This big adventure we are on is made up of many smaller ones. Our recent drive across Australia’s Outback was full of them, including the on-going internal adventure of managing uncertainty, warnings, and downright fear.
In Cairns, we decided to drive to Darwin and then fly to Bali, rather than fly from Cairns or to return to Sydney and fly out from there. It was much less expensive, and the flight was ten hours shorter.
But how to get from Cairns to Darwin? Bus? Train? Not a real option. And rental car costs were out of sight, so we signed up for what’s called “vehicle relocation.” It works this way: the rental company needs their 4 x 4, motorhome, camper, van or car in a different location. Rather than pay a professional driver to drive it to the new location they offer it to the general public and charge anywhere from $1 – $5 per day, plus they give you some gas money. The driver has a certain number of days to get it to the new location.
Sounds great, right? Well, yes and no.
We picked up our relocating car in Cairns, with plane reservations out of Darwin in seven days. We wanted to make a stop at Magnetic Island, which was easy to do within the time frame, so the vehicle relocation plan seemed like a perfect solution.
We went to pick up the car and get the details. They explained they needed us to take the car to Alice Springs, rather than Darwin, which didn’t appear to be a problem because they had a motor home in Alice Springs that needed to go to Darwin.
They suggested the following plan: Drive the first 4 x 4 from Cairns to Alice Springs within 5 days (approx. 2,400 km, or 1488 mi.), then pick up a motorhome in Alice Springs and drive it to Darwin (approx. 1,500 km, or 930 mi.) within 4 days.
Our family voted, “Yes, let’s do it.” We set off. You know the saying, “Ignorance is bliss?” We were blissful.
First, we drove to Magnetic Island and spent two nights having a great time. Met great people, including a family you will hear about in a future post. Then we left on schedule to drive to Alice Springs.
The Outback is very interesting country, and if you ever decide to drive across it, here are some tips to make your trip more enjoyable:
1. Towns are very far apart, so when you’re near a toilet, use it regardless of its condition, because you won’t see another one for a long time. Your alternative is the side of the road, in sizzling heat, out in the wide open, with critters.
2. Carry a lot of water for you and your car, because it is very, very hot in the Outback. Fortunately, our car didn’t overheat, but we were warned by every store owner between Magnetic Island and Darwin.
3. Amuse yourselves with whatever you find. You won’t be passing many cars on your trip, so the license plate game is pretty useless. As gruesome as it sounds, we made a game of counting road kill. In less than three hours we counted over 300 dead birds, lizards, kangaroos, wallabies, wild pigs, and cows. This bizarre display explained why everyone we met warned us to watch out for animals. “They can kill you if they hit your car.”
4. Drive only in the daylight. Animals come to the road at night to warm up. They jump out of nowhere. The few times we did drive at night, we followed a “Road Train,” figuring it would be the first to hit anything in the road. It worked.
5. Give Road Trains priority. These are semi’s hauling 3 – 5 trailers. They can be up to 50 meters long. Be careful when you pass them, and move over if they are coming towards you. They won’t stop.
6. November/December is Australia’s summer, which is the rainy season in the Outback. Rain hits without warning, and flash floods are common. According to the locals, these flash floods can strand people for days on the side of the road until the roads clear. We didn’t learn about this until we were well into our trip and couldn’t turn back.
7. The Outback comes with its own smells. Allison, for instance, recognized the smell of rain. Then there was the smoke from the grass fires and then there was the B.O. (and it wasn’t coming from us), I don’t need to say anymore about that. If you have a sensitivity to smells, be prepared.
8. Don’t assume that there will be plenty of hotel rooms available during the week. When we arrived in Mount Isa, a major mining town in the Outback, no vacancy signs were showing on all the hotels we passed. Only after stopping to ask for help did we learn of a hotel on the outskirts of town that had one room left.
9. Ask a few more questions about vehicle relocation before you do it. We missed the part about the rental company having the right to cancel your next vehicle up to one hour before pick-up. They used their right and cancelled pick-up of our motorhome in Alice Springs the morning we were to arrive.
10. Have a Plan B and don’t all panic at the same time. We were stuck in Alice Springs. We had dodged animals, flash floods, exhausting heat, well-meaning but endless warnings of doom, cultural intrigue, and now my family didn’t have a way to get to Darwin. I sank into some guilt and then panic. The rest of the family stepped up, remaining confident and reassuring. We found our hero at the Hertz counter – Andrew Charles. He rented us a Toyota RAV4 with unlimited kilometers and no one-way charge. All of the other rental companies were four times as expensive. We considered it a miracle.
We arrived safely in Darwin and asked ourselves if we would ever want to drive the Outback again. Yes and no. We loved seeing this unusual part of the world. The views and landscape were a huge contrast to Sydney and Cairns. It would have been better if we could have taken more time to visit the sites and learn about the culture and the people, rather than feel like we were in a race.
As a family, I couldn’t be more proud. We pulled together, kept our sense of humor and stepped forward into the unknown with courage, curiosity, and adventure. We also created some incredible memories. For that reason, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
To say that I didn’t feel fear and apprehension during this trip would be a lie. It was seeded in Mount Isa, when the hotel desk clerk told us all the terrible things that could happen on our drive. I remember wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
The fear prompted us to pray and imagine guardian angels posted at the four corners of our car, protecting us from danger and flash floods. I know it doesn’t always work this way, but on this leg of the trip we were protected. Animals jumped in the other direction, and storm clouds passed on either side of us.
Which makes me think that perhaps the biggest adventure on this trip through the Outback was one of Trust against the odds.
And now we are in Bali. Whoo Hoo!