Back in 2000 I nearly killed my wife and I.
In the northern part of South Australia there is a large dry salt lake called Lake Eyre. Lake Eyre is 15 m (about 50ft) below sea level, and receives what little water it ever gets from the channel country, in southwest Queensland. Since central Australia has some of the driest country in the world, Lake Eyre generally only ever fills up once a generation. In the year 2000 there were heavy rains in the channel country and six weeks later, the water trickled its way over the thirsty land to fill Lake Eyre. The seemingly dead salty sunbaked mud of the lake bed bursts into life as the water awakens billions of tiny brine shrimp as they hatch from their protective shells. The brine shrimp, provide food for freshwater fish that have been washed along with the floodwaters from the north east. This sudden explosion of life attracts coastal birds from over 1000 km away.
When Lake Eyre fills with water, it is such a rare event that it is reported on national television and when my wife and I heard about it, we thought we’d go and have a look. Because it was winter at the time, we also thought it would be a good opportunity to travel to the very centre of Australia in the cooler weather to see Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) in the Northern Territory as well.
After 3 Days Drive, we finally reached the Oodnadatta Track that passes through the Tirari Desert and past the south end of Lake Eyre. Unfortunately, it seemed that we had arrived too late, and all the bird life had moved on. By the time we got to Lake Eyre. The water was already starting to disappear, and all that was left was miles of salty mud and shallow salty water.
After spending about an hour slopping around in the mud, we headed off north to William Creek. The track up to William Creek is surfaced to with rounded, marble sized gravel. It’s not unlike trying to drive over ball bearings, and when our front right tyre blew out we had what could only be called a character building experience.
We were travelling at about 100 km (about 60 mph) in four-wheel-drive, when the flat tyre caused the car to start fish-tailing. As I fought for control of the car, my wife and I collectively screamed SHIIIIITTTTT!!!
The trashed tire pulled itself off the wheel and the rim of the wheel dug into the road. As the front end of the car dug in and basically stopped, the back end of the car rose up and we flew upside down through the air, end over end, for about 10 m (about 30ft), landing on the roof, and then rolling two more times. I’ve been in these sort of life-and-death situations a few times before, so as we were tumbling through the air I found myself thinking that the best thing to do would be to relax and try and make sure my head didn’t hit the door posts (my wife’s brother died that way). It’s amazing how adrenaline slows things right down and gives one time to contemplate what’s going on in such situations and to take action.
When a car landed right side up, my wife and I couldn’t get out of it fast enough. As soon as we got out of the car my wife (Engogirl) started hysterically screaming. I felt strangely calm and told her to shut up.
A quick check of the car showed that the chassis was bent. It was a write-off.
Within 15 minutes, people who had I passed on the road, caught up to us and offered assistance. There was nothing really to be done, other than go to the next town and get somebody to send out a tow truck. Interestingly, the people who offered us help had to change a flat tyre as they spoke to us.
As we waited for help from the next town to come, we wandered about picking up our belongings that had been strewn all over the track and fended off offers of assistance from other passing motorists. It’s strange how the first few offers of assistance are really appreciated, but after it happens 20 or 30 times it really starts to get irritating having to explain to people who only mean well, how you managed to roll your car three times on a dead straight road out in the middle of nowhere.
I was starting to feel really stupid. I also noticed I couldn’t concentrate very well and I was having trouble organising my thoughts enough to pick up our belongings on the road whereas Engogirl was in complete control of her faculties. In retrospect, I think I was going into shock, and perhaps Engogirl’s screaming had released her tension, enabling her to better deal with the aftermath. Nowadays, we often laugh about the fact that there isn’t much of an overlap between our skill sets. I can handle drama when it happens better than Engogirl, but my wife is much better at figuring out what the next step should be after the clear and present danger has passed.
Amazingly, we had not sustained any significant injuries. Engogirl had a small cut on the back of her hand (see the photo) and I seemed to be okay.
It took a couple of hours before help from William Creek finally turned up in the form of a German fellow (the ex-owner of the William Creek Hotel), and his girlfriend in a four-wheel-drive towing a trailer with a hand winch. It took about an hour and a half to get the car onto the trailer during which time I just stumbled around in a daze occasionally getting in the way and Engogirl made herself actually useful.
It would be very easy to call William Creek, the arsehole of the world as it is not even a cross road, it’s a T-intersection of the Oodnadatta track, and the track to Coober Pedy. William Creek has a pub (William Creek Hotel), a few buildings, a solar powered public telephone and the remains of a R3 rocket, launched from the Woomera Rocket Range back in the early 70s.
Behind the pub is a campground with a very noisy generator that runs all night to make sure no one gets a decent sleep, and next to the campground is an aircraft landing strip. The William Creek Hotel at the time was run by a family, who seemed to be irritated and resentful by the fact that they had to deal with the public. They sure were a surly bunch.
On arrival at William Creek, we booked into the campground, and I phoned my insurance company from the solar powered phone. My phone call, bordered on the surreal.
Me. “I’d like to report that I have had an accident with my car”
Insurance Woman (IW) with the NRMA in Sydney NSW. “Where did the accident happen?”
Me. “25 km south of William Creek in South Australia”
IW. “have you reported the accident to the police”
IW. “Why not?
Me. ” Because the nearest police station is about 170 km away in Coober Pedy”
IW. ” Where did you say the accident happened again?”
Me. ” William Creek, its out in the middle of nowhere near Lake Eyre in South Australia”
IW. “So why didn’t you call the police?”
Me. “What would be the point when they are so far away, and they’re not going to turn up anyhow because no one was hurt and nobody else’s property was damaged?”
Anyhow, to cut a long story short, I was told to stay put and not travel anywhere, until I received a medical check-up that gave me the all clear to travel. Trouble was that were no doctors in William Creek, and as a matter of fact, the closest doctor was in Coober Pedy 170kms away over very rough 4WD track. I later found out at the pub that the flying doctor would be in William Creek in three days time as a part of his regular circuit.
My wife and I thought that would be a good idea to travel through the desert country during winter when it was cooler. What we both didn’t know is that the desert is a very cold and windy place in winter.
That night as the cold wind buffeted our little hiking tent, I lay in my sleeping bag, mulling over the events of the day, wishing that I could somehow rewind it all and do it again. The rolling of the car during the accident kept on playing through my head, like some demented loop. Over and over the accident replayed as I beat up on myself mentally. I was so angry at myself, and so ashamed at the risk that I put my lovely and long-suffering wife through. Strangely enough Engogirl wasn’t too happy with me, wrecking the car and all.
As I lay there, and mentally self-flagellated to the steady beat of the howling wind, I noticed it was starting to hurt when I was breathing in my upper chest. As the night wore on, the pain slowly and steadily increased. I was pretty sure I hadn’t broken any bones and I thought that I’d probably done some kind of damage to the soft connecting tissue between the bones of my chest. The area of pain coincided to where my seatbelt crossed over my chest.
By the time, morning came around, I was feeling, very sore, very miserable, very sorry and very ashamed. We presented quite a bleak sight with our shattered car up on a trailer next to our little hiking tent that was popping in and out to the intermittent gusts of cold wind while the low grey clouds rolled over the dry flat land. It was without a doubt, the worst time of my life. Nothing that has ever happened to me, has left me feeling so low as I did at that time. Full of remorse, embarrassed and in pain.
During our first day at the campground in William Creek we witnessed a steady stream of rally cars racing at high speed along the Oodnadatta track and in my agony, I couldn’t help but keep on thinking to myself, ” guys, guys slowdown!”
As we waited for the flying doctor to arrive, I spent most of the time laying on my back in the tent, dreading having to get up and go to the toilet, because of the pain I was experiencing every time I moved. The only sense of relief that I experienced in my whole time as I waited for three days for the flying doctor to arrive, was when I went into the William Creek Hotel to buy some food. A few of the patrons recognized me as the guy with the smashed up car and before long I was regaled with many stories of how most of the guys in the pub had rolled a car at some stage in their lives. Never were there truer words said than “misery loves company”. Up until the time that the guys in the pub told me about their car accidents I was feeling so alone in my regret and shame at what had happened. After the guy’s told me about their experiences I almost felt like I belonged to some kind of exclusive club of car rollers and what I had gone through was merely a rite of passage.
On the second morning I would have laughed if it hadn’t been so painful when I saw a long line of city slickers in their big four wheel drives (SUV) getting all agitated as one of the guys from the hotel took his sweet time fixing their flat tires. It was hilarious to watch the self-important guys from the city as they huffed and grumbled about how long things were taking and the way the tyre guy made it clear that they should leave him alone so him could get on with his work. Throwing his tools down he said “why don’t yous all just fuck off!” If yous don’t fuck off, I’m not fixin no-one’s tyres!”
The bleak painful days waiting for the flying doctor eventually passed and I was finally able to be checked out. In a strange way, I kind of feel honoured to have visited a flying doctor, as they are such a legendary Australian icon. The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia was set up about 80 years ago to provide medical service to the isolated communities of the Australian outback and they are highly regarded.
The doctor confirmed my suspicions that I had only sustained soft tissue damage which was caused by the seatbelt. Better sore than dead. After my examination, I contacted the insurance company and they organised our trip home. The only problem was that the insurance company could only organise things in places that had large enough populations to support some kind of regular infrastructure. Public transport from William Creek is a bit problematic because the only way we could get to Coober Pedy was on the 4WD mail truck that only came twice a week. The flying doctor only airlifts people in life threatening situations (fair enough!).
Luckily, the mail truck was going to Coober Pedy the same evening of the morning I had seen the flying doctor. The road to Coober Pedy from William Creek is really just a sandy rutted track that passes through the Anna Creek Station, which is the largest working cattle station (ranch) in the world. It’s larger than Israel. Travelling 170kms on a four-wheel-drive track to Coober Pedy in the mail truck was torture. Each bump in the road was like a hot poker in the chest.
Once we got to Coober Pedy everything was much better. The insurance company had booked us into one of the famous underground hotels that they have in Coober Pedy.
Coober Pedy is famous for its opal mining, and the fact that it is so hot that most people there live underground in the old disused opal mines.
After the first decent night’s sleep in three, we flew out in a small and very narrow Fairchild Metro 23 Airliner twin turboprop
to Adelaide and then onto Sydney by jet. At Sydney airport we were met by a chauffeur driven limousine and driven home.
I’ll never begrudge paying car insurance ever again (well done NRMA).
It took me about two months to recover from the damage that I had done to my rib cage, and it also took about that long for an insurance adjuster to make his way to William Creek to check out our wrecked car and to confirm my opinion that it was a write-off.