When I set out to four-wheel drive across Australia, I chose a route far from paved roads and auto repair shops. If something went wrong getting a tow truck, a trip to a mechanic shop was not an option. Everyone in the city warned me that to undertake such an audacious roadtrip I would to have to carry the equivalent of a mechanical shop’s inventory of spare parts. I was not convinced. I had a well looked after Landcruiser and replaced a few minor parts and the radiator before setting off, so that everything was in top condition. I carried spares for the parts most likely to break, like belts, oil and air filters, gasket tubbing, a healthy handful of zip ties, duct tape, and tips on bush mechanics.
Turns out the Cubans are not the only ones keeping old vehicles alive and running with less than factory issued parts. Indigenous Australians have a long history of inventiveness and technological bravado of the tricks to overcome mechanical adversity in Central Australia, known as bush mechanics.
Foragers of mechanical parts and thousands of kilometers from auto repair shops, bush mechanics keep cars running with what is available in the bush. Bush mechanics offer mechanical advice like no other: Brake fluid from laundry powder and water. Welding a broken muffler with jumper leads, fencing wire, and a car battery. New brake pads carved from mulga wood with a tomahawk, or an emergency clutch plate shaped out of an old boomerang. Needless to say, they are not the kind of solutions that a health and safety committee would endorse.
In an age of technologically advanced, homogeneous modern automobiles, tinkering of any kind, let alone the radical surgery performed by the bush mechanics, is discouraged by the growing complexity of motor cars. Cars are increasingly sealed objects given by experts and designed and maintained with no room for consumers to find their own solutions. This flattening of mechanical possibility no matter how rational, may be welcomed as progress, and embodies political and corporate choices about how our lives ought to be lived, and who can take responsibility for what. Bush mechanics provides a reminder that sometimes the best practices of the technological world we inhabit should occasionally be disrupted.
The following sagas of resourcefulness will keep you as busy as a one-armed bricklayer in Baghdad, but will get you out the mechanical pickle you found yourself in.
A punctured tyre is one of the most common vehicle challenges. With a spare and standard accessories, a flat can be repaired in minutes along the roadside. However, if you don't have a spares or a puncture kit, spinifex (a dry spiky grass found in Central Australia) can be used to fix the tyre. After removing the tyre’s inner tube, densely packing spinifex into the damaged tyre can create sufficient pressure in the chamber in order to enable the car to drive.
If a brake failure happens in the desert and brake fluid needs to be topped up, it is unlikely that a bottle of brake fluid will be hiding behind a tuft of spinifex. However, in a pinch, you just need a bit of laundry powder. Mixing a few spoonfuls of laundry powder with water will result in a viscous liquid that will return the hydraulic system to operation. Note: if you have to resort to this trick, it is important to flush the laundry powder brake fluid and replace it with correct fluid as soon as possible, to avoid corroding brake lines.
A dead battery is probably the second most common vehicle problem. Usually a set of jumper cables and another vehicle or a push start will recharge the dead battery. Often in the bush neither of these methods are an option, as the first relies on the presence of another vehicle and the second requires a momentum buildup, both of which are often impractical in the sandy deserts. A common bush mechanic fix to batter failure is to disconnect the battery and warm it by a fire. The heat from the fire transfers energy into the battery, giving it a short burst, which can often be enough to start the car. Safety note: placing a car battery next to a fire is very dangerous and not for the faint hearted, and should only be attempted as a last resort.
Keen for more Bush Mechanics? Check out the TV series, hilarious sequence of daily mechanical misadventures and tribulations of contemporary life in the bush, spoken mainly in Warlpiri and subtitled in English.
Edited by Eliana Arian