Dealing with car trouble in the outback

Bogged“What will you do if something goes wrong?”

Everytime I told somebody I was travelling to the outback with a girlfriend, that was the first thing they said. What they really meant was “But you’re female – you can’t fix a car or kill a snake.” They’re right about the first, but I don’t know about the second. Fortunately I’ve never had to find out.

Travelling in the Australian outback is such a blokey pursuit. All the 4WD, camping and outback travel shows are presented by men and seem to be aimed at men. They all have big 4WD vehicles and talk a lot about lifts, tyres, recovery gear, and all that shit. And really – that’s what it is, talk and shit.

Driving in the middle of nowhereHelen and I had travelled to outback NSW together before, back in January when we went to Broken Hill. We went via White Cliffs and back via Menindee Lake and the Lachlan River. We went on dirt roads as much as possible and camped all the way. And we made it back home again. But that was only a two week trip. Two months, to Uluru and back via outback Queensland, was another thing.

On the basis that prevention is better than cure, I (all right, Doc) made sure the car was well prepared, with a major service and new off-road tyres. I took along spare belts and hoses, an emergency tyre repair kit, a repair kit for the radiator or fuel tank in case of holes there, and a tool box with spanners, screwdrivers, nuts & bolts … and, of course, cable ties. And I made sure I knew what to do with it all. Well, as much as Doc told me anyway.

The trip started quietly enough. We met a few other girlfriends in the Hunter Valley for the Lovedale Long Lunch. Groups of women were common there, so we didn’t raise an eyebrow. Then we stayed with another friend for a couple of days in Inverell in northern NSW.

Our tentIt wasn’t until we got to Queensland that it started. Often, if they see two women travelling together men assume one thing “Are youse two lesbians or what?” Not everybody put it that bluntly, some were more tactful, or at least thought they were “So, what do you sleep in? Have you got a double mattress in the tent?”

All that was easy enough to deal with, but then 150km out from Winton, with another 250km to go before we hit Boulia in remote outback Queensland, the worst happened. The thing women travellers dread more than anything. The car started playing up. I was driving along normally when suddenly the engine started losing power. The revs would inexplicably slow down for a minute or so, then it would pick up again. Fortunately, just after this started happening I saw a car coming the other way and flagged him down.

“What’s the problem” the bloke driving said

“I’m losing engine power” I replied “it’s just started happening out of the blue.”

“I don’t know” he said “I’m not a mechanic. Middleton’s just down the road a bit, do you think you can get there?”

Middleton HotelThe Middleton pub was only 50km away. Middleton has been described as “the pub with no town” because that’s all it is – a pub halfway between Winton and Boulia. With no mechanic.

I nursed the car for the next 50k, then pulled up outside the pub and popped the bonnet. Blokes came from everywhere. “What’s the problem?” they asked as they walked over. “I’m losing engine power” I’d reply each time while checking things under the bonnet. “It sounds like fuel” they all stated, knowingly and in complete agreement. It was a bloke thing, and even though I was the one with my head under the bonnet, it was as if I wasn’t there.

But after that initial assessment they differed :

“Probably a dirty fuel filter “, “I got a new one before I came away a couple of weeks ago”, or

“Your fuel pump’s not working properly”,

“You picked up some dirty fuel”, or

“Probably a hole in your fuel tank”.

One of the blokes under my carFirst I checked under the car. There wasn’t any fuel leaking, but maybe the petrol was now lower than the leak and we were taking in air. I got under the car and looked over the tank carefully with a torch. Not a mark, so that wasn’t it.

When we filled up at the last fuel stop I also filled up the spare jerry cans. As I couldn’t get a hose into the fuel tank to test that fuel (and neither could any of the blokes so it wasn’t me), I tested the fuel in one of the jerry cans. All clean. Not a speck of dirt or a drop of water in it, so that wasn’t it either.

My fuel filter is difficult to get to, so I was going to trust my mechanic on that one (he is my partner after all and says he loves me), and say that wasn’t it either. And if it was the fuel pump I’d had that problem in the Saab previously so knew what to do to keep that going. Bang on the underside of the tank with a big bit of wood. There was no mechanic at Middleton and certainly no spare parts to fix it anyway.

Despite all the advice from the blokes, nothing they said was correct. And that’s when it hit me – most blokes don’t know what to do either if they have problems. Yet, it doesn’t stop them travelling, or stop people assuming that they’re capable.

Having gone through the worst I can tell you – it’s not so bad. We broke down and had to spend the night somewhere we might not have stopped otherwise. And we had a fabulous time – another adventure well worth having.

So as a woman travelling without a man, you can let the thought of something going wrong let you stop doing what you want, or you can be like the kid in a room full of horse shit – keep digging until you find that pony!

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