The Tale of the Buggy Man

The inescapable trip to Newman was relatively uneventful. Within a day we were back on the Canning with new tires and a revived sense of security. After that point, we started seeing more and more vehicles along the track. There was a glut of 4WDs at Well 33, just outside Kunnawaratji, an Aboriginal community and the only place along the track that sells fuel.

Then we arrived at Well 45. It was nothing special – dry as Amish wedding. Just beyond it, though, was a most intriguing site: A burnt and melted hull of a 4X4 and a recently charred bit of road and bush surrounding it.

Using our amateur detective skills (Gav seems to have a natural ability. I’ve spent years watching forensics shows.), we theorized that this was recent. We’d probably seen this guy at some point earlier.

Along remote tracks, as I’ve mentioned before, one is keenly aware of every other traveler or group of travelers they pass. Since you often don’t get the opportunity to meet or interact much with those individuals, you tend to make up names and concoct personalities for them.

Along the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia, which Gavin and I started in 2010, there were individuals logged into the hikers’ registry under the names “The Mad Axeman”, “Gypsy Girl”, and “The Pack Animal”. Others we encountered never offered a name so we dubbed them things like “The Pig Killer” and “The Dutch Giant”.

Guys like The Axeman and Pack Animal had celebrity status in our heads. We had heard of Pack Animal for weeks, seen his entries in the logbooks. When we finally did encounter the legendary backpacker it was a thrilling honor.

The guy we called “Buggy Man” was not much different. He breezed into one of the wells we camped at one morning in his nifty-looking, bright red, soft-top Jeep Wrangler. I was making a futile attempt to offer water to a flock of thirsty-looking cockatoos. Gav was returning from an “excursion”, toilet paper and shovel in hand when he drove in, whizzed down the wrong road, then returned about three minutes later and sped into the right direction.

That was the first and last we saw of him and his little Jeep but he proved to be a notable and mysterious character and had come up in more than one conversation with other travelers we encountered. We all seemed to have this image of a young and somewhat reckless buck intent on making the miles and not necessarily taking in the grandeur of the place.

So, when we came across that recently burned out vehicle, still reeking of unidentifiable fumes, on it’s side, next to the burned track, it only took a little thinking to suspect that this was all that remained of Buggy Man’s chariot. There was one plate among the ruins (most travelers on the Canning have at least one companion with them). The roof rack was a Garvin (I remembered reading seeing his on that one brief encounter and thinking at first that it said “Gavin”). It was clearly a soft-top vehicle (as was Buggy Man’s) and we didn’t see too many of those otherwise.

The fire had burned hot, melting the tires onto the rims and the aluminum alloy into thick, silvery puddles. It was an exciting find at first but then an ominous chill, catalyzed by the realization for a sense of camaraderie affected us. Could this happen to us? What would we do if it did? What the hell would we do if our Landy suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames? Shhiiiiiiittttt…….

And, my God! What about Buggy Man?! That is, if it was, in fact him. The fire had effaced every scrap of paint that had ever existed on the vehicle, so we couldn’t quite be sure if it was the zippy little red truck.

He must have been rescued, though; the car was on its side and there were fresh tracks over the burnt road. Some other car had clearly been through here after the incident…. But in what state did they find the vehicle’s occupant?

We continued on but not a few kilometers up the track we encountered another Jeep Wrangler, a silver one, looking brand new and sporty in that trendy-but-not-too-practical kind of way.

The thing was suffocated with spinnifex seeds. Spinnifex are a ubiquitous desert plant, nasty from every angle. Their base is a tangle of long, grass-like kebab sticks with a penchant for spearing legs. The tops are a wheat-like stalk whose seeds are botanical traps for unwary motorists. They’re really just terrible. Gav suffers the trifecta of spinnifex misery; in addition to the standard woes they cause, he has a terrible allergy to certain varieties that leaves him with a nasty itch and makes him swell up like road-kill on an Australian highway.

What had happened to this shiny, new jeep was that the spinnifex seeds knocked off the stalks as he drove over them then accumulated in the grill and other parts. This choked off the airflow and (we suspect) cooked his engine. A note on the vehicle revealed that Hall’s Creek police had rescued the driver.

A couple hours later we pulled into Well 46. A group of four guys who we had recently shared a camp with were already established there. They generously offered us beers and introduced us to a dusty and scraggly-looking character named Ciaran Smith. Gavin and I knew him as Buggy Man.

We listened with absolute fascination as he explained how he was driving along as normal and, without warning; fire erupted from the hood of his vehicle. When he realized what was happening, he grabbed the bag with his laptop, an icebox that contained a small supply of food, a sack of clothing and a jerry can containing a bit of water. He climbed onto the roof of his vehicle and attempted to unload his swag but the flames roared up at him and he was forced to abandon the effort.

Ciaran first heard of the Canning about 30 years ago. A friend of his did the trip and the idea of doing it was almost immediately fixed in his mind. At the time he bought his Jeep, it had been 18 years since he’d had a vacation and was determined that his would be the year he made his dream a reality.

Clearly, things did not go as he envisioned. Just a few hundred kilometers from the end of the track, he watched his Jeep and all but a few essential and quickly retrieved items incinerated in a ferocious blaze.

And then he was alone, hundreds of kilometers from even a hint of civilization and only God knows how far from another traveler. He walked back to Well 45 – one of a couple dozen wells along the track that are in ruins and completely bone dry.

He was four days alone in the desert, save for the dingoes; no sleeping bag to keep him from the near-freezing nights, no hat for the punishing daylight, and less than a full jerry can of water.

He had just decided that, after the sun set that night, he would attempt the 25-kilometer walk to the next (and allegedly full) well. Then the gods intervened and sent Ciaran the most well equipped things on the Canning: Trevor, Pete, and the Steves.

These were four guys in four vehicles with seven fridges, a barbecue, an electric bread-maker, a generator, and 12 cases of beer between them. They were planning on a roast pork loin that night for dinner – enough to feed an African village.

Since there were no fewer than 16 spare seats between them, taking on a near-death hitchhiker was no problem.

And that’s where the story comes full circle. We camped with the group that night and also partook in that beer and roast, listened to Slim Dusty on their stereo, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening… though probably not as much as Ciaran did.