As Mount Isa loomed into view after an agonisingly long day spent behind the wheel on the Flinders Highway, it was like drifting into some kind of industrial paradise (a paradox if ever I heard one). It was almost a relief to park up and part with 25 bucks at Sunset Caravan campsite, lured in with the enticing thought of sleep and rest. Matty and I had become very familiar with caravan culture – we were one rooftop tent away from receiving the official title and privileges of club membership; an elite, exclusive community of mobile-home owners that revel in their state-of-art, glorified house-on-wheels. Caravan culture is very competitive and most mobile home owners spend a good part of their trip comparing sizes (of their caravans!) and all of the extravagant features and generous facilities they contain. Not to be ageist, but Matty and I were undoubtedly the youngest residents at many of these parks which probably explains all the raised eyebrows and looks of bemused interest as we gave our neighbours a brief tour of our mobile home: the bedroom, a charity shop mattress squeezed roughly into the back of a Land Rover and the kitchen, a tinned roof box strapped on top of the car. This provided much amusement to our baffled neighbours as they watched us clamber on top of the car’s roof and battle our way through a fort of soup tins. Many older caravaners could not fathom such an undignified existence and they often looked upon us with pity as though we were peasants, besmirching the name of caravans and lowering its whole prestige.
Yet there were those more welcoming families who approached us eagerly with pre-prepared Land Rover enquires; Jenny was normally the reason and topic of most conversations as she stirred so much inquisition and fascination with every passing traveller. It was here at Sunset Caravan Park in Mount Isa that we shared an evening with an old couple of caravaners; a most surreal experience. The night started with an elderly man from his neighbouring motorhome trundling over to us clutching a tank of fuel.
“My wife and I don’t really need the rest of this fuel as we have enough to supply our generator, and not enough room in our rather large caravan to store it,” he chuckled. “Would you two care for it?”
Surprised by his sheer generosity but quite sceptical about the state of fuel he was supplying (we were cautious after having been previously cursed at a campsite- read that blog post here) we hesitantly accepted. Turns out that quarter of a tank was thankfully a quality shot of premium unleaded and a hearty pick-me-up for Jenny when her engine later coughed to a dry and sudden stop (never drive into outback Australia in a Land Rover without a few Jerry cans stacked somewhere – and if the Land Rover is as troubled as Jenny, for God sake, take no less than 100l of emergency fuel!)
The man introduced himself as Graham and invited Matty and I to share a bottle (or three) with he and his wife Joy. After accepting his petrol, we could hardly refuse such a gracious offer of wine too, so moments later we found ourselves wandering over to a stately motorhome and being invited to dine alfresco beneath the awning of a lavish house on wheels. The couple had already laid a table and four ready chairs, cutlery I forgot could gleam, and a whole plate of cheese and crackers… and chicken pâté.
The evening passed in a whirl of wine and a lengthy discussion about the value of caravans, the trials and tribulations of road travelling, and the beauty and wonders of Australia. The couple from Canberra in Australia’s Capital Territory were lovely and charming… in that sort of pompous way where they shower you with their wealth and gourmet crackers but you can’t really complain because you are simply a poor backpacker so you accept their feast, and in return listen to stories of their son’s success on a super yacht…
Until that evening, I had not been that drunk in Australia. Even after shots of goon and cheap vodka at youth hostels along the East Coast (read about goon in the Byron Bay post here), I remained partially sober to some extent. But it was here at this caravan park surrounded by respectable, elderly caravaners that I found myself unintentionally smashed on expensive white wine. I shamefully tried to conceal my slurred speech, wandering gaze and slow seated swaying by reaching for the chicken pâté and crackers and stuffing them in my face in the desperate hope of sobering myself up quickly. But it was too late; I was gone. I soon realised that overindulging on their small banquet of pâté and crackers was a terrible mistake that left me with a fowl taste in my mouth and an insatiable thirst for the rest of the night. What appeared to be heaven on a plate was actually hell on the palate. I have not since touched chicken pâté.
The following morning, hungover and depleted, we drove Jenny up to the lookout point for a greater glimpse of Mount Isa. The view was extraordinary; it was like being inside a rather large fish bowl. Mountainous, red hills bordered the horizon, enclosing the industrial town of white-tinned roofs. But the first notable observation was the ominous, mining factory that loomed over the entire town like something from a gothic novel. It had colossal pipes billowing hot grey fumes in every direction and glittering yellow lights flickering in the windows. It was garish and ugly, and reminded me forcefully of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Edward Scissorhands (both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton). Mount Isa was established as a mining city following the discovery of minerals around the area and now produces lead, silver, copper and zinc. It is also known as the Rodeo capital of Australia which probably explains the wild west image that permeates throughout outback Queensland.
Matty and I had initially endeavoured to tackle a 540km dirt road from Mount Isa to Alice Springs. But after a swift inspection of Jenny’s thirsty, diminishing engine and a quick review of our limited supplies and no electric winch, we agreed to listen to our gut instincts and take Jenny on safer roads. We proceeded down the Barkly Highway towards the next remote town, Camooweal. Due to poor planning and time-management, the day was soon ahead of us and we had no choice but to make camp here. Our progress to Alice was slow, and we began to worry that we wouldn’t reach Adelaide in time to meet my expectant family friends before they travelled to the UK.
On we trundled until at last we reached the small town of Camooweal, population size 310. We pitched up at another caravan site which was comparably smaller but even more peculiar. It was bordered high with metal railings like a correctional facility and the check-in desk was actually the bar of a local pub. As Matty tended to Jenny, I strolled over to the bar alone. I was suddenly a mouse in a room of hawks. The pub was filled with aged tradesmen in fluorescent jackets and the regulars from Camooweal all engaged in familiar conversation. I was the only woman there, save for the bartender but her reception was no more welcoming either. Feeling terribly awkward like I had just gatecrashed an exclusive party, I quickly paid our fee and left, vowing only to return if I was desperately parched of thirst and the only solution was a double gin and tonic…
We intended to leave at the break of dawn, but of course that never happened. It was about 10am the next morning when we eventually ploughed on, stretching further west until we finally crossed the state border into the Northern Territory. As we stood before the enormous welcome sign, it felt like a victory to have made it this far in a car that was suddenly losing oil at an alarming rate and a thermostat now constantly burning red. There was no turning back. Jenny clearly had other insidious agendas. Matt pulled out yet another can of reserved oil to quench her thirst for the next five hours until we reached our next stop Warumungu, 445km away. It was the final town that stood at the end of Barkly Highway, and our last hope of finding more oil to nourish Jenny and sustain her.
“How much oil are we getting through a day, Matt?! Will she even make it to Alice, let alone Adelaide?!” I asked him, as he buried himself beneath her bonnet.
Matty stared silently at her dry engine for a while as he calculated how much oil we had lost and the number of times he had filled up since leaving Townsville. He then glanced at me incredulously before slowly answering. “There’s no sign of a leak… but she is burning through five litres of oil a day.”
So ensued the formidable journey to Adelaide with the distressing possibility that we may be outlasted and beaten by an old and unpredictable Land Rover.