Vance our Toyota RAV4 with Krys the Croc in Normanton, Queensland.
Since it launched in late 2018, the new generation Toyota RAV4 has been hitting sales records almost everywhere it landed – including almost 50.000 monthly sales in the US in August – and is poised to take the lead of the worldwide SUV rankings by the time 2019 comes to an end (it ranked #2 in 2018 with 830.000 sales). The RAV4 could even cross the symbolic million annual sales, if not in 2019 then in 2020, something no SUV has ever managed before. The RAV4 is one of a record 4 SUVs in the 2018 worldwide Top 10 alongside the Nissan X-Trail (#4), VW Tiguan (#7) and Honda CR-V (#9) which we all quickly drove earlier this year, symbolising the surge in popularity for this format over the past decade. Now that we put the worldwide best-seller, the new Toyota Corolla, to the test, it’s time to take the new RAV4 for a spin. We’ll name this one Vance!
Our itinerary for Part 1 of this test drive covers 5.800 km between Brisbane (down right) and Mataranka (top left).Our total drive will be 11.000 km into Indigenous Australia – the equivalent of Paris to Beijing!
Vance is a Toyota RAV4 Hybrid AWD GX priced at AUD$38.140 (23.500€ or US$25.900). We have a full-on itinerary in store for Vance: 11.000 km into Indigenous Australia. This is like linking Paris to Beijing I hear you wonder: how can you drive 11.000 km just in Australia? Well it’s a big country, and you’ll see that the k’s add up pretty quickly. Part 1 takes us from the pickup point in Brisbane, southeastern Queensland, all the way to the wild and remote Cape York peninsula to hopefully reach the northernmost point on the Australian continent near the small Indigenous town of Bamaga (see map above). During the first two days of the journey, we swallow up 1.721 km (1.069 miles) to link Brisbane and Port Douglas, at the doorstep of the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest continually surviving tropical rainforest in the world.
North-bound on Cape York’s sole track.
That’s more than enough to already form some first impressions on the RAV4 Hybrid, and the first striking element when taking the wheel is the real 4WD demeanour of the car, with a heaviness, robustness and eagerness to get dirty that is at opposite ends to the previous generations of the nameplate which felt like cars on stilts. The handling: lurching when kicking of and nose-diving slightly when braking, is reminiscent of the Land Cruiser 200 I test drove across the Simpson Desert last year. A lot of interior elements are padded and patterned in a rough/tumble way and seem to be screaming out to play in mud. Driving the RAV4 more than ever feels like driving a 4WD, and it would appear that at least on face value, Toyota’s legendary 4WD credentials are finally trickling down to its crossover lineup including the RAV4, which is something I had been gagging for for years. Heavy rain also expose one weakness of the RAV4: a build-up of water on the windscreen at eye level that is borderline dangerous as you can’t see the road properly.
Getting in the midst of it post wet season in Cape York.
The first 200-odd km between Port Douglas to Lakeland cross through the rainforest in a long series of steep and narrow hairpin turns with no visibility and very few opportunities to overtake. In this environment I discover probably the most surprising feature of the RAV4 so far: an almost Tesla-like acceleration when overtaking from 110 km/h up. The car swooshes to 130-140 km/h in no time and with no visible effort, to such an extent that I don’t think I have driven such as dynamic car since the Volvo V90 back in 2017… On top of this, the car is very peppy on winding mountain roads in the Port Douglas hinterland with the right amount of power displayed, no lag, and a perfectly levelled gearbox, definitely much better then the Peugeot 3008 with which it competes. These qualities are even more surprising as they are unexpected, coming on the back of dismal performances in exactly the same domains from the previous generation RAV4. In Lakeland, population 227, that the Cape York peninsula exploration starts in earnest through the PDR (Peninsula Developmental Road). We enter Quinkan Country, so named for the Aboriginal spirits depicted at the rock-art sites nearby, listed by Unesco as one of the world’s Top 10 best. The road is paved for just 80 km up to Laura, population 121, then it’s unsealed raw earth for the rest of the Cape York peninsula: a full 500 km to Weipa or 700 km to the actual Cape…
Vance meeting the locals at Musgrave Roadhouse.
One new companion I have embarked on this trip is a Thuraya Australia satellite sleeve which enables me to get in touch with the real world in case of emergency. Something you won’t know until you visit Australia is that outside the main cities and towns, mobile phone reception is patchy at best and non-existent in remote areas, making communication impossible. I had been somewhat recklessly going by without a satellite phone for all my previous Australian Outback test drives bar the Simpson Desert one, but with this trip amounting to roughly 7.000 km outside of any phone network coverage the gamble was too dangerous, hence the addition of a satellite sleeve to BSCB’s test drive equipment! Vance and I stop for our first Cape York peninsula night in Musgrave Roadhouse, originally a Telegraph Station built in 1886. This station was part of the 700-km overland Cape York Telegraph Line from Laura to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Musgrave is now a very useful stop providing comfortable accommodation, friendly advice about onward travels and a nearby prairie/landing strip filling up with curious kangaroos at dusk.
Above: on the way to Weipa, below: Jardine River ferry
A quick check of the Queensland Road Conditions website when in Port Douglas indicated that the section of the track from the Weipa turnoff to Bamaga is closed due to recent rain, which is a bitter disappointment as I wanted to reach the actual Cape, so we’ll just hope it reopens in the next few days and reach Weipa for now. The largest town on the Cape, Weipa, population 3.344, is a very interesting find: it is the site of the world’s largest bauxite mine – the ore from which aluminium is processed. Now for the mind-boggling stats about the Weipa region: with the current construction of a new mining project in nearby Amrun, 85,000 tons (187 million lb) of bauxite are mined every 24 hours and transferred onto waiting (Chinese) ships in the various harbours scattered along the western Cape coast, with the option to expand this capacity to an out-of-this-world 160.000 tons every 24 hours… I say Chinese because the one ship that was in town when I stayed there had Chinese characters on its bow. While chatting away with the owners of the Weipa camping grounds, I realise that the north-bound closed track to Bamaga was in fact the high clearance only Old Telegraph Track (OTT) but the crossover-friendly Southern and Northern Bypass Roads is fully open all the way! This means I will be able to reach the northernmost point on continental Australia with Vance the RAV4. Victory! But thumbs down to the Queensland Road Conditions website and one more proof that local knowledge is most valuable currency in the most remote parts of the country. It’s a surprisingly smooth ride with well maintained tracks allowing peaks of 110 km/h and long bouts at 85-90 km/h which is a lot higher than I expected and showcase the very solid handling on bull dust of the RAV4 which sticks to the road much more than most crossovers such as the Volvo XC40 and XC90 fort example. One highlight is the croc-infested Jardine River, Queensland largest perennial river that spills more freshwater into the sea than any other river in Australia. Crossings are no longer permitted here, instead a ferry run by very friendly staff from the Injinoo Community Council operates during the dry season, which had just started when I travelled there. Given these tracks are the only connection to the outside world, this means all inhabitants living on Cape York north of the Jardine River – an area known as NPA for Northern Peninsula Area – cannot drive south during the wet season which runs from November to April… Talk about being cut from the rest of the world!
We have arrived to the northernmost point on the Australian continent.
The unsealed track to actual Cape York, called “the Tip”, is barely signposted – I used both the car’s and my phone’s GPS to get here – taking us through dense rainforest before clearing up as we get closer to the Torres Strait. This awe-inspiring location is surprisingly un-touristic. The track ends abruptly just steps from the beach and next to a sign titled “Arriving from Torres Strait” addressed to boats disembarking on this very beach. On it, a list of items needing a permit to be brought onto Australian mainland and a notice to pilots of vessels over 7 metres in length to report to the Department of Agriculture within 4 days of arrival. It does feel like a wild frontier out here, and the clear and present danger posed by crocodiles lurking in the nearby mangroves only heightens the humbling vibe. As it was low tide, I choose to sprint through the beach and as far as possible from the potentially croc-infested mangrove and reach the sign marking “the northernmost point on the Australian continent”. The humidity is sky high, the heat is intense, the silence deafening and I’m alone on site. It feels like a totally different country. In fact, the northernmost Australian Torres Strait islands are only four kilometres from the Papua New Guinea mainland – 15 to 20 minutes in a tinny – and every year, tens of thousands of PNG nationals cross to the northern islands to trade under a treaty agreement to protect traditional activities.
Vince got injured in Cape York…and got fixed in no time.
On the way back from the Tip to the main town in the area, Bamaga, population 1.046, Vance the RAV4 gets an injury: a few rocks in a creek crossing that posed no issue on the way in unhook a rubber bash plate that then noisily scraps against the ground. To be fair, this is not really the environment the RAV4 is made for as shown by the difference in ground clearance with a local Hilux above. The night has fallen, and a quick ask at the sole service station in town gets sorry looks (it was Sunday night): “no mechanics until tomorrow and I’m afraid all hotels are closed by now”. So here I am with an injured car and nowhere to sleep! Thankfully the reception at Cape York Peninsula Lodge is lit despite a large “Closed on weekends” sign on the building. I venture inside: “Do you have any rooms?” “Well yes we do!” laugh two Indigenous women. “I thought you guys were closed” “Oh we are! I don’t even know what we’re doing here!” More laughs. I’m starting to like Bamaga. The next day I meet Mike the local mechanic – a giant Indigenous Schwarzenegger (pictured above): “leave it with me, I’ll call you when it’s ready – give me an hour or so”. Only half an hour later Vince is all fixed and ready to go again, but when I turn up at the garage Mike isn’t here. He arrives a while later and apologises: “I got called to separate a fight in town…” I do my best not to laugh, but given Mike’s stature I can totally believe that he would be the absolute go-to-person in that case! A hospitality as warm as it is unexpected and awe-inspiring nature are my takes on this part of Australia that is a lot closer to Papua New Guinea both geographically and culturally.
The Carpentaria Highway
The trip back south across the Cape York peninsula is eventless, I now know to stop in Musgrave Roadhouse halfway down. There I learn the 540-km track cutting southwest to Normanton is closed due to recent rain, which means I must drive back southeast almost all the way to Cairns, then cross west to Normanton, a 1.031 km journey. Beware of the tree kangaroos crossing there, a sign I had never seen before… The main attraction in Normanton, population 1.469, 60% of which are Aboriginal, is a life-size replica of 8.64m-long Krys the Croc, the largest ever recorded in the world, shot in 1957 by Krystina Pawlowska in the nearby Norman River. This is the main picture in this article.
Hell’s Gate Roadhouse and the Heartbreak Hotel in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Further west from Burketon, we hit the Gulf of Carpentaria through the Savannah Way, a partly sealed but sometimes rough as guts 4WD track. After passing the Doomadgee Aboriginal Community, it’s another 80 km of melaleuca scrub to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse, an isolated building that is actually not that scary! Then it’s the border to Northern Territory, Garawa Aboriginal Land and Borroloola, population 926. By now we are on Carpentaria Highway which, despite its name, isn’t sealed and features numerous and sometimes rather deep creek crossings, especially treacherous after nightfall. Driving at night in such remote areas is the perfect environment to spot snakes hastily slithering across the track. The one pictured above was longer than my leg! The next morning we arrive at the Heartbreak Hotel at the intersection with the Tablelands Highway: a welcome shaded oasis after hundreds of km of scrub, semi-desertic landscapes. No hearts were broken here as far as I’m concerned!
Work station under the local cow’s eye in Mataranka…
At Daly Waters, population 25, we join the famed Sturt Highway that dissects Australia in two from North to South, and 550km from our morning start in Borroloola we arrive in Mataranka, population 350 of which 30% are Aboriginal. The name Mataranka, in the Yangmanic language of the Aboriginal people who inhabit the area, means… wait for it… “home of the snake”. How appropriately terrifying (I’m not a fan of snakes). This closes Part 1 of this epic adventure with Vance the Toyota RAV4: by now we have already traveled 5.958 km (3.702 mi), or a little more than half of our journey. I feel I deserve a cold drink in my new croc drink-cooler under the watchful eye of the local cow and termite mounds.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Test Drive which will take us through Arnhem Land, the quintessential Australian Aboriginal Territory.