We head to the great Aussie Outback in search of a hidden gem.
It started with an anonymous tip from a well-connected reader. Apparently a small group of heavily disguised prototypes of an important new model were heading to the Aussie Outback for some real-world testing.
We were told they were heading from Melbourne to the Flinders Ranges and then onto the Northern Territory – via Mildura and Broken Hill.
Getting a closer look at – and any images of – this top secret test vehicle would have been a world scoop. We knew readers around the world would be interested. It was worth taking the tip seriously, especially with the level of detail provided.
We quickly looked up airfares to Broken Hill to try and get ahead of the convoy but the regional flight was prohibitively expensive, and there were limited seats at short notice. Plus we would need to sort a rental car once on the ground.
After checking with the boss we bit the bullet and decided to drive instead. Which is how I found myself on the road heading west out of metro Sydney about 4am the very next morning.
Driving at dusk or at night is not recommended in remote parts of Australia. The wildlife come out in search of whatever moisture they can find in the drainage areas either side of the road, which makes driving particularly hazardous.
The idea was that if I left Sydney early enough I should be able to arrive in Broken Hill while it was still daylight. The navigation estimates it is roughly a 13-hour trip, not including stops for fuel, food and photography.
Leaving Sydney in darkness was the easy part because there’s no wildlife to worry about and, by the time I made it over the Blue Mountains, the sun would be up.
I was in Bathurst in time for breakfast, and a symbolic lap around Mount Panorama, after stopping briefly to kick my feet in some unseasonal snow just past Lithgow.
The vehicle for our journey was a Ford Ranger XLT powered by the optional twin turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel matched to a 10-speed automatic transmission.
I had the car on an extended loan but was yet to take it on a decent long-distance run. This was the perfect opportunity.
Over the preceding months, I had grown to feel very much at home with the Ford Ranger XLT. In fact, although we handed it back six months before this article was published, I still miss it.
The comfort of the driving position, the seats, the up-to-date infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (which makes it easier to churn through podcasts on a long, lonely drive like this) made the Ranger feel more like a family SUV than a ute.
The suspension is surprisingly supple when unladen (with a load, the rear end sags a bit, as demonstrated in our ute mega test last year) and best suited my needs (to tow a light jet ski trailer once in a while).
But I reckon there is room for a Ford Ranger XLT with a choice of either 'Touring' suspension (as it stands now) or 'heavy duty' (as it used to be) to cater to tradies who drive theirs fully loaded all the time. Perhaps Ford could call them: Ford Ranger XLT Touring and Ford Ranger XLT HD. But what would I know?
Any way, back to our pursuit. With photos of Bathurst in the bag we then make it to Dubbo a bit before lunch, inhale a burger from a well known fast food chain, and top up the XLT with fuel just for good measure.
Once beyond the fringes of Dubbo, previous experience has taught me not to pass any major refuelling opportunities as you never know when your next one is.
That said, the Ford Ranger XLT has a decent sized fuel tank (80 litres) which in theory should deliver a driving range of comfortably more than 800km between refills.
Our consumption was ticking over in the 8.0L/100km to 10L/100km range. You can hover around the 8s – or even get close to the 7.4L/100km figure on the rating label – when you’re cruising gently at 80km/h, but at 110km/h, which is the posted open road limit once you’re beyond Dubbo, the 2.2-tonne Ranger XLT is pushing a lot of air out of the way.
Pushing past the remote gold-mining town of Cobar (population less than 4000) and heading west almost directly into the sun, the day is getting long.
I’ve stayed away from sweet treats because I want to avoid the highs and lows of a sugar rush and I’ve been drinking only water to keep my energy levels neutral.
Drinking a lot of water also forces you to stop every two to three hours because your bladder can only hold so much. It’s a good reminder to take a break and stretch your legs and do a quick lap of the car to check for any damage you might not be aware of.
Maybe I stopped one too many times but I found myself chasing the sun as I got closer to Broken Hill. Where did the time go?
I didn’t want to break my own rule of taking it easy about an hour before sunset, so reluctantly I slowed the radar cruise control to about 80km/h, which would buy me more time to stop if I spotted a kangaroo, but would add about 20 minutes to the last stretch of my journey.
I didn’t want to hurt any wildlife or the car; the XLT was my only means of eventually finding these secret prototypes, and it was my only ticket back to Sydney.
It turned out to be a prudent move to slow down. Before I knew it, there was a mob of kangaroos in the middle of the road.
Two things happened: it gave my heart a welcome jump start after hours of monotonous driving, and I was able to make sure the brakes worked.
I stopped metres away from the kangaroos and they skipped away equally as startled. Ten minutes later, the same thing happened again. I lost count of the times I got to test my reflexes and the XLT’s brakes. But I know for sure had I been going quicker than 80km/h the XLT and the kangaroos may not have been so lucky.
I rolled into Broken Hill about 6:30pm, an hour or so after sundown. After a quick feed at a local restaurant I collapsed in my motel room bed ready to hit the road before sunrise again the next morning, in search of a small fleet of secret prototypes.
I drove the streets of Broken Hill in a grid pattern checking every hotel car park for some unusual looking camouflaged cars. Surely they can’t be that hard to find.
Confident their crew weren’t in a motel or getting a feed at one of Broken Hill’s few breakfast spots, I went and hid behind a big sign on the way out of town.
There was only one road to South Australia, or so I thought. The plan was to follow the convoy until I could somehow get ahead of it and park on the side of the road and get photos as they went past.
Plan B was to wait until they pulled into a fuel stop. They would have to stop at some point and I could go at least as far as they could go as I had a full tank.
I had cameras with long lenses, wide lenses, I was ready for any eventuality. I just wasn’t prepared for the boredom that would follow.
A couple of hours ticked by and there was no sign of the secret prototypes. Do I leave this spot and conduct another check around town and risk missing them, or hold fort? I held fort.
The locals must have thought it curious to see a shiny blue Ford Ranger stopped on the side of the road for no apparent reason. Country people are so generous and helpful, I lost count of the people checking to see I was okay.
After another hour or so I make the tough call to take another look around town to see what I may have missed.
Maybe they left before sunrise, maybe there was another way out.
Sadly, this mystery ends as a mystery. After another few hours of checking around town, there was no sign of the prototypes that were “guaranteed” to be there.
Further investigations revealed we missed them by that much. There was another way out of town, Silverton Road. I was about a kilometre beyond it.
The long dirt road leads to the town of the same name, famous for being the location of the original Mad Max film.
That road, if you’re prepared to follow it forever, eventually meets the border of South Australia, not far from Cameron’s Corner, the meeting point of SA, NSW and Queensland. From there, it’s not much of a desert hop to the Northern Territory, if you’re looking for really rough country.
The explanation of the disappearance of the prototypes could be even simpler than that: we found out some time afterwards the vehicles could have been transported in a closed truck until they got far enough away from prying eyes.
Defeated, we pointed our Ford Ranger XLT back towards Sydney but not before getting a few more photos in the bag.
The drive home would be a lot easier. The sun was behind us and arriving into the metropolitan fringes of Sydney at night is nowhere near as dicey as covering vast rural roads in the dark.
If I didn’t feel at one with the Ford Ranger XLT before this experience, I certainly did after the previous 48 hours.