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.

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.