LEG 3: EL QUESTRO TO BROOME – 1094 kilometres
It’s only when you head to somewhere like Darwin in our far north that you truly realise just how big and brown is this fair land of ours.
Words – David Twomey Photography Mark Watson and David Twomey
I was excited about starting the third leg of Land Rover’s epic trek across the north of Australia but as I said this wide brown land of ours is even wider and browner when you realise it is six hours of flying just to get to the start of Leg Three.
I’m on an 8:40am flight out of Melbourne to Alice Springs and that is just half way to Darwin, and the adventure hasn’t even begun yet.
Alice Springs to Darwin is a bit of a shock when our late-leaving Qantas flight only has drinks and pretzels to sustain the two-hour flight.
You do wonder what the many tourists on board make of the ‘Flying Kangaroo’ with such service. A hop, skip and a jump behind world standards I suspect.
One advantage of all this flying time is that I can get on with editing Paul Maric’s tale of Leg One, a saga of sand and heat it seems!
It seems that Leg Three is just going to be a tale of ‘missed-adventure’. Once in Darwin I discover that the bulk of my travelling companions, this is the most popular leg of the cross Australia trek and there are 10 of us in total plus the usual Land Rover suspects, have had a similar series of flying adventures.
While they are here, their luggage has arrived too late, or in the case of one not at all, for the baggage handlers to carry it from their Sydney and Brisbane flights to the aircraft sitting nearby that will fly us to Kununurra for the start of Leg Three.
The long and short of it is that after we fly to Kununurra, meet up with the Land Rover crew including marketing manager, Jon Harris, and his highly organised offsider Guido Schenken, we are taken in the fleet of vehicles we will live with for the next four days to the El Questro resort at Emma Gorge.
The Land Rover convoy consists of two highly visible G4-prepped Discovery 3 TDV6s, one Freelander 2, one Range Rover Sport TDV6, one Range Rover Vogue TDV8, one Defender 110 and one Defender 130 crew-cab with tray, it’ll be ‘tail-end Charlie’ for the duration so we Aussies think it is only fitting that it is crewed by two affable Pommie technicians from Land Rover HQ in Gaydon.
A shower to get rid of the day’s travel and an excellent dinner sees us keen to start the adventure, except the Land Rover crew have had to do some hasty rescheduling.
Seems all the missing luggage won’t be on hand until at least lunchtime the next day so it’s going to be less of the four-wheel-driving and more of the two feet method of transport as we plan a walk into the Emma Gorge area for the next morning.
While some of the support crew head back to Kununurra to collect luggage, it transpires that one bag has actually flown all the way to Perth and back unaccompanied, we grab bottles of water and head out into the morning sun for a two hour walk up the Gorge.
The Gorge is part of the Cockburn Ranges and when the publicity material says a walk takes you along crystal clear pools and waterfalls, it isn’t kidding.
The beauty of the region is everywhere and it isn’t hard to see why so many of our overseas visitors find the outback much more fascinating than do we local inhabitants.
Every time I go into the remote regions of Australia I am just overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of the landscape – often harsh but always beautiful.
Back at El Questro we enjoy a very civilised lunch, fresh Barramundi was becoming the order of the day, and learn that for the first time we are actually going to drive somewhere, although the destination is only about 30 kilometres away at the El Questro camping ground – looks like we are finally going to spend some time under canvas!
To help make us feel a bit more like we are actually outback adventuring tour leader John Eggenhuizen – Eggy to us – has us follow the leader to a couple of spots of local beauty, as if we aren’t already overwhelmed by local beauty, and we head out to the Pigeon Hole, part of the Pentecost River, and we are knocked out yet again by a scenic spectacle.
Now because our group was much bigger than those encountered by Paul Maric on Leg One or Anthony Crawford on Leg Two we were going to have to share vehicles.
Given the chance to choose a driving companion I teamed up with Steve Williams, a Perth-based motoring writer, who I’ve driven with before and know well.
What’s more Steve and his Italian wife had just spent a month in my favourite place, outside of the Land of Milk and Honey (that’s Oz in case you didn’t know), Italia, and they’d even walked the Cinque Terre Trail, one of my life ambitions, so, with the prospect of six to eight hours a day together, there was going to be more than just dust to talk about over the next few days.
Also because of our numbers Jon Harris has become master of ceremonies as far as which car we get to drive each day so our drive on this day is the Range Rover Vogue TDV8. Conducting operations from the rear seat is Camel Trophy guru and leading Melbourne Land Rover dealer, ‘big’ John Ayer.
John has been a dealer in Melbourne since 1972 and has vast four-wheel-drive experience with his Camel Trophy expeditions to outback Australia, Madagascar, Sulawesi, Siberia, Guyana and numerous other godforsaken places.
There’s a never-ending stream of stories and banter from the back seat, which means there is little need to explore any of the luxury features of what is surely one of the most sumptuous ways to travel in the outback.
The 3.6-litre V8 diesel is staggering and with twin-turbochargers develops 200kW and 640Nm yet exhibits a remarkably small thirst for diesel, averaging around 7.4L/100km while we were onboard, despite a huge load of luggage and the air-conditioning going full blast.
For the return trip we jump in with Eggy in “G4 Leader” the radio call sign for his bright orange beast that runs at the front of the convoy each day. It is important to have good radio contact out here and that we have, along with some discipline about not driving too close together, on the dusty sections a kilometre is a good distance to be behind the vehicle in front.
The cars ahead also radio call any oncoming traffic so we are forewarned when one of those monster road trains hauls into view.
Back at the El Questro camping ground the orange G4 one-man tents have sprouted like a field of mushrooms and we are told to pick one and make ourselves at home.
Well home was never quite this compact, but the mattress does feel comfortable and the sleeping bag is soon unpacked and ready to go.
Dinner tonight is in a balcony restaurant over looking verdant bush at the camping ground, so far the camping gig is a bit of a laugh, but you can laugh too soon!
After another fine meal of – you guessed it – fresh Barramundi it’s off to bed for the first night under canvas and to the sound of a bunch of youthful backpackers in a nearby camp I try to get to sleep as we’ve been told it’s up at 6:30 the next morning for an early start as we have a big drive ahead to try and get back onto the original schedule.
Duly aroused, showered and awake we head for breakfast in the same restaurant as the night before. Cereal, bacon, eggs and coffee all get consumed and then we head for the cars.
Oh, that’s right we are camping now so we have to pack our own tent, simply once you’ve had a lesson, and load all our gear into the Defender 110 and a couple of the other vehicles.
Steve and I are back in “G4 Leader” John Eggenhuizen’s bright orange G4 Discovery and the good thing is it means we are the ‘leader of the pack’ – out front and away from the dust.
In front of us in 336 kilometres of driving that will ultimately take us to Mount Elizabeth Station. The drive is dusty, tiring and long and we don’t reach our destination until well after dark at about 8:00pm.
Steve and I have swapped driving roles during the day and while most of it has been on dirt roads of pretty good quality, little challenge for the Discovery 3 really, the last 40 kilometres in the dark, on the station access road, fell to me and I have to say they were a challenge between wanting to get there, not driving too fast and keeping a vigilant eye for the abundance of various marsupials populating the roadside.
Finally we pull into the camp site close to the station house and amidst a circle of headlights were throw up our tents, amidst shouts of staying clear of the snorers, and toss down our sleeping bags. Our haste is due to our late arrival and the fact that the station house kitchen is catering for us tonight but 8:pm at night is late out here!
Dinner is a trip back into 1963, complete with lamenix tables, tablecloths made from sewn together bed sheets and a station cook who exhorts us to “take a bit of everything you can come back for more.”
Wine is drunk from glasses that look like they were once Vegemite containers and the margarine, yes margarine, is housed in containers that my mother gave up using years ago but which the lady waiting on our table laments are becoming “impossible to find these day.”
The food is good, well hunger is an excellent sauce, and we are soon back at the campsite for some tall tales about the days travels, what else would you expect with a bunch of journalists on hand.
You only realise how quiet it is in the outback at night when you become acutely aware of the snoring from the nearby tents, and it becomes memo to self – move further away tonight!
Up as dawn is cracking over the trees for a splash in the shower block, which is sheer luxury out here and not to be passed up as there may not be the luxury at our next overnight stop.
Breakfast is another journey back into 1963 with our waitress in the station dining room bringing around our ration of toast, poached egg and dollop of baked beans – not quite the gourmet fare that Messrs Maric and Crawford were skitting about! Tents are folded, bags are packed, campfires properly extinguished and we are ready to roll.
Today is a short one – just 179 kilometres to Bell Gorge, along the famous Gibb River Road, and Steve and I are almost grateful that we have won the Defender 110 for the day as it’s a shorter drive and the 110 seems the least desired of all those on offer.
That is until Eggy and JH decide that a bit of an excursion is in order and we are going to set off to find a waterhole they think might be interesting.
This excursion entails following a trail from Mount Elizabeth Station and as we discover climbing over some rocks that are almost as big as the Freelander 2 in our convoy.
We are feeling pretty smug all of a sudden because the Defender is the place to be. It may be spartan, full of dust and a rugged ride at times but when it comes to crawling over impossible terrain it has few peers.
At first glance the Defender looks decidedly similar to the Series One that Maurice Wilks built in 1947. This one tough beast and the current Defender, great value really at $48,990, will probably outlast most of us, as more than half of the original production vehicles built in 1948, are still in use.
So we rock-hop our way to an amazingly pristine piece of water we think we’ve ever seen, I’m reliably told this is the Barnett River Gorge, and spend a couple of hours splashing about, although we did have to walk the last 500 metres, as vehicle access wasn’t an option.
We head back to the vehicles and crawl our way back out to Mount Elizabeth before setting off on the drive to Bell Gorge. Powered by a 2.4-litre, turbocharged, diesel, four-cylinder (TD4) it pulls hard with 360Nm of torque at just 2000rpm, transmitted through a six-speed manual with well-spaced gear ratios and full-time four-wheel drive.
The river crossings and rock crawling encountered on this journey cannot be classed as anything remotely challenging for the Defender.
Steve and I soon discover that on the dusty corrugated road the 110 isn’t quite as much fun and we are soon bouncing along at the rear of the convoy because we have to travel slower than our more salubrious, air-suspended companions in the fleet.
It’s just us and the 130 Ute at the back of the pack but we plod along making reasonable time and looking forward to the time when some of those ahead will have to experience the highs and lows of Defender transport in the outback.
The bouncing of the heavily rutted and corrugated road silences even talk of the Cinque Terre, but the Defender never falters, and it certainly showed its true merit earlier in the day.
By lunchtime we are at the Mount Barnett Roadhouse and after refueling all the vehicles the Land Rover crew are considerably lighter in their wallets. In fact as the cumulative bill rose above $1000 the gnarled owner is heard to remark; “I hope you blokes can pay for all this diesel?”
Pushing his luck he then adds; “Land Rovers, eh, don’t see many of them out here, they usually fall apart before they get out here.” Perhaps he needs to chat to our tech guys, who had little to do besides work on their tans and gather wood for the evening campfire!
We can pay, and for the pies and chips that constitute a genuine Aussie outback lunch, just what were Paul and Anthony on when they waxed lyrical about the gourmet catering?
The radio chatter constantly breaks the drive as some of our colleagues use the opportunity to exercise their not inconsiderable egos as a relief from the hours of driving.
All this despite the continually changing vista that is almost constantly both beautiful and brutal, until we pull into the Silent Grove camping ground at Bell Gorge and realise that it isn’t going to be too silent as a bus load of backpackers are sharing the place with us.
Finally the Land Rover support crew get to swing into action and from the trail they tow behind a Discovery 3 they produce dinner that consists of an entrée of Crab Salad followed by Prawn Risotto, all made with ingredients that have been hauled 541 kilometres in freezers, amazing.
So I have to eat my words, along with the dinner, and admit that Messrs Maric and Crawford were right to rave about the catering feats performed on this extraordinary journey.
There’s only so much you can say about crawling in and out of a one-person tent and sleeping to the cacophony of snoring that results from too many glasses of really good wine over dinner, so I will leave it there.
Day four dawned very red and very early, as usual in the outback, and it is even more red when you are sleeping inside a bright orange tent.
Packing up, showering and heading to the breakfast table were all routine, the meal of cereal, coffee, OJ, bacon and eggs was certainly not what the backpackers were eating.
Steve and I were feeling pretty replete as we headed to our transport for the day the Freelander 2 as we head down the road 189 kilometres to Windjana Gorge.
The trip seems to fly by, maybe because our teeth aren’t being rattled out of our heads, but the Freelander 2 is a joy to drive and incredibly competent for its overall specification, something my CarAdvice colleagues have already raved about so I won’t bore you too much further.
In fact our whole convoy is getting a bit of a smell of the end I feel and we press on down the road at a pretty good pace, to arrive at the Windjana Gorge camping ground by early afternoon.
It’s a bit of a charmless place, just a lot of dust, some toilets and scrubby trees but the gorge itself is spectacular. Windjana Gorge is a 3.5km gorge, carved out of the Napier Range by the Lennard River.
The Napier Range is part of the same ancient barrier reef system that can also be seen at Tunnel Creek and Geikie Gorge. In the Devonian period, over 300 million years ago, this whole area was under the ocean.
As the camp is soon set up and we are feasting on hotdogs for lunch Steve and I decide to join some of the group in a drive to Tunnel Creek, this turns out to be an 80km round trip, a geological phenomenon that comprises a 700 metre long tunnel that nature has carved with a creek running through it.
Clambering into the tunnel is a bit of a challenge but once inside we enjoy the pleasant coolness and the water as we walk, mostly in darkness, using torchlight to navigate our way to the other end.
The drive back to camp is a tricky one in very dusty conditions heading into the setting sun.
Our return is rewarded with a gourmet dinner of scallops in white wine, followed by Carbonara Penne; this really is a tough life!
Hard to believe but it is day five and the finale of our trek. We are up very early for a walk into the Windjana Gorge because we hope to see some of the much talked about freshwater crocodiles.
We’ve already been told “they won’t eat you, just bite you!” but I, for one am not about to get that close.
The gorge is a spectacular sight in the morning sun with the start blackness of some of the cliff faces contrasting to the red of others. And then there is the exposed Devonian Reef, hard to image that this land was once under the sea.
We do manage to see a few crocs but they are on the other side of the river – what a shame – guess we will just have to look from afar!
Today we are travelling in the Range Rover Sport TDV6, the most successful model worldwide for the brand, and the personal transport of Marketing Manager Jon Harris.
We are on the final run to Broome and the end of this epic 3783 kilometre journey, and there is just a final 60 kilometres of dirt road to negotiate before we stop, the tyres on all the vehicles are re-inflated to road pressures and it is blacktop all the way to the famed Cable Beach.
Our first stop on this final day is Derby and a visit to the infamous Prison Tree, a hollowed out boab tree that was used as a prison for aborigines in the later part of the 19th century.
It’s not a pleasant thought to consider up to a dozen men housed inside the tree’s trunk.
From Derby we head out onto a smooth highway that feels like silk under the wheels of the Range Rover Sport and once we are clear of civilisation JH asks me how I feel about cruising at a somewhat faster speed than the 95-100km/h being maintained by Eggy in “G4 Leader”.
In indicate that I’m happy cruising up around the 110km/h speed limit and he indicates we should pass the lead car. As we push on down the highway it’s not long before the radio call comes; “ G4 Leader to Sport will you be falling back in line shortly?”
JH takes the mike and answers; “Actually G4 we are now Sport Leader and will be staying up here until we hit Broome.”
So that seems to have settled the running order for the next 270 kilometres!
Out on the smooth sealed highway we soon discover that it doesn’t matter how quick you put the ‘Sport’ into a corner there is no body roll, pretty good for a genuine off-roader that weighs in at a hefty 2455kg.
The twin-turbo V6 diesel produces a healthy 440Nm at 1900rpm, which is enough to punch it along at close to 200km/h.
There’s not much it can’t handle in the off-road either, which is no surprise, as it is based on the same integrated body-framed structure, as the go-anywhere Discovery 3.
JH wants to be in Broome by 2:00pm so we can take photographs on the beach and we set a cracking pace for the rest of the run, we can almost smell the ocean, it seems.
We roll into Broome at 1:45pm and shortly afterwards park up on Cable Beach, so named because it was the end of the undersea telegraph cable that linked Australia with Britain in 1889.
Snapper Mark Watson spends much time arranging the cars in the desired formation for his final shot of this epic journey, while some of us slowly become aware that Cable Beach is also a nudist beach!
This somewhat epic trek across northern Australia was designed to show that Land Rover products are tough and resilient, oh and reliable, I’d have to say that it pretty much did just that. Now where is Ulan Bataar – ah, that’s another story!
This was originally published on CarAdvice last year but has been republished as it was lost from our database.