Hao really sounded concerned. “I don’t think we have enough fuel!”
The response from the six passengers was immediate and uniform: absolute alarm! All eyes were wide open; books, iPods and other distractions cast aside.
We were in the Western Australian desert. Cyclone Ingrid had hit the State north of the region only a week before with all the ferocity of a Category 4 storm. The further north we pushed, the hotter it was becoming. Today, it was a scorching, brain-melting 52°C (126°F) in the shade. It was overwhelming. And the moisture in the air was oppressive, measuring at 100% humidity. The prospect of being stranded on a highway that stretched, literally, for hundreds of kilometres with nothing but desert between towns and roadhouses was cause for serious concern.
Up to now, we had been following a routine to which we’d all become accustomed while touring the vast State. Wake up, check out, lunch, drive for hours, make sound check, dinner and drink (champagne), perform, drink and shoot pool at the local pub before turning in. Rinse and repeat for the next gig!
Following this routine, we were pushing northward, thousands of kilometres, in a rented 12-seater, singing in towns and cities along the way. Hao did almost all the driving: only two of our troupe were licensed to drive vehicles of this size. Our Toyota Hiace made the going rather uncomfortable—while well-suited to shuttling people short distances around town, the vehicle wasn’t so comfortable on four- to six-hour stretches at up to 150 kilometres per hour with its firm, utilitarian seating, lack of insulation from road and engine noise, and loose suspension. Usually, we killed time by reading, listening to music, telling jokes, or singing 80’s tunes. Sometimes, we simply sprawled across the seats and dozed awkwardly between pitstops and violent lurches. Nonetheless, the tour was proceeding very well and we were all enjoying ourselves.
That is, until now, running out of fuel. This was not routine!
Sure, we were on the main highway: we knew logically that—come on, now!—we could not be in any real danger… but news of people stranded in the Western Australian desert is common—people are often not found for days, and sometimes found not alive—I’m sure such thoughts were passing through others’ minds just as they were mine. At any rate, notwithstanding that we might not actually be in any imminent, physical danger, it could still be hours before another vehicle passed our way that we could flag down for help. Much of the State does not have mobile phone coverage. Based on an estimated total travel time of almost eight hours, we figured we had less than a two-hour margin to make our scheduled performance. To be late for a gig would be bad enough; to miss it altogether would be unthinkable.
“How much fuel do we have? How much farther do you think we can go?” The needle on the fuel gauge was hanging heavily only a fraction above the “E” for “empty”. I recalled my father’s old Hiace. “There’s definitely more fuel after ’empty’,” I said. But none of us could say how far the needle could continue below the “E” before the engine would give out.
“How far away are we from the next town?” No GPS. Only touring roadmaps. The Pilbara landscape is hour after hour of sameness, unencumbered by distinguishing landmarks. We had no idea where we actually were.
And the fuel indicator was falling steadily right before our nervous gaze.
“Hao, slow down!” Hao’s cruising speed had been a steady 140 kph. “Yeah?” he asked. “Why?” Driving at that speed burned fuel faster. Down at 100 kph, we suddenly felt like we had slowed to a crawl; the next fuel bowser—wherever that was—now seemed so much further away.
“Turn off the air conditioner and the stereo!” Off they went and the road got louder and the cabin got hotter. The minibus was a tin can on wheels over searing bitumen that had to be at least 10°C hotter than the surrounding air. Some of us opened windows. “No! No! Close the windows! You’re creating drag!” The temperature climbed rapidly in the interior. It was getting close to unbearable.
The needle was now below “empty” and still falling. Rowan, our pianist, started doing calculations. “Let’s see… how long was it since we last saw a petrol station? And the distance from Carnarvon to Karratha is about 650 kilometres, right? Assuming at least two roadhouses or petrol stations along the way, we are probably 50 to 100 kilometres from the next stop… If we were less than ten, I could probably jog it!”
“Are you crazy? In this heat?” I asked. “Remember Chevy Chase in National Lampoon Vacation when he goes jogging for help in the desert? Well, that’s gonna be you, only worse!”
“I don’t know why I didn’t fill up at the last stop!” Hao lamented. “I thought we had plenty of fuel but since then I’ve been watching this needle fall really quickly.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s falling any more now,” Rowan said. He was right. The needle had sunk as far as it could. It was sitting plumb on the bottom of the dial.
“Shit!” Hao said. We were all truly anxious now. But, almost as if it had something to prove, the bus drove on, resolutely, albeit achingly slowly.
After another ten or so minutes, a small structure appeared not much bigger than a dot on the flat horizon far ahead. We pointed and jabbered excitedly—it had to be a roadhouse!—and the engine rejoined with a sputter! “Oh, shit!” we responded in unison. Even if we could walk from here to the distant building, even if it was indeed a roadhouse, it was going to take a long time—too long. We began to coax and plead with our bus not to give up now, we were almost there, just another couple of minutes, come on, you can do it…
Cyclone Ingrid and the heat were proving to be very uncomfortable. I will tell you how our bus fared in Part 2 and then what happened when we finally made it to the theatre!