Big Red Rash

It was a long and difficult trip for John: Impossible at night, highly dangerous at dusk and dawn, and barely realizable during the limited hours of winter’s solstice. The distance was immense: A nonstop round trip of eight hundred and twenty two miles from Mount Isa to Birdsville. Driving in the light of day one could barely comprehend the abject horrors of the previous night: Cows strewn asunder to the left and right, legs sticking straight up like upside down garden tables after some drunken picnic. Either side of the faint white dashed line, dead marsupials and other slain beasts endlessly blotched and stained the road. More than clues, this was cogent evidence of road trains: giant, snarling, heavy trucks with massive metal jowls and menacing lights dragging four or five trailers measuring over 150 feet long. Nocturnal land-based creatures on the roadways have no chance as these pummeling Pullmans stop strictly for destinations and nothing else.

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Typical road train with multiple trailers

Nevertheless, John was given an essential task: To deliver a replacement alternator to a client that had broken down in the middle of Australia’s Simpson Desert. Of course, it was my car, a Toyota Land Cruiser that I rented to do a bit of light off-roading on the way to and from Australia’s renowned Big Red Bash. It was a powerful diesel 200 series truck that performed ably for me in the deep silky sands of Fraser Island the week before. Traveling to the Bash from Brisbane, there wasn’t a hint of the problem during the first two long weary days. However, on the third day, the battery warning light illuminated unceremoniously in the dullest possible shade of red. My fellow road warriors turned their full attention to my car’s dual batteries: multiple voltmeters and iPads were produced and the battery was pronounced marginally OK at 12.25 Volts, but to be checked periodically as we traveled further and further into the desert. As our convoy lead, Dave, walked back to his truck he called out to me nonchalantly, “don’t run anything in the car that uses the battery.” Well with no A/C or fans and the swirling dust and sand requiring windows up, this was going to be a sauna: Another two days of continual motoring and this would surely be the Big Red Rash.

For the next 24 hours the voltage continued to check in at a steady 12.25 volts. For my part, on several occasions I tried unsuccessfully to use Vulcan mind control techniques to extinguish the annoying little red battery light. Then, on the fourth day, on the final approach to the campsite I watched the voltage needle plunge swiftly, like the Dow Jones on Brexit. The car’s alternator had died, and I was over one thousand miles away, in the middle of nowhere.

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The car was sweet when it was running

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Poor baby in the shop

I cannot thank John and Ben at Fleet Crew rentals enough for their service, which goes way and beyond the call of duty. Also, I need to thank the crusty but soft-centered manager at the Birdsville Roadhouse garage, Peter Barnes, as well as my wonderful convoy compadres: Dave, Mike, Paul and Johnny. Gentlemen, what a fabulous trip and thanks for allowing me to ride along!

 

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The Swagsman Swagger

Almost cinnamon in appearance, the powdery sand had a deep red color. It was dense, gritty and fine, perpetually sticky, and threatened to coat anything that it touched—from aluminum car paneling, to rubber tires, trailer hook-ups and hitches, and humans. Eerily, the pigment would find it’s way into sealed compartments, your cups and dishes, inside your socks, and it would line up unevenly under your fingernails giving you that unwanted wilderness look. For this was no ordinary sand; it was a parting gift from the world’s largest parallel dunes in Australia’s Simpson Desert, known to the locals as Nappanerica, or branded contemporaneously by the colonists as Big Red.

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After a hard rain the coarse red sand re-emerges

Anything but a proper shower would simply move the crimson granules about your person, temporarily banishing them to the least visited creases and folds in your skin. Thankfully, we found such a shower at the Swagsman Quality Inn at Miles, the gateway to the Australian Outback. Like a Vietnamese monsoon, abundant steamy hot waters flowed generously from the showerhead in room 11 of the Swagsman. An overhead heater in the bathroom furthered our comfort as our fragile human bodies attempted to regain normal body temperature after an adventurous week surviving the winter desert nights with only a cloth tent between the outback and us.

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The sticky red sand started its 2,000 km journey to the Swagsman from here

I watched triumphantly as erratic rivulets of sand flowed downward from my torso, thighs and legs, and swirled with resignation around the new aluminum drain (I forgot to note whether the swirl was clockwise or not since we were in the southern hemisphere). The hotel’s state of-the-art laundry facilities similarly expunged the grime and grit from our clothes, aiding in our return to normalcy and our typical personal hygiene standards after a fantastic challenging camping trip in the outback.

We stayed in the Swagsman for one night either side of a weeklong camping trip in the outback and it felt like a Ritz Carlton. It is a new hotel, with Wi-Fi, had a great shower and the dinner and breakfast was fabulous. It was also accommodating to park extra long camper trailers, a skill that I have otherwise yet to acquire.

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With my limited trailer driving skill-set I needed areas the size of a small aircraft landing strip to park this behemoth.

Trailer Trepidation

Trepidation is probably fairly accurate in describing my lovely wife’s unease and foreboding of camping to come: When there are so many variables and important tiny details that you’ll have to deal with on the fly, but your thorough preparation is just the bits and bobs you could think of after a few Google searches based on your entire inexperience with the subject. Nine days we had planned in Australia’s magnificent red Simpson Desert, traveling over thousands of miles of dry dirt roads and dunes, sleeping in a pop up trailer that we tow with a rented Toyota Land Cruiser. So many questions. “Will we have access to power, facilities, food sources and clean towels on the journey?” my wife asked with a measured modulation of hope. “Dunno,” I said flatly while wondering if I ever towed anything in my life and whether I would be able to erect and deconstruct this complicated-looking NASA space station trailer in the dark, all without access to YouTube.

On the brochure, the compact trailer’s exterior looked like one of those shiny little square carts you find at 5th and 48th in Manhattan, complete with secret flaps and nooks for pretzels and gyros, and hooks for potato chips that you can’t find in stores like Dark Red Tomato, or Yellow Cheese and Bacon. But when erected, on the inside it becomes Dr. Who’s Tardis, though decorated by some budget-constrained Sultan who only had access to the L.L. Bean catalog.

The brochure said that just one random person could erect the trailer in less than ten minutes, but anyone who has ever tried assembling a desk from IKEA or a gas grill from Home Depot doesn’t buy that crap anymore. In considering the unexpected and what might be ultimately required of me, I was glad that I had recently seen The Martian.