22-Dec-2007 -- This confluence remains one of only two unvisited land-based confluences in New South Wales, both of which I have now unsuccessfully attempted; but this one with quite a tale to it.
I put quite a bit of planning in for this confluence located in a very isolated part of upper-western NSW. I contacted the manager of ‘Gidgee Station’ several weeks ago and obtained permission to drive through that station. With there being at least 150 kilometres to drive on unsealed roads of varying and/or unknown quality, I decided to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle out of Cobar which would be my base for the expedition.
Cobar Shire is situated in the centre of NSW at the crossroads of the Barrier Highway and the Kidman Way. With an area of 44,065 km squared, the Shire is almost the same size as the whole of Tasmania. It is home to 7,000 people, the majority of whom - 5,500 - live in the town of Cobar. The Shire's prosperity is built around the thriving mining - copper, lead, silver, zinc, gold - and pastoral industries.
The trip started on Friday 21 December 2007 when we left our home in Echuca, Victoria early in the morning to drive to Cobar via an easy confluence at 34S-146E. It had been raining in western NSW for the past two or three days with quite severe thunderstorms in some places and I had been checking daily with the Cobar Shire Council as to the state of the local roads. As we approached Cobar there was quite a lot of water around and lots of usually dormant creeks were flowing.
After checking into our motel at about 3:30pm, we went to the car-hire place to collect our vehicle for the next day’s adventure. At the car-hire place there was a notice issued on Friday morning that all unsealed roads in the Cobar Shire were closed to heavy vehicles but were all open for light vehicles. I discussed my intended route to Gidgee Station and a little bit beyond with the guy at the car-hire place who was familiar with the road to Gidgee Station and said that we “should be OK”.
We had dinner at the Cobar Bowling & Golf Club and then went to bed nice and early as we’d had a long tiring day and wanted to make an early start the next day. As we fell asleep, I could hear intermittent thunder and some rain but didn’t think too much of it.
We set off at about 7:15am and there was a little bit of drizzle and a fair bit of water on either side of the sealed road heading out of Cobar towards Louth. The road is sealed for about 50 kilometres, after which it is gravel. From this point we engaged the four-wheel drive and locked the front hubs on the Landcruiser.
The unsealed section of the Cobar-Louth Road was quite drivable and we were comfortably motoring along at 50-60 kph with some minor water over the road every couple of kilometres. We eventually reached the turn-off for Gidgee Station (also known as Cobar Shire No. 4 Road) which was about 34 kilometres short of Gidgee Station. The road was still pretty good, but we had a couple of moderately difficult creek crossings to negotiate in the first five or six kilometres.
About 10 kilometres along the road to Gidgee Station, I spotted another creek a few hundred metres in front of me and had to make a quick decision as to whether to take it at my current speed of 30 kph or slow down and drop into a lower gear. I chose the latter option and as I dropped down a gear my vehicle came to a grinding halt about a metre short of the bank of the creek. I instantly realised that I was in serious trouble and tried a few different manoeuvres of going into reverse and putting the front wheels at full-lock in both directions – but all to no avail. I was well and truly bogged. The right-rear wheel was bogged to the axel and the other three weren’t much better.
It was about 8:45am at this point and we were still more than 20 kilometres short of the nearest station and 10 kilometres from the nearest road that could very well see no traffic today due to the poor conditions.
Whenever I travel in remote areas of Australia I try to take fairly prudent precautions just in case something like this happens. I had told the car-hire place exactly where I was going, so if all else failed I would expect that they would send someone out to look for their missing vehicle if it wasn’t returned after a day or two beyond the nominated return time. My other precautions included a 40-channel CB radio, a personal EPIRB, 45 litres of water and a ‘Next G’ mobile phone.
My mobile phone was out of range as expected, so I started off with the CB radio and issued a distress call on several channels requesting that anyone who picks up my call, responds on a particular channel that I was monitoring between sending out the distress calls. After doing this for about 15 minutes with no result, I took the fairly drastic step of deploying my EPIRB. At about 9:30am the CB radio came to life with a person responding to my distress call. It turns out it was an emergency services aircraft that was en-route to Melbourne that just happened to pick up on my distress call. This was quite a stroke of luck as if I understand the way the COSPAS/SARSAT system works correctly, it can often take a couple of hours before a signal is picked up as there are only a handful of satellites scanning for EPIRBs.
I was able to give my precise location from my trusty Garmin eTrex Legend and reported our status of being irretrievably bogged, but with plenty of water, no injuries and a party of two adults and two children. The aircraft, which identified itself as ‘Rescue 417’, diverted itself and did several low passes at about 10:20am to confirm our position. I was advised to remain with my vehicle unless the creek levels rose such that it was unsafe to do so, and to keep my EPIRB going to assist the local emergency services to which my situation was being handed-over. By now it was about 10:45am and with the emergency services likely to be coming from Cobar, about 90 minutes away, I was loosely expecting help to arrive at about noon or shortly thereafter.
Noon came and went; as did 12:30pm and 1:00pm. We were all starting to get a little bit nervous and speculated that some of the creeks we had already crossed may have since become impassable. Partly to keep us all occupied, but also with some forlorn hope of being able to get out of the bog ourselves, we decided to try digging the wheels out and gathering rocks and sticks to shore up a potential path to reverse out of. We did this quite successfully for about two hours and then the first wave of help finally arrived in the form of an old farmer on a quad-bike and couple of young blokes on trail-bikes at about 3:00pm.
They had come from a station called Booroondarra Downs which was about 30 kilometres away on the other side of the Cobar-Louth Road. The old farmer, Keith, advised that police and ambulance vehicles were staged a few kilometres away but weren’t game to try to cross one of the creeks which had risen significantly in the hours since we’d crossed it. He noted, however, that when he had driven through it five minutes ago the water was barely at knee height so he instructed the young blokes to ride back to the police and tell them that it’s safe to drive through to us. He also told us that a rescue helicopter had been assigned to the matter out of Tamworth (550 kilometres away) but they were have logistical trouble with refueling arrangements to return to their base.
It all happened very quickly from this point. The police arrived in a Nissan Patrol 4WD at about 3:20pm and quickly surveyed the situation. The helicopter then turned up and landed on the road just behind the police car. The helicopter was carrying two paramedics plus the pilot. A few minutes later a road ambulance arrived with another two paramedics, so we now had one paramedic each! Another farmer on a motorbike turned up so the full rescue party of four farmers, two police officers, four paramedics and a helicopter pilot were all in position at about 3:30pm.
The police attached a tow-rope to the respective tow-bars of their vehicle and mine and pulled my Landcruiser out with amazing ease. I made a detailed statement to the police, including an explanation of the degree confluence project, and gave them the personal details of my family and myself. It was then happy-snaps all round as all the paramedics, farmers and police were packing digital cameras.
Now the really ironic part. Within a minute of starting to drive back towards the Cobar-Louth Road, my Telstra Next G mobile phone came into range! Earlier in the day I had dismissed my wife’s suggestion to try climbing a tree to get mobile phone coverage as I didn’t really contemplate that I could possibly get coverage in a place so remote.
So the lessons learned:
1. When doing confluence visits in remote parts of Australia, be very very well prepared.
2. Unsealed roads in flood-prone areas should not be driven on in wet weather.
3. Always carry a CB radio and EPIRB in your vehicle when travelling in remote areas. A winch and a shovel could also come in handy.
4. Listen to your wife!
I’ll finish with a proverb of sorts that I read from a satirical poster from www.despair.com (parodies the Successories series) with the title “Mistakes”:
“It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others”.