Like generations of gay men before me, I am proudly a non-driver – a fact I declare loudly and obnoxiously to anyone who will listen, sometimes even disguised under a whiff of environmentalism (vehicle pollution and all that), though really it is because I failed to get my licence at an appropriate age and now it is too late.
People often dispute the last point. Sometimes they say things like “it’s never too late” and “you can do it” and “please get out of my car, this is the third lift I’ve given you this week”. To that I reply: you haven’t been through what I’ve been through!!! And then I tell them the following story.
It was high summer, and my partner – of four months, at the time – and I were in Bulliac, a few hours north of Sydney. Neither of us had been away since the days of yore (2019), but here we were: in one of those tiny houses that sounds lovely as a concept but actually means you have to defecate in a hole – which, surprisingly, is not where things started to go wrong.
The rain that had been plaguing us all weekend finally calmed to a sprinkle. “Let’s go for a drive,” I said – by which I meant I wanted him to drive us to a spot 100km away while I played Fiona Apple on the aux cord.
Unfortunately, he agreed.
Off we drove to a swimming hole nestled in the side of a mountain. Overhead, the sun returned briefly, and we arrived to nothing short of a pastoral fantasy: golden hour beams casting lucent reflections off the water, rushing rapids flanked by vegetation. We dove in, and by the time we got out, it was late afternoon.
The drizzle started again. Undeterred, we decided to go up to the mountain for a final peek from the lookout. “Goodbye, mountain,” we said, as we drove back down.
It was not goodbye.
A deep fog had somehow settled over the road and, because I am geographically challenged, I could not identify which track we had taken coming up. No biggie, I thought – Google Maps exists for a reason. Turn left, the app said sinisterly.
We turned left. Into a stunningly steep path that was certainly wrong. And also we were now bogged.
The car – a pint-sized Hyundai Getz called Gurty, borrowed from a friend (not called Gurty) – stood no chance against the morass of mud that had accumulated from days of rain.
Undeterred, we attempted to push the car out of its marshy prison. “Arghhhhh!” I shouted, body weight squished against bumper, as my partner pressed his foot to the accelerator. “What would my personal instructor do?” I thought. Then I remembered that I didn’t have a personal instructor and the only time I had ever been into a gym was for a yin yoga class. I hoped I could pigeon pose my way out of this.
We imagined being marooned here forever. ‘This is so Lord of the Flies,’ I said, which is how you know I haven’t read Lord of the Flies
Meanwhile, night had fallen, and we were about 12km away from the closest campsite. There were no signs of life, and the car was not moving – but I was now covered in mud after pushing too hard and face-planting on the ground.
Out of options, we tried to call for help – no signal. We texted my parents with our location – still nothing. Then, in a streak of desperation, my partner dialled 000, and for the briefest of moments, it went through. We had no idea how much they’d heard before being disconnected – but there was a glimmer of optimism there.
Hours went by. We walked backwards and forwards, gasping every time there was even the faintest snap in the distance (did I mention we are gay). We imagined being marooned here forever. “This is so Lord of the Flies,” I said, which is how you know I haven’t read Lord of the Flies.
And then, suddenly, a glimmer of hope. A pair of headlights came glaring out of the inky thickets. We ran out on to the road and waved maniacally. It was … the Rural Fire Service?! And they had come to rescue us after being dispatched by an emergency operator who’d thought we were in much more life-threatening circumstances???!!!!
“Well,” they said, “we’re technically not allowed to un-bog you.” But they did anyway – in a very macho operation. We were free!
How I wish it were that simple.
If you have made it thus far, congratulations. Now buckle in (this is also what I would say to my passengers if I drove, which I do not.)
Before us lay a three-hour drive in zero visibility and blinding rain back to our tiny house with no flush toilet.
We were back on the road again, though this time round, there was no Fiona Apple – only the silent cocoon of shock which enveloped the car. As the fire truck beaconed a way through tortuous mountain roads, we followed behind – and followed, and followed, white-knuckled and ashen.
It was around halfway through that we realised we were out of petrol.
We flagged down our long-suffering saviours. No problem, they said – we could all drive to the closest station and fill up there.
With hardly a drop in the tank, we made it. We washed up at the station, we took photos, we ate leftover lolly bags, we thanked everyone profusely. “Goodbye, station,” we said.
It was not goodbye.
The car – now with a full tank – was not starting. Jump cables materialised. Still – completely dead.
We waited and lamented our shoddy choice of holiday vehicle: our beautiful, stupid Getz whose inner workings remained a mystery. Staring into the abyss of the road – the bush humming around us, the haunted country – I finally understood how Tim Winton must feel at all times.
This tale ends with no sparkling catharsis; we had already been the beneficiaries of too many acts of God for anything much to sink in. Somehow, the car was patched up; somehow, we made it back.
But you might remember a little detail from the debacle. When we were up on that mountain, searching for signal, we texted my parents.
As we re-entered our tiny house – and finally got reception – we saw that they’d texted back. Many times.
“We are on the mountain now,” the texts read. “Where are you???”
Michael Sun is Guardian Australia’s editorial assistant for features, culture and lifestyle. Twitter @mlchaelsun