There’s not too much excitement in the world of Medical Recruitment. The odd demanding Specialist wanting the equivalent of a butler at their hotel and occasionally a report from a client that the Doctor we sent is becoming too familiar with the other staff.
All that was about to change. Sometime in mid-2011 a Rural Doctor’s Conference was advertised in Alice Springs that I knew would be beneficial to attend to grow the reach of our successful GP Recruitment team. I had been to the 2010 version in Hobart, a place I found charming, much-like some English port towns twenty years ago. Being a Londoner living in Sydney and despite some fairly extensive travel in my 28 years, I was actually quite excited about the prospect. Not that we would see much of the landscape as we would be flying in to Alice, working for 3 days at a Conference, maybe have a beer or two in the hotel and then fly home.
My colleague and friend from London had recently moved to Sydney and he considered the Sydney suburb of Manly rural, his own little bubble of paradise. Jon is English to the core and I’m not quite sure what he expected. We set off on an uneventful day and stepped off our Qantas flight in Alice. First impressions were similar to what I had experienced in other regional Australian airports; small, shed-like structures and always being surprised how humid it is. We arrived on a strip of hotels outside the main ‘CBD’ and after setting up our stand in the exhibition hall we settled in to the air-conditioned bar and watched some sport and played the pokies. Still fairly relaxed I seem to remember even having a dip in the pool and then heading into a cab later on to the only two pubs in Alice. We remarked to each other we could even walk home across the bush-type land and just follow the main roads back to the hotel; it was only two kilometres away. The driver looked at us and sternly told us when we came out of the pub to jump straight in a cab. A few beers later in a Wild West themed pub and we jump straight in a cab home.
The next two days of the Conference were tiring but successful. We met with several Doctors for the first time that we placed in locum contracts across Australia and talked to many more about the sort of weird and wonderful opportunities we could find for them. We also ventured into the centre of Alice again and this time was slightly more wary. A couple of Indigenous guys approached us and we politely smiled and walked on but a few decided to lie across the pavements and we had to walk around them. This was something new to two likely lads from London but still, nothing that we were concerned about.
As the Conference came to a close we began to pack up our exhibition stand and equipment and headed back to our room to change from suit to shorts and to wind down. One of our competitors and a friend of mine stopped us and told us that Qantas had grounded all flights worldwide and it looked like we would be going nowhere tomorrow. I barely believed him. All the Doctors were still in one of the seminars at a hotel nearby and there did not seem to be too much concern in our hotel. We went back to the room and turned on the news. There it was: “Breaking News: Qantas grounds all flights indefinitely.” Jon looked at me puzzled and I explained we would have to move quickly to book alternative flights out seeing as ours the next day would inevitably be cancelled. As I frantically searched on the laptop the realisation that only Qantas fly to Alice sets in. The alternative was somehow get to Ayres Rock (Uluru) over three hours away and get a Virgin flight to Sydney from there. No luck, all booked out. Plan C kicks in and I pull up Google Maps. Hire a car, drive north halfway across Australia to Darwin and fly out on the first available flight? Or hire a car, drive south halfway across Australia to Adelaide and fly out on the first available flight? I look at Jon again. He pauses and then says as long the lines of: “That’s shit. We are going to miss the Melbourne Cup piss-up at work!” We were due to arrive back in Sydney Sunday and back to work Monday. At this stage the only flights available were with Virgin from Adelaide on Monday evening. I take decisive action and book them. Phew. Then I book the car online for the next morning. It’s only when we look at the distance from Alice to Adelaide that I’m slightly concerned; over 17 hours on a good day. Well at least we have two days to make it to Adelaide.
Sunday morning arrives and we are up early to pick up the car. We wait at the Crown Plaza at the car hire desk and it’s painfully empty. Not a sign of life. However chaos was evolving around us. With over 300 Doctors and other health staff stranded in Alice Springs, they begin to panic and queue to arrange cars and alternative arrangements. Selfishly we didn’t even think about the fact these are rural Doctors, a lot of them the solo GP in their towns. We wait for an hour and a teenage lady appears, clearly disinterested in our predicament. Emotionally devoid she tells us we will have to pick up the car from the airport. We jump in a kind passing Doctor’s cab because they are going there also. Five minutes later we get to the airport and wait in a queue for another car to be returned. Another hour passes as we sit on the floor. Our car is here. I grab the keys and find our worn-in Corolla in the parking lot. As we pull out of Alice Springs onto the Sturt Highway (that cuts right through Australia from top to bottom) and with no phone or radio reception, we settle in for a long and no doubt boring drive.
A few hours pass and the landscape around us barely changes. We are amazed at these almost tennis ball colour-fruits that are scattered in the scrub either side of the road. We stop and take a tourist photo of the red dirt around us and carry on our way. The aim was to drive to Coober Pedy and stay for the night. Despite sending Doctors to Coober Pedy to work in our day jobs, we have no idea what to expect. I had previously written job adverts to attract Doctors and as this reminds me, the town is culturally rich, diverse and has a great lifestyle. We stop at a couple of deserted road-houses (service stations with cafes or pubs attached) en-route and grab a greasy burger and chips that are barely edible and seem to pass right through my system in an instant. I can’t help noticing the newspapers on the tables are from 2003.
A few more hours pass. The monotonous drive is punctuated with the site of dead kangaroos and other animals. The drive got a little interesting when we gazed out of the window spotting a huge dead kangaroo on the opposite side of the road as we excitedly pointed. Unfortunately with both of us distracted we spotted another dead kangaroo too late on our side. The car hit it’s rib cage with force and for a second or two the car was air bound. However I remember feeling disappointed that I didn’t see any camels. I had read before leaving for Alice Springs that there is a feral population of hundreds of thousands from the days when they were used to transport goods in the region.
Eventually as the sun fades we spot the cone-shape mounds of dirt that means only one thing. We are entering Coober Pedy, the opal mining capital of Australia. As we pull off the highway there are shack-like houses, machinery everywhere the eye can see and of course no greenery, just the red dust of the outback. We drive down what we did not know was the main high street and do a few loops. There does not seem to be any sign of life except some shady looking dogs wandering the streets. It really is no wonder they filmed movies that were set on planet Mars here, the landscape is unique. We eventually see the walled compound that is our hotel and pull in. Finally life is present. Clearly this was the only hotel in the town and it is surprisingly modern. German tourists fill the bar and we grab a beer and head to our room. Immediately confronted by stairs going down, we tiptoe slowly. It becomes plainly clear we are descending into what essentially is a 5-star cave, this was not a myth, because of the heat people in Coober Pedy really do live underground! A trip across the street becomes hazardous when an intoxicated Aboriginal man approaches us. We duck and run to the café just ahead. With almost silence outside the doors open and we are greeted with more people than I have ever seen in one space my whole life. This is clearly where the whole town gathers. Almost halfway to Adelaide we go to sleep that night knowing a steady drive tomorrow will get us there with time to spare. Strangely with the stillness of this cave, it was one of the best night’s sleeps I have ever had.
Seven am and we set off, pulling away from Coober Pedy with a sigh of relief that we survived the night. I glance at the petrol gauge. Two and a half bars of petrol left, a third of a tank. We agree as we pass the town’s service station that we do not need to fill up. Reassured by the road sign as we enter the highway, there is a ‘Major Rest Stop’ only 100kms away. Soon we are forging ahead on our leisurely drive, the only blip being the cattle grids in the road every couple of kilometres. Each time we expect the car to fall apart as it hits each one at speed. We brace and wince. Bang. We relax. We survived and prepare for the next one.
Our chat increases as we discuss the possibility of stopping in the beauty sport of Port Augusta on the way to Adelaide. With about 80kms down signs appear telling us 20km to go to that much needed ‘Major Rest Stop’. The fuel is now on the emergency band but it’s ok, it’s not flashing yet. 10km. The gauge starts to flash red, no problem. 5km. Touchdown. We are about to enter the ‘Major Rest Stop’. Although the next major stop was in fact a tin roof with a picnic bench at the side of the road. Panic sets in as I stare at the fuel gauge throbbing at me in red. A sign tells us we have 180km to the next ‘town’ and 90km back to Coober Pedy. We fly past this tin shelter in complete stunned silence. I look at Jon. He looks at me. No words.
With what seemed like an hour passing, but was in fact 30 seconds we pull over. Silence again. Eventually, “What the f*ck are we going to do?!” After some pointless and fruitless discussion for some reason we turn around thinking we remember seeing a guy with a caravan and 4×4 around twenty minutes back. We pray that although he will certainly have diesel, unleaded is a long shot. We’re not sure the fuel will last another two minutes. The silent and certain ‘death drive’ back towards north is interrupted by signs of life up ahead. Firstly a flock of small birds fly straight into the bonnet and windscreen. With the car hitting 150km three of the birds explode on impact and we are left with blood, guts and feathers in the wipers. In this state of desperation this unconcerns me. We proceed further and a glimmer of hope is on the horizon. A small work truck is about to pull away from some road works as we get closer and pull in. My frantic horn pushing of this super sexy Toyota Corolla goes unnoticed (the horn sounded like a child’s squeaking toy) until the truck pulls back in to the side of the road and two people get out of the vehicle.
They walk towards us almost bemused. Two bearded, stocky blokes. They confront the two Poms, one in a Tottenham football shirt and jeans, the other in pink boardie shorts and thongs. We explain we need petrol. No response was needed from them. Their faces told us what they were thinking: dickheads. One of the guys says they may have some unleaded fuel back at their base and points into the empty distance, a scene we are fast becoming accustomed to. They leave and disappear off the road onto the dirt and we sit in the car again in silence. All I can picture is Wolf Creek – the guys returning and torturing us with their road tools. No one would ever know.
Forty minutes of silence in the car. Broken only by the ticking of the hazard warning lights and rain outside. Jon keeps looking at his phone in the hope he suddenly gets phone coverage. Noise approaches from the right. The guys return over the horizon towards us. They get out of their van with a jerry can but they have only ten litres of fuel that they use for their drills. I offer the guy my last $100 in my wallet. He kindly refuses and explains it may be enough to get us back to Coober Pedy, fill up and turn back again and head to Adelaide. Our suddenly raised spirits are dampened when the guy tells us it’s an hour trip and we have to be at the airport in 9 hours. Why is that a problem we ask? It’s a twelve-hour drive from here he explains. Before he has even finished we jump in the car and take off back to Coober Pedy. The blur and extreme panic mean we fill up the car until it’s overflowing and spend 70 dollars on snacks, certain if something bad happens we may never find food again. Take two. We drive to Adelaide.
Determined to make our flight that evening (we did desperately want to be at our Melbourne Cup drinks the next day) we agree there is to be no non-essential stopping. What if we need to go to the toilet? I look at the water bottles. Increasing our speed as soon as we drop below a substantial speed we are wary that the temperature gauge on the car is now hovering in the red area. The rev speed counter also seems to be broken. The car has started to hum or more correctly, scream at the top of it’s lungs that what we are doing to it is torture. We had other things to worry about and continue on.
Having already been acquainted with the wildlife of the region there was no real surprise when we spot huge lizards getting dangerously close to the road. I think to myself that there is going to be only one winner if that lizard steps out in front of me at this speed. This was small fry compared to our next visitors. In the distance on the long, very straight unchanging road, we both spot some obstacles. I start to gradually but firmly squeeze the brake until I’m acutely aware there are two huge cows on both sides of the road. This natural chicane does not flinch as I swerve through them. Surely this would be the last of our encounters. The final stretch into Adelaide’s suburbs later that day would confirm our status as killers. We start to relax and I notice Jon has fallen asleep as I admire the winding roads into Adelaide that are bordered by huge wheat fields. As I sit back and cruise at high-speed along a quiet highway, my autopilot kicks in. It is rudely awoken, as was Jon. I see a bird diving directly at our windscreen. It swerves at the last-minute but then turns back towards the car. Thud. It hits my driver’s window and I let out a scream (a manly one). Jon wakes up in panic. The bird drops and hits the road. This was not a small bird. God rest his feathered soul.
With Adelaide in our sights ironically after barely seeing cars or people for two days on the road we hit traffic on the outskirts of the city. We stop at a service station and clean any leftover blood, dirt and any imperfections. Finding the airport I head for the rental car drop-off point. Before the inspector can even look the car over I throw the keys into his hand and we head into the airport. We are just a few hours from the sanctuary of home. We look at the boards. There’s a delay on our flight…