This episode begins in Kununurra, the entrance to the Kimberley’s. As it was a long way across the top of the Great Sandy Desert, we decided to have the bus checked out before we left. It was sort of OK, with the mechanic pinpointing what he described was a possible noise in our gearbox, but he was of the opinion we should make it to Perth.
Our first stop was the Bungle Bungles which were incredible. They looked like massive bee hives, layered with black and red bands. It was the roughest road we had been on to get there, but a whole lot of fun.
We left the Bungle Bungles preparing for the long trip across to Derby. It is about 400km across passing through the towns of Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing.
The road is long and straight for the most part, scattered with Boab Trees, which only grow in this part of Western Australia.
Apart from that, there is not much to see and do here, other than Wave that is. Which raised the question, ‘To wave or not to wave?’
Australia has a population now of over 20million people, I reckon of those at least half a million are Grey Nomads. And of those, I reckon 50% have at some stage passed us on the road. This means we are passing a caravan or motorhome approximately every 5 minutes or so. And, of those, I reckon every single one of them has waved to us, and expected me to wave back. And, when I don’t, because I am busy driving, our Captain tells me I am rude for not waving back. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Grey Nomads, or waving, but the reality is most of them are 60 years plus, and there is a high probability they either suffer from a medical condition, or are under the effects of some form medication. Some of them probably shouldn’t even be driving, let alone letting go of the steering wheel when they are doing over 80km per hour, just to wave feverishly at a complete stranger heading towards them, also doing 80km per hour, while the wind buffets you both from side to side.
But they do, and it is a real art form, with many different types and styles of waves. There’s the ‘two finger wave’ for those that have a bit of sense and don’t want to fully let go of the steering wheel. It would appear that the higher they lift their fingers, the more confident they feel. Some even include a smile, which I think shows real confidence.
Then there is the quick, ‘five finger wave with a quick glimpse of the palm’. I think is in preparation for the next step, which is the full, ‘let go of the steering wheel wave’ and really scare the bejesus out of bloke coming the other way.
I even had one bloke waving his whole arm from the elbow down. It was the most enthusiastic wave I have ever seen, and the smile on him was just magic, maybe he thought I was K. Rudd on the campaign trail.
Me, I’m flat strap letting go of the steering wheel long enough for a left testicle adjustment, let alone wave to every passing caravan. If I have to, and mainly if it’s a bus, I usually go for the two finger wave. But, this is still not good enough for my dearest, and on the odd occasion I have glimpsed back and caught her waving on my behalf. There she goes, a big full-on wave, encouraging them to wave even harder and keep their hands off the wheel longer.
Anyway we drive on, the weather getting hotter and hotter, and us debating the art of waving.
Then, something happened that drastically changed the course of the next few days. All of a sudden I hear this little voice in my head, and next thing I know I am having a full on conversation with myself. It had to be the heat. I was actually contemplating letting Michelle drive Honky. My ego finally convinced me by saying,
‘maybe she will realise it’s not that easy to drive and wave at the same time, then she won’t get up me for not waving.’
So before I could think about it logically, I spluttered it out loud, “Would you like to drive for a while Shell?”
“OK.” She replies. The lack of hesitation scaring me even more.
The kids, got all excited cause mummy was going to drive, Daddy was a bit nervous, but, it was all good, here is how we did it.
As there is nowhere to really pull up on the side of the road, we decided to change seats while driving. We slowed right down to crawling pace, and changed seats. And off she went.
A little nervous to start with, but she did well, confidence started to build, no oncoming traffic, all is good. I encourage her to now change gears as it is probably not good for the bus to be doing 100km in second gear. A few gear changes, with a few swerves go quite well. Then I see it, oncoming caravan. Will she wave? I am waiting for the wave. We get the quick five finger palm flash from Grandad, but our Captain isn’t letting go of that steering wheel, instead we visit the far left side of the road, the knuckles turn white as they clutch the steering wheel and the eyes widen to their full extreme. I was contemplating waving for her, but I was more scared waving with her driving, than I was when I am driving.
We drove on for a while, Michelle gaining confidence the whole time. I was quietly proud of her. Then it was time to change back. I gave instructions on how to down gear. Sixth to Fifth went OK, Fifth to Fourth. Houston we have a problem. The gears won’t shift, the clutch won’t come out. Jammed solid. Panic. Pull over, shit, not really much room to pull over here. What to do? We slow enough to change seats, but it isn’t much better for me. Gears and clutch are still stuck, and we are slowing. There is a slight incline on the side of the road and it levels out a bit, we have barely enough speed to get off the side of the road, coming to rest about 30cm from the edge.
And there we are, in the middle of the Great Sandy Desert, 160km from the nearest town, and we ain’t moving. Maybe, just maybe that guy at Kununurra was right about the gearbox on its way out.
Michelle by this stage, is blaming herself, and being the caring and understanding husband that I am, I let her do this. For a while anyway.
We get onto the towing service from Derby. We explain the situation. Big bus, 13.5 tons. He asks for the clearances, front and back. “I have a tilt tray that will do that.” he tells me.
“What about a flat tow?” I ask,
“Nah, the flat tray will do it. $1200.”
Wow, let me think about it, my wife and kids, 160km from town, surrounded by desert, 30cm from the edge of the highway, the whole bus shaking from the wind as each road train roars past. Ah, OK. Come and get us.
For two long hours we waited on the side of the road. Finally, just before dark, the tow truck turns up. He was pretty confident he would get us on, I was thinking otherwise. His tilt tray did just that, it tilted, steeper than Mt Kosciuszko. But he convinced himself he could do this, he started off by pulling us away from the edge of the road onto the level bit, then he tried to winch us on, successfully twisting the two 12mm steel towing lugs and squashing our exhaust, moving us a total of about 1metre. There was no way known Honky was getting on that tray. It was like watching Beethoven, the giant St Bernard refusing to budge on a leash.
He gave up after a while, and I was so itching to say I told you so. But I didn’t. I suggested a flat tow, but they said it was too dangerous and would not do it at night.
So, there we stayed. The plan was for them to try again in the morning, but how exactly we weren’t sure. It was a long night, a bit noisy with the trucks and dingoes howling, and did I mention we were only about 400km from Wolfe Creek. What a great night to watch the movie.
The following morning the tow truck owner rings, says he has a truck nearby and the driver will flat tow us in. Exactly what I suggested in the first place, but anyway, we’ll go with that. They show up, this time in a semi-trailer, with a large flat tray, and on the back of it, a large 6 tonne refrigerated truck, which has also broken down. He backs up in front of me and connects two oversize elastic bands to the front of Honky. Being curious, I ask him what the Snatch Straps are rated at. ‘About two and half tonne each,’ he tells me. I am not confident in the maths, but out here, my choices are limited. So here I am, nervously sitting in Honky, the plan being that I have the motor running so I have power steering and breaks, I am now to follow behind this semi, 7 meters away from the rear of the refrigerated truck. God I felt so safe.
“We will go slow.” he tells me. Lucky by this time, I have sent Michelle well ahead with the kids in the Suzuki.
And slow we went, I watched with cheeks clenched tightly as those straps stretched to their fullest extent, anticipating that at any moment one would snap and come hurtling back through the windscreen, smashing it, along with my face. As they tightened, I could hear and feel the chassis of Honky screaming in pain. But we started to move. The whole trip was done at 50km per hour. My task, to keep the straps tight, feather the breaks and steer. If he stopped suddenly I was in the cool room, if I stopped suddenly I would cop a rubber band in my face. And to think I was paying for this. For three long hours I sat there staring at the back of a truck, and you know what, that whole time, not one bastard had the decency to wave to me. It was like I was not good enough now.
We finally get into town. He takes me to his depot to see his boss. What a generous man he is. He informs me that he will be charging me 2 x $1200 for the trip seeing as he had to come out twice. You can imagine the ensuing conversation as I reminded him that he didn’t actually tow me in the first time. He explained to me that he only had six months of the year to make his money, and I think he was trying to do that out of this tow job alone. But feeling somewhat intimidated as we were still far from getting back on the road, we agreed on a price so we could get out of there and get Honky fixed.
We spent that night in the Derby Bus Depot, surrounded by busses. At least Honky was in good company. Then the following morning we get the good news. It’s not the gear box. It’s the clutch. Yes, the brand new clutch we had fitted at Warrnambool, 9000 km ago, has shat itself. Not sure how, that doesn’t really matter now. More good news, it’s going to take at least 3 days to get the parts, and the weekend is approaching. More good news, we have to stay in Derby for Six days. What’s Derby like I hear you ask. Best described by the photo I have attached of what our accommodation would be like.
But then, the insurance company comes to the rescue. They will pay for our accommodation while we are waiting to have it fixed. Now get this, they want $260 a night for a pub room in Derby. See Photo again. The town has nothing to it. So instead we opt to drive the 200km to Broome and stay there. Accommodation is marginally cheaper, but we wanted to go there in any case. So we load up Suzi, and off we go.
Ah Broome, what a sight, relieved to be back on the coast, we are pretty wrapped in Broome. It meets all expectations and ticks all the boxes. After spending the last four months in desert environments it is nice to get back to the ocean. The water here is the most amazing blue, the sunsets are awesome and there is plenty to do. We get to our apartment and are quite impressed. It’s only a one bedroom, but the kids get the fold out bed and we get a king size bed, in a bedroom, with a spa and a door that shuts and can be locked. Happy Days. What can go wrong?
1am knock at the door. Obviously not being suitably dressed for the occasion, I send Michelle out to see who it is. Security. Someone has broken into the room next door and stolen their wallets. ‘Sorry to wake you.’
We don’t think much of it till the next morning when we go out to find two of our bikes stolen. Someone cut the chain off the back of the car and helped themselves to Jades and Michelle’s bikes. Jade was distraught, but we managed to find her bike sometime later. They had tried to raise the seat on it, but couldn’t so left it behind, opting instead for Michelle’s bike as their getaway vehicle.
But, we were determined not to let it all get us down, so we made the most of our time in Broome. Cable Beach was just amazing, we had plenty of swims, got to try paddle boarding, went for a camel ride, met up with friends and got to see the Staircase to Heaven and the sun setting on the ocean.
The six days at Broome took the sting out of the breakdown a little, we did heaps of things including a camel ride on the famous Cable Beach. And of course we went to the markets, twice, and were there just at the right time to see ‘Stairway to the moon.” A phenomenon that occurs when there is a full moon that sets over the low tide. By Wednesday we got the news that Honky had been fixed and we could go and collect him.
We did some last minute shopping in Broome, and stocked up on meat and groceries for the next few weeks. At this stage, we had not seen as much of the Kimberley’s as we had anticipated, mainly as it is on the Gibb River road and just too long and rough to take the bus on. So at Derby we had the option of a reasonably priced joy flight over the Kimberly Coast and Horizontal falls. We decided we would do this the next morning, but as they say bad luck comes in threes, and that night we were feeling a little nervous about getting on a small plane the next morning, just in case that was the third thing.
When we arrived back at Honky late afternoon, we walked into an oven. He had been locked up for days on end now, and the inside was like a furnace, which is OK except for one thing. Fridges, in motorhomes, don’t work well in the heat. Our poor fridge was working overtime draining our house batteries of all charge, then shutting down to protect the compressor. This is not really good when you have just put over $200 worth of meet and groceries in it.
So, we figured, this was our third stroke of luck, and there was no way known we were going to get on that plane in the morning.
Instead we spent the morning at the fridge repairer, getting it sorted. Luckily we were able to and by lunch time we were out of there, farewell to the Kimberley’s.
Now, as with everything in life, you have to look on the bright side. And there are many positives that came out of our trip to the Kimberley’s. We contributed greatly to the economy. Because of us, someone has a new bike and made good their escape with several hundred dollars of someone else’s money. The Derby fridge mechanic can afford to give his apprentice a raise, the Derby Bus Service can now afford rego for two of its buses, and the Derby Towing service, well he just about has his mortgage payments covered for the year.
And us, we are just grateful we still have the opportunity to be doing what we are doing. It had all been pretty smooth sailing for us up until this point, so hopefully this small rough patch will do us now and we can carry on regardless, unlike one poor bugger up here. You may remember our last story about our boat ride in the Mary River in the Northern Territory. The place where I nearly fell in and became Croc food. Well this bloke, decided to actually swim across the river, just for kicks. It was in the exact same spot where we had hired the boats. Apparently he made it across the river the first time, but must have been a little slow for the trip back, as he was used as a toothpick for a four metre salty.