TJM, one of Australia's biggest aftermarket accessory companies, decided to plan the mother of all parties to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Cheese doodles and bubbly must have seemed more 24th or 26th-ish to 'em, so the group voted for a four-wheeling trek from the westernmost locale, Steep Point, to the easternmost point, Byron Bay, via a route directly across the center of Australia--a time to party-hearty and road-test some new as well as existing TJM products on a Toyota Land Cruiser, a Mitsubishi Triton Dual Cab, a Nissan GQ Patrol, and a Nissan GU Patrol Cab Chassis. But to make the trip at all impressive, the assemblage would have to cover those 5,642 miles (that's 9,100 kilometers in Aussie talk) in 14 days.
Although it's the world's smallest continent--as well as the lowest, flattest, and a close tie for driest--Australia is nearly the size of the United States, but two weeks would seem nearly implausible since we were in the Outback for most of the trip, which meant driving well below highway speeds for most of the days. Ah, it would just mean being constantly on the go without breakdowns or limp-home mode. No pressure! And there would also be no room to fudge on the deadline because the vehicles would be making a special appearance at the 4WD & Outdoor Show in Brisbane in front of TV crews, sponsors, and everyone else TJM had told about this trip--they had to make it from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific in two weeks. Although it wouldn't be a race, there would be serious time constraints.
Then, as though already woozy from a few pre-anniversary cocktails, TJM threw another hardship into their goal--they would invite a journalist from Australia, Japan, Europe, and America to tag along.
-Wednesday, 8 July
--Hours on plane, 17½ (long time)
--number of movies seen, 3 (mostly bad)
--hours of sleep, 2 (in two days--pesky international dateline)
--frequent-flier miles, 14,000-something.
11 a.m. Here I come, Miss America. I left the U.S. on Monday night but didn't arrive in Australia until this morning. Yoshifumi Takemura, the senior editor of 4x4 Magazine in Japan, and I will meet TJM, the other journalists, and the videographer halfway through TJM's silver-anniversary trip.
3:02 p.m. We met the group in Alice Springs, the dead center of Australia and the base of the MacDonnell Ranges. The Alice is the largest town in central Australia and has a population of around 25,000. It's known as the entrance to the Red Centre and is my first introduction to the Outback.
I learn that for the others, the trip did not start off on a good foot--heavy rains and flooding closed most of the roads mapped out, so the crew went way north then came back down, a 1,240-mile detour via the Kimberleys and Halls Creek; however, today the trip is back on schedule.
The travelers have already seen some of Australia's finest, including the Tanami Track and Ayers Rock, or Uluru in Aboriginese. For those unfamiliar with that spot, it's where "a dingo ate my baby."
10:50 p.m. I dined tonight with my fellow travelers at a BBQ including Lloyd Taylor and Steve Mollenhauer, the T and M of TJM; Russell Haines from TJM's distributor sales; Greg Waugh, the Series 2000 suspension tech manager; Andrew Taylor from TJM corporate promotions; Ron Moon, the editor of 4x4 Australia; European journalist Martin Brink (who's thrilled to hear my accent because he can finally understand someone, he says); Bruce "I'm just the cinematographer" Honeywill; and Yoshiaki Akahoshi, the head honcho of JAOS, maker of grilleguards, roof racks, and other bolt-ons. It's a brief meeting, but naturally I'll have plenty of days to get to know them all. For now, I look forward to a good night's sleep.
-Thursday, 9 July
--Hours of sleep, 4 (not good)
--time difference between me and home, 17 hours--number of G'days, 2 (one was on a license plate)
--miles driven, 266.6
9:34 a.m. We were to depart for the front door of the Simpson Desert at 7:30 a.m. but there was a hangup--while the expedition was at The Rock yesterday, the swags were stolen, so the morning has so far been spent searching town for replacements--more on what exactly a swag is later. It's decided to split up the troop--some of us will go onward to the desert, while the others will rejoin in Dalhousie Springs in the evening, the border between the Northern Territory and South Australia.
11:10 a.m. It has been an odd drive--desolate, dry areas, then suddenly thick, deep greenery--the scenery rotates between a just-dirt desert and jungle every few miles. The Outback reacts quickly to rain, and since the area had its most significant rainfall in years moments before we traversed it, we've been treated to quite a bit of eye candy. So far our 'wheeling has been over county grids, corrugated and rocky roads, and ditches, nothing too extreme for the vehicles; for the bladder, though, it's another story.
We've been able to run the tires at full pressure; unfortunately, as a result, the rear left tire on the Nissan GU was stabbed by a rock. After a quick rubber swap, we were on our way south, through the Santa Teresa Aboriginal Land, including Arrente, a former mission but now the center of cattle-breeding and artistry. I even saw my first Aborigine.
2:05 p.m. After we passed through Allambie, it was time for grub--sandwiches, fruit, and biscuits (cookies)--at Mac Clark Acacia Peuce Reserve. It's named after the husband of Molly Clark, who is known countrywide for her Old Andado homestead that has been set up for tourism. The Acacia Peuce in the name is for the waddi tree, a rare sight in Australia. It can be found only in Andado, Birdsville, and Boulia.
6:18 p.m. I've spent most of the day shuttling between Steve in the Nissan Patrol GU and Lloyd in the Land Cruiser. They fill me in on off-road life in Oz. Growing in popularity are four-wheel-drive parks, pretty much organized, controlled 'wheeling. I've also learned that you can't find a four-wheel drive here for less than $20,000, so the bulk of people's salaries go toward new vehicles. Unfortunately, it's way too expensive to rebuild older trucks and cars since there's not a surplus of parts as in the States. In fact, Steve rebuilt a VW bug--for $18,000.
9:56 p.m. We made our way to Old Andado, the third largest single cattle station in the Northern Territory (the homestead is about 12 miles inside the Simpson), then through New Crown and Charlotte Waters, a homestead and watering hole, respectively. We skipped Dalhousie and instead made camp a few miles sooner at Mount Dare in the Witjira National Park, where we gassed up the vehicles and ourselves. Viv Moon, Ron's wife, is in charge of feeding the herd and has taught me that you can rough it with meals like Thai chicken, steak, sausage, squash, corn, and potatoes.
Now, about that swag. It's basically a sleeping bag-shaped tent. I imagine they exist in the U.S. but under a different name--although every Yank I'd asked about it had no clue. To "build" it, I had to put my sleeping bag atop a foam mattress, then bend foot and head support poles to garner that tent effect. It gave about 21/2 feet of headroom and tapered off at the feet. I zipped up a screen and Velcro'd it closed around my head, and there was another screen so I wouldn't suffocate. Thank goodness I have selective claustrophobia.
-Friday, 10 July
--Hours of sleep, 5 (getting better)
--number of times convinced large reptile was wandering around camp during early-morning hours, 3
--number of layers of clothing, 2 (not enough)
--number of camels seen, 3
--miles driven, 167.4
5:30 a.m. Brrrrrrrrr! Woke up in middle of night because feet felt frozen; probably because feet were frozen. When I left home, it was about 95 degrees Fahrenheit and summer. Australia is just beginning its winter, so it is 65-77 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, 24-40 at night, and my swag had ice on it. Ice! (Note to self: Wear many clothes to bed tonight.)
9:45 a.m. We stopped at the steamy Dalhousie Springs, which was a vital water, shelter, food, and medical source for the Aboriginal tribes. A few in the group put on their togs (bathing suit) and went for a swim in the 80- to 85-degree hot mineral waters of the Great Artesian Basin, which are around a million years old before reaching the Springs. I was still morning-fresh from my Wet Ones bath so I declined.
12:14 p.m. Today I am the poor man's Ivan Stewart. Yes, they let me behind the wheel. It was actually quite easy to acclimate to right-hand drive, and what an experience it was blasting over knoll after knoll at Ironman-lite speeds in the Cab Chassis. The Simpson is an amazing desert--nearly 58,000 square miles and the world's largest sand dune area, composed of about 800 (or 1,200, depending on who you ask) parallel piles of the red grit.
Thanks to those unusual rains, the desert was color aplenty--the sand's hue was heavily accented by yellow, white, and purple wildflowers, and the Aussies tell me it could be another 10 years before it's this lush. The very last dune is the star attraction, Big Red, and I'm anxious to see what all the hubbub is about as well as to get to some serious derbying.
1:56 p.m. We stopped for a lunch of sandwiches, fruit, and biscuits--yes, you see a theme--at Purni Bore, a French Petroleum Company-made water supply, then changed a flat tire--the result of a rusty nail.
6:48 p.m. Earlier today we stumbled upon David Mason who was doing the same trek across the Simpson but from the opposite end--and on foot. He had three camels along for carrying his supplies and for company. While it should take us two days to complete, David had left in March and was expected to arrive in Old Andado in November.
12:14 a.m. We've completed our first day of traveling the Simpson, mostly by following the track of the French Line, so named for a French company that surveyed for oil; it was also the first route ever across the Simpson. We stopped for a quick dinner and got cracking on editing the short film being made of the journey, while I wrote the daily Web site update, a duty each journalist had twice.
-Saturday, 11 July
--Hours of sleep, 5 (can't shake the jetlag as a result)
--ice on swag, minimal
--miles driven, 130.2
8:20 a.m. Another glorious morn, awakened to the familiar sounds of zippers and Velcro and to the aroma of coffee, campfire, and three-day-old clothes (not necessarily in that order). After I hosed myself off with Wet Ones and had a quick breakfast of orange juice, cereal, and bread with honey, it was time to hit the sand for another day of up, down, up, down on the Simpson dunes. We're still a few hours behind schedule so the plan is to bypass the Knolls and Lake Tamblyn in order to climb Big Red in the daylight. Two days of sand dunes and Diamantina flood plains, and it's not getting old yet.
1:10 p.m. Sandwiches, fruit, and, well, you know, at Poeppel Corner, a post in the sand where you can be in South Australia, Queensland, and the Territory all at once. Of course, we did the touristy thing and spent an hour putting our right foot in, taking our right foot out of each state and shooting photos to prove so. Bruce filmed us throwing our hats up in the air to celebrate our arrival--showerless for three days and we're all past the point of hat hair; we could barely unstick the hats from our heads on cue.
5:36 p.m. This afternoon has been the most taxing on all the vehicles, as it is four-wheeling more like what I'm used to at home. We came across a few dry salt lake beds, and the Triton felt the need to sink, but following a few tugs from the snatch-um-strap courtesy of the Patrol GU we were hammering along again to our destination, Red. I spent the afternoon riding with Martin, the journalist from Holland. While most Australians aren't into Jeeps (and actually don't think they are as capable as Americans do), it was refreshing to talk CJ-10s and flatfenders with him. I think I might miss home. We scooted over more dunes (OK, my fascination with them was starting to dwindle) and through a bunch of dry creeks, when there she was, the biggest of 'em all. Lloyd and Steve threw the Toyota and Patrol into low-range and motored on up the steep, massive red dust. The Triton cleared it on the second attempt, but the poor, weighted-down Nissan GQ, filled to the brim with support equipment, Martin, and me, couldn't find a happy combination of throttle and gears to get more than halfway up.
After a few unsuccessful attempts (and a shrinking ego), Martin finally backed up to Old Andado and punched the pedal to the sheetmetal and managed to squirt every last bit of oomph out of the Cab Chassis to push it 6 inches from being completely over. A quick yank, and the caravan was ready to continue on to Birdsville.
Midnight Birdsville, most famous for the Birdsville pub and the September Birdsville horse races--hard to believe this teeny town has been home to an annual race for more than 100 years. We had a BBQ with some of the locals, then stopped in the Birdsville Pub, which I understand is known throughout Australia, even to those who've never been--equal in notoriety to the Grand Canyon. It's the first thing that greets weary four-wheelers sporting their "I crossed the Simpson Desert and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" attire. There is one hotel but we did not stay in it--hello swag.
Martin had had enough of sleeping on the ground and assumed the fetal position inside the Cab Chassis. But it was worth it to be outside and see the most clear view of the Milky Way ever. I was educated on how to spot the Southern Cross, which, when seen, will lead you due south. It's the symbol on the Australian flag.
-Sunday, 12 July
--Hours of sleep, 6
--temperature, 50 Fahrenheit (comfortable, no ice)
--miles driven, 220.1
10:30 a.m. After jump-starting one of the support vehicles, we drove a block to Birdsville Auto and hung out with the locals from the previous night's BBQ while Bruce did some more editing. Birdsville's county population is 280, while the actual town's is 100. We hopped into the back of a '70-something Suzuki for a tour of the town. It took less than 4 minutes. Hmmm, maybe small town life isn't quite for me.
Now we're off to Innamincka on the banks of Cooper Creek, which will require cruising Birdsville Track, Sturt's Stoney Desert, and across gas and oil fields.
3:30 p.m. We drove over the bridge at Cooper Creek, which runs through Innamincka. This remote tourist town is best known for the traveling woes of explorers Burke and Wills, the first white men to attempt crossing the central desert of Australia south to north--they ended up biting the dust here. We then drove about 10 minutes out of Innamincka on a heavily corrugated road to Burke's Grave (Wills' grave is farther west), although his body was moved to Adelaide shortly after his demise.
1:07 a.m. Before sundown, while standing next to Burke's grave, we listened to Ron tell us all about Burke and Wills expedition and of Cooper Creek, all the while flocks of cockatoos hovering. But it was as we headed to dinner that we saw some of the best nature. Smog makes a few beauties of a sunset back home, but I hadn't seen anything like this in years. It was as though the red floor of the Simpson Desert had been turned upside down on top of us--I couldn't help but shoot two rolls of film of the sky (stop mocking me--that's two less than what I shot of tame kangaroos).
-Monday, 13 July
--Hours of sleep, 5 (old hat)
--time we broke camp, 7 a.m.
--number of flat tires, 1
--number of hours driving, 16
--miles driven, 682 (yikes)
9:34 a.m. We are on our way to Goondiwindi today and this will be the longest day of the trek. Moments after packing up camp, we were exiting South Australia under overcast skies and entering the Land of G'day and Welcome, Queensland. One of the first attractions we passed was the Burke & Wills Dig Tree. This was the spot where Burke had told his team to wait while they crossed Australia. The team was instructed to hang around for three months, then leave. Three months passed, so the team buried food at the tree for him and Wills, and then left; Burke and Wills arrived eight hours later. The food soon ran out, and they tried to walk to civilization but never made it. We then drove through channel country and Jackson Oil Field, which were nothing like the newly green Simpson.
11:22 a.m. Everyone seems quiet--could be because we know the trip is a day from being over, but maybe it's because we're doing a lot of tedious driving. Gone is the challenge of four-wheeling on unmaintained Outback roads, replaced with straight highways (really, not one curve for double-digit miles); dodging kangaroos and suicidal birds has been quite a feat, which has kept drivers attentive. Yep, my first sight of a 'roo, and he was splattered at the side of the road. I also understand why nearly all SUVs, trucks, and passenger cars are equipped with a TJM Bull Bar or some version of heavy-duty protection--kangaroo, cattle, and other small-brained animals bolt right out in front of speeding vehicles.
The highway between Thargomindah and Cunnamulla is attractive in its own right, but nothing like what we had been experiencing the last couple of days. We've pulled over a few times to gawk at emu, some living kangaroo (so hard to fathom that Aussies find them as annoying as rats), cockatoos, magpies, and galahs, and to jump-start our weary bodies.
2:13 p.m. We stopped for lunch near Eulo for our last campfire. Eulo and Cunnamulla hold an annual World Lizard Racing Championship that includes Goanna, which can be 6 feet long. As we cleaned up the lunchroom, Bruce filmed us talking about how much the trip has meant (note to self: remember to always stay behind the camera), which for most of us has been the chance to see parts of Australia that even those who are born and die here will never see. Forget spending your week's vacation in Sydney or Melbourne--see the Outback.
4:00 p.m. After reminicing, we continued eastward, surrounded by pointed hills, which were volcano remnants. The highway didn't get much more exciting than before, so many passengers slept or read, while the drivers did their best to stay awake. I spent the afternoon and early evening writing my second Web site journal.
10:46 p.m. Immediately after arriving in Goondiwindi we got a bite at a famous truck stop called BP Bridge servo centre at the northern end of the Newell Highway, which I'm told is one of Australia's most important and busiest byways. After we were stuffed, it was over to the hotel (yes!). As I brought my last bag into my room and shut the door, Mum Nature let out a torrential downpour. Steve must have been dancing around in his room, since he couldn't take looking at the vehicles in their dirty, used condition anymore (hopefully he won't see our Ugly Readers' Rides section this month). Exhausted and thinking happy thoughts about a real pillow and mattress, I decided to skip a shower, stood my jeans in the corner, and hit the lights.
-Tuesday, 14 July
--Hours of sleep, 6.5
--minutes in shower, 25
--miles driven, 465
6:55 a.m. Startled by room service this morning--rather than knocking on the door, a section of the wall slid open and my food was put onto a table. Sort of prisonesque, don't you know? Russell required me to try Vegemite--the Aussies are right about not overdoing it the first time. I think I'll be burping up the yeast flavor for about a week. They use it as commonly as we do peanut butter--erp! Guess I can now mark Vegemite off my list of things to try.
1:55 p.m. We crossed the Macintyre River, the border of Queensland and New South Wales, and were then at the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. In need of a leg stretch, the caravan stopped for coffee in the town of Tenterfield, then shortly thereafter for lunch at a general store run by a grandma, where I was introduced to maggot bags, which is a pie with peas, and a salad sandwich. Then Russell showed me such Australian specialities as Queenslander, a popular style of homes with wraparound verandas.
5:45 p.m. The cities have been getting bigger and bigger, and we've been hitting constant roundabouts (used in place of traffic signals). The expedition has clocked 5,642 miles in 14 days. But it's at mile 5,643 that I see the most spectacular sight yet--Byron Bay. Maybe deep down it was so comforting because it was my home ocean.
As we circled down the mountain, the view was of Possum Creek, where the wealthy and celebs live. The lighthouse on the highest bluff of Cape Byron could also be seen as we descended the mountain--we were even given VIP permission to drive the trucks right to the lighthouse. We'd made it! A bottle of booze was uncorked to celebrate the accomplishment (but not enjoyed since more driving awaited us), and we all followed Lloyd to the beach where he poured a bottle of Western Australia's Indian Ocean into the Pacific. From here, we took a freeway to Brisbane, the country's third-largest city, where the 4WD & Outdoor Show was to be held.
I had to take a moment to let it all sink in--the others had spent more days than I on the grueling adventure, but I can now barely remember any of the work being tough. I'm surrounded by the main ridge of the Great Divide, the bluest water I've ever seen, and screaming rainbow lorikeet--we made it on time thanks to teamwork and properly setup vehicles.
Tomorrow, the other journalists and I will hang out at TJM and get a tour of the plant, then we're off to the outdoor show. After that, I'm homeward bound with memories cemented in my overloaded brain and on my way back to the real world.
Trucks of the Trek
Toyota Land Cruiser
Probably the only vehicle in the bunch you're familiar with. In Australia, the 100 Series Toy rivals in popularity with the Nissan Patrol GU. This TJM-outfitted one includes a T15 aluminum, airbag-compatible Bull Bar, Stylemaster side steps, and an aluminum roof rack. Knowing that long, bumpy, dusty backroads and watercrossings would make up much of the trip, the crew bolted on an Airtec Snorkel, a 170L long-range, replacement fuel tank, two 40L water tanks, a Warn 9,000-pound winch with a TJM mounting frame, and a Series 2000 suspension with heavy-duty coil springs, Airlift springs, and shock absorbers. Other necessities for the Outback included 16x8 CSA alloy magnum wheels, 275x70x16 Yokohama Geolanders, Hella Predator driving lights, TJM IBS dual batteries, and a TJM RB8 replacement rear bumper and tire carrier.
Oh, how we hope to see this truck in the U.S. soon. We spotted one at SEMA last year, but this was the first chance we'd had to do a road test. A popular truck that's also considered one of the most stylish in Australia, it has tons of legroom, enormous cargo space, and plenty of power, and is comfortable both on the highway and off-road. A stocker comes with either a 3.0L V-6 petrol engine or a 2.8L four-cylinder diesel and with a five-speed manual (what this one has) or four-speed tranny.
The Dual Cab that accompanied us has been modified with a TJM T1 Bull Bar, 130L long-range, replacement fuel tank, and polished-aluminum rear channel bumper. There is also a body-colored TourerTop Canopy and TJM Deluxe Flares, Tuf-Dek tray liner, and dual-battery system. The Airtec snorkel, Hella Rallye 1000 driving lights, and Yokohama Geolander 265x70x16 tires hugging CSA alloy magnum 16x8 wheels were put to good use.
A Series 2000 suspension, which includes front torsion bars and rear leaf springs, replaced the factory independent wishbone front and live-axle leaves out back in order to handle the extra weight and provide a comfortable ride.
Nissan GU Patrol
We don't understand why this luxo sport/ute hasn't been intro'd in the States yet. It's an extremely happenin' vehicle to own in Australia and has enough ability to back up its looks. In stock form, it has a live axle with coils both front and rear; a six-cylinder 4.5L petrol, four-cylinder 2.8L turbodiesel, or six-cylinder 4.2L diesel engine, a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic trans, and seating for seven. TJM added a T15 Bull Bar, steel side steps, and a steel universal roof rack, as well as a 135L long-range, replacement fuel tank, Series 2000 coils and airlift springs, a Lock-Right in front, an Airtec snorkel, a cargo barrier, an Ox 10,000-pound hydraulic winch, Hella Predators, and 16x8 CSA rims and 275x70x16 Yokohama Geolander rubber.
Nissan GQ Patrol Cab Chassis
The Toyota Hi-Lux is the most popular pickup in Australia, but the Cab Chassis is seen nearly as often. It has a wooden dropside tray, making it a must-have for agriculture and mining exploration. It's the ultimate work truck, and there wasn't a square inch of this one not being utilized. It wasn't exactly the most comfortable ride, and if you're tall or voluptuous, it's downright miserable for a long road trip. Then again, it's a work truck with a low-cost-looking interior and not a ton of power (it's reasonable, though); if you want comfort, you buy the Cruiser or the Patrol GU. A TJM T15 color-matched Bull Bar and side steps, a 135L long-range replacement fuel tank, and two 45L under-tray water tanks were among the add-ons for the long trip. A Series 2000 kit including coil springs and airlift springs was bolted on, as was a TJM Turbo-Dyn turbocharger system, Hella Rallye 4000 driving lights, a TJM IBS dual-battery setup, an Airtec snorkel, a 10,000-pound hydraulic Ox winch, and CSA alloy magnum 16x8 rims with Yokohama Geolander 275x70x16 tires.