It was an easy drive and I was looking forward to it: driving from Adelaide to Alice Springs along the Stuart Highway.
It’s a journey I’ve done many times before, both on my own and with my partner, Gary.
This time, I was alone and driving home a car that one of our daughters had just bought in Adelaide.
Yes, that’s right – I was a female driving 1500km alone in the outback.
But this time, the drive home to Alice Springs was different.
600 kilometres from home, in the middle of nowhere, I broke down.
This is the story of the lessons I learned – and what you should do if your car breaks down outback.
Middle of Nowhere, North of Coober Pedy
It was Sunday morning, late November, and I was driving a tiny little Holden Barina, a 4 cylinder manual car that’s quite common in Australia.
On the very edge of Coober Pedy’s mobile phone reception – the LAST mobile phone coverage until Marla, over 200km away up the highway- I heard a loud THUD-THUD-THUD sound coming from under the bonnet.
Cursing, I pulled up straight away and stopped the car.
It didn’t sound good.
I poked around under the hood for a little while, suspecting the worst.
Starting the car again, I soon figured out the problem: the fan belt was fraying, and a large piece had come loose and was flapping around, hitting the bonnet and engine as it turned.
No problem, I thought, I’ve changed a fanbelt before.
I always travel with common spare parts. I happened to have a spare fanbelt in the car and a few basic tools with me as well.
Unlike the fanbelts in the older Toyota Landcruisers and Holden Commodores that I’d changed, the Barina’s fanbelt was unique.
The engine was mounted SIDEWAYS under the hood and there was no visible way for me to undo the fanbelt.
I began to panic…
Here I was early on a Sunday morning in the middle of nowhere with 600km to go, and I couldn’t even do a basic repair on this little beast of car…
I reached for the mobile phone.
I was REALLY lucky.
There was just enough reception to call Gary, at home in Alice Springs.
I explained that I’d broken down and sent him a photo of the fanbelt and its mount. I told him approximately where I was, and asked him to call the Royal Automobile Association’s office (RAA) in Coober Pedy.
After hanging up, I waited.
Soon, Gary called back and told me the RAA was on its way. He sounded worried – I was alone and in the hands of strangers. I assured him I’d be okay.
Several people stopped and asked me if I was alright, offering me lifts into Coober Pedy and a tow. I thanked them and explained that the RAA was on its way.
They might have looked at me dubiously – after all, I was a woman alone in the outback- but I assured them that I was fine.
After about 20 minutes, the RAA man came.
He trimmed my fanbelt, and I was able to drive the car back to Coober Pedy, following him.
What happened next was a story in itself.
The RAA man was absolutely stumped.
He’d never seen a fanbelt so difficult to get at before. After several hours of trying, cussing and sweating, we had to Google the workshop manual and read what needed to be done.
Very blurry photo but you get the idea
It turned out that the entire engine had to be undone from its mounts in order to change the fanbelt. It wasn’t a one person job – you needed several sets of hands.
So the kind RAA man called on some friends. Even though it was Sunday afternoon, they quickly arrived and after another hour, the fanbelt was finally changed.
There was no way I could have done this on my own.
I thanked the RAA man and his friends – they wouldn’t accept a carton of beer as thanks from me, either.
After 6 hours in Coober Pedy, and a lot of frustration from all of us – I was on my way again.
That night I slept at Cadney Roadhouse, then I made it home with no further problems.
This break down could have been much, much worse if I hadn’t been prepared and had my wits about me.
In some respects, I was very lucky, breaking down where I did and having the RAA man able to come and get me.
Even so, I learned a lot about myself and what to do when the shit hits the fan, you’re alone and you’re in the middle of nowhere, outback Australia.
Here’s 6 lessons I learned after breaking down in the outback:
1. Common spare parts saved my butt
Even though I couldn’t fix the car myself, I had the exact fanbelt that was needed. If I hadn’t had one, I would have had a long wait for the part to be sent from Alice Springs or Port Augusta.
This made my breakdown much easier than it might have been.
When driving outback, take fanbelts, radiator hoses, fuses, oil, WD40, spare water & radiator coolant as the basics. Other simple things that you might want are a handful of screws of various sizes and wire for securing things.
Oh yeah, take duct tape, too. Don’t leave home without it.
Also, make sure you’ve got a range of spanners that actually fit your car, and a screwdriver with interchangeable bits.
2. Join an automobile association
I really want to shout this at you: join the RAA, NRMA, AANT – whatever it is in your state.
I’ve broken down twice and both times, the RAA has saved my skin.
I have a Premium Membership that not only includes emergency callouts, but accommodation and recovery (vehicle towing) as well.
Don’t be a tightarse. Get it.
3. Have a means of emergency communication
I was VERY lucky.
I broke down where there was still mobile coverage.
However, there are other options for emergency communications which you may want to consider.
Had I broken down outside of phone reception and as a woman, was wary of accepting help from strangers, I would have asked a passing motorist to contact both Gary (my partner) and the RAA when they got to Coober Pedy. I would have written all of my details on a piece of paper for them to pass the message along.
If you’re really worried about your message getting through, send it with 2 different motorists, just to be sure.
If I had broken down on a remote, bush track or a dirt road, I would not have left my car – more on that below.
Other options are to carry a satellite phone or to get a DeLorme personal locator beacon.
I NEVER carry a sat phone when I’m travelling on the Stuart Highway. This is a well-travelled road, there is a lot of passing traffic, and people will stop and help you.
However, as soon as I’m travelling off main, bitumen highways in the outback, I take a sat phone with me.
You can hire satphones (check this page out), or opt for a DeLorme personal location beacon.
Learn more about the DeLorme personal locator here.
4. Stay with your car
People who perish in the outback are generally people who leave their cars and start walking – especially in the summer heat.
If you break down in the middle of nowhere, STAY WITH YOUR CAR until someone else comes along.
It’s really simple: if police or emergency services need to come looking for you, a car is bigger and easier to find than a person.
Also, your car will provide some shelter – either shade or warmth.
So please, don’t be an idiot. Stay with your car.
It could save your life.
(Read this story here to see what happens when people don’t stay with their cars).
5. Don’t panic
Before you leave home, go through an outback breakdown scenario in your head. Think about what you would do. Have a plan. Write it down if you need to.
Breaking down in the outback is common.
It happens every day – and you never hear about it.
Keep a calm head and think through your options.
You will be able to find help – especially if you’ve planned what you’d do in an emergency before you leave home.
6. Thirst and heat WILL kill you – other travellers won’t
This probably sounds like common sense, but carry water and some emergency food with you.
I had 12 litres of water when I broke down. I also had about a day’s worth of snacks.
The biggest cause of death in the outback is not backpacker murderers, deranged psychopaths, snakes or spiders but HEAT and thirst.
Take more water than you need – a 20 litre container is ideal.
Remember this. It could save your life.
Also, be aware that people will stop to help you in the outback – especially if you’re a woman travelling alone: families, Grey Nomads, truckies, station people, Aboriginal people from local communities… even overseas backpackers will all stop and check to see that you’re ok.
Use your commonsense when accepting help –if someone feels shady or suspect, then say no, but keep in mind that 99% of people are honest, decent people.
People will stop and help you. It’s what we do out here.
Read What Other People Have Done
I can hear you saying: well that’s fine for YOU, Amanda, you do remote area bushwork all the time. You know what to do.
So I’ve found some articles written by other people, explaining what THEY did when they broke down outback. These are all ordinary people -not mechanics or even people who travel the outback for a living like I do.
These people all have one thing in common: they’re sensible travellers who’ve broken down outback.
- Our friends Juz & Dave from Our Naked Australia broke down in the Bungle Bungles, in the Kimberleys, Western Australia. Read how strangers and other travellers helped them fix a much trickier problem than I had: Bungle Bungled Troopy Saga
- Well known Australian photographer, Kath Swinbourne, talks about men’s perceptions of two women travelling together, has a good list of spares, and relates what she did when no one could figure out what was wrong: Dealing With Car Trouble in the Outback
- Backpackers Ewa and Jakub explain how Aussie Grey Nomads helped them out when they broke down on the way to Uluru: What is the Outback? No worries. Yes, Wucckas!
If this post has inspired or helped you:
Please help us and the other people whose stories we’ve shared by SHARING this post far and wide.
You’ll help other travellers stay safe and know what to do if they break down.
Who knows, you could be saving someone’s life.[sociallocker][/sociallocker]
If YOU have any great tips to add OR you’ve broken down in the outback, PLEASE leave them in comments below – your advice could really help someone out.
Great article, Amanda. As an occasional grey nomad, I know what you’re talking about.
Thank you, Dave. I really appreciate your comment 🙂
Sadly this particular Barina is well known for having issues, and costing a mint to repair. However certainly glad you did the right thing. It’s a shame that people seem to understand these basic rules for travelling anywhere in Australia, not only in the Outback, as many rural even a few hours from the city are mobile blackspots.
Actually, our daughter has had this car for 2 and a half years and hasn’t had any trouble with it. We’ve just bought our son one as his first car, also. Still prefer my Prado, though.
These are really great tips. Having some common spare parts and getting yourself informed of the basic car trouble shooting will be life saver. Also, your tips of having water and food is great tip as well. I travel always with food and water in my car that will last me for at least 48 hours. I also make sure that I have a spare blanket as well as a travel pillow just in case. Overall, nice tips here Amanda!
Wow thanks for sharing the useful tips. I use RACQ service when my car breaks down. I don’t go to the outback often so it’s not a big worry.
I now carry a SPOT Satellite Messenger. Its perfect for anyone travelling on isolated roads.
For those travelling in Australia here is a Emergency numbers Mobile APP for Australia for $1.99. The APP allows you to connect with Emergency, Non-emergency and ICE (in case of emergency) by pressing one button. It also includes direct access to poison line, national and airport security, child-line, diabetes, asthma etc …..
Not too difficult a problem to solve when you have mobile coverage 😉
Oh…and nice shot of the old car at the top of the article, on the Birdsville track not too far south of Birdsville – was there just the other day 🙂
Hi Amanda, I have broken down in the outback when a wheel on my caravan came loose. i was just across the Road from the Marla Caravan Park. So lucky. As a member of the RACV they took my van the 273 kms back to Alice Springs for repairs and I drove back in my 4 x 4. I now carry a Spot Gen 3 GPS system with emergency buttons for breakdown and medical. I think it should be compulsory for every traveller to protect themselves as we do owe a responsibility to all the outback services to take every precaution we can to protect ourselves and make sure they can find us with ease in an emergency.
Thank you for bringing this to everyone’s attention.
Pretty good eye opener, for the inexperienced tourist, really glad it all turned out well, and hope many people are inspired by your adventures, I know I am!
Keep up the great travels, maybe one day we will chance to hire you as a guide, CHEERS!!
Hi Amanda, really great tips!
I broke down a few months ago in the bush, in Western Australia, in the middle of the night with no mobile coverage and absolutely no idea about how the engine works. I was very lucky to be just a couple of km from a caravan park.
After that night, among my resolutions there is to always keep in the car a powerful torch!
Couldn’t resist a little story for you all. One of many from travelling alone on the Track for 30 years.
Once upon a time there were no mobile phones. In fact, the Track was indeed still a track and a satellite phone was something I saw on “Towards 2000”. Two flat tyres from the same insignificant little rock left me with a dilemma. No second spare. But like your advice, there are road champions out there and in my case not only drove me to Glendambo to buy the worlds’ most expensive spare tyre but drove me back to change it. Thank heaven for the numerous Public Servants travelling our roads:)
A tyre repair kit is also worth the investment. There are many available and are quite easy to use. I had cause to use mine in the Victorian High Country last November.
A rip in the side wall of my week old Mickey Thompson was very annoying but at least i could continue the rest of the trip on the same tyre, without having to risk my spare.
It took 4 cords to seal the rip which is a lot easier than changing the wheel.
I don’t even drive…yet (it’s on my to do list), and I don’t know if I’ll ever be brave enough to drive through places like the Australian Outback or the Death Valley, I read about what happened to the ‘Death Valley Germans’, heartbreaking, as is what just happened to a young aborigine family and family friend over the last weekend — I found this webpage while googling for more about it. If only their car had broken down a few days earlier or later than the extreme weather event, they might have been okay!
(Or 10 minutes later, as the update reveals: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6370603/Young-family-friend-died-car-broke-Outback-just-10-minute-drive-water.html)
I think people leave their car because it gets hot inside, but what could have been done is sit beside it or even crawl underneath it for shade. I figure shade can also be constructed by ripping up the seat upholstery, opening the car door, and tie the upholstery between the car and door. Or duct-taping the shoe mat between car and open car door for shade outside the hot car.
I’m in Canada, I deal with the other end of weather extreme, as soon as the sun sets temperature can drop from a balmy 15 C into the negative, especially with wind chill. I always carry a coat with me and I won’t get drunk in winter!
I’m so glad that you had a happy ending to your saga – and proof that there are good people in the world.
I’m wondering if you, and readers, can help with an entirely hypothetic situation. What if a traveller’s vehicle breaks down in the very hot outback, with an amount of water – say 2 litres – and knows that a regular vehicle (postal delivery?) will be along in 2 days. So, what is best – drink the water whenever your body tells you too and get through it in the next 2-3hrs OR ration the water by sipping it every hour or so, hoping it will last ’till the PO vehicle turns up????
(No, it’s okay, I’m not planning such a trip).