Hardcore Aussie Road Trip
Australia, the Land Down Under, home of 5-meter crocs, kangaroos that can look you straight in the eye, Fosters beer, and the late great Steve Irwin. Australia is also home to one of the premier off-road endurance events on the planet: the Outback Challenge (OBC). For anyone who has never experienced a multiday 4x4 endurance contest or ventured into the vast and remote regions of the Australian Outback, the OBC is worth checking out.
Earlier this year, we headed back to Broken Hill, a small mining town on the edge of Australia's great Outback, for the ninth running of the 2007 Outback Challenge. As a spectator or competitor, the Outback is as wild and unruly as any place on the planet: It is a place to which the vast expanses of Australia's great Red Center are measured by the number of extra jerry cans needed.
This year was an excellent example of Australia's wild side. The great Red Desert, as it is named by Aussies, has experienced a severe drought for almost a decade, sheep and cattle stocks were suffering, and a good thunderstorm was long overdue. As heavy clouds rolled in on the second day of the Challenge, it was clear that things would be changing... and change they did. Over the next six days, Mother Nature would cut loose with all of her might, turning long-dry creekbeds, which were part of the racecourse, into raging rivers. But the Outback Challenge is a gathering of some of the best-prepared 4x4 teams in the world.
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Unlike point-to-point races such as the Dakar Rally or Baja 1000, the Outback Challenge takes place in a smaller area - maybe 100,000 square kilometers - and makes use of private cattle and sheep stations (ranches) the size of some states. As the competition goes, the event is broken up into several dozen special stages (SS). Some sections are "best-time-wins," and teams are running flat out like a cane toad on the bitumen, but involve special tasks that are assigned upon arrival. Teams must quickly analyze the situation (usually on the fly), formulate a strategy and figure out the most efficient means of completing it. This is where true teamwork is crucial, tapping every resource in the off-roading bag of tricks. Although outsiders may get the impression that one must only need to be a great driver to succeed in an Outback-style competition, the vast majority of the event requires much more. The value of solid navigation and orienteering is paramount; teamwork and time management skills in a variety of situations are a must. If you are the type that likes to sleep-in till 8 a.m., then you're better off just staying in bed. Sleep deprivation and the OBC go hand in hand. Lastly, contrary to the popular belief, the fastest driver with the biggest mill and monster tires does not always win.
How does the OBC work? Due to the vast area to cover, the field of competitors was divided into four separate groups based on their performance during the first day's arena-style race. Vehicles and equipment had been fine-tuned and adrenaline ran high as the first team launched off the starting line on a fastest-time-wins man-made course. For six hours, competitors pushed the redline through slalom gates, over rock piles, into headlight-deep mud pits. The all-out attitude of the competitors set the tone for the rest of the week. When the dust settled, the real Outback Challenge began. The first of 22 special stages was a high-speed night run down Nine Mile Creek. With Hella, PIAA, and Lightforce halogen lights illuminating their way, teams charged out of the gates into the darkness through a gauntlet of trees, sand berms, and abrupt jumps. From this point, the four groups of teams headed out to separate staging sites and would not see each other again until the final day.