Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: Engine failure on the Australia Bahn
Date: September 21, 1994 05:22

14:00 Mount Isa, Queensland :: 19 SEP 94

At the city overlook near the center of Mount Isa stands one of those sign-posts showing the distance to various points on earth. Along with Tokyo, Kuala Lumpar [sic], Paris, New York, the distances to two great Canadian cities are posted:

Vancouver: 14,247 kms


Kamloops: 14,487 kms

I love it.

Other than walk up to the town lookout there are other...

Things to do in Mount Isa:

Get the hell out of Mount Isa.


But then I'd say that about alot of places that other people seem to like, for example Kamloops, BC. In fact, hot, arid, hilly Mount Isa reminds me a bit of Kamloops though the latter boasts perhaps twice the population. Both are a long way from anywhere else with a population, though Mount Isa wins out in the remoteness category-a trip to either Darwin or Brisbane will turn your odometer over 1400 times (that's kilometers folks). And both appear to be one-industry towns with Kamloops' being the pulp mill and Mount Isa's mining. And it's a hell of an industry here; operated by Mount Isa Mines Limited, the local mines form the tenth largest operation in the world producing copper, lead, zinc and silver.

Apparently the mining company offers interesting tours of its facilities. One shows the above-ground facilities over a 1.5 hour period for $12 Oz. The other, booked solid through the next four days, also goes underground for 25 Oz dollars. So I suppose you could add "Go on a mining tour" to the list of things to do, if that sort of thing interests you.

At first I'd connected Mount Isa with the American Southwest, say Arizona, because of similarities in the soil and scarcity of plan life. Kamloops didn't strike me until I noticed it on the sign.

So why, you ask, am I writing this at 2PM in Mount Isa-a place with nothing interesting to do-when I could be chewing up kilometers on the road to Darwin? Well, Stan's a little sick. To be precise, Katrin's Holden Gemini blew a valve.

Now, even I don't need a mechanic to tell me that's going to cost more than a few shillings to repair. You've got to take the head off and that means replacing all kinds of gaskets along with a couple hours work involved in disassembly, inspection, repair and assembly. While they've got the head off your 25 year old car, you might as well let them overhaul it...a little preventative medicine while you've got the patient on the table. Don't forget the cost of a new valve, or valves since the others may be a little weak and may not withstand the overhaul. Thankfully, Stan's only got 4 cylinders with 2 valves each.

So we're all standing around Stan's disemboweled engine, Katrin, me and Chris, the mechanic. Chris says, "She's actually in pretty good shape. See how little corrosion there is here? Often you'll find the coolant conduits corroded right back to the cylinder walls and you have to weld in repairs."

Phew-I think to myself-that saved a few shillings.

Then he continues, "But those carbon deposits on the cylinder heads mean the rings are going..."

Yikes!!! I'm really happy this ain't my car. If I remember correctly, ring jobs require yanking the whole engine out of the car. Expressed in other words, $$$$$$$$.

" she'll be burning oil-they'll hold for a good while yet."

"How long a while," I ask.

"Oh, another 15 or 20 thousand klicks before you should do anything about it."

YES! So, with any luck, we'll be off to Darwin tomorrow. I'm careful about being too optimistic, though. Once you open one of these old cars up it's amazing how many gremlins seem to pop out. On the other hand, I'm not going to worry about it. In the meantime, there's some time to kill-or maybe I'll take that mine tour after all.

18:55 Mount Isa, Queensland :: 19 SEP 94

Other things to do in Mount Isa:

Check on Stan's recovery.
Find a cheaper, hopefully nicer place to stay.
Figure out how to make the modem work on old Outback telecom technology.
Find video Hi-8 tape using Metal Evaporated technology.
Check on Stan's recovery.
Breathe through the nose (or you'll get dry as dust).
Drink lots of fluids (e.g. Beer).
Check on Stan's recovery.
Get a haircut.
Find more cassette tapes.
Check on Stan's recovery.

As of 5 PM Stan is still on the operating table. His failing organ, that is, the valve head case, are still at the machine shop- apparently they're "a bloke short today."

By 1 PM we knew we'd be staying the night in Mount Isa. Even if we got the car back by 5PM we couldn't start out on the road. You don't drive at night in the Outback without both an unconditional need and bull bars (kangaroo catchers for cars). It's not even safe at dusk, when the boomers start gathering at the road-side for the daily slaughter. Since you can't get anywhere in two hours out here there's no reason to leave. Well, we could just make Camooweal, Queensland's westernmost town, but we'd have to leave by 4:30 and everything would have to go right and we'd still be looking for accommodation in the dark. Just not worth it.

Good thing that after checking Stan in to the clinic we'd spent a good part of the morning hours scoping out alternative housing arrangements. The place we'd stayed last night for $30 Oz was the smallest, dingiest double I've yet seen in the land down under. I have seen an uglier on-site van (North Americans would simply call it an 18 foot trailer) but for a so-called motel room, this was the worst. So why did we stay in it? They say never buy groceries on an empty stomach; they should also say, never check into a motel when you're road weary: the bed was firm. We checked in at about 2 PM and slept all afternoon.

I've stayed in most varieties of traveler accommodation offered in Australia. Hotels, motels, backpacker hostels, campgrounds, caravan parks-I've even taken a sleeper rail car from Brisbane to Proserpine in Northern Queensland. In any of these classes of accommodation you never know what you're going to get. Before booking you into a room many managers will offer to show it first. I've turned down several places after an inspection so I'm thankful for the courtesy. Or is it simply defensive? Perhaps an up-front inspection saves them the hassle of arguing over a refund after a prospective guest discovers what they've booked.

I might add that Queensland Rail provided one of the better night's rests this whole trip and the compartment even had two power-points. Many of my other accommodation experiences weren't this positive.

20:16 Mount Isa, Queensland :: 20 SEP 94

How long we'll be stranded in Mount Isa has become the subject of an office pool at the Traveler's Haven backpacker's hostel, where Katrin and I have booked in again for the evening. The short odds are on 1 week.

"Oh yeah, how long was Woshi strung along?" "6 or 8 weeks?" "Yep, and then too, she left Isa without the car." "That's right, took a bus back to Brisbane and flew home."


No. This can't be happening. Every car traveler's nightmare- being at the mercy of an unscrupulous mechanic. They know that repairs will require weeks but string you along with, "The part should be back from the machine shop in the morning. Come back at noon tomorrow." But at noon the hood of the car stands open and there's a gaping hole in your engine with hoses and electrical leads splayed like spaghetti. On the fender lies an unopened package of gaskets waiting for the phantom part. The mechanic's working on another car, an expensive one.

"Yeah, I called the shop and it's not done yet."

"So"-I ask-"when do they intend on finishing it?"

"Hoy! Didn't think to ask. I expect it should be in by 4 O'clock"

Can you hear the silent scream building?

I futilely attempt to conceal my concern, "Hmm. We were really hoping to be on the road by 4 so we can make Camooweal by nightfall."

"Camooweal? That's only a couple a hours. You can leave at 6 and still get there wi' plenty a time to get a room."

"Well," I screw up my face in distaste, "I'd rather avoid night driving in these parts. Boomers and all, y'know."

"Ahhh, I drive at night all the time. Just cruise along at a night pace and you've plenty of time to pull-up when you see one."

I don't bother reminding him of all the contrary evidence rotting on Outback roadsides. I just let it slide.

The result of the discussion was that Stan would probably be ship-shape by 6PM. Our choices were either wake up tomorrow in Mount Isa, or drive for 2 hours after sunset. We crossed our fingers and bought food for the trip.

We were really fortunate to get a room back at the backpacker's tonight. Actually, we got the last bed in the joint and a mattress on the floor in a room we're sharing with another woman. This represents a couple steps down from last night when we'd been fortunate enough to snap up the last double room. Of course, backpacker's hostels tend to outfit "double" rooms in unique ways. For example, this one had a double-decker bed -- that is, bunks -- so the arrangement wasn't quite ideal, if you catch my drift. But it was an entire room to ourselves for $22.

To get this room yesterday we'd called from the mechanic's shop at 1 O'clock when it became apparent the car wasn't going anywhere that day. Tonight we over-optimistically waited until 5PM before hiking out to the mechanic's for the update on Stan. Truth be told, even tonight's situation still beats many of the accommodations I've experienced this trip, except that I'll be waking up in Mount Isa.

Hopefully Murphy isn't dangling that carrot-on-a-stick in front of me again. The last time this happened, I was modemless for a month.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --