For the third time since leaving Paris on our world tour, the Scnic RX4 takes a boat ride. From Surabaya in eastern Java, we consign our four-wheel-drive on a cargo shipment and pick it up at Perth, on Australia's western coast. Thanks to the Renault-Nissan logistics team, the loading and customs clearance at the port of Surabaya, the second-largest city in Indonesia, comes off smoothly. Ironically, things get tougher upon entering Australia. All the mud and dust accumulated in Indonesia, Nepal, and Pakistan prove to be a real bugbear for the meticulous Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. For over three hours, a state-approved cleaning service subjects the Scnic to high-pressure water jets, detergents, and vacuum cleaning. The process is so thorough that afterwards, the engine won't start-the sparkplugs have been saturated with water.
Hiccupping, we arrive in front of the vehicle inspection of the Ministry of Transport. We need a special authorization from them because of our French registration plate. We make the queue, only to have a guy in an obviously bad mood telling us that everything needs to be checked from top to bottom. His conclusions, after 30 minutes of inspection: a sticker needs to be put on the back with "Caution-Left Hand Drive," and all the sponsor stickers we have on our windows need to be peeled off. We also need to change the position of our headlights, and repair our rear differential housing that is leaking. We protest, telling the guy that it is going to take us two weeks to obtain the parts to repair the case, and that we have already crossed 25 countries without having any problems.
We are saved by an excellent Irish mechanic at the Perth Renault dealership, who fixes the diff housing and changes the axleshafts in less than three days. He even finds the U-joints to repair the case from a Korean 4x4! We come back to the inspection and a new guy looks at the car. "All right, the car is clean. Do you have your insurance papers?" We look at each other ... "Not yet, we will go and get it once we have your papers" ... "Sorry mate, I need your insurance papers to let you go."
We are starting to boil. We have only a 3-month visa, and we have already lost two weeks in this administrative nightmare. So we begin our search to find insurance. We call roughly 40 different agencies and each time are told, "Sorry, but we do not insure foreign cars." We wonder how exactly will we be able to drive in this country!
From Perth, we go due north on the Great Northern Highway. The change in scenery is a shock indeed-no more luxuriant jungles and volcanoes. To the right, a plain strewn with crimson-colored shrubbery stretches on as far as the eye can see. To the left, an arid plateau is covered with spinifex, a prickly grass that only grows in the desert. And ahead, a road straight as an arrow extends to the horizon. Set against a background of ochre-colored soil, endless bushes flash by the car windows in cinematic fashion as the radio spews out country music. We are traveling in our own personal road movie, which will take us 3,100 miles between Perth and Darwin. The strip of asphalt before us is so perfectly unswerving that we could set the car on automatic pilot if it weren't for the "road trains," those enormous trucks which travel across the country pulling behind them three or four trailers and which take over a mile to come to a halt. Several times we have to pull over to the side of the road at the last second to avoid a collision.
We spend two months experiencing the adventure of the Outback, sleeping out in the open under the Southern Cross, with the campfire burning, our boots dust-laden, at the pace of wide-open spaces. Unadulterated freedom in the midst of immensity itself. Here, everything is bigger, larger, heavier, hotter, and drier. At Yarrie Station, a ranch in the middle of the Great Sandy Desert; we get out of our car exhausted-we've been looking for water for more than five hours.
"No worries mate, no problem!" calls out Roy, the owner, his cowboy hat clamped down on his head with perspiration. "But I think you should settle for a good old-fashioned beer because water isn't the strong point here!"
Yes, in this part of the desert, the water drawn up by the windmills is brackish, almost undrinkable. "My great-grandfather settled out here first. He hailed from Ireland in the late 1800s," Roy tells us. Two sheetmetal houses for his family and workers, a machine shed, a few stalls for horses, and a bush hedge around the whole farmstead to protect it from the windblown sand. Nothing seems to have changed in four generations, except for one thing: Roy now uses a helicopter to herd his livestock. In a few minutes, we fly over about 12 miles of bush and never move off of his landholdings. Wearing a headset and speaking through a mouthpiece, Roy guides his army of cowboys who, on horseback on the ground, contain the 500 head of livestock that he has just rounded up from above the desert.
We cross the western part of Australia-mining country. Wherever a village has sprung up, you can be sure that something precious is hidden below ground-most likely, gold. In the town of Newman, we meet an actual gold digger. And not just any digger-a Frenchman who has almost never seen France, as he was born and raised in New Caledonia. For 10 days, we crisscross the arid bush landscape with him, metal detectors in hand, and end up finding a few nuggets, but not without difficulty. Our most important discovery, however, is more culinary than gold-filled-we go kangaroo hunting with our new-found friend, Alain, and almost every evening share a gourmet meal of 'roo barbecue or stew.
A Scnic Milestone
We head towards Darwin, on the northern tip of Australia. There, we immortalize the Scnic's 100,000-kilometer (62,000-mile) mark. But the trip is far from over. We still have about 3,000 miles to go before arriving in Adelaide, with a stopover at the famous Ayers Rock, the Aborigines' most sacred site. The beauty of this huge sandstone monolith-the largest in the world-is breathtaking, but unfortunately does not bring us luck. A few miles further on, we get stuck twice in the red sand dunes. Fortunately, our traction pads and winch save the day.
The bush stretches on, so we drive along for hours on end, talking and taking stock of our journey. We've been on the go for two years already! That has a nice ring to it, as we mull over our experiences-the feeling of having a childhood dream come true, to have had the chance of sharing it together. But there is a bittersweetness to this journey. When people we meet ask us: "What are you going to do afterward?," we don't have the faintest idea. One thing is for sure-the idea of going back to a cubicle in an office building confined by four walls seems increasingly difficult to bear:
"When we finish this world tour, what do you think about doing it all over in a sailboat?" asks Laurent.
"You're on!" Philippe exclaims.
After two months in the bush, we finally arrive in Adelaide, covered in a thick layer of dust. Long showers for us and for the car, and we seize the opportunity to perform a major maintenance check. The Scnic then takes to the road with brand-new drive belts and filters-direction Sydney, where we once again will hop a boat, this time for Tokyo.
Bush Road Rule No. 1: Red Sand
One of the first things to remember about the bush is that you will consume a large quantity of red sand. It will get into your eyes and your ears, your mouth, and your nose. All parts of your vehicle, interior and exterior, will be covered in a fine dusting of red powder that Australian Quarantine couldn't give two hoots about when exporting a vehicle from the country. (Three years later, we are still cleaning particles encrusted in various nooks and crannies of the Scnic.) For those who prefer to drive with the windows open, bring along a scarf to cover your face, or, while somewhat bulky, a ventilator mask. For a more pleasing option for your passengers who may not care for chronic eye, ear, and nose infections, drive with all windows sealed shut, ventilation on max and create a pressure in the cabin to keep all foreign material out.
Sand in the 4x4 usually equals sand under the 4x4 as well. In places, it runs deep. Shovels, metal plates, wooden boards, and winches are useful, though keep in mind the latter might be of limited use with so few trees around. Another option: Carry a hand winch. That way you can bury one or two tires as deep as you can in the sand to support the weight of the vehicle with the winch attached. Then crank away.
Bush Road Rule No. 2: Road Trains
If the sand hasn't stopped you, there is the issue of road trains. These enormous trucks, pulling anywhere from three to five trailers, drive at approximately 60 mph and hog the road. Don't get in their way-it takes them more than a mile to stop. Luckily, you can spot them, usually 5 to 6 miles away on the horizon like a giant "Pig Pen," a huge cloud of dust tumbling your way. If they're approaching from behind, you have several choices: Try to outrun them (but only if you enjoy the heat of a metal monster breathing down your neck); trail them, but be prepared to put tip No. 1 into action with no visibility; or pull over and wait. It normally takes 30 minutes for the dust to settle in a no-wind condition. If approaching from the front, best to pull over and wait for them to pass.
Bush Road Rule No. 3: Kangaroos
The growth in ranching and viticulture in Australia has led to an increase in available sources of potable water in the Outback. As a result, kangaroos have multiplied like rabbits and can be seen day and night, hopping across the bush. There is an overpopulation problem in places (the current population is estimated as high as 20 million), and various methods are used to control their numbers. Bait can be laid out to kill them, since they are considered as pestilent as rats. Sometimes professional kangaroo hunters are employed to reduce their numbers. It is said a good hunter can kill up to 250 kangaroos in one night, and this meat goes to the dogs, literally. (Much of it ends up in cans of pet food.) For the driver, kangaroos are a nuisance. Hit one, and this animal that's the size of a man can seriously damage your vehicle.
Of greater concern is if the kangaroo breaks through the windshield. As the animal is not always killed by the impact, stories abound of kangaroos kicking uncontrollably, trying to get out of such a confined space and either killing the driver or the passengers inside. For this reason you will hardly see any vehicle in the bush without a grille of some sort on the windshield, or at least a front 'roo guard (aka bullbar) to deflect these potential hazards. Word of advice: Drive cautiously, and especially at night. If caught in your headlights, the kangaroos stop immediately, entranced. Hitting one at 60 mph would not be a pretty sight.
Bush Road Rule No. 4: Tire Punctures
Imagine a climate so dry that any branch, brush, or twig becomes as hard and sharp as a needle. Then imagine your tires. We had more than 10 punctures in Australia. The solution: Carry spares, or better yet, carry spare tubes and a ready source of air. In the Outback, everyone does.
Bush Road Rule No. 5: Fires
Bush fires are started in three ways: The Traditional-made by Aboriginals in a type of slash and burn cultivation; The Accident-need we say more?; and The Natural-lightning is usually the culprit. All create heat and smoke that must be dealt with as quickly and safely as one can. The fires do not often cross the roads, as there is little to burn, but gusts of wind could push the fire too close for comfort. And in cases where there is no wind, the low visibility forces you to drive slowly-and endure the heat. Roll up the windows, keep going, and always listen to local reports. If camping in the bush, take extreme care, and always find a clear area large enough not to be affected if one sparks up during the night.