Salty Sunrise

Aidan had heard of the Lake Gairdner salt flats east of the Stuart Highway and wanted to take the perfect photo by sunrise. There was only one problem:  The fuel map we had showed the distances between petrol stations were too big. Even with the two canisters I carried in a couple of bags slung over Lea’s tank, we wouldn’t have enough. So instead of taking the logical route, heading west from Port Augusta towards Iron Knob (yep, that is really the town’s name!) and then north past the lakes and back onto the Stuart Highway, we decided to just dip down from Kingoonya in the north and well within fuel range and see the lakes from there.

We went up the highway to Glendambo and then turned east onto an unpaved road. A giant sign warned that we were headed into a remote area with little traffic or help about and then had a whole essay of warnings and lists of all the things we should take. These included two spare tires, lots of water, fuel and food, a shovel… Most of these we simply wouldn’t carry on the bike. And since we were only going a little bit past Kingoonya, we had enough fuel and food. As for water…. The past few roadhouses along the highway hadn’t been too generous with drinking water (a scarce commodity up here) so I was hoping Kingoonya would have some.

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We were greeted by compact gravel and sand. Having ridden on tarmac for months and now carrying all the weight of the extra fuel I wasn’t too comfortable riding what felt like a sinking boat at any speed. So I crawled along at 40km/h. Every now and again we’d be greeted by a giant puddle spanning the road. The seemingly easy way round the outsides was treacherously deep loose sand. But we took it easy and made it across without taking any involuntary baths.

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We arrived in Kingoonya late that afternoon. The cosy looking ramshackle bar where most things were made from stuff you just have flying about enticed us in. And the bar man kindly agreed to fill our 10Ltr canister with precious drinking water from their supply. There were run down cabins and rooms for rent and camping was free. But we wanted to make it to the salt lake today.

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We joined a bunch of travellers for a beer and cross questioned them about the road. They’d come the other way by car and mentioned that the lake was not really accessible where we’d intended. But there was a great free camp site by the bigger lake 150km or so further south. If we went that far, we’d be closer to Iron Knob but would surely run out of fuel before we got there. The French guy said he’d seen a sign for petrol at Mount Ive Station, just south of the camp site. We would just be able to make it there.

 

We decided to wait and see what tomorrow would bring, finished our cans of beer (no draft beer in the outback) and rode off. I was slowly getting more comfortable riding on gravel and packed dirt and sped up a little. But the sun was threatening to set soon and we definitely wouldn’t make it to the lakes today. So we turned down a sand track and into the bush and found a pretty tree to camp under.  Aidan lit a fire to cook and we baked little pittas on a stone for breakfast the next day.

They were surprisingly yum and we wished we had more. We packed up in no time and rode back to the road. The landscape was bright red and dry but little green plants and green leaves on the bushed betrayed the recent rains.

Common advice is not to leave your vehicle behind if it breaks down, as it will be smashed up or burned by the time you come back for it.

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After a while the road deteriorated and corrugations made their first appearance. I had read about them in other motorcycle travellers books and always felt like I wasn’t a true adventurer until I had ridden over some of those. Now I hated them. Not so much because it was uncomfortable rattling all our teeth loose, but because I was wondering what it was doing to the bike.

Pippa had bits falling off her first. The chain guard went and the scottoiler was hanging on by a thread.

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The road started climbing up and down over endless waves of hills and the corrugations became relentless. It was a pretty landscape but I was hating it. A 4×4 drove past, the driver looking worried and stopping to see if I was ok. I mustered the best smile I could through gritted teeth and he drove on while I slowly hobbled along, looking for the least corrugated bit of road. I was swearing away in my helmet, vowing to return one day with a sledge hammer and flatten every single little peak on this road. By lunchtime I was ready to give up and cry.

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Aidan persuaded me to keep going a couple more kilometres to where we’d finally be able to see the salt lake. And when we did, it cheered my up quite a bit. We rode down a sand path towards the lake and cooked lunch by the fence. The lake itself is a national park and fenced off. Driving onto it is forbidden subject to heavy fines.

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This was nice, but in no way satisfying. We’d hoped to see the lakes closer up. I was hating this road right now. It was too much hard work. But it began to dawn on me that Aidan would ask to ride all the way to the campsite the other travelers had mentioned. He broke it to me gently saying he wouldn’t make me ride it if I was dead set against it. But the glimmer in his eyes betrayed how much he really wanted to go. To be honest so did I. And now that I’d had some sustenance, I almost felt up to it.

A quick stock take of our supplies revealed that we might just have enough food if we bake more bread. And the water would last if we didn’t wash and use sand to wash the dishes. We relied on there being some petrol in Mount Ive, or at least people with cars that could give us a lift to fetch some. The decision was made to carry on. And to be honest I was quite happy about that. We are adventurers after all, if Aidan is to be believed.

The corrugations, sand and lose gravel continued. But I’d got over my whining episode for today and just got on with it, hopefully becoming a better rider in the process.

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In the evening Lea ran out of petrol and I topped up from the canisters. Lightening the load like that (or rather shifting it from two sloshing canisters into the more central tank) made balancing the bike a lot easier.

As dusk descended a couple of kangaroos hopped across the road followed closely by an emu. But they disappeared too fast to take a photo. We caught a few glimpses of the salt lake and began to wonder where the turn off towards it may be. When I finally remembered that WikiCamps would show the site in offline mode (no reception out here) we’d overshot it by 44km according to the app. Riding in the dark would be dangerous as we wouldn’t see what the road was like and there were roos about. But the disappointed look in Aidan’s eyes announced that there was no other option. He desperately wanted to photograph the sunrise over the salt lake.

So we agreed to ride back and just stop and pitch camp if it got too dangerous. Following the GPS dot on the app it soon became clear that the distance it measured was as the crow flies. It was completely dark now and we sped along. If you can’t see the loose gravel and pot holes, you can’t be worried about them and slow down. The headlights on the bikes don’t turn as you steer so we often turned and pointed the entire bike towards the bush to see if that was the desired track. But it was just another water run-off ploughed into the roadside.  After 60km or so we finally found a corrugated sand track in the direction of where we thought the lake was. We followed it and found a bunch of campers a few kilometres later. Exhausted we pitched the tent by moonlight and curled up.

We’d set the alarm for 6.30 am to be up in time for sunrise. When it rang we pressed snooze again and again. It had been a cloudless night and the hour before sunrise was bitterly cold. When we finally got up the sun was about to pop over the horizon. I grabbed my camera and we raced it to the lake. Aidan left his behind. It was too much hassle and mine allowed for manual settings after all.

The salt lake was amazing, like fresh, untouched snow, glimmering a blueish white in the morning light. We walked out onto it towards the horizon and got the camera out just as the sun took a first glimpse over the horizon. But it refused to work! It was too cold. Recently the camera developed a tick whereby it would simply shut off as you press the shutter button if the battery was too cold. I stuffed it under my clothes and held it tight to my tummy to warm it up. But to no avail. It refused to take a single picture!

Super disappointed we gave up on it and decided to soak up the stunning sunrise with our eyes instead. The snow white lake started to glow pink and golden as the sun rose above it and we bumbled about soaking up the magical atmosphere.

Back at the tent Aidan was kicking himself for not having brought his camera. We decided to stay another night and try again the next morning. Our food would just about last if we had rice with soy sauce for lunch and dinner on the last day. And at the top of the sand track was a water pump. It wasn’t drinking water, just surface run off. But it would be perfect to wash the dishes and have a sponge bath. And we could boil some for drinking if we had to.

The day was spent doing just that and in the evening we made a fire to cook our last pasta with garlic and herbs and some left over cheese and bake bread from our last scraps of flour on. All with tantalizing views of the lake behind. This being Australia the flies persistently crawled into our eyes and ears and we breathed in more than one. They left shortly after sunset and we turned in too, setting our alarm for 6.30am again.

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The next morning we rushed out of the tent Aidan’s camera ready. It wasn’t nearly as cold as yesterday morning and when we opened the tent, it became clear why: the sky was covered in thick grey clouds. There wouldn’t be much of a sunrise today.

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Disappointed beyond words we slurped our breakfast coffee and packed up. We didn’t have enough food or water to stay another day. A quick stop at the pump to do last night’s washing up and to wash our hands and face and we were off.

A couple of metres down the road Aidan stopped and struggled to put Pippa on her side stand. The whole bike had sunk a few inches. The suspension was gone! Out here, in the middle of the outback. Aidan started making plans that I should ride on and find fuel and water while he would limp on and see how far he got. All of a sudden we became quite aware how far we were from any civilization and how close we’d been cutting it with our meagre supplies.

Well, no point panicking. I thought things over. This was looking an awful lot like the time in Georgia when the bolt holding the suspension in at the top had sheared off. I thought I might even still have my old one… Even so, Aidan preferred to do the work in civilization where help and parts were to hand. I convinced him otherwise though. God knows what damage would be done to the suspension and the tank that goes over it on these bikes if the shock was left to loosely bounce about up there? That would be some pricy repairs!

I found the old bolt and we set about taking Pippa apart and lifting her bum in up. Now we could see the bolt had sheared off and was gone! Must’ve been one of those times the bike bottomed out under its load.

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The bolt I had was threaded so we didn’t know if the nut would hold and stay on. And you can’t see under there when the bike is assembled. It wasn’t ideal, but it would get us back to town. We locktited the hell out of it and put it all back together, hoping for the best.

Just as we set off again another rider came towards us. Sarah was riding Solo and all kitted out for the desert. But the rains east of the highway had cancelled her plans to ride across the Simpson Desert for now and she was bumbling along the tracks here. That was a real inspiration. If she could ride this difficult stuff all on her own, I could surely learn? I made a mental note to try and stop moaning about the road condition and just get on with it.

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Sarah had stayed in Mount Ive and confirmed that there was petrol to be had. Phew! And when we mentioned that we were down to rice and soy sauce, she was quick to mention their little shop. Sweet! That was good news!

Aidan rode on like he was riding on egg shells and for the first time I was keeping up with him. The road was badly corrugated. It got worse towards the station and we got worried we missed it. But then a big sign post announced Mount Ive 6km down the corrugated side road. As we rattled into the station Sam came up to unlock the fuel pump for us and we filled up. His girlfriend took us to the shop where we stocked up on a bag of dehydrated pasta and seaweed rice crackers. Seaweed? I must have been hungry!

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We popped over to the bar next door for a well-deserved beer and devoured the crackers while chatting to our host. Sam and her had been following shows and festivals in their van and were now working out here while renovating and redesigning said hapless van Mitzy. They let us rummage through the tins and buckets of old bolts and we found one that might fit if Pippa blew the current one before we could get any parts. Then they let us top up our drinking water and finally sent us on our way with big waves and smiles. It had been great chatting away to them about traveling, life on the road and last minute repairs.

The corrugations soon let up and hard packed dirt and gravel returned. The landscape opened up into wide open bush and we sped along at 80km/h. That’s me we are talking about here… doing 80km/h on gravel!

We were so excited that we might actually make it, we completely forgot to cook our pasta for a late lunch. The last cattle station signaled the beginning of super nasty corrugations demanding one last effort before we reached the tarmac at Iron Knob.

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From here it was boring highway all the way to Port Augusta. We pulled into the supermarket car park starving and exhilarated. We’d made it!

 

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