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Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Palm Valley (you took my tyre, but not my spirit!)

... and everything seemed to be going so well (haven’t I written that somewhere before?)

The day after we arrived in Alice, we were feeling a little chuffed that we’d managed to limp our car and trailer down the highway, and into our caravan site without further mishap. We had even arranged to have the 12-pin plug replaced over the weekend. As such, with our laurels firmly resting on having overcome a few minor obstacles, we decided it was time we really put the cat-amongst-the-pigeons and test our mettle on a proper off-road track.

Oh ho, onwards brave adventurers! No more pulling a trailer on nice bitumen for us. No, we were wandering warriors, not beholden to the edicts of the land transport authority telling us where we should drive. No, we knew better than them. Oh ho…

So, turning our sights away from Alice, we sought out what was meant to be a spectacular and grandly rewarding drive. ‘Palm Valley’, the tourist map said, ‘experience 400-year-old cycads, untouched since the time of the dinosaurs’. Right, well that clinched it! With the suggestion that there may be dinosaurs on the cards, we were itching to get started!

Arriving at the turn off to Palm Valley, we were greeted by several signs advising all who enter this place (in bright red capital letters, no less) that this road was strictly terrain for four-wheel drive vehicles only (don’t say you weren’t warned!). ‘Pish and tosh’, we would have like to have said, casting caution to the wind and tackling the beast of a trail like seasoned veterans of the road; like stalwart hunters of fortune who had bushwacked more than their fair share of outback. But, in reality, we weren’t such doyens of dust and ditches. Rather, the only off-roading I had done, was largely unintentional; no more than a careless whoopsie onto the curb one time when I wasn’t paying enough attention…

But, I guess you’ve got to start somewhere.

So, we dutifully pulled over at the information kiosk and read every bit of information on offer to the neophyte who dared to venture down this craggy and sinky-sandy trail. ‘Drive slowly’, the signs said, ‘keep above 40’, others chimed in. ‘Keep you speed constant’ came third helpful call from yet another dark corner of the information board… ‘Keep your tyres inflated’, ‘drop your tyre pressure’, ‘lock your rear diff’, ‘unlock your rear diff’… ‘enjoy the magnificent scenery!’

“What the hell was all that?” we asked ourselves. At least, we felt, that we were pretty good at enjoying the scenery… surely, we had that part covered!

And so, off we ventured. Trying all at once to drive slowly, to stay above 40 and keep our speed constant. I imagine anyone who happened to glance in at me behind the wheel would have seen a crazy eyed person in some physical stated of supreme cognitive tension trying to achieve all three imperatives at the same time…

Well, with all that build-up of mental and physical strain, something had to give. And give it did. Whilst maintaining a slow, constant, speed – hovering at the same time above and below 40 km/h, the left rear tyre grew weary of sustaining this state of physical improbability and decided it would quite fancy just watching the scenery from the spare tyre rack at the back of the car.

The wheels on the car go pop, pop, pop…

In reality, I’m pretty certain it was just a sharp piece of flint sticking out of the river rocks (combined with inexperience and a good dose of humbling bad luck). But, whatever the cause, pop went the tyre and stop went to car. At least it gave us a few moments to sit forlornly and make sure we were truly enjoying the magnificent scenery…

Right, thought I, time to flick off this beleaguered tyre and strap on a new one. We’ll be away before the dust had even settled. But, no…. It suddenly occurred to me, as I lay staring underneath the car in the dust, sand and river stones (an annoyingly sharp piece of flint constantly prodding me in the shoulder blades, no matter how I positioned myself), that changing a tyre on small run-about in the comfort of your own driveway (ahhh, how I missed my driveway at that moment) was a damn sight different proposition from changing several tons of trailer luging machine, on soft sandy terrain, in the blazing hot sun. ‘Right, where’s that instruction book gone’, I wondered to myself slightly frantically.

Not one to shy away from accepting any assistance proffered at a time of need (from friend or stranger alike), I was particularly glad when my newest best mate of the day, Robert, turned up with his spare jack and barrels full of worldly know-how to help remedy the situation. A crash course is road side mechanics later (well, perhaps ‘roadside’ is stretching it a little; rocky, sandy trail mechanics would likely be more apt), the tyre was striped, the car didn’t collapse into a heap, and we were somehow back on our merry way towards destiny!

At that point, one tyre down and a nagging feeling that I would more than likely ruin another one shortly, I was fighting the urge to find the nearest piece of road wide enough to turn around and head back home to lick my wounds. Even the kindly words of our road side saviour, who suggested that we were half way there, didn’t settle my mind. Ever the rationalist, to my mind, half way there meant there was another three times the distanced we had already travelled still to go (it was a dead-end track, and the only way out was to follow the same toe curling route back to freedom). But, as Robert and his family were heading the same way, he suggested that he could keep an eye on us along the way and help us to pick out the best route to travel. Ok, at least we wouldn’t get stuck in the middle of nowhere without hope of rescue. So, once more, onwards brave adventurers! Oh ho…

Lead on, Robert, lead on!

Following behind this unexpected mentor, we ultimately made it to our destination. Palm Valley was indeed as spectacular as the guide books promised. Sheer walls stained in all manner of orange hues, clutches of ancient cycads (many of which had been growing here peacefully since before Captain Cook was even a wee lad), babbling rivers and billabongs teaming with life. If only my heart would hush-up long enough to let me enjoy it (that’s enough from you too brain – the return journey can’t be as hair raising as the drive in, surely).

Would you stop to help this scruffy individual?

Sitting there in Palm Valley, all I could think about (in vivid technicolour) were the steep ditches that had been negotiated, the long patches of soft and cloying sand, rocky steps that the car was forced to clamber up, and small rivers that had required fording. However, from the comfort of my folding camp chair, sitting outside the caravan tonight – with a stiff drink in my hand – I’m also starting to get glimpses of other memories that include the wild horses we stumbled upon, the clear cobalt-blue sky contrasting against the burnt auburn cliffs, and most of all, the tranquillity that comes from being so far away from the rat-race for a short time.

As it turns out, I must have learned a thing or two from my experience of driving behind Robert into this serenely rocky oasis. The return trip passed without incident and flew by (at a nice, sedate pace of course) quicker than I remembered the inwards road taking (but, isn’t that always the way?). Before we knew it, we were back on solid, beautiful tarmac. No longer was the road fighting against me and trying to dive out of my way as I moved towards it. This was familiar. This was safe.

…but, I must admit, in the end, I was also a little disappointed the whole adventure was over.

We’re not coming down until dad stops driving!

So, lessons learned:

1) No matter how slow I think I should go, it’s probably best to drop back a few km/h – just to be sure.

2) An evening with an instruction manual is time well spent.

3) Rocky roads = go slow, sandy roads = keep up the speed. Don’t get the two mixed up!

4) No matter how bumpy it gets, always, always make sure you take time to enjoy the magnificent scenery.

The next day, back in Alice, I was able to track down one of the few tyre fixing services that had remained open on Easter long weekend. To be honest, they were doing a roaring trade. Lines of punters, with flat 4x4 tyres being off loaded from similar adventuresome outings, clambered at their forecourt. At least one person I spoke to also fessed up to having acquired a similar puncture on the way to Palm Valley. ‘Must’ve been a sharp piece of flint sticking out of the river rocks’, we agreed, and nodded to each other sagely.

That evening, we tracked down our roadside champion (he happened to be staying at the same camp site), and dropped off a bottle of wine to say thanks. Our lads also became good friends with his grandson, so we saw more of them during our last few days in Alice. It was a good opportunity to get some veteran knowledge about the roads we were hoping to travel in our voyage ahead.

I seem to recall saying in my first blog post something about anticipating that I would come back from this trip a little wiser than when I left. Well, consider that already ticked off.

Bye ‘d bye,


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