Audience Dialogue

Tales from the field (2): In the Wimmera

We were doing a survey in the Wimmera area of northwestern Victoria, parts of which are practically a desert. I was checking on some of the randomly chosen areas where the interviewers had to call. (This was in the early 1980s, when we still did door-to-door surveys.) Some of the interviewers had been getting lost, saying they were following the maps supplied to them, but were finding themselves travelling enormous distances through uninhabited areas.

The problem turned out to be the multitude of side tracks leading off the sealed roads. Some of these tracks were considered roads, but others had perhaps been formed when a large vehicle drove through the low bushy scrub. This is a very dry area, and when plants have been knocked down, it can be decades before they grow again.

So we created a set of rules to decide what was a road. These included:

In one of these deserted spots, a long way from anywhere, my rental car, a massive Chrysler Valiant, decided to get a puncture. Nobody was with me. Nor were there any tyre marks suggesting that anybody had recently travelled on this track.

Not without trouble, I found the necessary equipment for changing the wheel, but discovered that the jack was for a different type of car. On the sandy track, it wouldn't go high enough to put the new wheel on. It was perhaps half a day's walk to the nearest house, and it was late afternoon. I had visions of spending the night there.

It could have been worse: it was April, neither too hot nor too cold, and no vicious animals turned up. Eventually I found a dead tree, kicked it down, and dragged its trunk under the car, resting the jack precariously on top of it. I was ready to jump back instantly if the car slipped, but miraculously, it worked. Changing that wheel took several hours, during which I saw no sign of human life. Such is the reality of outback Australia.