Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Final Hurrah

‘Reality’ – What is that exactly?

It’s been 2 months since our return home and the trip feels like a strange and beautiful dream. As I write these words, memories of a Big Red Truck come flooding back - memories of adventure and of happiness and laughter, memories of contentment and ease. They are memories of one blissful moment in time when our reality was one of sunsets and far horizons and roaring campfires under a starry starry sky.

This belated blog may seem strange coming so long after we’ve arrived home. I suppose I’ve been delaying this entry, knowing that this is the closing chapter and when the final sentence is written and the last full stop is typed, the adventure will really be over.

But a story isn’t complete until the last chapter is written, so here it is, for one last time, the final hurrah…

Before I begin, let me set the record straight - when I finished the last blog with ‘Two becomes Three’, I wasn’t referring to the impending arrival of a new baby Flanagan! Instead I was referring to the arrival of Miss Siam Grace Flanagan, who decided at the eleventh hour to dust off her adventure hat and join the Big Red Truck for its final trek home. (You can postpone the baby shower - sorry to disappoint!)

The return of Siam to the truck also signalled the return of her beloved ABBA CD and as we rolled out of Broome, the sounds of ‘Thank you for the Music’ could be heard wafting out into the emptiness ahead. (Thank you indeed Kris and I were both thinking after the 47th repeat!)

So there we were, three happy travellers wedged into the front seat of the Big Red Truck like sumo wrestlers in a mini. Our newly cleaned BRT gleamed a luminous red in the hot outback sun as it headed east on the long journey home. It had taken five months to cross from the east coast to the west and with only three weeks to make the crossing back, there was only one way to go…straight through the guts of this enormous country.

By day three, Siam was fully indoctrinated into Big Red Truck life. She’d trekked gorges and caves, swum in the warm turquoise waters of the Indian ocean, ridden camels, held a baby croc and could distinguish a ‘saltie’ from a ‘freshie’ at 500 paces.

She had also fallen into the rhythm of our outback travels - waking early to view beautiful sunrises, was proficient at fly swatting, had taken 687 photos (I wonder who she gets that from?) and provided us with dance recitals around the campfire at night. (I have good video footage of Kris’ dancing abilities if anyone is interested).

We managed to make it out of Wolfe Creek meteorite crater alive, inhaled a few kilos of red dirt along the 1000km Tanami track, and arrived in Alice Springs to say goodbye to the sublime warm weather and hello to freezing night time temperatures.

We retraced our footsteps to our old friend Uluru and I’m pleased to report it was just as breathtaking and magnificent the second time around. (Old friend, I’ll be back). We stood at the geographical centre of Australia, a place where if you could pick Australia up and balanced it on your fingertip, this is where it would balance.

But I hasten through my recollection of these days because there was something out there waiting for us, something beckoning us, something that had haunted Kris for years, a place he had previously tried to conquer but had failed.

I’m talking about the Simpson Desert… (cue dramatic sound effects!)

It was seen as the clash of the titans; the Simpson Desert versus the Big Red Truck.

In one corner was the Simpson Desert – a 200,000 square kilometre featureless expanse of red sand; a 500 km track forcing travellers to traverse a thousand sand dunes in their quest to conquer the infamously treacherous landscape.

In the opposite corner stood the Big Red Truck – a 30 year old, battle-weary truck that had just hauled two tonnes of crap some 23,000kms around the country with three travellers wedged like sardines into the front seats.

Kris had dreamed of this for countless years, had dreamed of standing atop Big Red, the largest sand dune in the Simpson Desert, in triumphant glory. Flooding rains had thwarted his two previous attempts at the crossing and it seemed this year that his dream would be snatched from his grasp yet again with Queensland in flood and a desert that had been closed the entire year. But at the final moment the track was reopened and now Kris stood at the head of the track, heart pounding, palms sweating in anticipation of what would be perhaps the greatest adventure of this 6-month journey.

The first night was spent at Dalhousie Springs on the western edge of the desert. We all eagerly dived into its deliciously hot waters to refresh and rejuvenate our tired bodies before the 5-day crossing ahead, then retreated to our tent for sleep. The excitement was palpable in the air the next morning as we packed up ready to go, that is until Kris looked down to find a 10cm bolt staring back at him from one of our tyres.

Now this might be stating the obvious, but a giant slash through one of your tyres is definitely not a great start to a desert crossing by any stretch of the imagination. Kris being the super handyman that he is, managed to pull out the bolt and plug the tyre getting us on our way without too much fuss, but I couldn’t help wondering if this may have been an omen and a sign of things to come.

The Simpson Desert is a contradiction to me. It is stark and barren and harsh and unforgiving, but at the same time it is breathtaking in its bareness and simplicity. Hour after hour we inched steadily forward, the sandy track stretched out seemingly forever ahead of us to the distant horizon and sand dunes rolled away like waves as far as the eye could see.

You hear voices from other 4WD’s float in over the airwaves but only sporadically do you see another car. Out here you are truly alone. You feel freedom and release from the realities of everyday life, you are totally removed from the world and what is going on ‘out there’. Sydney could have been wiped out by a tsunami and you would never know, so blissful is the simplistic reality you now find yourself in - What do you eat today? Where will you camp tonight? Which of those tracks up ahead should we take? Did you hear that dingo walking around our tent last night? Look at that massive eagle soaring up there on the thermals. There are no worries of next week or next month or next year. This is truly living in the moment.

And so it was like this for 4 days.

On that final day, we left our campsite and continued east knowing that this was the day when Kris would finally come face to face with Big Red. With every hour we drove, the excitement and anticipation built. We congratulated the Big Red Truck on getting us this far over so many mountainous sand dunes and in fact, over so many thousands of miles on this entire trip. We started envisioning our movements on arrival into Birdsville; first a long hot shower to scrub away the desert, then clean clothes, then a cold beer at the famous Birdsville pub. We were only five sand dunes from the end. It was so close you could almost taste it.


It was a much too familiar noise, we’d heard it before on this trip, knew what it was but hardly dared to believe it could happen again and so close to the end too. Kris tried to go forwards, then backwards, then forwards again but the rear wheels just wouldn’t turn. Our hearts sank. The rear diff that had been replaced once already on this trip in Tasmania, had buckled under the pressure and was no more.

Kris in his brilliance dropped the tail shaft so we still had the services of our front wheel 4WD, but this was no match for the Simpson Desert and those last few sand dunes. Fortunately we were travelling with another 4WD and between us, managed to half drive, half tow ourselves toward home.

But up ahead lay Big Red…

You could see it in the distance, it was big and it was red and it was literally the very last sand dune blocking a flat road into Birdsville. Could we do it? Could we dare to believe that our tow/drive configuration might actually get the Big Red Truck over the top and to that cold beer waiting for us in Birdsville?

They took run up after run up. It was bold and it was brazen but try as they did, Kris could just not get Big Red over Big Red! His dream of driving victoriously over the top of that legendary sand dune had been snatched from his grasp at the very last minute. It was heartbreaking.

But we still had the problem of getting the BRT home. We headed on down the sand dune line to the so-called, Little Red, and to our dismay Little Red turned out to be not so little! Never one to give up on a challenge and determined not to be defeated, Kris decided to give it all he had. He drove back to take a run up, drove so far back that the Big Red Truck was just a little speck of red in the distance. I ran up to the top of Little Red and stood there with heart racing, hoping against all reason that he could get this truck of ours over the last dune.

I’ll never know what happened inside that truck way down there in the distance, but I do know this. There was a prolonged pause, like the two of them were having one last moment together before the big showdown. Then there was movement, slowly at first then faster and faster. That speck of red grew larger and larger until impact was imminent. By the time it hit the bottom of the dune, the Big Red Truck was going so fast it almost broke the sound barrier. It was like red lightening, it so was beautiful to watch.

I could hardly breathe as I watched the truck climb the dune; it was poetry in motion. Higher and higher it climbed until it reached the summit. YES!! It was going to make it!!

But no. The truck sank down to its axles in the soft sand and lay there, broken and exhausted. It had fought the hard fight and lost. Kris climbed out of the truck and looked at the flat road below winding its way into Birdsville. So near yet so far!

Simpson Desert – 1; Big Red Truck - 0.

Eventually we did mange to get the Big Red Truck back to Birdsville with the help of some incredibly generous passers-by and I can tell you the beer that night was colder and tastier than any that had come before it. But now, the clock was ticking and time was running out to get Siam home. For me, the journey of 25,000kms would end with a flight home, while Kris was left behind to await the arrival of a new diff and a long drive back alone.

When I departed Birdsville, the last image I had of Kris was that of a forlorn figure propping up the bar at the Birdsville Pub; a man reduced to eating camel pies and drowning his sorrows with schooners of Four XXXX beer.

Kris knew in his heart of hearts that his Simpson Desert pilgrimage would never be complete until he finally conquered Big Red. The dream was just too strong to let it finish like this so once the truck was repaired it was back to Big Red for another attempt (of course!). This time he did make it over and for one glorious moment he stood there victoriously atop Big Red in the Big Red Truck, a dream realised. It was time to go home.

In true BRT style, those final days home were fraught with drama to the last. Maybe the BRT realised the journey was almost over and decided to put up a fight, producing 3 flat tyres in an attempt to delay the end. But eventually the Big Red Truck rolled to a stop outside our house on Sawtell Rd. Kris took a deep breath, sighed and turned off the ignition for the final time. The journey was over.

It’s with sadness that I write these final lines, knowing that our adventure is over. Thank you for allowing us to share our journey with you over the past 6 months. We hope our words and pictures have given you a sense of just how incredible this country is and just how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place.

We’ve learned that Australia is truly magic, but it’s not just magic in the usual beautiful landscape kind of way. The magic comes from its vastly diverse landscapes, from its harsh barren deserts and plains, from its unique outback characters, from the endless lonely miles of bitumen and dirt, from the nights spent around campfires under a million shining stars, and from the generosity of its people, so many of which have helped us out time and again on this trip.

We’ve also learned that you CAN actually spend 2000 hours living together in a roof top tent and still love each other just as much at the end of it as you did at the start.

Remember that reality doesn’t have to be working five days a week in a 9 to 5 job. It doesn’t have to be dragging yourself around to a schedule and the tick of a clock. No, reality is whatever you choose to make it.

Don’t wait till you’re 60 and retired and own a caravan to travel, get out there now and see this place for yourselves! Life is too short and unpredictable to wait; do it now, even if it’s just a weekend drive to a place you’ve never been. Get out there and do it TODAY!!

I’ll finish now with some words I‘ve borrowed from Dorothea Mackellar, which I think so eloquently sum up this country and our feelings towards it.

Until our next big adventure!
Sarah, Kris and the Big Red Truck xx

I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

I love her far horizons,

I love her jewel-sea,

Her beauty and her terror –

The wide brown land for me!

PS If you'd like to check out more of Kris' photography, visit his website:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Kimberly Chronicles

Some people spend their whole lives searching for perfection.

If you are Japanese, you might be searching for the perfect cherry blossom. For the Brits, it might be a search for a perfect football premiership. In America, it’s a search for the perfect super-sized hamburger meal deal.

Kris Flanagan’s search for perfection began in Western Australia, for it was here that his life’s purpose was revealed…the search for the perfect boab tree. His journey began in Purnululu National Park, famous for its hundreds of massive black and orange sandstone domes.

Walking amidst the towering 200m high beehive-shaped domes, it was hard to imagine the titanic natural forces that had once been here shaping these magnificent structures. But what better way to appreciate them than on a 20km overnight hike (of course). Hiking through a sandy and pebbly river bed for 20km is not an easy day at the office by any stretch, but when you finish the day sleeping out on a rock with a million stars as your canopy, the reward far outweighs the effort.

Unfortunately for Kris, his perfect boab remained elusive at Purnululu so it was on to our next destination, the Kimberly’s famous Gibb River Road.

The Gibb River Road is synonymous with beautiful scenery, dusty roads and classic Australian off-road adventure – all 3 of which we found in abundance. We were thrilled to discover that the million-hectare El Questro station was not the tourist fiasco we’d imagined it would be, but rather an adventure playground with amazingly beautiful gorges and waterfalls, indulgent hot springs, secluded camping and one of the most breathtaking views we have seen on the trip.

Kris was in photography heaven so it was with great reluctance that we continued on our way west, still searching for the elusive perfect boab.

Next stop was the remote Mitchell Falls, a multi-tiered waterfall in the far north-west of the Kimberly. As you’ve probably come to expect we didn’t see Mitchell Falls as any ordinary person might otherwise do - to capture the falls in a photographer’s perfect light required being at the falls by sunrise.

The falls are a 3.3km hike from the campsite, which rather inconveniently (for me) meant a 4am start and a hike along a rocky track in the dark by torchlight. The hike was going smoothly until we reached a river crossing, requiring us to walk 50m over slippery rocks in thigh deep water to reach the other side.

Now, that’d be fine in the bright light of day when you can see where to put your feet, but not so much fun when attempted in the dark. I knew there were no crocs in that part of the river but thanks to my previous Pavlovian croc conditioning (ie: water = death by croc), my mind was working over time till I was convinced we were completely surrounded by crocs. Unfortunately in my haste to get to the other side I lost my footing and a thong with it. Kris gallantly tried to save it only to fall off a rock and drench himself up to his waist, along with his precious camera bag (I can hear you thinking “fight, fight!”).

So it was two wet, soggy hikers that arrived at the lookout half an hour behind schedule, but we think just in time to see a green thong glide lazily over the falls. On the upside, it was a beautiful sunrise and basking in the warmth of those early morning rays we had the entire falls to ourselves for one whole glorious hour. (An early bird might lose a thong but it definitely catches the worm).

After so much excitement we moved on looking for the still elusive boab, eventually finding our way to McGowan Island Beach. Oh what bliss! - white sandy beaches, turquoise water, fiery red sunsets and really terrific company. The only catch was the presence of a resident saltwater croc and five of our former high school teachers! (What are the odds of that?!)

Kris discovered his own piece of paradise when he heard of an island nearby with an abundance of oysters. Reaching the island required wading through croc-inhabited water (“Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you” we were assured by the owner) but the call of fresh oysters proved too strong for Kris. Together with another camper he set off to claim his prize, thankfully returning with all four limbs still intact and 5-dozen magnificent oysters the size of his hand. (For all you oyster fans, Kris made sure he had enough oysters Kilpatrick and Mornay for all of you).

Despite our wonderful time at McGowan Island beach, the search for the perfect boab was falling behind schedule so we packed up and continued along the Gibb River Road, visiting lovely waterfalls and gorges, covering some seriously dusty kilometres and finally reaching the road to Cape Leveeque.

A local had told us of a shortcut and assured us the road was in great condition. All was fine until we rounded a corner 50kms into the track and were greeted with a flooded roadway. Assuming the track was as muddy and impassable as it looked, we agreed on a path around the flooded area and drove on.

Lesson 1: It is generally better to drive straight through a flooded road than drive around it.

An enormous bog hole and the remains of a recent campfire should probably have rung warning bells that the ground along the side of the track was not as solid as it seemed; someone else had obviously spent the night camped at the side of the road while their car had spent the night trapped in a mud pit. The Big Red Truck lasted a short 20 metres before sinking to its rear axle in mud!

Fortunately we DID have our recovery gear with us on this occasion (unlike a certain previous blog entry way back in January). Naturally the recovery gear was located in the most inaccessible parts of the truck but once it was retrieved we set about a textbook 4WD recovery manoeuvre. Unfortunately nothing we did was able to budge the Big Red Truck from its boggy hole so our only remaining recovery option was to winch ourselves out.

Lesson 2: Winching a 4 tonne truck out of a boggy hole requires a good anchor point.

The only anchor point even remotely suitable for winching the BRT backwards onto solid ground was a feeble looking tree. This attempt was quickly thwarted when the tree pulled straight out of the ground under the strain! So forwards we winched, jubilantly escaping the bog but driving ourselves into more trouble...up ahead lay another 600 metres of water across the road. This time to avoid any further boggy dramas, Kris waded through the water to check the depth and road surface.

Lesson 3: Be selective about which water you wade through.

Kris had covered about half the length of the water-covered road when he realised the floodwater actually fed into a creek, which fed into a river, which fed into a croc-infested bay. Not wishing to find out if any crocs had strayed into the area, he hot-footed it back to the truck and we decided to try our luck driving through the remaining untested water ahead. (The last lot was OK, how bad could this section be right?)

Lesson 4: Never ask how bad something can be.

For every 10 metres we drove, the Big Red Truck sank deeper and deeper until water covered the headlights. Surely this was the deepest point? Surely we would start to rise out of the water soon? But no, the truck sank deeper and deeper until water washed up over the bonnet and lapped at the windscreen. Onwards we drove, desperately willing the truck to rise out of the water and imagining a breakdown and a night spent in the middle of the flooded road in our roof top tent with crocs circling hungrily outside. Eventually the truck did rise out of the water…about 400 metres later!!

(Unfortunately we don't have any photos of the water over the bonnet but the photo below is how things looked at the start).

But our trials were still not over…ahead lay yet another 500m of water! Not wanting to turn back we proceeded forward and again we found ourselves swimming in water over the bonnet! By the time we reached the other end, the carpets in the truck were soaked through and the dashboard had lit up like a christmas tree with warning lights. How we made it through that flooded crossing without car catastrophe or croc carnage is anyone’s guess.

By the time we got to our destination we limped into camp looking like we’d just gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson (minus the bitten off ear) – covered in a thick layer of red dirt, mud and grass curled around the springs, number plate hanging on by one screw, a half deflated tyre from a slow leak puncture, cracked hose in the engine and a shock absorber dragging along the ground!!

But made it we did and it’s here that I find myself tapping away on my computer keyboard from our beautiful beachside campsite. Luckily for us we’ve been able to spend a few days giving our beloved Big Red Truck the TLC it deserves while enjoying spectacular sunsets over the majestic Indian Ocean (these west coast sunsets must be seen to be believed).

Our journey is almost complete now, having achieved our goal of reaching the west coast of this enormous country. It is with reluctance that we must turn our eyes eastward for the very long journey home.

Oh, as for the perfect boab tree, the search continues…

In the next edition of Where’s the Big Red Truck - Two becomes three.