Shortcut Mechanics – Northern Territory, Australia

It was Christmas Eve day. While our families were on the other side of the globe buried in snow, last-minute shoppers, and cheesy Christmas carols, Lu and I were driving across Australia in the dead heat of summer. She wore a red Santa hat and we both had on swimsuit tops, though the only swimming we did was in the car seats which were now swampy with our sweat. We had been cruising on Highway 87 to get to King’s Canyon when we spied every road-trippers boon – the shortcut. It was a tantalizing little red and white line in our map book, snaking through the desert with no towns labeled on it. The map legend told us it was an “unsealed minor road”. This map book was great! It had three pages of recommendations for pre-trip maintenance, supply lists for car repair, first aid, and survival. We skipped right past that and onto the pictures of all the spectacular things we could see. We pulled off the highway onto our shortcut road and were confronted with a huge red sign that read:

Sand drifts and corrugation-
4 X 4 wheel drive advisable
Access to King’s Canyon via
Lasseter Hwy and Luritja Rd
is recommended”

We didn’t have four-wheel drive, but we wanted to take the shortcut. The map even had a little symbol showing meteorite craters we could stop and see. If it was a road on the map, it was legit enough for us. In the last three days we had driven through bush fires, lightning storms and kangaroo stampedes. A bit of a bumpy gravel road was nothing, and it would save us a whole hour of driving time. Why would you need a four-wheel drive vehicle for a gravel road? So far our trusty little silver Nissan had taken us over three thousand kilometers in three days. It was our moving home, with the refrigerator (cooler) in the back seat, two beds (driver and passenger seat), and all our earthly possessions stuffed in the trunk. With the sunset lighting fire to the sky, washing it in blazing orange, red and yellow, we rolled past the sign.

A little deserted parking area with a sign for the meteor craters lay just off the dirt road. We pulled over and got out of the car for the first time in four hours, grateful to stretch our legs. We followed the little trail, and in less than five minutes the car was out of view. We crunched over the dry scrubby landscape that might as well have been the moon, save for the prickly gray bushes like sleeping porcupines. Soon the massive soup bowl crater came into view. After the appropriate oohs and ahhs, we began the walk around its perimeter. This was my first meteor crater and I got a bit giddy with superstition. What made this massive dent in the earth had come hurtling from space. What if it was a capsule full of aliens who crashed and then scattered away into the outback? No one would ever know they were here.

Hmm. No one knew we were here either. With creeping alarm, I realized we’d left our only lifeline back on the side of the road. What if we got turned around and couldn’t find our way back? The gray dusk was setting in now, slowly exterminating the sun. The hot, dry breeze sucked the moisture from our mouths and eyes. I wondered how long a person could survive out there with no water, shelter or food. Okay, enough craters for today, back to the car.

Now suddenly desperate for the safety of our little Nissan, we quickly hiked back, skipping over rocks and brush. Thank God the car was still there, faithfully where we had left it. I made a mental note not to wander off away from the car at dusk on deserted back roads anymore. What if someone else had pulled up while we were away from the car? What if they were psychos? Murderers? Rapists? We plopped back into our squashy damp seats and settled in for what we thought would be an hour and a half drive to our planned stopping point for the night.

Guess the sign wasn’t kidding about the “corrugation”. I hadn’t even been sure what this would mean for our drive, but now it was being drilled into my brain with every second of jarring, skidding, torture. It was like driving on a washboard or over a million sets of train tracks all laid parallel to one another. I swerved wildly – or as wildly as one can at a crawling pace – to find the smoothest part of the road. That’s one advantage to driving in the outback. You can pretty much go on either side of the road, down the middle or both, since there’s no one else there anyway.

Night fell and we bumped along, me at the wheel clutching tightly at 10 and 2, leaning forward like an old lady to hone in on the road. The headlights sliced a little plow of light in front of us, but the consuming oil of darkness immediately sucked back around the car as we passed. We now accepted the fact that we were most likely going to traverse our shortcut road at about 15kph or less for the length of it. Still in good spirits, we decided nothing would be lost but a bit of saved time. We settled in for a rough slow ride.

While we inched our way across the little red dotted line on our map, we got lost in conversation. Lu and I had met at college on the Gold Coast three months ago and decided to explore Australia before going home to the States. At school we’d spent days at the beach, nights in Surfer’s Paradise and hours in the library where we studied guys more than our books. The two of us just clicked. We’d spent so many hours laughing so hard we cried at things I will never, ever tell another person. To embark on a trip like this was a gamble. We’d be in a car together for a month – that’s 24 hours a day in a space the size of a walk-in closet. But after only three days into our trip, we’d gotten pretty good at passing the time in the car. We read to each other, talked, sang songs. We wondered aloud what our families were doing on this Christmas Eve, and made each other promise to remember to call home next time we saw a phone. Maybe tomorrow if we were lucky.

But there was something I wasn’t telling Lu. While we talked and laughed, I was watching the needle on the temperature gauge creep steadily towards the red “H”. What I usually do when things like this happen is to pretend nothing is wrong and hope the problem just goes away. But against my most enthusiastic hoping the needle stubbornly approached, and then overlapped the “H”. “Crap”, I thought. I tried to bring it up nonchalantly.
“Hey Lu?”
“Um, the temperature gauge is on ‘hot'”
“Well, what do you think we should do?”
“Let’s just keep driving. Maybe we’re close to the end of this road.”

“Yeah. Okay, let’s do that.”

I felt pretty good about that. At least we both agreed to pretend nothing was wrong and hope it went away. That’s why Lu and I got along so well. In synchronized denial, we tried to go back to good conversation, but now it came out stiff and forced. My eyes divided attention to my slow swerves back and forth across the bumpy road and the temperature gauge. It was not magically descending back to the little blue “C”.

While the Nissan battled over the rocky earth I reached back into the depths of my memory to my dad’s words as to why it was bad if the temperature got too hot. Was it an actual problem, or only to car maintenance freaks? If we just kept driving and the engine exploded or something, we’d really be up a creek. Why hadn’t I had the car checked out before starting on this drive across the country like everyone said I should? I couldn’t take it anymore. “We gotta stop, Lu.” We rolled to a stop, and I switched off the engine. I felt as if I had just shut down the electricity to New York City. What had only a moment ago been our safe, moving, well-lit bubble of comfort was dead. The headlights beamed weakly into the black abyss of nothing.

We sat for a minute, neither of us speaking as we listened to the car groan in pain. Crackling, snapping, and a strange bubbling sound emanated from under the hood. We listened as though hiding from a predator we knew was getting close, tuned to every tiny sound. What now? “Maybe we should look under the hood.” I offered. Lu was glued to the passenger seat. She looked out into the black and shook her head. There was no way she was leaving the safety of the car. Someone had to do it, so I popped the hood and fished around for our flashlight. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car.

Getting out felt like being lowered to the bottom of the ocean alone. I heaved to breathe normally in the suffocating black. “Just get it over with,” I thought, trying to be rational and not afraid of the dark, like a child. I hoisted the hood and peered at the Nissan’s engine. The bubbly sound was coming from a white plastic reservoir of what I thought must be the coolant. I can figure this out I’m resourceful, I thought. How hard can it be? Upon sticking my nose closer to the container, I saw that it had reached a full rolling boil. I poked my head through the window to say to Lu, “Get out the owner’s manual. Look up coolant.”

Why is it that in an owner’s manual, setting the clock and detailed blinker-use instruction bears much more importance than things such as “what to do when your trusty Nissan overheats in the desert”? After ten minutes of frustrated paging through the manual, we found one paragraph about coolant that told us how to mix the right ratio with water. We had two precious jugs of water and no coolant. All I could think about was a vague memory of horror stories about radiators exploding in people’s faces, boiling water melting their features and leaving them horribly disfigured. I kept this to myself. We decided to sit and wait until the boiling stopped, and then add enough water to fill it up and get the hell out of there. We began our vigil, sitting quietly in the dark. Then, from behind us on the road two pinpricks of light pierced the darkness.

“Lu, what’s that?”
“Oh my god. It’s another car.”

Headlights bounced toward us through the night. Who on Earth could this be? We were in the absolute center of the continent, a world away from the crowded coasts. It had only taken a few hours of driving to leave behind civilization, and that had been days ago. How was it approaching so fast? Who else would be on this road in the middle of the night? Could these people help us? Would they kill us? Kidnap us? Would they stop? Of course they would. Having the hood up was the international sign for “We’re having car trouble.” Whether that meant the drivers would stop to help, or would see us as sitting ducks we could only sit and wait to find out. From where we sat, they could do whatever they wanted with us.

Lu panicked. “Put the hood back down!” I looked at her like she was nuts. The headlights were right behind us. “I can’t! They’re too close.” It was too late to fake that we’d just stopped to rest. We sat frozen. What could we do? Run? Lock the doors and roll up the windows? Now the headlight beams enveloped the car like a spotlight on Broadway. Two Land Rovers rolled by, slowing to a stop and enveloping us in a cloud of dust. From inside, several eyes stared out at us.

It was two trucks full of Aborigines. They stopped and a man got out from each truck and walked towards us, leaving the engines running. I didn’t even think. I immediately opened the car door and stepped towards them. “Hi,” I said. I didn’t even know if they would speak English. The first man stopped and pointed to the Nissan’s exposed engine. “You having car trouble?” he asked. I babbled my response, “Well, I think the engine overheated, so we looked in the owner’s manual and it said to add water so we were just waiting awhile until it cools off a little bit. Yeah I think it’s fine.” This was me trying to be relaxed. The second man stood silently behind the first, and from inside the old Land Rovers two families of women and children stared at us. “You have water?” He asked. “Yeah, we have a few big containers full.” Sure, everything was under control. For some reason the women and kids in the trucks made me feel safer. Whole families don’t kill tourists do they?

The man eyed me intensely. His skin was the color of the night, his eyes large and soft, separated by his large flat nose. I read his face. He knew I was terrified and he didn’t want to scare me any more than he already had. “Okay,” he said, and then turned and went back to his waiting truck.

They drove slowly away, kicking up another dust cloud, and were gone. I breathed for the first time since getting out of the car and plopped back into the seat. “Oh my God.” Lu squeaked out. I was mad. “I can’t believe the only people we’ve seen all day find us when the stupid car is broken down!” Lu looked at me and burst out laughing. What were the chances of us passing ANY other cars on that road, much less in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. “They were really nice though. I think they knew we were scared.” I felt a wave of guilt that I had been so afraid of them. I was mad at myself for not talking to them more, or at least thanking them for stopping to ask if we needed help. It was too late now, and we still had to get the car going again. In a burst of bravery we both got out and stood in the dark and stared at the engine.

The owner’s manual was less than helpful. It talked about parts we couldn’t find and told us to do things we didn’t know how to do, like bleeding the air out of some line we couldn’t find. We stood there dismally in the night. We started to argue about where the water was supposed to go. Lu was convinced that we had to open the radiator cap, even though it said “CAUTION – HOT – DO NOT OPEN”. My only argument against that was the face-melting story. We were too scared to open anything in case it would explode. “Okay, enough.” We had to get out of here. Lu stepped back, and I cringed away and flipped up the cap on the water container thing that had been boiling.

Nothing happened. Nothing burst or exploded. Upon closer scrutinizing, we saw that the reservoir was still full – it had just been really hot. We didn’t know what else we could do. So back into the car, and onward we pushed. Ten minutes later, the needle was on “H” again and we stopped again, sitting with the hood up. Why was the dumb car overheating anyway? We had been absolutely crawling along, we couldn’t go any slower. For over an hour, we played stop and go – with more stopping than going. We’d push on for a few minutes, and then stop and sit in an attempt to let the car cool. We had wasted half the night now on this horrible road, which from the map we knew was 100 kilometers long. We were averaging about two kilometers an hour. It was time for a new tactic. This was war.

“That’s it.” I decided silently to myself. Crawling along was getting us nowhere painfully slowly. “I’m gonna floor it.” Why not? The Nissan was already overheating. Maybe if I just gunned it we’d still overheat, but at least we’d get out of there faster and onto a normal road again. Like ripping off a band-aid. My fists still clutching the steering wheel tightly, white-knuckled, hunched forward with eyes squinting from sleep deprivation and dust, I pressed on the gas.

We sped up to 40 kph, and the jarring got incomprehensibly worse. Lu bounced proportionally more and higher in the passenger seat. “What are you doing?” she protested. She didn’t have a choice. It was my car and I was in the driver’s seat. Now it was hopeless to even try to find the smoothest part of road, so I kept the tires trained on the center of the rutted surface. The car sounded like it was going to collapse into a million pieces with the jarring, but I didn’t care. In the swath of darkness ahead, little scraggly trees appeared on either side of the road. That meant at one time, a little stream had passed there. Knowing there was no danger of splashing through anything but more horrible gravel, I kept on at the same speed.
Suddenly, with a crash we were flying down, through and out of a ravine from a long-gone stream. There was a sickening sort of wallop from taking what looked like a minor dip in the road, but turned out to be a Grand Canyon-sized hole. I think we even got a little air. This was not the graceful, slow motion sort of air that stunt drivers get in action movies. This was like a matchbox car being dragged by a kid’s sticky fist through the dirt on the playground. We crashed to a landing, Lu looking at me like I’d crossed the line. “Holy shit, Kelli!” she yelled at me. “I didn’t see it coming!” I yelled back defensively. The car swerved a bit on recovery, and I slowed back to a crawl. The temp gauge was still on “H”, and the same gravelly tire on rock sound crunched out from the wheels, but now there was a new, terrifying sound.

Along with the ugly symphony of racket we made, there was a sickening scraping sound coming from under the car. “Do you hear that – what’s that?” I asked Lu. I slowed even more, straining to listen. “Something is under there,” she said. I took my foot off the accelerator, pressed on the brakes, and we rolled to a stop. I switched off the ignition and the dragging sound was traded for the familiar crackly sparking, along with a new sound. We heard the splashing of something liquid spilling onto the packed earth.

Flashlight in hand, I was out of the car again. I got down on my knees, the gravel biting into them, and lowered my face to the ground. What I saw under the car made my heart leap. The car was broken. Broken! A huge piece of metal had been ripped off and peeled back, and was dragging on the ground. Parts of the car had probably already fallen off – what was that piece for? But that wasn’t the only wreckage under there. Yellow green liquid like radioactive snot had come from somewhere up in the engine and made a little pool.

I got back in the car. “What?” Lu said. She looked understandably afraid, after seeing my anxious face. “There’s some big part that’s ripped off and something leaking all over the ground. I dunno, something must have cracked or burst.” Until now I really never thought anything like this could happen. Risks were something to take, like pieces of candy. They were fun. Sitting in the middle of nowhere in our battered car with things leaking from it and parts coming off, I realized that there was a reason that not everyone took trips like this. There were no repair people or facilities in the Red Center. Now the closest town was Alice Springs, a solid 200 kilometers away. Even if we wanted to get the car there, HOW? We didn’t even have a working phone.

“I don’t think we’re getting out of here without a tow truck,” I said. This was it. We were going to sit there until someone else drove by and then ask for help, and we’d get helicoptered out, and a tow truck would pick up our unfaithful Nissan. Wow, just like a movie. I tried on this idea for a minute, but Lu wasn’t so excited about it. “Kelli, no. We can’t just sit here.” I guess she was more realistic about it. After all that had happened I was ready to give up. How could one little shortcut be such a problem? This was the worst Christmas Eve I’d ever had. But Lu was right.

Our only choices were to sit and wait or try to continue on. With crabby sighs and grumbling about it, I got out of the car again with the flashlight. “Lu come out here! If we have to fix this you gotta help me.” I kneeled down on the ground again, this time on a women’s magazine we had been reading to each other to pass the hours. “Sorry about that,” I thought, as I ground the smiling face on the cover into the red gravel. I pressed my face to the ground to look at the peeled back metal hunk again. It really looked bad. I reached out, worried about slicing my fingers open on the metal, and touched it. It flopped back at my fingertip. Plastic! “LU!” I shouted, “This thing is plastic!” I pulled it back up to its original position- good as new! “We can just tie this thing back on.” I told her. “Find something to tie it with.” She looked around for a second and then looked down at her shorts.

A few minutes later, with the car tied together with the string from the waistband of Lu’s shorts, I dusted off my hands and we regarded the coolant spillage. The top of the plastic reservoir was suspiciously popped open. Had it boiled over? Was it the impact of our crash landing? I got out one of the water jugs, filled it and tightly crushed the cap back into place. It seemed to hold water, but I kept my fingers crossed. We got back in the car. All I could think about was how incredibly embarrassing it would have been to go crying to a repair shop for that plastic bit under the car. I started up the ignition again and we sat, tense, and listened. All seemed normal. Temp gauge was just below the “H”. Our little setback had given it time to cool down a bit. We started off again at a walking pace and this time kept it that way. Even at this pace, the jarring threatened to work our fillings loose. Now we’d be ecstatic to just limp to the end of the road with all three of us intact.

Forty-five minutes later the headlight beams bounced back to us, reflecting off of a familiar sight. It was a big red sign. “WARNING…” This one faced the other direction to tell drivers not to attempt the road without four-wheel drive. The silver Nissan shambled to the culmination of the “road” in the wee hours of the morning. From the looks on the map, it should have taken us an hour. One hour – not five. It was an absolute miracle to see the highway. With the string that once held Lu’s shorts up now holding the car together, we trounced over the last few meters of hell and onto the blacktop. It was like butter under the tires. King’s Canyon was only a few kilometers up the road – we’d made it! Lu looked at her watch.

“Hey Kelli, guess what?” Oh god, what now?
“What?” I asked.
She grinned, “Merry Christmas!”