My fishing friends were hard to miss in their Unimog. They no longer had the air conditioned galley on the tray of the truck, nor the air conditioned bunkhouse on the trailer, both of which were parked out at the fishing camp. But in an all-wheel-drive, camoflage-painted, ex-military truck they were hard to miss nonetheless.
I waved madly. What luck! I’d been wondering how I was going to find them, and there they were. In the cab was Kevin, who’d first invited me to come and sit by their fire that night by the river in Mitchell; and Rod, who’d promised that he’d make a trifle for dessert if I came all the way to Burketown. The rest were either out fishing, or putting their feet up in the midday heat.
I explained about my moto problems: wouldn’t start, maybe battery issue, Landcruiser jump starts seem to work but jump pack doesn’t. Kevin had been fishing in Burketown before, and told me that the people at the servo also had an engineering workshop out the back: if a new battery was to be had in town, they would have it.
Well, I said, let’s see if the battery really is toast: maybe the 117km run into Burketown had charged it up? My voltmeter was reading 11.9 volts when I switched on the ignition: so far, so good. Beastie jumped into life and I celebrated.
Rod and Kevin had brought the Mog into town to fill the tanks with drinking water. I turned Beastie off while we waited for the tanks to fill, but when when we went to leave she couldn’t be coaxed back into life.
The Mog ran a 24 volt system so there’d be no jump starting Beastie off that. I started wandering the streets of Burketown until I found some unsuspecting people with a couple of four wheel drives. They were backing a caravan into someone’s backyard – I waited until they had the caravan straight, tense moments over – and then smiled ingratiatingly and asked for a jump start. No worries – and it worked. Beastie lived, but now I was pretty sure I needed a new battery.
Kevin came down to the servo with me and we asked after the smallest battery they had. I was now too scared to turn Beastie off again to check if it fitted, so we bought the battery and they said to just bring it back next week if it didn’t fit. It was Saturday lunchtime and they were keen to knock off for the weekend.
So I jumped back on Beastie and started following the Mog out of town. It was a hot day now – cooking – and the Mog didn’t go fast enough to catch real windflow. We trundled out towards the boat ramp, then turned off onto a track that disappeared across a black-mud claypan.
I was gazing at the heat shimmer on the horizon when I felt traction slip away – the first bit of the track was sand. Soft, soft sand. Oh, hello. My first instinct was to throttle on but there was a whole truck in my way: a very slow moving truck, that began moving even more slowly as soon as it hit the sand.
Now, when riding a motorbike, I don’t recommend decelerating as you hit sand – but apparently it looks hilarious. Kevin happened to be watching in the mirror just as I started sliding and fish-tailing from one side of the track to the other. It was messy.
I held on as Beastie twitched and shimmied and gradually pulled it together again. Then I did what I should have done to start with – dropped well back, far behind the Mog and its cloud of dust. At times I was worried I’d lose them – there were different sets of fresh tracks in the claypan – but then I figured they’d come back for me if they did.
Which is just as well, because I had to stop. I was in the middle of a mud flat that touched the shimmering, heat hazed horizon; the surface had crazed and cracked in the sun. I felt weightless – surrounded by empty space.
I got off the bike and turned around and around. Then I took a photograph. I had time for this.
What I didn’t have was the luxury of turning off the bike. I got back on, and picked up the Mog again.
Further along, the crust thinned and our wheel tracks broke through into dark wet goo; it was just like chocolate self-saucing pudding. The Mog churned through but I was sliding all over the place. Chunks of gloop fanned out through the air as my front wheel did an excellent impression of the proverbial fan.
I rode it out again and then we were through.
Up ahead I could make out numerous structures and vehicles clustered along the green edge of an estuarine creek.
We’d done it. However suboptimal the mechanical outlook, Beastie had gotten me all the way to the Northern end of Australia, to the Gulf of Carpentaria, where there were promises of trifle and friends and barra fishing. The rest could wait.