THERE are many things I love about four-wheel driving and outback travel.
I love the outback itself, the big blue skies over contrasting red earth, the unpredictable weather ranging from scorching days to freezing nights, the incredible variety of wildlife from native ’roos, dingoes and wedgies to thorny devils, barking spiders and brown snakes, and the serene solitude you can only find in extremely remote places.
I also love the camaraderie you can only really experience on an outback adventure. Faced with challenges, whether they be weather conditions, mechanical problems, track obstacles or navigational issues, it’s always amazing how a group of people, whether old mates or first-time acquaintances, can band together to overcome whatever is thrown at them, successfully finding their way out of the environment into which they travelled.
And then there’s the camping. Rain, hail or shine, I love having to make do with what’s available to me, whether that means sitting on a log or a rock instead of a camp chair, or sleeping in a leaky old tent rather than curling up in a cosy new swag. I also love cooking dinner on a fire and sitting around it with a couple of coldies talking rubbish with mates into the wee hours.
Of course, I also love the actual four-wheel-driving component. In fact, the more challenging the conditions the more I get out of it, whether it’s picking my way up a difficult climb, teetering on the edge of a precipice on a seemingly impossible steep descent, or scrabbling for a lower gear to forge out of a muddy salt lake, getting to the other side is reward enough. Especially if I’m driving a vehicle I’m passionate about.
Getting to the other side, however, is not always a given. In which case I also enjoy the careful consideration that goes into a successful and safe vehicle-recovery operation, whether it’s performed using a shovel, sand tracks, a winch, snatch blocks, snatch straps or a combination of all the above. And if it’s particularly challenging, I also get a buzz out of the deliberations that go into the operation well before the gloves are slipped on.
Of all these great things about outback travel, my favourites are travelling with mates and meeting (sometimes eccentric) outback characters. On my most recent Simpson Desert trip, I met a bloke at the Mount Dare Hotel who goes by the name of Cobby Bob. He’s the summer caretaker at Old Andado Homestead, and when I say he’s ‘out there’ I’m not referring to his geographical location. Cobby Bob is, among other things, a bush bard, and he’ll happily entertain you with his rhyming poems, stories of solitude and anything else that comes to mind... until the cows come home, or you’re thrown out of the pub.
On that same trip, halfway down the Birdsville Track, a mate and I spent a big night with Phil at the Mungerannie Hotel. Phil has been running this iconic and remote hotel for more than a decade now and, although I reckon it’s beginning to show, a friendlier and more hospitable publican you could not hope to meet. Phil will ply you full of beer while merrily imbibing himself and then crank the sound system and put on a behind-the-bar show that he’ll insist you get involved in, and one that you’ll never forget.
Of course, not all outback characters are a laugh a minute, but there certainly must be something about living in an inhospitable and remote location that gives people a somewhat ‘interesting’ persona.
As for Phil, he says he’s had enough and that the Mungerannie Hotel is on the market, but he said that the last time I was there several years ago. As I waved goodbye after our big night on the cans, with a cracking hangover, I shouted out: “I’ll see you in a couple of years mate.” He did not look impressed.
With summer well and truly upon us, I won’t be heading outback again anytime soon, but fortunately you don’t have to travel too far out of town to find ‘interesting’ characters and 4WD adventures.