Episode 19: That Time I Went Storm Chasing

365 Dates of Travel Podcast

Transcript for Episode 19: That Time I Went Storm Chasing

Welcome to this week’s podcast. I will be reading directly from the book where I have three stories from the second book, which is the 365 Dates of Travel: The SECOND six months, coming out on the 23rd of July. So all sneak peeks for what is to come soon. 

The first story is a fun one where you meet Lottie. Now, Lottie is a car. She’s a Toyota Arkana. I don’t call her Lottie in this first story. But this is where you get to meet Lottie for the first time and get to know her as I’ve picked her up, or bought her, in Perth and I have to drive her all the way across to Melbourne, which is 3000 km. I really hope, and think you will, enjoy all of the Lottie stories in the second book. But here’s the first one. 

10th May (2004) Perth to Merredin, Western Australia (WA), Australia

My sum of information is sixteen diary lines on the first day; seven photos; a packing list; a food shopping list; and five pages of a mini notebook with scribblings on diesel fill ups, managing two tanks, and kilometres driven. I wish I had more.

My new-to-me car was a modified Toyota Arkana. It’s a rare Toyota model most people don’t know. This specimen had been enlarged, and in its heyday, luxurious. It transported mine managers in style. Now it oozes faded grandeur. If you picture a Toyota Troop Carrier, or Troopy, this car was longer, wider and taller. I could stand upright in the rear, which held ten forward-facing seats. With the seats removed, it’s perfect as a camper van for my trip across Africa. I had to get it to Melbourne first. I’d arranged an engine overhaul and was now ready to drive.

I flew into Perth a few days earlier, collected the car, and caught up with friends. Now I had to leave the safety of Perth and drive my new car home. I had five days to drive 3000 km.

The packing list I found included a doona and pillows. I needed these items as sleeping in the car. I’m uncertain how I got the doona onto the plane. The car’s back seat spanned the width of the vehicle, and I could stretch across it. With a bed, I did not need camping gear for this inaugural trip.

I spent $100 at the supermarket and bought items from Bakers Delight. I’ll assume I ate the bakery items while fresh.

I’d been told the car had two 70 litre diesel tanks. I filled both till the pump cut off, totalling 97.43 litres. It cost $95.38, meaning around 98 cents per litre. I wish I could pay that price now.

I was stocked, ready, and very nervous. City driving would be the hardest to navigate. I had never driven in Perth. I did not know the city well, and driving a car I didn’t know, including it being a manual, or stick shift, which I’d only driven once since passing my manual driving test in London in 1998.

I had photocopied pages of a Perth Street Directory which was available to view, but not borrow, at my local library. No GPS. No navigator in the passenger seat. A few photocopied pages with a highlighted route and me. I needed to get through the city and onto Highway 94, the Great Eastern Highway.

I left at 1:30 pm managing 264 km. I parked at a campground on the outskirts of Merredin for the night. $12 allowed me to enter and use the bathroom facilities.

I don’t know what time I stopped driving, but I wrote my diary entry at 7:30 pm.

Here I am in Merredin. My first night in the car. It’s so cool. All the lights work etc. and plenty of space. I love it. I probably should have parked up sooner, but at least I’m in a proper caravan park here and I’ve had a shower and all I need. I drove in the dark, but it was fine. No kangaroos yet, so I was lucky. Only did 264 km today. Hoping for a much better day tomorrow mileage-wise, but at least it’s better than still being in Perth and leaving tomorrow. The car drives perfectly. No problems at all except maybe oil. There’s a gauge in the car and not sure if that means how much oil there is or temperature, but will buy some oil just in case in Coolgardie, or next petrol stop, so I can top it up if need to. I’m tired. So early to bed tonight and up with the sun to start the day.

Not sure what the oil gauge comments mean. Did I have any idea what I was doing? Probably not.

I moved my belongings to between the rear rows. This created a generous sleeping bay where I comfortably curled up. Although simple, it was a decent setup and easier than pitching a tent. With no window coverings, I’d be awake with the sun.

As promised, I messaged my flatmate to inform her of my whereabouts. I made it a habit each night to serve as a reference point in case I went missing. Travel was changing with this my first trip with a mobile phone.

So this next story is from my storm chasing tour. So, two weeks chasing wild weather and tornado alley in America. So this one’s a good example of what a typical day was like and things we had to do along the way. And you’ll probably guess which passenger was the person who was the reason why I changed everybody’s name based on what is mentioned today, but obviously there are more details when you read the other dates in the book. 

22nd May (2019) Somewhere in Tornado Alley, USA

French toast and bacon for breakfast from IHOP. We ate here often. It took me a few visits to realise IHOP stood for The International House of Pancakes. I thought they were different chains. They wanted to shake off their pancake image and expand the menu.

We drove along the famous Route 66. Driving the full length is on my bucket list. We had a rest stop in Arcadia, Oklahoma, an iconic Route 66 stop. Here you’ll find Pops, a landmark diner with hundreds of different flavoured soft drinks, or pop, and a gas station. Coloured bottles containing varying flavours covered the walls. Out the front stands a 66-foot pop bottle with a straw. It was white during the day but lit in multicoloured lights at night.

We explored the shop. They had more flavours of M&M’s than I have ever seen, including coffee nut, pretzel and caramel. And merchandise such as T-shirts and hats being a Route 66 icon.

We filled the cars with gas, our stomachs with food and drinks as we waited for information to guide us on when and where to move. We had to be ready at short notice. When told to get in, you hustled. Otherwise, we might miss the storm.

Once at a storm location, you jumped out fast to catch it. Unfortunately, today I got stuck in the van in everyone’s eagerness to alight. The van’s back door swung open to the right. When fully open, it prevented my door from opening.

Malcolm threw the door open. Everyone ran to catch the action without closing the door. I was stuck. From his window, Jeremy had a superb view of the tornado to the left. I peered through Jeremy and his side window. Not ideal.

The first car to arrive got the best views, saying a tornado sat 50 metres in front of them. I don’t think anyone in our vehicle experienced anything that close and I saw nothing.

Someone returned to fetch something. They closed the door on request and I hopped out. But it was over. The clouds remained, but the tornado had dissipated. It only takes a few minutes to form and disappear into a cloud free blue sky. Everyone was enraptured by the scene, but I missed it. This occurred near Okemah, OK.

When observing at a stop, we must obey instructions. We must hurry if instructed to get in. The storm may either head our way or a more favourable event lay ahead. The potential of better makes everyone move fast.

We made a plan with Malcolm. He’d open the door after Jeremy or myself said “go”. I needed a second to open my door first. I can get out when both doors are open. If I’m one second behind, forget it, without scratching both doors. Who knew the front seat had a downside?

There was no switching of vehicles, only rearranging of inside seats. Every morning, I’d stand back and wait for people to board. I’d check if anyone wanted the front seat. Everyone was comfortable where they were, so I got the front seat every day. Our car did not rotate seats as no one wanted to sit next to Malcom. The moment we started rotating, we knew we each may end up next to him. It seemed easier to not rotate. Poor Carl was desperate to rotate. I can sympathise.

As we moved on, we drove through a hailstorm. I loved the sound of the rocks on the roof of the car. Of course, the driver wasn’t having fun as worrying about the windscreen breaking. Without the responsibility of driving, or it being my car, I relished the experience and wore my best Cheshire cat grin while doing so. I have video with the sound of the thud, thud, thud.

Today we partook in “punching the core”, or driving through the storm’s centre. This is the most direct way to get ahead of the storm. Once in front, you positioned yourself for a potential tornado, meaning wild weather, and that’s what I wanted. I wish we punched the core every day. Some feared it, though, including Malcolm.

The water had nowhere to go in the saturated ground. This created flash flooding and ridiculous amounts of water over the road. The waves created by our cars were amazing. Again, it’s easier to enjoy when you have no responsibility. I trusted Jeremy’s driving. He was a firefighter paramedic.

Everyone had downloaded a tornado warning app, making the phones go off at once. The app gave off this deep barr, barr, barr, barr sound. Everyone got animated over what was next.

At various points during the day, we have stops where we are “staging”. This is arriving near a potential storm (somewhere with amenities) and wait for further information. Sometimes these stops are a quick ten minutes for a bathroom visit and snack purchases; to longer if filling up the cars and cleaning the windows; to two or three hours if waiting for the weather to declare itself.

Once today we tried to have a break but weather warnings had been released, making shops close. We wanted a toilet break, but they were locking the doors. They opened for us, inviting us to join them in their shelter. A decision had to be made. With the doors locked, we’d be unable to leave until the storm subsided.

We chased the storm instead.

It’s a tradition to eat a celebratory steak dinner after a tornado encounter. No steak allowed on other nights of the tour. So tonight we had steak, with vegetables and a baked potato, for the sum of $47.84 at Charlestons.

We had a late night getting to our hotel at 11:00 pm and to my room at 11:40 pm. With so many rooms, check in takes forever. No chance of early nights on this tour. Catnaps in the car helped keep tiredness at bay.

The official count for today was four tornados, but that number didn’t apply to me. We added 470 miles to our tally.

The last story for this week is a highlight of my adventure travel life. It’s when I finally get to visit Timbuktu, or Tomboctou as it is more known locally. 

30th May (1998) Timbuktu, Mali

This morning, we drove Lucy onto the small ferry for the short ride across the Niger River. Width-wise, the ferry held three cars packed together and not much more in length, open to the fresh air. We alighted to enjoy the view of the river surrounded by desert.

After a short drive, we arrived in Timbuktu, or Tombouctou. The town is not paved in gold, as fabled. I can’t even call it faded grandeur. Crumbling mud-brick houses don’t have a sense of old charm.

Ibrahim recommended a hotel where I had a moment I’ll never forget. I can see it clearly as if happened this morning. The daily heat, combined with the lack of electricity resulting in an inability to access cold drinks, was getting to me. Throw in a lack of flavour, and I was going insane. We arrived at the hotel and I spotted a chest freezer. Not all freezers in Africa work. We have been disappointed before. I rushed over and opened it. It was plugged in and cold. Utter bliss!

When the light comes on and frigid air wafts out, it mimics the scene in Pulp Fiction. There were a few drinks, but the shining glory was the one bottle of grenadine flavoured soft drink. This is the equivalent of a raspberry lemonade outside Australia. Heaven. Cold and flavour. I grabbed it and devoured it. I didn’t care about anyone else or what it cost. It was mine, and no one was stopping me. Ahh, the flavour.

We had to check in with the police. We left the car and walked the streets of Timbuktu, with Ibrahim guiding and explaining. We were the talk of town within seconds of arriving. Few tourists visit. Our arrival was the most exciting thing happening in town today. By the time we got to the police station, we’d amassed a following. Everybody wanted to say hello and welcome.

They stamped our passports. I have tangible proof I have been to Timbuktu. Many people don’t believe me. People think it’s a fictional place, so I couldn’t have visited. It is an actual place, and here’s the passport stamp to prove it. It’s a brilliant story to wow even the most experienced travellers. My claim to fame in the travel realm. I hated renewing my passport, losing my convenient proof.

It saddens me what has happened there since my visit. Bandits have taken over at various times. ISIS has moved through destroying buildings and ancient books. It’s a shame a revisit is improbable. I’m fortunate to have seen it before it disappears into the sand.

We spent the afternoon on a camel safari. A girls’ trip. We negotiated being taken into the desert and left for an hour. I’ve ridden camels before, so not a new experience, but it felt appropriate to indulge in one here. It was relaxing being left in the dunes with nothing but sand. With barely a scrub, we experienced the serenity as we lay in the dunes.

We were a teeny bit worried they wouldn’t return. But they did.

Wrap Up

Well, that’s it for this week. Next week I will be talking about the background and behind the scenes of the June chapter. That’s a chapter from the 365 Dates of Travel: The Second Six months book. So we’ll continue the trend for sneak peeks into the new book before it comes out on the 23rd of July. I hope you’re enjoying a little extra sneak peek. And don’t forget to continue reading The first six months so you’re up to date, and ready to go when the new book comes out. You can check out my website, franheapwriter.com, sign up for the newsletter there for up to date what’s happening and launch information and so forth. And also on the website you’ve got photos, the podcast, and transcripts of the podcast, and all sorts of things. So don’t forget to check in there every now and then. And you can also find me on Facebook and Instagram as Fran Heap Writer. So everything’s just Fran Heap Writer and you’ll find something about me. 

I hope you have found something interesting and it’s piqued your interest in what’s coming in The SECOND six months. Thank you for listening today and I look forward to talking with you next week and I wish for you an interesting day.

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