When we left the coast of Queensland, I had no idea that we would be going on the most memorable part of our road trip in Australia. You might want to read about the driving challenges we faced, as that would be a good preface to this story. Our road trip was fairly uneventful until we left Townsville after returning from Magnetic Island. Google maps had been taking us on scenic routes, often taking us on circuitous secondary or residential streets when a more direct route existed. More often than not, this resulted in more traffic congestion and longer travel times. Sometimes, it would be costly when Google would direct me onto a tollway.
We were heading to the Adelaide area in South Australia, so as we were leaving Townsville, Google showed a route leading into the interior of Australia, more commonly known as the Outback. I had few expectations other than a long 3 day slog on boring two-lane roads, however, I had learned to not trust Google when it came to directions. Instead of trusting my gut and finding an alternate route, I followed what was shown and headed west. After a couple hundred kilometers, I began to realize that not every town along the way had a gas station. Just because it was a spot on a map with a name, didn’t mean there would be anything there other than a few houses. With a camper van that drank gas as readily as an Aussie drinks beer, I started looking for gas stations whenever the gauge neared 1/2 a tank.
Google originally had us routed on a small road from Prairie to Muttaburra. After driving several hundred kilometers west, we approached our turn-off to start heading south. I slowed to make my turn and noticed a large red sign that read, Road closed due to flooding. “Now what?” I thought. The previous southerly route was about 150 kilometers back and would lead me back toward the coast. Another route was 90 kilometers ahead, so that seemed to be the better option. As I continued westward on A6, Google recalculated and routed us on ’State Route” 19 towards Muttaburra.
When we arrived at the crossroad, I had just over 1/2 a tank of gas. Under normal conditions, that would easily take me 300 kilometers, but we decided it would be prudent to continue into Hughenden to fill our tank. That was probably the best decision we made that day. Turning south on State Route 19, it initially appeared to be a nicely paved two-lane road with generous shoulders. We even considered a small detour to go to a viewpoint, but decided we didn’t have the time and continued. After about 10 kilometers, the sealed road became a gravel road that was still relatively smooth. It was loose gravel, however, and I reduced my speed from 100 kph to 60 kph just to be safe. At this point, there were large grasshoppers in the road that jumped and hit our windshield, front and side of the car. It was but a harbinger of what was to come. Every few kilometers, the road would have a sealed floodway section that gave a short reprieve from the bumps and noise of the gravel. We began to see more kangaroos and fewer cattle. Rain clouds surrounded us and falling rain was apparent, but we weren’t rained upon. The sun descended in the western sky and colored the clouds like a series of John Constable paintings. Several times, I pulled over and took photos, but in that wide open space, the pictures just can’t capture the grandeur.
As we continued south, we encountered only one other vehicle. The rancher behind the wheel of the ute (utility vehicle, usually a Landcruiser) just gave us a puzzled look as we passed. Was he shaking his head? Probably, and only afterward can I even understand why. Not long after our encounter, the roads suddenly changed for the worse. That rain we didn’t encounter had obviously deluged this particular section of SR 19. The water and loose gravel became a slurry of mud that made the rear wheels of the van slip and fishtail like I was driving in mountainous snow and ice. The road—if you could still call it that—was somehow also deeply rutted. So much so that our van would bottom out frequently.
At one point, the rut looked so deep and muddy, I veered to go over what I thought was more solid ground. It turned out to be knee-deep mud with the consistency of wet concrete. With the mud a few inches over the front bumper and front axle, I realized the van could no longer move forward and shifted into reverse. The fear of getting stuck became all too real at that moment as the rear tires of the van spun and splattered mud all over the van’s side mirrors. As the tires continued to spin, they began to smoke and the smell of burning rubber began to fill my nostrils. Somehow, the tires began to get some traction and the van lurched back, gained more purchase and eventually came back onto more solid ground. The mud reduced my speed to 30 kph making the 30 km. stretch of mud seem even longer.
The sunset became twilight and the animals suddenly began appearing on or near the road in droves. Kangaroos became suicidal, waiting for the headlights of the van to show them the road so they could hop right in front of us. Or they would try and fool me by facing away from us, but hop toward the van at the last minute. After a few near misses, my nerves were getting frazzled. Then the cattle showed up and simply stood in the road, blinded by our headlights, and refusing to move. I had to move cautiously through the herd for fear that they might get spooked and run into the van. As the road became more firm, it also became more rutted and washboard textured, with the occasional deep gully that would take out the suspension if I didn’t slow down to a crawl. So I not only had to scan the sides of the road for animals, I had to gauge the depth of the ruts by the shadow cast by my headlights to adjust my speed. Even though the road became more solid, its washboard surface made it impossible to go any faster than 30 kph.
The 216 km. stretch that would normally take 2 to 3 hours to drive was going on 6 hours. As 10 p.m. approached, we finally started seeing lights, the first lights in nearly 200 km. About 10 km. outside of Muttaburra, the road turned to sealed pavement and I was just ready to rejoice at reaching civilization again. The four people sitting outside the hotel bar in the center of town all turned to look at the muddy van that was pulling up, as if to say, “Where the hell did you come from?”
Continued in part 2: Ona, Winky, Grub and Sheep Shearing