by Annette Flottwell
Before you go
First, learn to drive the vehicle you bought or rented under Australian conditions. If you did fine with you Landrover in the Norwegian snow, the Italian Alps or Flemish mudhole, that does not mean you can adapt at once to a different vehicle, features you never used before like the 110 driver who has never seen a PTO winch or a Toyota free wheeling hub. Remember, when you got bogged in Glenanywhere in Northumbria, your buddy's are just a ring on the mobile away. How long do you think it takes till the next truck passes on the Gary highway? And trust me, the next vehicle will be an old Holden bush bomb with an Aboriginal family who are very likely low on water themselves and who don't carry any tools. The difference is. they were born in this bush and they know how to find water or a roo for dinner. The same stupid guy I'll mention in the context of bogs later proudly told me how he spent a night on the roofrack in a crocodile infested river. He had tried to save on $30 for a ferry. To see how stupid you can get, click here for Murray's report of a tourist couple.
Never underestimate the Outback.
Check on road condition with the police, the rangers, petrol stations or the pub. Ask for the newest road conditions and weather fax. If the police has closed a road, this means it is closed. Sudden weather changes can be faster than their information, so an open road is no warranty for no trouble.
If a road is open for any car or 4WD, that means that there shouldn't be creeks to deep to cross. If you travel on a closed road, this can cost you up to $5000 and you could lose your license!
Tell a reliable person where you intend to go, which way you want to take and when you intend to arrive. Don't forget to inform that person at once when you have arrived safely. Ask the locals about the popular CB or UHF frequencies in the area.
Again, check both first and second batteries. Check twice if there is enough fluid in them. No chance to call help if your batteries don't work.
Cattle and wildlife
The most frequent road hazard are cattle or sheep. What did you think the aptly named bull-bar is trying to prevent you from? But don't put it to a test. Slow down immediately, drive on in snail gear or stop and wait till they changed sides. There are always possibly more to come, so carry on very slowly for another 500 m.
Kangaroos can accelerate just as fast as you. Again wait till they've passed you. They have a habit of coming back, too.
Emus are unbelievably stupid. You have passed them, all is well, and then they just race back for the track. There is always a third one around, if you have seen two of them.
Swarms of locusts can clog your radiator better than a bucket of glue, so you have to clean them out. You will need some water for the goo on your windscreen, too. Better stop if you see them coming and close everything.
Always try to find another party to accompany you on very remote tracks. If you can't, because nobody has been there for months, keep in mind that you and your vehicle must be in sound condition. No experiments. You have to do the recovery yourself.
Keep to existing tracks. Blazing new tracks is extremely dangerous as you may hit a pothole that rips out your axle. It also destroys the fragile environment. Tracks may take up to 20 years to disappear after the last use if they are in arid regions. Hitting an termite mound is very dangerous as they are as hard as stone. Every year several farmers are killed when they hit termite mounds with their motorbikes during the cattle round-up.
In deep sand, deflate your tyres. Try 175 kPa / 25 psi for a loaded 4WD, you can always reduce further. Don't forget to re-inflate your tyres when reaching stony ground.Don't jump over dunes, as you might get stuck in the middle. Watch for oncoming traffic, too. Use a dune whip. A sock on your aerial will do. When heading down the dune never brake. Keep going straight and use a gentle right foot.
When you see a muddy stretch ahead, always check for a bypass first. Many tracks, like the dune road between Merty-Merty and Cameron's corner have well-established bad weather detours.
If you look behind the roadsign in the picture, you can see the bypass. I had automatically chosen the bypass, when it looked like a Swiss couple I had met on the last campground was waiting for me! They were, in fact hoping very much for anybody to come along stuck as they were in the mud....fortunately they carried a very long rope. But then I couldn't help thinking what they would have done if I hadn't found them there. The Cattlewater Pass is not exactly a busy track after heavy rain. I had been there before and knew exactly where the farms are and what I was facing and I had a radio. They even hadn't got a map!
Generally, in the central desert water is not the danger. It's the possibly bottomless mud underneath. Always keep straight and follow somebody else's tracks through the quagmire, if these don't look somewhat deep. A truck might have firmed the ground for you. If you have to find your own detour, make it a large one and do a reconnaissance on foot first.
Water can be a hazard on the bitumen, though. Sealed roads can be subject to flooding, if you can't go elsewhere, you just might underestimate the depth of a floodway. I ruined an engine on the tarmac underestimating the current....
Gibber or gibber hidden under sand, is very common in the eastern desert. It's very hazardous to drive in an independently suspended coil -sprung vehicle, as drivers often go to fast and shred their tyres completely. Don't go too fast, even if humps and potholes are really bad. Tyre pattern seem to be specially designed to incorporate edgy gibber splinters. The Cordillo road is a good example for that.
Do not cross creeks that are known for crocodiles. Unless you know for sure this is an established crossing AND still in use or you want to get rid of your co -pilot.
Water crossings of unknown depth must be waded first to check for the best route. If it seems deep and you must cross it at any cost you should block the radiator with a large tarp covering your bumper and the whole bonnet. Secure with rubber straps. If it seems deep have your co-pilot wade in front and go in second low!.
After driving through deep water check for water in the diffs. If you must rely on the car you need a daily greasing if you do much water crossings. Best let the vehicle stand for half an hour after the crossing as this allows the oil to separate. Water is heavier than oil and will sit at the axle bottom. When you open the drain the water will come out first. If the oil has some creamy colour like coffee with milk it's a sign it's heavily contaminated. You MUST change it as soon as possible as this oil does not lubricate anymore.
Carry a regular 20 l oil drum and fill the oil into a smaller container when you need it.
If you aren't within 10 kms of the next town and you know the way:
Never leave your vehicle.
Use your radio to find help.
Carry a radio under all circumstances, forget your GSM
If you get bogged, don't panic. Sit down, have a cold one and look at it calmly. Much harm has been done by just 'attacking' a problem. However it seldom worsens a situation if you wait some minutes before you start.
If you have a winch, try this: hammer a ground anchor (see preparations) with the open end towards you at least 80 cms, better deeper, in the sand. Secure the winch cable or rope on the anchor and start winching. If it doesn't work, try firmer ground. If it still doesn't work and you are on soft sand you can use the old desert drivers trick: Get one of your spare tires and bury it really deep as an anchor. This is a painful job as you have to dig not less than 1,5 metres/ 5 feet. Anything less is a waste of time. Anchor the winch line to it before you cover the wheel again. This trick works on almost any vehicle weight.
If you have no winch or you have to reverse: While one person starts digging away the sand behind and in front of the wheels and under the diff the other should gather timber blocks, mulga branches (left), small branches chopped to 30-40 cms max., stones or even a layer of spinifex. Put it in the wheelrut to provide some grip. Again: Don't panic if it doesn't work at once. You have all day to dig. The longer you wait the better the chance of external help to arrive.
Use a high-lift jack on a plate to lift axles and put some material under the wheels. Don't forget to drink and wear a hat if working hard in summer! If you are really in for a good stuck WAIT until the late afternoon and the early hours in the morning. Rest in the shade during the peak heat.
Finally, if you have been axle deep in the sand, clean all grease and bleeder nipples with a rag. Re-grease once you're on firm ground and don't forget to clean your grease gun before you start! Pushing the steering through deep sand forces particles into the rubber joint caps. So you better give them a good shot of fresh grease. You must continue greasing until only fresh grease comes out.
If you are in mechanical trouble, use the checklists in your repair manual. Again: Don't panic. Try to find a solution that keeps you going slowly. Remember: Calling professional help is not free, you're looking at many thousand $$ if the police has to tow you from a remote track. Then drive slowly to the nearest place you can think of to wait for spares. You will be amazed how fast Toyota spares can arrive in the loneliest place. Most caravan park managers don't mind if you repair your car just there or do a greaseup - if you ask them before you start. Some caretakers are very helpful, in Mt. Isa or Alice they've even lent me the keys to their shed!
If the roads become impassable after sudden rainfall, you just have to wait. This may well happen between two claypans. Don't try to drive deeper into the quagmire. Instead, look for the next rise in your map and make for it as soon you see the cyclone coming. Cyclone warnings are broadcasted on the local radio frequencies. Make it a habit to listen to them at the same hour every day. But never forget to observe the sky for any signs.
The same applies for sandstorms. In this case, seek shelter between mulga bushes and unroll your swag in the back of the vehicle. Don't block your only leeward door! Australian sandstorms aren't as dangerous as in the Sahara, but they reduce visibility to zero. Assume the sand penetrates everything, though. Unfortunately, some sandstorm can take two days.
In a medical emergency call the Royal Flying Doctor Service on your radio. In serious mechanical trouble or if your radio covers only a short distance (as an UHF-CB radio) try to get into contact with anybody .Farms often communicate on UHF. Tell your GPS position, the nature of the emergency, your name and describe your vehicle as it may look from the air. Better still, lay out the adequate ground to air code to ease identification and to state the nature of your emergency.
If you haven't got a radio (didn't I tell you in preparations it's essential off the beaten track??) you can burn a tire. In the clean air and in the unpopulated outback a smoky fire is visible for many miles and will catch attention. Do it only if you are quite sure there's someone who will see it. Best this is done in the morning before thermal disturbations cause the air to fog up. A tire will burn for almost 2 hours if you don't mess it up completely.
Starting a tire fire isn't that easy however. If it's still on the rim you must first cut it open or it will explode at some moment, maybe injuring you. Best is to use fuel inside a tire without wheel. The fuel will raise the temperature high enough for the rubber to start burning. If you don't have fuel you must seek other materials to start a fire. Rubber needs about 200 degrees to start burning. A good campfire will do it. Anything made of rubber will make a nice smoky fire. I know of people having burned one after the other all tires and then the seats and finally the car until help came at last.
Try to have a valve cap on each wheel. They prevent sand to get in and destroy the valve. Once you have a leaking valve you definitely are in trouble. Try to get metal caps as they have a sealing ring built in which may prevent a leaking valve to let escape air.
on your roofrack if possible. No ants, no snakes, no creepy - crawlies,
no floods. Do not set up tent in a dry riverbed. Heavy rainfall
many miles away can cause flashfloods which appear with a deadly speed.
In the worlds deserts more people die of drowning than of thirst. Claypans
are almost as dangerous. A storm can blow water from one end to the
other in less than a minute. Unexpected rainfall can turn them into
a giant mud bog impossible to pass. This happens so fast you will not
have enough time to escape.2.
Gas jets in camp stoves have a tendency of blocking. Carry some spares
or clean them in methylated spirits. Alcohol works well but you can
use unleaded fuel too. Use rubber gloves in this case as fuel easily
passes through the skin. With your kidneys already working at full bore
you won't need the additional poison in your blood.
3. Don't bury your rubbish and don't burn it.. Put it in a plastic bag and carry it out. Leave only footprints and take only pictures and memories.4. Water is precious almost everywhere. You may bath in rivers or dams but you may not use soap. Never jump into a rainwater supply! Soap scares off animals and turns the water undrinkable. The same applies for washing dishes. If you do any of these use a bucket and throw away the water.5. Don't light a campfire unless you're really sure it is allowed there. It usually isn't in summer. Severe restrictions apply. Bring your own firewood. Extinguish with sand. A campfire may smoulder for up to 12 hours and can propagate easily during this time.
6. Don't camp under trees with dead branches on them or underneath them. Dead branches may fall down without warning and may well be enough to kill or severally injure you. The branches of gum trees in particular are prone to crash down without notice - and often without the aid of any breeze. As above, the ground is clear so the trees can provide a safe shelter
7. If dunnies are provided, use them. This is very important in frequently flooded areas, as above near the Cooper. Keep in mind that many outback dwellers have to rely on the river water for drinking. Mind you, you'll be drinking it, too. If there are no dunnies, use your spade to dig a hole fa from any water supply.
Spinifex grows all over Australia in arid regions. In favourable climates it can reach up to 2 metres height. It looks soft but it's hard and sticks. No danger if you keep to the tracks. Driving through it will cause a load of problems. In spring the husk (like pollen) clogs the radiator and you will need a either a brass brush or a hook to clean it (take great care not to damage the fragile copper mesh) or a jet of water to wash them out. They also clog the air cleaner.
by Annette Flottwell
Murray from Geelong sent me this:
are correct in saying that there are a lot of idiots who travel in
the desert areas.