The Third Geek Astronomical Expedition was every bit as disastrous as the previous two Geek Astronomical Expeditions. For those unfamiliar with our adventures, the first Expedition was a late night trip inland to the farming town of York in order to view the Leonids Meteor shower of 1998. It was ruined by a massive freak thunderstorm that engulfed the entire Southwest of the state, making meteor spotting impossible. The second Expedition was a journey north to Greenough to view the annular eclipse of February 16th 1999. It was aborted when the Justified's thermostat stuck shut, and the engine got so hot the head almost cracked. We turned back and watched the eclipse from Giulliano's house. The third Expedition took place on the night of the 16th of April 1999. It was an attempt to view the planet Mars, which was approaching perihelion that night. Boy were we in for it.
The expedition was slated to begin at around 7:30pm when Giulliano and Sean would pick me and the telescope up from my house. As usual they were abominably late, arriving at 9:30. I'd spent the intervening time hanging out on the lawn, talking astronomy to the neighbour's cat. It actually seemed to understand an awful lot of what I was saying, which was mildly worrying. I'd lost some of the bolts for the tripod, so had to improvise with some long nails I discovered after a frantic search down in the garden shed. By the time the Justified rolled into view though, I was all ready to go.
It took us about five minutes to load up with the dismantled 'scope and tripod. I'd wrapped the tube up in a blanket in an attempt to protect it from the Justified's lack of suspension, which had been the main cause of it's misalignment in the first place. As I was the last to picked up, I ended up sitting on the hard, thin, benches in the back of the rover.
The expedition plan was to head west until we hit the coast, then north to Clinton Vale, the location of our year eight school camp. We wanted to check out the campsite, have a look around to see how much had changed, and if our memories of the place were as accurate as we thought. The large expanse of bushland would provide a good screen against the light pollution of the city, and we could get a good look at Mars before returning home around midnight. As usually occurs on these expeditions, things were to turn out very differently.
We set off. The Justified was running a bit low on fuel, so we made a stop at a nearby service station to fill her up. Giulliano (as expedition driver) did the honours, while Sean and I stayed in the car, passing the time by concocting schemes on how to escape without paying for the fuel. I considered heading into the shop and buying some of the snack food that was prominently displayed by the door as provisions. But I decided against it. This was a decision I was later to regret.
Giulliano returned to the Justified and we continued on our way. This portion of the trip could have been extremely boring but was enlivened by us slipping into our "Gangsta" routine. This is where we talk in exaggerated "Gangsta" style, each striving to outdo each other in the incomprehensibility of our speech. The conversation became peppered with "word", "mutha", and "fly", and words such as "my" and "you" metamorphosed into "ma" and "yo". Phrases such as "Yo brutha yo no ma mutha yo mean bitch! Word?" filled the cabin. This kind of thing is very entertaining to Geeks, and is probably one of the reasons we have so few friends.
After about fifteen minutes we grew bored with the "Gangsta" routine. We toyed around a bit with the Hillbilly routine, but couldn't come up with anything except variations on "now squeal like a pig boy!" so dropped it. Giulliano filled the entertainment void by swerving the Justified from lane to lane while making "Woooooo! WOOOOOO!" noises, incidentally throwing me around in the back. Sean and I retaliated with convincing descriptions of the unmarked police cars we'd just passed. It was about at this point we hit a t-junction and turned north onto a major road.
The area to the west of the road was dark, with no houses or lights to be seen. I figured it was one of the undeveloped tracts of bushland that are scattered around the city. But as we continued north, and no houses appeared on the edges, I began to grow puzzled. Surely no patch of bush could be this big? I was just about to ask Sean and Giulliano about it when my night vision cut in, and I realised I was looking at the ocean. Even though I'd said nothing, this was still extremely embarrassing.
My embarrassment was alleviated somewhat when a few minutes later Sean freaked out at something he saw down on the beach. "WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT!!" he yelled at top volume, almost causing Giulliano (who was in the middle of another "Wooooo! Woooooo!" routine) to swerve off the road and into a bait shop. Giulliano recovered in time and we all peered to the right, just in time to see what had so startled Sean. It was a series of breakers, illuminated by the streetlight outside a surf club. We laughed until Sean was suitably humiliated, and carried on our way.
It was about 10:30 when we arrived at Clinton Vale. There was a roundabout in the road at this point, and we spun around trying to figure out where we had to turn off to find the campsite. Giulliano flicked on the internal lights, and I flipped feverishly through the street directory, eventually figuring out that our turnoff was the road we were going to take originally. We drove up the street, and passed over the underpass that had given us access to the beach ten years before. With cheers and clapping for our intrepid driver turned into the driveway of the campsite. This was where things began to come unstuck.
The driveway was partly blocked by a large chain link gate. This was unlocked, but gave ominous notice that the campsite might not be so open to the public as we remembered. Driving forwards a few metres our headlights illuminated a t-junction, richly adorned with signs pointing out that this was a private reserve and camping area, only authorised users of the facility were allowed access, and just what the hell did we think we were doing anyway?
We were stumped, but after a quick debate agreed that to carry on would be too risky. The fact that the gate was open suggested that the campsite was occupied, and whoever was in there probably wouldn't have taken too kindly to a bunch of Geeks in a noisy old land rover. We decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and backed out of the drive, vowing to come back someday when the place was unoccupied.
In the meantime however we had a planet to look at. We decided to head further north, to a little place called Burns Beach, where we had successfully observed comet Hale Bopp in a mini expedition the year before.
At this point navigation became a bit tricky. The road petered out in a dead end not too far ahead, and we had to head inland to find a route north. There was a lot of flipping back and forth through the pages of the street directory before we found ourselves on the correct road. Our only problem then was to find the turn off to Burns Beach.
I was meant to be navigating, but kept losing the page, so it was no surprise when we missed the turn off. As the roads were close to deserted, and the Justified was technically an all terrain vehicle Giulliano decided to make a U turn over the traffic island to compensate. This pretty much freaked out the driver of an oncoming car, so we sped away down the road before he could get our licence number.
We turned down the road to Burns Beach. By now my hunger was growing and I started to salivate at the thought of the Barramundi available at the small fish and chip store there. I had completely forgotten that it was around 11:00 at night and any sane fish and chip shop would have shut it's doors hours ago. As we got closer to the beach it became clear that the light pollution was as bad out here as as in my driveway. After a quick discussion we decided to turn around and head further north. Giulliano carried out our second bout of property destruction for the night by backing the Justified over someone's lawn, probably crushing their reticulation system, and we were once again on our way.
At this point a kind of mania seemed to have grabbed hold of Giulliano. Every time we passed a decent site to set up, he'd insist in a manic tone that we had to go further north to escape the city's light pollution. As he was the driver, we couldn't really argue. We almost convinced him to stop at one point when we passed through a large expanse of dark, undeveloped wasteland. But then we were assaulted by a putrid stench, and realised just why the area was so undeveloped. The right side of the road was taken up by an enormous, festering rubbish tip. We wound up the windows, and carried on until the air was clean enough to breath without gagging.
By now we had reached the hamlet of Quinns Rocks, the last outflung tendril of the vast suburban sprawl. The area was so new that most of the roads were shown as dotted lines on the street directory, which made navigation difficult to say the least. The road we'd been following hit a cul-de-sac just past some kind of Air Force Retirement village and turned into an unsealed limestone track. I figured we would have to stop at this point, even though the light pollution was terrible, and was ready to suggest heading back to the tip. However by this point Sean had been caught up in the Northwards Ho! mania, and goaded Giulliano over the curb and onto the track.
This track was extremely scary. It crept along behind the rear fences of several houses, then plunged into the bush, surrounded on both sides by huge sand banks that made the trip seem like a journey into an open cut bauxite mine. We were relieved at first to spot another car parked by the side of the track, but were horrified when on closer approach it turned out to be a burnt out wreck with a smashed windscreen. This was to be the first of many such relics. Before long we were passing more wrecked cars, oddly shaped piles of miscellaneous junk, and old campfires surrounded by lumps that may have been chunks of sandstone or may have been dead bodies. I suggested stopping several times to do the astronomy, but everyone was too freaked out.
After a while I consulted the Street Directory and noticed two things. Firstly, the track stretched northwards infinitely, or at least to the edge of the maps. Secondly we where getting worryingly close to Alkimos. Alkimos is a projected suburb named after the notoriously cursed ship stranded out on the reefs offshore. I'd done a lot of reading about the Alkimos, and wanted nothing to do with it whatsoever, so I recommended we turn back. Either the fear in my voice was obvious, or Giulliano was having one of his periodic panic attacks about the paranormal, because he spun the Justified right around and headed back towards civilisation at the highest speed he could manage. Just as the lights of Quinns Rocks appeared around the corner, we spotted a track turning off into the sand hills of Jindalee. Suddenly filled with pride over the all terrain capabilities of his vehicle, he announced that it would much darker out in the hills, and that we were going four wheel driving.....