The night was dark. The moon may or may not have been up, as the expedition astronomer I actually should have known, but with the thick layer of heavy cloud overhead it was hard to tell. However we had just enough light from the few visible stars and the vague reflection from the city glow to guide us through the sand hills. Having left the Justified abandoned and vulnerable in the hills behind us we were trying to be inconspicuous, and not draw attention to ourselves. In our minds we'd peopled the hills with all sorts of crazies, cannibals, and bogans, and we didn't want to run into any of them.
The strange lights we'd noticed earlier (and which were indirectly responsible for our present predicament) were still shooting ominously into the sky. They were moving back and forwards, further and closer, sometimes a bit too close. Whenever they got too near we'd freeze into immobility and silence until they retreated.
Our plan was to walk to Quinns Rocks, find a phone box, and call the police. We'd inform them that the landrover was abandoned out in the hills, then call for a taxi home. Giulliano would return the next day with his truck and tractor, and unbog the vehicle.
There were a number of flaws to this plan. For example; If the Justified, a 4WD vehicle had got bogged, how the hell would a heavy truck get through? Or how would we pay for a late night 40 kilometre taxi fare into the city with the roughly fifteen dollars we had between us? In our dazed and tired state we failed to notice such obstacles. Our attention was much more focused on the obstacles right in front of our feet.
After what seemed like a lifetime of walking (probably about ten minutes) we stumbled over a slope that led down to the cyclone wire fence we'd encountered earlier. There was a narrow path running alongside it and I put forward the motion that we should follow it back to the road. I was voted down. The others wanted to stick to our original route as much as possible. I clambered back up the slope, and we continued on our way. About 50 metres later we ran into the fence once again. So much for their navigation.
Following the fence brought us to a gentle ramp, heading down onto the limestone track just past the last of the houses. Giulliano discovered a large sheet of metal at the junction and stuck it up to mark the turnoff for our return the next day. We planned to grab it and take it to the Justified to help with traction. We staggered into the sleeping community of Quinns Rocks. The trek had probably taken no more than half an hour, but it seemed like an eternity.
It was then we started considering the time. It was about 12:00, and there was no phonebox in sight, let alone a police station. We could knock on a door, but the occupants wouldn't be happy about being woken by a bunch of Geeks in the middle of the night, begging to use their phone. We were arguing about what to do when we spotted a guy getting out of a car in a carport up ahead. He was just opening his front door when we appeared out of the darkness.
He was quite startled at first, but Sean cleverly defused the situation by asking for the location of the nearest police station. We explained our predicament and thus pacified he informed us that the nearest police station was a long way away. He then invited us in to use his phone, which was very decent of him.
Giulliano called the police. He was patched through to the Joondalup headquarters, where a sleepy desk sergeant informed him that we should immediately return to the Justified to prevent looting. Giulliano pointed out that she was stranded a good kilometre out into the sandhills, but the sergeant was adamant. We should return and guard the vehicle, otherwise she would stripped, burnt and tipped upside down, much like the wreck that had startled us earlier. Giulliano thanked him and hung up.
I then grabbed the phone and made a quick call home. My brother (who had just only got in himself) picked up, and I explained the situation. Meanwhile Sean emptied the stale water out of our bottle, and filled it up with fresh at the kitchen sink. Giulliano enquired whether we could borrow a shovel, and the guy produced not only the aforementioned digging tool, but a couple of bottles of beer to "help pass the time". We thanked him profusely, and promised to return the shovel the next morning. Then we left. What a nice guy.
About fifty metres away from the nice guy's place we realised we'd left our one good torch on the counter next to the phone. Giulliano wanted to go back and get it, but Sean and I insisted that we shouldn't disturb him any further. After a brief argument (severe tiredness and it's accompanying grumpiness was starting to set in at this point) we decided to leave it until morning. The sheet of metal (which we forgot to grab) guided us into the turn off, and we started following our arrows back.
For no apparent reason Sean began to sing as he walked. Something about climbing mountains, taking oaths, and never surrendering. He then challenged me to identify the musical the song had come from. Knowing full well that it was the only musical Sean actually knew anything about, I guessed The Man of La Mancha. I was of course correct. I then baffled him by singing a few bars of Stars from Les Miserables. He had no idea what it was. Giulliano declined to sing, so the musical game came to an end there.
Just as we were nearing the fence a loud rustling started in the bushes to our left. We froze in panic, and I aimed my guttering torch in the general direction of the noise, so we could at least get to see the faces of the cannibalistic car strippers before we were all killed and eaten. There was a moment's tense silence, then a series of heavy thuds that receded into the distance. It was just a kangaroo.
We arrived back at the Justified to find her still intact, and in the same predicament we'd left her in. We'd planned to make one attempt at unbogging her before getting some sleep, but our resolution collapsed under the weight of sheer exhaustion. We climbed inside and attempted to bed down for what was left of the night.
Giulliano, as the driver, got to sleep across the front seats. Sean and I had to deal with the narrow benches in the back. This turned out to be completely impossible. They were too narrow. A few more centimetres would have allowed you to lie flat on them, but as it was, you couldn't relax or you'd roll right off and hit the floor. To make matters worse the Justified was slanted into the ditch at a really funky angle, which made any sort of comfort even more out of the question. After a lot of shifting around I managed to find a halfway comfortable position, lying on my side with my right arm pinned behind my back, and my left arm hanging over the backrest. My legs stretched out towards the rear of the vehicle, along the cold metal storage lockers. I woke up about two hours later with my right arm near paralysed.
I would have remained asleep (and probably lost my arm from lack of blood supply) if it wasn't for Sean. He'd given up on his bench, and considering himself a bit of an outdoors nature type decided to sleep outside. He grabbed the shovel, and dug himself a "bed" in the sand, then lay down to catch some shut eye. After five minutes of intense cold, grit in his clothes, and sand fleas he was back inside the Justified, dragging the telescope tripod and spare tyre out the rear hatch so he could sleep on the floor.
In another situation this would probably have been bearable. But we were hardly operating under normal conditions. The floor was bare metal, with a good layer of sand from our boots. The temperature was rapidly plunging to unheard of lows. I had the only blanket in the vehicle (the one used to wrap the telescope tube) and it was pretty thin. Even I was freezing. Sean lay on the floor, curled up in a foetal ball, making groaning and coughing noises as he bemoaned his discomfort and lack of sleep. Giulliano snored comfortably in the front.
It was about 5:30 in the morning, and still dark when Sean finally gave up on sleep. The ambient air temperature was around 5 degrees. Both the interior and exterior of the Justified were coated with beads of condensation, and the exposed metal surfaces were almost painful to touch. I was still perched precariously on my vinyl bench, wrapped in my thin blanket, approximating sleep by sheer willpower. Giulliano was still sleeping comfortably across the front seats. His snores reverberated around the entire vehicle.
Sean uncurled from his foetal position and sat up on his bench. Deciding that misery enjoys company, he determined that I should wake up too, and to achieve this goal started to ask me inane questions. I was in a semi-doze, and answered these with a variety of grunts (normal grunt for "yes", down grunt for "no", up grunt for "what?"). Eventually I realised there was no way to shut him up. I dragged myself up from my uncomfortable bed and slid down to the back windows, where I huddled with my blanket and peered out to sea. Sean took the opposite corner, and we sat there shivering.
For the last hour or so of semi-sleep I'd been bothered by a distant revving and buzzing noise. At first I though it was my recurring dream about lawn mowers coming to get me, but after waking up some more realised it was the sound of boats travelling up and down just offshore. Looking out the windows we could see their lights. There was also a helicopter buzzing around in what seemed to be a grid pattern. It looked for all the world like some kind of search. For a while we figured there'd been a wreck, or a capsizing or something. Then we decided they might be looking for us.
This wasn't quite as ridiculous as it sounds. We'd been making a lot of noise trying to get the Justified unstuck, and we'd been flashing the lights on and off a fair bit. It was vaguely possible that some vigilant sea captain had spotted us and called Coastwatch, thinking we were heroin smugglers or something. After a quick debate Sean reached across Giulliano's somnolent corpse and flicked on the internal lights. The ships immediately turned around and raced out to sea, and the 'copter followed, so they were probably the drug smugglers. We turned off the lights.
The ships disappeared into the distance. The 'copter vanished into a bank of cloud, and reappeared far out to sea. After it remained stationary for an hour, I realised I was looking at the star Sirius.
Eventually the sky lightened, and we were greeted with a beautiful rainbow out over the ocean. It started to warm up a little, and Sean suggested we get out and get to work. I disagreed, suggesting we wait until the sun crested the hill and our fingers wouldn't fall off from frostbite. Some people and dogs appeared on the beach about 700 metres away, we considered going down to ask for help, but once again the cold defeated us. Instead we crouched in our corners and chatted about any number of inane subjects.
It wasn't long before the rising temperatures and our efforts at conversation shoved my brain into gear. The rainbow was still visible, even brighter than before, and this prompted my cold and sluggish neurones to begin a find and retrieve operation for data on the phenomena. They uncovered a large amount of useless trivia (Roy.G.Biv, Noah's Ark, the Brocken Spectre, Heiligenschein) and one important fact which was sent back to my primary processing centres at high speed marked "URGENT!". In order to see a rainbow, you need rain.
I reacted as if I'd been hit with a cattle prod. A hurried glance out the rear windows confirmed my fears, a dark curtain blurred the horizon behind the rainbow, topped with a bank of extremely angry looking clouds. I informed Sean and we went into panic mode, shaking Giulliano awake. He was disgustingly well rested.
We lept out of the Justified, and hopped around in the cold. A quick examination revealed that the vehicle's axles were trapped by four flattened acacia bushes. A further one blocked our path backwards. Giulliano attacked this with the shovel, while Sean and I reduced the others to bare branches by ripping off the foliage with our bare hands. We threw the debris all over the sand to increase traction for when we finally got the rover moving.
Giulliano finished massacring his acacia and passed the shovel to Sean. He got to work on the ones beneath the Justified. With nothing else to do Giulliano and I decided to do recon on the track which turned northwards just down the hill.
We set off. We passed the car wreck that seemed so sinister the night before. In the light of the morning it had lost all it's ability to terrify, and we had a good laugh at our own stupidity. The track meandered north past the beach, and we followed it for a kilometre or so before it started to spit rain and we decided to turn back. There were no real obstacles, just a few outcroppings of limestone and a muddy trench at the base of a small hill. Giulliano declared that the Justified would handle it with no difficulty. I wasn't so sure.
A short distance from the Justified we spotted Sean up on top of the hill, making owl hoots to attract our attention. He yelled something, but neither of us could understand it. We yelled back, but it was quite clear that he couldn't understand us either. We yelled back and forth for a bit until he came down the hill to meet us. It turned out that he was almost finished, and just needed a hand removing the largest of the acacia stumps beneath the rover.
There was only room for two beneath the Justified, so while Sean and Giulliano worked, I set up the telescope to take a look at two dark outcroppings further up the coast that I thought might be the Alkimos. As it turned out, they were just two large rocks. The previous night Sean had been quite insistent that I should tell the story of the cursed ship. Giulliano had been equally insistent that I didn't. Now it was daylight they were both happy to listen, so I regaled them while they worked with....
(This account of the cursed history of the Alkimos, drawn from my tired and hungry brain after a night of torture on the Justified's hard benches is hideously scrambled and just plain wrong in a number of areas. More organised and accurate accounts may be obtained elsewhere.)
Well there was this ship, right? Not a shipwright! Obviously I mean a ship, OK? So it was a Liberty ship which was one of these ships the Yanks built in World War II to carry supplies to England and France and stuff. They were mass produced, sorta like um, prefabricated, and they could knock them out in about three weeks. Anyway they were building this one Liberty ship which I think was called the George M. Shriver, whoever the hell that was, and it took them like three months to put it together because all sorta things kept going wrong. Look, I don't know, just things OK? So anyway it was like cursed from the start. I can't remember what happened to it during the war, I think there was a fire or something. Maybe. And the Engineer kept seeing or hearing this dog as well. I think it was a terrier, which I 'spose means he must have seen it. And there was no dog on board.
So anyway after the war it was sold to I think a Norwegian Company. They renamed it. I can't remember what they called it but you're not meant to do that to a ship anyway cause it's bad luck. They and used it as a freighter. And anyway it had all these collisions and accidents and stuff, and by the time they sold it it was 14 centimetres longer than it was originally from all the repairs it had to have. Or maybe that was the Eldridge? I don't know. The Eldridge, the ship from the Philadelphia Experiment! You know, it allegedly teleported from Philadelphia to Norfolk and back? Loada crap actually, Carl Allen, or Carlos Allende or whatever the hell he called himself made it all up. But yeah, the Alkimos.
This Greek shipping magnate buys it and renames it the Alkimos. And it continues with all these accidents. Then in the sixties it was sailing north from Fremantle to Indonesia carrying ore or something when it ran aground off Geraldton in a storm. I think. So they tried to tow it back to Fremantle for repairs. When it got to the Eglington Rocks the tow rope snapped and it ran aground. So they tried to tow it off again, and they failed. So they unloaded the cargo and decided to come back later.
So the next time they managed to get it off the rocks. But then there's some kind of accident, and they have to cut the tow rope or something, and it floats back and runs aground again. So they give up.
Then they kept selling it. Someone would buy it, and try and salvage it, and everything would go wrong. Like this one salvage ship was just about to sail out from Fremantle harbour when it was stopped by the police 'cause the company had gone bust, and it had been repossessed. And there were these problems with engines breaking down as well. And bad weather.
Yeah, and they put caretakers on it. Cause it was still a valuable ship back then, not a rusted old hulk that's why! And they kept seeing this ghost walking around in wet weather gear that they called Henry. I don't know why! And this news crew went out there with a tape recorder and left it on all night and recorded all these screams and metallic bangs. And they couldn't keep caretakers on it, they'd spend a week then quit because they were so freaked out.
Oh yeah, when it had been abandoned for a while all these reports came in one day that it was sailing down the coast under it's own power. So these newspaper people came out to see, and it was. It was sailing along with smoke pouring out of it's funnels. Then they realised it wasn't actually moving, it was an optical illusion because of the smoke. It turned out that these barrels of oil in the hold had caught on fire. That's the point, no one knows how.
Yeah and Jack Sue, the guy who runs Jack Sue diving? You know, he was with that midget submarine group in World War II? Yeah him. He did all this research into it and had all this really bad crap happen to him. Like I think his wife and son died, and he got really sick and stuff. And he won't go near the thing any more. He wrote this paper about it, it's in the Battye Library. Cause I read it that's how! For an assignment. Visual Basic. Look I'll explain it later!
So anyway the bow fell off in a storm a few years back, and some people reckon the curse was broken. Like no one's seen Henry the ghost since. It's actually a really popular diving spot, although I wouldn't go near it myself.
Um... Yeah, that's it. There's more stuff, but I can't remember it right now.
We had just about got the rover ready to go, when we heard the distant grumble of a trailbike back in the hills. It moved back and forth for a bit, and just as we were debating on whether we should get off of the track, it catapulted over the crest of the hill, and almost ran us down. The rider pulled up in a spray of sand, removed his helmet, and apologised. We then had an extremely profitable conversation on the track northwards. Apparently it turned inwards and headed for the limestone road not far past the point Giulliano and I had turned back from. He asked if we needed any help, but we were almost finished, so he put his helmet back on, wished us luck, and raced off down the track, no doubt happy to get away from us.
Not long afterwards Sean announced that the last acacia bush had been hacked down to a bare stump. The fuel line seemed to be clear, and if we were going to make a break for it, it should be now, since large, fat raindrops were starting to fall all around. We grabbed all the equipment, and shoved it in the back, along with the spare tyre and myself to cradle the telescope tube against any further damage. Sean stayed outside to supervise, and Giulliano revved up the engine.
He threw the gears into reverse, and put his pedal to the metal. Much to everyone's surprise the Justified immediately unbogged herself and raced downhill at a ridiculous speed, smashing into another acacia bush. My mind filled with horrible visions of having to unbog the vehicle again, but Giulliano waggled the gearstick around like it was on fire, and she groaningly started forwards.
We had to do a fair bit of backing and forwarding, demolishing even more of the local shrubbery before we got back onto the track. The engine stalled a couple of times, almost sending me into fibrillation, but Giulliano put down to the cold night, and coaxed it back to life with a few swift kicks to the firewall. Finally, with much groaning and clashing of gears the Justified pulled herself back onto the track. We had survived the night and were mobile again.
With the rain beginning to look serious we had no time to celebrate. In any case we didn't want to tempt the fates with premature jubilation until we were well out of the sandhills. Sean lept in, and we started off down the track.
The journey north was extremely uncomfortable. In order to avoid getting bogged again Giulliano was racing along at full throttle. He and Sean were in the front, and thus had seatbelts, for them it was like a rollercoaster, bumpy, noisy, but a lot of fun. I was in the back, and my hands were occupied cradling the telescope tube. For me it was like being a ping pong ball in a psychotically malfunctioning spin dryer. Concerned at my loud screaming of profanities every time we collided with a bump in the road Giulliano slowed down for a few seconds, and Sean took over the telescope minding, leaving my hands free to grab at the ceiling for support.
After about five minutes the track turned west, back towards the road. There was a large sand patch here, with a sedan bogged up to the wheel rims. We laughed at the stupidity of anyone who'd try to drive around the sandhills in a family car, conveniently ignoring the fact that we'd just spent the night bogged in a 4WD. The path continued over a couple of plunging hills, and delivered us back onto the limestone road with no difficulties at all. There was much cheering at this point, and we sang a few verses of Where is your Bong my Lord? in celebration. We continued south, and hit the bitumen just as the storm arrived, and the rain decided to get serious.
Rather than return immediately to the guy's house and return the shovel, we decided we should do the Aussie thing and get him some beer to say thanks, and replace the bottles we'd drunk. We also wanted some breakfast. We recalled that not far down the road was a small shopping centre with a fried chicken franchise, so headed for there. On arrival a quick drive around the parking lot in the rain showed that everything was shut up. We then realised it was only just past 8:00 in the morning. We considered hanging around, but I was tempted by visions of Subway, and convinced everyone to head down to Currambine Marketplace. "Is there a bottle shop down there?" they asked. "Of course there is!" I replied, lying through my teeth as I had no idea.
The trip down to Curumbine took about half an hour. The rain was still coming down like a monsoon, so we parked the Justified and ran for cover. The centre was open, although most of the shops were still locked up. The exception was Woolworths, which was inexplicably doing a lively trade. Who knows, perhaps northerners like doing their shopping at 8:30 on Saturdays?
I found a public phone and made a quick call, just to reassure the folks I was OK. Much to my annoyance they didn't seem concerned at all. That done, we entered Woolworths to try and find some food, Subway not opening until nine. Giulliano grabbed some yoghurt, and some waldorf salad, along with a bottle of orange juice. I chose out a muesli corner yoghurt. Sean (apparently lacking cash) abstained. Giulliano went to pay for the food, while Sean and I popped into the bottle shop, which was conveniently built into Woolworths. We had a bit of trouble finding a six-pack of emu, and had to ask for help. We were also distressed by the price, the beer was marked at $19.00. On arrival at the checkout we discovered, much to our relief that that was the price of a slab, the six-pack was only $4.95.
We reunited with Giulliano (who was buying a lotto ticket, for some unexplainable reason he felt lucky) only to find a new problem had cropped up. We had no cutlery. I dragged everyone around to the Newsagent where I purchased a bottle of Apple juice, and three plastic spoons. We then returned to the inside of the centre and sat down on a bench to eat.
Ever since we arrived at the centre people had been looking at us strangely. Now we were stationary, it was a lot more obvious, and we realised why. We looked like hobos. Our clothes were rumpled and covered in dirt. Our eyes were bloodshot with heavy bags, and our skin was sallow and grimy. Our hair was messed up and full of sand, we hadn't shaved, and we stank. To top things off we were sitting in the middle of a shopping centre, demurely eating yoghurt, with a six pack of beer nestled at our feet for afterwards. We had to struggle to keep straight faces.
We took turns at heading into the toilets to clean ourselves up a bit. Sean went first and returned claiming that he could hear Giulliano and I talking through the ventilation system. As the toilets were on the other side of the centre, we were a bit sceptical of this. Giulliano went off to check it out, while Sean and I talked loudly about Star Wars. He returned having heard nothing. My turn also yielded nothing, so Sean's mysterious voices alas remained just that, a mystery.
By now it was 9:00, and Subway had opened it's doors. I was intending to get a six inch Subway melt (ham, turkey, bacon, mmmmmmm), but Sean was looking piteously hungry, so I brought a footlong and we split it. I can honestly say that that simple bread roll, with it's assorted meats and melted cheese was one of the most enjoyable meals I have ever eaten. Then it was time to head back to Quinns Rocks.
The trip back was uneventful. Rather than try to navigate through the streets to the guy's house, we drove back up the limestone track until we were able to retrace our steps from the night before. It was only spitting rain so we ran across to the guy's carport. There was no one home. He had however considerately left the torch in the carport. We swapped it for the shovel, and concealed the beer behind the blade. Giulliano scrawled "THANKS" in the damp sand next to the drive (ignoring the fact that the next wave of rain would wash it away) and we started back home.
The trip soon settled into silence. Sean and I were too tired to maintain any kind of rational conversation, so Giulliano concentrated on driving. As we passed through Tuart Hill I started to improvise a strange monologue (in a laid back American accent) about being sued (and eventually knocked unconscious and having my wallet stolen) by Bill Gates and his lawyers, for unauthorised use of the phrase "Where do want to go today?". Everyone thought this was remarkably clever (probably because we were all irrational from sleep deprivation) and the conversation picked up a bit. We debated the merits of having our own radio station (on which we could broadcast such things as my monologue) until we arrived at my house.
Here we unpacked the telescope, dumping it in the loungeroom. Sean and Giulliano departed, and I immediately retreated to the bathroom where I had a long, hot shower. I then fell into bed, and slept right through until dinnertime.
In conclusion, the Third Geek Astronomical Expedition was a disaster of titanic proportions. We made the wrong decisions at every point, got ourselves in heaps of trouble, and wasted an entire night when we could have been sleeping peacefully in our own beds. On the other hand we did actually see what we set out to, which makes it more of a success than the previous two expeditions. In ten years time we'll be laughing about it. For now I think we'd all rather forget that it ever happened.