Seven Days Chasing Race Trucks
“Media three, Safari Base….”
“Go ahead Media three.”
“We are at kilometer one of SS 14, vehicle has rolled, is in middle of track, over.”
“Safari Base to Tango one eight, close start immediately, vehicle roll at kilometer one.”
The Thai team in car 109, a white and red Isuzu, had barreled down on a sweeping right turn, put the car into a brake-induced slide, and disappeared into a cloud of crimson-red dust. I glanced at Hansey, my German counterpart for the week and editor of Marathon Rally. It seemed like seconds before we heard the unmistakable thud of a car body plowing into the dirt, followed by the sound of shattering glass. Hansey headed for the dust cloud as I hightailed it up the track to caution the next car (camera in hand and firing off a few frames over my shoulder).
It was day four of the Australasian Safari. We were somewhere north of Kalberri and east of Gascoyne Junction—in other words, in the Western Australian Outback. We’d spent the previous four days moving north from Perth, traversing white-sand two-tracks along the Indian Ocean and occasionally doglegging east to the fringes of the country’s great red center. I’d come to the Land Down Under to report on one of the planet’s premier off-road rallies, a seven-day, 3,500 kilometer test of endurance for bloke, or sheila, and machine. Enter the Australasian Safari, aka, the “Dakar Down Under.”
With a landmass the size of the United States, travel times in the Australian Outback are usually measured in days rather than hours.
Though not as well-known as the famed Paris-Dakar, the Safari, which shares a number of parallels with its African-rooted cousin, is often referred to as the Dakar Down Under. The rally format lies largely within European guidelines—a multi-day competition, dedicated support stations and fuel depots, maximum allowable times for special sections, and a common bivouac each night. Where the Safari deviates slightly is in the distance between points. With a landmass the size of the United States, travel times in the Australian Outback are usually measured in days rather than hours. It is the flattest, driest, and least populated of the inhabited continents; the perfect locale for a venue of this caliber. It also doubles as a proving ground for teams preparing to take on Dakar. For more information about the Australasian Safari, go to www.australasiansafari.com.au.
Flash forward 48 hours: Hansey instructs me to zero the trip meter as we pull out of the town of Geraldton. Our charter is to locate a race checkpoint 100 kilometers into the bush, intersect the track…and wait. I look down the competitor list. There are teams from China, Thailand, Venezuela, South Africa, and Europe, and lest I forget, a majority rule of true blue Aussies. There are two Yankees in the Moto division, but none in the auto class. I wonder why?
In the distance, I hear the unmistakable thuwmp, thuwmp, thuwmp of a helicopter rotor, then a four-stroke motorcycle. A dust cloud appears on the horizon and then the chopper. It’s just few meters off the deck—a thick canopy of scrub brush interspersed with coral-white sand. I’ve brought my climbing harness to shoot from the heli’s skid and am hoping I might get some air time. The motorcycles arrive first, followed by quads. Then we wait, as there is a thirty-minute start-time gap between the bikes and cars.
Another dust cloud appears, led by the high-pitched whine of a V-8 mill spinning at 7,000 rpm. It’s a Holden (Chevy) Colorado driven by Australian John Hederics. He blows by at full speed, never lifting from the accelerator for the two-foot-high jump in front of me. Hederics’ landing is coordinated and smooth. He digs left and heads south down the beach, chopper in tow. Adrenaline is instantly pumping through my veins as a wake of sand peppers my face and camera gear. A minute later, Dakar competitor Bruce Garland is on the scene in his Isuzu D-MAX pickup. Immediately following the Safari, Garland will be loading the D-MAX on a ship bound for Dakar 2013 in South America.
They are only 400 kilometers into a 3,500-kilometer race and the field is spreading out. We wait for the stragglers before packing our gear, jumping in our Toyota Prado, and re-entering our own race—getting to the next shoot location before the competitors arrive. This scene will repeat itself a dozen times over the next seven days near Australia’s Wild West towns of Kalbarri, Carnarvon, and Gascoyne Junction.
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Low Down on Dakar Down Under
Unlike U.S.-based off-road events such as the Baja 1000 or Vegas to Reno—where teams receive route details in advance, spend days pre-running the course and logging it on GPS—Safari competitors know nothing about the track until the night before each section. And what they receive is a tulip chart roadbook. No waypoints, no map, nada. To top that, GPS units and paper maps are strictly prohibited. Crews can carry a phone, but not a smart phone with GPS, mapping or email applications. This type of format leaves little room for error and draws upon spot-on navigational skills of the co-driver, dead reckoning, and attention to details. If GPS were allowed it would be of limited value, as much of the race travels over an endless array of uncharted cattle station roads, mining lines, and coastal sand tracks.
This year’s Safari covered 3,500 kilometers (about 2,200 miles for us Yankees) over a period of seven days. It operates with Dakar precision and style. Each night, a small city is erected in a new location, replete with fully-catered meals and dining tent, a street grid for support team camps, and media and command centers.
For the first time, Dakar organizer ASO partnered with premier rallies from around the world to create the Dakar Challenge—a race within a race. Safari teams that signed up for the Challenge (they run the same route), could land a paid registration for the upcoming Dakar (several thousand Euro).
While the race is in progress, communication is provided by two airborne “Eagles,” Cessna 182 Skylanes carrying VHF radio repeaters (no, cell phones don’t work in the Outback). There is also a media chopper, as well as one dedicated to medical evacuation if needed.
Lost in the Outback
On the morning of the final day we grab the media notes to access our shooting location for the morning, but we find a “shortcut” around some sheep stations (translation: ranch). Hansey is the navigator. It can be damn tough. The Australia Outback is vast and unforgiving. Some tracks are rarely traveled, and a wrong turn, accident, or mechanical issue can cost you a lot.
We heard from a jackaroo (ranch hand) who said a jillaroo (female ranch hand) drove away from a station in a tizzy after tossing back a few too many stubbies (beers). The sheila took a wrong turn and ran out of fuel. Fourteen years later someone stumbled upon her desiccated remains, still sitting behind the wheel of her car. We dodge through a maze of turns, over cattle gates, and paddocks (fields), a trail of red Australian dust in our wake. I zero the trip meter at each turn. Fifty kilometers south, then 35 west, 10 east and another 42 southwest. The road veers west and we see the bitumen road (asphalt). Hansey navigated well. We would survive.
We’d dashed from the coastal Mecca of Perth, along the coral reefs and white sand beaches of the Indian Ocean, and into the continent’s vast red interior. It had been a wild 3,000-kilometer ride (Yankee translation, about 1,900 miles)… and we weren’t even in the race.
When the dust settled on the final day in Geraldton, it was Hederics and navigator Kees Weel at the top of the podium. Underdog Rob Herridge in his surprisingly impressive Subaru Forester claimed Second, and Aussie Wayne Park with the bronze. One of the Thai teams ended up on their lid, Garland received a DNF, and South African moto rider Brett Cummings landed a free ticket to the 2013 Dakar. American moto rider Jason Adams, who was participating in his first international contest, landed in the bottom five, but received the Spirit Award after enduring (and repairing) breakdowns almost every day.
As for the event being coined the Dakar Down Under, how can I disagree? It’s like an entire season of racing packed into one insane week—a true test of man, woman and machine. In my mind, the Australasian Safari will be earmarked as one of the great endurance races on the planet.