Canning / Kidson Track -Disaster Strikes-Our flight from the Canning (& how we were "nearly" saved!)

Tuesday, Jul 25, 2006 at 00:00


Tuesday 25th July
Kunawarritji to Port Hedland

There’s nothing quite like the horror of waking to find a good sized pool of precious diesel fuel in a puddle underneath your vehicle. This was the sight that we awoke to this morning, after investigating a strong smell of the precious liquid coming from the ute. On crawling under, it appeared as a slow drip weeping from a stress fracture in the front panel of the tank about three centimetres from the bottom. The welds were OK, the it appeared to be a more a fatigue crack in the vicinity of where heat banding would have occurred during manufacture. The size of the pool in the earth seemed at odds with the slow drip from the tank but once we started the vehicle and the tank pressurised, it began to flow in earnest. I felt like my throat had been cut. After all the previous problem’s we’d had with the tank, now this.

I was on the sat-phone pronto with bugger all signal. On consulting our maps we decided our best option would be to high tail it out on the Wapet Track to Telfer and then in towards Woodie Woodie, Marble Bar and eventually Port Hedland, a trip of some 800 kilometres. It being a “sorry time” at a neighbouring community due to someone’s death, the place (Kunawarritji) was empty. There were no tools available and even so, I doubt whether we could have affected a repair at Kunawarritji anyway.

We tried to clean away the diesel residue with aftershave, the only alcohol based product we had and then attempted a fix with soap with only partial success. So with the Navara Haemorrhaging its lifeblood into the dusty road, the race began!

As we belted along the Wapet as best we could, the road gradually improved. It was very rough until Punmu where we decided to roll the dice and see if we could get fuel. As luck would have it, we encountered the community manager, a Sri Lankan chap on the drive in. He was only too happy to open the bowser for us as we took on all that we could carry. The crack in the tank did not appear to be any bigger so after visiting the store we headed south. JT took the wheel for a while I manned the Globalstar sat phone hoping for reception. Finally, in the vicinity ofLake Auld, I got a minutes reception and managed to get in contact with the tank manufacturer back in Melbourne and mentioned both the problem and that I was on my way to Hedlan……beep beep….No Service! It didn’t return again. The Globalstar phone nearly got hurled into the bush then and there. Our only hope was that the crew in Melbourne would be able to extrapolate from our all too brief conversation, judge my all too apparent level of anxiety and work out a rescue plan.

At Lake Auld where the Wapet turns north and the route west changes name to the Telfer Mine Road, we found three magnificent dromedaries wandering in a stately manner across the salt. We also came a cross the recent remains of a Toyota dual cab ute sitting forlornly in the middle of the road sitting on rocks, all four wheels having been removed. Continuing on, our route more or less paralleled the dues of the Sandy desert. At Telfer, the road became a graded dirt superhighway and we were able to up our speed to 100 kph. We had lunch in the shade of some trees at a roadside bore and then thundered on towards Woodie Woodie. If there had been a paucity of camels on the trip so far, the drought was certainly broken over these few hundreds of kilometres. The beasts were everywhere. By the road, silhouetted on the nearby dunes, wandering along the track. JT had taken a hundred photos in no time.

In one of those incidents that could only occur to you in the outback, JT and I were lamenting the lack of any plumbing type supplies which we might have used to affect a repair when on cresting a hill, we saw a ute parked by the roadside in the distance. It appeared to be laden with pipe and steel. The drivers door was open and as we pulled closer you could see the name of XXXXX & son, plumbers & gasfitters – Port Hedland.Well we were dumbfounded. By the many arms of Vishnu not even I expected this extraordinarily lucky turn of events. We were saved! On pulling up next to the ute, the driver a young bloke was reclined across the seat, his feet hanging out the door and his head lolling about. There was a can of butane gas in his hand. His eyes revealed the story that like most druggies, he was currently walking the void between life and death that hypoxia causes. I managed to get him focussed and get the can off him and as he gradually came to, he managed to get one foot on the accelerator of the still running motor and drove off, door still open, him still lying across the bench seat with the other foot out the door. We watched as the car moved slowly off weaving about the road, it’s drug f’ ked driver oblivious to all and sundry. We followed for a while but he just kept plodding on. Feeling robbed, we turned and continued west.

Not long after Woodie Woodie we reached the bitumen of the Rippon Hills Road and the foothills of the Pilbara. It was amazing how quickly the country changed. We had to contend with the B-triple side dumpers hauling the ore to Hedland and then returning but it was a pleasant change to be on the black top. We passed a large fire burning through the hills. The fire revealed just how delicate the balance is in this environment with the greenery of the spinifex cover being replaced by the totally sterile red rocks of the hills once the fire had passed. At least the hundreds of birds of prey working the thermals at the fire front were having a good day.

At Marble Bar, we stopped and had a quick scotch at the iron clad hotel to wash the dust from our parched throats. We also poured the extra 60 litres of fuel from our jerry cans into the ute and headed on to headland, a pool of diesel on the ground marking our passing! 200 kilometres later we arrived at Hedland in the early evening, tired and dusty and headed straight to Paul and Katie’s place in Wingfield. They had moved into their new place in the intervening month since Amanda and my last visit. I managed to get onto the Melbourne crowd to find they had indeed worked out my problem and that a replacement tank had been shipped from Darwin that afternoon. It should arrive tomorrow afternoon. Now to locate a mechanic or engineer and of course….pour a scotch!

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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