.
Walking into the small, local police station it was the Officer that Phil had warned me about that I was dealing with. He wanted to know the reason that I’d driven up from Adelaide and where I was going. I explained as I had to the Officer in Marree that I wanted to reach the tropics before the borders close, so that I don’t have to suffer winter living in a van down south. The officer was completely understanding and told me that I was the first person to cross the border since some new restrictions had come into place. Those restrictions were that anybody that crosses into QLD from interstate must quarantine for 14 days as soon as they enter the state. So I was going to have to quarantine to comply with these new rules. The issue was that I had no official address in QLD. He gave me 2 options, I could either turn around and go back to South Australia, or I would need to quarantine at a roadhouse located 180km north of Birdsville in Bedourie for 14 days. I took the Bedourie option, I figured I still had a chance of making it north after the quarantine was over.
While the Officer was on the phone making the arrangements the TV in the station started a live broadcast from somebody high up in the government. During the broadcast they announced new restrictions coming into force in a few days time that would severely limit people travelling within QLD. The Officer’s colleague was listening to this as was I, and we both saw the same issue arising. That issue was that if I am stuck in quarantine at a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere whilst these new movement restrictions came into enforcement, that would mean I’d have to live at that roadhouse indefinitely, or at least until the restrictions are lifted! Now I was seriously considering driving back to Mungerannie and hanging out with Phil for a few months, maybe make a new burnout hole in the pub floor...
The Officer finished his call and said I was fine to do the quarantine at the roadhouse, but then he started listening to the broadcast and came to the same conclusion as the rest of us. It was at this point that I asked about that official address rule he had mentioned earlier. I asked him if I gave him the address of a hotel that I had an official booking at, could he then direct me to quarantine at that address? He said yes, that would work! So I got busy calling around ideal looking places on the QLD coast trying to find a cheap deal and book 14 days with a hotel. I saw a place on the map called ‘Mission Beach’ which seemed to me to have the perfect name for my circumstances, and googled some hotels. The first place was considering closing down just like many other hotels and campsites due to lack of customers, but offered me a stay for $85/night. I said that I really appreciated the offer but that I needed to try and find something a little cheaper, so they recommended a place called the ‘Rainforest Motel’. I called up the Rainforest Motel and they offered me a room for $50/night, so I jumped at that offer and booked it. I handed the phone over to the Police Officer....on speaker of course, and he confirmed the booking, wrote up the directive to quarantine and I was on my way to the tropical north!
I drove out of Birdsville feeling extremely lucky and happy now that I had a piece of paper giving me permission to reach my final destination, but I still had a very long way to go. For anyone that is interested in seeing the quarantine directive and the Mr ‘C’ safety advice that comes along with it, I’ve posted them below.
Not only did I have a very long way to go, but the dirt roads were not over! Shortly after leaving Birdsville in the rearview mirror the dirts roads were back, but this time they were easy and safe... just a few bog patches to slide through but no biggie after the previous 24hrs! That van truly deserves some kind of award.
So I kept on heading north to Mt Isa, stopping for an overnight rest and fuel along the way. Mt Isa was the biggest town I’d seen since leaving Pt Augusta 2 days previous, so it was a novelty to drive through and see people still going about their business. I didn’t stop.
From Mt Isa I headed east towards the coast and the city of Townsville. I thought I was on the home stretch and all would be easy from that point on, but I was wrong.
Ever since buying that van I kept records on its fuel consumption, so I thought I was sure about how far I could go on a full tank of fuel. I was sure I could go at least 450km before running out. What I failed to consider was a strong head wind for the entire day, so at 424km I came to a stop on the side of the road. You may think I was a bit silly to run it so close to empty, but I had driven through the small town of Pentland just before this, and their fuel station was closed. I ran out 5km short of a parking area where I was planning to spend the night. Luckily I carry 10L of spare fuel in case of this situation, so I topped up the tank and carried on to the parking spot.
The next morning I drove back into Pentland expecting to fill up at that fuel station, the one that had been closed the night before. As I pulled up to the pump I noticed the window close on the front of the shop, then I noticed signs on both pumps stating ‘Out of Order’. I started to sweat a little bit, but then told myself that it’s a small town, somebody will help. The problem was that I didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the next town in either direction, so it was Pentland or it was nothing.
I knocked on the door to the fuel station shop and got no answer, I called the fuel station to try to get someone on the phone, but no answer. I left a message pleading for help and that I was happy to pay double for the fuel. I then drove around the town looking for people to talk to and ask their advice. I found 2 people at the local pub unloading a ute, I told them the extent of my situation and they couldn’t help me. I drove back to the fuel station and parked there next to a pump. I considered just staying there, surely at some point the owners would emerge from their holes and help, even if it was just to get rid of me! But what if they didn’t? What if they called the police and I was forced to quarantine in this shitty little miserable town?! It certainly wasn’t the community that I imagined! I called the RAA.
While I was on the phone to the RAA the fuel station had another visitor. This guy must have been a friend to the owners because he went directly to their back garden, ignoring me of course, and had a conversation with them. When they were done chatting this guy reversed out of the drive but stopped long enough to tell me through his passenger window that ‘you won’t get any fuel here’ and then covered his mouth with his scarf as he was looking me in the eye. I responded that I was getting that picture pretty clearly and that I was calling the RAA for help instead, so he drove off.
The RAA quoted $482 for a service member to come out to me with 20L of fuel from the next town over which was 110km away. They said they were only charging me for one way, meaning that the full price would have been closer to $900. You see I only had standard membership which entitled me to a 50km radius call out. Because I didn’t qualify for that service they would need to charge me $4.20/km plus the fuel charge on top. I didn’t see that I had any other choice, so I agreed. I then moved the van to the other side of the road under some trees and set up for a nice, long coffee and breakfast whilst I waited the 2 hrs for the RAA guy to arrive. (Since I’ve been in quarantine I’ve had time to review the charges from the RAA and compare their different services and costs. I’m currently disputing their charges for this call out.)
One of the good things about waiting around in Pentland for the RAA was I got to chill out with the birds for a while. Below is a video of some local birds that I’ve never seen before behaving like rampant seagulls...
And below is a video of my engine bay earlier that morning completely full of dead crickets from the road.
It was amazing as I drove east out of Mt Isa how quickly the landscape changed. Within an hour or so I was travelling through lush green hills and seeing loads of little hawks circling and diving for their food along the sides of the road. I nearly broke my neck when I caught sight of a Wedge Tailed Eagle standing next to a dead kangaroo at the side of the road. This bird was half the size of the kangaroo! Only an hour after that I saw a Perentie, or some kind of lizard that’s as big as a Perentie on the other side of the road, running away as I passed by. (Do they even have Perenties in QLD?)
It was becoming normal to wake up to the sounds of Kookaburras ‘laughing’ amongst the trees and continuing their jokes as I enjoyed my morning coffee. It was certainly a very nice welcome to the tropics of northern Queensland.
Anyhow, the RAA (RACQ is the Queensland version.) arrived and gave me 20L of fuel for my $482. (Bargain.) So I was finally on the home stretch of this journey!
The rest of the trip went along problem free I’m happy to report. I kept heading east towards Townsville, then turned north towards Cairns driving past sugar cane fields, banana palms and mango farms. I was a little sad to be ending such a great adventure and to be entering 14 days in quarantine, stuck in a motel room... but I’d made it. The journey was a success and I’d hit my goal.
Below is the final video I took about 100km out of Mission Beach. I hope you enjoyed this story and I’ll add some more soon, as soon as I’m out of quarantine! Make the most of your time, you’ll probably never get this amount of time to think again until you retire!