Report: Can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback? Part 8: Quilpie to Sydney and Full Review

1. Haval H8 SydneyWe’re baaaaack! (click on any picture to enlarge)

This is the last instalment of our Report on driving Damo, a Haval H8, from Sydney to Birdsville and back, to see whether the #1 SUV brand in China can tackle all that the Australian Outback has to offer. You can view the entire series here. The separate links to the previous parts of this series are here: Part 1: The StakesPart 2: Sydney to Broken HillPart 3: Orroroo to LyndhurstPart 4: Lyndhurst to MoolawatanaPart 5: Moolawatana to MungeranniePart 6: Mungerannie to Birdsville and Part 7: Birdsville to Quilpie.

Quilpie SydneyOutback Queensland license plateHaval H8 before CharlevilleThe Quilpie to Sydney two-day itinerary (click to enlarge).

Two more days and I must return the Haval H8 to Sydney. A routine visit to the local petrol station in Quilpie quickly morphed into a nasty surprise. The premium unleaded petrol pump is locked, not unusual in the outback, so I come in to ask for the key. “Oh we don’t have any premium anymore luv, no one uses it here.” Okay then, I’ll just check another…wait. We are in such an isolated part of Australia that this is the only petrol station in a circle of over 200km. Haval’s directions are strict: no petrol under 95 octane rating must be fed to Damo. A couple of feverish calls to the closest towns give the following results: Eulo (233km south-east) doesn’t have any, but Cunnamulla (302km via Eulo) and Charleville (212km east) both do. Charleville is a detour east that adds 110km to my day and means I will have to drive at twilight again tonight, with the constant danger of kangaroos. But this is the closest town that has the right petrol for me. Quick calculations based on the amount of fuel left in the tank and Damo’s average fuel economy show that I have enough fuel to go roughly 220km. I will need to drive very efficiently then, which thankfully I did and managed to reach Charleville. After slaloming between roos to reach Quilpie the night before, here’s another town I believe no one got more excited to reach than myself.

Haval H8 CharlevilleCheap Premium Unleaded CharlevilleHaval H8 Toyota Hilux CharlevilleCommbank Charleville Vietnamese leafletHaval H8 Ford Ranger CharlevilleThirsty Camel bottle shops, cheap petrol, Vietnamese leaflets and roo-barred pickups in Charleville.

Now get this: Charleville is the first town of more than 1.000 inhabitants I traverse since Peterborough in South Australia, some 2.594km/1.611 miles ago… (see Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill). It is also the town where I saw the first passenger car – meaning non-SUV or pickup – since Hawker in the Flinders Ranges, 2.450km/1.522 miles ago (see Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst). It was a Nissan Almera sedan, a model that has now been discontinued in Australia, and it was a real shock: I wondered what the heck that car was doing on the road. One particularity of Charleville is that it now houses a large number of Vietnamese workers on skilled-migration visas working at the local meat works. Far from the stereotype of a racist rural Australia, the locals welcome them with wide open arms: “Mate, it’s keeping the town alive,” ‘Red’ Alexander, a resident, said to the Brisbane Times. In fact, there are leaflets in Vietnamese at the Commonwealth Bank local bureau (pictured above). The fact is rural people tend to be a lot more welcoming and kind than their city counterparts: the type that runs to me and holds the front door of Damo open so I can discharge my full hands without dropping everything on the ground.

Haval H8 Charleville to CunnamullaIsuzu MU-X CunnamullaToyota Hilux Mazda BT-50 CunnamullaThe Land 16 June 2016Cunnamulla

We are now on the Mitchell Highway and the next stop, that we reach a good hour later than if I had managed to fuel up on Premium in Quilpie, is Cunnamulla. The earth gets even redder on the sides of the road and the contrast with the surrounding vegetation is stunning. Along with neighbour town Eulo, Cunnamulla has a very peculiar claim to fame. I stop at the information centre, and a dynamic young woman catches my gaze and offers a big smile: “How can we help?” I venture: “I heard of lizard races being organised here?” She turns official: “Yes, that’s the International Lizard Races Championship, that we used to co-host with Eulo”, making sure the international part gets particular attention. “Unfortunately, legislation around catching and keeping the lizards had become a little too stringent and we were unable to continue with the Races.” Damn. I would have liked to witness that… A look at the local paper, The Land, shows that local farmers are moving with the times and the current debate focusing on the use of new digital measuring technologies across vast swaths of land in order to better anticipate and manage harvesting of crops. The full article is on the newspaper’s website.

Haval H8 BourkeHaval H8 Great Wall X-Series BourkeDamo in the back o’Bourke and posing with its predecessor, the Great Wall Hover H5 (aka X-Series in Oz)

Another 260km/160mi south and we arrive at Bourke across the state border in New South Wales, now just 800km/500mi north-west of Sydney. 37% of the 2.047-strong Bourke population identifies as Indigenous Australian (to be compared with 3% of the overall Australian population), with 21 different indigenous language groups recognised in Bourke today. In 1962, a local, Percy Hobson, became the first Aboriginal athlete to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal for Australia. Somewhat paradoxically, on this trip Bourke virtually represents the dawn of civilisation: the end of the desert and the start of a more dense network of population leading to Sydney. But from an Australian east coast perspective, Bourke is on the opposite considered as the edge of settled agricultural districts and the gateway to the Outback to the north and west of town. Accordingly, the Australian expression “back o’ Bourke” refers to the Outback: once you pass Bourke, you’re lost.

Ford Kuga BourkeHyundai Starex BourkeMitsubishi Triton BourkeToyota Hilux BourkeYou gotta roo-bar your car in Bourke…

The striking car landscape characteristic of Bourke is that the majority of cars are equipped with a roo-bar. I detailed how unpredictable and therefore dangerous kangaroos can be on the road in the previous instalment of this series (see Part 7: Birdsville to Quilpie), and local residents have had to adapt to that threat by hiding their vehicles behind menacing bars such as the Toyota Hilux pictured above. No type of car escapes the roo-bar treatment: from police vehicles, large sedans such as the Toyota Camry or Holden Commodore to small SUVs such as the Nissan Qashqai or Ford Kuga and vans such as the Hyundai Starex and VW Transporter. In fact, in the 450km/280mi that separate Charleville from Bourke, I somewhat grimly counted one dead roo on the road every two km on average (that’s a total of almost 230 dead roos), and sometimes 3 or 4 in a few hundred metres. The push from locals to cull the roo population in the area now makes a lot more sense.

Haval H8 WashingHaval H8 Sydney Pic3Haval H8 Sydney Pic2“The Birdsville Track? Never heard of it…” Don’t lie, Damo.

The roos at twilight were the last hurdle to overcome before arriving at Nyngan, some 550km/340mi north-west of Sydney. But I learnt my lesson yesterday: 60km/h-40mph max and a full stop when roos are spotted enable me to snail my way to destination unscathed despite the darkness. The last day is a slow progress through numerous roadworks and traffic jams to arrive back to Sydney, but Damo’s sat nav has the good idea to divert me to smaller countryside roads that are a pleasure to drive on so that it’s not highway all the way. An observation as I cross the Blue Mountains 100km west of Sydney: suddenly a flurry of Subarus appear on the road and it makes me realise I had all but forgotten that brand during my adventure. Contrary to Alaska and northwestern USA, Subarus are not used for their 4WD abilities in Australia, only in cities. Once in Sydney, it’a race against time to catch a view of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge from the North Sydney Olympic Pool before sunset. The guys at the Oasis Car Wash Cafe nearby welcome Damo with wide open eyes: “Long trip you’ve been on, mate?” Yessir. Less than an hour later, Damo could credibly pretend he’s never heard of the Birdsville Track in his entire life.

Overall Birdsville Track loop June 2016The overall Australian outback loop I took Damo through (click to enlarge).

The morning after, as Damo is installed on the tow truck and I wave him goodbye, the adrenaline push that has kept me going for the past week suddenly drops. In eight days, I have driven 5.343km or 3.320 miles. 1 in 4 were on dirt tracks for a final fuel economy of 11.5L/100km or 20.4mpg. A total of 638L or 166 gal of Premium Unleaded petrol were needed to complete the trip, costing AUD $958.20 (US$ 727.82, 686.65€). Given the diversity, difficulty and roughness of some of the terrain we traversed, this actually amounts to pretty good fuel economy. But most importantly of all, Damo has never failed under pressure, handling unknown and isolated terrain like an experienced adventurer. The objective of this road trip was to test in the harsh Australian Outback that Haval’s status of No.1 SUV brand in China was backed by actual 4WD ability. It is.

So, can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback?

The answer is yes.

Haval H8 4WDDamo yes

Reliability under duress, four wheel driving ability. The Intelligent AWD system is automatically engaged at the right time and easy to anticipate/manage. All mud obstacles were overcome across 1.400km of dirt tracks. No spinning wheels, adherence was appropriate and the vehicle controllable in extremely slippery conditions.

Interior quality and equipment, plush materials, intuitive and functional dials. Nothing is too complicated, everything is refined and well-thought. No user manual required.

Comfortable ride, strong lower back seat support.

Some very welcome smarts: automatic warning in case of sudden braking, back window wipers automatically turning on when reversing in rain for example.

Some fun bonuses like the brand name projected on the floor in red letters from rear view mirrors.

Powerful and efficient brakes that enabled me to avoid hitting any kangaroos (phew!).

Interior space: leg space at rear is huge and lots of storage space in the front.

Exterior design is aggressive yet timeless, won’t get old too quickly. Originally unveiled in April 2012 at the Beijing Auto Show but officially launched in March 2015, the H8 is therefore already 4 years old design-wise but still looks current, even attractive.

High speed driving integrity, both on bitumen (160km/h-100mph) and dirt track (130km/h-80mph) where these speeds were attained with no behaviour change.

Damo no

Premium Unleaded petrol mandate adds 20 to 50 AU cents per litre. Accessibility to standard petrol or, even better, a diesel engine would have been much more cost-efficient options.

2.0 Turbo engine lacks… turbo when accelerating.

Two underbody screws got loose after continued exposure to mud wheel ruts over a 1.000km distance. Metallic ones would have held.

The sat nav vastly overestimates the time required to reach destination by applying speeds that are a lot lower than the speed limit, and is not incorporating unsealed roads in its route calculations.

Reverse camera and boot opening are inoperable if the car is muddy.

Armrest storage opening is cumbersome and prevents easy access.

There is no memory on Eco or Sport modes: these have to be turned back on each time engine restarts and are easily forgotten because of lack of striking indication on the odo.

Guiding voice repeatedly asks to put on the parking mode when on reverse gear.

Two additional 20L jerrycans of petrol were needed to complete the trip safely due to high distances between petrol stations stocking Premium Unleaded. The 75L tank isn’t large enough for long 4WD adventures (it would be with a diesel engine), but it will still get you 640km/400mi ahead.

Farewell Haval H8

And with this it’s time to say good bye to Damo. It’s been a treat.

Report: Can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback? Part 7: Birdsville to Quilpie

Haval H8 Emergency Airstrip150km past Birdsville, the dirt track transforms into an emergency airstrip. 

This is Part 7 of our Report on driving Damo, a Haval H8, into the Australian Outback to see whether the #1 SUV brand in China can deal with the worst road conditions this country has to offer. You can view the entire series here. The separate links to the previous parts of this series are here: Part 1: The StakesPart 2: Sydney to Broken HillPart 3: Orroroo to LyndhurstPart 4: Lyndhurst to MoolawatanaPart 5: Moolawatana to Mungerannie and Part 6: Mungerannie to Birdsville.

Birdsville Quilpie mapToday’s itinerary courtesy of Google maps (Click to enlarge).

After rewarding Damo with a sunset on Big Red the night before (see Part 6: Mungerannie to Birdsville), I must now try and continue my journey and find my way back to Sydney, ideally through the east on the Birdsville Developmental Road towards Windorah. Yesterday however, that track was closed, as well as the northern “escape” to Bedourie, blocking my advancement. First I must take advantage of the first pump of Premium Unleaded petrol since Copley way before the Birdsville Track. (see Part 5: Moolawatana to Mungerannie). It seems like centuries ago already. There are two petrol stations in Birdsville but only the one across the road from the Birdsville Hotel sells Premium Unleaded, at an ok price of 161 cents per litre. It’s expensive, but not as outlandish as the 185 cents of Copley or Arkaroola (see Part 4: Lyndhurst to Moolawatana).

Birdsville BakeryBirdsville Bakery

The station owner has all the Road conditions information I need, namely that the track to Windorah has reopened a few minutes ago, but for high-clearance 4WDs only. He checks out Damo: “It’s four-wheel-drive yes? You should be arright then!” You sure? “Yeah just take it slow and steady.” I don’t particularly enjoy the idea of getting stuck on my way back home from Birdsville, so I check with the Wirrarra Information Centre for more details: why is the track 4WD only, is it creeks, mud, sand, rutting? Turns out they have no idea, and I’d be better placed asking cars coming the other way once I’m on the track. It reinforced the perception I have of tracks being opened and closed solely based on the weather, and not always based on people having travelled on them informing on the conditions. My last stop before setting sail is at the revered Birdsville Bakery. My verdict: a tad over-rated. The – supposedly world class – meat pie is burning hot and mushy and the small $4 coffee is taking the piss.

Birdsville RacesBirdsville RacesThe legendary Birdsville Races 

But it was the opportunity to check out the legendary Birdsville racecourse. All along the trip people where asking me why I would want to go to Birdsville at this time of the year. “It’s a bit early for the races!” On the “Welcome to Birdsville” roadsign, it says population: 115 (+/- 7000). That’s because during the first weekend in September, the annual Birdsville Cup horse races draw up to 7.000 spectators from all over the country for three very dusty days. You know you are in the remote Australian outback when you realise that during these three days, parking is free for all light aircraft… Why bother with a car?

Road signs in BirdsvilleOur objective for today is Quilpie.

Just out of Birdsville after a quick hosing down, the road sign listing distances to main towns is daunting. Brisbane is over 1.600km east (1.000 miles), Adelaide is almost 1.200km south (745 miles) and Marree (518km) and Mungeranie (370km) remind us of the past two days. According to the sign, the closest settlement on our itinerary is Betoota (170km) but there is no petrol until Windorah (389km). Our objective for today is Quilpie (669km). Although the Birdsville Developmental Road towards Windorah has just reopened, the gate on the road is still closed, and I feel a little naughty driving around it, but off we go.

Birdsville-Windorah trackHaval H8 BetootaCrest roadsignNear Betoota

Now that I have achieved the goal of this trip – reaching Birdsville – it would be very easy to let my guard down and loosen my concentration. I’m conscious this would be a big mistake, if anything danger is the most acute now. The track to Windorah will be treacherous as no 2WD is allowed on it today, and the terrain is indeed very stony from the get go. A debilitating puncture could be just around the corner. Although considered a proper settlement on all road signs since Birdsville, Betoota is in fact a ghost town that only has seasonal population. The last permanent resident, Sigmund Remienko, a grader driver until he bought the Betoota Hotel in 1957, died in 2004. The sandstone Betoota Hotel, built in 1887, is now the last remaining building in town. It closed in 1997. As illustrated above, the most frequent road sign on this part of Australia is one warning for a crest in the road and reminding all vehicles to keep left: given there is only one truly well graded track, it’s a constant zigzag before crests to ensure the probability of hitting an oncoming car face on is null.

Haval H8 AirstripEmergency AirstripDamo has just landed.

Roughly 150km past Birdsville near the Planet Downs station, I discovered a new concept which, it turns out, is another unique characteristic of Outback Australia: the road gets sealed for 1.5 to 3 km / 1 to 2 miles and becomes an emergency airstrip for Flying Doctors aircrafts. They are announced by a sign forbidding cars to park on the road for that distance, as pictured at the top of this article. There were three of these on the way to Windorah. See Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill for a thorough description of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, an iconic Australian institution.

Muddy trackBetoota RoadworkGrading the track

There is roughly 270km of dirt tracks to go from Birdsville, and as hinted by the “4WD only” road condition status, a lot of it is still very muddy. There were a couple of tricky passes with particularly deep wheel ruts but once again Damo mastered them without batting an eyelid. Yet, almost no one dared venture on the track with a conventional SUV. Out of the dozen cars that crossed my path in the almost 300km distance, I was once again the only non-modified, -higher clearance 4WD along with just one Land Rover Discovery, whose 4WD abilities are a lot more recognised than my Haval H8. The rest were the usual Toyota Hilux, Land Cruiser ute and wagon, Nissan Patrol and VW Amarok. At one point the track was being graded with the truck covering copious amounts of mud along the way.

Before WindorahArraburyBefore Windorah 2Channel Country landscapes

The landscapes I traversed today were as beautiful as they were unexpected: rather foolishly, I had assumed that once I arrived in Birdsville the trip would lose much of its interest. The contrary was true: a mix of arid desert and tenacious vegetation gave the most unusual and striking colour combinations. Starting with a tough rusted gibber plain from Birdsville, the track goes through the more fertile Channel Country composed of intertwined rivulets. There, the bright blue of the sky mixes with the orange earth, grey clouds and green and yellow vegetation. Sometimes bright red sand dunes dash the horizon.

Haval H8 Gibber plain Haval H8 Red earthHaval H8 Road Train route signBack on bitumen.

After 270km, when the Birdsville Developmental Road joins the Diamantina one, it’s with great emotion that Damo and I are reunited with continuous bitumen. This particular road is a Road Train route, and multiple signs such as the one above remind us that given how narrow the road is – it is basically one way – each time a road train approaches, it’s better to just stop and park completely outside the road in order to avoid any gravel damage to the windshield. Now. I had assumed the return of sealed roads meant the return of civilisation and proper phone network. I couldn’t be further from the truth. I would have to drive a further 1.500 km (almost 1.000 miles) to be able to put a phone call in without being cut by a flailing network.

Haval H8 Windorah10000kmHaval H8 SnakeAn important milestone / Thankfully the only snake of the trip… 

At roughly the same time as we got back onto bitumen, Damo celebrates an important milestone: 10.000km on the odo. I took the picture above to mark the occasion. After almost 1.400 km of continuous dirt tracks, the technical balance sheet of Damo is still for the most part unscathed. Apart from the two plastic screws I mentioned in the last update (see Part 6: Mungerannie to Birdsville), this Haval H8 is decidedly running like clockwork. An impressive achievement.

Windorah RoadhouseHolden Colorado WindorahWindorah refuelMaking a mistake in Windorah

For the past 5 hours I have been spotting small signs on the road indicating how far we were from Windorah. The build-up and anticipation had unconsciously led me to assume and expect that Windorah would be a huge metropolis. It’s tiny. Named after the local Aboriginal word for “Big Fish”, Windorah has a population of 158. That’s 43 more than Birdsville, but still not enough to qualify it as a village: it’s described as a ‘human settlement’ on most guides. There I make a big mistake: still considering myself back in civilisation which means being obviously surrounded by petrol stations at every corner, I choose to ignore the Windorah roadhouse and empty my second and last jerrycan of premium unleaded petrol in the tank. But it doesn’t end there. I was just about to experience the most tense couple of hours of the entire trip…

Haval H8 sunset pc2Haval H8 sunsetSunset on Damo.

Just past Windorah and for the first time since Moolawatana, kangaroos are back. I get an ominous sign first: just as I finished saying to myself out loud (don’t laugh, lonesome driving does that to you) that it doesn’t look like it’ll be an issue driving at twilight, the first kangaroo points its nose. There have been absolutely no kangaroo warning signs all day, so my vigilance isn’t at the 1000% level it should have been at the start. Kangaroos start hopping around aimlessly on the road, coming out, getting back in entranced, quick and unpredictable zigzagging. This is probably the harshest and realest test of the Haval H8 brakes. All other animals have predictable movement as they run in one direction or stop frozen, making it relatively easy to avoid them. Not roos. The direction of their next move is utterly unpredictable and lightning fast: I miss hitting a roo by a smidgen twice. Very quickly, I learn that the only option when roos get too close for comfort is to brake to a complete stop, wait for it to go away and drive on. Repeat as many times as you see a roo closing in. Needless to say the last 200km to Quilpie were the longest in the history of driving.

QuilpieOpal buyer shop in Quilpie

The sense of achievement reaching sleepy Quilpie without any dramatic kangaroo encounter almost matches what I felt arriving in Birdsville. This opal-mining town of less than 600 inhabitants, the railhead from which cattle are sent to the coast a further 1.000km to the east, should be my second-last stop before Sydney. I don’t think anyone has ever been happier to reach Quilpie than me that night. A nasty surprise awaits in the morning though…

Stay tuned for the last instalment of this series: Quilpie to Sydney and full review of Damo.

Report: Can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback? Part 6: Mungerannie to Birdsville

Haval H8 Big Red 2Damo proudly posing on the Big Red sand dune at the start of the Simpson Desert. 

This is Part 6 of our Report on driving Damo, a Haval H8, into the Australian Outback to see whether the #1 SUV brand in China can deal with the worst road conditions this country has to offer. You can view the entire series here. See also Part 1: The StakesPart 2: Sydney to Broken HillPart 3: Orroroo to LyndhurstPart 4: Lyndhurst to Moolawatana and Part 5: Moolawatana to Mungerannie.

Phil Mungerannie Hotel. Picture courtesy ABCPhil Gregurke, co-owner of the Mungerannie Station on the Birdsville Track. Picture by ABC

It’s 9am and neither Pam nor Phil have shown any sign of life at the Mungerannie Station they co-own. But as I empty my first jerrycan of petrol into the Haval H8 in front of the main building, Phil suddenly comes out with a big smile, holding a sheet of fax paper in his hand: “The track is open! It’s open!” he shouts. “Just received the fax from Birdsville! You’re going to be able to get to Birdsville today! Aaaah I’m happy for you, mate. How do you like your coffee?” Once again I need a couple of seconds to digest this outpour of kindness and so many words in so little time: this trip has already made me a lonesome cowboy. Finally I mutter: “White with one please!”

Haval H8 Morning dewMorning dew welcomes Damo into a new day.

We are not yet halfway through the Birdsville Track, and given it rained overnight the odds the track would be closed by now were real, so this is really good news. Marree is 206km behind us and there’s an additional 311km to tick off before we arrive in Birdsville. Inside, still half asleep and holding onto her mug of coffee, Pam chimes in: “Oh great so it’s open! Now you’ll probably hit a wet patch just before Birdsville. The truck driver that came through yesterday said he struggled there”. I know. He told me himself (see Part 5: Moolawatana to Mungerannie)…

Mungerannie BirdsvilleOur itinerary for today and the complete Birdsville Track map by Google Maps & Wikipedia (click to enlarge).

“Oh and he also said there were two trucks that stopped and didn’t dare go any further, just before Clifton Hills. But you’re much lighter, so you’ll be fine.” If you say so. Phil sums it all up: “Look, it’s going to be wet, there’s no two ways about it. But at Clifton Hills you gotta be careful: there may be cattle on the road.” Pam: “They would be coming from the right-hand side, so keep your eyes peeled…” I don’t think I ever got more detailed directions before going on a day’s drive. Once again Clifton Hills, although it has a name and a location on the map (see above), is only a homestead with rarely a soul inhabiting it, not a village as Mungerannie (also spelt Mungeranie) is the only place with services along the track.

Without Trucks Australia stopsReally true…

“Shame you’re not staying any longer…” says Phil. I can’t help but raise my eyebrows. He explains: “I’ve got to drive to Adelaide tomorrow to sell our wool [turns out Phil’s skills also include wool shearing]. Would be a nice little trip with Pam, but we never do this stuff together.” Being the only services on the Birdsville Track, Phil and Pam just cannot have a joint day off and close the Station as travellers rely on them for petrol, food and accommodation. “But there’s a few retired couples staying at the moment, real nice people. I was going to ask them if they wouldn’t mind looking after the joint for a coupla days while we’re away…” I say he should definitely ask. He smiles.

Haval H8 CamelsCamels were very shy and admired Damo from a distance.

It’s time to go. A thick fog has enveloped the Station as if to discourage me from leaving and, weirdly, it seems the temperature has gone further down a few degrees since I got up. It’s 10°C now (50°F), but it seems much colder. “Got a sat phone?” Phil asks. Nope. He sees I’m wearing shorts. “Got long pants at least?” Yup. “Ah thank God, you’ll be fine then”. Pam laughs. “Good luck on the Track!” They both wave goodbye, with their coffee in the other hand.

Haval H8 Birdsville Track Day 2

Birdsville Track Day 2Birdsville Track, the morning of Day 2 (click on any picture to enlarge).

The fog dissipates after a mere 10 minutes, giving way to the sunniest day I’ve had on the trip so far. If the track was graded dirt and rocks on Day 1, today it gets softer with bull dust and sand becoming more and more frequent as I drive north, as illustrated on the pictures above. Apart from a muddy section just after Marree, the Birdsville Track has been kind to me so far, so much so that I have been able to lock the car into Eco mode (normally reserved for highway driving) in order to limit fuel consumption. Google maps says you need 12h26 to get from Mungerannie to Birdsville but I managed the trip in 5 hours including numerous stops to take pictures. Unsealed roads are still a mystery for most sat nav systems as well, as illustrated with Damo who can’t calculate a trip outside of bitumen. It still locates me perfectly along the track though. One of my first stops of the day was to try and get a herd of camels as close as possible to the car: I missed by a large shot as they were too shy and cautious to oblige. There are no kangaroos in this part of the country, the terrain is way too arid for them.

Haval H8 Road Train mud 1

Haval H8 mud

Haval H8 Road Train mud 2The Haval H8 came through where road trains stopped.

Just before I spotted the camels, I crossed paths with a couple trekking along the Birdsville Track by foot! It’s actually the best time of the year to do so, as weather is not as stifling hot as during the summer months in December-January, but I’d much rather be in the comfort of my car when the heavens break into torrential rains… I pass signs for Clifton Hills without any mud, but just as I sigh from relief the treacherous terrain commences: probably the deepest mud of the entire trip, easily 25 cm/10 inches deep, with no real tracks to follow. Maximum concentration is required as this is in fact wet sand, a lot thiner and viscous than the mud I had encountered earlier in the trip. But once again the Haval H8 automatically engages into 4WD as soon as the car starts to slide. And slide it did, and until now I thought this was mainly because of my slick tyres. Not so: I crossed a heavily modified Nissan Patrol with all terrain tyres that was sliding as much as I was. Reassured. After the 15 km/10 miles-long patch ends, I spot the two stopped Road Trains Pam and Phil warned me about. A good photo opportunity.

Birdsville Track Day 2 p2

Haval H8 Birdsville Track Day 2 p2

Birdsvile Track Day 2 p3A land of big skies (click on any picture to enlarge).

As much as I would have liked to try the shorter “Inside Track” linking Clifton Hills to Birdsville (see map further up), I could not as it has been closed for weeks now. After this challenging pass, the terrain changes again. The sun is now hitting hard and the track is back to dry-packed dirt and gravel. Perfect for pushing the Haval H8 to 110km/h or 70mph. It’s now a very smooth drive and the opportunity to test the 8-speaker audio system with my corny music tastes. I have a few tracks, such as 1990’s Technotronic “Pump up the jam” whose over-accentuated bass lines traditionally push the speakers of any car to the grave. Not Damo’s. He even seems to be enjoying the rhythm. Vegetation slowly creeps back into the landscape with fields of yellow flowers making their appearance, and the heavy rains of the past few days have created lakes on each side of the track.

Haval H8 Queensland borderDamo crossing the Queensland border…Haval H8 Birdsville…and arriving in Birdsville.

Before we know it, Damo and I soon cross the Queensland border and I am bracing for a bad patch of wet track that could prevent me from reaching Birdsville, as indicated by the truck driver I spoke with yesterday. Instead, we get… wait for it … bitumen! For the first time in almost 600km/370 miles. The end of the dirt track must have dried up since his passage on it. Arriving in Birdsville is hard to believe but easier than I expected, an achievement nonetheless. An iconic Australian settlement on the fringe of the Simpson Desert, Birdsville is one of the most remote places in the world. As I have now grown accustomed to in the Australian Outback, road conditions info is more reliably relayed by travellers than the – sometimes inexistent – phone and internet networks. Accordingly, given I am one of the first vehicles to have made its way northbound on the Birdsville Track since the rain, I get eagerly questioned as I get out of the car to share the Track’s condition and where the tricky sections are. I am more than happy to oblige, suddenly feeling like a Hollywood actor being interviewed at the red carpet of the Academy Awards. Okay, not quite.

Damo and me

Haval H8 Birdsville HotelDamo surrounded by the big guys in front of the Birdsville Hotel (click to enlarge).

My first stop in Birdsville is the Wirrarri Information Centre as the Road conditions website I have been using until now to decide on my itinerary is limited to South Australia and we are now in Queensland. Upon checking the road maps there, I realise that the Marree-Mungerannie section of the Birdsville Track I took yesterday has since been closed to all vehicles, like a door shut right behind me. This means I drove on it on the first day it was accessible from Lyndhurst, but also on its last open day. The window of availability to cross the Birdsville Track was only 24 hours and I took it – this is how thin my chances were of reaching Birdsville on this trip. It also means I can’t retrace my steps in case I get stuck here.

Birdsville location AustraliaPretty much at the centre of Australia

And just as I process that thought, I also find out that the eastward track I was intending to take to continue my journey to Windorah is closed. In fact, Birdsville is surrounded by unsealed roads for at least 200km/125 miles around. East its the closed track to Windorah (380km), South is the Birdsville Track I have just taken (517km), West is the Simpson Desert (550km to Finke) only accessible in convoys of at least two full-time 4WDs, and North is the track to Bedourie (190km), also closed. I am stuck in Birdsville today.

Toyota Land Cruiser Birdsville

Haval H8 Birdsville Hotel 2Damo is the only ‘normal’ SUV in Birdsville today. 

It’s not such a bad thing, as it finally gives me some time off after a few days of frantic – sometimes tense – driving through mud, sand, rocks and dirt on some of the world’s most isolated tracks. I can now take stock of what just happened: I have reached Birdsville through the Birdsville Track in muddy conditions in a Chinese all-wheel drive SUV. Almost all vehicles present in Birdsville today come from the adjoining Simpson Desert and are therefore heavily modified 4WDs complete with protective roo-bars, snorkels, dune flags and satellite antennas. People come to me, ask where I’ve come from and are impressed I did so through mud in a car they didn’t even know existed until today. I have to admit, this trip’s objective has been to check the Haval H8’s off-road limits and I don’t feel like it’s struggled one bit so far. I am genuinely impressed.

Mud 3

Mud 2

Mud 4Flossing out the mud between Damo’s teeth…

Damo’s odo indicates 9.794 km, which means we have travelled 3.228 km – just over 2.000 miles – so far on the trip. More than one-third (1.127 km-700 miles) was on unsealed roads in treacherous conditions on tracks that had just reopened after rain that day. The fuel economy over the whole period has been 11.7 L/km. I did throw at Damo everything the road conditions could but he did not falter. As you can see on the pictures, mud is now everywhere on the car, including inside the wheel arches in copious amounts, but there are no major technical issues to report as of today.

Haval H8 Screw 1

Haval H8 Screw 2Above – the only damage to the car after over 1.100km of unsealed tracks. Not bad.

The only things that ‘broke’ were two plastic screws holding one of the underbody protection sheets: one is unhooked, the other one lost (see pictures above), taken by the huge amounts of half-dried mud that the car had to overcome along the trip. If these were metallic they would have stayed put, something Haval can easily fix in the next iteration of the model. It does mean the sheet is slightly tilted down – by 2-3 cm (1 in) – allowing more mud to come in, but it is held in place by more robust screws on each side so I did not consider it mandatory to get it fixed on the spot. The mud covering the back of the car means two annoying things are happening: the boot can’t be opened as the sensor is obscured, and the reverse camera is inoperable. A good hosing the morning after fixed this. All-in-all, this is a very good balance sheet taking into account all the horror stories I heard and read of flat tyres on the Birdsville Track that left drivers stranded for days in the absence of rescue vehicle.

Birdsville HotelThe bar at the Birdsville Hotel. Click to enlarge and read all signs.

As incredible as it sounds given our remote location, high-speed wifi connection is available at the Birdsville Hotel, originally established in 1884. I Skype friends and family and email the guys at Haval to tell them where I am – until now, I had not shared any precise plans as I didn’t even know where I would be able to drive to. They’re ecstatic: “You don’t do things by half, do you!” That would be correct. The interior of the Birsdville Hotel bar is a larger, more commercial version of the Mungerannie one this morning. Some pretty funny signs hang on the wall, such as this special offer for a 7-course meal, composed of a 6-pack of beers and a pie. Luxurious. Being an actual city, the ambiance here is a lot less intimate but the food is delicious.

Haval H8 Big Red 1

Haval H8 Big Red 3

Big Red sunsetDamo conquering Big Red. A spectacular sunset awaits.

To top up this glorious day, I decide to drive the 40km west of Birdsville linking the town to the spectacular Big Red sand dune at the start of the Simpson Desert, a surprise present of sorts to Damo to thank him for taking me to the target location of this trip. The small amount of rain of the night before has packed the sand, making it easier to climb the giant dune, led by a clearly marked track. However while we were climbing, even modified high-clearance 4WDs nearly got bogged down as they ventured where the tracks were the deepest. Tired but smug, Damo looked on with a quiet smile.

Watching the sunset on Big Red is every bit as magical and appeasing as it looks like on these pictures.

Birdsville Simspon Desert Road

Big Red

Haval H8 Big Red 4Damo quietly watching the sunset on Big Red.

Stay tuned for Part 7 of the series taking us to Quilpie…

Report: Can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback? Part 5: Moolawatana to Mungerannie on the Birdsville Track

Birdsville TrackThe Birdsville Track in all its glory (click on any picture to enlarge).

This is Part 5 of our Report on driving a Haval H8 – baptised Damo – into the Australian Outback. See also Part 1: The StakesPart 2: Sydney to Broken HillPart 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst and Part 4 Lyndhurst to Moolawatana. You can view the entire series here.

To my surprise I managed to sleep for a few hours in the car, but dusk means kangaroos streaming from everywhere in the savannah so I have to wait until the sun is frankly installed in the sky to get going. After a couple of days of rain and closed tracks, today is the day everything goes in the right direction, and the day I finally manage to set wheels on the legendary Birdsville Track.

Haval H8 SunriseIt’s a remote Outback sunrise for Damo.

The prospect of retracing my steps and going through the same very slippery muddy patch I had just barely managed to pass the night before isn’t enchanting me, given the early morning dew has made the track even damper. Yet I don’t know if I have gained experience in mud-driving or the track actually dried up overnight, but this second pass was much easier than yesterday. I soon arrive at Arkaroola Village and decide to cut short directly to Copley. This section of track is categorised yellow (4WD only) but apart from a couple of overflowing creeks, it’s nowhere near as hard work as what I experienced the day before, and once again the Road conditions website is (fortunately this time) incorrect.

Moolawatana Mungerannie mapMoolawatana to Mungerannie itinerary (click to enlarge). Map by Google.

In fact, the patch of track from Arkaroola to Copley is so clean that it’s a good opportunity to test the Haval H8’s more sporty inclinations. Constantly swapping high speed straight lanes for slow-motion creek passes, I manage to push the H8 up to 130km/h or 80mph on dirt tracks and brake to an almost full-stop in order to pass rock-filled creeks with no trouble. Damo takes it all in its stride and revels in the challenge. I’m impressed. This fast-and-furious drive remains very lonely: we crossed just one car – a Ford Escape – in 210 km / 130 miles just before arriving in Copley where we got in no time. There, wifi connection and a very good surprise await – probably the best gift in the entire trip: a check of the Road conditions website reveals the Lyndhurst to Marree portion of unsealed road has reopened, giving me access to the Birdsville Track!

Haval H8 Marree HotelDamo turning heads at the Marree Hotel Haval H8 Marree 2In Marree – one of the first Royal Mail utes to ever serve on the Birdsville Track.

I can hardly contain my excitement when refueling for petrol and coffee in Copley, and the careful forecast of the Copley Motel and Cafe manager barely registers: “You will be lucky to get to Mungerannie before sunset, you can’t expect to drive at more than 50km/h average on the track”. Try me. What I had been aiming at for this whole trip, and what I had almost given up on is now shaping up to be a reality: I am going to get to drive on the Birdsville Track! But before that we have an obligatory stop in Marree where Damo is turning heads during his short stop at the Hotel and in front of one of the very first Royal Mail utes to ever serve on the Birdsville Track, driven by the legendary Tom Kruse (more on this further down this article). No, the actor came long after.

Haval H8 MarreeDamo smiling after over 500 km/300 miles of dirt tracks… Ready for 500 more.

While in Leigh Creek filling up on food supplies, I managed to call the Mungerannie Hotel – the only motel accommodation option on the Birdsville Track – to book a room there as I was worried given the Track hadn’t been accessible for a couple of days that it may have been fully booked with stranded travellers. Pam answered: “Of course we can book a room for you luv. Are you coming from the North or South?” South from Marree. “Alright, from Marree the track is a little slippery for the first 10 to 15 kays but then it’s dry all the way.”

Haval H8 Birdsville Track road signDamo is as impatient as I am to launch into the – now open – Birdsville Track…Haval H8 Birdsville Track startReady to go!

Doesn’t seem like much, but when you launch your four wheels onto deep and slippery mud, it makes a lot of difference to know that hell will only last for a dozen km as it is a bit like driving in apnea, with stopping not an option or else you get bogged down. Now the true meaning of “a little” slippery remains to be deciphered…and could well mean “awfully” in a typically low-key Australian way. These areas of Australia are so remote that travelling safely relies essentially on the generosity and care of fellow travellers and locals, so I welcomed Pam’s coaching with wide open arms and thanked her profusely.

Haval H8 Birdsville Track sat navIt’s official – albeit with a spelling mistake on the sat nav…Birdsville Track mudAs briefed, the Birdsville Track is muddy at the start, but nothing to worry too much about. 

Just as we launch onto the track, a road sign cheekily announces: “Only 200km until the Mungerannie Hotel – not far now!” I see what you did there… As indicated by Pam, the start of the track from Marree is a little (not awfully) muddy, but being a main artery a few heavy trucks have already marked the way and it’s nowhere near as challenging as yesterday. Or perhaps I have now markedly improved my mud-slipping skills… After that it is dry indeed, enough to push Damo up to 100km/h or 60mph.

Haval H8 Birdsville Track 1Haval H8 Birdsville Track 2This is really happening: Damo and I are on the Birdsville Track.

The Birdsville Track is 517 km / 320 miles of pure legend. Starting in Marree and arriving in Birdsville across the Queensland border, the track traverses three deserts along the route: the Strzelecki DesertSturt Stony Desert and Tirari Desert. Now a graded dirt road, it is a road train route and a main artery for cattle trucks carrying livestock. It passes through one of the driest parts of Australia with an average rainfall of less than 100 mm / 4 in annually… except right now. According to Jo from the Lyndhurst Roadhouse, the region has already received 300 mm / 12 in since January!

Birdsville Track rainVery threatening clouds just before getting to Mungerannie – but no rain. Haval H8 Birdsville Track 3The entire Birdsville Track to myself (almost).

A muddy Birdsville Track is a rarity, and along with my adventures of the past couple of days trying to join Birdsville via Innamincka, this is turning out to be an excellent 4WD test for the Haval H8. Driving on the Birdsville Track in dry conditions is something any vehicle could do. Add rain and mud and it’s a different story altogether. The opening of the Lyndhurst-Marree section giving me access to the Birdsville Track was blue (all vehicles with caution) as well as the Marree-Mungerannie section even though the mud at the start of both tracks would have scared most 2WDs away. In fact, I was the only non-modified 4WD on the track the day I drove on it.

Haval H8 Birdsville Track 4Haval H8 Red cloudsThe clouds get a definite red tinge reflecting the red earth of the adjoining Simpson Desert.

According to all the guides of the region, the area the Birdsville Track traverses is extremely barren, dry and isolated. However after going through secondary tracks yesterday to Arkaroola and Moolawatana HS (see Part 4 Lyndhurst to Moolawatana), it almost seems like a highway: I did cross four vehicles in 205 km / 130 miles, exponentially lifting my average! One of them was, once again, Eric’s Rig (see Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst) and Eric the driver had a big smile on his face seeing Damo full of mud. Me: “See you later, or never!” Am still scared I will see Eric’s Rig when I really don’t want to. The landscapes I’m driving through are breath-taking: I don’t think I have ever driven on a flatter area in my entire life. You can literally see hundreds of km around: a couple of patches of rain, changing clouds that get a red tinge reflecting the red earth below, but mostly sunny weather all the way. It’s simply magical.

Haval H8 Outback gridOutback grid detailThe grid: an Australian outback specialty.

The most frequent road sign you will encounter in this part of the world is one warning for a “Grid”. No, this is not evidence of an intricate network of underground plumbing in the desert. Barely registering under the wheels when passed at high speed, these grids are actually scary-wide when explored on foot: care is needed to walk across. Their utility is both simple and emblematic of the isolated Australian outback: there are here to keep cattle within the bounds of their respective homestead without having to resort to gates that each driver on the Track would need to stop to open then close. The grid bars are so widely spaced that no livestock would ever venture across indeed. All grids are connected to a network of barbwire separating the immense homesteads, which sometimes cover areas many thousands square km large. Some properties are so large, the owners use planes to herd stock back to the homestead…

Haval H8 Birdsville Track 5Birdsville Track RoadworkRoadwork in the desert. Okay then… 

Time for a bit of history about the legendary Birdsville Track. It was opened in the 1860s to walk cattle from northern Queensland and the Northern Territory  – Darwin is 2.400 km/1.500 miles north – to the nearest railhead in Port Augusta, 380 km/240 mi south of Marree. The pioneering drover credited with establishing the track is Percy Burt: he set up a store at Diamantina Crossing, today known as Birdsville, and used the path to bring cattle out of the Channel Country to the north all the way to the new railhead at Maree that was completed in 1883. This stock route was more than 1.000 km/620 mi shorter than the alternative path to Brisbane, this according to Wikipedia.

Birdsville Track Tom KruseTom Kruse – the legendary mailman of the Birdsville Track and a detailed map (click to enlarge).

Along with livestock, camel trains and drovers, the most famous travellers on the Birdsville Track were the postmen. The first mail service along the Birdsville Track was engineered by Jack Hester in 1884 using a buggy and pack horses. Given the track was often flooded, a boat was necessary at times, making it an almost impossible adventure until enough bores were drilled along the route to drain the rain and reduce flooding occurrences. But it’s outback legend and mailman Tom Kruse, featured in the 1954 documentary film The Back of Beyond, that made the Birdsville Track famous. He served the track from 1936 to 1963 when he was replaced by an air service from Adelaide – still to this day the longest mail run in the world.

Haval H8 Mungerannie HotelThanks to the roof sign, the Mungerannie Hotel can be seen from the sky.

Despite very threatening clouds towards the end of our journey, Damo and I arrive in the Mungerannie station – population: 3 – a full hour before sunset scheduled for 5:45pm. Mungerannie is the only pit stop along the 517km of the Birdsville Track. All other locations listed on the map below are in actual fact either ruins or homesteads that don’t offer any services. But Mungerannie has accommodation, food/beer, a McDonalds (just kidding) and petrol, but no premium unleaded so I had to empty one of my two jerrycans to be able to continue the trip.

Haval H8 Road Train MungerannieIt was an honour for Damo to pose next to the only road train on Birdsville Track that day.

Booking in advance ended up being unnecessary but had I come here a couple of days earlier it would have been a great idea indeed: all motel rooms were occupied until the night before with a groups of stranded travellers whose vehicles all broke down on the track. Arriving at the station, I crossed paths with the only road train on the Birdsville Track that day. His driver gave me his impressions on the track’s conditions further north, some precious information that will hopefully help me get through to Birdville tomorrow: “I struggled quite a lot coming out of Birdsville but the rest was fine”. So here is someone who gets paid driving trucks through the desert every day of the week and he says he “struggled”. Christ almighty. This is going to be fun…

Haval H8 MungeranniePit stop in Mungerannie for Damo

Co-owner Phil seemed paralysed by the (relatively) cold weather the night I arrived, but Pam was very chatty: “You’re the first normal car we see in at least a week! It’s been crazy weather out here, so much rain. Never seen this brand before, what is it?” Haval it’s Chinese, made by the same blokes that did Great Wall. “Ah looks nice, did ok yeah? Looks like you got a lot of mud coming through. But the rest of the track is going to be a lot wetter for you I’m afraid… I’ll call the Birdsville Hotel first thing in the morning so we can see how bad the track is and where the tricky parts are. We normally open at 9am but if I’m awake I’ll just come in and open – I’ll turn the outside lights on so you can see from you room, no need to come all the way for nothing. Try the hot pool just behind the bushes it’s so nice after a long day’s drive!” I haven’t heard that many words coming out of a human for days and it’s deliciously refreshing. I feel at home already in Mungerannie.

McDonalds MungerannieProbably not… At Mungerannie Hotel.Mungerannie HotelMungerannie Hotel bar – notice the locks of hair hanging on the left…

The bar at the Mungerannie Hotel is the stuff of movies, with travellers all leaving a souvenir behind: a hat, flag, shirt, mug, a business card: if you visit this place you must try and locate the Best Selling Cars Blog business card that has been added to the wall behind the bar! But wait there’s more: some people have left actual hair locks and you can see them all hanging from the ceiling! I told you this track was legendary…

Stay tuned for the next instalment in the Series: Mungerannie to Birdsville.

Report: Can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback? Part 4: Lyndhurst to Moolawatana homestead

Haval H8 Arkaroola VillageLet the unsealed track fun begin! 

This is Part 4 of our Report on driving a Haval H8 into the Australian Outback. See also Part 1: The StakesPart 2: Sydney to Broken Hill and Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst. You can view the entire series here.

It’s 9am in Lyndhurst and the Lyndhurst-Marree section of the road leading to the Birdsville Track remains closed, with no hope of reopening today according to Jo from the Lyndhurst Roadhouse, as it rained overnight along the track and in Birdsville. It is also very difficult to predict how road conditions may have changed even on tracks that are open given these cover very large swaths of land that no one has traveled through overnight. I therefore decide to retrace my steps on the Outback highway for roughly 100km / 60 miles to attempt linking Birdsville from the east in Innamincka. For this, I need to take the last tracks still open to public, starting in Parachilna, crossing the Vulkatunha Gammon Ranges National Park through Bilnman for a lunch stop and wifi connection refresh in Arkaroola Village. Hopefully I’ll manage to reach Innamincka before sunset…

Lyndhurst MoolawatanaClick on map to enlarge. By Google Maps1. Haval H8 First dirt trackDamo discovering its first dirt track of the trip

The last stop before throwing ourselves onto dirt tracks is Parachilna on the Outback highway. But even at the legendary Prairie Hotel, described by the Lonely Planet as a world-class stay with slick suites and a mythical feral mixed grill – camel sausage, kangaroo fillet and emu, wish I had time to have a taste, the mobile network is non-existent so it’s all guns blazing towards the unknown. Damo is soon swallowing hundreds of km of dirt tracks, starting with the winding track through the Parachilna Gorge. However the onboard sat nav doesn’t take into account unsealed roads – that’s unfortunate for a 4WD – so we’ll have to fall back on the good old-fashioned paper map for the next few days of adventure.

Angorichina VillageSurprisingly “cheap” Premium Unleaded in Angorichina Village 

Travelling in such remote areas means one rule needs to be added: never leave one place that has Premium Unleaded petrol without filling up, as you never know where the next one will be. Up to 430 km / 270 miles away as we’ll see further into the journey. A stop at the Angorichina Village petrol station for filling up is therefore mandatory. The pump is locked, and a friendly local comes out for the top-up at the surprisingly low price of 151 cents per litre. He’s unaware of road conditions further up though. The next and only town before Arkaroola is Blinman – population 30 – the highest town in South Australia (630m above sea level), originally a copper mining town but now deserted. Still no mobile coverage.

3. Haval H8 dirt trackThe road to – seemingly – nowhere…

As we go further east, the road becomes very muddy at times, and this prompts me to wonder how the South Australian authorities decide when to close a road and when to keep it open with restrictions, for 4WD only for example. It would appear the main arteries in this part of the Australian Outback, such as the Birdsville, Strzelecki and Oodnadatta Tracks, get automatically closed in case of heavy rain. This to avoid road trains creating insurmountable rutting on the tracks. As it dries up, first small 4WD then heavy trucks get allowed, then all cars.

2. Haval H8 Second dirt trackThe track to Arkaroola

But it’s hardly ever that straight forward, as more rain can complicate the situation, and a track open to heavy trucks at the wrong time can create such rutting that it might close again a few days later even in the absence of rain. So predicting the track opening patterns a few days in advance is almost impossible. On top of this, if the main arteries get closer attention from the SA government, smaller tracks such as the one I am driving along from Parachilna to Arkaroola get a lot less attention and may not be updated on the Road conditions website for a couple of days even in the event of rain. This is what I found out today…

Haval H8 mud 4

Baptism of mud

50km or 30 miles before arriving in Arkaroola is where Damo got his proper baptism of mud. There were two 8km-long very slippery patches of mud across the entire width of the track with nowhere to escape to and no phone coverage to rely upon in case of trouble, making the passage that little bit more tricky. Given the depth of mud on the track, stopping to catch your breath is not an option as it would almost certainly equal to getting bogged down, so I would compare these two bouts of driving to swimming in apnea under water. Of course, it’s just when I am still grappling with trying to keep the vehicle on track that cows and kangaroos decide to come for a visit onto the road to witness the mess, becoming as many more obstacles to avoid. After the first few minutes of adaptation, it turns out the Haval H8 is mastering the art of controlled slippage through thick mud rather well. Once you get past the fact that the vehicle will slip no matter what and get used to turning left to direct the vehicle to the right and vice versa, it actually becomes an almost exhilarating experience. Saying that I’m begging for more would be an over-statement though.

Mt Hopeless Road 2Heavy skies and the constant threat of more rain to mess up with the tracks.

As far as I could see based on the tracks in the mud, only two vehicles before me had gone through this particular section since the rain. In the 158km/100 miles that separate Parachilna to Arkaroola, I only crossed two active vehicles: one Land Cruiser ute (aka the king of the Australian Outback) and one Ford Territory that had to slip-swerve wildly to its left to open a passage for me. I thought I was slipping particularly hard myself due to my highway tyres, but if anything the Territory looked to be having more difficulty manoeuvring the mud than I was. Or perhaps I was too concentrated on not slipping towards it that I didn’t really catch its motion. Hitting another car full-frontal – one of only two cars encountered in over 150km – would be such an irony that I won’t even begin to elaborate on this. Even though it sounds like I am crossing a particularly barren stretch of the country, the vegetation and colours keep changing all along. The track is successively orange, white and yellow with rocks, gravel, sand and mud giving Damo’s tyres the harshest time they probably have ever been exposed to.

Mt Hopeless RoadHaval H8 Mt Hopeless Road 2Before the mud took over…

Just before reaching Arkaroola, a broken down bus lies in the middle of the road and upon stopping, the driver asks if I could get him something to eat and a drink in Arkaroola if I come back this way. With pleasure. I’m only there to fill up and check the Road conditions website so shouldn’t be more than an hour. “No rush, take your time!” Gotta love the Outback’s laid-back attitude. In this part of Australia, you shouldn’t expect to go faster than 50km/h or 30mph on average given how rough the track is. I therefore needed 3.5 hours to cover the 158km/100 miles separating Parachilna from Arkaroola.

Arkaroola Ridge Top Tour. Picture courtesy outbackspirittours.com.auArkaroola Ridgetop Tour

After a lonesome, at times slightly stressful drive on dirt and gravel and through mud, the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is an oasis of high speed wifi in the desert – and the only location 200km around to actually have internet coverage. It is located right in the midst of the Vulkatunha Gammon Ranges National Park, a fascinating geologic location that gets frequent earth tremors. A must-do here is the trip to Sillers Lookout on the famous Ridgetop Track blazed in the late 1960s by Exoil Ltd in hope of finding uranium, but in vain. It is only accessible in one of Arkaroola’s open Toyota Land Cruiser tour vehicles – again we find this beast here. Next time perhaps. For now I’m focused on getting to Birdsville any way I can.

Detour to Innamincka Arkaroola wifiThe orange arrow is the path I want to take, open until Merty Merty.

The road sign at the entrance of the village indicated the Mt Hopeless – Innamincka section of the track is closed. This is at odds with the Road conditions website (see above). This particular section – just right of the Strzelecki Regional Reserve on the map – is blue (= open to all vehicles with caution) all the way to Merty Merty while the track from Arkaroola to Mt Hopeless is yellow (=4WD only). The track I have just taken, Parachilna-Blinman-Arkaroola, is green (=open to all vehicles with no restrictions). This is incorrect: a 2WD vehicle wouldn’t have gone past the muddy patches I traversed. It should be yellow. So the website is wrong. What to do?

Arkaroola VillageArkaroola Village beats the record of the most expensive petrol price of the trip 

One Sanctuary employee tries to discourage me from going any further: “The tracks are closed and won’t reopen for the next few days. We got more rain in a week than we usually do in an entire year!” But the website says it’s open. “[Shrug]. It’s your call.” Let’s get a second opinion. Another employee gives me the opposite advice: “Let me check the website. Yep, you’re all good to go up to Merty Merty! You should take a screen grab of the Road conditions website on your phone, just in case. To show the police if they say you’ve taken a closed road.” Sounds better – and this screen grab is displayed further up in the article. Outside while refuelling, the record of the most expensive petrol of the trip is beaten at 186 cents per litre – but we definitely are in the middle of the desert so it’s all forgiven.

Haval H8 Arkaroola Village 2Into the unknown…

One of the Arkaroola Ridgetop Tour guides asks what it is that I am driving but also what my accent is… Turns out he’s French like me, as well as two other staff in the Sanctuary: truly the last place on earth I was expecting to find a French contingent! According to him, it’s a good idea to come up with the Haval brand as Great Wall was a dead giveaway for a Chinese brand whereas Haval doesn’t let in on its origins. I had never envisaged this branding strategy this way and am starting to be proven wrong on my interrogations about Great Wall’s decision to launch a new brand from scratch in Australia where their namesake marque had already gained some recognition. He is also bearish on my plan to reach Innamincka. “You realise there’s nothing between here and Innamincka and it’s 460km away. Are you sure you have enough petrol?” A full 75L tank and 40L additional in jerrycans. “But driving in thick mud consumes a lot more.” I heard they closed the tracks. “They would have, because it’s downstream from here so all the rain accumulates in the basin. It will be closed for days.”

Outback driving is a lot about taking all elements from various sources into consideration but in the end making your very own decisions. Enough listening to opinions and time to drive off. Armed with food and drinks for the stranded bus driver, I am ready to spend the night in the Haval H8 if needed, it will be another facet to add to this review…

Kangaroo 1Curious kangaroos race me along the track.
EmuEmu checking out the Haval H8
Kangaroo 2Kangaroos 3Numerous kangaroos and emus keep watch over Damo and I through the entire journey.

One element of this trip so far that is putting a big smile on my face is the sprawling wildlife present along the track. Hundreds, I’d even go as far as saying close to a thousand kangaroos in total show their curious selves, without ever venturing too close to the car for comfort. I always thought only kangaroos of a same species (=colour) stick together, but this is wrong: orange and grey fellows happily hop along together, and this part of Australia is also the habitat of the yellow-footed rock wallaby which I indeed spotted in generous numbers. A car is such a rare occurrence in this area that kangaroos are all very interested. A couple of them even raced me for a few km, carefully hopping across the track ahead of me and even showing me the way in the middle of the track for a while. Most herds of emus ran away madly and frightened, but one I approached slowly actually stayed put, and progressively got closer to the car, each throwing their neck forward in curious yet weary moves. A magical experience indeed.

Haval H8 Mt Hopeless Road 1Heavy skies

Launching into the 430km service-free track to Innamincka, the skies grow heavier and the threat of more rain messing up with the already damp tracks is constant. Each km driven in dry conditions is a victory and one less km to have to endure before reaching Innamincka. I manage to tick off a further 150km before conditions get even more slippery than what I encountered before Arkaroola. At the same time some patches of savannah make leaving the track a daunting prospect and hitting trees a real danger. The Haval H8 engages the ESP a couple of times, automatically slowing the car down to 40km/h (I thought I was going to stall!) and then you can clearly feel the 4WD mode kicking in. Once again Damo gets out unscathed and I get out relieved. A few km down though, I cross the first car since Arkaroola, a Land Rover Discovery.

Haval H8 Moolawatana 2Damo post four very slippery mud patches. Doing well.

The driver, travelling alone, tells me he had to turn around as a flooded creek has mud too deep for his comfort. He shows me his sneaker full of mud and says he couldn’t feel the bottom of the creek when walking in so he wouldn’t risk passing. “You could probably go through with mud tyres and a high clearance 4WD but I wouldn’t risk it I were you.” I think I may need to follow his advice for once. Getting bogged down as the sun is setting with no car for 150km isn’t a prospect I’d like to experience if I have to be totally honest with myself. It’s time to get ready for a shut-eye stop inside the Haval H8.

Haval H8 MoolawatanaMt Hopeless signNo hope getting to Mt Hopeless…

By this time we have arrived at the Moolawatana homestead, 51 km before the MtHopeless junction where the track fuses with the Strzelecki Track, and even though it has a name and a location on the map that doesn’t mean anyone is living here. There was one house near the place I stopped for the night but no sign of life. Cows are roaming though and one in particular was very interested in the Haval H8, licking the mud out of its headlights… I haven’t been known to find comfortable sleep in a car – ever – so this will be an interesting experience. At 6′, I am not particularly short and always end up cramped in a car. This time though, the space in the rear seats and between the driving seat and the front door allows me to spread my legs and find a comfortable position. I did manage to sleep.

Haval red lightThe rearview mirrors project the Haval brand name onto the floor at night… Pretty cool. 

Yet it looks like my attempt to get to Innamincka will need to be aborted and I’ll have to get back to the sealed Outback Highway. I won’t give up on the Birdsville Track just yet, but the reality is that if the Lyndhurst-Marree portion of road is closed again tomorrow I may have to consider alternative options such as the Oodnadatta Track… But you don’t know how perseverant I can be…

Stay tuned for Part 5 coming shortly…

Report: Can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback? Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst

Haval H8 LyndhurstDamo in Lyndhurst SA

This is Part 3 of our Report on driving a Haval H8 into the Australian Outback. See Part 1: The Stakes and Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill. After sneakily pushing through the night past Broken Hill, our second shut-eye stop is in the bizarrely-named town of Orroroo where arriving at 9:45pm at the caravan park has probably woken up half the local population. I can now smell the Birdsville Track in the air, it is so close: only 385 km or 240 miles away. The last hurdle as I wake up the next day: the torrential rains that have been battering the region for the entire night, peppered with roaring thunderstorms.

One last time, I feverishly check with my best friend of the trip – after Damo, the Outback South Australia road conditions website, but the Birdsville Track is still open. The objective is to get to Marree, pronounced “maaah-stay on the A until you almost run out of breath-weee”, and go as deep as possible into the Birdsville Track today, ideally up to Mungeranie halfway through. But the title of this article is an indication that something may have gone horribly wrong…

Broken Hill-Lyndhurst mapLeg 2 takes us from Broken Hill to Lyndhurst, but sneaky nighttime driving pushed us to Orroroo.Haval H8 Jerrycan HawkerTime to fill the “emergency fuel” vintage 20L jerrycan…

A jerrycan-filling stop in Hawker, the main town in the Flinders Ranges National Park, brings some bad news indeed . “You’ll be pushing your luck reaching Marree today: there are a couple of flooded creeks on the way, and it’s a very muddy dirt track from Lyndhurst onwards… Let me have a look at the weather radar… Oh gosh, it’s only getting worse in the next few hours… You’d be lucky even getting to Leigh Creek, be veeeery careful.” Let the adventure begin… Outside, Damo heard the entire conversation and is squirming with impatience. We’re going to see what you’re made of, Haval H8.

Outback Highway SAKangaroos are hiding today.Leigh Creek SANot very deep but running fast. Nothing Damo couldn’t handle though. 

Rain stops as we launch onto the last 200km before Lyndhurst so I have good hopes it may all be fine in the end. There were a couple of flooded passes before Leigh Creek indeed, but the water wasn’t deep, only running fast, and it wasn’t anything Damo couldn’t handle. Mobile coverage and thus internet access are now intermittent, so I have no opportunity to check the road conditions website until Lyndhurst, the fork where the road divides towards either the Birdsville or Strzelecki Tracks. And a nasty surprise awaits: although the Birdsville Track itself remains open, the section leading to Marree where it starts is now closed. “They just closed it a couple hours ago!” complains the driver of one of two road trains stuck in town.

Lyndhurst Marree closed signLyndhurst Marree closedHeartbreak…

Darren from the Lyndhurst Roadhouse ventures an option: “You could risk it, but if you get caught it’s a $1.000 fine…” Nope. I don’t know Damo’s 4WD limits yet and I’m not about to test them on a closed Birdsville Track. But there is another issue: the Lyndhurst Roadhouse Premium Unleaded pump is out of order. A few very kind calls from Darren and the search zeroes in on Copley, a mere 34 km back from Lyndhurst on the Outback highway. Yet this means I won’t be able to refuel in Marree before throwing Damo onto the 520km-long Birdsville Track, so we are in for a second 20L jerrycan of fuel. An additional 40L onboard on top of the 75L from the tank should do the trick, even if Damo drinks 15L/100km when struggling deep in mud.

Haval H8 Copley Outback MotorsOutback Motors in Copley SA Copley RefuelingFilling up in Copley SA: the most expensive so far. 

Cooke’s Outback Motors in Copley is the last station with Premium Unleaded until Birdsville, a further 630km away, and the laconic character managing the place is taking full advantage. At 185.9 cents a litre, it is by far the most expensive fuel of the entire trip to-date. Outback Motors also offers towing services on both the Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks…

2. Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Tow Truck Copley SA1. Haval H8 Nissan Patrol tow truckToyota Land Cruiser 70 and Nissan Patrol tow utes in Copley SA

The two trusted vehicles are a Nissan Patrol GU and Toyota Land Cruiser 70, both in their ute form and the latter stickered “Erics Rig”. A bit like flying doctors, these two tow-trucks are well respected but also the last thing anyone want to have to call on either tracks: seeing them on the go means someone is stranded somewhere in the desert. Today is the first and, I very deeply hope, last time Damo meets these two Grim Reaper-like individuals…

5. Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Lyndhurst RoadhouseLyndhurst Roadhouse

Lyndhurst amounts to nothing more than a roadhouse, a hotel and a (closed) community services building adorned with an Australian-Aboriginal combined flag. Population: between 4 and 10 depending on the day. Damo soon becomes the main attraction in town, in the midst of a herd of Toyota Land Cruiser utes. As we already noticed in Broken Hill, the Land Cruiser ute is well established as the the king of the Australian Outback. Equally popular in its 70 single cab and 79 double cab variants, it was by very far the most frequent vehicle stopping at the Lyndhurst Roadhouse when I stayed there, coming from the now closed Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks.

7. Toyota Land Cruiser 70 LyndhurstThe Land Cruiser ute was by far the most frequent vehicle stopping at the Lyndhurst Roadhouse.

Speaking with the locals, it becomes clear the Land Cruiser ute is the benchmark against which all other vehicles are measured here. The reason behind this success: a tough-as-nails V8 Turbo Diesel powerplant, live-axle and optional diff locks make it one of the most capable off-road workhorse available in the country. It doesn’t come cheap, with the single cab starting at $56.990 and the double cab setting you back at least $61.990 plus on-roads, but with the Nissan Patrol GU being discontinued at the end of 2016, it is the only choice short of spending $139,000+ on a converted full size U.S. pickup such as the Ford F-250, Ram 2500 or GMC Sierra. But eyes light up at the Roadhouse with tales of the vehicle keeping its resale value intact over the years. Behind the bar, Jo confirms: “My son wouldn’t buy anything else. The Toyota dealer in Adelaide wanted to buy his 3-year old one back for $54.000! Even with everything that he’s added on it like the roo-bar, it’s still a pretty good deal. But he wouldn’t let go of it…”

Alf Strzelecki Track MailmanAlf, a legendary character on the Strzelecki Track. 

Alf is the mailman on the punishing Strzelecki Track, arguably one of the roughest roads in the world. He has taken a different tack: “I was about to buy a $54.000 Land Cruiser but saw the Great Wall ute was going for $25.000, I thought I’d give it a go. It paid for itself pretty quick. I’ve done 150.000 km in 3 years [almost 100.000 miles], and yes a few things have fallen off at one point like my roo-bar and the rear stop lights, but all-in-all I’m bloody happy with it!” Wait. 150.000 km in 3 years solely on the Strzelecki Track? “Yeah, I do the Track twice a week and it’s roughly 500 kays long so it adds up.” To 156.000 km exactly. Darren concurs: “I did 90.000km with mine!” Turns out getting stuck in Lyndhurst got me to meet two of the most vocal supporters of the Great Wall brand in the Australian Outback. You can’t make this stuff up. Note to Great Wall: contact Alfie and Darren asap, a goldmine of stories there.

4. Haval H8 Road Train LyndhurstIn Lyndhurst SA

Logically, the few souls also staying for the night in Lyndhurst were more than a little intrigued by the Haval H8. Once the link to Great Wall is established, the fact that this is a different brand altogether doesn’t seem to matter much. Given its more up-market stance, Damo seems to stand out enough to justify its own marque in their eyes. Exterior design gets the local vote, and the interior with leather electric seats also gets the thumbs up. Jo comes out to inspect it in more detail. “Can I see the boot? H8: that’s not a V8 is it?” She may have purchased it on the spot if that was the case… “I like the design, but that spare tyre doesn’t look like it would go very far”. Conflict of interests? With her husband, Jo owns a towing company in Birdsville…

8. Toyota Hilux LyndhurstToyota Hilux, fresh from a punishing run on the – now closed – Strzelecki Track.

The big question around dinner is: is Damo capable enough to endure a very muddy and treacherous Birdsville Track? “You are really taking it for a spin aren’t you? Does it have a low-range 4WD mode?” No it’s an AWD electronic system. “Still, should be arright, then, will be an awesome test for the car.” Took the words out of my mouth… The Ford and Holden die-hards at the bar wouldn’t have a… bar of it and vocally proclaim they will stick with their own utes, thanks. Darren: “Don’t diss Chinese cars until you own one!” I told you, a fan.

6. Road Train LyndhurstIn Lyndhurst

Later on, two haggard bikers make a panting entrance in the roadhouse, covered with mud from head to toe. “Our Colorado just died on us on the Strzelecki Track! We had to take the bikes to get here. It is hell. Very slippery. Took us ages.” Luckily a car drove past them shortly after they broke down and they could use a sat phone to organise towing. As if on cue, the Outback Motors “Erics Rig” Land Cruiser pulls up at the Roadhouse shortly afterwards and, having just obtained special police clearance to drive on the closed Strzelecki Track, promptly drives off into the night on its rescue mission. Jo tries to reassure the bikers: “My husband rescued five Prados two weeks ago from Birdsville. Happens all the time”. Not helping: they are rightfully dejected.

MudThe mud struggle is real.

One of the bikers knows of Haval: he was invited to the brand’s launch in Brisbane by distributor Performax who also imports and converts U.S. full-sized pickup trucks. “Don’t go. You’ll get bogged down and with no sat phone you don’t know how long it’ll take to get rescued”. Jo slips her husband’s business card into my hand with a shy smile. It says Birdsville Transport Service. “Don’t worry. You know who to call if you get stuck.”

Road Train Lyndhurst 2Two road train were stuck in Lyndhurst the night I was there.

As the day becomes dawn and the long night begins, the rain starts again and the odds the road to Marree will reopen tomorrow dwindle down to slim at best. I need to find another way to get to Birdsville. Given the Lyndhurst to Mt Hopeless section of the Strzelecki Track is also closed – echoing the bikers’ daunting warnings – I may have to retrace my steps on the Outback highway and try and take one of the last open tracks to Innamincka, looping east to join Birdsville, all the while hoping the rain stops for good. But that’s a story for another day…

Stay tuned for Part 4: Lyndhurst to Moolawatana.

Report: Can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback? Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill

Haval H8 Kangaroo signNot a myth: Ouback Australia literally streams with kangaroos.

This is Part 2 of our Report on driving a Haval H8 into the Australian Outback. You can see Part 1: The Stakes here. Most of the friends and colleagues I shared my plans with – linking Sydney to Birdsville through the legendary Birdsville Track – were dubious I could achieve this with a Chinese SUV. This shows the extent of the work Chinese carmakers still have ahead of them to convince the city slickers that they are as capable as any other brand – if they are. Country-folks may be a different story, especially those who already own a Great Wall, and we are about to find out.

From the outside, Damo definitely looks the part. The exterior design, although now a couple years old, is sleek, polished and aggressive, giving a reassuring impression that it can takes you anywhere in comfort. The Haval H8 is already light-years ahead of the manufacturer’s first attempt at a large SUV, the Great Wall Hover H5, aka X200-X240 in Australia. It has an air of Volkswagen Touareg in it, which Damo should definitely take as a compliment.

Haval H8 InteriorHaval H8 interior featuresHaval H8 interior cabin

Step inside and the first striking element is the level of refinement in the cabin: Australian leather seats, full electronic seat adjustment, sat nav, reverse camera, cruise control, robust and smooth dials and multiple yet intuitively organised commands at the wheel, with the paddle shifters even giving it a sporty feel. Although I was well aware of the effort Haval has put into the quality of its cabin through the variety of nameplates I got to sit in at various Chinese Auto Shows over the past 3 years, I am still impressed to see it in real life. No user manual inside the car, yet everything intuitive enough so there is no need for any. How to start the vehicle is displayed on the main screen, and if some commands are not where you expect them to be (most of them are), how to operate them is discreetly displayed so there are no grey areas. So far so good, Damo. Press the keyless engine start button and off we go.

Sydney Broken HillThe first leg of my drive to Birdsville is scheduled to take me to the mining town of Broken Hill.

Our first aim is to get to the start of the Birdsville Track in South Australia as quickly as possible, before too much rain closes the tracks for weeks. For this we first need to cross the state of New South Wales entirely from east to west to the mining town of Broken Hill, a 1.150 km / 715 miles two-day drive from Sydney. This is equivalent to linking New York to Chicago or Paris to Edinburgh, meaning if I was driving in Europe, I would have already crossed multiple borders and changed languages, but we will be staying in one single Australian state. Most of the journey will be undertaken in the immense rural and sparsely populated area that characterises the vast majority of the country. 90% of Australians live in urban areas, but the overall density at less than 3 inhabitants per square km remains among the lowest in the world. In fact, Australians have more living space per person than the inhabitants of any other nation in the world…

Haval H8 Outback NSWWelcome to Outback New South Wales, Damo.

The repartition of the population of New South Wales is a striking illustration. At 809.444 square km / 312.528 square miles, this Australian state covers an area 20% larger than Texas and only 10% smaller than France and Germany combined. NSW counts just 7.6 million inhabitants, 5 million of which are concentrated in the Sydney area, yet is the most populated Australian state. The overwhelming majority of the state’s population resides within 50 km of the Pacific Ocean, with only two inland towns home to more than 50.000 inhabitants – Wagga Wagga and Albury, well to the south of our itinerary. We will be crossing particularly isolated parts of the state, a great way to get in the right mood for our Outback adventure.

Haval H8 Road Trains Nyngan NSWSqueezing in between two Road Trains in Nyngan, NSW.

Within the first few minutes of driving, Damo alerts me that the pressure is too high in its back right tyre, and wouldn’t let me see anything else on the screen until I reduce it. That’s a actually a good thing – I will want to know of any issues with my tyres whilst driving on isolated dirt tracks. It’s part of the real-time Tyre Pressure Monitoring System coming standard on all variants of the H8. Easily fixed, and we’re back on track. City driving is smooth, brakes are responsive, but once on the highway I had to rethink my first attempt at high speed overtaking as the turbo took a little too long to respond. There’s about 2 sec lag between the accelerator push and the vehicle surging ahead that takes a bit of getting used to. A couple of other annoying elements are the on-board computer lady voice asking you to go into parking mode each time you put the car in reverse, and the cruise control not automatically slowing down the vehicle when on a steep downhill. To counterbalance this, a few automatic features are truly smart, such as the warning lights switching on when you brake urgently, saving you to panic hit the warning button and concentrate on your braking. That’s a nice touch, which I have noticed is now standard on most Chinese vehicles.

Haval H8 Holden Colorado WillcanniaDamo posing next to a roo-barred Holden Colorado in Wilcannia, NSW

Kangaroos start to appear on the side of the road before Mudgee, a mere 250 km away from Sydney, and from then on it is an almost uninterrupted flow of these curious marsupials that are one of the most recognised Australian symbols. We are now officially in the Outback. For now the New South Wales kangaroos remain very orderly and do not venture onto the highway. I’m expecting this to change drastically as we hit unsealed roads and as traffic dwindles down. Nevertheless, their presence means the appearance of cars has already changed compared to the city: more and more are now equipped with roo-bars, the Australian equivalent of bull-bars (roo is Aussie short for kangaroo), which have nothing ornamental in them. A collision with a kangaroo at high speed can reduce your car to a useless wreck in the absence of protection. Damo doesn’t come with a standard roo-bar, so I’ll have to be extra careful.

Straight ahead to Broken HillStraight ahead for the next 540 km… 

Our first shut-eye stop is in Narromine, 450 km inland from Sydney, and the motel owners are befuddled by the red logo on the grille: “Who makes these? Oh the same bunch as Great Wall? Looks good. Where are you taking it?” “Birdsville.” “Aaah. Are you sure? Doubt it with your highway tyres… I’d like to see it deep in mud, it’d be a different story…” Thanks for the encouragement! The challenge is real, and I’ve yet to meet someone who’s convinced Damo has it in its guts to face up to the harshness of the Birdsville Track. So far though, highway driving is showering me with high levels of comfort, and my usually precarious lower back is getting a lot of welcome support. I’m ready for more, let’s see if Damo is also.

Haval H8 Wilcanna NSWWilcannia NSW

Exclusive state by state Australian sales data published on BSCB a couple of months ago shows that NSW preferred the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Hyundai i30, Toyota Hilux and VW Golf in this order in 2015. Yet stepping out of Sydney gives out a completely different picture. We are now in mining and sheep shearing territory and utes – short for utility or pickup – are the dominant species in this part of the world. The Toyota Hilux outsells them all, with a generous serving of new generation models already at work in various parts of the state. The new Ford Ranger, hitting record highs nationally, has managed to find its way to the near-top of the NSW Outback charts as well. An illustration of more conservative tastes, once-market kings Holden and Ford still pull very strong numbers in this area, with the Holden Colorado ute and Ford Territory outperforming their national levels in a particularly striking manner. The newly imported Ram Pickup has also pulled a string with local buyers: three spotted in and around Mudgee alone.

Haval H8 Broken Hill 2Haval H8 Broken Hill 1

Day 2 is an almost straight line all day and towns are now few and far between. The 590 km from Nyngan to Broken Hill see you cross just five tiny outposts, one of them Wilcannia with a distinctly out-of-this-world feel and strong Aboriginal population. You know you are in the Outback when drivers start waving hello at each other on the highway – mostly locals, tourists with their RVs not so much. That’s generous, grounded and welcoming rural Australia for you, although I spotted a few drivers too busy trying to figure out what car I was driving to remember saying hi. After a full day of lonely driving, the desert frontier town of Broken Hill – population 18.500 – does feel like an oasis close to the end of earth.

Haval H8 Broken Hill 3Mining in Broken Hill has transformed Australia.

Broken Hill, nicknamed “The Silver City”, is the place that transformed Australia into an industrial nation when a silver lode was discovered here in 1883. The BH letters in BHP Billiton, Australia’s largest company and international mining giant, stand for Broken Hill where it was formed. Some of the world’s richest deposits of silver, lead and zinc are still being worked here, with the main streets in town all shamelessly displaying a definitive mining bias: Bromide, Cobalt, Oxide, Argent, Sulphide, Chloride, Iodide… Mining operations are winding down though, and the town alongside it: last time I visited in 2007, the Line of Lode Miners Memorial and its adjacent restaurant were proudly dominating the city from their hill, but are now both closed to the public. The views remain. Second time I park the car for longer than 20 minutes and second time bypassers stop to ask what the hell it is that I am driving. The Chinese origin leads them straight to Great Wall, which they know well. The overall impression: this SUV looks surprisingly good for a Chinese fare. I agree.

Broken Hill Far WestBroken Hill is the Far West of New South Wales…

Broken Hill Street…and a ute paradise.

All car dealerships in Broken Hill display the “Far West” moniker. It is indeed the Far West here, at least from Sydney’s perspective at the other end of the state. But Broken Hill is a lot closer geographically and culturally to Adelaide, a mere 500km further to the west, and has brought itself within the same time zone, breaking away from the rest of NSW. Indeed when time zones were decided, Broken Hill’s only direct rail link was with Adelaide, and the town had to wait another 40 years to get a direct rail link to Sydney. Worse: when the Adelaide railway link came to the SA/NSW border in 1888, the NSW government would not allow SA work to cross, so the last 31 km to reach Broken Hill were built by a private tramway company.

Toyota Land Cruiser ute Broken HillThe Toyota Land Cruiser 70 ute is extremely popular in Broken Hill…

Nissan Navara Broken Hill…as is the Nissan Navara…

Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Broken Hill… and the Pajero Sport upholds the strong Mitsubishi heritage in town.

This cultural affinity with South Australia translates today into the car park: Mitsubishi, with its 1980-2008 SA production heritage, is a lot more represented here than in any other part of NSW. The Pajero Sport has already found a few new homes in Broken Hill. But the big surprise is the frequency of the new Nissan Navara: the local dealer has been doing a bloody hell of a good job in town, as one would say here. Utes are the norm, with the Toyota Hilux seeing its supremacy threatened by the Land Cruiser 70. I will delve into this specificity in the next Part of this series.

Royal Flying Doctors ServiceHaval H8 Flying DoctorsToyota Hilux Flying DoctorsThe Broken Hill base of the Royal Flying Doctors Service of Australia

Another fascinating aspect of Broken Hill is the presence of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. An iconic Australian institution, the Flying Doctors were founded in 1928 as a “Mantle of safety for the Outback” and remain to this day the only health care provider and emergency medical support for remote Australian communities that cannot access a hospital or general practice due to their isolation. Operating out of 23 bases with a 66-aircraft fleet, the service travels on average 73.554 km by air and performs over 200 landings, both each day. But wait for an even more staggering stat: the Broken Hill base of the Flying Doctors single-handedly serves an area of 640.000 sq km: the size of Texas and larger than France! Astoundingly, the Flying Doctors are still heavily reliant on community support for funding. As such, in virtually all roadside outlets I stopped at during the trip, a prominent Flying Doctors small change box was displayed on the counter, and almost all customers would participate to my great satisfaction.

Souh Australia Border GateThe gloomy South Australian Border Gate

As the sun set over “The Oasis of the West” and the sole Flying Doctors aircraft present in town, I decided to push further into the night onto South Australia and the Barrier Highway to get closer to the Birdsville Track departure flag. The towns get more frequent as we get closer to Adelaide, and a right turn onto the the Outback Highway led me to Orroroo at the southern tip of the Flinders Ranges National Park. Driving at night is however discouraged in Outback Australia due to wildlife, mainly kangaroos, so I will limit this type of experience to a strict minimum. So far, similarly to their NSW colleagues, SA roos have kept their curious selves to the sides of the road. To end this Part 2 Report it’s time to give you an update on Damo’s thirst. When I picked up the car the fuel average stood at a scary 14.2L/100km. Two full days of highway driving pulled it down to a much more digestible 11.2L. The downside: Damo has posh tastes and would only drink Premium Unleaded, up to 20cent a litre dearer, or like an invisible little knife stabbing you in the guts each time you refuel… No gremlins to report so far though and the 1.500 km mark (930 miles) has been ticked off.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst, the gate to the Birdsville Track.

Odo after Day 2Average Fuel economy after Day 2, down from 14.2L at pick up. 

Report: Can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback? Part 1: The stakes

Haval Australian Outback June 2016Haval is the No.1 SUV brand in China. Can it tackle the Australian Outback then? 

If you are a regular BSCB reader, you will already be familiar with the Chinese brand Haval. It has been the best-selling SUV brand in China for the past 13 consecutive years, previously known as Hover – a Great Wall sub-brand – until 2013 when the standalone Haval marque came to life. Last April, the Haval H6 became the first ever SUV to lead the overall Chinese sales charts outright with a stunning 43.946 units sold in a single month. Great Wall has been very efficient at developing the Haval lineup, earning the #1 spot in our annual ranking of the Most impressive Chinese brands both at the Beijing Auto Show in 2014 and the Shanghai Auto Show in 2015. Already extremely successful at home, Haval is now spreading its wheels worldwide and has been available in Australia since last October, even though the brand has yet to make its appearance in the Australian sales charts. Speaking with Haval PR Manager Andrew Ellis, it turns out this is because Haval is still in the process of getting certification by the FCAI – so it should pop up later this year.

Haval Lansdale Sydney showroomThe sole Haval dealership in Sydney, located in the Western suburb of Lansvale. 

In fact, Haval is now present in a dozen worldwide markets: starting in June 2015 with Russia and Chile, the marque then expanded further in Latin America with Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Uruguay, to Asia with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Malaysia, Africa and the Middle East with Iraq, Oman, the UAE, Benin and South Africa and its only truly mature market to-date: Australia, although no sales figures from any of these markets have percolated to the surface yet. In Australia, the brand operates out of 6 dealerships: one in Sydney (pictured above), two in the Melbourne area, one in Brisbane, one in Perth and one in Wagga Wagga near Canberra. If at BSCB we have been very impressed with Haval’s commercial success at home, lightning fast lineup expansion, as well as attractive exterior and interior design, we had not driven one yet. This gap is now filled: today we have access to a Haval H8 for one week. When given the same length of time for a review, local Australian press such as Motoring.com.au only took the car through “freeway-biased commuting [to work]”.

This is not how we do things at BSCB…

Map to BirdsvilleWe want to drive the Haval H8 from Sydney to Birdsville – and back. (Click to enlarge)

In the manner we did with Albert the Ram 1500 from New York and Los Angeles in 2014 and Bob the Ram 2500 as part of our Alaska to California 2015 adventure, we are aiming at driving the Haval H8 well into the harsh Australian Outback: all the way to Birdsville at the border between Queensland and South Australia, through the unsealed, rough-as-guts and legendary Birdsville Track. It’s a gruelling 5,000 km return trip to be completed in one week only, going through bitumen, dirt, sand, mud, gravel, rocks and bull dust. Needless to say, no Haval-branded vehicle has ever set its wheels that far into the Australian continent yet, so if we manage this feat, it will be a world first, no less. We want to find out whether the No. 1 SUV brand in China can take on the Australian Outback and its treacherous conditions. If nowadays the Birdsville Track can be traversed with any vehicle in dry conditions, wet weather can render it totally impassable in a matter of minutes and the region has received more rain so far in 2016 than it normally does in three years, making it a true challenge for any car.

Mitsubishi Mirage Oodnadatta Track 2003I took a Mitsubishi Mirage through the Oodnadatta Track in 2003.

There are a few elements at stake in this challenge.

The first is pure and simple survival. The areas we will be exploring with the H8 are some of the most isolated in the world, with almost no traffic, no mobile coverage, no towns for hundreds of km and sometimes no petrol station for up to 500 km. My personal experience of this type of Australian adventure includes driving the Ooodnadatta Track to the West of the areas we will be covering with a… Mitsubishi Mirage in 2003. The conditions were completely dry, enabling a 2WD to pass, but heavy rutting on the track meant it took me four complete days of driving to go through 600km of unsealed roads. I have chosen to undergo the trip alone, with no sat phone. Foolish? It will test the solidarity of fellow travellers as well as the Haval promise of 24/7 roadside assistance in case any technical issues were to point their ugly head. First aid kit, warm clothing (it’s winter in Australia), extra water, food and fuel in the form of two 20L jerrycans are mandatories in order to survive any type of ordeal in the Australian Outback, and these are well and truly on board.

Can Haval replicate the initial success of Great Wall in Australia?

The second challenge is a branding one. In the rare mature markets where they have ventured so far, Chinese manufacturers have to deal with the same level of hostility Japanese carmakers had to suffer in the 1950s and 1960s, then Korean carmakers in the 1980s – some would argue until just recently. Launched in 2009 in Australia, Great Wall has been the only success story of its kind so far here, peaking at #16 in 2011 and selling 37.163 units to-date. An asbestos controversy and disagreement with its previous importer Ateco has meant the brand is currently at a standstill (11 sales in 2016), but is staging a comeback later this year with the new generation Wingle 6 pickup through the same importer as Haval: Performax. Even though insults continue to be hurled at the brand on local automotive forums, they mostly come from customers having never tested a Great Wall vehicle, whereas owners are by and large very satisfied with the reliability of their purchase, especially in the Australian Outback: in 2014 I met a Great Wall owner in Bourke who replaced her ailing Toyota Hilux with a Great Wall SUV and has never looked back since.

Haval H8 Guangzhou Auto Show 2015The Haval H8 in a scary – yet controlled – posture at the Guangzhou Auto Show 2015. 

However, launching yet another brand, Haval, means Great Wall has to start from scratch again and build its reputation from the bottom up. I have been sceptical of this branding strategy that seems like a lot of work where the Great Wall brand had already cleared some ground. I’ll be sure to speak with as many locals as possible throughout the trip to gage the chances of this new brand making its mark in Australia. There are only a handful of other Chinese carmakers operating in Australia currently, but none is coming anywhere near the success Great Wall achieved in its first couple of years in market. LDV (625 sales) and Foton (356) both hold a tiny 0.1% market share so far in 2016, whereas Chery has all but disappeared (9) and both Geely and MG have thrown the towel for now. In other words, market conditions are at an all-time low for Chinese carmakers in Australia and adverse perceptions at an all-time high.

Haval H8 SydneyHaval H8 Premium AWD – with a facetious license plate.

The third challenge – and arguably the most interesting – is a capability one. The vehicle we have at our disposal for the week is the Premium AWD variant which saw its price slashed from AU$44,490 to $41,990 as part of an ongoing stocktake sale. It slots between the $38,990 Premium 2WD and the $44,990 LUX AWD and competes with the likes of the homegrown Ford Territory, the Holden Captiva 7, Nissan Pathfinder and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The H8 is part of a three-model lineup currently offered by Haval in Australia along with the small crossover H2 and the Toyota Prado-competing full time 4WD H9 complete with snow and sand modes.

If the H9 is expected to go anywhere, testing the H8 is where the true challenge resides, as it is what is called in Australia an AWD SUV, meaning the 4WD mode is switched on electronically when the car feels it needs it, prompting some to say it’s not a real 4WD. Add to this the fact that China hasn’t really yet caught up with the worldwide off-road driving fever – most SUVs and crossovers sold there are 2WD-only and never get taken out of the city – it begs the question: is the H8 actually a true 4WD-capable vehicle and can it perform on very poor road conditions? Australia has a long tradition of off-road exploring and true adventure, so it’s the perfect sandpit for such a test.

Haval H8 ArrivalGive a warm welcome to Damo, our Haval H8 for one week. 

More generally, can Haval back up its claim of No.1 SUV brand in China and aspirations of becoming the No. 1 SUV brand in the world with truly capable cars? There’s only one way to find out, and it’s called a wet and muddy Birdsville Track. Before we can set off though, our H8 needs a name. After Albert, Bob the Rams and Charlie our Hawaii Jeep Wrangler, H8’s name has to start with D and he has been baptised Damo – Aussie short for Damian – so he fits in with all the other kids in the yard (See why I chose a male name here). Indeed in Australia, and in particular in the Outback, no name stays intact – even Matt becomes Matty – and all are fondly played with: Jonathan becomes Jono, Dick becomes Dicko. And it doesn’t stop with names: see favourite Australian slang: When in doubt, add an “o”.

Welcome to the Australian Outback, Damo.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill

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