AutoRoute: Volkswagen R50 from Perth to Esperance
"A trip away with the family is a whole lot nicer with 850Nm under your right foot."
Photography by Karl Peskett, Randell Thalhammer and Dave Preston
With costs going through the roof, it was time for the Peskett family holiday to be scaled down from the five-star accommodation that we'd all love, but realistically couldn't afford.
So the next step down? Camping of course, but to keep a level of decorum, it was decided that digging our own toilet was out of the question. The best option, it seemed, was to pitch our tent in a caravan park, where we'd be greeted by toilet facilities, showers, and washing machines.
The next thing to organise was a vehicle. We wanted a four-wheel-drive as we were heading to some awesome dunes, and we also needed power to keep us safe on the country roads. With a phone call to the excellent folks at Volkswagen, we ended up with one of the best - the Touareg R50.
The trip started at an insanely early 4:30am. Bleary eyed and desperate for a coffee, I had the envious job of making sure that the roof rack "cage" would hold all our camping gear without showering following traffic in a cavalcade of pots, pans and sleeping bags.
After working out how to use the strapping, coffee was duly supplied. Two sugars? No, give me 14 please. We're going to need it, and a can of Mother for good luck. It was too dark for photos, so we decided to just head off, and with Esperance listed in the RNS510 satellite-navigation, we were on our way.
In the cold, clear darkness of morning, a crest of purple, and then orange appeared over the horizon. The highway was empty, perfect for a long distance drive. We opted for the inland route, through Brookton, Hyden, Lake King, Ravensthorpe and then on to Esperance.
The journey is roughly 850 kilometres. With 750 showing on the distance-to-empty display, it was a sure bet that we weren't going to make it in one tank. With no load, no roof-rack and no traffic, it's possible. However, in the real world, we made sure we had a jerry-can full of diesel and it's a good thing we did, too.
Leaving on Christmas Day, we thought we'd miss all the traffic. Well, yes, we did that. What we didn't factor in was the fact that none of the service stations along the way were open. Well, only one.
Brookton has a Gull service station. Unfortunately for us, Gull sells bio-diesel. Volkswagen specifically notes that no bio-diesel is to come near the car. Too much bacteria, or something. What, does the R50 have obsessive-compulsive disorder? Not clean enough for ya?
Actually, it's more the fact that the twin-turbo V10 is a highly refined and tuned unit. Anything that keeps my right foot entertained with 850Nm is going to get whatever fuel it damn-well needs, okay? Which means that the only option was to keep travelling until we found a BP, Caltex, Shell or similar.
So we kept travelling, and travelling, and travelling....
After stopping at Wave Rock just outside of Hyden, we were sure that such a tourist attraction would bring a service station that would be open. Wrong. Apparently on Christmas Day, no-one goes to see Wave Rock. Oh, apart from the car loads that were rocking up not only while we were there, but while we were leaving, too.
So with the next option being Lake King, we headed off, with the others also carefully checking their fuel gauges as well. Part way along, the Hilux with the camper trailer had the fuel light come on. We quickly found the nearest parking bay, filled the tank with two jerry cans, and we were on our way.
Lake King brings more bad luck, as there is no service station open, either, and even heading into the centre of the town, there's a pump, but no-one to run it. So it was out with our jerry can, and whack the last 20 litres of diesel in existence into the R50's tank.
That'll get us to Ravensthorpe, surely. Well, yes it did, but from Ravensthorpe to Esperance was around 190km. The distance to empty display showing on the dash was 190km. Do we risk it? No, lets fill up. Oh wait. There's no service station open. By now, you can sense the frustration.
By a stroke of genius, one of our group managed to spy out a card-activated pump. There was some hope after all. That was, of course, until it wouldn't read my card. Oh yes, everyone else's card was able to be read, but not the guy with the bright blue tank with 100-litres to fill. After begging and pleading with friends, we managed to use their card and we were away.
Finally pulling into Esperance, we breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that our 10 hours of travelling, and heart attack every time we had to pass a service station, were worth the wait. Pristine beaches, clear blue skies, four-wheel-driving and fishing were all awaiting. So was setting up the tent.
It's a credit to Volkswagen that we arrived in the late afternoon after hours on end of bleak highway, and yet still felt refreshed. The seats in the R50, being 16-way adjustable, mean you can always find the ideal driving position. The side bolstering still allowed comfort, but held you in on the long sweepers, and the infinitely alterable lumbar support sat comfortably in the small of your back, without feeling like you were sitting against a cricket ball.
You would expect, too, that on a long country run, the 258kW and 850Nm to be rather useful in overtaking manoeuvres. And so it proved, with the V10 simply lunging forward without so much as a pause. The excellent ZF six-speed gearbox mates up perfectly to that monstrous engine, meaning it drops a gear or two to the exact ratio depending on your throttle position, and wham! You're off.
The mid-range surge and accompanying growl is a delicious experience, almost decadent, even. The flip side of the fun is the fact that being able to overtake quickly means there's less time spent on the other side of the road, and less time spent behind the swaying rear end (and gravel being kicked up ready to crack your windscreen) of a road train.
The 21-inch wheels shod in Michelin Pilot Sports also supply tremendous grip, meaning roadholding is at a premium, whether wet or dry. Even on gravel surfaces, the R50's weight, ESP and 4Motion system keep you in line and on track.
Surely, though, the 21-inchers are going to impede any progress in soft conditions? Not necessarily. After chowing down several home made hotdogs, and a good night's rest, it was time to tackle Esperance's famous beaches. Bring your sunnies, because the reflection from the white sand is intense.
We headed down to Cape LeGrand via Fisherman's Road. Turning right onto Cape LeGrand Road, we headed south to where the road ends and the beach begins. As a gazetted road, the traffic laws apply, and so along the beach it's no more than 60km/h. But once you hit Wylie Bay, it's a free-for-all and you can go for your life.
To our surprise, we were being overtaken by VP Commodores, which drove onto the beach and blasted past us. It would seem unusual, except the sand is so hard it's like concrete. That is, except for the sections where little creeks head out to sea, and there it softens up. If you're in a two-wheel-drive just keep your speed up. Hopefully you'll make it.
What is good about it, is that the hordes of soft-roaders can get onto the beach and drive. Then they can turn to their friends and say, "See? It will go off road."
Head over the back of the first ridge of dunes near Wylie Bay and it completely changes. It is home to some of the finest sand dune formations in Western Australia, and with the local Ranger's permission and approval to go and have some fun, we did just that.
We'd previously had the R50 in an off road situation before, and it proved its worth, with its low range, centre locking differential, effective ESP, and selectable ground clearance. Well, this time there were no rocks. There were no trees. Just soft, white, powdery sand, meaning that the tiny sidewalls might be an issue.
If we're honest, 21-inch wheels really don't suit sand. But somehow the R50 makes it happen. We let the tyre pressures down to 20psi, and with the ESP switched off, we got the car going with a wiggle of the steering wheel, and a medium pressure throttle. Too much and you bury it. Too little, and it digs in as well.
But once it's up and running, boy does it haul. There's acceleration on tap that defies belief, especially when ploughing through the soft silica. It's so clean that it squeaks when trodden on. There was no squeaking when the R50 blasted through it. Just a metallic growl, and two whistles as the turbos spooled up. Oh, and a wake of dust that is lifted heavenward by the whirling wheels.
Even when hitting the really hungry stuff, as long as you keep it moving, you'll be fine. But forget to switch the ESP off, and it will bury you. It brakes at the most inopportune time, and just causes hassles.
It can get a little hard to modulate the surge of torque too, because it happens so quickly, but you get used to predicting the Newton-metres coming on strong. Using the paddles also, you can keep it from changing up, and change back down quickly and easily.
After we'd finished conquering the dunes, we headed back onto Wylie Bay Road, and re-filled the tyres. Noticing there's an inbuilt compressor and tyre pressure gauge, I decided to try using the supplied air hose.
We quickly learnt it was only good for one tyre, before the compressor overheated, and you had to wait for an hour or so before trying again. Best to bring your own compressor and pressure gauge if you've bought a air-suspension equipped Touareg.
Back on the road to the camp site, and it's amazing that you can forge your way through rolling sand hills, and then be in complete comfort, style and luxury all the way back.
The climate control stayed icy cold, the seat heaters on the cold nights were appreciated, and the quiet cabin was soothing, making sure road noise from the various surfaces were subdued. It really is hard to imagine a more versatile vehicle.
Which is good, because the areas we were visiting took in all types of terrain. As we had a hankering for seafood, it was back to the sand again.
Fishing from the beach is as simple as picking your spot, and casting a line. We were pulling in whiting and skippy almost immediately, with nothing more than a $28 rod-and-reel, and some bluebait - simple. We managed to cast off a groyne, too, and despite losing a few hooks and sinkers in the few evenings due to the rocks, the feed the next day was superb.
There's nothing better than warm, freshly baked bread, smeared with butter, and whiting straight off the barbecue.
Travelling back into town, there are only a few shops, and being a country town, they're not huge. Stroll along the jetty, and if you've got kids, they'll be amused by Sammy the sea lion. 'Sammy' is just the name given to one of any of the sea lions that hang around the jetty, feeding off the bountiful fish.
Careful not to get too close, as they can get a little grumpy (read: they can bite), but keep your distance, and plenty of photo opportunities await. It's about as close to a wild sea lion as I've ever been.
Then you can head west along the Great Ocean Drive taking in the gorgeous views, where the crystal clear blue and aqua water meets the pristine white beaches. Swimming is better in summer months, as the southern ocean next stops at Antarctica, but even the views are sufficient to make your holiday. You might even spot a pod of dolphins, if you're lucky.
As far as places to visit, Esperance should be on your shortlist. That is if you're prepared to take a drive from Perth. If you're heading to Western Australia by car from the eastern seaboard, then make it a stopover.
But if you can get hold of an R50 to make your trip in, you'll be rewarded with safety, power and comfort. Plus the fuel economy isn't too bad on the long run, either. We managed 11.1L/100km in the country, which for a four-wheel-drive, twin turbo, V10 loaded to the hilt, is about as good as you can ask for.
Yes, I believe we had the perfect vehicle for our week long stay on the south coast of WA. About my only gripe is the ride can be a little jittery on cracked and sharp edges surfaces, despite being set to comfort. It's something I'd live with, given the phenomenal power and grip from the 21-inch wheels. The Dynaudio stereo is a cracker, too, meaning long distances are eaten up without boredom.
It might be skewed towards being a city-slicker's car, but the R50 is a true go anywhere, do anything vehicle. We've now proven in all conditions that the R50 has what it takes to take what you give it.
Wolfsburg has done it again!