Monday, 8 September 2014

Returning south was not so easy - our first major breakdown

After fuelling up an Bamaga we had a little family discussion.  Rocky had a problem.  Admittedly it was a slight problem - the tensioner pully on the serpentine belt looked slightly out of alignment.  

Is that pulley out of alignment?

It didn't look right - and I rang VW Assist to seek their advice.  Their google map based software had no trouble finding us - but finding someone who could help was another story.  As we were still technically mobile (i.e. hadn't broken down yet) they were really unable to do any more for us, other than recommend we take it to the nearest dealer (some 1000km of mostly corrugated dirt road away in Cairns).   Their other recommendation was to turn off the air conditioner to reduce the load on the serpentine belt.    I also isolated the camper's batteries so that they weren't charging off the alternator either.

We had planned to stay nearby at Umagico - but I was worried about the car - and we decided we were better off commencing our journey south... now.  We had two options - 400km to Weipa where we had friends who could help us out, or 1000km to Cairns where we would be able to lean on family as well as friends if we needed.

We held our little discussion - and put the options to the kids.  Bless their little hearts but they agreed to commence a long drive without a moments notice.

So we left.  Air Conditioning off.  Music and any other electrical decvices we could find also off (to reduce electrical load).  Windows down.  Old school road trip.  Only 970km to go!

We arrived at the Jardine Ferry just in time for their lunch break - so after a nervous look after the bonnet, we relaxed by having our lunch and kicking a ball around.  I sat down and wrote out on a piece of paper all our NRMA and VW Assist details, just to make sure we had them handy - a sound piece of planning as it turned out.

All seemed well - or rather no worse - under the bonnet - so we continued.

We made it just 10km when the car stalled, Check Engine Light came on and everything just stopped.  We coasted to a stop on the side of the road.  The inevitable had happened - the belt had shredded itself.

No sooner had we stopped than help started arriving.  Fellow travellers pulled over and helped by removing the old belt and running some pantyhose around the pulleys, anything to allow us to get back to the Jardine Ferry and their precious telephone.

Disaster - the shredded remains of the belt

It didn't work - the car refused to start.  I hoped it was a safety shutdown device to protect it from overheating. 

We flagged down a northbound car - and Jo - armed with all the details on a piece of paper I had prepared earlier - disappeared in a cloud of dust.  

Remains of tensioner pulley - literally fell out once the belt destroyed itself

I was left with the boys - a broken down car and a camper trailer - on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere.  My main aim was to make sure we were ready for anything - so the first thing was to disconnect the trailer and make sure the hitch was transferrable to anyone who might turn up.

Miles of corrugations and some large rocks had bent the thread of the towing pin - but 10 minutes of judicious work with a file and I was able to remove the nut, meaning the camper was transferrable to other tow vehicles even if they didn't have a Hayman Reece square receiver.

Next up was to transfer the fresh food out of Rocky to Matilda - just in case we were stuck living out of Matilda for a while.  Just as I was finishing that job - and the boys were helping by sucking back on a cold lemonade (reducing the amount I had to move) an amazing fellow called Chris pulled up.

Chris and Bonnie offered to tow us back to the Jardine River.  It would mean we would be back with Mum - back near a landline and be at a recognised campsite.  It was an unbelievably good offer, and I graciously accepted.

Good samaratin Chris and Bonnie

First up Chris towed Matilda - with The Little Helper sent along to accompy him. I can just imagine the expression on Mum's face when they arrived at the Jardine.  It would have been priceless!

No sooner had Chris dropped Matilda in a great campsite - he came back and towed Rocky back to the Jardine also.  The Little Fisherman this time enjoyed a ride in Chris' tough old GQ Patrol.

Without Chris and Bonnie - our family would have been spread out, with no communication and no facilities on the side of the road.  Their help meant we were together - a much better state of affairs.  They only accepted the contents of our spare jerry can as payment for their assistance - and our boys learn't a wonderful lesson.

So, now were were officially 960km from Cairns - at the Jardine Ferry.  Sandra from the ferry had kindly let Jo use the office phone to call for help.

Jo had been on the phone all afternoon with VW Assist and NRMA and RACQ.  Whilst half of her time seemed to be explaining where we were (lets start with Bamaga and go south) she eventually made sure that enough people knew our predicament that we were confident something would happen the following day - a Monday.

Yep - long way from nearest dealer

It had been a long day - but we were safe and well.  We had power and water - plenty of food - and no plan. It was exciting and we brainstormed what preparations we would need to make for any eventuality.

All packed up and ready for anything

The two main scenarios we worked on were:

1.   Rocky would be taken away and we would be left with Matilda, or
2.   Both Rocky and Matilda would be taken away and we would be left with nothing.  

To that end, we prepared a couple of bags of essentials that we could travel with if required, whilst transferring some stuff from Rocky to Matilda so we could live out of the camper for an extended period if required.  We tried to make sure we were ready for anything - when we got notification the tow truck was on its way.

RACQ Bamaga to the rescue

Mark from Cape York Spares at Bamaga came out and was delightful from the start.  He brought out an old 80 series Toyota on the back of the truck - which was to be Matilda's tow truck back to Bamaga.  The boys revelled in the excitement - funny how this will stick in their mind more than many of the other amazing things we have seen.

Matilda all hooked up with the mighty 80 series

We bade farewell to Sandra - and thanked her profusely for all her support. The boys even bought a couple of postcards to remind themselves of their bonus night stay!  Then our convoy made its way to Bamaga and the all important mobile phone network!

Rocky on the truck on the ferry

When we got back to Bamaga, we seriously started to look at our options.  VW Assist were prepared to take Rocky back to the dealer in Cairns - but wouldn't pay for the camper.  NRMA thankfully agreed to take responsibility for the camper under their Premium Care package. 

Not long after we arrived at the depot, it seemed the vehicles were required down at the wharf for immediate loading on the ship service to Cairns.  We grabbed our bags, and bade farwell to Mark and made our way down to the optimistically named "Bamaga Resort"  

Airconditioning, 3G access and a Pool...  Resort will do!

VW Assist and NRMA had been working around the clock to sort us out.  Somehow they managed to book us all on a flight to Cairns the following afternoon, organise Rocky and Matilda to get shipped to Cairns and have done everything to make sure we are looked after all the way.  

So, we don't quite know what the future holds - but for the time being we are doing OK.


  1. Well done Family Gaden! A former Skipper told me 'you make your own luck' - and I think your tale here proves that point.
    But also well done to VW and NRMA / RACQ - it sounds as though they were particularly efficient in arranging assitance for you, and credit to them.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Good work Phil! Only weeks ago our engine died and we were also stranded in a remote part of the gulf country with camper trailer in tow. With help from our satphone and some friendly locals we were recovered first to Borroloola, then on to Darwin 1000 km away to finish repairs. NRMA Premium care were wonderful and covered most of the costs - phew!... Enjoy Cairns!