ARB just turned 40 years old and threw itself an impressive birthday party. Actually it was more of a road trip than a party. The plan was flawless: Round up four iconic 4x4s that ARB has been offering upgraded parts for over the years and head out on an adventure across the Australian Outback. It was guaranteed to be a trip to remember, and we leapt at the chance to tag along.
The four 4x4s included a 1976 FJ40 Toyota Land Cruiser, a 1990 Nissan Patrol, a 1994 Toyota Hilux, and a 1995 Land Rover Defender (Apr. 2017). Since old trucks can be a bit quirky on long adventures, ARB brought another four newer trucks for support and camera crew; they were a Ford Ranger, a Mazda BT50, a 79 Series Land Cruiser, and a new Toyota Hilux. In total, eight cool Australian rigs were outfitted with an abundance of ARB components as well as camping gear and food. Simply put, it was a great adventure.
The trip started in Alice Springs, a small city in the middle of Australia. The attendees were from all over the globe but with one thing in common: We all like 4x4s. Before long the hoods were up and we were learning, scrutinizing, and enjoying checking out our “rentals” and roving homes for the next 11 days. They wouldn’t look so clean and tidy for long.
The group started in Alice Springs with 11 days to get to Broken Hill—a mere 1,500 miles away. And though we were crossing the desert, it would become a wet mud fest because the area had seen more rain than usual, causing dirt tracks to be closed and main roads shut down to protect against severe rutting after the mud dries. The adventure would have no shortage of challenges, both terrain and mechanical, as nearly every vehicle would suffer and overcome gremlins, but there would also be awesome scenery and outstanding campsites along the way to outweigh any struggles.
In the end our group of ARB staff and journalist from around the world would come home with the trip of a lifetime. Even when things didn’t go as planned, the spirit of adventure pushed everyone onto a new more interesting plan. With a few upgrades and a group of good friends you can take just about any old 4x4 on a wild overlanding trip and have a great time.
When it was time to hit the road I hopped in with Sam Purcell from Mr4x4.com.au, an Australian off-road website. I opted to ride with a local because driving a stick shift right-handed in a foreign city on the first leg of the trip seemed like a recipe for disaster. It wasn’t long though before I got behind the wheel and learned that right-hand driving and left-hand shifting isn’t hard at all.
The Off Road Icons trip brought journalists together from around the world. We had Americans, Brits, Aussies, and a guy from China who could barely speak English but loves off-roading and runs a big website in China for 4x4 enthusiasts. We would each get to drive every different 4x4 and ride with a different co-driver every day as we worked our way across the desert.
The room and board of the trip was topnotch. Some nights we stayed in far off hotels, but for the most part we spent nights in the iconic Australian tent known as a swag. A swag is a heavy canvas sack that you put your sleeping bag inside. Our ARB swags are quite different from American-style tents made of paper-thin material that rolls up to the size of grapefruit. These swags have a 4-inch-thick mattress and roll up to the size of a child. Not perfect for a hiker but just fine if you have a roof rack to haul one. We often had six or eight on top of a truck as we rambled across Australia. The swags kept us warm and dry even on unusually wet desert nights and keep creepy-crawlies from cozying up with us. The biggest problem was the lack or room inside for easily changing clothes.
The food part of the trip was supplied by the ARB team. A chow wagon followed the group, and there was an ARB fridge-freezer in every vehicle. The truck and trailer had a gas stove, coolers, and plenty of storage for dry goods, and we were treated to amazing meals every day. I taught the Australians about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They tried to convince me that vegemite, a weird brown yeast they spread on bread, was good. I disagreed.
When Americans picture Australia they imagine dry deserts covered in deadly kangaroos and spiders and snakes, but it’s not always like that. For the most part Kangaroos are not deadly, and at times the dry desert can be a downright muddy mess. We were in Australia in September, so it was their springtime and the rains were in full force.
The problem with the muddy roads is twofold. First, most of the vehicles in Australia are not allowed to run tires much larger than stock when registered for street legal use, so deep mud can require ARB towstraps when the Coopers can’t dig down to solid ground. The other issue is some of the roads we were planning on are closed when wet so they would not get rutted out and require grading. This meant our planned route kept changing.
One stop we found refreshing after a few days of dirt roads was the Dalhousie hot springs. We set up our swags and then dove into the warm 100- to 110-degree water and washed off road grime and relaxed backs that were sore from bouncing over corrugated roads.
The poor little FJ40 was the only gas-powered truck on the trip, and though we would expect tough-as-anvil reliability from the Toyota, it didn’t always work out that way. We found that water crossing caused the little Cruiser to conk out, but no amount of slow driving or ignition protection seemed to work. The little pig just liked sitting in the mud until we drug it out.
One day the Cruiser just refused to run at all no matter how many mechanics on our team tried to find the culprit. Coil, cap, rotor, loose terminal, it all proved pointless.
This resulted in Fred & Chris’s Wild Ride, where Chris Collard from Overland Journal and I “drove” the old FJ40 while being towed by the ARB support truck (another Land Cruiser but with a V-8 diesel) all day. Imagine over 130 miles on the end of a towstrap across desert roads, sand dunes, and mud.
I had been behind the wheel of the old FJ40 Land Cruiser since 10 a.m. that day and we had been over a many hundreds of dunes, but a faint light in the distance was growing brighter. We hoped we were getting closer to the town of Birdsville and that light ahead was a small sign of civilization. The tow rig had gotten stuck once, and we had already put the wheel back on the food trailer after it lost its lug nuts. Plus, I had finished the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had in my pocket all afternoon, so we were ready for a break. Imagine our surprise when that light grew brighter and the moon popped above the horizon. It was simultaneously depressing, hilarious, and epic. We wouldn’t make it to our next destination until 3 a.m.
We had made it across the Simpson Desert with over 1,100 dunes and we had done it with a bunch of old 4x4s. Sure, one got to coast behind a towstrap, but who’s counting technicalities for failure? We call it a win. And the trip was only seven days in—there was more to come. But first we all headed to the iconic Big Red dune for a photo shoot and victory celebration of sorts after some ignition repairs to the old 40 Series.
The next day we headed off toward Mungeranie, a small station stop with nothing much more than a bar, some campsites, and some great characters. We enjoyed the drive there over wet muddy roads. After the long day in the FJ40 I got behind the wheel of the newer Hilux; meanwhile the camera crew was in the Ford Ranger support truck. With a peppy diesel engines and fitted with premium ARB BP51 bypass shocks, both trucks felt like a rocket compared to the finicky FJ. We can only hope Toyota and Ford brings these little world trucks to the States.
The 79 Series Toyota is another dream truck that we don’t get here in America but should. Imagine a solid axle front and rear V-8 diesel little truck with seating for four and a bed for all your junk. The Cruiser is a tough work truck and commands top dollar in Australia, but it works hard and was a great support truck for our adventure. Of course, there was that one day when the wheel fell off, but it happens to best of us some days.
After we arrived in Mungeranie the proprietor told us of a Land Rover truck out back that had been parked for a few years. As happens we congregated around it and soon had it belching and farting until it ran like a top. We offered to take it on the rest of our adventure, but he declined after we got it running good.
Our adventure had changed directions a few times, but we felt our second-to-last day deserved a trip to the Flinders Range and a lap around Skytrek, a private off-road track where we were bound to see tons of wildlife and terrain much different from the Simpson Desert. Before long the group was scrambling up rocky climbs and enjoying tons of kangaroo sightings and running emus.
The final day was spent cruising into Broken Hill, 1,500-plus miles from our starting location. The trip was one for the record books, if you are setting records for immense fun and awesome scenery. If you think an Australian adventure is out of reach, think again. There are tons of 4x4s all over that country and thousands of miles of dirt roads to explore. And ARB is ready to outfit just about whatever truck you pick, so start planning your trip.