An endless expanse of red dirt, shrubs and low trees fold away into the distance. Occasionally, you see a small ridge line of brighter, redder dirt, brilliantly red rocks while the odd cow chews some cud as you whistle past on the heavily corrugated road.
Welcome to the expansive Simpson Desert, a largely flat landscape of, well, not very much.
This is one the Australia’s most most famous desert crossings, and I am lucky enough to join the Mercedes-Benz crew on their crossing by way of a bunch of Mercedes-Benz G-Wagens.
These iconic vehicles, developed in the 1970s as a military vehicle, now come in an array of guises; from the powerful, show-stopping Mercedes-Benz G500, to the humble and effective Mercedes-Benz G300 CDI Professional used by the Australian Defence Force and, as of right now, available to the general public in Australia.
It is this car I am most keen to sample. While the platform is due for an update in 2018, I reckon after driving one of these iconic vehicles, they’re sure to be a hit.
We fly in to Mount Dare and meet our chariots on the dry, red airstrip moments away from the Mount Dare Hotel. Three G-Wagens peel onto the airstrip in what appears to be SWAT formation as we taxi down the runway to meet them.
There is one grey, V6 diesel G300 CDI Professional and two left-hand drive G500 V8s, one white, one black.
As we approach, the white G500 breaks ranks and circles the plane, a hoon seemingly at the wheel, throwing red dust into the air. This perfectly captures the spirit of our inspirational leader and Mercedes ambassador, Mike Horn.
Horn is an adventurer and best described as just a big kid. As the week transpires, it’s hard not to get caught up in his infectious enthusiasm for life’s adventures, as well as his dislike of Australian Rules. Or any rules, in general.
This journey across the Simpson is part of Horn’s Pole 2 Pole expedition where he is attempting to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe, north to south, in just two years.
Mike is a livewire, regaling us with tales of his adventures over lunch, casually mentioning the need to chop off the top of one of his fingers to avoid gangrene while on his solo, unpowered crossing of Antarctica last year. Having finished his own lunch, Horn proceeds to polish off nearly everyone else’s leftovers including steak, chicken, hot chips and vegetables, followed by ice-cream, cheese cake and chocolate cake.
At this point I honestly fear for my welfare and wonder if these guys have been fed in the last five days at all. Little do I know at this stage, Billy the chef is busily preparing the night’s meal already back at camp.
We jump into the cars to head off on the dusty road, littered with corrugations that would rattle even the hardiest koala from its tree. Our destination is Dalhousie Springs, our first stop.
This is my first experience, and also last, riding in luxury as I join Mike and his daughter, Jess, in the white G500. I really should have revelled in the leather upholstery, power everything and electronic seat adjustment, the only time I experience such luxuries on this trip.
Dalhousie Springs is an oasis in the desert, frequented by many travellers who refresh themselves, or try to at least, in the water that bubbles up from deep underground. It is between 38- and 43-degress, and in reality the only thing that cools you down out here is a cold beer, taken while watching the sunset.
And what a spectacular view it is. The springs are located about 180 kilometres east of Oodnadatta, or 70 kilometres from Mount Dare. You can do this trip in most four-wheel drives and the campground is well serviced with a pit toilet facility and designated camping spots. A tip for the beginner: Do not leave your shoes outside overnight, however, lest the resident, and very mangy looking, dingoes use them as chew toys.
The G300 CDI Professional I find myself in the next morning is a ‘real’ car and lacks the refinement and electric everything of the aforementioned G500. It’s a bit like an analogue watch in a digital age. It doesn’t have all the bits we’ve now come to expect, but it still works and it works well.
The only luxury is in the form of leather, heated front seats, and air conditioning. It’s however, a purposeful design that exudes ability and ambition in all the right places. A real off-roader that you will love to get really dirty.
It’s built on the same chassis, the W461, as used on the models built for the Australian Defence Force. The dash is sparse to say the least and uses plastic instead of leather in places. There is an obvious lack of storage for smaller items such as wallets and phones (hardly Earth-shattering) and the seats are very upright, but comfortable.
The back row is a real surprise. There are only two seats back there, both outboard, which will limit the appeal to families. I understand this is due to the lack of a seatbelt mount in the roof in this spec. The bonus though, if you’re a real adventurer is much greater storage for your equipment. If storage is high on your list of priorities, there’s an extra strong roof rack as an option, too.
The road we are taking takes us to Old Andado Station, along the Finke Road, closely following the Finke track, which, upon first sight is not for the faint-hearted. It will add hours to the drive, plus the real possibility of damage, given the condition it’s in.
The Finke Road, as it is, is testing enough and while we are able to travel mostly at up to 100km/h it has many heavily-corrugated sections, bone-jarringly corrugated. The corrugations do a umber on the cars, jarring and jostling our load to such an extent that bottled beer and even tougher aluminium cans come apart at the seams, emptying their contents throughout the fridge or Esky. Beginner’s tip number two; best try some padding in between the contents of your fridge or Esky.
Riding on live axles with coil sprung suspension, the G-Wagen actually performs well on these rarely graded roads. Despite the harsh terrain, we do not suffer one break down of any component and the car actually seems to revel in the faster speeds, gliding over the corrugations. When it does catch a rut, the G-Wagen never steps out dangerously.
As we near our destination, we peel off into a gorge to go exploring. It is here where the true ability of the Merc is obvious, with front, centre and rear diff locks combining with low range four-wheel drive, allowing the car to crawl at will over, down, and up steep, loose, rocky ground. It isn’t technically that difficult, but it’s challenging enough.
Old Andando Station is the perfect backdrop to the G300 CDI Professional, in that both are simple and a little old world. Cobby, the local caretaker, greets us as we arrive and we are left to our own devices. We marvel at the old rustic pastoral property and the homestead built of local timbers and corrugated iron.
It was built in the 1920s and is filled with products from yesteryear. Much of it is heritage protected. I think Cobby is more enthralled though, with the SWAT team that pulled up in his front yard. Well, I think we looked like a SWAT team, until we get out of our vehicles. Truth be told, none of us, bar perhaps Mike, look remotely fit and rugged enough to be mistaken for a SWAT team member.
Cobby has plenty of questions, stories and poetry to fill our evening many times over and the simple, and matter of fact manner, in which he delivers some of his final words to us the next morning give me a slight chuckle. Cobby explains he’ll have to “shoot the bull over there by the tree… It likes to charge people and we can’t have that!” Unapologetic, and this is just how he is, a little like the G300.
The next morning, after crawling out of our now very dusty and very red swags we are off again, this time to a private station. Mike entertainingly provides the firewood that evening, using the white G500 to literally tow a tree out of the ground!
Our final destination is the monolithic and magical Uluru. This final leg sees more red earth which, despite the best efforts of many vehicle manufacturers, has an innate knack of getting past any and all seals, including the G300’s.
We also hit some sealed roads for a spell, which, after days of corrugations, is nice, if not slightly boring. Mike, however, does his best to keep the amusement levels high with some interesting chat over the radios fitted to each vehicle.
The sealed surface does give us a chance to see how the detuned V6 engine, producing 135kW of power and 400Nm of torque, performs on better roads. On the whole, the output numbers seem less than I would expect of this vehicle, but it does get the car moving along at good speeds.
It is specifically built this way, in able to run on the poorest-quality fuels and the harshest of conditions, but it does mean that on the highway, you really have to put the boot into it to get it humming along. I found the five-speed gearbox excellent off-road, but slightly indecisive on the sealed highway, at times.
After days of Mike’s antics (he woke us up every morning with “Good morning, Australia!”), red dust, crossing sand dunes, crawling up rocky hills, showering with wet wipes and accidentally dyeing my clothes red, we arrive at the magical Uluru.
It’s a special place, one we should all visit. There’s nothing for miles and miles except this big, red rock that spectacularly changes colour as the sun sets. It’s a sight to behold and one best taken in while sitting on the top of a G300 CDI Professional, in a camping chair, with a drink.
Certain four-wheel drives require a beer for such a thing but the Mercedes really suits a red wine. As I sit there admiring the light show, it really captures the car for me. Purely functional and simple, yet still strangely classy and aspirational.
And just like Mike, it’s also a little crazy.
Click on the Photos tab for more spectacular images of the Simpson Desert crossing.