The Breakdown (Again)

The holiday season was closing in and I found the once secluded riverside setting to be shared by other campers. I sought and thought to move on and relished the feeling of freedom common to life on the road, it was time to move. Slowly the expanded camp withdrew – table stowed, chair stowed, awning wound in, groundsheet folded, top un-popped, dishes done, bed made, engine started, last check – and then moving slowly back over the rough highway of river rocks, the van leaning back and forth as if it had legs instead of wheels.

Driving back along the dusty way I switched into search mode and my eyes fell upon every side road or unfenced area for opportunity to camp. No luck so far. East toward Casino my mind was drawn to a forest I drove by months ago, I nosed south and made way along the wide and smooth road toward Grafton.

This whole area suffered huge amounts of rain and flooding over the past few weeks and was just beginning to dry out, I turned down a non-descript road and went in search of unfound and unvisited hideaways, the lost road was narrow and muddy, the van sliding through waterlogged sections where the sun had yet to evaporate. I came to a turn and stopped, looks a bit deep I mused and got out – the mud squishing between my bare toes. I walked past the van and around a corner hidden by trees to find deep inverted carvings of mud and water where nought but a well cleared four wheel drive would dare to venture – I’ll have to turn around came the thought – I walked back to look for a decent place to turn, froze as a small brown snake slithered off into the scrub then I cautiously retreated to the driver’s seat to get back to the main road.

A nervous 5 point turn on the recently flooded track saw me back the way I came – again – and onto the asphalt for a better find.

Pine forest, always an easy option for seclusion and free camping, I turned off the highway and drove on, splashes of brown water passing above the side windows as I investigated the potential of the woods.

Bigger than I had ever thought and not a soul in sight, Easter holidays had just begun and I liked the chances of having this whole place to myself. Along forest boundary I bounced and wound in search of suitable location, nothing here I thought and wheeled right to cross open paddock – I sought the far tree line for potential sanctuary yet my distant dreams came to a muddy reality. That sinking feeling as the front lowered more than normal – I hit ‘R’ in attempt to reverse the instant mistake and found no backward traction – another sinking feeling, in my stomach and I paused in disbelief.

The front wheels had sunk a few inches which in this slippery clay was well enough to have me stuck, through lament and reserved sigh I got to action finding tools to deliver me from difficult situation.

It felt like an hour, a helpless spin of the rear wheels, wet pine branches used to hammer other wet pine branches deep into the mud, a thought of good enough, a desperate back and forth rocking in reverse, a few inches gained followed by more wet branches and more hammering. Almost, I had worked out a technique and convinced myself that eventually the wheels would have traction and be removed from this trap. And relief, a whole wheel rotation of movement, I jumped in and reversed well clear of the mud. Carefully I took the long dry track from whence I came to reach the trees I saw and wanted.

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But something was wrong, I was driving slowly, not that slowly, yet it seemed I was staying in first gear – what speed was I doing? I glanced at the dash, nothing, the needle was dead, at rest. I stopped the engine and took a few long breaths before starting it again, allowing it – somewhat – to take its own breath. Alas the problem remained. An internet search revealed potential diagnosis yet no roadside remedy gave solution. It was Easter Friday and not one mechanic would be open for days, I chose a spot among the planted pines and settled in for my next camp.

The days to follow were silent, I forgot about my problems for then. I went for long walks and paused frequently, standing in stillness. Wherever a multitude of trees grow there is a great quiet and I revelled in the tranquillity – nothing to do but grow, and to grow for so long requires an absence of distraction. I in turn could focus along with my leafy friends.

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The last sleep before I would attempt to get to civilisation, I awoke at midnight to a spotlight shining in through the window – men with guns rode atop a four wheel drive ute bound for noise and killing. I felt the fury and fear of the forest. Before I could open the door they sped off down the narrow forest road and I lay my head back on the pillow. Sometime later – as I was near sleep once more – they stopped by the van again, speaking something I recognised not and drove off, wheels spitting dirt and rocks over the van. I slept poorly for the rest of the night.

With the day begun I called for a tow and slowly made my way to the edge of the forest on a single gear. The first movement saw my van on a flat bed truck, the whine of hydraulics, the thunk of heavy tie down straps as the tow truck driver secured my home to his – a familiar experience – and we made way to Casino. I was booked to see the mechanic tomorrow so chose to be dropped at a caravan park to rest in luxury for the night.

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