Tuesday, September 06, 2011

First Road Trip of the Season -or between the gutter and the stars*

[No pictures on the grounds that they might incriminate me and or the RACT won't help me anymore].

I’ve long suspected it, but this trip confirms it: all things mechanical and electrical hate me, possibly because I spent years trying to live without them.
My oldest son had flown down from Canberra for an important family reunion of my now ex- in -laws in the North of the state. The weather was beautiful and since I had hardly been out of town since coming home, I thought I’d come along for the ride.  It would be a good chance to pick up my furniture from the West Coast while I had a couple of people to help me move it. We hired a trailer for that purpose and set off in youngest son’s car along with his partner at first light on Saturday morning. 

It was a perfect day. Flowering cherry bloomed by the roadside and I’ll swear the Brooker Highway never looked so pretty - at least for about thirty -five minutes. We hadn’t even left the outskirts of town before we suddenly lost power and found ourselves stranded on a little hillock off the road.
The good news was that the RACT agreed to tow us back into town and to provide a taxi for everyone who didn’t fit into the tow truck. The bad news was that they didn’t cover car hire – the fine print says something about having to be at least 50 Km from home - and we still had the trailer. Hire cars with a tow ball were scarcer than hen’s teeth, especially on a Saturday morning.  I stood guard on the trailer while the others traipsed around for hours.  When they had almost given up and were walking back to get my car keys to take the trailer back, they got a miraculous offer of a twin cab with tow ball and came and got me.
The garage proprietor where the car had been taken, was preparing to close up for the weekend, so I lugged our belongings and my trolley case to the service station down the road.  Then at last we were on our way, only three hours late!
Things went fairly well for the rest of the day. The boys missed the dinner and the speeches, but did have time with their father and grandparents while I stayed in a cheap hotel. Think saggy double bed, stained carpet and forlorn night table with tattered Bible. There was no point going to bed because the music was thumping away downstairs, so I went to the creatively named "Guest Lounge" instead.  All around were signs on the walls like – “Check out is at 10 a.m. or you will be charged an extra night” and “Clean up the kitchen or you will be charged for cleaning.” There was a TV even more historic than our old one.  It only had two channels - a blurry crackly version of the National Broadcaster on one and a full clear image of a local football match on the other.  I am a card carrying member of the anti football league, but I'm fairly certain that it beat an evening of interrogation by my ex -inlaws. “Are you working yet?” “Had anything published lately?” "Got a boyfriend yet?" What are your plans etc.?”
 Anna and the boys turned up somewhat the worse for wear at around 11 next morning and we continued on down to the West Coast. The weather was fine and the trip was good though I was sad to see how much lush rainforest had been cleared to make way for uniform grey plantations.
 The exchange of property with my ex also passed without incident and soon we were on our way home.  I feel a bit guilty about the next bit, because I insisted that we take the Lyell Highway over the mountains to show my son’s partner “The Real West Coast.”  Not only is the scenery much more spectacular than driving across the North and then South as most people do, it’s also a shorter, if harder, drive and there’s hardly any traffic.
This proved to be a bit of a mistake. At sunset we passed the amazing bald hills of Queenstown bathed in red and purple light and then proceeded down the snaky bends on the other side of the 99, so named because of the number of curves you have to negotiate.  By nightfall, we had crossed over the dark expanse of Lake Burbury, passed the hulking ruin of the Linda Hotel, the entrance to Nelson Falls and over the Franklin River with the looming bulk of Frenchman’s Cap behind it. In daylight, this is all superb rain forest country, but by now we couldn’t see anything and were just looking forward to a coffee break at the Derwent Bridge Roadhouse when we reached the top of the hill. Just as we were heading up Mount Arrowsmith, the last pass before the Central Plateau, the gears started making a funny noise and we couldn’t get into third. 
Slowly we crawled across the Lodden Plains -a bleak and desolate place where there has never been any attempt at civilization, cultivation or habitation. Not even loggers are interested because the trees are too stunted and sparse.  “It’s a pity we can’t stop to look at the stars” said my oldest son. We used to do it when we came this way on our way to Hobart, but he had to catch a plane in the morning and the others had to work. At this rate we'd be lucky if we got there by then.The sky is just so clear here because there is absolutely no light pollution at all and there are very few trees in the way. A few seconds later, there was a terrible bang as a tyre on the trailer exploded and we ground to a sudden halt.
The only phone that had a reception was also the one with a flat battery, so we had lots of time to admire at the stars and watch ice crystals forming on the trailer. It is so cold here, it feels like there's nothing between you and outer space. At last a 4X4 came along, travelling the other way. Like any good West Coaster, the driver stopped to see if he could help.  A message was relayed to the nearest pub, and before long two men from the Derwent Bridge Roadhouse arrived bringing a selection of tyres. They tried really hard.
Not one of these assorted tyres would fit because they were the wrong wheel -nut pattern. We had been issued a spare when we hired the trailer, but I didn’t know about it and had left it in the back of my son’s car, along with the jack and the toolbox. So there we were. The Roadhouse Saviours took Anna and I back to the house to keep warm and the Automobile Club was called again. Too bad they had to come almost from Hobart and were going to charge us a fortune. It turns out that Ultimate Membership is not quite as Ultimate as it’s cracked up to be. While they would have quite happily shipped the car home from Timbuktu for free and put us up in hotels, this did not apply to the trailer. And this time we were simply too far from home. Everything over 100Km is charged at $4 per Kilometre. Lucky it didn't happen crossing the Nullabor or up in Darwin!

The men scratched their heads and tried various mechanical means like brutally removing and replacing the axles but to no avail and then suggested leaving the trailer and coming back for it with the spare tyre in the morning.  For me to do another round trip in my fuel -guzzler, plus the additional hire costs etc. would add up to nearly as much –if nothing went wrong  -and the idea of leaving a borrowed trailer by the side of the road in this part of the state, was too big a risk to take, especially with all our stuff aboard. How much did a trailer cost anyway?
 They had a mate they said, who would get us back to Hobart for $600, about double what the RACT had originally quoted, so we said, no thanks, we’d rather wait for the official tow truck, even though it was going to be four hours before they got there. Now we were talking to someone in Adelaide (two states away) and the price had gone up, but we elected to wait for them anyway, rather than wait in the house. It was already after midnight and things had become a little strained.
Anna had never been to the West Coast before so I had been pointing out the sights and telling her some of the stories, such as how, in the bad old days, all unattended “foreign” vehicles (i.e. any not belonging to known West Coast residents) were considered fair game. If the owner couldn’t be seen, it was OK to help yourself to anything in them and to strip them.
I’d also told her some of the more colourful stories about Tasmania that had their origin in a little place not far from here called Black Bob’s.  It was there, according to legend, that when the authorities came, they found one boy chained up to a post and barking like a dog and they were forced to put up a fence between the males and females of the household to stop them sleeping with each other. Mind you, I have heard similar stories in  other isolated parts of Tasmania, so that didn’t necessarily mean it was true, but that didn’t stop my oldest son who was still feeling poorly, muttering miserably, “ Bet they still eat babies too,” as he climbed  on top of the piles of luggage and tried to get comfortable. Now there was no room to move at all. From time to time we’d run the motor to keep warm, which left us wondering if we’d still have enough fuel to make it back to town. By now a decidedly"Deliverance" atmosphere prevailed.
Our joy knew no bounds when at last the lights of the tow truck shone in our eyes and the driver appeared with his Mum. “Nice,” I thought.“I like a man who looks after his Mum. He won’t rip us off any more than necessary while she’s looking on. No one would "forget" to pay either."

Because of the gear change problem we struggled to keep up with the truck. Just when we did strike it lucky and got into third, there was ice on the road on the downhill side and grave markers and beer cans for the departed in the after -life (it has always surprised me that no one has knicked them, though they are right on a blind corner and it's easy to miss them) to remind you of people who didn’t make it. It’s always very sobering and even makes even leadfooted drivers like me slow down. I was a bit nervous about taking a fully laden trailer over the 99, but I’d promised to take over the driving as we got nearer to town where things levelled off, but by this time I kept falling asleep in the middle of conversations, so no one took me up on it. Well done G. for getting us all home in one piece!
Birds were chirping and dawn was breaking as we limped into town. How lovely the house looked and the bed and the coffee, but no, two had to go to work and one had a plane to catch, so we quickly  had to unload the trailer and the twin cab, so that it could be taken back to the rental establishment, while I drove the oldest boy to the airport.
All’s well now, except that I’m broke. Counting the repairs, the rentals, the fuel, the accommodation and the towing,  we could have bought a couple of round the world tickets for the money we spent that weekend, but that’s how things go sometimes. It certainly makes you appreciate home.
Now the West Coast is still an amazing place and every one should see it at least once, preferably while there are still a few trees and people there – the people from the Roadhouse are leaving too, but if you do go, be sure to take survival gear and spares with you, especially a thermal blanket, hot soup and a satellite phone, a hand charger and a fuel stove. I’ve killed more than one car on this road when I used drive up on weekends so a 4X4 is good, especially if it snows. You’ll note that instead of distances, the signs show time, depending on the weather and beware of animals on the road, especially enormous marsupials (see below). Tassie doesn't look very big on the map, but it doesn't show that it's three dimensional or how windy the roads are. This journey is only about three hundred Km, but it can take at least four or five hours on a good day. This is adventure tourism without leaving the car or the road.  Oh yes, and bring a camera. If you can do it in daylight your pictures will be fantastic.


I’d post some, but it might be a while before I am allowed out again.
Cheers,
Roni
PS And many thanks to all who offered to help. Bottle of whisky coming for the Roadhouse Saviours!  Please give the towtruck driver a sip too.

 
PPS:
Dear RACT
NOT QUITE THE ULTIMATE

Dear RACT thank you for helping us not once, but twice during our brief trip around the state last weekend.  The staff were friendly and helpful as usual  but I think you should change the slogan to read
 "Almost Complete Peace of Mind, except for the fine print and the extra charges."
Best regards,
Veronika Smith

* Title with homage to Fat Boy Slim.
Never appreciated this song as much until I heard it used on that carpet ad.

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