At the coldest point in the day, Joanna Atkins emerges from her home: a converted shipping container sitting on the back of a road train, parked on the side of a dirt track in the middle of the Kimberley.
Joanna walks to the fire still smouldering from the evening, where her dog Lin is curled up. She adds some kindling to take the chill away.
Brewing tea on a camp stove is a morning ritual. Joanna’s husband Nick joins her for the cuppa, but they sit in silence, occasionally smiling at Lin who the couple thinks is a “pretty weird dog”.
“We gave up talking years ago,” Joanna says. “We know each other and know what we have to do.”
On the outskirts of Kununurra in Western Australia’s far north a 512-kilometre road snakes its way through one of the most remote parts of Australia.
Nick and Joanna both grew up, met and spent their honeymoon on the road. It’s the closest thing to a home they have, at least for the months during the dry season.
Nick, 45, and Joanna, 33, are a dying breed, being two of the last owner-operator truckies working in the Kimberley.
They started working on the Gibb River-Kalumburu Road 10 years ago and know every pitch and bend and all the characters who populate the lonely stretch of dirt. It’s part of their identity.
“The road is a community in itself,” Joanna says.
“Some people might do the odd run out to a community in the bush, but for us … we really don’t do anything else. That’s all we do, just bush driving.”
Nick and Joanna are a lifeline for the cattle stations and tourists spots along the route and the town at the end of the journey, Kalumburu — home to 470 people.
Lighter, more fragile goods are brought in by barge and air, but the couple deliver the heavier items in their triple road train: from fridges and bulky machinery, to slabs of Coke and drums of fuel.
Every year during the northern wet season, Kalumburu is cut off from the rest of the country by floodwaters, usually from October to May.
Nick and Joanna’s work can only begin once the last rains have gone, and the road has dried out enough to support their 70-tonne road train.
The first run is always the hardest.
This year, the couple took a risk and went in the first week of May. It took eight days instead of the usual five because parts of the dirt road were washed away.
As Nick and Joanna head north, they are both drivers and mechanics. Sometimes they have to get out of the truck and use a loader or their bare hands to rebuild the road before moving any further.
The work is physical and unrelenting.
“If we don’t do it, who will?” Joanna says.
“Other companies wouldn’t bother with this run. It’s too rough on their gear, too slow going and not profitable enough.”
For Joanna and Nick, their work is more than a job. It’s a way of life.
Many remote communities in Western Australia have poor access to services and essential items, as well as failing infrastructure.
Nick sees this neglect play out every year. The whole track is a lifeline for hundreds of people who live along it but he says the only sections of road that are maintained are the ones used by tourists.
Some small Indigenous communities in Western Australia are in jeopardy after the former state government questioned their viability and called for dozens to be shut down.
Kalumburu Aboriginal Corporation director Doreen Unghango believes the road has been neglected by the state government and councils for years.
“Tourists and people get access, but after you come up to Kalumburu past Mitchell Plateau turn off, it is a bit corrugated, creeks are washed away,” she says.
“The shire doesn’t come right up to Kalumburu community to do that.
“If the road is in bad condition, we can’t go out to visit family and fulfil cultural obligations. Often, we just can’t go out bush.”
Only in the last few months, after years of being overlooked, the road is finally receiving the maintenance it needs because of record numbers of tourists heading to the North Kimberley Coast. “I am determined to keep the road open for the community itself because the Government is not going to,” Nick says.
Nick perseveres over the endless corrugations. Moments earlier he had a close call with a caravan overtaking on a corner. “Flamin’ rushin’ tourists, not the Vladimir Putin-type, the other ones. Always in a rush to relax.” (ABC News: Matthew Abbott)
Nick doesn’t say much when he’s driving. He sits quietly with a rolly cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his thoughts kept to himself.
He listens to the gears change and the engine groan, attuned to every sound and rattle.
The truck crawls along at times, rattling over the corrugations so slowly that flies settle on the windscreen and under Nick’s Akubra.
Once an hour, Nick stops the truck in the middle of the road and walks around it, looking for damage and cargo that might have shifted. He whacks each tyre with a metal bar to check the air pressure.
When he’s not focusing on driving, Nick’s an upbeat larrikin, heart worn plainly on his sleeve. Give him a spoon to change a tyre and he’ll give it a go.
While Nick is Mr Fix-it, Joanna is the organiser and navigator. “She’s the GPS,” Nick says.
Joanna drives behind in the couple’s ute, just beyond the truck’s dusty wake. She watches for fallen objects and ushers cars past, communicating over the radio.
She talks to store owners, sends out quotes and organises deliveries. She’s chatty, warm and tough.
“She does a fair bit,” Nick says.
“It seems really small, but there’s always a thousand little things that need to be done. All I got to do is teach her to drive a road train and I won’t have to come,” he jokes.
Nick and Joanna, who both grew up in the Kimberley, say the outback values of their youth are disappearing.
“It used to be a big hospitality thing in the bush. When someone’s broken down, you help them out,” she says. “I think it’s lost now.”
That’s why Joanna and Nick go out of their way to help people on the road. It’s their community, it’s what they call home.
Joanna met Nick in 2008. “I kind of knew it had to be a forever commitment or nothing at all,” Joanna says about their early days.
At the time, she was working on her family’s station on the Kalumburu Road. One hot June afternoon, Nick came in for a beer and a feed.
He was part of a road maintenance crew living at a nearby workers camp.
His visits to the property became more regular, and as the road gang moved, they started a long-distance relationship of sorts.
By the end of his contract, Nick was driving a 280-kilometre round trip for a beer and a chat with Joanna. He knew that she liked him when she offered to wash his dirty clothes.
Six months later, they got engaged. Six months after that, they married at the station, spending their wedding night in their truck and their honeymoon on the road.
A decade on, the road is still their life.
“We always improve. We work through our problems and it gets better,” Joanna says. “That’s why it works for us after 10 years.”
Creeks along the way are oases. After many hours at the wheel, the couple pull up and wash the red dust out of their hair.
They don’t venture far into the water for fear of crocodiles. Occasionally tourists towing caravans pass and wave while Nick and Joanna relax in the water.
Once the sun sets and the flies are gone, the mosquitos attack. Veggies are chopped roughly on the back of the ute tray. A simple dinner is cooked on a camp fire. The night is spent in what Joanna calls their “little house”, the shipping container without windows.
Conditions might seem rough, but they can’t imagine it any other way. And they can’t work for anyone else.
“Some companies won’t even let you change a tyre, you’re basically just a steering wheel attendant,” Nick says.
“A lot of the industry today in the transport, you can’t touch anything. It’s just driving down the highway. How boring. I couldn’t do that all day. Me? I like rattling along the dirt.”
Nick and Joanna are self-taught mechanics. They have to be.
“We’re one of the few people doing what we do. We travel with the knowledge that if we break down, you can fix yourself. We can’t just ring a mechanic,” Nick says.
While they love their job, the couple concede that a single incident along the road could mean an end to their livelihood.
They have few savings and live from gig to gig. Their season is short, from the time the road officially opens they have just six months to earn enough to last them 12.
The cost of each run is high — maintenance, fuel and keeping 50 tyres on the ground all adds up.
The last season has taken its toll.
“10 years on and we’re still not getting anywhere,” Joanna says.
“We do it for the enjoyment I suppose but that’s what starts to wear thin. This year halfway through the season we were like, ‘oh my God, this is killing us’.
“A decade on and our gear and our bodies have taken a hiding. I think we’ll keep going until we just can’t do it anymore.”
But Joanna acknowledges that come the start of next dry season they most likely will have forgotten the pain and hardships, and will be eager to get back on the road.