Words by Cualé Honta & photography by Ava Mandal
The Crew: 1 American, 1 Alaskan, 1 Italian, 1 Frenchie, 1 pommie, 2 Germans and 3 Australians.
Our Machines: A rusty old 1993 Troopie we called ‘The Old Lady’, ‘Vanilla Magnum’ a white Mitsubishi Magna Wagon and ‘The Smurf’ a 1988 Nissan Patrol, together on a ride that none of us will soon forget.
We had to fix the Troopie under a cloudy pitch black sky that amplifiedthe coldness of the night; the entire head with all his oily screws and bolts was lying precariously in front of us on wobbly tables in a kind hippie’s front yard in dusty Broome. Not really knowing what we were doing, ten backpacks filled with euphoria and a campfire was all we had to fix this old thing. She was a dying beast but she was the chosen. We were relying on her to take us on an expedition through this stunning continent.
After what had been a long day we attempted to sleep whilst hoping for a miracle. We woke in the darkness of early dawn and the anticipation was momentous. No words were spoken, as the question lingered in our conscience, would she start?
When the alarm rang at 6:00am, Yager, the Alaskan started The Old Lady. The motor made a sickening lurch, sending ripples of worry through my gut. Fuck. Finn, our Tarzan-esque Australian didn’t take it lightly either, fussing over the engine to find a solution, and there it was, a loose cable.
Start her up again, Alaska!
She woke up from a long sleep and the fire ran through her. We started screaming with all the craziness in our hearts, embraced each other and ran off like we had to save our lives. The sun rose over Broome and we were buzzing with excitement.
Ava, Pia, Yager, Finn, Alex and I drove to pick up the others. We had never met Nash Nikki or Giovanni before, they were backpackers, but there was some energy in their hearts that connected us straight away. And so that was it, we yelled and cheered as we passed the last sign of Broome on our way to Derby. It was such an unreal feeling, all these honest smiles looking out upon the Australian dessert, watching it almost in slow motion with a sense of calmness in the car. We lit up the first green one and got into the rhythm of the day.
Nash was an American cage-fighter, Gio an engineer from Italy. Nikki was a teacher from England and Alex a biochemist from France. We were an impressive eclectic mix, ready to do something big. We arrived in Derby after 4 hours. Giovanni rolled a couple of spiffs to keep us going while we shopped for the trip.
Our resultant groceries comprised mostly of canned beans, carrots and museli. Ethan and I jammed with some locals in the car park, they called themselves good old Mary Jane and Steve Martin and they had a legendary sound. We gave them a gas cooker as a present.
Our first stop was Windjana Gorge where we had a campfire going amidst the shimmering red rock formations. The Group got to know each other, swapping stories as life began to swell and spread among us. The light went out and our first day on the road seemed in tune with the rhythm of heaven on earth, so light and quiet in one sense and so loud and intense on the other. I slept like a bear and only the sun with its intense heat was able to wake me.
Next stop, Tunnel Creek. We explored the cave with head torches and apprehension, as there was a phantom salt-water croc lurking in the depths. The most amazing view was waiting for us on top of the scrubby hill; we paused in awe to enjoy the surrounding country’s pure beauty that stretched for kilometers.
The following stop was the Leopold Ranges. We took a midnight hike up the steep crumbling rock face. 6 of us made it to the almost foreign planet like landscape where one mighty impressive boab tree awaited us at the very top. The cars were doing well up to this point, but there was a long way to go and there were some suspicious noises emanating that surely did not coincide with a healthy diagnoses. The hunt for adventure continued.
Into Fitzroy Crossing, we set up camp down on the banks of the Fitzroy River, right at the water’s edge. We positioned ourselves under the trees by the water, being weary about proximity to croc territory. Unexpected Troopie delays meant that we spent the next five days here.
We spent the time exploring the engine and absorbing a range of opinions from many passing bush mechanics but The Old Lady still refused to come out of her coma. A ranger towed her and all its troops into town where we set up camp, in a car park. Some still believed in The Old Lady, some made plans to get out of that place as it begun to turn to hell in contrast to the utopia we had. After another day of troubleshooting, an old RAC mechanic came to the rescue. We dubbed him ‘The Wizard,’ he came and fixed the beast in a matter of minutes.
We’d lost 3 troops who hitchhiked out of there but we picked up two lasses from France. More smiles and celebration and off we went.
We were some 200kms from Halls creek when a radiator tube burst and the head gasket overheated. We arrived in Halls Creek, not quite knowing what we were going to do. Would we try to buy a new car? Maybe if someone could just tow us to Kununurra we could fix her there…
Reluctantly we bid farewell to The Old Lady. She had caused us such delay and strife to this point, our relationship resembled a bad marriage and here was the divorce. It was at this point that we said goodbye to another 3, Yager and Alex stayed with their baby to see if there was any hope. Ava and I built some seats in the back of the Smurf and we were out of there, fuck the police.
For the next 300kms, Pia drove without stopping. We ate junk food and relaxed without any problems, straight to the Grotto. After a swim we were off again to El Questro National Park. First stop, the stunningly beautiful Emma Gorge. The clearest water from hot springs trickled down the rock face. Laughing like kids, in totally bliss, we felt as if we had never been freer. I will never forget this place.
Off to Kununurra, where we were reunited with all the lost troops. Ava and I bought a car very spontaneously, the great Vanilla Magnum, and so the whole group was back together on the way to Darwin. We gained Marcel, a German with a van. We enjoyed Litchfield, Edith Falls and Mataranka Springs on our journey. Darwin was a bit out of control; we decided to have a big one. We drank A LOT, and being almost sober for the last month meant we got extremely smashed; we did things we shouldn’t share. The next morning we had the worst hangovers and so we agreed that we were too wrecked to drive and to leave early the next day. We left Nash and Nikki here to start a new journey. So we floated back down through Katherine, and found a dirty Yager along the way, with a brief midnight swim in the warm moonlit Bitter Spring before our voyage through the desolate top.
Welcome to Mt. Isa, Queensland, a bleak mining town, through to Charters Towers. The longing for the ocean is what drove our energy to keep going. We were doing shifts of driving for 12 hours straight to get as far as possible each day. There was nothing but the road and good company. We made coffee as we drove and sang songs until we could see green again. We cruised through the tropical rolling hills of the Tablelands where we found $1 avocados and met a big friend, the Cathedral Fig Tree. Everyone climbed the huge roots of the 50-meter high tree and it was an adventure just how we liked it. From the top of the canopy we looked over the rainforest and at Mother Nature, I forgot about everything and was just so happy to be here with this great bunch of people. It was then that I knew this trip would stay forever in our hearts and minds.