The winning team of John Hederics and Kees Weel fly towards the finish in their Holden Colorado.
Author: Chris Collard Photos: Chris Collard
There is something about the Southern Hemisphere that gets me turned around. It’s not that whirlpools spin in the opposite direction (not really), or that everyone drives on the wrong side of the road. I’ve always been proud of my dead reckoning skills, to be able to pick off compass points within a few degrees. In Australia, far south of the Equator, however, the sun rises and sets in completely the wrong place (for this North American boy at least). And what does finding north have to do with Dirt Sports and racing? Let me share: it means everything when you are chasing the Australian Safari through 3,500 kilometers of Outback with just a map.
We were in the small town of Glascoyn, Western Australia, and mid-span through a seven-day race across the Outback; the Australasian Safari. When I say “we,” I’m referring to myself and Hansey Schenken, Managing Editor of Marathon Rally, Europe’s preeminent web-based rally magazine. Hansey’s not the snobby suit-and-tie car guy one might expect, more like Charlie from Two and a Half Men, and after he passed out a few times in places other than his bed, I started calling him Charlie.
We had secured our own media car, a four-wheel-drive Toyota Prado. Just two free-and-easy foreigners, a box of Monster Energy, two bags of camera gear and 120 miles to the next bitumen (paved) road. “Chris, left here Chris,” Hansey insisted in his heavy German accent. I was sure we should turn right. After all, my internal compass is never wrong. Hansey continued, “Chris, trust me. I have the map and have navigated all over the world.” I turned left. A few hours later we hit the paved road. Hansey’s call was spot on…and I would have become a dingo’s dinner had I not listened.
F-150 Pro Truck driver Dave McShane was one of the most aggressive drivers on the track. Unfortunately for McShane, a hot foot does not always equate to a win. He received a DNF (due to mechanical issues) on most legs of the event.
When I talked to Dirt Sports Editor-in-Chief Craig Perronne about the Australasian Safari, he said, “What’s different about this type of racing, how does it compare to what we have in the USA? Why do they call it the Dakar Down Under?” My navigation SNAFU brought it all to light.
The Australian Outback is expansive beyond imagination. From the coastal town of Carnarvon there are roughly 5,000 kilometers of emptiness stretching to the east.
Low Down on the Down Under
Though not as well known as the famed Dakar Rally, the Safari shares a number of parallels with its African-rooted cousin. The format lies largely within European guidelines — a multi-day competition, dedicated support stations and fuel depots, maximum allowable times for each section and a common bivouac each night. Australia, and Western Australia specifically, is the perfect venue for this type of competition. With a land mass the size of the United States and less than one tenth the population, travel times between points are usually measured in days rather than hours.
I camped with Aussie Geoff Olholm at the 2010 Safari and again at the 2011 Dakar. Olholm, from Cairns, Australia, is a strong and steady competitor. Though posting top-three times on most legs, a mechanical issue mid-race pushed his Mitsubishi Pajero back to 8th place overall.
From an organizational standpoint, the Australasian Safari ranks right up there with Dakar. Each day there are two eagles, or fixed-wing aircraft, in the air carrying mobile VHF repeater stations, and two helicopters, one for media and one that is dedicated to medical emergencies. By the end of each day, a small city consisting of a driver’s headquarters, media and communications tents, stadium lighting and a full-blown commercial kitchen are erected at the bivouac. Each morning the entire ensemble packs up and moves to the next camp.
Styled in the Paris to Dakar Rally format, the Australasian Safari, though not as well known in the States, has secured a foothold in the Southern Hemisphere long-distance rally scene and attracted competitors from around the world.
Unlike some U.S.-based off-road events such as the SCORE Baja 1000, where teams receive route details well in advance and spend days prerunning the course, marking it on GPS, Safari competitors know nothing about each stage until the night before. What they receive is a tulip chart road book; 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 e-mail applications. This type of format leaves little room for error and draws upon the spot-on navigational skills of the co-driver, dead reckoning and attention to detail. If GPS were allowed it would be of limited value, as much of the race travels through an endless array of uncharted cattle station roads and mining lines. Another small difference from races in the U.S.: the seven days between the green and checkered flag.
Mac McCormack’s 1974 Datsun 260Z was one of the track favorites Unfortunately, he totaled the car on the fourth leg.
From a competitor’s standpoint, the Safari must be approached as an around-the-world marathon and a full-on sprint down a quarter-mile drag strip. Go like hell all day, service your vehicle each night, sleep, get up and do it again. Support from chase teams is limited to designated service areas and the nightly bivouac, and there is a drop-dead time limit for each special stage. Entering with too much of a sprint-to-the-finish mindset, though, will result in reaching the bivouac on the back of a recovery truck — if at all.
UTVs are new to the Safari. The only
entrant, Garry Connell in a heavily-modified 2011 Polaris RZR 900, received a DNF.
The auto class is divided into several divisions — showroom, production and modified — each of which are broken down by engine displacement, and chassis and suspension modifications. For forced-injection mills, turbo or otherwise, displacement is multiplied by a factor of 1.7 or 1.5 for diesels. Basically, if you want to run a two-liter Suzuki Samurai or a Cummins Turbo Diesel there is probably a class for you. However, the rally requires a number of transit sections on public roads, and most auto class vehicles are full-bodied production cars.
This was the last we saw of the Thai team before they went tire-side-up in a cloud of dust.
With increasing world interest in multi-day rally racing, Dakar organizer ASO entered partnerships with the Australasian Safari, Pharaohs Rally (Egypt), Taklimakan Rally (China) and the Toyota 1000 Race Desert in Botswana. One winner in each event, moto or auto, will receive a paid entry to the 2013 Dakar in South America. The Safari was selected due to its parallels with Dakar, and that many international teams use it as a training ground. The only rules are that they cannot have previously participated in Dakar, or have finished in the top ten of an FIM rally. When the results were in, it was South African rider Brett Cummings who claimed the prize.
The Safari has gained the attention of rally teams from around the world.
Venezuelan Nunzio Coffaro, driving a Toyota Hilux, was one of the strongest
runners each day. Mechanical problems on Day Three robbed the team of a podium finish.
3,500 Kilometers Through the Outback
Perth, on the central coast of Western Australia, was the launching point for this year’s 3,500-kilometer sprint. While past Safaris turned directly east toward the country’s red center, the 2012 road book sent teams north along the white sand beaches of the Indian Ocean. To the northernmost checkpoint near Carnarvon, the distance wasn’t really that far; maybe 900 kilometers as the wallaby hops, but it was the rights, lefts, sand dunes, zigzags and soft beaches that pushed the trip meter to triple digits.
Jake Smith comes from a racing family. He and his brother Todd jockeyed for position throughout the seven-day event. Jake ultimately took top honors in the moto division.
On the final morning we grabbed the media notes and headed for our shooting location. It was here that we decided to take a “shortcut” through a few hundred kilometers of cattle station roads. No worries mate, I’ve got a crack internal compass. Hansey’s voice still haunts me; “Left Chris, we must go left here.” I listened and we survived. When the dust finally settled in Geraldton, it was John Hederics and navigator Kees Weel at the top of the podium. Underdog Rob Herridge in his surprisingly impressive Subaru Forester claimed second, and Wayne Park landed the bronze; all Aussies. One of the Thai teams ended up on their lid, Dakar veteran Bruce Garland received a DNF and South African moto rider Brett Cummings was heading to Dakar. American 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.
Like many U.S.-based off-road races, motorcycles, quads and autos run on the same track.
With less than 60 percent of the field finishing, the Safari is one challenging race. We’re not sure if multi-day rally racing will ever catch on in the States, but if you’ve got a hankering to push your limits in one of the toughest endurance competitions under the Southern Cross, gather up your mates and put the Australian Safari on your bucket list. www.australiansafari.com.au
2012 Australasian Safari Winners
Auto Division John Hederics/Kees Weel 2008 Holden Colorado 27:15:35
Moto Division Jake Smith 2012 Honda CRF450X 24:56:25
Quad Division Paul Smith 2011 Honda TRX700XX 31:13:12