Losing the car

I’d often thought about visiting Blackbraes National park 180 km north of Hughenden. The area is always hot and uncomfortable, and I’ve always been on the way to somewhere else and just waved as I went through.

The monsoon arrived in North Queensland just after the new year, and the weather was cool, but very wet on the coast. Inland and south was cool and dry, so I seized the opportunity to camp for a couple of nights at Blackbraes Emu Swamp and catch up on the birds there.

I drove down after lunch on Tuesday 3rd, taking 5 hours for the drive. There was some water on the road, but nothing more than a few cm, maybe 15 cm deep on he Einsleigh crossing just south of Lyndhurst. 

Blackbraes has a ranger base 4 km off the main road, with no one in attendance when I went through, and no information at the office. The road out to the swamp was well signposted with enough muddy patches to have 4 wd engaged for the track out to the swamp, 18 km from the ranger base. I crossed the Copperfield river,  about 25cm deep halfway to the swamp, then another small stream, 10 cm deep, with 2 km to go. Here were no other issues during the drive.  The camping areas were identified by signs telling me to camp only on the mown areas, with none visible. I camped on flat ground on the north side with a good view of the lake. 

On Wednesday I walked around a bit, crossing the dam wall back to the entry signs and north up the track to a T junction and fence. The road kept on along the fence, heading for Oak Park and Glendale stations eventually I guess.

Heavy rain all night. I later heard that around 100 mm had fallen.

Thursday morning I packed up to leave and set off by 7 :30, making it past Emu Bore to a small creek running at about 50cm deep. It had a fast flow but it looked ok to cross. The flow picked up my trailer and washed it downstream, turning the car to face into the flow. Engine stopped at that point. I did not attempt to restart while the bow wave was up around the bullbar.

Water was rising visibly, eventually covering the seats before dropping to safer levels. I was then able to get out of the car and set the winch cable to a tree and pulled the car until the exhaust pipe emerged from the water. The engine would turn over at this time, but weakly, as the battery was quite low (11.5v). The secondary battery was also low (11.3v) after being camped for several days, running a fridge and the engine had not run enough to recharge it. I swapped in a third battery, but again it was only at 11.2 v and did not turn the engine sufficiently to start.

By this point it was midday and I decided to go for help while I had enough daylight, as my satellite backup phone had gone underwater and was not functioning. There is no mobile service for hundreds of kms.

I left the best battery to charge on a solar array on top of the rooftop tent, packed up some food and a space blanket and started walking.

The 15 km to the abandoned ranger base took about 4 hours, with the Copperfield river a deep wade, over my waist but not a strong flow. Certainly enough to have stopped the car had I even got that far.

 I was hoping for phone or radio access at the base, but everything was locked up tight, with security screens. The bit of luck was a recliner on the verandah of one of the houses, so I was able to sleep well, dry and warm, although in wet clothes. And well fed on cheese and ham sandwiches, mangoes and pawpaw. Parka around my feet, red jacket on top, and wrapped in the space blanket. I was not prepared to break anything at this point, so decided that if no help was available I would walk to the next station to the south (24 km) via the main road,  hoping for a lift but knowing that was not too likely as to the northern access would be blocked by the einsleigh river.

On Friday morning I set out by 6:30, walking four km out to the road, then about another 4 km along it when a car came by heading south. Miracles do happen. Dale had come from Glendale station to the north, heading for Townsville to pick up his partner. He was delighted to take me the 180 km into Hughenden and made sure I was being looked after by the tourist office before heading on.

I bought some clean and dry! clothes and lunch and took the Rex flight (cheaper than the fuel to even drive it) into Townsville to stay overnight at Mercure hotel. I celebrated my survival with a really good dinner in their restaurant. Then a bus to cairns on Saturday morning with Astrid picking me up to go home.

An email came in while I was on the bus from the ranger in charge at Blackbraes. He was so relieved to have found me! My car had been spotted on Friday by a helicopter and reported by a local grazier. He checked his records and knew I was out there and sent another helicopter out to specifically look for me. He drove as far as the Copperfield river but declined the crossing. Nice to know that someone was worried by my absence. He will try to bring my car into the base if the water drops, but he thinks that could be months away. He has now closed the campground.

I called around several towing and recovery services in Cairns and none would attempt to get to the car. They can only go on a hard surface, bitumen for preference, and certainly not on a 4WD track. So some how the car has to get to the ranger base at least, if not to Lyndhurst station which is on the bitumen.

I had arranged with Pete to hire a 4WD and drive out to attempt a recovery but the ranger advises that water is still too high so I’ll just have to leave it there for now. The main road north of Lyndhurst is also still closed by Main Roads due to flood water, and the Einsleigh river crossing remains a problem. I’ll be watching with interest.

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