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 Stakes, Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill, Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst, Part 4: Lyndhurst to Moolawatana, Part 5: Moolawatana to Mungerannie and Part 6: Mungerannie to Birdsville.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Grading 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.
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.
Back 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.