That time I nearly died in the Outback

Lightning strike

Dear readers, it is another post by not-Loz, also known as Vera. My dad recently emailed me a link for an article published by a respected German magazine. The title was "Dangerous student trips to Australia" which instantly made my heart-rate go up: Oh god, I had been to Australia! Had I unknowingly put my life in danger?

I started reading and learnt that "not every Australian is your mate". And that young travellers are 4 times as likely to be the victims of theft and rape and everything bad you can imagine. If you don't get somehow assaulted, you probably die in the outback, because "there are no human settlements for miles and miles". All this was supported by individual cases. My eyes were glued to the screen. Terrifying stuff. What a god-forsaken place.

Then I remembered: wait a second, I had actually spent a year in Australia. Yet it must have been a different one. Most of the commenters on the article had been to a different Australia as well and were quite taken aback by the fear mongering.

Now I am not saying bad things don't happen. And when you are travelling, always be safe. But don't let horror stories ruin your trip or your anticipation for it. Take whatever valid information you can get, and remember to better be safe than sorry.

I will now share with you the tale of how I nearly died in the outback. I don't think you will learn a lot, but I certainly did.

Road warning sign - South Australia

I was spending three months in Oz together with my sister Julia, who was there on a working holiday visa. She had been working quite a while as a bar-maid in a tiny town (around 250 inhabitants) in Queensland, about 530 kms inland from Cairns, before she met up with me in Sydney and we went on a road trip. While we were in Western Australia, her former boss rang her up and asked her if she could once again help out for two or three weeks.

By this point I had realized that Australia was somehow bigger than I had expected and that there was no way I could see all of it within three months. Consequently, I had already decided to come back eventually, so I didn't mind interrupting our roaming for some outback action.

We flew from Perth over to Cairns. A friend of Julia's had agreed to lend us his jeep for the journey. We set off one sunny morning from Cairns -with a collective mean hangover. The night before, we had gone downtown to have "one or two" drinks. That hadn't worked out somehow. It's Cairns, after all, a place with a reputation for backpacker partying.

Now, you should know that the vehicle generously given to us was not without fault. We were informed that there was something wrong with the oil sump. It ran through a lot of oil and we were told to immediately fill up the oil the moment the red light came on. And everything would just be fine. Sure thing.

The trusty jeep

The trip was relaxed. What is probably rather unspectacular for an Australian, was still exciting to me. Enormous road trains, road kill in various states of decomposition, the level poles for the wet season, the landscape, the common courtesy to greet the other, rarely passing-by drivers...

On the last 150 kms the sky got dark - a storm was a-coming. Julia’s hopes to make it to our destination before the tempest started were shattered when it started hailing so much that we could hardly see anything anymore. The hail went eventually and was replaced by quite an impressive down-pour, accompanied by thunder and lightning - a lot of lightning. It felt like someone was constantly flicking a light-switch on and off to mark the beginning of the end of the world as we know it.

Right then I thought I had seen the oil light come on (good timing, man! GOOD timing!), but no, it had gone off again. Two minutes later, Julia asked: "Did the oil light just come on?" and yes, it had, but then it also went off again immediately. We were not prepared for this: was this already indicating a problem (according to our instructions, the light was supposed to stay on!) or was it just random (because we happened to drive over a bump when the light came on), but the interpretation of the situation was instantly ended when the motor died on us the next moment. Oh no.

Oh no indeed. There we were, in the middle of nowhere, really, with 99 problems, and the car was only one.

The motor was truly dead. No gentle whisper or hefty curse could bring it back from the other side.

Turned out that the battery was dead too, so we couldn't even have the headlights on to indicate to other drivers that we were on the edge of the road (Julia had steered the car to the side, so we were off the lane, but not off the road yet, so basically in expectance of a big monster road-train to hit us).

Road train Australian outback

It poured down with rain, and everything we had ever heard about the wet season and the flooding of the roads came back to mind. The level poles suddenly got a dark meaning. We weren't 'sinking' yet, were we?

We couldn't do anything, as in: step out, take a look at the motor and evaluate the situation ("Uuuuhm..." - yeah, I don't think it would have helped much, anyway, but you know how you always feel better when you do as much as you can), because every 20 seconds, lightning hit the area around us, giving us the next grief…

We were in a Faraday cage, right? That meant we were safe, or did it? After a day of driving (being slightly sleep-deprived in the first place) and now in a quite stressful situation, we weren't so sure anymore. Plus, my physics teacher in school had made a point of not ever getting an experiment right, no matter how simple it was - it would not work in his demonstration. I was eagerly waiting for the day he would drop an apple to demonstrate the law of gravity. That apple would have never hit the floor. Never. So my trust in the science of physics wasn't exactly stable. We were probably going to die.

But it got worse. After an hour we realized that by now, we needed to wee really, really badly. It was then that we decided that we were going to start singing to distract ourselves and to lift our spirits a bit. Church hymns seemed appropriate. We desperately sang how the blossoming of the almond tree is a sign of how love is true. We giggled a bit, but only half-heartedly.

It's actually not very easy to figure out whether you are probably going to die or if you are making a fuss. Just in case we told each other how great it had been knowing each other. I am not going into details, but you have seen that scene in the movies plenty of times. Ours was pretty much like that.

Finally the rain ceased and the lightning struck the ground a hundred metres from us instead of within ten metres. I opened the door to get out because despite all the drama, I had managed not to wet myself (I'm tough like that), so some business needed to be taken care of. I prepared myself mentally for now being bitten by a poisonous Australian snake (since life was so good today) but instead I stepped into a pile of bones that happened to conveniently  lie just beside my door, all adequately illuminated by another strike of lightning. Oh man.

Pile of bones outback

At least we were still alive. The rain had stopped, the thunderstorm had moved even further away, and finally we opened the engine hood, playing around with the battery, refilling the oil, without any results, of course. What now?

A car approached from the opposite direction. Should we try to stop it or was it one of these nasty highway murderers everyone always talks about? We couldn't decide, and the car drove by. Only to stop a bit further down the road, turn around and come back.

The man driving it was a mechanic. Fate has its' ways, doesn't it? He managed to get the motor running again, but turned it off immediately, because he said something was going to explode otherwise. He destroyed our last hopes that it was all just a big mistake and a tiny screw had come undone and had caused all this, and there wasn't any REAL problem, when he stated that this was it and we were not going anywhere anymore.

Turned out he was wrong because his wife was not going to leave us behind just like that, and so they towed us all the way to our destination.

They needn't have done that - they could have driven home, called the town's pub and somebody would have come out to pick us up - but they did.

We thanked them a thousand times and didn't mention that we thought they might kill us. Probably for the best.

So that's how I nearly died in the outback. But even though this experience was already funny the next day (well, maybe apart from the destroyed motor in our friend's car), it showed me how quickly you can get really confused when you are in a challenging situation whilst abroad. It's then when you realize that you don't know half as much for sure as you thought you did.

I definitely realized that my school teacher deeply affected my belief in the Faraday cage. And that if oil is an issue with a vehicle, that's a fact not to be taken too lightly. And that it is so annoying that one has to wee all the time. And that when it comes to the last moments of your life, you are likely to say something quite cheesy. And that there are some really decent people out there. I hope you have met that kind, too, and will do so plenty of times in the future!

May your travels be adventurous and always safe - take care!

Julia and Vera

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