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Mike's Top Gear Challenge

a travel blog by Mike_Veine

This blog is a followup to Mike's Magical Mystery Tour where I relocated to Australia and went on an adventure riding a bicycle from Cairns to Darwin- 2800 Kilometers. Now I need to get home over 4,000 kilometers in an under $1,000 car that can carry my bike and gear! Buying and keeping this car running all the way to Melbourne is Mike's Top Gear Challenge!
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So it begins....

Darwin, Australia

This is the first entry for Mike's Top Gear Challenge and my friends Rob K. and Louisa will know what Top Gear is, but for the novices let me explain that Top Gear is a British TV Show where three British Hosts drive cool cars and have insane challenges that they perform with limited funds and other resources involving vehicles in foriegn lands. For example, one of the hosts converted a caravan (trailer) into a Blimp(!) and on another episode they drove cheap motorcycles from Ho Chi Min City in the South of Vietnam to Halong Bay in the North (over 1,000 Miles) in under 8 days.

So since seeing the show I have wanted a Top Gear Challenge and here it is!

In this country where the average price of a good car is probably 30-40,000 dollars and cheap ones go for 3,000 to 5,000 I must buy a vehicle that can carry myself and all of my bicycle gear from Darwin in the North back home to Melbourne in the South or across the entire continent over 5,000 kilometers for under 1,000 dollars.

My mission began today when I went to a local backpacker hostel and looked at message boards with "Car for Sale" notices. I had been led to believe that many cheap cars would be listed by backpackers desperate to sell before their visas ran out and they had to leave the country so I was very disappointed to see only 4 vehicles listed ranging in price from 3,000 - 7,500 dollars!

This looked like a tougher job than I had been led to believe.

I asked around and heard a rumor of an area out the way I had come in on my bike about 30 k away that the backpackers brought the cars to and waited for prospective buyers. I did not feel like a possible 60 k bike round trip today and someone told me cab fare was 70 dollars to get there so I wasn't very keen on that option unless it was my only possible choice. I racked my brain for another solution and found myself near a News Agent where magazines and newspapers are sold and inside I found a free auto listing magazine.

It only showed dealerships, not private sellers so I thought it might not be very useful, but one place listed called itself "Cheap as Chips Cars" so I thought, "that sounds promising!" The cheapest car in the ad was 3,000 dollars, but I thought I might be able to talk them down or they may have a trade in that was in bad shape they would part with for cheap so I called. The number I reached turned out to be the owner of the place and he was in Melbourne of all places so after I explained my bicycle trip and why I needed a cheap car he gave me a local number to call. The number went to a small dealership only 5 blocks from my hotel, but first I called to see if there was anything promising there. The saleman heard my story and said I should come down- he might have something.

When I got to the lot it was postage stamp size and crammed with cars, mostly in the 3- 5,000 range. I saw a very ugly sedan with no price and a blue station wagon that was filthy and had body damage all down its right side that also had no price. I gave my attention to the wagon because it would be easiest to carry my bike in it. It was as dirty on the inside as the out. It wasn't locked so I let myself into it, but I really did not want to sit in the seat because it was that crummy! I popped the hood and the engine was almost immaculate- new plugwires, new power stearing fluid unit, newish radiator...it looked exactly the opposite of the rest of the car!

By this time Rob the salesman came out and I said hello again. He told me he only had one car that had met my description of the dirtiest trade in on the lot and it was the wagon. The car was a 1996 Mitsubishi Magna Exec Station Wagon with a 4 cylinder fuel injected 2.6 litre engine, power steering, AirCon, and automatic door locks.
The windows are roll down style, which is cool 'cause less to go wrong. Under the dirt it was bascially light blue with big dents and damage streaks on it.

I looked it over, opened the hatch door and checked the spare tire compartment and there amongst crud and dead moths was a full size spare with tread and full of air as well as the complete jack assembly- another good sign.

Rob brought the keys and offered to jockey the other cars around so I could take a test drive as soon as he finished with some other customers who were picking up a car.

I started the old blue wagon up and it started right off, but idled pretty roughly...I gassed it and saw that the tach seemed to work and that the fuel gauge showed "Full"- Score! at the gas prices here a full tank is probably 60-70 dollars! I did a quick check on turn signals and lights and everything I could see seemed good. The other really cool thing about the car was that it had ten months registration still on it which is longer than I will be in the country and a big deal here.

By this time Rob was done and he moved the crummy sedan out of the way and I took to the road behind the wheel of a car in Australia for the first time. Driving on the left side was not difficult because I had been doing it on the bike for a month and over 2800 kilometers, but the mirror placement was weird- I was not prepared for looking to the left to see the rear view mirror and remembering that all the body of the car was to my left side was something I had to think about- not automatic at all!

I drove back to the Holiday Inn and parked across the street in the park and stopped and restarted the engine and it backfired a couple of times. It also seemed like the left front shock was weak maybe....I drove back to the dealership and tried to accelerate quickly and the car responded sluggishly and smelled of gas or something. When I got back I tried backing it up and succesfully got back into the lot. Rob and I talked for a couple of minutes and I decided I would take it and see what happened after he called his boss and came down to 900 dollars to meet my price (Under 1,000). Paid for the car and drove it back to the HI and then I walked to the bank and signed up for insurance for vehicle liability.

The system here is different than the US- when you register the car it also pays for all the liability you need if you injure a person. That is automatic. But it does not cover property damage at all. At the bank the clerk put in all the info about my car and accepted my answers about my driving record and I found out that my full property liability insurance was only $22.80 a month and they could automatically deduct it from my account- sweet! Now as an insured driver I went back to the Holiday Inn and looked at the mess litterally (MSPI) that I got myself into. I pulled some junk out and found about $3.00 in change in the car. To clean it was going to take a shop vac, 1,000 gallons of soap and water and about 6 hours I figured.

But I was a new car owner again for the first time in 4 years! Fun or no Fun only time will tell!

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 1, 2012 from Darwin, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Second and Third Days

Katherine, Australia

Mike's Top Gear Challenge continued....

To recap day 1 I purchased the dirtiest car I have ever seen for $900 from "Cheap as Chips Cars"
and I have returned to my hotel to see what I have.

Here's what I found in the car that I kept- 
$3.00 in change
Service Log Book with original purchaser name which was the City of Waverly in Melbourne of all places!
The Magna Owners Manual
1 Ballpoint pen
1 Nice Art Paint Brush
A toothbrush for cleaning in the cracks
A China Plate
A Large Paper Clamp
Various broken trim pieces and odd bolts and fasteners (you never know when these will come in handy)

My vehicle assessment turned up the fact that a slip of a receipt slid into a crack on the steering wheel was the only thing keeping the horn from continuously blaring so that would have to be dealt with. The whole front of the steering wheel was taped on with clear plastic tape so some odd disaster must have occurred in the distant past by the look of the tape's condition....hmmmm

The only other time I spent on the car the first day was reading the owners manual and seeing if all the dash warning lights worked- they did.

On Day 2 my friends, Elizabeth and Peter were meeting me for lunch and relocating me to their house in Humpty Doo about 45 K South of Darwin CBD. Peter kindly offered his mechanics experience to take a look the car to help me get down the road.

I was a bit embarrassed by the condition of the car and that they had easily picked it out in the lot! Peter drives a late model Holden that looks like a Mercedes "S"Class and is a Beaut. All of his vehicles are impeccably maintained. 

Following him to our luncheon spot was a challenge since his car had way more pickup than mine, but I kept close as I could. It was an experience getting the car over 80-100 KPH and seeing how she ran. At about 1900-2200 on the tach the engine shook quite a bit and I had a couple of backfires as well when stepping on the gas.

We did safely arrive at the restaurant and had a light lunch and iced coffees. Elizabeth ran into a friend in the parking lot who was too polite to ask who the fool with the shit car was who was with them.

Driving to their place I got up to even higher speeds following Peter and the car kept chugging- I was encouraged that the temperature gauge read in the middle and never approached the top even when I was hard on the gas.

Elizabeth had a riding lesson so when she left Pete and I dug into the car. I popped the hood and he started checking things out and found that I had new plug wires and spark plugs, a fairly new radiator and power steering fluid holder, Oil that was so clean it was hard to see on the dip stick and that I was a little low on coolant so he added some.

He checked the CV joints on the wheels and when I mentioned the timing belt that I thought all Japanese cars have and that I worried about its' condition he showed me that I had timing chain and would probably never have to replace it.

"Bloody hell", Pete said, "you've got the best $900 car ever here. The tires are brand new and worth $400 and the registration has 10 months left and that's $500 right there without the rest of the car!".

So just maybe I have been lucky here.

The next day was set aside for the cleaning project and buying the other things Pete suggested were necessary considering where I was traveling. This includes:
2 10 Liter Fuel Jerry Cans
1 10 Liter Water Jerry Can
5 Liters of Oil
A full bottle of coolant
1 replacement belt for the Water pump and 1 replacement belt for the Alternator
AFT Fluid
I added a cooler to the list for food and drinks. This all added up to about $200 worth of stuff.

Pete generously shared his cleaning supplies and Armor All and when we got done with the shopping the cleaning commenced in earnest.

Pete brought out the shop vac and I spent two hours vacuuming everything that was not nailed down out of the car. This was a job and a half, but results showed up pretty quickly and it made a huge difference in my desire to be in the car at all.

After the vacuum came the Armor Alling---I think I used over half a large bottle going over the dash and every plastic piece on the car. Again, the results were amazing and the color and shine of the materials came back. Not too shabby. Next was interior window cleaning and last was a complete heavy rinse and 45 minutes with a sponge and soap on every exterior surface with full on scrubbing with the sponge. The another heavy rinse and Walah! The Blue ? was habitable and no longer a rolling filth magnet. Pete thought it looked looked like a $1200 car at least now!

All this work created an appetite and when I took them to dinner at the Humpty Doo Pub and Hotel/Casino there was a Man vs. Food challenge: 

Eat a rack of Pork Ribs in twenty minutes and you got them for 1/2 price!

Elizabeth dared me to try and I was forced to defend America's reputation for overconsumption and accepted. When the waitress brought a huge plate of ribs out I said-"Well it's a lot, but it looks doable". The waitress smiled and said, "No, this isn't yours hun, this is her 1/2 order of ribs".

My plate was a monster, but since this was a Fathers Day Promotion I took out Aubrey's picture from my wallet and said, "This one is or you, kid." and dug in. The record that day was 7 minutes an 40 seconds and I reckoned I could do it in 12. My first 1/2 was done in just under 7 and I worked my way through the second slowed up by some small bones on the end of some of  the ribs. Finally I was finished with a time of exactly 14 minutes...Man Defeats Food!!!!!
The restaurant gave me a 10% off coupon on my next dinner which I presented to Elizabeth and a laminated certificate which I have used my large paper clamp to attach to my Driver Side sun visor in the car.

Of course I was an appalling mess- good thing I had a bib on!
Anyway that was the end of that day. Tomorrow the Blue ? and I hit the road in earnest for Lichfield National Park and ending up at the Katherine Gorge.

Let the fun commence!

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 2, 2012 from Katherine, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Days 4

Katherine, Australia

Hi Gear Heads- Adventure is well and truly on its' way now with two days of road work under my belt in the cheap car.

When I left Peter's house his advice to me was "Start slow and break her in and drive your temperature gauge", wise words, indeed!

My goal today was to find a dirt road backway into the Litchfield National Park which is an area of waterfalls and natural swimming holes. I first went to the gas station and filled up the car and both of the 10L jerry cans and then to the store for drinks, snack and ice for the cooler. Finally on the road.

The cars performance was ok- still a little sluggish on the pickup but once I got to speed the temperature was nominal, right in the middle and she ran well. One thing I noticed though was that between 1900-2300 on the tach if any kind of hill came along the engine began to shake like a rumblely seizure hit it under the load. Since I was going up quite a bit this was uncomfortable to say the least and a little disconcerting.
But I put up with it for now since everything seemed fine otherwise.

Unfortunately I did not read the map well (I blame the shakey engine) and even though I was on the correct road I missed my turnoff for the dirt road and lost out on that portion of the challenge- 0 points for dirt driving. Eventually I came to the in and out route into Litchfield thru the town of Batchelor and drove 34 K into the park. The first sight I came to was the Magnetic Termite Mounds. These termites are different than the ones I have been seeing forever on the bike- they build their mounds in direct alignment with magnetic North and South, a natural compass!

The mounds look like oddly angled toombstones stretching off into the distance both directions I can see- for all I know they go on to infinity. The tallest look like they are about 6 feet tall or so and they are narrow on the East/West axis and stretched out North and South. Pics are on this blog.

Also at this location is the largest termite mound. It is at least 40 feet tall and wide as 4 men across at the bottom. If the termite invasion begins this will be the HQ!

Moving on from the insect world I drove to a place in the park called the Buley Rockholes- I had no idea what I would find there but I found a slice of paradise.

The Buley Rockholes are natural pools that are interconnected by a river so that the river flows from one to the next in small cascades. Some of the pools are over 12 feet deep and 40 feet across. I could see people at one in the sun jumping off rocks into it but I was attracted to a quieter pool mostly in the shade below the crowded sunny pool.

When I first drove into the parking area I met a backpacker who was returning to his camp and I asked him "what was going on here?" and he said, "swimming and you can get a free massage." I could see what he meant about the massage- the small cascade creating the pool was flowing like a giant whirlpool jet and if you could sit in its' flow it would pound your shoulders and back with watery delight. And you know what- there was a natural seat right in the middle of it!

I jumped in after stripping to my Ex Officio Boxer Briefs and dove to the bottom of my pool. The temperature was perfect- refreshing, but not cold because the water flows over so much hot land before going into the pools and the sun warms it. I found the seat in the flow and what a release of tension as the water caressesd my shoulders and back and neck....mmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Sweet.

Spent about 20 minutes in the earth jaccuzzi and then swam over to where I left an iced coffee drink which I slowly sipped while floating and drifting in my own private paradise pool (pics on this blog).

Two boys were coming down the trail when I was ready to leave and I got one of them to hold my towl in front of me while I got the briefs off and into my shorts again. Then a short hike back to the car and off to the water falls. Now the falls can be swum at also, but I only tried to get a picture and the viewing area was closed for "Urgently Needed Repairs"- since it hung over a 400 foot drop I did not bypass the the warning signs and go out on it anyway.

Back to the car and out of Litchfield and now on to the Katherine Gorge approximately 300 K away. When I hit the highway the speed limits here go from 60 kph to 80 kph then to 100 kph and finally on the open road to 130 kph! Because the temperature was holding well and I had a long way to go I cautiously began to up my speed over 100 kph to 110 first and I noticed that as I went faster the car ran smoother! So soon I was buzzzing along at 130 kph and 3,000 on the tach which the Blue ? really seemed keen on. I thought that maybe this car had not seen a lot of highway driving and this will be something she will take to like a duck to water.

I filled up again about an hour after Litchfield and calculated the mileage as about 9 kilometers per litre of petrol. At about $1.70 per litre average cost this was going to be expensive, but the mileage is comparable to about 23 miles to the gallon or a little better by my rough and possibly inaccurate calculations- we all believe what we want to and if you want to do the math it was 45 litres for 407 Kilometers.

I arrived at Katherine without incident about 3:30 pm and filled up with gas again then went to Mc Donalds to use the free wireless and get a snack. Then back in the car for the short drive to my next destination- The Katherine Gorge! I will camp there tonight and see the Gorge in the morning.

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 3, 2012 from Katherine, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Day 5

Tennant Creek, Australia

Hi Gear Heads---off on day five of the challenge and today we will detour from cars into the realm of boats and then go about 500 k down the road in an afternoon rush to the Banka Banka Outback Station for a good night rest!

I camped in the Katherine Gorge last night and today I found out they have cheap backpacking sites ($3.50) and no permit required- pity I don't have my pack!

Yesterday I booked a two hour, two Gorge tour on a boat that leaves at 9 am. I woke up early enough to have coffee and break camp and even had time to call my folks in Idaho before boarding the boat.

The Katherine Gorge is made up of 33 different Gorges that are roughly in the shape of a snake as drawn by the Native Peoples. Our guide says the Gorges are seperated by rocks in the dry season and resemble a hershey bar with each little segment being another gorge. In the wet season though it is one raging river with the water levels rising over 30 meters (100 feet approx)!

We are on a 70 passenger flat bottom boat and it is not quite full. At $79 a head though they are doing all right and there will be 4 other trips today on this boat alone.

As we head into the Gorge our Guide explains about the crocodiles and how salt water crocs (the dangerous ones) will get in when the water levels are higher than they are now and he shows us a trap they set for them. "Salties" as they are called here, can grow to 6 meters or more and easily eat you. But we don't have to worry because of the time of year, water level and the precautions the park service takes.

The walls of the Gorge are about 100- 200 feet high around us and occasionally we come across some sandy beaches. They are marked for 'No Entry' and our guide says they are the nesting grounds for the Fresh water crocodiles- "Freshies" and if they are disturbed the fines are thousands of dollars! he showed us drag marks where the crocs had come on the beach to check the sand temperature to see if it was right for incubation. According to the Guide, the temperature determines if the hatchlings will be male or female!

We move on through the first Gorge and take lots of pictures- there are some day kayakers paddling on the glassy water and it looks delightful. We see a small freshie and stop so everyone can try to get pictures, he got bored and swam away, but I think I got one of him (pic on blog).

Then we reached the end of the Gorge and transfered to another boat in the second Gorge. After a short walk we boarded and set out passing a famous cliff that was used in a movie that was the first Australian movie featuring an all indigenous cast in a story about the indigenous people. In the movie two characters leap from the cliff. Actually two dummies were used to make the splash at bottom.

We move past several side gorges including one you reach by a day hike that ends with a small beach and swimming! Nice.

Then we see the main Gorge and line up for an iconic photo showing the river running between high rockwalls as far as the eye can see. Cool. A little more cruising and we start back.

By the time I get to the car it is after noon and I head to McDonalds again for a snack and the WiFi then to the Woolworths store to get more ice and dinner supplies.

Then the road- today I will bash the old car and drive with the A/C on and check the mileage. The A/C is blowing beautifully cold as I start out and for about 1/2 an hour is awesome. BUT- as soon as I got out of the city and accelerated to 130 kph it stopped working....could not feel cold air at all. I think the belt might just be slipping but I just soldiered on without the air for now- if I find someone in a caravan park who knows their stuff maybe they can take a look for me.

They car ran all day at 130 kph and handles like a whale---roll into the corner, roll out of the corner- big time oversteer. But she runs! 2 fill ups and 500k later and we are at Banka Banka camp before sunset.

After dinner I visited at the bonfire with the owner and his family. They had helped me out with a bolt when my downtube clamp bolt had broken so they knew about the bike ride. We chatted and drank a beer and then I went to bed for a good nights sleep before Day 6 - On To Alice Springs!!!! Enjoy the Photos and please send me comments or emails!

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 4, 2012 from Tennant Creek, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Day 6 in the bag!

Alice Springs, Australia

Mike's Top Gear Challenge
Day 6

Today I woke up early at the Banka Banka Camp and quickly packed up. I checked the fluid levels on the car and the coolant was full and the oil level was correct though the oil is much darker now. 

Today will be another 500 k plus day- it is amazing to go so far so fast after the bike journey. And today I will see areas I haven't been to and finish up in the famous outback town of Alice Springs.

First I drove 100k to Tennant Creek and back to the motel I'd stayed in my last time through. I bought a coffee and spent almost two hours updating my blog and loading and captioning pictures of the Litchfield and Katherine Gorge Parks. I am working hard to keep this blog more up to date with the car taking me to places with computers or wireless connections nearly every day.

Then it was driving and driving and driving. The car ran well at 130 kph all day and never got hot. There are some noises at the end of the day that are a bit different from the start, but we will see. 

Today I saw an area they call the Devil's Marbles where there are boulders stacked on top of each other and some are eerily almost perfectly round. It is a small area and before I got there I saw a cyclist who I knew had a bad rear hub. I passed him and went back after seeing the Marbles and offered him my rear wheel. His name is Henrik and he is riding around the world on his bike. 

Henrik has ordered a hub to Alice Springs so after we found that my wheel would work I offered to take his wheel with me to the bike shop and he could ride my wheel in and leave it at the shop for me to pick up. I will go see Ulurru and the Kings Canyon over the next two days while he rides in and then I will come back to Alice Springs for my wheel. It means that I have to backtrack 159k one day, but a lot of people helped me so I need to give that back.   

I gave him a cold tangerine and an icy diet coke as well....little things that mean a lot in the hot sun on a bike.

I left Henrik and continued down the road. It looks more deserty here...dry dry dry. Before I forget I want to mention that everyday I have seen big bush fires right by the road. Yesterday it was flaming on the opposite side of the highway for about 1/4 mile and you could feel the heat of the flames as they devoured the dry trees. No one was firefighting they just let it burn. So much empty space to scorch. I saw a burned out car that looked to be the ignition source for the fire. Even "Cheap as Chips" wouldn't take that one!

I also played with the radio trying to get a station in and occasionally did, but my antenna is busted and that hinders my reception significantly.

I stopped for gas because I had dropped below 1/2 a tank about 200 k north of AS and they wanted a $1.93 a liter! I had discussed with Peter how foolish it was to shop around for cheap gas, but this was highway robbery- even in Daly Waters I only paid $1.83. I put in $ 15.00 wortht o be on the safe side and took off. 

As the fuel gauge crept down I remembered that some cars' gauges drop faster after the first 1/2 tank so I watched it like a hawk. Now I was never in danger of being stranded because I had 20 liters of gas in cans in the car, but I could run out or get it so low that crap in the bottom of the tank might cause problems. I was convinced that if I hit the 80k marker to AS before the gauge read 1/4 I would be ok. At 1/4 exactly 80 k sign appeared. The car went really low towards 'E' but the low fuel warning light never came on (if it works!).

So far everything but the A/C is working well, but I do hate the drivers seat. The last guy must have had a fat ass and rode it on his left hip because the left side of the seat is beating up my left kidney. I shift around and the pain comes back whenever I settle in. I need to try more seat adjustments. I can go forward or back, up or down or tilt it. There is a lumbar adjust but I have that off because it just pokes at me. 

Other than that the car is doing really well. 

I got into Alice Springs just after 4pm and dropped off the wheel. gassed up and found a caravan park on the south side of town for a quick departure tomorrow to The Rock.

More tomorrow on Day 7 of Mike's Top Gear Challenge.

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 5, 2012 from Alice Springs, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Day 7 Camels!

Alice Springs, Australia

Mike's Top Gear Challenge Day 7

Morning and another day begins on my challenge to get home in a  $900 car. So far I have covered over 1400 kilometers and made it from Darwin to Alice Springs. Today I will try for Uluru also known as Ayers Rock which is about 440 k away.

After packing up I carefully checked all the fluid levels on the car- all good. I started her up to warm up and she started on the first hit of the key. I have a starter issue where sometimes the bendix doesn't catch the first time and I need to start it a couple of times to get it to catch. Not a big deal.
As the car warmed up I put the last things away and on my walk around I noticed that the rear license plate was falling off! The metal was so worn around the rusty screws it was breaking and the left side was dangling. I loosened the screw and reset the plate, then knuckled the screw back down as tight as I could. We'll see if it holds. 

Then the car died.

It had never done this before- Pete had set the idle and the car had always run smoothly.
I restarted and she died again!
I restarted and gave her gas to keep the idle up. I was ready to go so I backed out of my space and she died again....oh no.

I started up again and revved the idle, hit into gear from neutral and slammed forward keeping the RPMs high and rolled onto the highway. And then there was no problem. I drove to the store for ice and snacks and left town heading for The Rock.

It was quiet on the highway and soon I was rolling along at 130 kph . It is cooler here the farther south you go unlike the US because I am getting closer to the South Pole! Yesterday I passed out of the Tropic of Capricorn so the temperature should start going down more and more. 

I passed two more fires on the way and I got to The Resort by the Rock about 1:30. I had a nice lunch with wine and calamari and I heard that they had Sunset Camel Rides every night. This sounded interesting as I have never been on a camel before. After lunch I booked the camel ride and got a campsite in their campground. Nice and grassy and shady. I had time for a shower and some reading before the camel tour bus would pick me up. 

The sunshine here is addictive, so warm and bright blue skies everyday! I walked over to the bus pickup and I met a family of four from Tasmania who were also on the ride. The bus arrived and our Cameleer drove us to the Camel Farm (as they call it) and we joined a group of other camel adventurers. We received safety briefings- basically don't fall off- and some instruction before boarding our beast. It was two to a camel so I was paired up with a flight attendant from Colorado who had extensive camel riding experience in Morocco and Africa. Maybe I would make it through this if I listen to her?

When you get on the camel you have to lean way back in the saddle so when he "launches" you won't be thrown off forward. It was fun watching my fellow travelers rise up on their camels. Some startled looks on faces since the camel shoots up pretty quickly! Then when we were all up we were off and walking, each camel hooked to the other by a rope and a line through their noses. 

A photographer took pictures and so did all of us. Did you know that a camel only has fat in their hump and not water? Or that a camel can drink salt water? Or that a pregnant camel can delay birth up to 17 months if drought conditions are bad? Wow! Pretty amazing animals.

The Cameleer uses voice commands in Arabic to tell the lead camel what to do. He said the camels respond well to the sounds and are as smart as an 8 year old child. Pretty cool.

We rode for over an hour and watched the sunset then headed back to the ranch for a beer and wine and snack reception. I bought a photo from the photographer as a keepsake andthen back to camp and bed.

Tomorrow I will go into the park and to the Rock for a close inspection and then I am off to an area called Kings Canyon which is supposed to be very beautiful as well as a good place to hike.

More tomorrow! Bye Gear Heads.      

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 6, 2012 from Alice Springs, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Days 8 & 9

Coober Pedy, Australia

Mike's Top Gear Challenge Days 8 & 9

Sorry to post so late- I was tired and did not feel like typing the last two days. On day 8 I went to Uluru, The Rock, which dominates the horizon from many kilometers away.

When I got up I checked all of the fluid levels and the oil was about 1/2 way to the add line so pretty good oil burn for over 2400 kilometers. Today I will officially drive more kilometers than I rode on the bike and in only 5 days of driving.

The Rock is sacred to the local tribes of aboriginals and they do not want people climbing it because of this and the fact that the water at the base has a very low replenishment rate so any urine or other waste that comes from above goes into the water below and contaminates it. So sacred reasons and practical reasons not to climb. So I won't.

I went on a ranger guided trip they call the Mala Walk and the local man in charge of that area came as well. He spoke some English and some of a native dialect. He said he spoke 11 different dialects because many of the indigenous tribes have different dialects. He walked us to different sections of the rock and explained the significance of each to us. Some ares related to creation stories and some areas are related to child to adult rituals and teaching. Men and women have segregated areas that are taboo for the other sex to enter or even look at! It was great to get the info from him and see the passion he had for the land and the teaching.

After the walk I drove around The Rock and left for the Kings Canyon. This meant driving 200 k back  towards the Stuart Highway and then 179 k northwest to the canyon. I got in there so late I decided to set up camp and go to the canyon in the morning. There was an overlook in the camp where you could view the rockwalls of the canyon from a distance and watch the colors change as the sun went down. The lodge sent a girl down with beer and wine you could purchase so I had a glass of shiraz while I watched. After I went to the BBQ Diner and had a nice rib eye with salad. Very good.

It is getting much colder a night and I was all the way in the sleeping bag deep with the hood up as well. Up early the next day to hike!

Day 9

After breaking down camp and checking the fluids I hit the road and drove 10k to the canyon. There was a 7.5 k rim walk you could do with a steep climb at the start so I did that to burn off last night's steak. My camera's batteries were dead so I got as many pics as I could before she quit. I will post all the photos when I get home- no computer to load them on on the road unfortunately.

The walk was beautiful and it as cool, sunny and windy weaherwise. About 1/2 way through there I came to a viewpoint with breathtaking views of the surrounding area and then a gradual descent into an area they call "The Garden of Eden", where it is wet and green and there are lots of birds and frogs. I saw one of the little frogs on a tree limb- it looked just like the tree!

I walked out and left the canyon driving to the Stuart Highway again. Gas was sooooo expensive out here- I paid $2.33 a liter and $1.98 a liter twice on 3/4 fill ups- ouch!

Instead of going 200+ k out of my way to go back to Alice Springs to pick up my wheel I called the bike shop and arranged for them to mail it to me- much cheaper than the gas back and forth and my time was too valuable as well. So off South again to the opal mining town of Coober Pedy 300k away. The land is much more dry and vegetation more sparse out here- oh and I forgot to mention the wild camels! 

I was following a car with a trailer when he hit his brakes and three wild camels broke out of the bush and on to the road! They were running flat out and disappeared in seconds. Cool.

OK- got to Coober Pedy and stayed in a motel room tonight because I wanted to clean up and stay warm tonight. The car ran a bit rough at the end of a long day of driving. It has gone over 3300 k now without much of a complaint but....we shall see. 

Tomorrow I will explore CP and head to Adelaide. Maybe just two more days to go on the road.

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 7, 2012 from Coober Pedy, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Day 10

Adelaide, Australia

Mike's Top Gear Challenge Day 10

Adventures of the $900 car.

Today I checked the fluid levels and added oil and ATF fluid. The car has been driven hard the last two days and today will be the hardest day- 8 hours of driving.

I went to an opal mine museum and looked at the machines and heard the Story of how the mines were created. Did not know about opal mines before. Opals are in veins like gold and need to be carefully chipped out when they are discovered. The mines were mostly dug by hand by individual owners and started in the early 1900's with thousands and thousands of dollars being dug out of the ground. 
I never knew there could be so many colors of opals- the most expensive are black with red colors in it. Cheapest are the whites and blues.

After the mine I gassed up and hit the road- long day of driving and not enough rest areas. When I got close to Adelaide the speed limit dropped to 90 and the car hated that. Ran so rough and backfired ....clunk clunk clunk.....I decided I had to stop for the night and booked a room in a caravan park just North of Adelaide. The car did start again when I moved it to park, but it sounds like crap. I will check it out tomorrow and hopefully make it the last 722 k to home. Wish me luck that my $900 car gets to the front door in Bayswater!

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 9, 2012 from Adelaide, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Day 11 HOME

Melbourne, Australia

Today I woke up and quickly got ready to pull out for the 765 Kilometer trip to Melbourne and home in Bayswater. I was ready to be home. I decided not to try for the wine country this trip and just to drive 8-10 hours straight through with minimal stops.

The car had run really badly coming into Adelaide the night before so I was praying that it would hold together to get me home.

I checked the fluids first and added power steering fluid, oil and ATF today first thing. The ATF is the hardest to know how much, but I did not have much left in the container Pete had given me so I just put it all in.

Off we go....full tank of gas and iced coffee ready to drink and hit the road.

I used my iphone gps to find my way around Adelaide so I could avoid the CBD by going East then South to the highway that runs straight to Melbourne. This worked really well and gave me confidence that I could do the same thing to find the house in Bayswater when I got to Melbourne.

The country outside of Adelaide is some of the most beautiful I have ever seen anywhere. Rolling green hills covered with fields of two different green grasses and seperated by fields of brillant yellow flowers dominated the scenery with unsusual multibranched trees that are hard to describe, but quite symetrical and beautiful and green.

Mixed in for good measure were pastures with huge herds of grazing sheep and little lambs all shorn of their curly fur...close cropped haircuts were the style.

It was so picturesque and bucolic, like an advert for the most pastoral setting ever.

Even though this is a main highway with a 110 k speed limit it is, like most highways on this continent apparently, only two lanes. And it runs through many small towns where you have to decelerate to 80- then 60- and then 40 kph sometimes for school zones.

So... not a high speed run home.

Close to the big cities the road is a divided highway with two lanes heading each direction, but that is the exception.

The car was running fine by the gauges- temp well within tolerance, but it still shook and struggled with the climbing loads and the tach setting from 2,000 to 2,500. I found that I could coast below 2,000 and then accelerate to a speed and hold it by backing way off the throttle and avoid the shaking sometimes, but that took a lot of concentration and effort. Pain in the Butt.

I only hoped we would make it home and gradually the kilometers diminished, At 1:30 PM I was only 328 k away and I stopped for lunch in a cute little town that started with a 'K'- I think it was called Kaloona or something like that. After gassing up the road took me through the center of town and near a park. I stopped and went to a little diner I saw and ordered nachos for lunch of all things off of their "Lighter fare" menu. It was a small bowl with cheese, chips, sour cream and guacamole with red enchilada sauce (I think). No meat, beans, onion or anything else so I guess that was what made it "Lighter fare".

After lunch it was back to abusing the poor Magna for another 300 k til we were at the outskirts of Melbourne with the sun going down and rush hour still in effect.

The Iphone gps had given me a course to run and I tried to memorize it because I never knew when I might hit a wrong button and wipe it out (this had happened several times before...) and because my battery was getting low... I never bought a cigarette lighter charger- in fact I still don't know if the cigarette lighter even works, I forget it everytime I think about checking it next time I get in the car!

All of a sudden I was diving into a tunnel with five or six lanes of traffic around me. I knew I was on the right road and the signs named suburbs I knew, but I had no idea I'd be underground- of course the Iphone wouldn't update underground either.

After what seemed a long time I emerged and could get a postion. I was coming near to the street I wanted to get off on that would take me East towards my suburb. There was still a huge line of cars from the tail end of rush hour (it was 6:30 pm) backed up at the stoplight for my left turn and the car had been running really, really rough the last 20 k or so. I put it in Neutral to idle and then I would forget that and try to drive off when I could go- stupid, but I am really tired by now too.

This street had an 80 kph speed limit and I made good time. I put the address of the house in the search of the gps and also hit the directions button and the good old Iphone gave a six page list of directions. I scanned through pages 1- 4 quickly in case the battery died as it was giving a 'low battery' warning. I memorized all the moves up to the last two leading to my street thinking, "when I get close I will recognize landmarks!".

Sure enough, with about 3 k to go before my first major turn I hit something on the phone and lost my directions! Sh*t!

I followed what I had memorized and everything was going great- then I found myself on a dark road which I thought I recognized but could not be sure. After going a couple of Kilometers I lost my confidence and pulled into a residential area to try and reboot the gps. But the battery was kaput. In desperation and exhaustion I called Carl hoping he could locate me on a street directory he has and come and lead me home. I was exhausted beyond belief and needed a friend's help to make it home.

He was home and got the guide and said, "Wow, you are really close- I'll be there in a couple of minutes!".

About 5 minutes later Carl pulled up and I gave him a big hug and thanks for coming to save me. The Magna Exec Wagon started again (thank God) and I followed Carl for about four blocks and then I recognized our IGA and realized I was only about 2.5 K's from home when I had stopped.

Carl let me have the driveway to park in and I stumbled out of the car shellshocked with relief- the Journey was over and I had won the Top Gear Challenge...

I pulled a few things from the car and collapsed in a chair in MY living room and Carl shoved a beer in my hand and heated up some Bachelor's Nightmare goulash for me.

Tonight I would sleep in my own bed and for the first time in almost two months I would be still the next day.


permalink written by  Mike_Veine on September 11, 2012 from Melbourne, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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Postscript- End of A $900 Car

Melbourne, Australia

The Blue ?, a faithful and brave $900 car, gave its' all to get me home from a friends House late at night on 9/12/2012.

It was running very rough all the way back on the freeway and I felt lucky to get home; when I went out in the morning to start it the car cranked over a couple of times and then was dead.

I believe the starter finally failed, but the repair book says that the symptoms of the failure indicated a seized engine- RIP. 1996-2012.

Rather than calling a Mobile mechanic and throwing money at the car (which had a known crack in the head gasket) I decided to call around and let a wrecker pay me for it as scrap. I wished for a better end for the Blue ?, but that is the way it went down.
I received $150 for the car and she was hauled away (pics on this site).

A noble car gets you HOME before it dies and my car did. Thank you Blue ?, you were part of my adventure of a lifetime and I will always think fondly of you!

permalink written by  Mike_Veine on December 16, 2012 from Melbourne, Australia
from the travel blog: Mike's Top Gear Challenge
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