Sunday, 6 September 2009

A Long Day's Journey

Through some poor forward planning, I ended up having to drive 880kms alone in one day last week.

This exercise broke all the self-imposed rules I’ve set myself around working (and driving) in the bush. These rules include no night driving, ensuring I’m not driving alone, driving no distance greater than 500km in one day, and achieving a 50/50 balance between working and driving. This last rule exists because the skills required for work and those for staying alive on the road are very different. They both require heaps of nervous energy, and it’s necessary to do well at both. A time-based balance helps with this.

The situation came about because I’d made a promise last year to a school community which I had no choice but to keep. The timing was governed by vehicle availability. With both the commitment and the timing non-negotiable, the situation became even more difficult with the inconvenient scheduling of a Toowoomba workshop that I had to attend which turned the journey back into a one-day rather than two-day driving exercise, interspersed with some work in schools on the journey home.

I follow a principle that tries to deliver time per school in direct relationship to remoteness, which is exactly the opposite of what happens with most bush consultancies. The equation put simply means that the further away from the District Office you are, the more time you get.

What made the whole deal even more frustrating was that I wasn’t able to get to a battalion reunion on the Gold Coast due to this work commitment.

Anyway, I set out at first light – 6.15am – along the 10 foot wide bitumen strip. The first leg was 200km long and there was absolutely nothing in terms of geography or settlement on this stretch – just mongrel country and lots of furry creatures.

Once the sun came up and I could actually see more than glowing eyes, I identified roos, wallabies (at least three different varieties), goats, wild pigs, horses, goats, bunnies, sheep, foxes and a wild dog or two. The only thing I didn’t see (although have before) were camels.

I avoided all of them, although one pretty-faced wallaby did his best to T-bone the side of the vehicle. I didn’t see him until it was too late to slow down, and heard a slight “bonk” as his tail flicked the panel near the fuel cap. Another wallaby stood bewildered smack in the middle of the road, and I gently nudged him with the bumper whereupon he galvanised into action, fell over, got to his feet (and tail) and made a first leap of about three metres before he vanished into the scrub.

There were literally hundreds of macropods scattered along this first 200km, and I was well-occupied avoiding them. I’ve learned a few basics the hard way – when you see one, look for others (they’re rarely alone), drive in the middle of the road (gives you more avoidance room), constantly scan your visual field (old infantry trick - you're more likely to perceive something if your eyes are moving), and be wary where you see depth gauges on the guide posts. Depth gauges mean water - water means wallabies.

Sheep are stupid, but you’ll rarely hit a mature goat. Kids (the goat kind) are a different story. Horses can kill (they go through the windscreen) and a well-built bovine can destroy a conventional vehicle.

Never swerve to avoid wildlife – just brake – and watch out for road kill when overtaking or passing other vehicles. On this stretch, the only traffic was furry. I saw one other vehicle – a council truck – in 200km.

After this first leg, I began to relax a bit, and pulled up to refuel. Some twit (with Victorian plates) had parked his ute and trailer between the bowsers. This wouldn’t have been an issue, but he had a flat tire and slowly and carefully began to change it on the forecourt. I had no option but to wait for him – one bowser only – and no other refuelling option.

300 km later I was past the most boring part of the drive. The rest of the trip was a doddle. The road widened, the sun rose higher, and the options around refuelling (and food breaks) improved. One of the things I enjoy about the bush is precisely this lack of options. It simplifies life no end.

The vehicle (a Mitsubishi Outlander) was quiet and comfortable, and seemed to have plenty of power in reserve for overtaking. It had a CVT (constantly variable transmission) which although fiendishly complicated, made very efficient use of the power and torque of the 2.4 litre motor. Apparently these gearboxes are very difficult (and expensive) to repair, but I guess Mitsubishi provides a 5 year unlimited warranty which would compensate.

It didn’t have the touring range of the diesel Hyundai that I most often use, but was a more refined bucket of bolts. Range has become an issue since the government fuel contract went from BP to Caltex. There are no Caltex outlets in places like Charleville (for example). Some shiny bum in Mary St who probably hasn't lived west of Toowoomba or north of Gympie thinks he/she has done a great job with the contract.

I arrived home at about 5pm, and after putting the car through a wash to remove the accumulated road crud, signed it off and took it back to the garage. I felt surprisingly fresh – thanks mainly to Paul Kelly. I’d taken four Kelly CDs with me, and singing aloud when you’re by yourself is OK – it annoys nobody. It’s also energising and wards off fatigue – although the other golden rule I never break is a 10 minute pause every 2 hours.

The next day was a bit of a struggle. Maintaining concentration at the workshop was a challenge. I was in nervous energy deficit.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...