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Getting to Alice

A brief re-cap of preventable hardship…

A few months ago I received a message from a friend I’d met through in the local bushwalking club. It was something like: “Hiking Larrapinta… You interested?”

Four years ago we’d formed a neat little hiking crew. We organised some kid friendly hikes, the kids hit it off and we had some great times. Then… two of the families moved away, both to North Queensland and my involvement in the club dropped off considerably… (I literally didn’t do any hiking after they left!)

Very unfit, 20kg heavier… I began to prepare for the hike. Walking about 10km each morning, usually in flip-flops, along the local foreshore cycle path… very flat, very smooth. Though this was barely sufficient training for Larapinta it did improve my health and general wellbeing considerably! I was on my way. I walked quite a few miles coffee in hand, feet unaccustomed to shoes… smile on my face.

With two months to prepare, God knows why I waited till the last week to try walking in my hiking boots! They were extremely good quality, Leather Scarpa hiking boots but they were too tight and stiff! Somehow three years of walking around barefoot had splayed my feet to the point that they could no longer fit comfortably into my expensive hiking boots… Boots I could not afford and had no time to replace! I persevered and hoped the boots would stretch…

The plan was good… I was sure that I could manage the hike everything would level out on the day! Well… No it did not!

Foolishly I agreed to drive a mate’s truck down so he could act as support crew to his daughter who was using the hike as a fundraiser. It seemed like a great idea to me. I love a road trip! Problem was I had no time to inspect the vehicle prior to leaving! The week before the hike was a shocker at work! I had back to back meetings spanning through the weekend and was responsible for managing important work meetings and logistics for attendees until Friday… I needed to leave Darwin on Thursday if I intended to prepare food drops and gear the day before our two week adventure.

Enter THE TRUCK! a 1998 Toyota 80 series Land Cruiser. Diesel.

I collected the truck on Tuesday, hoping to take some time to look her over and prepare her for the trip… Didn’t happen. Instead I was working 7am – 9pm with people who had come into town from bush communities. The truck screeched ominously when I turned the ignition and the fan belt continued to squeal as I drove down the street. I parked it at the office and got on with my work. Didn’t pack the damned thing until early Thursday morning. Even then I could feel the steering wheel shake on a smooth road!

Got an urgent message from a senior man, he needs help to get his grandson down to Alice (People where I work travel a lot). Well, says I, I happen to be driving to Alice Springs today… He can come with me. HA! How naive am I?

So… Off we go. Me and the kid (16 year old) bouncing down the Stuart Highway at 4:30pm, the open road ahead of us. Sunset an hour or so away.

As we rolled into Mataranka after dark, all the dash lights came on! I turned the engine off and tried to re-start it… Nothing. Battery flat! We spend the night under a street light outside the council office on the side of the Stuart Highway. (With my t-shirt as a blindfold I slept well, aside from being disturbed by locals in need of a cigarette lighter every couple of hours.)

I assured my young ward that we would be back on the road in no time. At dawn we got a jump start and drove to the mechanic. We were in luck, they had new batteries and the right belts to fit the vehicle… trouble was they wouldn’t be able to fix it until the following day! By lunch time, out of boredom and despair, I made an executive decision! We’d buy the gear, install the new battery and head to a mate’s place in Tennant Creek where we could replace the belts ourselves. Unfortunately a fan belt blew out just south of Daly Waters and we had to limp into Dunmurra Road house, with the radiator hissing steam!

Stuck in Dunmurra for a whole day… Big thanks to fellow travellers with tools!

We fiddled with the car all day with tools that didn’t quite fit! A young woman turned up to see what I was doing and asked if I needed help. “Err…. Yep.” I said only mildly embarrassed. “Sure… do you know anything about fixing cars”. She looked it over, tried all the same things I did, but with the right tools… still we were having difficulty reaching the pivot bolt tensioner from under the vehicle… It seemed impossible. Then she said quite matter of fact. “Well why don’t we just take the bash plate off?”

The bash plate was blocking our access… it was not a necessary part of the vehicle and it was held on by three easy to reach bolts. We had it off in two minutes! Loosened the pivot bolt and before the sun went down we had removed the remaining fan belt! Success!

It had taken so long to get that far but now it seemed there was an issue with the tensioner bolt! We couldn’t get the alternator belts tight again! By the evening I realized if we didn’t get out of here tonight the young fella would miss his game! (football). At 5pm I called a friend in Darwin who purchased a Greyhound ticket online The bus was due to arrive in Dunmurra at 7pm!

I gave the kid a meal of chicken potato chips and a can of drink and saw him off with a sense of relief then returned to the truck in the dark to continue fiddling with bolts and belts!

Through the night my mind was busy deconstructing the whole process, putting things back together in my mind. I found an image of the assembly online and studied it… There was one thing not quite right… I thought we were missing a nut… But no! We had removed a bolt that was anchored directly to the body of the alternator! We just needed to loosen the alternator right off so there would be room to fit the bolt back in!

I got out of bed at 5am and belted the alternator back with a block of wood and a hammer. It moved just far enough to get the bolt in finger tight. I fitted the belts and belted the whole thing back as tight as I could get it, fitted the tensioner bolt to the block and waited for someone with the right size socket to tighten the whole mess to a suitable tension… A bloke in the van across from me had what I needed. I tightened the whole thing up and turned the key! VRRRROOOM! Yes! We were in business.

By 7:15 I’d packed everything up and was back on the road thanking everyone emphatically for their help!

I arrived in Alice Springs at 7:30pm that night! Much to everyone’s amazement! They had all packed their food drops and prepared their hiking gear, ready to start walking at 6am the next morning. They really didn’t expect to see me at all.

At dawn when it was time to walk, I was the least prepared by a considerable margin!

Post Journey vehicle assessment:

  • Tyres: Unroadworthy, uneven tread wear across all four tyres. Pressure well below recommended. (I didn’t have time to check the tyre pressure before leaving… thought the owner had done that.)
  • Tools: NONE of any consequence until we bought them in Alice Springs!
  • Fan Belts: Worn out and shredded before we left Darwin. (Not a good sign if they are squealing while you drive)
  • Engine: No idea when it was serviced last!
  • The oil was like a thick tar at the bottom of the dipstick!
  • Cost: Too many! Exess fuel due to flat tyres, New Battery, New fan belts, AANT Membership, etc… etc…
  • Bus ticket
When I checked the oil I saw RED!  
“Hey kid, you think that’s oil?
Man, that ain’t oil, that’s blood”
(Lost in the Flood – Bruce Springsteen)

Overall Experience

It was awesome! I actually had a great time! It was extremely satisfying to finally fix the fan belt, I enjoyed camping in the street in Mataranka the people I met there through the night were friendly. It was such a buzz when we finally resolved the issues with the alternator. Too Bad my new mate had to catch the bus, we’d already bonded in quite a short time thanks to that crazy messed up truck.

Published by David F

Disorganised Dilettante

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