You’ve never been in a storm until you’ve been in a desert storm. Not the kind that happened in the Gulf War all those years ago, the kind where you are out in the desert and it rains and rains so hard you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
When it rains in the city people duck for cover, the roads and drains flood, the emergency services warn people not to drive through flood waters, idiots drive through flood waters and someone can always be guaranteed to get out a canoe or surf board to ride the Main St rapids. In the desert there is none of that, when a storm hits the desert there is nowhere to hide. How do I know? Let me tell you.
It was suppose to be the holiday of a lifetime. Seven months, a four wheel drive wagon, an eighteen foot caravan and just the two of us roaming the country with no agenda and no time table. Australia is a big place when you stick to the bitumen roads, but it gets infinitely bigger when you start exploring the side roads and dirt tracks and that’s exactly what we were doing.
We left the small town of Border Village, which is little more than a truck stop and some rental cabins on the border of South Australia and Western Australia not long after breakfast. Because of the central time zone which no one but the few locals seem to adhere to breakfast could have been at any time but the sun had been up for a good hour or two before we actually hit the road.
We’d been on the road about thirty minutes when I took a dirt road which would not only take us further into the desert but also lead us to an attraction that no tourist could miss. We’d heard about this ‘secret’ tourist attraction from another traveller a few days prior to our stop at Border Village, they’d promised us something we just couldn’t miss and something we’d never forget. Of course we had no idea what that attraction was and we couldn’t actually find it on any maps, because it was a secret, but that made it all the more tempting to us.
Our fellow traveller showed us the roads we needed to follow and the exact location of the ‘secret’ on our worn out paper maps. Now you might be asking yourself why we’d be following the directions of a stranger to a place that wasn’t on any map in the middle of nowhere, but that’s what travelling is all about. Sure we’ve all seen movies like Wolf Creek where out in the middle of the desert some psychopath is just waiting to kill people but the reality is that just doesn’t happen. There is more chance of being attacked by a boxing kangaroo than a psychopath.
We were headed north east along a dead straight stretch of red dirt. The day was warming and it would not be long before the temperature was well into the thirties and headed straight onto the forties. The sky was cloudless and the sun was like a huge burning ball in the sky, it was a sun and heat like we’d never found in any city. As it was still before lunch the sun was still rising in the eastern sky and I was constantly cursing, to myself and out aloud, about how annoying the blaring yellow ball was and how much I wished it would just get out of my face.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that twenty minutes later I was going to be granted that wish when clouds would seemingly appear from no where and cover the sun. That’s right in twenty minutes we went from a cloudless blue sky to a cloud filled sky with the sun trying hard to force its rays through the white clouds. Then ten minutes after that the sky turned black, every white cloud had almost instantly transformed to black and I found myself wondering if this was what I really had in mind when I made the wish for the sun to disappear.
Less than ten minutes after the clouds turned black the rain started. We’ve all been caught in storms where the rain seems to go from nothing to large, heavy drops of teeming rain in seconds but I had never seen it change like it did in the outback that day. Looking back I remember seeing the first drop hit the windshield then before the second drop registered in my mind the rain was hammering on so hard on the glass I wondered if it wouldn’t break.
Immediately I switched the windscreen wipers on to their fastest setting and hoped it was enough to clear the screen. Each swipe of the wipers cleared the windscreen just long enough to allow me to get my bearings on the unmade road before again being covered in water. I dropped the speed down to less than forty kilometres per hour, I could still feel the bulldust filled ruts as the tyres bounced over them. I turned the headlights on and gripped the steering wheel tighter.
Had it not been for the deafening thump of the pounding rain on the tin roof of the car I’m sure we’d have heard the massive claps of thunder, claps that roared through the desert like a bass drum. Instead of the thunder what we got was the semi regular blasts of lightening, lightening that turned the dark sky into daylight with each flash. Despite the headlights trying to cut through the teaming rain they were failing and with every fork of lighting it was like looking at a camera flash going off in a dark room.
Through the strobing lightening and the swipe of the wipers I squinted to see out through the windscreen. The road had gone from a dry corrugated dirt bowl with dust rising from it to a darkened pool of water with every corrugation, every pothole and the spoon drains on either side of the road filled with water. Swamps of water took any path they wanted too as they made their way across the road.
In hindsight I should have stopped the car but it was too easy to convince myself otherwise. Looking in the side mirrors I could barely even see the caravan behind us, one of the running lights had blown several days before, but even if I’d fixed it I doubted the replaced light would have made any difference to what I could see of the van. But the main reason I couldn’t bring myself to pull over was because stopping on a desert road in a storm where visibility was so low was just an accident waiting to happen, even on a quiet road where we’d seen no traffic for hours.
I could feel every bounce of the caravan as it leapt over and through potholes, each bounce was transferred into the car via the tow bar making the rear of the car jolt. But it wasn’t until I felt the caravan lift and begin aquaplaning on the massive amount of water flowing under it that I knew we were in trouble.
The caravan gently slid side to side on the water, a move that on dry bitumen would have been easily remedied but on water I had no chance. Then in a move I knew was coming caravan flung left then quickly flung right yanking the rear end of the four wheel drive with it. I knew there was little I could do, slamming on the brakes would only result in the wheels stopping and allowing the water to take over. Pounding on the accelerator while possibly pulling the caravan into a straight line was unlikely given the way it was moving and the water that was moving it.
When the back of the car started to float on the water I knew there was absolutely nothing else I could do so instead of trying I simple I turned to my left looked over to my wife in the passenger seat and said the words, “I’m sorry,” if she heard me I’ll never know.
When I woke up the storm had cleared although I could still smell dampness and hear water running somewhere close. The sun was once again shining down and although I couldn’t see it I could feel the warmth of it. I could also hear the engine of the car still running.
I was upright in my seat and my seatbelt was still wrapped around me. I could feel a throbbing pain that ran from my right shoulder and diagonally down my ribs where the seat belt had held me forcefully against the back rest of the seat. I could also feel pain in my left knee wish was pushed up hard against the steering column. I tried to move my leg slightly just to get an idea of where the pain was and how much it hurt to move. I was enough to make me cry out in pain.
Then I opened my eyes, turned my head and realised I also had pain in my neck like I’d never felt before. As I looked toward the seat my wife was sitting in the first thing I noticed was a large tree limb pinned which was pinning my wife to her seat.
It was then I realised there is one pain worse than any other. The pain of knowing I hurt the one I loved.