Sandy Blight Junction

One of The Commentariat(tm) suggested I might want to read Len Beadell’s various works about the times he spent in the outback surveying roads for the Australian nuclear weapons program, and other things. By the time I was a few pages in to Beating Around The Bush [amazn] I was transfixed with a mix of horror and awe.

Beadell’s not as outright silly as George MacDonald Fraser is in his MacAuslan books, it’s a more deadpan delivery, but raises an impossible to categorize set of emotions in me: Beadell is, for example, remarkably matter of fact about series of adventures that I would consider to be “successive disasters” except he handles them. I’d have been on the radio begging for a medevac within the first few pages. Instead, Beadell appears to run around tirelessly fixing things in a great cloud of flies.

When things can’t be fixed, Beadell drives somewhere and gets parts. Or tows something to somewhere where it can be fixed. Most of the book is a sequence of events surrounding a 900km trip through the outback with a bulldozer towing a grader that has a broken transmission, towing a food truck that is towing a large water tank – it’s vaguely reminiscent of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, except with lots of flies and the occasional bit of amateur field dentistry. Beadell would have fit right in with that lot, and vice-versa; that is to say they’re all the sort of people I would refuse to go anywhere with unless I had a guaranteed full extraction team standing by, and a satellite phone, and a backup, and 2 batteries and backups, and maybe a spare bulldozer.

There’s a lot of attention to logistics, which pleases me immensely – I kept waiting for Beadell to say, “and then we ran out of water and died” except that there’s just enough redundancy and “can do” in his team that it never happens. Someone just drives 800km for a part, in a Land Rover, and turns around and comes back and repairs whatever it was that broke. You need to read that “… in a Land Rover” phrase in a tone of horror because I’m the former owner of a 1966 Land Rover Safari (Baja 7) which, by the time I sold it, was on its 5th or maybe 6th electrical system (I did the last one with 12ga silicone boat wire and soldered and heat-shrinked and silicone glued every connection) I’m sure Beadell and his group could fix Land Rovers in their sleep because that’s pretty much what you have to do, if you ever expect to get any sleep at all.

“This is absolutely terrible!” When I asked him [Quinny] what on earth could possibly have brought this shattering disturbance, he beckoned me to where he was standing in his worn-out, dust-covered sweaty clothes, staring a the rear end of his long-distance supply truck. I left the doubtful shade cast by the tree and brought over my own set of worn-out, dust-covered sweaty clothes, adding my swarm of flies to his. I had stopped my Land Rover in front of his truck, and both vehicles were showing the torture to which we had subjected them since they had last seen a workshop a year ago.

After a minute of giving me the opportunity to discover for myself the cause of his concern by studying me silently from under his battered, oily hat-brim, he asked me incredulously why I couldn’t see what was wrong. My examination roved over the back of his truck from the tailboard to the rear tyres, then back to the shiny towbar and spring shackles, and I had to admit I saw nothing amiss. Quinny’s hat-brim was pulled down so low over his eyes as to half cover them against the white glare of the sun reflecting off the spinifex tops, but now he cuffed it back on his bald, nut-brown forehead and thundered his distressing question: “Where in the blazes is that great caravan I was pulling?”

First, I am impressed that Beadell had a Land Rover that stopped when he wanted it to, rather than just suddenly stopping itself, but secondly I am impressed by Quinny’s sang-froid when he realized that he’d lost an entire vehicle into the unknown. If the story wasn’t told with an underlying chuckle of humor it would be the stuff of nightmares.

At one point, Beadell describes camping at a place he comes to call “Sandy Blight Junction” and tosses out the Lat/Long, which [google map] get you right to the place:

And, the reason there’s that large turn-around is probably because the bulldozer was dragging a grader which was towing a supply wagon which was towing an aluminum camper wagon.

At another point in the story, a supply truck catches fire and burns to the waterline out in the desert. Amazingly, it’s not a Land Rover with an electrical problem causing a fire – it looks like an old military wreck towing a water tank. Beadell describes some of the incident response:

I did hear a bubbling sound coming from the 1400-liter water-tank installed behind the cabin and it occurred to me that we could at least make a cup of tea. The tap had melted so I shot a hole in the side of the tank with my revolver and, finding some tea-leaves among the wreck, filled a billy from the boiling geyser. The sugar in the once-new bulk container had melted, but some could be obtained with a shovel after digging a hole into it with a geological hammer. As we poured out the mugs of tea, each of us was asked politely if he preferred one shovelful or two as a sweetener.

Naturally, I looked for the wreck of the burned-out truck in satellite map, but I couldn’t find it. There’s a lot of places for it to be. A bit more googling got me the GPS coordinates of where it met its weird: [google] There’s a whole lot of nothing there; the truck was moved (presumably dragged behind a bulldozer?) and has been turned into a sort of monument.

I did find an interesting travel account of someone visiting the area and sending up radiosonde balloons near Woomera. [tb] It includes this tidbit:

I mention to Andy that we were passing the junction of the Old Gunbarrel Highway, which he would like to do, but you need an additional permit for that road and information on my map tells me that you need a minimum of between 2 and 5 vehicles in your convoy with effective communication equipment, so we will have to save that journey for another time.

At the weather station, resides Len Beadell’s grader:

I love this sort of stuff; the left-over pieces of what were very great adventures at the scale at which they happened.

Beadell with a flat tire [source]

Beadell must have been hard as iron; I’ve lifted Land Rovers with the damned bumper jacks those things come with, and changing a tire on one is not fun – it’s about an hour’s work when you’re good at it. At one point he was going through an area where there were spiny trees that left spikes that could go right through the tires – so he had to drive a bit, fix a flat, drive a bit, fix a flat, drive a bit… Nope, nope, no thank you. For one thing, those big fat tires are hellacious to get off a rim and for another, they hadn’t invented tire pluggers yet, and finally I am betting he had a manual pump. So make that a 2 hour process, and it would have been hot work.

After spending all day yesterday dealing with airline boarding processes, customs, and airport security (and a 1-hour delay in JFK airport waiting while they “rebooted” the plane) I feel better about the kind of travel I have to deal with. Suddenly, it seems not so bad.

------ divider ------

It’s a good read but I’m not adding it to my recommended list; it’s a specialized interest – for people who enjoy suffering in high spirits.

The Gary Junction Road [wikipedia]


  1. says

    After spending all day yesterday dealing with airline boarding processes, customs, and airport security (and a 1-hour delay in JFK airport waiting while they “rebooted” the plane) I feel better about the kind of travel I have to deal with. Suddenly, it seems not so bad.

    From my perspective, the kind of travel you have to deal with is extremely comfortable.

    Comfort and human perception thereof is relative. An identical experience can seem either awful or comfortable for different people based on how much poverty induced crap they have experienced beforehand. For example, about five years ago I ended up living in an apartment with no heating (it was spring and air temperature outside was only a few degrees above freezing). There was no shower, no hot water, no bed, even no mattress. I was sleeping on the floor on a blanket. After living like this for about a month I finally got a shower installed. At that point, simply having a shower with icy cold water felt extremely comfortable for me.

    Once you travel on a tight budget, it’s a whole different experience compared to yours. Rich people tend to complain about budget flights, and I don’t really get what their problems are. I find air travel inherently comfortable. I have experienced over 20 hours long bus rides on bumpy roads. In comparison, spending 10 hours on a plane is amazing. Granted, apparently my legs aren’t long enough to complain about leg room and I don’t need wide seats anyway.

    Or consider accommodation. If you want to find a cheap place where to sleep, you’ll have to share a room with a bunch of other people with all the resulting discomforts — narrow beds, a line for the bathroom, noise at night. And that’s if you are lucky.

    Once, while traveling through Germany, I ended up sleeping on the floor (in a borrowed sleeping bag) and I had to share the room with about 5 other people. That wasn’t so bad in itself, but there was a catch. We had a party that evening and everybody was leaving the party at a different time. I was one of the first to leave the party. I got to my room and went to sleep. About an hour later my phone rings. I had to get up in order to unlock the door and let the other person in. I went to sleep again. Half an hour later my phone rings again. There’s another person waiting outside the doors. I didn’t get to sleep until everybody had left the party. We didn’t have locks for the doors, so whoever was inside had to open the doors for others.

    On another occasion I was participating in a debate tournament somewhere in the Baltic States (there have been so many such tournaments, that I no longer remember which one it was). I was sleeping in the student dormitories and I was sharing my room with only one other person. Beds were too narrow for my taste, but overall it should have been fine. Except for one pesky catch. Those in charge of the student dormitories didn’t feel like heating them much. And the blankets we got were pretty thin. Despite sleeping with my clothes on, I hardly got any sleep, because I was shivering all the time.

    Just having a hotel room with a large comfy bed where nobody disturbs you is great from my perspective. Travel can get a lot less comfortable, once you don’t have money to throw at the problem.

    Overall I find it useful to be able to put up with discomfort. If shit happens and I get some unpleasant surprise (for example, that comfy bed I was counting on becomes unavailable for whatever reason), I always have other options, for example, I can just go somewhere else and sleep on the floor. More importantly, these kind of unpleasant surprises do not make me grumpy, they don’t ruin my mood. I end up enjoying the trip despite the minor discomforts. By the way, I love traveling despite the fact that I usually travel on a pretty tight budget.

  2. says

    Speaking of book recommendations, today I just finished reading “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Mark Twain. I loved it. The way how Mark Twain demolished Cooper’s work was amazing. I wish I could be so eloquent.

    By the way, those mistakes Mark Twain pointed at were mostly basic. Even before I started studying for my degree in philology, I had already learned in school’s literature lessons that in a good fictional work there has to be a plot that results with some conclusion, that characters have to be believable, their speech must stay consistent and so on. That’s really basic stuff. The things they teach in university literature courses go way beyond that.

    Personally, when I read literature, I usually do that with the intent to enjoy the story. I don’t intentionally analyze the text. This is why, when reading for fun, I notice these kinds of mistakes only sometimes (when they are extremely obvious). Whenever I have to analyze a text and consciously and intentionally think about how literary theory applies to it, reading becomes less enjoyable for me.

  3. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#2:
    We should have a “naps from hell” thread. In my old gaming group we called them “no shit, there I was…” stories. I’ve slept in some pretty bad places, including a park bench in New York.

  4. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#3:
    The way how Mark Twain demolished Cooper’s work was amazing.

    It’s terrifying, isn’t it? I wish I could read his review of 50 Shades of Gray or Twilight. Or perhaps The Da Vinci Code.

    That Cooper’s mistakes were mostly basic makes Twain’s attack much more damaging. After I had read Cooper, my dad led a family “read aloud” around the dinner fireplace, which had us snorting and giggling at the stuff in Cooper that we had mostly breezed by without noticing. The whole scene with the barge on the river is so priceless I have to go back and read it now.

  5. says

    We should have a “naps from hell” thread.

    For me the naps themselves aren’t the problem. As long as I’m asleep, I’m fine. Instead I’d call that “awakenings from hell”: for me the unpleasant part is the moment when I wake up from a bad nap.

    My worst awakening even happened at school when I was about 17. I routinely slept at school during lessons, I’d just put my head on the table and sleep. The first time I did that was in a math lesson. I was way ahead of everybody else in my class back then. My math teacher wrote a task on the blackboard and I knew the answer even before she had finished writing the task, it seemed that simple for me. So I signaled my teacher that I can give the answer. She silenced me and said that she needs my classmates to solve it, that I cannot just immediately tell the answer of the task. Looking around I realized that it will take lots of time for my classmates to solve the task, so at that moment I just put my head on the table and decided that it was time for a nap. After that I routinely slept during lessons, especially mathematics, where lessons were simply way too easy for me. Sleeping in lessons went well for me for a while until that one time where it ended with a disastrous awakening. In a break before a physics lessons I had fallen asleep with my head on my table. Somehow I didn’t wake up the moment the physics lesson started; instead I slept for most of the duration of the lesson. And then I woke up to realize that the lesson was almost over. And I freaked out. I didn’t want to miss that lesson. The teacher had covered some new stuff that I didn’t understand. Moreover, I never wanted to sleep during a lesson of that teacher. At school I had some teachers I didn’t like and mostly ignored (like my math teacher during whose lessons I regularly slept). And I also had some teachers I respected and didn’t want to make angry (like the physics teacher in whose lesson I had accidentally fallen asleep). After that fiasco I became much more careful about sleeping at school.

    My second worst awakening was in tree branches about three meters above the ground. As a child I enjoyed climbing in trees. On that occasion I had climbed an old plum tree and sat in the branches for a while. And then I fell asleep. The good news is that I didn’t fall down from the tree. The bad news is that the moment when I woke up really sucked. My whole body was stiff and my legs really hurt.

    Another unpleasant awakening happened about two years ago. At home I have a 160cm wide bed, so I’m used to the comfort of wide beds. Back then I was sleeping in student dormitories on an annoyingly narrow bed, so narrow that I could hardly turn around. And during my sleep I just fell down from the bed. I woke up as a result of the impact and pain that was caused by falling out of my bed and landing on the floor. That one hurt.

    It’s terrifying, isn’t it? I wish I could read his review of 50 Shades of Gray or Twilight. Or perhaps The Da Vinci Code.

    Yes, I’d like that too.