“You won’t be able to do the Mereenie Loop in your car, not after the rains.  Sections of the road have been completely washed away.  There’s another track you could do though, Ernest Giles Road.  We came through there the other day in a Camry, so you’ll be fine.”

The sign at the turnoff promised 100 km of unsealed, heavily corrugated red dirt and sand, just what we were looking for.  A short cut through to the Stuart Highway on our way to Alice Springs, it was also a chance to push our car to its 4WD limits.

I began tentatively, cautiously easing the car over the deep corrugations as we bumped along, gear clattering away in the back.  While the state of the track was an impediment to speed and comfort, it was relatively clear and wide, and apparently quite safe.

I picked up speed as my confidence grew, and the bone-rattling furrows in the road flattened out.  Soon we were flying along at 80 km/h, clouds of red dust billowing behind us.  We were looking good for an early arrival at Alice Springs – we’d be able to relax, maybe find somewhere with a pool, have a few beers and get some much-needed rest after several days in the outback.

Almost imperceptibly at first, the steering wheel took on a mind of its own and the car began to drift, tyres losing their grip in a deep bank of sand covering the track.  I gunned the engine, hoping to maintain forward momentum.  There was no need for panic; the road was straight, wide and clear in both directions, and the sand drift petered out after a few hundred metres.

Suddenly a metal post, three quarters buried in the sand and almost invisible from a distance, reared up at a 70 degree angle in front of the car.  Braking sharply or swerving on the treacherous surface was impossible, and we braced for the inevitable impact, hitting with the crunching sound of metal tearing against metal.

I started to panic, jerking the car to an inelegant halt just beyond the sand drift.  Throwing the door open, we leapt from our seats to assess the damage.  Visions flew through my mind: shredded tyres, fuel tank torn open, spewing petrol onto the hot gravel, an engine hopelessly mangled by slivers of metal, axles mutilated and useless.  Imaginations running wild, we inspected the car.

Tyres looked ok.

No obvious fluids leaking from the undercarriage.

“Oh shit.”

Protruding from between the rear axle and the exhaust was the metal post, dangling about 10 centimetres above the ground.  I dropped to my knees to examine the damage, but the ground was baking hot, making a detailed assessment impossible.  Grasping the post, I made an ineffectual attempt to shake it loose, to no avail.

“What the hell are we going to do?”

200 km from the nearest petrol station and mobile phone reception, we had few options.  We could wait in the car with the air conditioning running, hoping someone passed by before our water and petrol ran out.  We could set out for the main road on foot, hoping we didn’t die of heat exhaustion before we found help.  Or we could drive the car back to the main road, hoping not to exacerbate any damage that had already been done.

We resolved to try driving back, figuring we would find out pretty quickly if anything serious was wrong.  After about 10 minutes of nervous staring at the temperature and fuel gauges, we arrived at the intersection.  The car seemed to be operating fine, but we still had the metal post hanging from its underside like an arrow emerging from armour.  We had no idea of the severity of the wound beneath, but seeing as we had made it that far, decided we might as well strike out for the petrol station at Eridunda.

By the time we reached Eridunda we had travelled more than 200 km, with no apparent problem other than a constant rattling of metal under the car.  My heart rate was beginning to return to normal; although Eridunda is little more than a road house and petrol station, at least there was a constant flow of traffic.  There was also a source of shade there, allowing us to clamber underneath the car without burning ourselves on the blistering hot ground.

There didn’t seem to be any serious damage.  The post was aluminium, a soft metal heated even softer by the sun, and had merely bent itself around the axle.  Relief washed over me.  We were going to make it to Alice Springs on time, our car was not going to need an expensive repair job, and we were safe.  With the assistance of a local, we extricated the warped, torn post, and soon were flying down the highway again, this time with a new resolve to stick to sealed roads until we reached our destination.

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