The Exploding Clutch

We completed our travel Australia house sitting assignment in Toowoomba on a Thursday morning, a month before Christmas. David and Nancy returned before lunch and were happy to find that after two weeks the dogs still remembered them.

We drove down the range to the family home in Ipswich and for the next week set about some good old fashioned home maintenance. In the afternoon, Brisbane’s worst hail storm in 30 years dropped by for a visit. Fortunately for us, it skittled along the eastern side of Ipswich so we got to see the show from the back steps, without having to pay the admission. Not so lucky for 70,000 others though and there was a lot of damage and some injuries.

The next week was devoted to some home repairs, the most difficult of which was the restoration of a couple of 40 year old concrete house stumps.



Hopefully the new clutch kit, organized the week before our trip by son Justin, will be waiting when we get to Ballina. We had a little delay on our departure waiting for a delivery of tent poles we ordered on the internet, but we managed to haul the trailer out of the yard and were on the road quite late in the afternoon. Heading along the Pacific Highway an hour later, it was obvious the clutch was not going to last much longer. By the time we were bypassing the Gold Coast, it was possible to increase the engine revs and have absolutely no impact on the speed. Still we lived in hope we would make it.

It was dark, perhaps 8.30 pm when we arrived at St Helena, the infamous long climb that had claimed so many trucks over the decades. Now finally, a massive building program is underway to cut through the mountain and tonight we really, really wished it was finished.

This was just the start of 20 kilometres of road works, 6 kilometres west of Bryon Bay and 30 kilometres short of our destination and for now the road still climbs nearly 1,000 feet in a few kilometres.

We were very much aware now, more so than ever before, that we were struggling along the primary highway between Sydney and Brisbane and trucks travel at night. By the time we realized our speed was dropping alarmingly, the road had narrowed to a single lane each way and with the road works, there was no runoff verge to drive on. As the road grew steeper and the traffic banked up behind us, it seemed almost guaranteed that we would finally stop and block the highway with no way of moving forward or reversing.

Luck was with us and two things came to our rescue, albeit briefly. Once past this first one-kilometre section, the road verge widened enough for us to get off the lane and continue moving at barely walking speed, but moving just the same. Smoke was pouring from the clutch, the engine was running at high speed and we were crawling forward in the dark up a small mountain with trucks roaring past just inches from our van.

How we made it to the top is anyone’s guess, maybe it was Julie’s chanting “you can make it, just a bit further” over and over but we crept forward over the crest and started down the other side. It did us little good as there were dozens of hills, some quite steep between us and Ballina. We pulled into a rest stop on top of the range but we couldn’t get going again. It was a strange sensation, putting the vehicle into gear and letting the clutch out with no effect. It looked like we would be spending the night right here. After 20 minutes or so when the clutch has come off the boil, we did manage to get moving again, but not for long. A minute later we heard a loud bang and we knew there was not going to be any more.


We rolled to a halt in a section of road works where a new entry lane was being built which gave us a wide space away from the main single lane that was still buzzing with a constant stream of trucks and a few other vehicles.

Our rescuers arrived about 45 minutes later in the form of Paul, Julie’s brother in his big 4WD and his wife Carol driving my old work ute which I had left in Ballina for them to look after while we were house-sitting.

We hooked up the trailer to the ute and Julie and Carol headed off while we rigged a tow rope to the van. The next half hour was intensely interesting, swinging off the end of the rope, trying to keep it tight, mostly at 80 kilometres an hour in road works, staying in front of the trucks from behind and out of the way of the trucks coming the other way.

Downhill was the most difficult of course, using the van’s brakes to keep the rope tight, guessing when the tow vehicle was going to start accelerating again and being responsible for braking for both vehicles.

I was so pleased I had new brakes and by the time we pulled up outside the house, there was a red glow coming from behind both front wheels and that was after doing the last 5 kilometres on flat ground. It was an interesting day all round.

Next day I fronted up to the local Repco to pick up the clutch that was ordered and paid for in Townsville only to be told they knew nothing about it. By the time it arrived three days later I had the gearbox out, the fly wheel ground flat and replaced a few gearbox bearings while I was at it.

It seems to me that towns whose economy is influenced by tourism have an inflated goods and services pricing structure and this view was reinforced by my efforts to have the van’s flywheel machined. The only place in Ballina I could find was ‘Ballina Brake Exhaust and Clutch’, who apparently are enthusiastic entrants in any awards event that’s going. Putting the fly wheel on their machine for 15 minutes was $90 and they would not budge and inch on price, preferring to get nothing.

In the regional capital, Lismore, which is only 30 kilometres away, the same service was $50. You can tell when someone takes an interest in your problem and you can tell when someone just thinks of you as a walking wallet. The guys at ‘Lismore Engine Rebuilders’ had that friendly helpful attitude. We went for a coffee while they did the job.

This was also a bit of nostalgia for us, as we had spent much of our early twenties between Lismore and Ballina, mainly holidays and weekends visiting family, based in Julie’s family home in Magellan Street.

On the fourth day Paul gave me a hand and we had the mighty little van back together by late Saturday afternoon. It worked too.

Now we had new brakes (well tested) and a new clutch, all I needed to worry about was the ‘generous’ steering. Driving the van reminded me for all the world of flying the plane at low speeds, input a turn and wait for the effect. It had been a concern since checking play in the ball joints while we were in Glenrowan but that was 7,000 kilometres ago and I was getting a bit concerned.

My other job

In between times I tried to find some ‘sit-down’ time to write another Diary Entry into The Diary Of The Universe web site. I find these early entries difficult because of the level of research required to accurately explain the processes and the complex formation of the early part of the universe. Later subjects are more a matter of collecting the information, but these early ones require an understanding of the science and this means a slower accurate  pace. I have to confess though, I enjoy the challenge of grasping the concepts and accepting my limited capacity to retain the information.

Some R’nR

After 5 days of ‘interesting times’ especially the first bit when the old clutch said goodbye, it was Sunday and time to give the new clutch a test. The monthly Channon Market is a significant event in the Northern Rivers District and the village is a pleasant 50 kilometre run to the north west of Ballina, not far from its more famous cousin Nimbin, once Australia’s hippy capital.

channon one

We wandered around the oval twice which took a couple of hours and I can tell you for nothing, it is a very pleasant way to while away a Sunday morning, although one could also say ‘wile away’ as the time truly did disappear as if by magic.

channon two

Speaking of magic, for kids anyway, on our last night, the week before Christmas, to show our appreciation, we took Paul and Carol out to a local pub for a meal and on the way home, we detoured past a couple of the more locally-famous houses decorated with their Christmas lights. There was a constant stream of parents bringing the littlies to see the lights and we enjoyed their wide-eyed wonder.

christmas lights

It had been a pretty good week all round and I resolved to ‘do something’ about the steering in Grafton. It can’t be that hard surely.


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