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:


Anonymous said...

Awesome stuff Sarah, With your words and Kris's pics I feel as though I have done the trip sitting beside you both.

Glad to have been able to help you out when you needed it, and looking forward to visiting you both in the not too distant future. Cheers Gaz

Anonymous said...

I finally after all this time read the last hurrah & what a read.Great memories for you both/three Sarah.
So glad you shared with all of us.
Lea Mc xo

David said...

Fantastic blog, both of you, I have enjoyed it immensely - it looks like the adventure of a lifetime and your entries have captured that so well. I'm planning something similar, if a bit less ambitious, next year, and if I can see half of the sights you've described and taken photos of I'll be stoked!