Whilst in northern Queensland we decided to venture away from the coast to visit the Undara Experience, a network of lava tubes in a remote savannah area.
We headed inland from Townsville, taking quiet roads through farming areas. We drove along side fields of sugar cane under bright blue skies. The roads in the area are intersected by railway tracks at several points, and large signs warn you to “watch out for the cane train” which picks up sugar cane from the farms for processing at nearby sugar mills. The idyllic drive through countryside villages and waving crops was a welcome change from the beaches we had been used to. We spotted cane train carriages packed full of produce and the sickly sweet smell of sugar cane hung in the air.
After three hours of driving we stopped in a small rural village for tea and cake, topped up with petrol and continued our journey. We headed further inland, up through the winding hills of the great dividing range. It was here that we began to encounter some problems. Val the Van had, so far, been a trusty companion on the road however it was clear that she was struggling to make her way up some of the bigger hills. Accelerating was a problem, we found a real lack of power at 100km/hr so we dropped down to 80km/hr. We crawled on, slowly but surely, but there was definitely something wrong with poor old Val. By this point we were in a fairly remote location with nothing but road and rocks for company. It was now mid-morning and the temperature was rising. We decided to press on to our destination as we had no phone signal to call out a mechanic and no shade to stop under. Val decided that 80km/hr was too much for her so we dropped down to 60 and crossed our fingers she could complete the journey. As we counted down the kms left on the sat-nav we ran through different scenarios of breaking down and what to do. The last hour of the journey was in the midday sun and although we were near to our destination we did not see any other vehicles. We had no choice but to keep going, at 40 km/hr or whatever speed Val could manage. It was only as we crawled along the final stretch of unsealed road, with 5-10kms to go, that we felt safe that we could get someone to help us out.
We arrived at Undara at 12.55 and had booked a tour for 1pm, so we parked Val, thanked our lucky stars we had made it and joined our tour group. We headed off into the savannah with our guide and around 20 pensioners who had also booked on the tour. The tour guide explained that the giant underground tubes had been made by volcanic lava flow and gave us plenty of science about it. The tubes were pretty interesting to see, vast caves of orange rock with various mineral deposits, but the tour itself felt like a boring Geography lesson and is not something we would recommend. We did get a lovely treat when a rock wallaby came bounding through one of the caves we were in and it was interesting to see the savannah landscape.
After the tour we had a look around the camp site, and were surprised to see Kangaroos hopping around the red earth, close to the tent pitches. The site also has some old railway carriages which have been renovated into rooms and dinning areas. The carriages are a lovely little quirk but probably the only thing the Undara Experience has going for it.
Next came the job of trying to work out what was wrong was poor Val. We asked around if any of the staff knew anything about vehicles or if anyone could help us out, but after a few false starts it appeared nobody could. Still without phone signal, the staff kindly allowed us to sit in their office and call out our break down cover. As we are travelling the country for a year, we particularly chose a breakdown cover with Australia wide coverage and opted for a premium package covering us, or so we thought, for all eventualities. We phoned Allianz, gave them our policy details and explained the problems we had encountered with Val. The first issue we had is that rather than having their own mechanics, Allianz outsource jobs to local companies. So having reported our problem we now had to wait for someone to take the job. The next issue is that the area we are in is remote, so there are very few mechanics in the area. After several phone calls and of course speaking to a different person every time, we had been given several different stories on what might be the problem and what would be the best thing to do. Luckily we had booked to stay at Undara so when the office closed and we had no phone to use, we at least had a place to stay. The following day we spent from 9am until 5pm trying to get our breakdown cover to provide us with a mechanic. Every time we called we spoke to a different member of staff who put their own proverbial spanner in the works. We had conflicting information about being towed, how far we could be towed, if we had to pay for the towing and as Val had not even been assessed we did not even know if she needed towing. Eventually the Queensland state manager of Allianz got involved and agreed to send someone out to assess the situation and tow us if needed, as we had been asking all along.
At 6pm, after 27 hours of communicating with Allianz, loosing hope and unsure what was happening we called them again, during this phone call a friendly Zimbabwean mechanic arrived to save the day. He had been dispatched by one of the Allainz staff at some point and agreed to assess Val and tow us to the nearest garage all within our policy cover. Of course Val started with no problems but we all agreed it was safer to be towed than to start driving and have the same problem happen again. Val was loaded onto the tow truck and we climbed into the cabin and began our journey to Atherton, the next town. Our knight in shinning armour informed us that there was a good mechanic in Atherton and a camp site over the road which he could drop us at. By now it was Friday evening and small towns close for the weekend, so it would be Monday before we could get Val looked at. However our policy did include cover for accommodation so Allianz would foot the bill for our weekend in Atherton.
On Saturday we decided to go and check if the mechanic was actually closed, it was 2014 after all. Having crossed the road we walked down a small gravel hill, where Emily slipped and badly injured her leg. Her shin had been grazed badly and there were deeper wounds to her knee and ankle. We hobbled back to the camp site and got first aid from some hairy looking bikers who worked there. They washed her cuts and covered her leg in iodine, giving us a tube of it for good measure.
So our weekend in Atherton was spent feeling very sorry for ourselves, nursing a broken Val, an injured leg and feelings of trepidation about what was coming next. Luckily on Monday the mechanic was able to take a look at Val and diagnosed a fuel filter problem. He also carried out a full service and got us back on the road that afternoon. Our “Undara Experience” may not have been a great one but it was vastly improved by the help and kindness shown by the local people we encountered.