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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
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 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
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.