The trails through the undeveloped sand hills of Jindalee were true 4WD territory. They were steep and narrow, and made of compacted white quindalup sand. We were thrown from side to side as the Justified groaningly negotiated the ruts and bumps engraved by the wheels of previous travellers. Giulliano was in his element, switching gears and revving the engine with a disturbing glint of madness in his eyes. We passed a number of eminently suitable astronomy sites, but by now even I had been caught up in the adventure, and insisted that we head for the top of Eglington Hill, a landmark shown as a dot on the street directory.
Without topographical maps we were at a bit of a loss to find Eglington hill. Instead we just kept on driving, heading upwards wherever possible. It wasn't long before we almost collided with a chain link fence. Giulliano, previously completely at ease with our unauthorised bashing around the sand dunes, was suddenly struck with a panic over just how legal our activities were. This was only made worse when a few metres further along the fence we spotted a large red sign marked "NO TRESPASSING!". Giulliano gingerly edged the Justified forwards until our headlights illuminated the sign enough for us to read the smaller print below.
The sign indicated that the area behind the fence was made up of fragile dunes, and was a designated conservation area. Much relieved we continued on our way, parting with the fence soon afterwards.
Eventually we crested a tall promontory that we decided might as well be Eglington Hill. It was probably a bit too far south, but we couldn't see any taller hills around. There was a nice level bit of track on the top, so we stopped, and I unpacked the telescope with the able assistance of Sean who held up the tripod while I shoved in the nails that were doubling as bolts. After locking the tube into the cradle, I calculated south from the Southern Cross (as only a true Geek can), and aligned the equatorial mount. After a good ten minutes of cursing and adjusting while the tripod slowly settled into the sand, I finally centred the viewfinder at the brilliant yellow star that my computer had assured me was Mars. I switched to the objective lens, and focused in. A small red blob appeared. It was Mars all right, and it was bell shaped.
The bumpy journey through the hills had stuffed up the mirror alignment even more. I cursed a bit, then yielded to the demands of the others to let them have a look. Sean was somewhat disappointed, Giulliano was apologetic. He immediately proposed that a system of ropes and pulleys be set up inside the rear cabin of the Justified to act as a cradle for the telescope on future expeditions. I was a bit dubious about this idea, but returned to the vehicle to examine the interior for possible mounting points. Sean remained at the telescope, possibly looking for Phobos, Deimos, or the Cydonia Face.
After a few minutes of peering at the red, bell shaped, blob, everyone was bored with Mars. Desperately searching the sky for more points of interest, I tried to align the telescope on the Jewel Box, but was defeated by massive banks of incoming cloud. Instead I swung the mounting around, and aimed at the shimmering carpet of lights on the southern horizon. This proved entertaining for a short while, as we tried to identify certain flashing red and blue lights. We eventually decided they must be the control tower at the airport, despite the obvious fact that they were far too west. After this brilliant piece of deduction we became bored again.
It was at this point that Giulliano brought our attention to some strange lights much closer at hand. Pale white beams, not unlike distant headlights were shooting up intermittently from the hills behind us. Giulliano's panic returned, and he immediately decided it was the police coming to arrest us for trespassing. I thought it much more likely that they were cannibalistic ferals coming to eat us, but kept my mouth shut. Sean and I packed up the 'scope in record time, and stowed it in the back of the Justified. We lept in, Giulliano revved the rover to life, and we zoomed off towards the ocean, the lights in hot pursuit.
After a few minutes it became clear that whatever the lights were, they weren't actually following us. I was getting pretty hungry, and suggested we get some food. Sean on the other hand wanted to drive down to the beach. Giulliano had no idea what he wanted to do next. We debated amicably for a while, and decided to go with Sean's suggestion. After about 100 metres of driving along in companionable silence, it occurred to me that we had no idea if there even was a beach. For all we knew the hills terminated in sheer cliffs, dropping ten metres to the sharp rocks below. I brought this sobering point up, and Giulliano stopped the Justified dead.
As Geeks it should have been fairly obvious to us that sand dunes do not suddenly turn into sheer rocky cliffs, but it was around midnight, and we were getting tired. We decided to drive forwards carefully until we could find somewhere to turn around, then head back inland. We crept along at a snails pace, then crawled over a crest. "THE OCEAN!!" cried Sean. Sure enough the Indian Ocean was laid out before us, sparkling in what little starlight escaped between the clouds. A quick drive down the hill would bring us to the beach.
Abandoning our plan to turn around, we roared down the slope. At the bottom we were confronted with a wall of thick spiky vegetation, invisible from the top, completely blocking our path. Peering left and right we could see no other tracks. It was the end of the road.
Luckily there was room enough to turn the Justified around, if we backed and forwarded a bit. Giulliano crunched the gears, revved the motor, and managed to defy Newtonian physics by spinning us around almost on the spot. We started back up the hill.
Here was where we began to run into problems. All the tracks so far had been hard compacted sand, perfect for driving. For reasons unknown, but probably having something to do with hundreds of other idiots powering down the slope just like we did, the track back up the hill was soft. Very Soft. The Justified groaned and complained, but couldn't get any more than halfway up the slope. Sean and I got out to lessen the weight (like 200 or so kg are going to make a difference to a vehicle weighing three tonnes) and Giulliano backed up for another try. There was no difference, except that this time Sean and I were pelted with sand spraying back from the wheels as they dug nice comfortable holes for themselves.
We stopped at this point to have a think. I was all for abandoning the vehicle, and walking back to civilisation. Or at least Quinns Rocks. We could come back the next morning with a winch and pull the Justified free. Giulliano didn't want to leave the rover stranded, mainly because his dad would have killed him. I suggested using the tools clamped to the bonnet to dig the vehicle out, but was dissuaded when the others pointed out that there actually were no tools clamped to the bonnet. Obviously I'd been watching too much of The Bush Tucker Man. Sean then jumped in with a brilliant suggestion. Back off the track onto the shoulder. The ground here was held together with shrubs, and much firmer than the loose sand we'd been trying to drive up.
We shook our heads in wonder than we hadn't thought of this before. Giulliano got back into the cabin, and slowly backed the Justified down the slope and into a patch of shrubbery. This was where the entire plan came unstuck. We'd neglected to notice that the shrubs concealed a deep ditch. There was a snapping of vegetation, the Justified gave a nasty lurch, and we ended up with the rear left and front right wheels spinning hopelessly in the air, while the other two refused to budge at all.
There was a fair bit of swearing and yelling at this point. We were all trying to blame each other, although it was really everyone's fault for not checking the shoulder first. We scrambled around trying to get a good look underneath the vehicle, but were hampered when my torch decided to start failing. We made a half hearted attempt at digging the wheels free with our hands, but got nowhere. Giulliano produced some wood blocks from inside, and shoved them under the wheels, but to no avail. The Justified was irrevocably stuck.
Our only real option at this point was to start walking. Before we made any hasty decisions however we decided to scout out the area, see if there was anything useful lying around (like an RAC van hiding behind a bush). We walked a few meters downhill before stumbling over yet another wrecked car. It was overturned with smashed windows and headlights, and in the guttering light of our single torch looked indescribably sinister. You could have sworn it was looking at us. No one was willing to go anywhere near it. Our recon ended there.
We decided to walk. We stripped the Justified of everything of value, including the tube of my telescope, and shoved them into Giulliano's back pack, which I volunteered to carry. Scrounging through the front of the vehicle I found a bottle of stale water, used to top up the radiator in emergencies. Giulliano wanted to leave it behind, but I was pretty thirsty. I took a swig, proving that it was drinkable and Giulliano agreed that we should bring it along, so long as I carried it.
Checking to make sure that we'd missed nothing, Sean discovered a torch hidden in one of the storage lockers in the back of the rover. It had a working battery. It shows what kind of mental state we were in that we saw this as a cause for major celebration. After a round of cheers and slaps on the back, we were ready to go.
By this point I was quite irrational from tiredness. I was half convinced we were stuck miles out in the wilderness, and attempted to remember my survival training. As this training consisted of a few episodes of The Bush Tucker Man, and a quick flip through the SAS Survival Handbook (Pocket Edition), all I could summon up was that we should leave a note in the Justified telling where we were going. I produced paper, in the form of a hastily scribbled star map showing Mars, and Giulliano dug a pen out of the pencil case he carries everywhere with him.
While more or less agreed on the fact that we should leave a note, we were all at odds on what it should say. The first line was easy "THIS CAR IS NOT ABANDONED". We thought that this might act in some mystical fashion to ward off looters. What to put next though caused problems. Worried that we might starve to death in the sand hills, and our bodies never be found I wanted to put the date, our names, contact phone numbers, and details of our plan to walk for help. Giulliano didn't want any part of this. He seemed to be concerned that anyone passing by could learn his name and phone number. I pointed out that this was the point, we wanted people to know who we were in case we never returned. Still he refused to budge. In the end we compromised. We wrote that we were walking to Quinns Rocks, and listed our names, although in protest Giulliano signed with an illegible scrawl. We locked the rover and were off.
The plan was to walk east until we hit the scary limestone track, follow it south to Quinns Rocks, inform the police of the vehicle's location, then get a taxi home and come back the next day to recover the Justified. None of us were particularly happy with this plan, especially the idea of walking down the appalling road of terrors, but we really didn't have much choice. We used the torches sparingly in our trip, both to allow our eyes to adapt to the darkness, and to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. They proved most useful for flashing around dementedly when someone panicked and yelled "WHAT'S THAT!?!" at the sight of an old beer can or tyre lurking under a bush.
A few minutes out, Sean suggested that we leave markers to help us find our way back the next day. My head buzzing with the wisdom of Les Hiddens, and the books of Arthur Ransome I agreed, and began scraping a huge arrow in the sand with my heel. The others joined suit, making whatever marks they thought appropriate. We made more marks every fifty metres or so, and my shoes were soon full of sand...