“I hope this is the worst night of the trip.” Clemo looked morosely into the small fire we’d built. Caked in mud from head to toe, mosquito bitten and exhausted, I could only mumble agreement. The sky was showing the first hints of a new dawn, offering hope of a respite from our ordeal. Little did we know, we were only scratching the surface of the misadventure to come.
I mentally rewound 11 hours, to 5:30pm the previous evening. The sun was dropping toward the cloudy horizon over the 4WD track to Bathurst Bay in Australia’s tropical north. We’d cruised through the rich reds and greens of Battle Camp Road, turning north through African-style savannah to aim for our destination. Having forded a couple of crossings, with evening approaching, Clemo confidently drove into a long, boggy section of the track. It was sliding along at a good rate until the very last section of the bog; bam. Stuck, too far to snatch out with the waiting Patrol.
Spirits were still high as all hands started the recovery effort. Digging, chocking, improvising a winch with our hi-lift jack – in vain. As darkness closed in, the mosquitos appeared. We decided to execute a daring cross-country move with the Patrol to get it into a retrieval position. Starting into the bog, Smithy tried to hit a hard left into the trees, but slid and the ground collapsed under the tyres. Two cars bogged.
Four hours into the saga, lights were spotted to the side of the swamp. A car appeared on the dry ‘chicken’ track (to avoid the swamp – if only we’d known) and we tooted, flashed and waved for it to stop. Clemo and I charged off down the swamp track to chase them, blundering along with only weak flashlights to illuminate our path.
“Mate… we’d better be careful here.” It was a simple statement, but I realised what he meant: we’re running along the edge of a salty lake, in the tropical north, at night… my mind filled with visions of crocs, water buffalos and feral pigs looming out of the darkness. The car hadn’t stopped near us, so we ducked and weaved through the vegetation for almost two kilometres before we emerged onto the road in the glare of their spotlights. Shading our eyes from the glare, we appealed for help.
“Naaaah… the owner of the caar ain’t here… don’t wanna bog it without ‘im, ya know? Aan gonna go stab some pigs, ya know, don’t wanna let the kids down…” I nervously fended off an inquisitive hunting dog while the drawled words from the thickly-set driver sunk in. We’d encountered a carload of the biggest rednecks imaginable – think Deliverance – and they were going to leave us stranded.
Trudging back to camp, we broke the news to the rest of the boys. A little stunned and a lot livid, we decided to focus on freeing the Hilux. We dug, we dragged, we chocked, we levered and we pushed. Inch by inch, metre by metre, we made progress. After jacking the car up and plugging the tyres with as much wood as we could find, Clemo took the wheel with five of us ready to push from behind.
“One! Two! Three! PUSH!” We braced in the mud and leaned on the back of the ute. The wheels bit into the ground, the body pulled free and mud started flying as the car slid forward. One more heave and it was free – painting my whole body in mud as it spun on the loose ground. We chased the car euphorically, tripping and scrambling as we watched the mud-flecked tail lights drive away onto solid earth.
It was midnight. The Hilux was free; now we could use it to pull out the Patrol, find somewhere dry, share some beers and laugh at our mistake. Easy, right? You don’t know the half of it… (part 2 here)