Australia is such a big country – at some stage your travelling journey could see you on a dirt road or two. And if you find yourself around northern South Australia or south-west Queensland, one of these could be the Birdsville Track. This 500-plus kilometres of outback dirt road is iconic, to say the least.
It runs through three deserts between Marree and Birdsville, so it’s pretty remote and you can’t be complacent or take anything for granted. When people have differing opinions and perceptions of road conditions in general, it’s not until you have first-hand experience that you truly get a real sense of the conditions. Suffice to say, the Birdsville Track isn’t the type you treat as if you’re simply going on a Sunday drive.
While travelling the Birdsville Track on a recent trip, we came across a traveller who had gotten himself into a sticky situation. He’d had some tyre problems and attempted to fix the issue, but recognised he wasn’t able to. He then attempted to leave his vehicle and walk 52km to get help, taking off during the heat of the day with just one bottle of water.
Now, that’s not a good situation any way you look at it, and the alarm bells screamed disaster. Naturally, we stopped to help when coming across this scenario. Here’s what happened…
The vehicle’s driver (let’s call him Nick) explained he’d been travelling along the track about 100km from Marree when he experienced severe pulling on the vehicle’s steering wheel. Glancing in the side mirror, he noticed his right-hand rear tyre was flat and being torn apart.
After pulling his vehicle over to jack it up and swap out the damaged wheel and tyre, Nick found his spare wheel wasn’t going to get him out of trouble – it had a completely different bolt pattern to his car.
Without a spare and no mobile phone reception to call for help, Nick decided to leave his jacked-up vehicle and walk. His intentions were to walk around 50km further up the Birdsville Track to reach the facilities at the Mungerannie Hotel.
Upon hearing Nick’s story, we reflected on how we’ve come across our share of stranded vehicles during our travels. Even finding a stranded vehicle in the middle of nowhere can be unnerving. It is something we treat with a level of caution.
As a rule of thumb, the first thing we do is to always slow down when approaching a stationary vehicle. We’ll also jump on the UHF to see if we get a response before slowing down any further. In this case we didn’t get an answer, so we slowed right down while driving past the vehicle so we could at least see if anyone was inside. It was empty.
Glancing up the Birdsville Track, we saw a person walking ahead of us in the distance wearing a baseball cap and backpack. We pulled up alongside the walker and learnt he was the vehicle’s owner.
He explained what had happened an hour earlier and was off to get help. As it was now the middle of the day and the temperature was hovering in the low 30s, we suggested that wasn’t a good idea. We said he should return to his vehicle to see if we could help him out.
REPLACING THE TYRE
Being unable to accommodate a third person in our vehicle, we offered to take Nick’s shredded tyre to the Mungerannie Hotel for a replacement while he stayed with his vehicle. We thought it would be a long shot the hotel carried that sized tyre, but hopeful they’d stock something that would be good enough to get him out of trouble.
We threw the wrecked tyre up onto our roof rack and gave him our names so he could at least chat with any passing vehicles for updates we could relay to travellers heading his direction. We made sure Nick had plenty of water and could sit the waiting time out in the shade.
Before we took off, Nick mentioned he had a mechanic go over his vehicle before undertaking the Birdsville Track. Four new tyres had been fitted and the spare was given the once over and been given the all clear!
The size of the damaged proved to be a problem, as expected. As far as outback services go, the Mungerannie Hotel is right up there and carries a good range of popular tyre sizes used in the outback. But the wrecked bitumen road-style tyre wasn’t one of them.
After having a chat to the hotel publican (who wears an assortment of hats, including tyre mechanic), it was decided to put a different-size tyre on the rim so he could at least get this broken-down traveller mobile. While that’s not ideal, Nick would at least be able to get going at a slower pace.
Getting back to Nick and his stranded vehicle with the oversized tyre, we began the job of swapping wheels around. The good front wheel was moved to the rear to make way for the new oversized wheel combo being fitted to the front. This approach was taken to stop the rear differential from potentially being damaged due to the difference in tyre size. We also explained to Nick that using 4WD with the larger tyre was out, as the front diff would otherwise be damaged.
BACK ON THE BIRDSVILLE TRACK
With the vehicle now sitting back on the ground, albeit on a bit of a lean, a quick check revealed his tyre pressures were all at blacktop highway levels. That’s far from ideal for dirt roads like the Birdsville Track. This stranded traveller also wasn’t carrying any gear to measure or lower his tyre pressures, so we went around and dropped a bit of air out of them for him.
Nick was now ready to hit the track again. But there were still 400km of rocky road conditions ahead before reaching Birdsville. And without a spare, we thought he was taking a big risk if he continued. We suggested his best bet was to turn around and head back to Marree, where he’d have a better chance of getting the correct size tyre and possibly a spare that fitted his vehicle.
At least for his own safety, we suggested he give the Birdsville Track a miss until he was a little more prepared. With that, we offered Nick the use of our satellite phone to alert family that he was okay but needed to change his travel plans.
By now you’re probably thinking how on earth did this guy get it so wrong? Well, it just goes to show how easily things can go pear-shaped when you’re not prepared.
SOME GOOD ADVICE
Nick asked us what advice and tips we could give him for outback travel. This is what we shared with him…
Talk to other travellers, roadhouses or service stations about road and track conditions before setting off. Also find what mobile coverage there is (if any), and what help might be available if you get into strife.
If Nick had asked any of the travellers coming off the Birdsville Track, he would have heard numerous stories about flat tyre stories. He would have also learnt phone coverage was almost non-existent and that he needed to be prepared.
The key here is to always have tyres that suit the terrain. In this case, a good all-round, popular outback size is important. An all-terrain light truck tyre is our preferred choice for Nick’s style of vehicle.
Check your spare is in good condition before setting off. This entails having suitable tread, holding pressure, and the correct wheel rim for your vehicle. We would go so far as making sure it could be removed from its location and that your jack, tools and base plate were in good working order.
We like to carry a second spare for peace of mind. By carrying a correctly-sized tyre carcass for your vehicle, it can at the very least, be fitted by a tyre fitter or someone who has the tools and knowledge to change a tyre carcass on the road.
Ensure your hand tools are sized correctly for your wheel nuts and that they’re able to be undone and retightened. We’ve seen nuts that are ‘frozen’ on tight, caused by incorrectly torqued rattle guns. Not what you want to find out when you’re on some remote track.
Being able to measure tyre pressures and having a process that allows you to lower pressures while on the road is paramount. It’s our belief that a tyre with a lower pressure will roll over rocks and stones much easier, reducing the risk of puncture.
Stop immediately if you notice a tyre going flat to prevent any further damage. You will need a compressor suitable enough to inflate the tyre and carry a tyre plug kit. With a little bit of experience and know-how, you can plug the leak well enough to keep you going until a more substantial repair can be achieved.
TYRE SENSOR MONITORING
Often it can be hard to notice if you have a flat tyre on dirt roads until it’s too late. Having some level of pressure monitoring for your tyres is a great idea. An alarm alerts you when things go wrong, so you can take appropriate action before it’s all too late.
If you have no choice and need to call for help, it’s paramount to stay with your vehicle. Set something up roadside so passing travellers can see you need help. There are numerous options available when it comes to emergency communications, so do some research. We carry a satellite phone for outback/remote-area travel.
The adage of being prepared still applies with today’s modern ways of travel, and even more so when it’s in the Aussie outback. Yes, a breakdown of any sort will stop you in your tracks, but having the right tools and some knowledge could see you mobile again sooner rather than later.
Interestingly, Nick was able to get things fixed and is now working on equipping his rig and educating himself to tackle the Birdsvillle Track again in the future. He assures us it won’t be his tyres that bring him to a standstill next time.
While this story could have had a completely different ending, lessons have been learnt and everything worked out well in the end. And that’s the best outcome we could have all hoped for.