I think we all remember our first time. The nervousness, the anticipation, the absolute wonder of the unknown about to be fully exposed to you. All those thoughts chasing each other endlessly around your mind. This is going to be great. I’ve waited so long for this. What if I make a mistake? What if I handle all the bits and pieces wrong and end up ruining the whole experience and end up looking like a fool in front of my mates? What if I don’t take the proper precautions and end up paying for it for the rest of my life?
But enough about that harrowing experience, this is a four wheel drive blog after all. But speaking of first times, the first time you get out off-road is just as exciting as any other thing you may have done for the first time. No one really knows what they’re doing when they first end up at the point where the bitumen meets the dirt. That moment when order, civilisation and the man-made give way to the real world of nature and where everything you’ve ever learnt about driving is thrown out the window because here there are no lane markings, and quite often no lanes, no signs telling you how fast to go and you now have to rely more on your wits than what the handbook says.
I was lucky with my first time. Way back in distant past, in 1992 and just before the 18th celebration of my entry into this world, I was a young apprentice mechanic in the Australian Army, the best looking Army in the world. That was the second year of my time at the Army College of Knowledge and the year an opportunity which was too good to refuse presented itself .
A former soldier and instructor at the College, Graeme, had formed his own four wheel drive school and was in the process of making his own instructional videos and he was planning a trip across the Simpson Desert as the content for the fourth video. Luckily for me and half a dozen other apprentoids he was still good mates with a Sergeant and current instructor of the College who from this point forward shall be known as Moe. Over a few drinks one night Graham and Moe were discussing the upcoming trip and Moe suggested the possibility of bringing a few apprentices a long for the ride, to which Graeme happily agreed and after a bit of organising and a selection process to see who would go, by late March 1992 all was ready and we were off.
Our journey would take us from the thriving metropolis on the New South Wales and Vicweigan border, Albury/Wodonga though Tibooburra, Innamincka, Birdsville, across the Simpson via the Rig Road, Mt Dare, Alice Springs and back down through Fink Gorge, Uluru, Marree, Oodnadatta, Renmark and back home. It would take nearly three weeks, cross two or three major deserts and one or two pubs which of course we all avoided as we were clean living teetotallers. And best of all the Army was footing the bill and providing a 110 Landrover and Landcruiser Troopy. Not bad for a first time huh?
So the first couple of days were nothing to get excited about as we basically just followed the black top. But from Tibooburra onwards the fun bit began. Whereas we had traveled in excess of 1000 k’s on the first two days, Tibooburra to Innamincka took all day but was only around 300 km, although a quick stop and obligatory photo opportunity at Cameron’s Corner did account for around an hour.
From Innamincka we hit the Strezlecki Desert on our way through to Birdsville. Now would be an opportune time to advise that we had a couple of tag alongs with us in the form of a three blokes from Ford testing the new (at the time) Ford Raider prior to its release on the Australian market. “How did they go?” I hear you ask. Well let me answer that question with a question. “How many Ford Raiders do you see going around these days?” Exactly.
It was on this part of the Strezlecki that one particular short coming became apparent, and although it has been know to happen to other vehicles it did not bode well for the Raider’s future in Oz. A couple of hours out from Innamincka the Raider encountered a rather heavy bump in the road. Not an uncommon occurrence in that area. But what was uncommon was the shattering sound of the Raider’s rear window self-destructing as a result of said bump.
The subsequent large opening at the back of the car let quite a bit of that lovely red dust into the interior and by the time we made it to Birdsville everything inside that poor Raider was a uniform red colour, including the two poor buggers who had been sitting comfortably in the front seat all day. They looked something similar to a spray tan gone horribly wrong, with avalanches of dust falling from their heads and shoulders with every minute movement of their bodies. Good times, good times.
So while they chose to go wash the dust off with a shower, the rest of us decided to wash away the dust in a more traditional manner – with a cold beer at the Birdsville Hotel. Best pub in the country, just let me say. And we got to see it in its real persona, without all the huge crowds which assemble annually for the races. Just us, the publican and a handful of locals. Oh and some bloke named Peter Wherret who was going to be joining us as we crossed the desert. I’d never heard of him at that stage, but turns out he was a bit of a motoring presenter on the tele throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s. At the time he was touring Australia with his wife and writing a book about it. And strangely enough I stumbled across that very book 24 years later as I was browsing through a second hand bookshop in Brisbane just last year.
Anyhoo, we had a layover of a couple of days in Birdsville which we put to good use to repair some damage to various things, but definitely not to the frame that I had welded up back in Albury to allow us to mount the fridge in the Landrover. That thing was as strong as the Harbour Bridge and the only reason we took it into the workshop was to strengthen it further. Oh alright I’ll admit it. My welding job had been so ineffective that by the time we made it to Birdsville, the bloody frame had just about reverted to its component parts. At least the old bloke who ran the workshop had a good laugh.
We also helped out the publicans by shifting a heap of cartons from the store room to the cool room, and then proceeded to kick back and take it easy for the rest of our stay. Then, much to our surprise, three Army helicopters lobbed in at the airport across the road from the pub on their way back from an exercise up North. Turns out that Tony, the civilian instructor who accompanied us knew one of the pilots who had been a mechanic apprentice when Tony was a Sergeant. Small world.
So anyway, we’ve only covered a small part of that first trip so far in this tale, and there’s still so much more to tell, which I will do in the next installment. But by this stage I had now been four wheel drive touring for only four days, but I was hooked. The kind of country we had passed through over the last couple of days could only be seen with a fourby, and I’d fallen in love with it already. But that first trip had only just begun.