Alice Springs to El Questro – 1702 kilometres
Words - Anthony Crawford, Photography – Mark Watson & Anthony Crawford
When I heard about this epic journey by chance, I threw my hand up and yelled “I’m there”. Well, wouldn’t you?
God knows what's going to happen with my workload over the six days that I will be absent from the office. But then, that’s not something you think about when opportunities like these come up.
I’d like to call myself a fair-dinkum Aussie but this was going to be my first trip into proper 'Outback OZ'. It’s absolutely shameful that I’ve driven cars all over the world but never once gone walkabout in my own backyard.
I urge all of you who are planning to eat snails in Paris or gnocchi in Rome, to pack up the family and head north, to one of the most incredible places on earth, outback Australia.
Colleague Paul Maric and the guys who had just completed the relatively short but tough going first leg from Birdsville to the Alice, said to pack for cold nights and hot days. Like any weather report, from any source, they’re only ever half right.
The vastness of this huge continent is magnified tenfold, when you’re on cruise control at 11,000 metres. Bone dry stretches of dead flat land, as far as the eye can see. It’s an absolute frontier, much the same way as Alaska is to the US.
It just looked hot down there. T-shirt weather for sure, maybe even shorts, I thought.
When the plane hit the deck at Alice Springs airport and the rear door opened up – it must have been all of 12 to 14 degrees, with a stiff breeze. The T-shirt thing wasn’t going to cut it here in the outback, not on this particular day, anyway.
There were only four of us who had signed up for this journey across the Tanami, so I figured there was no chance of being left behind in some secluded gorge or worse still, Wolfe Creek with a madman.
The itinerary supplied by the Land Rover PR department stated there would be four nights at various camp sites along the way, and that the single man G4 tents would be erected and waiting for us, after each day’s driving. To think I actually believed that!
I wanted to believe it too. Those torturous nights camping in the bush near Singleton during school cadet camps in water logged, one-man tents had put me right off the camping scene from that moment on. Hotel rooms, a stocked up bar fridge and spa bath is where I’m at these days.
Lunch was back at Voyages Alice Springs Resort where I was keen to try some crocodile, any way I could get it. No such luck, but fresh Barramundi spring rolls, hit the spot nicely.
Although we were not due to get under way until the following day, we saddled up in the Land Rover convoy (two highly visible G4 prepped Discovery TDV6, one Freelander 2, one Range Rover Sport TDV6, one Range Rover Vogue TDV8, one Defender 110 and one Defender 130 crew-cab with tray, and headed out to attack the sand dunes south of Alice Springs.
I was a little slow off the mark when we were told to grab a vehicle and ended up behind the wheel of Land Rover’s baby, the Freelander 2 with Camel Trophy guru and leading Land Rover dealer, big John Ayer, riding shotgun.
John has Land Rover running through his blood. He 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 too many other godforsaken places to list. He’s a regular Indiana Jones, just as handsome but not quite as slim as Harrison Ford, so I was in good hands.
The Freelander might be the smallest vehicle in the Land Rover range but believe you me; it’s not short on interior space. The cabin is particularly wide and with head and legroom, easily accommodating the over six-footers.
With the huge distances you need to cover between some fuel stops, petrol powered vehicles are rare out this way. Diesel is king in the bush even with small SUV’s such as the Freelander.
You can’t get over how red the sand is in these parts. It makes for an extravagant contrast against the panoramic blue sky. This land hasn’t tasted water in several years, so it’s very soft, very fine and potentially, very dangerous.
With a line up of every Land Rover model currently available in Australia parked near the dunes and waiting for drivers, what most caught my eye most, was a Series 1 Land Rover, in mint condition. I hadn’t driven one of these since I was a kid, so I was itching to get behind the wheel of the old girl.
With soft sand such as this, it is imperative that you drop your road going tyre pressures to anywhere between 15-18psi. This produces a much wider footprint and allows the vehicle to roll over the sand rather then dig into it, and become buried.
With just three-speeds and a couple of ‘Fisher Price” style coloured knobs for engaging low range; I set off to conquer the sand in the Series 1, which turned out to be no challenge at all.
Even less demanding was steering the old Landie, which punished the dunes remorselessly, without ever shifting out of third gear!
Even the Freelander, which is fitted with both Terrain Response and Hill Decent Control, but without low range, found the soft sand easy going.
Before heading further into the Deep Well Cattle station for diner, I managed to shoot a few pictures, which captured the vehicles in what can only be described as a magic setting.
After 20 or 30 kilometres on a dusty old track, the convoy pulled into “The Junction Hotel”.
That’s the name Ted Egan gave this “set’ during the making of his doomed feature film effort, The Drovers Boy.
The title is from a song he wrote about hundreds of Aboriginal stockwomen, who worked and rode as men, as recently as the 1950s. Back then it was against the law for women to work as cattle drovers.
I’m told Ted actually completed most of the film but ran out of money to promote it. It’s certainly an interesting story that probably would have worked better as a TV mini series in my humble opinion.
The property now belongs to the Hayes family, who have been battling the drought for years with little or no return. It may have been a blessing in disguise, as the whole family is now involved in tourism and things are looking up.
Dinner was superb with homemade country style soup and the best damper I’ve ever eaten for starters. The main consisted of an equally delicious steak from a wood fired BBQ. This was followed up with fresh baked apple pie and cream.
And if you’re lucky, you’ll meet local legend, Billy Hayes, who as a former ringer, bull rider and cattle man (he seems more at home on horse than on foot) is the subject of a hilarious poem called “Turbulence” from a CD entitled MUZ, by Murray Hartin.
You might even get a live performance by Billy’s son-in-law (I think it’s Mick or Dave) who doesn’t tell a bad yarn either.
So if you’re a corporate big shot and want a different kind of conference with one of the best homegrown country feeds in the Northern Territory, look up these guys. They can feed up to 800 guests – for dinner!
The next morning it was an early start to what was Day l of Leg 2 of this Land Rover 60th birthday cross Australia drive.
We were heading to Renahans Bore, some 449 kilometres from Alice Springs on the Tanami Track. Not quite sure why they still call it a track, as it is paved in several long sections with the remainder a graded dirt road that is well maintained, at least in the dry.
The “Track” is supposed to be a short cut from the Kimberly to Alice Springs. ‘Short’ is probably not the best choice of word; its over 1100 kilometres long, takes in two time zones and where it finishes at Halls Creek, Western Australia, is closer to Singapore than Sydney.
Big John and I were still in on board the Freelander 2 TD4 and loving it. It’s a strong performer on the open road with its 2.2-litre, diesel engine and six-speed auto, pulling effortlessly at speed, despite a sizeable load on board.
With 400Nm of torque on tap at just 2000rpm, I’m not surprised. Standard leather trim and just about every other feature you would find inside a luxury SUV made it a surprisingly comfortable ride.
The driving position and dash layout is very Range Rover Sport-ish complete with the trademark ‘Command Driving Position’ a feature unique to the brand.
Like all oil-burners, there is some diesel clatter at idle, but at highway speeds you won’t pick it from the petrol-powered variant.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at Tilmouth Well, one of the last outposts where you can fuel up and replenish supplies before continuing along the Tanami Track.
When someone mentioned there was an Aboriginal gallery inside the Tilmouth Well Roadhouse, several would be art collectors made a beeline for the place, hoping to net a bargain. Apparently the “dot” paintings sold here are quality examples, and all are signed originals for considerably less than those on offer in Alice Springs.
I was desperate to procure a genuine didgeridoo (not the cheap bamboo versions that seem all too common out here) but ended up with a couple of pairs of music sticks instead, given the meagre budget with which I had to play!
Still, I was surprised when served by two heavily-accented Irish backpackers. I told them to steer clear of Wolfe Creek!
With no time to waste, the convoy was on the move again; we needed to make our first campsite at Renahans Bore, before dark. It was made quite clear to us that we would need to learn some tent craft pretty quickly; otherwise things might get awfully cold tonight.
Yes, it gets bloody freezing out here at night in the Tanami Desert and temperatures can fall as low as minus 1.3 degrees.
You haven’t seen termite mounds until you have seen them in the outback. It’s an extraordinary site, as they can stand well over two-metres and are dotted over hundreds of hectares.
Renahans Bore isn’t exactly a thrilling landmark, just a clearing in the bush, large enough to set up a reasonable size campsite alongside our vehicles.
This was going to be one of those chilly nights so collecting wood to kick off a campfire became the number one priority and a dead set necessity.
The tents were bright orange G4 Challenge issue, and were surprisingly simple and quick to erect. They were also warm inside, if not too hot, once you were entombed in your sleeping bag.
Just don’t touch the Spinifex grass, also known as porcupine grass for good reason. I still have a number of the needles inside both hands after I grabbed several tufts in the hope of preparing a flat bed surface.
While I wasn’t expecting baked beans and sausages for dinner (although I don’t mind that particular canned meal) a choice of entrée, main and desert, was going beyond the call of duty. Outstanding work guys and Libby.
Sleeping under the stars is good for the soul and within no time, I nodded off under a lullaby of soft campfire chatter. It was a perfect night’s sleep until around 5am, when I was woken by a chorus of heavy snoring from those surrounding me. Inexperience had led me to position my tent way too close to the cluster.
After another five-star bush meal of juice, cereal, bacon and eggs, it was time to break camp and head towards the infamous Wolfe Creek. If you have seen the movie and are currently travelling in the outback, don’t go near it. It will scare you witless.
The Range Rover Vogue TDV8 is the only five-star, honest to God, proper diesel powered 4wd means of transport on the market today. Few will argue that this is the “king” of the category.
It was also going to be our ride for the next 501 kilometres, much to the dismay of my colleagues, who seemed a little reluctant to trade places into the Freelander 2.
It’s difficult to relate the relatively simple interior of the Land Rover Defender with the same company that does the Ranger Rover Vogue, with its lashings of supple leather, polished aluminium and real wood veneer throughout the cockpit. It’s absolutely first class in every way.
Not far on and the convoy pulled left of off the “Track” and headed for a large rocky outcrop a few kilometres away. We were very close to the Tanami/Granites Mine, which is the second largest producer of gold in Australia, churning out more than 450,000 ounces a year and still going strong.
Apart from this loan outcrop we were standing on, the surrounding land was as flat as a pool table for as far as the eye could see. We were now a little more than 500 kilometres NW of Alice Springs.
Be prepared when travelling on the Tanami for long stretches of dirt track with particularly nasty corrugations. Some of these are nearly 15cm high and would literally shake a car to pieces over time.
The irony is, we found the most comfortable speed to travel across these micro mountains, at least in the Vogue, was at 130km/h when the air suspension utterly neutralised the bumps.
This is a very large vehicle with an enormous amount of cabin room and more than enough engine to move you along at a rapid pace on any surface.
What Land Rover have achieved from a 3.6-litre V8 diesel is staggering and without peer. The twin-turbocharged engine develops 200kW of power and 640Nm of torque but with a remarkably small thirst for diesel. Try 7.8-litres per 100kms on the Tanami Track, and that’s with a full load and the air-conditioning running flat chat.
With clouds of red dust kicked up by tyres, you need to leave a safe distance between cars. Too close will render you blind for a few seconds which could result in disaster.
The day had warmed up and I noticed what looked like a decent size snake basking on the side of the track, and hit the brakes when I saw that Mark Watson (Merlin with a camera) was fast tracking it back to the reptile.
I was also keen to take a closer look, as this was Taipan country, and I wanted a close up of the world’s most venomous snake.
We managed to get near enough to the snake to take some great shots but while I proclaimed to all that is was indeed an inland Taipan or even the deadlier Fierce snake, I now believe it to have been a King Brown – perhaps even more dangerous.
Rabbit Flat has a population of two, but it’s no less important as a vital fuel and supplies stop on the way to Halls Creek, a good 453km away.
Bruce Farrands and his Parisian wife Jacquie have been the proprietors of this roadhouse since 1969, when they first met while working at Mongrel Downs Station, in the Tanami.
Life magazine once featured Mongrel Downs as the world’s most remote cattle station. This would have been a tough gig for a glamourous young French woman!
Bruce didn’t bother coming out when we arrived at Rabbit Flat but Jacquie doesn’t need any help when it comes to fuelling a convoy of Land Rovers or anything else for that matter.
She is a lovely woman with a thick Edith Piaf-style Parisian accent, but the irony is, she can no longer speak French, too long in the Aussie outback, has seen to that. She told me she had been back home just twice in 40 years. If I had the money, she’d be on a plane now.
From Rabbit Flat to Halls Creek is where the Tanami Road becomes the Tanami “Track”. Essentially a semi-graded dirt road littered with deep, bone jarring corrugations I spoke of earlier.
The convoy pulled over when we reached the WA/NT border - we wanted a picture. If you’re up this way, don’t expect a pretty picture, it’s a disgraceful scene with rubbish scattered over a wide area and signs riddled with bullet holes.
Wolfe Creek, our next overnight, has an ominous ring to it due to the 2005 horror movie, which was supposedly inspired by real events.
Regardless of its film reputation, I was looking forward to the campsite. My daily regularity had been less than satisfactory and this was the first time we would have the use of a luxury long-drop (ecological toilet).
You don’t often hear motoring journalists talking about the seals on a vehicle.
When we arrived at Wolfe Creek with the convoy covered in red dust, we opened up the top half of the split tailgate and to our surprise, not a grain of the stuff had penetrated the seal. Just to prove it, I took a photo of the area where a blag bag that had been squished up against the glass for a few hundred kilometres. It’s the little things that make all the difference.
We were looking forward to defrosting around the campfire but that comforting thought was shattered when someone spotted a sign saying “No campfires”. Funny thing is though, we all sat around a small Lantern, rugged up to the hilt expecting some warmth to come from it.
Wolfe Creek seems to attract backpackers from all around the world, looking for a photo opportunity with a big knife and a ‘scary looking dude’.
One of our colleagues, with his trademark, beaten up old straw hat and aviator mirror lens sunnies, was chosen by a couple of young English ladies looing for that “killer” photo.
Wolfe Creek is actually home to the second largest meteorite crater in the world. It’s a huge hole in the ground standing 50 metres high and a mind blowing 880 metres in diameter.
My time in the luxo Vogue had come to an end when Land Rover marketing manager, Jon Harris, walked over, had a quiet word and suggested that I travel back to the future in the 2008 Land Rover Defender. At least for the next 24 hours.
This is the real deal Land Rover, looking decidedly similar to the Series 1 vehicle, which Maurice Wilks built in 1947. That’s not quite right, the new Defender will outlast most of us on this planet, as more than half of the original production vehicles built in 1948, are still in use.
To be honest, I don’t want Land Rover to do anything with the current shape. It’s perfect the way it is and at $48,990, I consider it a bargain, given its all-round capability.
I’m not alone in my appraisal this iconic off roader. TopGear viewers (yes, I know they are British) were asked to vote for one of nine vehicles listed by the show’s hosts as “the greatest car of all time”. The winner with 29 percent of the vote – the Land Rover Defender, as it has been known since 1990!
The last time I drove a Defender 110 was in 2005, and you needed bodybuilder size quads to use the clutch should you be driving for any longer than 30 minutes. It was not user friendly, deadly in peak-hour and on hill starts.
The new Defender is significantly easier to manage than the previous generation. For starters, the clutch and gearshift loads have been noticeably reduced, making it almost peak-hour friendly – almost!
Powered by a 2.4-litre, turbocharged, diesel four-cylinder (TD4) it pulls hard with 360Nm of torque at just 2000rpm. It’s also reasonably quiet, particularly when cruising at highway speeds. Transmission is via a six-speed manual with well-spaced gear ratios and full-time four-wheel drive.
As a package, the Defender is a comfortable highway cruiser over tarmac. The same cannot be said for traversing those deep corrugations I mentioned earlier. Thirty kilometres across that kind of terrain is enough to loosen the amalgam from your pearly whites.
This is a vehicle favoured by military forces and NGO’s in some of the darkest places on earth, due to its extraordinary off-road capability.
However, the river crossings and soft sand sections encountered on this journey cannot be classed as anything remotely challenging for the Defender. That would require a return trip in the wet season.
We were on our way to the Bungle Bungles in Western Australia’s world-renowned Kimberley region. We replenished fuel and food supplies at Halls Creek, where we stopped for a lazy lunch and for those who were with Telstra, a few calls to home and the office.
It’s a reasonable size town with a population of 1200, a supermarket, police station, service station and various other amenities.
If you’re with Vodafone, Optus or “3” they aren’t worth a stamp out here. God help you if you get into any trouble and you aren’t with Telstra! Best advice carry a satellite phone, they work anywhere.
Any Aussie outback tour operator worth a crumpet will tell you that the Purnululu National Park, home of the Bungle Bungle Range, is the most extraordinary location in Australia.
This is Australia at its best, with some of the most amazing natural architecture on the planet.
I’d driven 400kms in the Defender and I could do another 400kms at the drop of a hat. Much improved air-conditioning, ergonomics, seating, tweeters and even an MP3 auxiliary input have helped evolve this classic Land Rover into a unique vehicle with unparallel off-road ability and less reluctance for city living.
After making camp at the Kurrajong campsite about 7km from the Purnululu Visitor Centre, we drove to Piccaninny Creek car park, for the walk to one of the world’s great sanctuaries of serenity, Cathedral Gorge.
Extraordinary, fascinating and any other description you can think of, won’t begin to do this place justice. Its a stunningly beautiful amphitheatre, built by nature.
Next up on the tourist map was Mini Palms Gorge and we were in for a treat as we squeezed through gaps less than a metre wide, surrounded by 50 metre high rock faces, which glowed red, as the afternoon sun lit them up.
The narrow walkways soon opened up to a beautiful cavern, which provided the perfect setting for a remarkable didgeridoo session by our team leader, Grant Seamer.
This guy must be part Aboriginal, as the audience grew by the minute and digital cameras were going nuts.
After a couple of encore performances, the next contestant stood to attention and performed a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace. Wow, talk about inspiring.
The photographer and video guy (also Grant Seamer – is there anything this guy can’t do, we heard he rock climbs and fly’s a plane) had booked a Robinson R-44 helicopter for some ariel shots and somehow, I ended up in the spare seat.
I’ve never been a huge fan of heights, but when I saw this tiny bird had no doors and just a standard lap-sash seatbelt, genuine fear set in.
The guys captured some great pics of the convoy travelling out of the Gorge and was well worth the effort and expense, I thought.
For the last leg of the journey I took the wheel of the Range Rover Sport TDV6 and like most of the Land Rover range, this is another vehicle with a unique set of skills unmatched by its rivals. It’s also the most successful model worldwide for the brand.
It’s not hard to see why either. It doesn’t matter how quick you put the ‘Sport’ into a corner, there is no body roll, none whatsoever. That’s an extraordinary feat for a genuine off-roader, which weighs in at a rock solid 2455kg.
The twin-turbo V6 diesel produces a healthy 440Nm of torque 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 department either. That’s no surprise, as it is based on the same integrated, body-framed structure, as the go anywhere Discovery but optimised for tarmac attack.
It’s not quite as plush as the Vogue, being just half the price, but that’s not to say that it isn’t luxurious, it is.
First class kit includes; full leather interior, auto climate control, Harmon Kardon audio (one of the best sounding systems in the business), rear park distance control and too many other goodies to list here.
Safety is also paramount with Land Rover and the ‘Sport’ is loaded with the full compliment of airbags and electronic aids for on and off-road, travel.
The ride compliance is not quite as supple as the Vogue either, but then the Vogue doesn’t eat corners like the ‘Sport’.
We pulled into El Questro, which is a one-million acre property, early afternoon, on what would be our last night of this incredible Land Rover celebration of its 60th year of operation.
We hadn't showered in days, so a fast-paced walk to half way up to Emma Gorge, saw us at a delightful water hole for a well earned bath with naturally warm currents. Gold!
Each and every vehicle in the convoy had performed flawlessly and is testament to the brand’s robustness and reliability.
I suppose if you had to pick a favourite and you were looking at overall comfort across any and all terrain, it would have to be the Vogue TDV8.
There is no other vehicle in the world capable of extreme off-road travel in this kind of five-star luxury.