Roadhouse staff change as often as Jim Carrey’s facial expressions, so when somebody throws their rifle in before the war is over, it isn’t a shock to anybody. Some people last less than a week, some only a day as the reality of the situation hits them hard on arrival.
I have no problem with my own company, or my brother’s company, and with enough DVDs and downloaded films, passing the evenings after work was easy done. We certainly weren’t lost in the outback when it came to finding ways to pass the time.
I dare say the pool table got more use than it had in recent years as Paddy and I enjoyed a daily beer or three after work was done. I got back into reading and Mags entrusted us with the keys to her toys – an over-sized Ute with a tendency to overheat and an off-road dirt bike. These certainly helped us fend off the clutches of boredom.
However, a man can only drive around rubbish dumps chasing an Emu for so long before seeking new thrills.
We struck lucky on the rota one week and both had a free Sunday. Meaning to take advantage of it, we planned to head to the beach.
Ahead of us lay a 30km trek that would take almost two hours due to the rocky, sandy off-road track. At the end we were told we would find a deserted corner of paradise, huge dunes of ice-white sand and clear blue, shark-infested waters.
The new cook, Peter, decided to come along on the bike as we climbed aboard the Ute, beers on ice, camera charged, we set off for a day of fun and a break from the monotony of the past month.
Two hours later we found plenty of sand and were basking in the glare of the hot sun with nobody else in sight for miles. Unfortunately, we were still a long way from the beach as we were all on our knees, desperately trying to dig the back wheels of the overheating Ute out of the sinking sand.
The trail had turned from road into dust and the yellow beast was going nowhere, spinning her wheels deeper and deeper with every attempt. Peter had fallen off the bike earlier and now that we were stuck, he was panicking, trying in vain to use the ancient radiophone system in the Ute.
Paddy and I exchanged bemused looks, wondering had he banged his head on the fall.
With Peter now injured, it fell to Paddy to take the handlebars and go back for help. While he was gone, we polished off the last of the beers as the sun began to fall. Probably an hour passed. I didn’t know Peter too well before that episode but after being stranded there for an hour, I was wondering if he was going to break the speed record for a man losing his mind in the wilderness.
Mags and Gary didn’t look thrilled in their role of saviors as they rolled up the deserted track in her jeep. Our embarrassment was compounded when Mags strolled up to the front wheels of our drowning Ute and turned a little switch.
“You hadn’t got the 4-wheel drive on properly boys” she said with a grin.
We assumed the 4WD gearstick inside the car would do the trick.
This nugget of information was something we were missing and unfortunately nobody seen fit to tell us before we set off into the wilderness. Thanking our lucky stars for Peter coming on the bike, we rued our botched trip to the beach and turned back.
The following week we doubled up on the bike as Paddy showed me a track he found behind the roadhouse where he spotted some kangaroos.
It didn’t take long to find some grazing in the distance. We had seen kangaroos at the Steve Irwin Zoo in Brisbane on our family vacation in 2010, but these were different. They were wild, free and huge! Naturally, we wanted a photo and so we decided to go off the track and through the grass and bush to get close enough.
Holding on to Paddy with one hand and steadying the camera with the other, I prepared to shoot a video as we caught up with a family of six that were hopping away as fast as they could.
The water streamed from my eyes as we bounced through the long grass behind them. To our surprise, they were quick. Much quicker than our bike. We were closing in until Paddy pumped the brakes and decided to quit before we went too far.
Unfortunately, it was too late.
Caught in the excitement of chasing the kangaroos, we had blazed away from the trails. We were now right out in the open bush-land. Looking in every direction, all we saw was sandy, deserted terrain. Sparse bush and long grass sprouted sporadically from the dry ground. There were no landmarks or no signs. Nothing looked familiar and everything looked the same. We were lost in the outback.
We drove up and down through the bush and grass looking for the track back to the roadhouse for what seemed like an age. After what must have been about ten minutes, the anxiety started to surface.
Paddy had slowed the bike to a crawl speed to conserve fuel. We were already so disorientated to loop back on ourselves more than once. We would have taken any track. Any track at all.
Paddy was started to panic as he trundled around hopefully. I remained silent, tracing my memory for the route we had just taken.
My lips felt dry and my mouth was parched. Putting a hand to my forehead, I looked up towards the sky. The sun was blazing down, sitting directly above us.
Suddenly there were kangaroos everywhere, hopping out in front of us and staring with confused looks on their faces as we rolled by with worried expressions.
My camera was still in my hand but photography held no allure at that moment.
Pulling up in a sparse area away from the long grass, Paddy turned off the bike. He huffed and puffed about how we were almost certainly doomed.
Unwilling to agree, I continued to track my memory but I knew he had a point. Doing a quick 360 of our surroundings, it all looked the same; bush and long grass as far as the eye could see. The sun was high in the sky and the petrol was low in the bike. We had no water, no food and no sun-cream. Unlike the time at the beach, nobody knew we were out here. We had just drove off from the back of the roadhouse without saying anything.
The longer we were lost, the more disorientated we would become. The danger of driving deeper into the desert would surely rise. The snakes and scorpions lurking in the long grass meant stopping the bike there in our flip-flops and shorts wasn’t an option.
We hadn’t gone far off the track, but if we didn’t find our way back onto it soon then we might have a real problem.
Hopping back on, we turned around and backtracked. We left the bushy area to head into the open plains of grass where we knew the tracks were hiding.
Bouncing through it, I peered over Paddy’s shoulder and suddenly seen something big and brown loom in the knee-high reeds. Before I could say anything he saw it too. He tried to steer around it, but it was too late.
With a crunch, the bike wobbled as we drove right over the fallen tree branch. We held our balance and vibrated out the other side of the shrubbery and back into the grass.
Breathing again, I heard a clicking noise from the back wheel. Paddy pulled over in another sparse area and we hopped off. The chain guard was now damaged, causing the chain to click.
“Great, that’s all we need” said Paddy.
Mounting the dying bike again, I felt the worry start to grow in my mind but had to keep calm.
Paddy was doing enough panicking for the two of us. It would achieve nothing if we started freaking out altogether.
Pushing on through the grass I directed him towards the bushes on the horizon. I told him to veer left and keep going left, as per the directions according to my photographic memory.
I didn’t tell him the photographic memory was quite blurred but I was sure that this way would lead us back to the track. Well, pretty sure.
Sure enough, I was right.
Within a hundred yards or so we struck gold. Paddy nearly jumped off the bike in excitement, exclaiming “There’s a track!!”
The relief felt amazing as my skin tingled. Either that or the sun was really starting to burn my face off. Out the camera came to capture the moment of joy as we knew we could find our way back.
After a few hundred yards on the track, we realized this wasn’t one we knew. However, we decided to stick to it. As it slalomed through the grass, we waited with baited breath, wondering where it would lead. The feeling of trepidation rose as the track begin to recede. The grass was getting thicker again.
But just before the track disappeared into nothing, a bigger, wider track emerged across it. Instantly we recognized it as the road that lead to the back of the dump.
Burrowing up it at full tilt, we greeted the familiar sight of the wastage site at the back end of the roadhouse. We both agreed that we’d never been happier to see a dump.
I gave the keys to the Ute and bike back to Mags a few days later. Two near-death experiences in one week were more than enough, thanks very much!