In the morning we packed our things into the van, filled up with petrol and embarked on what was to be a much extended journey to Port Hedland. It all started unremarkably, driving along the same highway we had joined in Perth over a thousand kilometres ago. A few hours into the trip however and I noticed that the temperature gauge on the dashboard was rising rapidly. This can be unnerving at the best of times but on a deserted highway in the middle of a huge desert, in an unfamiliar country it can be very worrying indeed.
As I had expected the engine soon overheated and in a cloud of steam we ground to a halt by the side of the road. A quick inspection of the engine revealed an empty radiator so I took a little of our valuable drinking water out and topped it up, only to watch it pour out of the bottom. I hoped that it would simply be a case of moving a hose clip in order to bypass a section of perished radiator hose but further investigation soon revealed a leak in the water pump itself, a far more serious problem.
Although we had joined the R.A.C. when we bought the van our breakdown cover only extended thirty kilometres outside of any major town and we were hundreds of miles from any inkling of a mobile phone signal anyway. We decided that the only thing we could do would be to hitch hike to the nearest roadhouse and ask for help there.
An hour or so passed before we managed to flag down a passing car. A young couple were driving with their family in the back, so we decided it would be safe for Faye to go with them while I stayed with the van. I am told that she shared the back seat with three children, a dog and a canary in a cage for nearly three hundred kilometres before heroically returning eight hours later with the proprietor of the nearest roadhouse, one Mr Bruce Forsyth (I kid you not). And best of all, he had absolutely no idea who Bruce Forsyth was back in England.
Whilst anxiously awaiting her return I sat on the deep red sandy ground about fifty yards away from the van, watching the sun set over the endless flat landscape. It is not until one is completely alone in the Australian wilderness that its true size fully reveals itself. As darkness falls you expect to be completely enveloped by it in the absence of any man made light. In fact the opposite is true. The landscape is lit by a soft bluish white light, reflected down to Earth from the cratered surface of the moon and aided by the gentle, primeval light from countless billions of distant stars, some of which have long since disappeared. The Milky Way, our own galaxy, slashes through the dark sky like a shining, diamond encrusted dagger.
In my opinion there is nothing more humbling than staring up into the sky, hundreds of miles from civilisation, smaller than the tiniest pinprick on the desert landscape and that is how I spent the greater part of the eight hour wait for Faye’s return.
Occasionally I was interrupted by passing truck drivers or ‘truckies’ as they are known in Australia, all of whom were keen to make sure that everything was alright. You see when you drive through the outback, you become part of a community. The harsh reality of what could happen if something were to go wrong binds everybody together who uses those endless empty highways and so in their own way, everybody looks out for each other.
This spirit is illustrated by the simple gesture of raising your index finger slightly from the steering wheel as you pass another vehicle. This simultaneously means ‘Hello’, ‘I’m O.K.’ and ‘Are you O.K.’ whilst acting as an acknowledgement that whatever happens, somebody will always be there to help out.
Anyway, Faye had returned from her little adventure in a Toyota ute (pickup truck) driven by a gentleman called Bruce Forsyth. He was tall and slim, probably in his early sixties, but looked well for it, as people from such places have a tendency to. Faye had at first found him in her own words ‘a little bit creepy’ but he in fact turned out to be one of the most helpful and accommodating people we could have hoped to have met under the circumstances.
He hitched a towrope onto the roo-bars on the front of the van and towed us all the way to the Nanutarra roadhouse. It was a long way to be towed by anybody’s standards, about three hundred kilometres in fact but it was worth the wait, and the three hundred dollars he asked for to do it. When we finally got to Nanutarra he towed us onto a small campsite next to the roadhouse and took us into the restaurant where his wife offered us whatever we wanted from the menu, free of charge. Having eaten pretty much nothing but peanut butter sandwiches since leaving Perth I plumped for a roast chicken dinner whilst Faye rather bizarrely chose a toasted cheese and onion sandwich. When we had eaten our fill and were ready to go to bed Bruce told me that I could borrow any tools I needed from the garage and that behind the roadhouse there were fifty or so wrecked cars of various makes and models which I was free to pick over and see if I could find a working water pump.
He didn’t have the spares himself to fix it and unfortunately Nanutarra roadhouse is literally just that, a roadhouse. There is no settlement nearby. No farms or mines or oil wells. Just acre upon acre of dry, empty desert. This meant that to order a new water pump would have taken a month and that was just a little longer than we had hoped to spend in Nanutarra.
I spent the next week pulling promising looking water pumps from the wrecks behind the roadhouse and trying them on the van. Some looked like they might work but didn’t fit. Others fitted but didn’t work, but not one could manage to do both simultaneously. I did find a huge collection of pornography stashed in one of the less accessible wrecked cars and couldn’t help but wonder to myself whose it might be. Bruce didn’t strike me as the type to have his own personal smut collection so I finally settled on his brother as the prime suspect as he was the only person living there who was not married. And I hear the dating scene in Nanutarra isn’t quite sex and the city.
After a week of this nothing had changed. I had tried to book a place on a car transporter that was due to pass through the roadhouse in a few days time but to no avail. Every time I heard another vehicle pull into the roadhouse I rushed out from amongst the jalopies and accosted the owner, trying to get a tow from somebody. Most of the traffic was either too small or too big to tow us anywhere although I did get offered a tow as far as Tom Price, a small mining town in the Pilbara region, but that would have taken us from one remote outpost to another, even more remote one.
In the morning on the eighth day of our stay at Nanutarra, having become firm friends with Bruce and the Forsyths, Bruce came to our van and told us that he had to go to Karratha, the next reasonably sized town, about three hundred kilometres away in the heart of the Pilbara, to buy some stock for the roadhouse. We jumped at the chance and soon we had hitched up the van and set off.
We had yet to even leave the camping area before I was wildly blasting on my horn and waving my arms around. I hadn’t thought to put the keys in the ignition and so the steering lock had remained on meaning that as Bruce turned right to take us out onto the highway, we continued to go in a straight line on a collision course with a large wooden fence. Other than that the trip was uneventful and a few hours later he dropped us off in the car park of a local Nissan garage and went on his way.