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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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