I was in my tent at Eighty Mile Beach in Western Australia. Once it was warm enough for me to get out of my sleeping bag, I used the restroom and got dressed. I ate some cereal and yogurt for breakfast and took my coffee to the beach to enjoy the sunrise.
There was a cold breeze, so I wore my coat. The vast ocean was so peaceful. I was feeling remarkably good, drinking my coffee and enjoying the incredible view. I was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen.
I left the campground and headed north towards Broome. It was a four-hour drive, and I booked three nights at an Airbnb. I stopped at the first roadhouse that I saw after the campground to get gas and a snack.
I drove along the two-lane highway, and 45-minutes after leaving the roadhouse, I felt my car struggling to keep up with cruise control. It was jerking, so I turned off the cruise control and hit the gas pedal. I turned down the music, and a strange sound was coming from the engine.
In the outback, there are vast distances with no services what-so-ever. However, there are periodically small, dirt parking areas for people to pull over and rest. Because there are many head-on collisions, they recommend that you pull over every two hours to take a break and sleep if needed.
There happened to be a parking area within a minute, so I pulled into it. I slowed down as I approached the dirt lot and realized my engine was pretty loud. I turned off the car and opened the hood. I looked around the engine (as if I knew what the heck I was looking for), but everything appeared fine. I tried to start the car again, but it made a loud screeching sound and started violently shaking.
I started to worry. I didn’t have cell service for the last 24-hours and was only about halfway to Broome. I was in the middle of nowhere. This was my worst nightmare come true.
I grabbed my cell phone and couldn’t believe it – I had cell service! I found my RAA information (like AAA in the U.S.) and called them. After being transferred a few times, I got through to a representative who could help me. The woman asked where I was, and I said, “A dirt parking lot. It’s a pullover area off of the highway. I don’t know? Halfway between Eighty Mile Beach and Broome.”
Australia doesn’t have mile markers on the highway as the U.S. does, and this wasn’t an official rest area – it was only a parking spot. I didn’t know how to describe where I was. It was a red desert with some trees between me and the small highway. I typed Broome into Google maps, and it said I was 229 kilometers (142 miles) away.
The woman explained that even though I signed up for the maximum coverage, they only covered 200 kilometers one-way. I’d have to pay for the extra 60 kilometers roundtrip, which would cost another $200.
I had no choice, so I agreed to the $200. The woman explained that it would be close to four hours before someone would arrive because I was so far away from Broome (the nearest town).
I sat in my car with the windows down and my door open. It was hot outside, with flies landing all over me. I looked at my back seat and thought, “At least I have food and water that everyone told me to ensure that I had with me at all times.”
I sat there, feeling extremely defeated. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. I worried about how much money it was going to cost to repair my car – $400? $500? A week earlier, I had transferred thousands of dollars to buy a house in Missouri. My bank account was dwindling, creating a lot of stress.
I messaged my Airbnb host and told her what happened. She was concerned and said, “Whatever you do, don’t leave your car.”
After a couple of hours, a campervan pulled up. A man and a woman in their 60s approached me. They asked if everything was ok because my hood was up. I hid my tears and said that I was waiting for a tow truck.
The couple, Phil and Laura, said they stopped for tea and biscuits. They invited me inside their campervan to join them and to use their toilet. I agreed, and as I walked up the stairs to go inside, I realized that I left everything in my car – my phone and my purse with a knife. A thought crossed my mind that maybe that’s their guise. They pretend to be a lovely retired couple, but that’s how they can kidnap people. It would be like the movie Cloak and Dagger, which I watched so many times as a kid. The old couple pretends to help the boy, but they turn out to be the bad guys!
I used the toilet and told my crazy imagination to stop running wild. When I came out, Laura moved some stuff around to make room at the small kitchen table. I sat down while Phil stood across from me at the stove making tea and slicing lemons. Laura got up to help Phil because some of us wanted a lemon slice, and some didn’t. Laura told Phil to move over, and she’d do it. He snapped back, “You’re just a cranky bitch!”
Feeling uncomfortable and attempting to control my imagination, I tried to turn the mood around and keep things light. I asked where they were from and how long they were traveling. The couple was from the Sydney area, but they also have a holiday home in Cairns. They rented the campervan in Perth and were traveling to Cairns, where they’d spend two months.
Laura and I sat at the table while Phil sat in the passenger front seat. It swiveled, so he turned around to face us. Laura explained that she would take care of her mom in Brisbane while Phil went fishing. I asked if they were free-camping or staying at campervan parks, and Laura said, “Does it look like we free camp? No. I need water and electricity hookups. With this weather and terrain, I take a shower at night and in the morning.”
While we drank our tea, they put out a tray of small biscuits (cookies) that were chocolate coated. They cautioned, “Don’t reach for a third!”
Phil and Laura used to have an insurance underwriting company, but they retired three years prior. So far that year, they traveled to the Galapagos Islands. Phil fell on some rocks while at the same time, Laura fainted from heat exhaustion. They explained that they were trying to see things while they were still physically able. They weren’t in the best shape, so I imagine their window was closing.
Laura said they try to do tours when they travel. One time, they went on a cruise that included three days in Russia. Laura mocked Phil, saying they do tours because Phil can’t hear very well and has hearing aids. Phil rolled his eyes and mocked her back. Laura said, “He can hear me, though.” Desperate to lighten the mood again, I said, “He listens to you because of his love for you.” Phil spoke up, “I listen out of fear.” I sipped my tea, hoping that it wasn’t poisoned.
Phil and Laura have been to the U.S. (Miami and a few other places). Laura said, “You said you never wanted to go back to the states.” Phil explained, “Because it’s too much like Australia.” I pointed out the differences in our countries and said the outback is different than the U.S. Laura agreed, “This is an Australian adventure like your shirt says.”
It had been about 30 minutes, and they needed to continue their drive. I called the tow company, and they were 30 minutes away. I assured Phil and Laura that I’d be fine, and the tow truck was almost there.
I stepped outside, and Laura held the door open while standing at the top of the steps. Phil was to her side. I thanked them for their hospitality, tea, and biscuits. Laura snarked, “You should be thankful. Phil never shares his biscuits.” Phil snapped back, “That’s because she’s pretty!”
I stepped back, saying I had better get back to my car. I sat there, wondering, what the F just happened?
Not long after, the tow truck driver showed up. He wore a greasy uniform and appeared to be in his late 40s. The man walked towards me and put his hand out to shake. As I shook it, he smiled, revealing that he had no front teeth on the top of his mouth. I tried to hold it together and convince myself that I was not in the movie Wolf Creek.
The man walked over to my car and checked the oil. He said, “Looks like you ran out of oil. That will ruin your engine.” What?! My light didn’t even turn on. That couldn’t be. I was only a couple hundred kilometers from needing an oil change, which I planned to change in Broome. There were no signs of a leak.
The man tried to turn my car on and heard the same screeching noise. He didn’t say anything and instead started to hook up my car to a chain to pull it onto his flatbed truck. He was pulling my bumper and then asked if I had a hitch. Then I remembered that the car dealership gave me a hitch and it was inside my car. The man connected it and pulled my car to the bed.
Thirty minutes later, we were ready to leave. I climbed into the huge truck and thought, “Great, I have to sit with this guy for the next two and a half hours.” Within a few minutes on the road, I lost cell service again until we arrived in Broome.
I made small talk and found out that he had six children aged 12-24 and two grandkids. He was from Perth originally but had been in areas around the outback for most of his life.
The man drank orange juice from a massive jug and then wiped his mouth on his short-sleeve shirt. There was a whistling coming from the top of my door, which was driving him crazy. Out of nowhere, he pulled over on the side of the road. He didn’t say a word and walked over to my door, climbed up, and opened my door. I was afraid and didn’t know what he was doing. Then he pulled down on the door and frame using his body weight. He closed the door and walked back to his side. The whistling stopped, and he said, “That’s better.”
Another time, the man pulled over, got out, and went into the bushes to pee. It was silent for a while until he turned on the radio. He played Pour Some Sugar On Me.
By the time we arrived at the shop, it was 6:00 pm and dark outside. It was a large shop with a dirt yard. I noticed all of the typical backpacker cars lined up and started to worry. They gave me a ride across the street to my Airbnb because I had my luggage.
When I arrived, I met Flic, the host. I was renting a room in her house. There was another woman, Lisa, renting the room across the hall from me. Flic told me to call the shop owner and say that I’m “staying with Flic across the street.” They knew each other and said that it might help. It was common knowledge that backpackers and travelers could easily be taken advantage of in the outback because options are minimal.
A family was staying in the backyard bungalow that Flic also rents out. They happened to be her friends, so they were all having a BBQ. They invited me to join them, and I helped to peel the enormous shrimp. Their young daughters were adorable, and they reminded me of my nieces. Everyone invited me in with open arms. I had a hard time focusing, though.
The next day, the car shop called and said they put five liters of oil in my car. Unfortunately, my car ran out of oil, and the engine was destroyed. Running out of oil for even a few seconds will ruin your engine to the point of no return. I walked over to the shop to talk with the owner, Warren.
Warren told me that the knocking sound coming from the engine was because it had passed that point of no return. Once the knocking happens, the entire engine has to be replaced. He explained, “You can tell because of the knock-knock sound. It would cost more than the car is worth to repair it. It’s a shame because it’s a good car.”
I protested, afraid that I was just getting screwed over by a mechanic, “How could I have run out of oil? I was only a couple hundred kilometers from needing an oil change. The warning light never came on. There were no signs of a leak.”
Warren explained, “Most of the time, the warning light doesn’t come on. By the time it does, it’s too late. I agree there aren’t signs of a leak. It’s possible that the car dealership you bought it from put in cheap oil or didn’t fill it when they did the last oil change. If it makes you feel better, you shouldn’t have run out.”
I asked what my options were. Warren said it would take weeks to repair because they’d have to put in a new engine, and he was extremely backed up with work. Broome is remote, and he had to order a new engine. It would likely cost around $5,000. I paid $5,500 for the car, which was $1,000 more than other Outbacks that age. I thought I was buying the car that was in better condition and wouldn’t leave me stranded.
Warren offered to buy my car for $500 because the rest of it was in good shape. I pointed out that I had just put new tires on, which cost $500. I was afraid that I was getting swindled like the Google reviews mentioned is common for backpackers and travelers. I asked Warren if my car was driveable so I could get a second opinion. He advised, “With adding the oil, it’ll drive. It’s loud, and I wouldn’t advise that you leave town. It might go ten kilometers, or it might go 100. I really can’t say.” I had to pay almost $250 for the tow and oil before leaving.
I drove my car to another shop where they were willing to take a quick look. The guy there, Josh, was in his 30s and friendly. I opened the hood and explained what the other car repair shop said. Josh listened to the knocking sound and said he assumed it was due to running out of oil and would need the engine replaced. He couldn’t be sure without lifting the car and inspecting it, which would cost both time and money.
He said it would cost around $4,000 to repair and take close to three weeks. After some discussion, he let me look on his website for Subaru Outback engines for sale. We found one in Adelaide (where I bought the car) for $800. He was surprised by the low price but explained that it would cost $500 to ship it there. Besides, he said it would be at least $2,000 in labor. He agreed that for a car that old (16 years) it wasn’t worth repairing. He acknowledged that it was in great shape, so the whole thing was unfortunate.
I was deflated. The car was so loud as I drove; people were staring at me. Broome has a population of 14,000 and is extremely remote. I didn’t have many options. At both car shops, there were lines of backpacker cars (mostly Toyota Prados) that needed work. I stopped by the Toyota dealership that also sells Subarus. I asked if they’d buy my car and for how much. The man explained that they don’t buy cars that are more than ten years old. The other shops that I called said it would take days to even look at the vehicle.
I called the wreckers (salvage place) and asked if they would buy my car for parts and how much. The guy explained that he just bought a Subaru Outback two weeks prior and hadn’t needed any parts, so he didn’t want to buy another. He offered to take my car for free to get it off my hands. Offended, I explained how much money I was out. The man said, “Look, we’re so remote that we have to pay companies to dispose of our trash. We don’t have anywhere to put it.”
Unbelievable. I couldn’t even get money from the wreckers. I went back to my room at the Airbnb and closed the door. I was under an overwhelming amount of stress. I cried and felt a tightening in my chest as my heart started skipping beats. How could I be so stupid and not check the oil?! Why did everyone tell me to ensure I have food and water, and not a single person told me to check my oil?
When I was 16 years old, I bought my first used car. I worked hard for that car and used to check the oil all the time, just in case. I was meticulous at keeping that car in good shape.
In 2017, I purchased a 2016 Subaru Outback at home. It was my first car that had all the bells and whistles: Bluetooth, satellite radio, heated seats, and every sort of warning light imaginable. If my tires are even slightly low on air, the warning light will appear. If the temperature drops to 37 °F (3 °C), I will get a warning saying, “possible ice on roads.” I had become reliant on those notifications. I was now the American idiot who never checked her oil driving thousands of miles through the Australian outback. I was beating myself up and telling myself how stupid I was.
I googled, desperate to find any hope. Unfortunately, every video and article said the same thing – once you run out of oil, your entire engine needs to be replaced. Once you hit low oil, it’s a fast spiral to being empty, usually within minutes. Then I came across articles that said older model Subaru Outback’s have a known issue that they burn through oil faster than they should. Why didn’t I see that article sooner?! I thought I was so clever – taking a Subaru Outback into the outback.
I thought about what the sticker said on the windshield about when to get an oil change. I almost changed it in Perth, but it would have been thousands of kilometers early, according to the sticker. I didn’t want to be overzealous about it, so I didn’t get it changed. But doing the math, I had driven 12,400 kilometers (7,700 miles) since I purchased the car. I was only a couple hundred kilometers overdue for an oil change, according to the sticker. That couldn’t be right.
Even my new Outback at home needed a change after 9,600 kilometers (6,000 miles). This car was older, and the oil should have been changed sooner. The sticker couldn’t have been correct. I remember briefly thinking it was wrong when I was in Perth, but I didn’t do the math and assumed it was just a difference between using kilometers, not miles.
If I had ignored the sticker and changed the oil in Perth, it wouldn’t have happened. If I had checked my oil at the gas station that I stopped at 45 minutes before I ran out, it wouldn’t have happened. If I would have pulled over the very second the car started acting strangely, it wouldn’t have happened. If even a single person had mentioned it, I would have checked the oil. I imagined how I’d do it differently over and over in my mind. It was like I was trying to change the past with sheer will.
The very reason I bought a nicer used car was so I wouldn’t end up stranded in the outback. I was grateful that I signed up for the premium RAA package and made it to Broome. But now what? The car that I was supposed to sell before I left is now worth $500, at most. Not only was I out the money, but I was also stuck in Broome.
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