Gunbarrel Laager – the Night(s) before the CSR

Gunbarrel Laager, 28 April 2019

Gunbarrel Laager does not, as it’s phonetic (fonetic?) name suggests, mean a well-earned beer after arriving off the Gunbarrel Highway. Instead, I am told, it’s the term for when wagons create a circle creating a common secure area in the middle, protecting those huddled around the campfire from the unknown dangers of a strange night.

Indeed there is a laager effect, created by dongers and the restaurant the middle of which is dominated by a large palm tree under which I park Troll and Zi-Biddi.

The shake-down is complete. It all works, except the tires. Godda do something about the tires. Will’s bringing spare tubes, goo and a lot more patches. Ideally I’d like tires up for the task. Can’t imagine taking on the vast distances of the Tanami on tires I don’t trust. Won’t cost me my life, but it’s irresponsible. Some poor Schmuck may have to rescue me, taking me to a settlement where I’d be able to organise something. Don’t wanna do that. Tires, my sole worry.

I spend the day (days?) preparing for the CSR, replacing the Extraterrestrials with the Knards, remorslessly checking for punctures, organising then reorganising what I’m going to carry per day, what needs to be accessible in the Mother Lode and what I won’t need and can be carried on the roof-rack.

190430 Gunbarrel preparations 1
Getting Troll ready for the CSR

I clean the Gates belt. I check the tires. Both are low! Slow, slow leak somewhere. Not flat, not even after three days, but low nonetheless.

They work their way through the tire and eventually into the inner-tube. Bastards

I go major. Troll upended, wheels off, inner tubes removed. Meticulously inspecting the inside of the tires reveals two tiny spikes inside the front tire and one in the rear. The holes in the inner tubes so small it takes two attempts and higher pressure to find them, tiny pores through which Troll’s life-blood seeps slowly out.

Tiny punctures lead to flat tires

Repair time. Again.

Aside of tires everything else works fine: Troll, Zi-Biddi, tent, water management strategy, food (could be better though), stove, and me.

The tires deny me trust in the whole venture, enjoyment at the simple pleasure of watching a fascinating world slide on by. I can’t randomly bush-bash off track to check something coz off track lie the dreaded prickles and thorns and hours of puncture repairs. It means I’ll need to plan an hour to three per day devoted to tire management. Everything’s gonna slow down. Instead of 80 km per day it’ll be a hard earned 50km. That’s a lot more water to carry.

190430 Gunbarrel preparations 2
A comprehensive care & maintenance review before the sand and the dunes

I spend the day, days, thinking about this, calculating water load, analysing my consumption, trying to come up with how many litres I’ll need for the GCR, and the other desert tracks. Fuck them tires!

I sit outside the kitchen painfully checking fatbike tires on my Samsung 5. Not looking good. No manufacturer produces a Kevlar lined fatbike tire. They are all sport-performance, sacrificing strength and toughness for suppleness and lightness. Easy work for the DGs which haunt the Australian bush. Goo and liners are the only way.

I. Need. A. Solution!!!

Experience counts. I was quite apprehensive heading from Paynes Find to Sandstone, 240km of no known water. I chose not to carry 5 litres of contingency water. Based on that experience the next 240km from Sandstone to Wiluna on hotter drier sandier tracks didn’t phase me at all. I arrived with water to spare. Temperature is the key. Around 30C and it’s doable. The 40s, 45, 50, 55s and more were a totally different temperature range. Perpetual dehydration. Funny how I went through it without really thinking about it. I guess if I’d really looked into dehydration and heat-stress I wouldn’t have done it. Better, instead, to work it out as I went along. That said, I’m not keen to repeat riding through an Australian desert summer when it hit 62.5C OTH. I can do without that.

I’ve ridden to schedule these last few weeks. Three, at last count:

  1. To make it to Wiluna by 01 May to meet Will and Jen and Do The C.S.R!
  2. To test my water strategy. How much per so many hours/kilometres under what conditions.
    It meant I couldn’t take advantage of tanks and other water sources en route. I had to know under as many diverse circumstances as possible in two weeks what my consumption is.
  3. To test me. Can I, my mental, my physical state stand the demands of every day every circumstance every challenge those foreseeable those unforeseeable?

It was destination over journey, achievement over fun. Schedules suck! Sometimes necessary, always a burden.

The third is the most important one, the one all the others depend on. If the punctures had gotten too me. If they had formed a thick opaque layer between doable and impossible across which my mental state could not penetrate then I’d be better to give up head to Indonesia and write my memoirs.

Had a fright as I started from Mandurah when my left knee hurt like hell. Compromise my Epic or compromise my knee? Not a good choice. Fortunately Austin spared me a hard fully loaded KEP track ride to Northam and gave me enough time to dissect my seating, foot-on-SDP-peddles of a Fatbike – think extra wide bottom-bracket – and tweak the hell out if all. Since then seems to be going OK. Crazy how what amounts to a few millimetres here perhaps a centimetre there and a cyclist’s knee begins to fail.

April 25 was the day when my mental commitment was fully tested, when I rode beyond juicy campsite after a puncture-free day going for a few kilometres more a few kilometres more and few kilometres more and in punishment for my imprudence my Capricious God gave me a veritable porcupine’s worth of punctures when I ill-chose a campsite late in the day. If there was a day to ditch it and crawl onto the road awaiting succour and a saviour that was the day. Instead I spent three hours deep into the night fixing them and still didn’t get all the punctures. Lena and her extended family of First Nation Australians helped me sort out the one I didn’t get. Since then I’ve not had a puncture.

At the time though seeing all those thorns bedecking both tires knowing it was terminal a brief torrid moment of panic amplified by terror swept across my consciousness. The difference between an accident and a non-accident is a nanosecond comprising a complex limitless mix of fortune, decision making, serendipity, timing and more, much more. Once crossed there is no going back. Seeing all those thorns studding my tires, a piercing session gone horribly wrong, a great despair swept over me, the realisation of the magnitude of my error of failing to take advantage of the bounty my Capricious God had presented me over the last forty minutes and ten kilometres.

Y’know, I truly believe this. I thought that as I rode past them. What goes around comes around. I knew I should have stopped earlier even as I rode.

As I worked the inner-tubes through 500ml of muddy water in my bowl feeling my morale plummet and collapse through the base of my confidence and motivation. The melt-down taking it all with it until all I’ve left are the ‘Ds’ … despair, despondency, depression … and so much more.

Decision making comes easy at these moments, even The Big Ones, those with far reaching consequences. If I cannot with due confidence solve my tire problem I will discontinue the Epic and go do something else. Don’t. Fuck. With. Desert. Roads. And. Tracks. Be prepared. Or don’t go.

30 April
Will and Jen arrive today. Tomorrow we embark. Last chance for maintenance in any degree of comfort.

Wandered around Gunbarrel Laager’s estate. The remains of the decades it’s been here flood out over a large area, encompassing agriculture, viniculture – they made wine from grapes they grew – livestock, mining, heavy machinery, cars vintage to modern, motorbikes, tractors, roadworks, even bicycles. There’s a Toyota Corolla of a vintage very reminiscent to the one I owned, a 1967 model. Dongers, houses, transportables, sheds, all abandoned and slowly rotting away. It’s tailor made for a horror movie.

Along another track I find the other inalienable aspect of life in the middle of nowhere – the garbage dump. Grimly foretold by the increasing frequency and density of plastic bags hung up on vegetation. A large hole in the ground, still smoking from a fire that may never go out. Awful.

I ask Darren, Gunbarrel Laagers affable manager about why they stopped growing grapes and making wine. A mining company project lowered the water table resulting in higher calcium content in the water, along with other undesirables, which the grapes couldn’t tolerate.

“Did the mining company pay compensation? Or otherwise try to mitigate the problem?” I ask.

According to Darren the mining companies contribute “too much money” to government for there ever to be sufficient scrutiny, monitoring or punitive action to ensure high social and environmental performance. A common belief in many countries and communities.

Mid afternoon a familiar Landcruiser crawls into Gunbarrel Laager. Welcome Will and Jen, I’ve missed you.

Doesn’t take long for Will to see the sense in a two-nighter to allow for all the myriad little things to get done before we take on the Canning Stock Route.

Will and Jen keep their own blog about their adventures and (spoiler) are months ahead of me in keeping it up to date:

01 May
A day of bikes. Final tweaking, packing the Landcruiser, securing Zi-Biddi on the roof-rack, cramming the rear panniers somewhere behind the sole rear passenger seat, putting all my camping gear into a large box, my 31 litre Ortlieb rackpack for my clothes balanced along with all Will and Jen’s stuff, food for three for weeks, beer, wine-casks and whatever other miscellaneous stuff three experienced Outback campers may or may not need for the next six weeks or so along one of the world’s most isolated tracks. Oh. Boy!

190430 Gunbarrel preparations 5
Loading time. Note Zi-Biddi on the roof-rack

I put half a bottle of goo in the rear tire but leave the front without.

“Why not in the front too? asks a perplexed Will.
“It’s a control. I want to see if indeed it really does help.” I’m not sure Will is convinced of the scientific, cyclingtific or even psycho-cyclingtific purpose and point in it. But I’m clearly dealing with post-puncture stress disorder and need some kind of crutch to pin my hopes of uneventful flat-free-future on.

190430 Gunbarrel preparations 7
Troll all dressed up and ready to go

Both of us have our Ortlieb front panniers on our rear frames. Will carries a lot more water than I. I, on the otherhand, will carry my six-pack cooler bag with fresh fruit and nibblies. And, for some inexplicable reason vaguely related to a romanticised idea that we’ll be taking random breaks, chilling in the dunes and looking at the view, I’m also taking my Helinox ground-chair. If you are going to chill, nothing better than a Helinox ground-chair is my reasoning.

190430 Gunbarrel preparations 8
Troll and Sandy

Although we are all well experienced travellers and campers we are not immune to accidents. I’m carrying my personal locator beacon, Will his spot-tracker and Jen has a satellite phone from a friend of theirs. Here’s The But. The satellite phone hasn’t been used for a whiles. It’s firmware, it turns out, needs updating before it’ll operate. It seems potential satellite phone users are all Windows users and not, as Will and Jen are, i-device users. Without a Windows device and an internet connection it is not possible to update the phone and thereby use it.

190430 Gunbarrel preparations 9
Mulga Mess where I spent days getting sorted

Although Windows devices are used at Gunbarrel Laager, they are ‘surveilled’ by the nefarious Deep State and are not available to random travellers to update their satellite phones. Despite a fair number of other residents with laptops we are not able to have access to solve our problem.

190430 Gunbarrel preparations 6
Gunbarrel Laager from a ‘get organised’ perspective

It is an interesting dilemma. ‘What are the chances?’ kinda question, of ever actually needing it. We’ve all done amazing Epics for decades without a satellite phone and never missed one. Are we really likely to need it? We discuss this at some length. Although we still have a PLB and a Spot Tracker, they are passive devices which just bring in the troops without them really understanding the nature of the emergency. Whereas a satellite phone is an active device with which we can tell the troops why they are needed to help them prepare. ‘Surely’ goes our logic ‘there’ll be somewhere in Wiluna where we can update the phone’s firmware and secure our safety. Surely!? We leave it at that.

Tomorrow we Ride.
Tomorrow we begin the Canning Stock Route.


01 May 2019, Gunbarrel Laager, the Night Before …

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