Scott and I messed up. On day five of our trip we should have booked our trip to the Great Barrier Reef, but we couldn’t find a café with internet the day before, and spent day five in Port Douglas, after being frustrated by Cairns’ lack of internet and camper van-friendly parking the night before. On day six we were required to turn in our camper van by 3:00pm, and we had to pick up the next one for our next leg of the trip: from Cairns to Alice Springs—from the North-Eastern coast to the very middle of the continent. The reason we were going to (and the only reason to go to) Alice Springs, and trek through the Outback, was to see Uluru, a titanic rock sticking out of the ground. On the day we were exchanging campers, we also realized that the second leg of our trip only gave us five days to deliver the camper, and not six like we thought. We had to decide: swim in the Reef tomorrow, or see Uluru. We couldn’t do both.
This was the first snag in our trip, and we remained positive. And we remembered: we are allowed to ask for extra days at the pick-up! Maui was the name of the business we rented from, and we had already gotten along very well with them—we were delivering boxes for Lynne, we received a free GPS and free lawn chairs, and they were paying us back for part of the gas we put into the vehicle. We thought they’d be happy to grant us a few extra days.
Before turning in the camper in Cairns, we were required to fill it with gas. When Scott tried to buy it, his card was declined. I had to pay for it in cash. No worries, though—Scott should be getting paid back $265 for gas once the camper is returned, I can always get more cash from an ATM, and I still have enough cash to almost cover both of us for the reef (we checked prices at a coffee shop with wifi earlier that day—yes, we actually found one!). At Maui we asked about our next pick up and the man helping us said we weren’t scheduled for a pick up, but we could wait around on standby for a couple days. Our eyes widened with worry and we showed him our rental itinerary.
“Oh, this isn’t for us,” the man said in monotone, “it’s for Apollo. That’s the rental place right across the street.”
I sat in the Maui parking lot with all of our possessions while Scott played human Frogger, dashing across the street to Apollo. After a few minutes he ran back to me.
“My card didn’t go through for some reason. They can’t put the thousand on it. We need to try your card.”
On good faith, we abandoned our belongings in the Maui parking lot and darted across the street.
These rental places freeze $1,000 on a credit or debit card as van insurance while you drive their property. Maui unfroze the thousand dollars on Scott’s card, but it wasn’t available for use yet. The young man working at Apollo informed us that it could take five to ten business days before the transaction completes and Scott has access to that money again (that included the extra couple hundred dollars which were supposed to be reimbursed for gas). No one told us that was how it worked. I let Apollo freeze money on my debit card. Then I had to pay rental fees in cash that didn’t exist with Maui. Then Apollo handed us an atlas. “Do we get a GPS?” “Uh, no.” “Is that a thing we can get?” “Uh, here’s a map.” When Scott asked if we can have two extra days for travel, the young man thought silently for a moment and told us we needed to call someone else, and he wasn’t sure we could, but if we could he knew that it would cost an extra fifty dollars a day. When Scott tried to confirm that we would be partially paid back for the fuel we buy, the young man raised his eyebrows and flatly said, “No. We don’t do that.”
So we drove a crappier camper out of the Apollo parking lot, bummed out, but thinking about scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow. To afford this, I now needed to get money out of an ATM—Scott had no money available. We found an ATM and my card was denied. At this moment we have 150 dollars cash between the two of us, because that’s all I have.
If Scott’s frozen money isn’t available for five days, we wont get it until we’ve returned the camper van in Alice Springs. And if I can’t acquire some cash, we wont be able to afford our trip to the Reef, nor will we be able to afford the fuel to get us to Alice Springs. We sat in our van and did the only thing we knew to do—tell our friends over the phone about our situation and laugh at our own misfortune. We called Rus, Scott’s brother who was providing us a place to live in Sydney, and through our grins we pouted to him.
We didn’t ask for any money, but Rus graciously put $500 into Scott’s checking account. We thanked him, surprised we didn’t think to try borrowing any money earlier. I tried an ATM again, requested a slightly smaller amount of money than I had before, and we became richer still. Cairns you feel the love tonight!
We headed into the Outback on day eight of our trip—we had fewer than three days to complete close to 24 hours of driving.
The Outback is a mostly flat, mostly straight, mostly brainless drive. Scott and I listened to a lot of The Hold Steady and Jay-Z. We traded stories. The first day of the Outback was a breeze and our spirits were as high as the day we left Sydney. Even though we crossed small bodies of water with names like Dead Man’s Gulley and Skull Creek, and there were lifeless kangaroos in the road, struck earlier by other vehicles moving at 130 kilometers per hour, the Outback didn’t worry us.
Nighttime in the Outback is a little scarier. The environment’s nothingness during the daytime creates the fear that anything could be present in the darkness. June is winter here, so the sun sets before 7:00pm, and we needed to cover more ground, so we kept driving, but at a pace much slower than the speed limit. It didn’t help that the highway was unpredictably bumpy, usually lacked reflectors or painted lines, and road kill seemed to be everywhere. We finally decided to park at a rest area—basically a dirt parking lot for travelers—but only after we nearly collided with a few massive white owls, which stood in the road and bravely let themselves be lit by our headlights for several seconds before flying away. The idea of hitting a large marsupial with our bumper or a large bird with our windshield sort of freaked us out.
For some reason, and we still have no idea why, this stretch of the road smelled like several people’s butts together. The air literally smelled like feces. We slept through that for as long as we could, and woke up early to escape the stench. After around half an hour we drove out of range of the smell. We saw two wild kangaroos hopping near the road. We needed to drive around twelve hours today.
Scott’s friends warned us: purchase fuel every chance you can in the Outback. To save time, I mapped out which cities we would need to stop in so we wouldn’t be stranded in the desert. The number of abandoned cars off to the side of the highway increased as we drove.
We planned to get gas in Mount Isa, skip Camooweal, and fuel up again in Wunara Store, which would keep us from running dry according to the map. Close to when we should have been reaching Wunara Store, the fuel gauge was approaching empty. A town composed of a few houses appeared at the horizon and revealed a sign reading “SORRY. NO FUEL.” This was a town called Soudan, we think.
“Wunara should be really close,” I said.
While desperate for fuel, a road sign read that we were heading towards Barkely Homestead Roadhouse, which is not a town at all, but simply a rest stop, which is absolutely necessary for anyone traveling from Queensland to any city in the Northern Territory, because Wunara Store doesn’t actually exist.
“Dude…I think we’re gonna run out of gas,” said Scott, dropping speed to use diesel more efficiently.
“Well, maybe we’ll get pretty close.”
“If we could be going down hill, we might make it. Or close.”
“We shoulda stopped in Camooweal,” I said, shaking my head, laughing. “How did we let this happen?”
“I don’t know. We’ll be OK.”
“Yeah. Totally. I don’t know why Wunara Store is on this map. This map lied to us!”
“You give sun-driving Greek gods everywhere a bad name.”
Smirking. “I get it.”
“That’s all I got for Apollo. …And that they should Apollo-gize to us! For being the worst!”
Because we didn’t think we needed to fill up earlier, if our story was one of tragedy, then positivity would have been our tragic flaw.
Our fuel gauge was presented as a digital collection of around ten bars, similar to the look of a cell phone’s battery gauge. We hit one bar. Then zero bars. We were running on fumes.
After a while, a sign read 20 km away from Barkely Homestead Roadhouse. We rationalized how we could make it. We weren’t sure why we were cracking up.
Or, the van did, rather. By the time the camper drifted off the highway, and stood titled on the edge of the ditch, we had already accepted that we were going to have to pay for not filling up in Camooweal. We silently put on tennis shoes, threw on ball caps, filled our water bottles, and started walking.
We jogged for a while and passed a sign stating the roadhouse was 5km away. Even though we were convinced we’d have to walk five kilometers to the gas station and another five back, and that we were just going to have to lose a few hours of necessary daytime travel, we put out our thumbs while we walked.
All of a sudden, a silver four-wheel drive vehicle stopped for us. The passenger door swung open, revealing the driver inside—a young Scottish man, just older than Scott and myself. We thanked him and thanked him again and climbed in. His name was Coner and seemed pumped to pick us up. He had just flown into Brisbane, bought the car we were in, and had spent the last couple days making his way far north to Darwin to work. He had spent a lot of time alone in his car, and was probably eager to talk to other people. We became friends instantly. He had been to America before and had questions for us, like how come American girls are so horny? He said he did very well with the American girls. We told him his accent helped, probably, and he seemed intrigued.
I purchased a five-liter gas container for $30, which is a huge rip off, even for Australia (everything is more expensive here), and we bought our most expensive diesel yet. I guess out here they can charge whatever they want—what choice to drivers have? Coner, our Scottish guardian angel, drove us back to our abandoned camper, which luckily wasn’t on blocks or infested with dingoes, we thanked him again, and put the fuel in.
And… the van wouldn’t start.
The tank had been run completely dry so the fuel wasn’t taking. We were tilted at the wrong angle. Our next step was to tilt the camper van, or push it deeper into the ditch, which could just get it stuck, in order for the fuel to reach where it needed to reach. I stood behind the square backside and Scott stood right outside the driver’s door, so that he could hop in and steer as soon as we found momentum. We shoved and shoved. Minutes passed. And then it moved, rolling awkwardly into the ditch, and Scott was able to start the engine.
A philosophy of improvisation I first heard from Conan O’Brien is “act as if.” Act as if everything that is happening is happening for a reason—it’s what is supposed to happen, you’re supposed to just do it, or work through it, and not worry or over think about whatever is happening. I don’t know what made our bad situation of being stranded in the Outback an easy problem to fix, but regardless of how it would have turned out, Scott and I agreed, without needing to speak it, that we were going to be positive, and act as if whatever happening wasn’t a problem, but was just what was happening. And maybe that attitude is what had us break down where we did, and start walking when we did, and meet Coner when we did, and get back on the road when we did.
We camped just a few hours outside of Alice Springs that night, with no other snags.