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Gone Walkabout – Day 1 A Roadside Emergency

I only saw one other vehicle on the entire trip over the Highlands and stopped briefly at Dry’s Bluff to check the maps. Yes, I'd be staying in the Liffey Campground that night, but first I wanted to check on a little -known waterfall in the area. I’d seen it on one of my maps and now Google had shown me a way through the mysterious network of roads that lead through the forests here, that would take me straight to it. I saved it to my phone and continued on to the Liffey - Carrick turn -off where it began.

“Turn left," instructed Siri. “After 800 metres slide right, then continue straight.” I did. So far so good. I hadn't gone very far when it suddenly turned into a series of trailbike humps with mud puddles in between. This wasn’t looking good. Don’t believe everything Siri or Google tell you. I should know that better than anyone after my experience at McGowan’s Falls. The maps might be out of date, bridges could have washed away or the roads might be overgrown or otherwise damaged in some other way.  This is a working forest as an occasional sign reminds you, along with a warning about watching out for log trucks. Whenever I’m uncertain about what lies ahead, I stop the car, get out and walk a little way. I also grab a stick to check how deep the puddles are and how soft the ground is. This practice has saved me from more than one disaster. By the way, even if your car says it's a  Four Wheel Drive, it won't necessarily cope with roads like this.

If it was only a short patch of bad ground, there was a good chance the sheer weight of the van might carry me through. The terrain was quite steep. It drops almost a thousand metres over a very short distance, but No, from here on it was like a badly ploughed paddock with very deep gouges in it. The chassis would never clear them. Once down there, I’d never be able to get back up. The road had narrowed at this point, so  it was very hard work turning the car around, forward and back, forward and back, rocking and rocking until I faced back the way I had come. Unfortunately, all that turning and churning had turned the rut I was in to mush and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get back over the one hump I’d crossed.

“Slide right,” indeed. I was sliding all over the place. I tried all the tricks bushmen had taught me over the years. I put rocks behind the wheels and gathered bark and bits of wood to give the tyres some traction but each thrust of the engine made me slide further down until I was almost sideways again. There was no hope of getting out by myself.

There was no signal either of course. While it’s good practice to stay with your vehicle if you get into trouble because they are much easier to spot from the air, there was too much tree cover here for that to happen anyway.  In consequence, I put on an extra thermal, grabbed my phone, a jacket and a hat and headed back up towards the highway. In retrospect,  I should also have taken my water bottle, the charger and some muesli bars as I had no idea how far I’d come - a mere 1.6 km according to Google when I finally reached the highway - nor how long I’d have to wait.

Casting a glance back at the van, it had its beached whale look on and even looked a bit down at the mouth as if to say it was sorry for the trouble it had caused. It was unlikely that anyone would steal it. It wasn’t the sort of vehicle that would make a country boy's (or girl's) heart beat faster. It was equally unlikely that anyone would come this way at all, but I was also very grateful that I had a van and not a tent. It gets very cold in these parts and I was still at very high elevation. If the worst came to the worst,  I had food, water and cooking facilities for several days and could survive a modest  siege if necessary.

As I walked I wondered how many tourists -even from the mainland, could imagine how raw Tasmania was beyond the lights of its few cities and main highways. Some visitors never experience it. They do a quick lap of Tasmania, admire its quaint villages, but wonder what the fuss is all about. Others crave that very wildness. They want to test themselves against the forces of nature, but don't understand that it can also be unsafe. I don't want to frighten people off, but looking at places like this from a European perspective, I think it's only fair to warn them of potential hazards they could face. It also seems to me that many Tasmanians underestimate how very different driving is here, compared to other parts of the world.

Apart from that Northface Jacket, nothing marks you out as tourist as much as not carrying any tools and spares or not knowing how to use them. The other thing which is very misleading about Tasmania is that it looks small, but is in fact three dimensional which makes it much more difficult to get from A to B than it looks. It also explains the weird pattern of our roads. Unless there was a mine, a hydro scheme or a logging contract or some other economic reason that necessitated it, there won't be one. It also helps to explain the affection Tasmanians and Australians generally have for large gas -guzzling Utes (Sports Utility Vehicles), though this does not justify their use in the city.

Although I continued to try for a signal, I also made emergency plans B, C, D  and E in case I couldn’t get one. Plan B would be to wait on  the Highway and send a message with anyone going through to Deloraine. In the absence of traffic, Plan C  would be to check out the Upper Liffey Car Park, about 5 km away to see if there was anyone there with a 4WD. Plan D would involve walking to the nearest farmhouse which was most likely around 13 km away at Golden Valley, and asking them if they had a 4WD or a truck or could contact Roadside Assistance for me. The main thing was not to panic.

There’s an unwritten rule in the bush that you only ask others for help as a last resort and they expect you to be reasonably self -sufficient. Plan E was to pull the pin on the Personal Locator Beacon one of my sons had so thoughtfully given me, but I was saving that for a life -threatening emergency – a snakebite perhaps or a car accident like the one recently in which 73 -year -old -woman had to spend two subzero nights in a blackberry thicket until a firefighter noticed her car in a gully. If you frivolously set off a PBL here you can be fined thousands of dollars.

Just before the Highway I started getting an intermittent signal. I couldn’t reach Roadside Assistance at first, but I did send a text to my son in Hobart and another to a friend to ring him and let him know where I was. I regretted both almost as soon as I had sent them, as my son is a terrible worrier. When I did finally get through to the RACT - The Royal Automobile Club, the phone cut in and out and it took a while to establish where I actually was. At first they were reluctant to help because I had turned off the main road, but having been a member for 21 years, they eventually agreed to send someone, but couldn’t say how long that would be. 

I sat at this roadside for a very long time before there was any sign of life

Meanwhile there was nothing much to do except watch the lichen grow on faded signs and listen to the bush creatures going about their lives. The sun had already slipped behind a hill and a chill had descended on the valley. Birds were singing their mournful evensong which seemed to say, “The day’s done.” “Fly home to your nest.” It would have been nice to play some music now or a podcast, but I didn’t dare. What little charge I had left might be needed to call someone or for the torch so I could find my way back to the van. There were unlikely to be too many predators. There might be a devil or two out there, but they prefer easy targets like injured animals and road kill and judging by the carnage on the roads, they exceptionally well -fed. However, if there were still any Tasmanian tigers left, this would surely be the sort of place where they would never be discovered. As I often say to myself when things look bleak. “Better than dying at the kitchen sink.” Luckily Janine who’d been on the other end of the line at the RACT, was of like mind.

At dusk a car finally came by. Its young female driver was hoping to take some photos of Liffey Falls and asked if I thought it would be too late to do the Liffey Falls walk. It certainly was if she wanted to take photos I told her and she wouldn't  want to be clambering over slippery rocks in the dark. She asked me what I was doing there and was just giving me her card and phone number in case the RACT didn’t come, when a gigantic truck with a car on the back roared up from the Liffey Valley side. “Oh look!” she said, “Here they are now.“ 

Thank you Kyneston (hope I spelled that right) I don't want to make a habit of calling Roadside Assistance, but I'm always glad to know it's there whether it's to help with a flat battery, a breakdown or something like this

Safe at Last

I climbed gratefully up into the cabin and we were off. It took all of five minutes for the roadside patrolman to attach a tow rope to the van and set it squarely on the road. The longest part was having to turn the truck around in a wider part of the road and backing down, so the truck didn't get stuck as well. Then he guided me all the way to the Campground at the bottom. I was very relieved. That small lapse of judgement had cost me the whole afternoon. This wasn’t exactly the kind of  adventure travel I’d dreamed of. 

Late that night my phone suddenIy lit up and I got two worried messages from my son. “Where are you?” “Did you get out?” I didn’t want him worrying all night or sending in the cavalry, so I ran around the campground asking anyone who was still awake if they had a signal. No one did, but I did hear that you could get a signal at Liffey – the township, not the Falls, some 7 km away, so off I went. When I returned, Ebony from Byron, one of the people I’d asked, invited me back to her fire for some delicious spicy dahl she'd made. I couldn’t believe how well organised she was. Flowers and candles on the table and fishing gear at the ready. She even had a collapsible camp shower, but it was still too chilly in Tasmania to give it a decent tryout.

It was lovely to be able sit around a fire too. It even felt slightly illicit but with night time temperatures still around zero and water all around, it was a very welcome sight. It will be fire season soon enough -the East Coast has already had one, and then it will be camp stoves only, but for now it kept the chill away and that loneliness that sometimes creeps up on you in the Aussie bush. We talked far into the night. A perfect ending to a not so perfect day. 

Early morning at the Liffey Campground


TIP: This beautiful Campground is run by the Parks and Wildlife Service, so you will need a Parks Pass. You also need to bring in your own firewood. Some service stations sell small bundles of it. It is illegal to take it from the site.