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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.