Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 6: On the Strzelecki Track

This is Part 6 of our adventure to the middle of nowhere Australia with a Haval H9, which we baptised Ivanhoe. See Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura herePart 2: Mildura to Broken Hill herePart 3: Broken Hill to Tibooburra here, Part 4: Tibooburra to Cameron Corner here and Part 5: In Cameron Corner here. Today we leave Cameron Corner, heading west to try and catch the legendary Strzelecki Track.

Our itinerary for today… 

Google Maps says it will take over 20 hours to cover the 630 km that separate Cameron Corner to Hawker… Hopefully Google Maps is wrong and we’ll arrive before sunset in order to avoid kangaroos. Given the amount of mud we’ve had to face on the way from Tibooburra to Cameron Corner, we brace ourselves for a particularly tricky day as the Strzelecki Track is prone to flooding: it was the case when I first visited the area with Damo the Haval H8. The Track itself is only open for 4WD vehicles so this could be tricky.

Between Cameron Corner and Merty Merty

In fact, the unsealed track from Cameron Corner to Merty Merty, the junction with the Strzelecki Track, is completely dry and smooth, sometimes sandy. A good opportunity to test Ivanhoe our Haval H9 at high speed on thin gravel. So far so good. We cross no one all along the way to the junction, everyone is probably recovering from their New Year’s Eve hangover. A couple of stops to refill the windscreen washer fluid gauge and soon enough we arrive at Merty Merty and the Strzelecki Track.

Cameron Corner road – Strzelecki Track junction

The junction onto the Strzelecki Track is a real slice of desert solitude. The signs point to Innamincka,  140km to the north, and Lyndhurst, 315km to the south west, unsealed all the way. There is absolutely nothing and no one here, only the sound of the wind and dust flying from the track. The silence is deafening, and forces you to take stock of where you are. Stopping to take a few snaps really drives home the fact that we are in the middle of nowhere, and to me that means freedom.

Nothingness on the Strzelecki Track

We’re now onto the Strzelecki Track, a pass I had not been able to join in my last trip to this part of Australia, so it does feel like I’m ticking boxes on this trip. To my surprise parts of the track are actually sealed, removing a certain element of remoteness from the experience. This is one of the most barren landscape I have ever had the luck to discover, even more barren than the Birdsville Track. It’s almost as if the Strzelecki Track is the definition of emptiness, or nothingness. Traversing nothingness sounds boring when you say it, but it’s an experience like no other. Big skies, endless straight roads and only crossing road trains is something only Australia can offer. My co-drivers Bas and Sergio had never visited this part of the country and for them it’s one of the most exhilarating things they have done.

Ivanohe on the Strzelecki Track

The Strzelecki Track goes from Innamincka to Lyndhurst and is 475 km (295 miles) long, passing along Mount Hopeless which was named after the perceived prospects for the region by explorer Edward John Eyre. It used to be one of the driest and loneliest cattle stock routes going from Queensland to Adelaide and was pioneered in 1870 by bushman Harry Redford, aka Captain Starlight, in a rather unusual way… This man drove a thousand head of stolen cattle from Queensland past Mount Hopeless to Blanchewater where he sold them. He then went on trial for the crime but was found not guilty as the jury was impressed by his feat of basically blazing a new cattle stock route.

On the Strzelecki Track

Towards the end of the track, the blue sky reflected onto the red earth and the lonely Gammon Ranges to the south appeared to float above the horizon like a mirage. We have pushed Ivanhoe to up to 100 km/h on the unsealed sections of the track and as a result the back left tyre kept overheating, requiring multiple stops to cool down. But apart from that, the Haval H9 has taken the Strzelecki Track in his stride. The Track turned out to be a much easier run than expected, being completely dry for the overwhelming majority of the distance we travelled. The Track is very wide and flat and doesn’t present many obstacles, if any.

The Haval H9 creates quite the commotion in Lyndhurst.

We arrive in Lyndhurst, at the end of the track, in late afternoon which means we will have to be extra careful for kangaroos when we take the road again tonight at sunset. We’ve already used one extra 20L jerrycan of petrol on the Strzelecki Track so we are eager for a refill. Bad luck: the Lyndhurst Roadhouse that has the only petrol station is closed for New Year’s Holidays and won’t reopen until January 3rd! This is a big issue as we may not have enough petrol to reach Hawker. We turn to the other building in Lyndhurst: the Lyndhurst Hotel, which technically only offers diesel fuel. But thankfully the manager of the place, Willie, has a few jerrycans of petrol he keeps for emergencies, and he agrees to sell 10L to us at a reasonable price. Added to the second 20L jerrycan of petrol we have in the boot, this will be enough to get us to Hawker. The Haval H9 creates quite the commotion in Lyndhurst: one of the blokes had heard of the Haval brand as he’s seen it advertised on TV, and everyone wanted to open the hood to peek into the engine. They were a little disappointed it was a 4 cylinder but quite impressed we’ve managed to go through Cameron Corner unscathed. After a pub dinner we are off again, this time headed towards Hawker which is sealed all the way.

Towards Hawker

The entire trip is spent admiring the sun progressively setting onto the flat horizon and the luminosity is spectacular. Dusk comes with the ever-present danger of invisible and erratic kangaroos. To the inexperienced driver it seems impossible that such a big animal can remain unseen up until the time it appears right in front of your car’s bonnet. But kangaroos do that to you. We met one fellow that came out of nowhere as they know how to do, but thankfully he crossed the road in time to avoid us. It’s pitch dark when we arrive in Hawker which is the closest town to the fantastic Flinders Ranges National Park. But this is the subject of another post…

Stay tuned for the last part of this Series in the iconic Flinders Ranges…

Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 5: In Cameron Corner

This is Part 5 of our adventure to the middle of nowhere Australia with a Haval H9, which we baptised Ivanhoe. See Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura herePart 2: Mildura to Broken Hill herePart 3: Broken Hill to Tibooburra here and Part 4: Tibooburra to Cameron Corner here. Today we spend a post to take stock of what we achieved: arriving in Cameron Corner (almost) unscathed.

Australia’s Corners. Picture WikipediaCameron Corner Marker indicating the three states. Picture Wikipedia

We arrived just in time for New Year’s Eve celebrations, and as Cameron Corner is located at the intersection of three states – Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales – we can celebrate three times. Indeed these three states have different time zones, each separated by half an hour. Handy. Everybody gathers around the Cameron Corner Marker choosing the state that passes on the new year, drinks a few beers, and does it all again half an hour later. First is Queensland, then New South Wales and finally South Australia.

The gate to South Australia in Cameron CornerDefinitely more mud on the logo than yesterday

Ivanhoe our Haval H9 made a noticed entry in Cameron Corner, with punters of the pub first mistaking it for a Nissan X-Trail and having to do a double take. On second glance, they all ask what the brand is and admit the car is looking pretty good. The mere fact of arriving in Cameron Corner earns their respect. As it was the case when I reached Birdsville with the H8, Ivanhoe is the only non-modified 4WD in Cameron Corner where the Toyota Hilux, Land Cruiser 70 and Ford Ranger reign supreme. When I mentioned the loss of half of our underbody protection, everyone was unanimous: “When you travel through here there’s so many mods you need to do to your truck, even a Hilux. No way they’d land here in one piece otherwise” That got me reassured.

Ivanhoe in Cameron CornerThe Dingo Fence at Cameron CornerThe Dingo Fence in purple. Picture Wikipedia 

But why “Cameron” Corner? I hear you ask. The location was named after the surveyor John Brewer Cameron who marked the border between New South Wales and Queensland between 1880 and 1882. One of the other interests of Cameron Corner is the crossing of the Dingo Fence passing through the location along the New South Wales border. The Dingo Fence, also called Dog Fence, is the world’s largest fence, stretching 5.614 kilometres (3.488 miles). It is a pest-exclusion fence that was built in the 1880s to keep dingoes out of the south-eastern part of the country and protect the sheep of southern Queensland.

Cameron Corner Store’s very own Land Cruiser…except there are no neighbours for hundreds of kilometres around…
Cameron Corner Store’s dog

In Cameron Corner the only building is the Cameron Corner Store, originally established in 1990 by a Vietnam War veteran and his wife. It is now operated by the only permanent residents of the locality, the incredibly friendly Fenn and Cheryl Miller. Fenn was the life of the party for New Year’s Eve and Cheryl was even happy to fix us some dinner just after the celebrations. Funnily, Cameron Corner Store has a Queensland liquor licence, a New South Wales postal code and a South Australian telephone number! And also a faithful and beautiful dog.

The Photo Report continues below.

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Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 4: Tibooburra to Cameron Corner

Stuck.

This is Part 4 of our adventure to the middle of nowhere Australia with a Haval H9, which we baptised Ivanhoe. See Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura herePart 2: Mildura to Broken Hill here and Part 3: Broken Hill to Tibooburra here. We now leave Tibooburra and its gymkhana New Year’s Eve celebrations to try and join Cameron Corner store where we are supposed to spend New Year’s Eve across three time zones. It’s 2pm when we turn the ignition on, which should give us plenty of time to get across the 173 km itinerary. Or so we thought…

Tibooburra-Cameron Corner itinerary – Map by Google Maps

Google maps tells us it will take 6h30 to join Cameron Corner from Tibooburra. It turned out this timing was a little bullish as we had to stop many times along the way…

Ivanohe on the dirt road straight out of Tibooburra: a storm is brewing on the horizon.

As we leave Tibooburra with two bungee straps holding half the underbody protection that dislodged itself in the last post of this series, we can see a storm is brewing on the horizon. We can only hope our itinerary won’t cross its path. It would turn out the storm affected the road we are taking, just not at the same time as us. We need to stop a couple of times over the first 20 km to check on the bungee straps that are getting smashed by the muddy terrain we are crossing. It doesn’t look like they will hold up until Cameron Corner.

Only 96 km to go…It’s muddy out here…
Ivanohe posing and getting a bit of dirt on its sides.

46 km away from Tibooburra, we come to an intersection that leads to Tooney Gate or continues on to Cameron Corner via the aptly-named Cameron Corner Road. Turns out Cameron Corner isn’t 173 km away from Tibooburra but a mere 142. Too easy! Except we are now coping the effects of the storm mentioned above and the track is getting muddier by the minute. We are now in fill mud mode the whole of the time. We stop again to check the bungee straps: one has disappeared and the other one is totally dislocated and destroyed. What to do? Do we retrace our steps and spend the night in Tibooburra or do we push through and hope for the best? We decide to do the latter (but I have a feeling you knew this already).

The flooded clay pan has us thinking twice before continuing.

Feeling somewhat reassured that we won’t worry about the underbody from now on, we start the engine again with an extra bit of motivation. A mere 20 km later though, the track just disappears into a clay pan. Now we are really thinking it’s time to return to Tibooburra. A few pictures were taken to emphasise the incongruous situation, we could bet that a couple of hours ago we would have been able to cross here, but the storm we saw preceding us is the culprit. We would have confirmation of these timings once arrived in Cameron Corner as two other blokes came this very way to reach Cameron Corner and could go through, simply because it was earlier in the day. Thankfully, there is a backup plan…

We have passed the flooded clay pan!

Just before coming to the flooded pan, we had noticed an alternative option in the form of a track seemingly taking a left turn to contour the pan a few hundred metres back. Now this is the real test for Ivanohe our Haval H9. Fresh muddy ruts abound but the car goes through every single one of them with ease. We breathe a sigh of relief when we are able to connect back to the main track as pictured above.

Ivanohe trying to help

We have decided to let nature do its thing and capture our underbody protection. We will need to be extra careful for rocks in order not to damage anything underneath the car. It is now 7:30pm and the sun is setting. Just as we thought we were in for the last straight, we come across a bogged down truck – it would end up being the only vehicle we passed between Tibooburra and Cameron Corner. We must stop to help, as we would expect the same if it was us that were bogged down. We spend the next couple of hours helping, notably by placing dead wood under the wheels, repositioning it at each attempt. We even used Ivanohe to link and give direction to the truck as it was trying to get out of the side of the track, in vain. Note we did not actually try and tow the truck as it was way too heavy for Ivahoe our Haval H9 to pull. We leave the poor bloke for the night as he assures us he’s got everything he needs. It is quite a sizeable truck and he assured us he can sleep in and wait for the muddy track to dry out by tomorrow.

We encountered this little fellow right before reaching Cameron Corner.

Finally, right after 11pm NSW time, we arrive in Cameron Corner Store. Just in time to buy a six pack of beers before the bar closes for New Year’s Eve celebrations…

Stay tuned for the next episode of this series in Cameron Corner.

Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 3: Broken Hill to Tibooburra

Ivanohe just about to land on the Emergency Landing Strip after Packsaddle NSW.

This is Part 3 of our adventure to the middle of nowhere Australia with a Haval H9, which we baptised Ivanhoe. See Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura here and Part 2: Mildura to Broken Hill here. We are now saying goodbye to Broken Hill, and that’s not easy because every inhabitant we got to meet showed us loads of kindness and generosity. It is now time to go into the unknown. I have never travelled on the road north from Broken Hill before. We now it has rained copious amounts until a few days before we engage but all dirt roads are open at this stage so we are taking the bet.

Our itinerary for Part 3 of this trip is 100% desert. 

We are leaving Broken Hill in the hope of reaching Cameron Corner tonight as today is December 31st so the NYE celebrations are, well, tonight. Yet the speediness of our progression will rely solely on how good (bad) the dirt roads are, or even if they are passable in the first place. Stunning sunshine as we leave early in the morning  to give ourselves the best chance of arriving at our planned destination by sunset, so even a puncture shouldn’t impact on our timing too much. Ivanhoe’s odo indicates 5.050km, that’s just under 1.000 km since our departure from Melbourne.

In PacksaddlePacksaddle Roadhouse – and the only building in town.

The good news is the road is sealed all the way up to Packsaddle, the only building/pub/servo – I cannot say town on this occasion – on the way to Tibooburra at a mere 174km (!) north of Broken Hill. I have used the time since Broken Hill as a passenger to update BSCB, so weirdly I feel I have just been tele-transported into Packsaddle. My question of whether there is wifi in the pub is met with raised eyebrows as I swallow my words. Thankfully, the Telstra phone network is available here – my co-drivers, not on Telstra, and couldn’t get any signal – so my updates could go ahead. This series is not supposed to be an ad for Telstra, but when you hit the Australian countryside it sure is the only network left available when others fail. Talk to any countryside Australian and they will agree.

Now out onto the unknown, 4WD only tracks to Tibooburra

We are not leaving Packsaddle without fueling up both our 20L jerrycans as well as the tank. My motto in the Australian Outback is: “Never leave a petrol station without a full tank and full jerrycans.” You never know what may happen and which detours you will have to take through tough terrain which drinks a hell of a lot more fuel. So, we leave Packsaddle fuelled up to the brim. And this is where things may get a little difficult. The dirt track to Tibooburra is open, but for 4WD only. That still suits us but it also means we need to brace ourselves for some hairy driving.

Big skies and dirt roads: welcome to Australia
Gobi desert-proof

As opposed to Damo, the Haval H8 we drove through the Birdsville Track, our H9 Ivanohe is what Aussies call a “real” four-wheel-drive with 4WD and low range modes as well as different settings depending on the surface you are going through (mud, sand, snow…). Technically, this means any mud passing should equate to child’s play, but we’ll wait and see. Looking into the car’s manual explains a little bit more: the sand mode is described as “suitable to driving in the Gobi desert or in other deserts”. Well if my exploration of the Gobi desert in 2013 (see full Trans-Siberian series here and the Mongolian part here) is any indication, this should be more than enough to attack any sandpit that is thrown at us.

Ivanhoe mudding it up before Tibooburra.

Approaching Tibooburra, we get stopped by yet local police for an breathalyser. “Count to ten!” I oblige, a little confused as to why this is needed in the middle of the desert. Then I remember the New Year’s Eve rodeo that’s scheduled to take place today in town…


Underbody failure and Tibooburra Police sponsored fix.

But we’re far from Tibooburra just yet. Indeed, a few too many mud baths proved fatal to Ivanohe’s underbody protection which dislodged itself the same way the H8 did on the way to Birdsville. Problem is, it now rattles against the ground, requiring us to re-attach it. We sacrifice a couple of t-shirts to from a makeshift cord (Survivor here we come) but it fails to maintain the underbody attached to the vehicle (maybe no Survivor after all). Then, as a divine apparition or just straight from the movie Fargo, the local policeman that stopped us half an hour ago is back, and parks just in front of us. “What seems to be the issue here?” We show him, and he pulls a couple of bungee straps to help fix the underbody. Thank you Tibooburra police. We’ll return them to him and buy new ones in Tibooburra. We are now set.

Ivanohe has arrived in Tibooburra.

We have now arrived in Tibooburra, pronounced “Teeb’barrah“. The air is suffocatingly hot and flies abound. This is the north-westernmost town in the whole of New South Wales, located 1.187km/738 miles north-west of the state capital Sydney, 843km/524 miles north of Adelaide and 332km/208 miles north of Broken Hill which we departed from this morning. With a population of just 262, Tibooburra is the only town on our way to Cameron Corner and further west to the Strzelecki Track. There is one lonely service station that also acts as supermarket and grocery store. We find bungee straps there and our quest for lunch leads us to what seems to be the only pub in town, the Tibooburra Hotel, whose kitchen has now closed. We find our policeman here and can return his bungee straps…

Instead of this……we got this. But it was entertaining all the same.

The Tibooburra Hotel directs us to the “Stadium” for some food. And this is where it all starts to click together. All through our journey from Mildura to Broken Hill and onwards we have heard about a New Year’s Eve rodeo happening in Tibooburra. Here we now are, right in the middle of Tibooburra action, or more accurately Tibooburra Gymkhana and Rodeo New Year’s Eve. Cow-boy hats, checkered shirts and jeans are the norm here despite the heat and it truly is the event that brings the community together, a heartwarming sight. A handful of steak sandwiches get us back on track, and we are explained that the rodeo part of the festival won’t be happening as the cattle got stuck on the way because of the floods. Instead, we got to watch the gymkhana of motorbikes and were entertained all the same.

Tibooburra car park, Land Cruiser ute hitting iconic level

How about the cars in Tibooburra? Given the road was almost completely paved on the way, Tibooburra isn’t strictly a 4WD town per se, with a few 2WD and AWD spotted such as the Nissan X-Trail pictured above. But these are the exception and most vehicles in town are heavily modified 4WD with a preference for the Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger and the icon of the region, the Toyota Land Cruiser ute.

It’s now time to go. Only 140km and we are in Cameron Corner. Can’t be that hard can it? Turns out, it can be. A long evening awaits…

Stay tuned for Part 4 of this series coming shortly!

Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 2: Mildura to Broken Hill

A little interlude to our day trip from Mildura to Broken Hill.

This is Part 2 of our adventure to the middle of nowhere Australia with a Haval H9, which we baptised Ivanhoe. See Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura here. After crossing densely populated Victoria from south to north and keeping in touch with the world through a surprisingly perfect phone network, we are now about to get into the unknown and the desert: once Wentworth passed – a mere 50 km north of Mildura – there are absolutely no towns or villages for the following 280 km to Broken Hill! A sudden entrance into the Australian Outback it is indeed. By the time we will have arrived in Broken Hill, Ivanhoe will have already eaten close to 1,000 km of bitumen in two days: can’t get more of a ruthless test-drive start than this.

Part 2 of this adventure Mildura to Broken Hill, or from civilisation to nothingness.

In Mildura I am joined by my two co-drivers for this trip: Bas (Singaporean) and Sergio (Italian), making for quite a cosmopolitan crew with me being French and Ivanhoe being Chinese… This will enable us to give you a multi-national opinion of the Haval H9. I myself am already acquainted with the interior quality of both H8 and H9 SUVs but the guys’ first impression when climbing inside was “Wow. Didn’t expect this from a Chinese car.” It was the fairly consistent feedback of people that had a peek inside the H8 during the last trip, and given the H9 interior is almost identical to the H8 I am expecting more of the same during this trip. The fact is the H9 has leather seats and all the interior commodities you might ask for a large SUV and stepping inside makes you forget its Chinese origins, if that was ever an issue to start with.

Oops…
Smile for the camera! Jacked up Ivanhoe gets its wheel replaced.

Roughly halfway between Mildura and Broken Hill – in other words 150 km from anyone and anything, Ivanhoe’s rear right tyre goes flat, most probably due to the incredible heat the wheels have been subjected to for the past 750 km/465 miles we already swallowed in less than 24 hours. The Haval team said before loaning me the H9 they were testing new softer compound tyres, and these seem to be the wrong choice for the H9, given I had absolutely no tyre issues with the H8 in particularly rough terrain. Not to worry, this will be a good test of the tools that are available (or not) on board to change a tyre. And it turns out, there is quite an extensive toolkit hidden inside the rear door of the H9 that houses everything we need to replace the wheel. The jack requires a bit of Ikea DIY skills and the first car to pass by obviously stops to check on us: that’s the legendary Australian outback care for you. The elderly woman looks at our frazzled faces and the pieces of the jack in our hands. “Have you checked the car manual?” Mmm. Good idea.

Pit stop at Premier Independent Tyres in Broken Hill.

Tyre change in the middle of the desert in blistering heat is a good team bonding exercise and I’m grateful my colleagues Bas and Sergio are happy-go-lucky blokes that make light of any gremlins. We stop at the nearby Coombah Roadhouse – the only one of its kind on the 300 km stretch of road we are traversing – waking the owner in the process, to make sure tyre pressure is ok on all four tyres before resuming our trip to Broken Hill. The owner at Coombah Roadhouse, now well over half awake, inquires about our destination. “Oh you’re off to the Tibooburra New Year’s Eve festival?” Nup, but you have now picked our interest… In Broken Hill, we check in at the impeccable Red Earth Motel (I highly recommend it). The logical next move is to inquire at the nearby Goodyear Autocare for a replacement tyre, but – once again, the outback kindness – they refer us to the specialists in town for the type of tyres we are after: Premier Independent Tyres.

Like new!  Ivanohe being put to the test for the 4×4 of the Year award (notice same license plate)

All the guys at Premier were absolutely perfect. They inspected both the flat tyre and the remaining rear left one, and found extensive wear on the latter, meaning a burst was just waiting to happen to that one too, and also that Ivanhoe had been subject to a pretty gruelling routine before it was handed to me. But by who? None other than 4×4 Magazine Australia – the very magazine that inspired this trip and quite possibly my favourite magazine right now – used this very vehicle for their tests leading to the awarding of the coveted 4×4 of the Year this month. Ivanhoe finished 4th which was a surprise for everyone involved including myself. You can read 4×4 Magazine’s review of the H9 here. So that’s potentially why we’re getting hit by higher-than-normal tyre wear and tear. The tyre doctors’ verdict: replace both rear tyres with all-terrain ones as the H9 is a propulsion and the rear wheels are the ones doing all the heavy work and therefore getting most of the wear and tear. A quick call to Haval to ok the change – the team was super quick and available even though technically on holidays – and Ivanhoe gets a tyre refresh in less time than it took to write this paragraph.

Possibly the best invention of all time: drive-in bottle shop in Broken Hill.

This episode was a very good first test: of the on-board toolkit, of Broken Hill’s ability to replace tyres at 5pm on a Friday before a long weekend and of the Haval team’s reactivity and decisiveness, among many other things. And everyone passed with flying colours. We now have Ivanhoe equipped with all-terrain tyres fitted in Broken Hill, the gateway to outdoor adventures so they know a thing or two about what tyres can withstand anything. The only thing Premier Independent Tyres wasn’t is cheap: the $740 bill for two all-terrain tyres seemed a tad overpriced to me. Time for a beer! Cue what is possibly the best invention of all time: a drive-in bottle shop. First time my fellow co-drivers and myself see such a god-sent thing! The Mulga Hill Tavern was in full swing when we dropped by for a few six-packs. It would appear Broken Hill folks know a thing or two about the good life as well…

Pre-sunset light near the sculpture in Broken Hill

Last time I visited Broken Hill was with Damo the Haval H8 on my way to the Birdsville Track. Back then, I only deemed necessary to spend a couple of hours in town before setting off to Orroroo for the night, just enough to give a visit to the local Royal Flying Doctors base. But I missed the sunset on the Sculpture Symposium and the Living Desert Reserve. While the sculptures themselves are nothing special in my view, the serenity of the surrounding landscape was a perfect introduction to the desert drive on unsealed tracks we are about to embark on.

Broken Hill car landscape

Finally let’s get another look at the Broken Hill car landscape. Yes, it did change since July 2016 when I was here last, with a lot more new gen Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger, including a Hilux campervan registered in Queensland (pictured above). The Toyota Land Cruiser pickup continues to rule the roost here, with many examples driving around town. In fact, it is the benchmark against which every vehicle is evaluated. An illustration of this is the questions Dan from Premier Independent Tyres was asking after changing Ivanhoe’s rear tyres. “Had a good look inside while we were working on it, it’s got everything you need in it! Is that a new brand?” Yep it’s by the same guys who also have the Great Wall brand. “Oh yeah I know Great Wall. How much do they go for?” That’s the top-end Luxury spec at AUD$ 49.990. “That’s not bad with such an interior Better than my $70k Land Cruiser ute! Does they come as a double cab?” (pickup) No, Great Wall does the utes, Haval the SUVs. “Ah that’s a pity, I would have been keen for a ute version of this!” Haval team: there is some wriggle room to sell a new Great Wall Steed ute to Dan from Premier Independent Tyres in Broken Hill, just saying.

Next stop: Tibooburra. Stay tuned!

Gauging a Toyota Hilux before taking off to the desert… 

Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura

Our Haval H9 near Wentworth, NSW

After taking a Haval H8 through the legendary Birdsville Track last year, at BSCB we continue to strive to get a deeper understanding of Chinese carmakers and their offerings. Haval, the #1 SUV brand in China, launched in Australia in late 2015 and now offers four nameplates in this country: the H2, H6 Coupe, H8 and H9. Always up for a challenge, Haval was keen to lend us for a week a top-of-the-range H9 equipped with two spare, with no limitations as to where we could take it. In other words, a great opportunity to test the off-road capabilities of the brand’s only full 4WD vehicle and one of the rare such vehicles produced by a Chinese company.

Our target destination is Cameron Corner, aka the middle of nowhere, Australia.

Before we get on our way, there are two things we need to figure out: our destination objective, and a nickname for our Haval H9. Destination-wise, even though we managed to complete the Birdsville Track during our last Australian Outback trip, our aborted excursion towards the Strzelecki Track wet my appetite. A browse of the latest 4×4 Australia Magazine alerted me to a fun fact: you can celebrate New Year’s Eve three times at Cameron Corner, sitting at the intersection of three Australian States: Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. At this time of the year indeed, each State is on a different time zone, with New South Wales half an hour ahead of South Australia, itself half an hour ahead of Queensland.

One year’s worth of rain hit the region we are about to travel to in just a couple days. Above: Uluru.

Cameron Corner it is. Plus we can link westward through to the Strzelecki Track onto Lyndhurst and travel back via the Flinders Ranges, closing a loop I opened during the Birdsville trip. Calling Cameron Corner Store – the only building in Cameron Corner is a hotel-pub – well ahead to book accommodation on the “busy” New Year’s Eve, I inquired whether there was any chance we would get rain and muddy tracks on the way – it’s mandatory unsealed roads to get to Cameron Corner. Fen, the owner of the place, was reassuring: “Naaaah. We never get any rain round here, mate!” One week later, the biggest rains to hit the Australian Red Centre region in twenty years were headline news all across the country, and videos of water cascading down the flanks of the country’s most famous rock, Uluru, were inundating the internet (see above)…

Haval H9: Ivanhoe will be your name. At Coombah Roadhouse NSW.

If the Birdsville Track had been rendered treacherous by recent floods when we crossed it last year, this will once again be a real-life test for the off-road and mud driving capabilities of our Haval H9. Since Damo the Haval H8 we took to Birdsville and back, we have had the privilege to test drive a few vehicles: Esmeralda the Fiat Panda Blu from Sardinia, Fyr – Björn the Volvo XC90 from Nordkapp, Gretchen the Mercedes C-Class Coupe from Spain and Hayao the Toyota RAV4 from Rally Australia. The nickname for our Haval H9 needs to start with an I and be a male one given this is a truck, not a car – and in my native French tongue cars are feminine while trucks are masculine, I just can’t help it. A quick Facebook poll came back with a popular choice: Igor. But this sounded too Russian, not Australian and not adventurous enough. Instead, I have baptised our Haval H9 Ivanhoe. It’s the name of the main character, a knight, in the namesake 1952 MGM movie Ivanhoe, featuring Robert and Elizabeth Taylor, but also a small town in New South Wales, not far from where we will be driving. Adventurous and Australian = perfect match.

Meeting the Haval team in Melbourne, Victoria.

We start this adventure at Haval Australia’s headquarters in Mount Waverley, 23 km east of the Melbourne city centre in Victoria. Unlike last year when I took delivery of Damo the Haval H8 in Sydney, this time I got to meet the team behind Haval’s launch in Australia, namely Yuwen Yanmin and Luna Han, pictured above. The only missing links were Tessa Spanneberg, Digital & Social Media Specialist, and Andrew Ellis, Public Relations and Product Planning Manager for Haval and Great Wall, who was instrumental in organising these two endurance trips. As strange as it sounds, I very rarely get to meet the people who are responsible for these loans in person, as they are usually handled via a third party delivering the cars. So putting faces to names was therefore the best way to start this adventure. My meeting was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that both Yuwen and Luna confessed they’ve been first hour BSCB fans (since 2010!), meaning they knew of the site well before I got in touch to organise the first H8 loan last year. This is the kind of meeting that just warms my heart and makes all the hard work on this site worthwhile.

A storm is brewing… 

Turning the engine on shows 4.075 km on Ivanhoe’s odo. This will climb drastically over the next few days! For Day 1 we are headed towards Mildura, located 534 km north of Melbourne at the border between Victoria and New South Wales. The weather on this first day is suffocatingly humid and incredibly hot, with peaks above 40°C (100°F), and the bitumen was melting under my wheels at various locations during the day. The Melbourne car landscape is for the most part faithful to the Top 100 best-selling cars in Victoria for 2016 we recently published, with a few nameplates more frequent than their ranking should have indicated, such as the current generation Ford Falcon (now discontinued), Toyota Highlander and Maxus G10. Spending a few hours in Melbourne for lunch reminded me of the few pet hates I had developed while living there for five years: the food is surprisingly expensive and depressingly average, the waiting time to get served borders on the hour with everyone nodding happily, and navigating your way through the tram lines and hook-left to right turns (Melburnians will understand) is still driving me insane. Time to leave this city!

Day 1 is Melbourne to Mildura, Day 2 is Mildura to Broken Hill (covered in Part 2).

Happily, Ivanhoe is giving me very good first impressions. It is equipped with the same turbocharged 4-cyl. 2.0L 281 ch engine as he H8 but there is no time lag between pushing the accelerator and the engine revving up, meaning overtaking on the highway is a breeze, as it should have been on the H8. Handling seems more agile and nimble than the H8 despite the increased weight, and braking is as effective. So far so good. The only disappointing element so far is the GPS being overly cautious when calculating the Estimated Time of Arrival at destination: it doesn’t take into account the speed limit but a much lower speed average – perhaps supposed to take into consideration rest times? – resulting in a 9:15pm ETA for most of the afternoon when in actual fact I landed in Mildura at 7:35pm.

Enjoy your cleanliness Ivanhoe, as it won’t last!Just outside Mildura

One very good thing about Victoria: its relatively dense population – compared to the rest of the country – means local phone companies have been working hard at covering the entire state and as a result, at no point did I lose phone network! A nice luxury that I am about to lose completely once we cross into New South Wales: as a reminder, as soon as I left Sydney and the Blue Mountains last year to get to Broken Hill, I had to wave goodbye to any type of consistent phone network for hundreds of kilometres onwards.

Next stop: Broken Hill, NSW. Stay tuned!

We are headed to Broken Hill next.

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