Drone view of Vance our Toyota RAV4 on the Stuart Highway.
This is Part 3 and the final iteration of our epic 11.000 km / 7.000 mile – Test Drive of the new Toyota RAV4 into Indigenous Australia. You can check out Part 1: Cape York here and Part 2: Arnhem Land here. We’re now back from Arnhem Land and exploring the legendary Kakadu National Park, its Aboriginal rock art and croc-infested yet stunningly beautiful creeks. Then it’s time to cross the entire country from north to south to reach our drop-off location, Adelaide, a 3.000 km / 1.900 mile – journey. On the way, we’ll explore the spectacular Devils Marbles and stop in Alice Spring, our last chance at purchasing authentic Aboriginal art right from the source.
Vance meeting the locals and our itinerary for Part 3 of this Test Drive.
As a tourist hot spot, the car landscape in this part of the country is biased towards the legion of “grey nomads” – retirees touring Australia in their camper vans – and backpackers exploring Kakadu, but locals remain faithful to the Toyota Land Cruiser 70 we have seen all throughout the most remote areas of this adventure, as pictured above in Jabiru, the main town in the Kakadu National Park. We’ve been avoiding big cities during this trip, focusing more on hard-to-access Indigenous communities, and as such we won’t be stopping in Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory. However you can check out the best-selling models in the Territory in 2018 in our exclusive Australia State by State rankings here. You’ll see that the Toyota Land Cruiser 70 reaches a record 7th place in the NT, its highest ranking in any Australian State or Territory.
Cahills Crossing. Crocodile pictures by Illawarra Mercury, news.com.au
My first objective in Kakadu National Park is Cahills Crossing, the most dangerous river crossing in Australia. This might sound like a preposterous claim, but it is sadly true as there have been five crocodile fatalities here, the most recent in 2017. The river to be crossed is the East Alligator River, erroneously named this way by Phillip Parker King, an English navigator who explored the area between 1818 and 1822. This is indeed the home of saltwater crocodiles, not alligators who instead hang out in freshwater marshes and lakes. At this exact point of the river, up to 40 crocodiles can be spotted together at the same time as they congregate to feast on swarms of fish that head upstream with changing tides. Unfortunately (or not?), I wasn’t allowed to cross the river with the RAV4 even at low tide as it was restricted to high-clearance vehicles at the time of my visit (see 2nd picture above), plus there was no crocs to be spotted on site. However, it is estimated that for every crocodile you can see, there are 10 you can’t… So perhaps they were all lurking beneath the surface. Note the two croc pics below were not taken during my visit, but show how “inconvenient” crocs can be for the crossing cars and how dangerous it would be to get washed out in your car if you fail to reach the other shore…
Kakadu National Park snaps
Without crocs but with nice shots, we are now headed to two specific spots in Kakadu National Park that were recommended to me by locals. But first, why the Kakadu name? Well, we’re not too sure. It may come from the mispronunciation of Gaagudju, the name of an Aboriginal language spoken in the area, or it may derive from the Indonesian word kakatuwah, (via Dutch kaketoe and German Kakadu) subsequently Anglicised as “cockatoo”, a type of parrot present in the area. Our first stop is Ubirr, a group of rock outcrops which have been continuously painted and repainted by Aboriginal people for the past 40,000 years. The first picture above is a painting of a Mimi spirit, fairy-like beings that are said to have taught the Aborigines how to hunt and prepare kangaroo meat. The Ubirr paintings are incredibly varied and also depict animals from the area, most notably a thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, which has been extinct in the area for about 2000 years, attesting to the antiquity of the paintings. There is a fantastic lookout at Ubirr (2nd picture above) that gives a panoramic view of the surrounding floodplains. Next is Gunlom creek (4th picture above), a paradisiac crocodile-free body of water reached through unsealed tracks that looked great under the sunlight (3rd picture above). The bath was short but rejuvenating. Thank you Kakadu!
The Devils Marbles are a photogenic bunch!
From Ubirr, it’s 1.100 km straight South past Tennant Creek on the Stuart Highway that dissects the country-continent in two, until we arrive at Karlu Karlu Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve which even appears on the RAV 4’s GPS map with a little illustration (see above). John Ross, part of the Australian Overland Telegraph Lie expedition in 1870, gave the location its English name with the following quote: “This is the Devil’s country, he’s even emptied his bag of marbles around the place!” The place is of great cultural and spiritual significance to the Alyawarre, Kaytetye, Warumungu and Warlpiri people, and Karlu Karlu means round boulders in local Indigenous language. Weathering and erosion have created the various shapes of the boulders, some of them precariously balanced atop one another in a striking vision, especially at sunset as perfectly timed by Vance and I!
Vance in and around Alice Springs, the largest city in central Australia.
A further 400 km south is Alice Springs, population 23.726, situated roughly in Australia’s geographic centre and nearly equidistant from Darwin (1.499 km or 931 mi north) and Adelaide (1.532 km or 952 mi south). Alice Springs is surrounded by extremely arid desert and is the largest city in a 1.450 km radius around it (the red circle above), representing 6.6 million square km, an area equivalent to 12 times France! (yes twelve this is not a typo) Last time we were here was with Omar the Toyota Prado last year, coming from the East and Boulia and headed west towards Uluru. There is no change in the most popular cars in town: still the Toyota Hilux and Land Cruiser 70, and the Alice Springs Toyota dealership would be the first one where I spotted the new generation RAV4 I was driving around the country – this Test Drive happened last May. Alice Springs is my last chance to purchase authentic Aboriginal art, and I indeed find stunning work, notably from Damien and Yilpi Marks – like the colourful one in the centre of the picture above – but my experience in town feels very weird as unlike in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, not a single gallery is manned by Aboriginal people, only portly – and very polite – middle-aged white women which feels wrong to me and I decide not to purchase anything as a result.
Vance and I were “welcomed” into Coober Pedy by a large red kangaroo…
Before leaving the Northern Territory at Kulgera, I get a last chance to (legally) drive fast on the Stuart Highway – South Australia has much more restrictive speed limits, and I push Vance the Toyota RAV4 to a short peak of 160 kph (100 mph) without any noticeable negative impact on stability, vibrations or engine noise. It confirms the surprising fact that one of the RAV4’s strengths is highway travel thanks to very dynamic hybrid engines keeping dynamism optimal. Our next stop is Coober Pedy, but not before a rather scary incident occurs. A big no no of Australian Outback driving is being active from dusk till dawn as this is the time wildlife – mostly kangaroos – comes out on the road, making it extremely dangerous. I already had a close call back in 2016 with the Haval H8. When driving 11.000 km across Australia in Autumn (this trip was in May), it makes it a little difficult because daylight is almost at its most limited. But I have managed to stay clear of kangaroos for the past 17 years that I’ve driving in Australia… until this late afternoon literally minutes before arriving in Coober Pedy. A huge red kangaroo thought it was a good idea to zoom onto the road from the right hand side, then stop, then resume further towards the middle. I swerved, but couldn’t avoid its head (sensitive souls please move onto the next paragraph) and as I hit it, its tail made the mark on the driver’s door pictured above. The bang was so loud I was seriously expecting the car to be wrecked with its entire front right side caved in and the headlights knocked out, and I wouldn’t be able to drive any further. But surprisingly, the only damage was a broken front right bumper and a dislocated wheel arch, the rest being intact. I hit the kangaroo front-on at high speed (around 80 km/h) yet the damage to the car was minimal. Now I am not suggesting you hurl your RAV4 onto each passing kangaroo to verify my claims but in my case the surprisingly limited damage speaks volumes about the car’s capacity to absorb very significant shocks. This is our third visit to Coober Pedy in as many years, the previous ones being during our Toyota C-HR Test Drive in 2017 then with Omar the Toyota Prado in 2018. Located in the largest opal mining area in the world, the town, population 1.762, is named after the local Aboriginal term kupa-piti, which means “White man’s burrows”, because most of the population lives underground due to the stifling heat that engulfs the region most of the year. Still a little frazzled by my kangaroo encounter, I check into one of Coober Pedy’s underground hotels and marvel (once again) at how cool the rooms are in the absence of AC.
Glendambo on the Stuart Highway.
254 km / 158 mi south of Coober Pedy on the Stuart Highway is Glendambo whose official 2016 census population is… zero! How is that possible? Simply because all people working here and transient (backpackers only here for a few months on working holidays for example) and none identifies as a permanent inhabitant of the settlement, having their main residence elsewhere. The town was constituted in 1982 and was derived from the Glendambo Homestead founded in 1929 and boundaries for the locality were established in 2003. Road signs say Glendambo human population is 30, alongside 22.500 sheep and 2 million flies (I concur). Here the vegetation is limited, the road is straight as an arrow and the skies are as big as they can get. I make sure I enjoy these last hours of silence and solitude before getting back to civilisation and the South Australian capital Adelaide, population 1 million and incredibly the only city of more than 30.000 inhabitants in the whole of South Australia which covers over 1 million km² or 400.000 sq mi…
Aboriginal, Northern Territory and Australian flags, our complete itinerary and Vance as clean as new in Adelaide.
A further 600 km and Vance and I arrive in Adelaide, our drop-off location. The odometer says 11.929 km, whereas it was only 820 km when I picked up the car 20 days ago. That’s a whopping 11.019 km (6.847 mi) including roughly 3.000 km (1.864 mi) of unsealed tracks from Brisbane to Bamaga in the Northern Peninsula Area of Cape York onto Nhulunbuy in Eastern Arnhem Land, Kakadu National Park and Alice Springs. As a reminder 11.000 km is the equivalent of a Paris to Beijing journey. One peculiar element of this trip was the absence of ferry on the Gulf of Carpentaria linking Bamaga or Weipa on the Cape York peninsula directly to Nhulunbuy – a mere 350 km by sea – which would have saved me a hard-to-believe 3.750 km of driving! (see map above) But this part of the country is so remote and sparsely populated that such a service has no chance of being profitable. In any case I can safely say that at the time I finished this Test Drive – and probably still today – that I have driven the most km of any other person in Australia on the new generation Toyota RAV4, which I believe makes me well-placed to offer you my review further down in this article.
My recommendation of Indigenous-themed watching material.
Aside from getting a good impression on whether the Toyota RAV4’s worldwide success is deserved, my other objective during this epic Test Drive was to learn and be exposed to the Indigenous culture of Australia, something that living in Sydney doesn’t allow nearly as much as I had hoped. Researching this trip and the locations I wanted to visit, I gorged on Indigenous-themed movies and TV Series and if you too are interested in immersing yourself into a little-known culture, these are my recommendations. The 1971 movie Walkabout is a mind-altering and abrasive view on how little the Western world knows about Indigenous culture. 2002 Rabbit-Proof Fence explores the Stolen Generation of young Aboriginal girls placed in white Australian families between 1905 and 1967. The 2014-2016 reality TV Series First Contact exposes predominantly white Australians to remote Aboriginal culture and uncovers the background story behind their pre-conceived ideas. 2016 Goldstone follows an Indigenous Detective in a corrupt frontier town brilliantly played by Aaron Pedersen. If you’re more of a bookworm, I recommend The Fatal Shore (1986) by Robert Hughes, a gritty account of the birth of Australia and Britain’s convict transportation system. If at first and from the outside the racism-linked issues affecting Aboriginal Australia seem clear-cut, they become muddier the longer you live in the country and you understand and learn about the numerous interactions and policies, successful or not, that have been tried over centuries. As such, I was expecting at best weariness, at worst full-on racism towards myself when visiting these remote, majority Indigenous areas, akin to what I experienced in the French West Indies where the history of slavery remains front-and-centre in locals’ minds. How incredibly and happily surprised I was. Instead of weariness, I got unconditional friendliness from absolutely every Indigenous person that crossed my path during this trip. From a wave or “hello!” by every passerby, whether it be walking or driving, to active helpfulness when asking for directions to the Yirrkala Art Centre or needing a fast repair on the RAV4 and down-right fits of laughter during my bush-taxi duty in Nhulunbuy and while checking into a Bamaga hotel unannounced and late at night on a weekend. It does seem that not many non-Indigenous people venture into these areas and as a result they are rewarded – instead of scolded – for their visible interest in the culture and traditions of these regions. That was the main learning of this trip. Add to this the discovery of entire areas that geographically and culturally feel like a different country altogether, and this adventure was an incredible learning experience indeed.
- Rugged interior offers rubber finishes on touch points in the armrests, centre console and ventilation dials, giving the lot a “ready-for-action” feels without falling into the gimmicky trap.
- Third electric motor to drive the rear wheels results in very powerful acceleration when least expected, namely overtaking from 110 to 130/140 km/h.
- Real 4WD handling feeling as opposed to “car on stilts” feel of the previous generation RAV4. Heaviness, robustness, pitches towards the front when braking, a little like a Land Cruiser 200 does, and as such feels like a heavier vehicle in a good way. Toyota’s legendary 4WD credentials are finally trickling down to the RAV4. Trail mode is the AWD “on” option.
- Welcome Jeep design cues such as trapezoidal dark wheel arches.
- Very peppy on windy coastal/moutain roads in Port Douglas hinterland. Right amount of power, no lag, gearbox levelled perfectly, much better than the Peugeot 3008.
- Very good handling on bull dust: sticks to the road, no slipping like most crossovers do (even the Volvo XC90).
- High speed is possible on unsealed tracks (up to 125 km/h) partly thanks to excellent dampers that contain the bounce of the car on bumps.
- Road sign recognition is almost perfect. Picks up when the speed limit changes. Only misses are school zones time-dependent speeds (logical) ad “end 60” road works special speeds. However displays on the driver console are not in sync with the speed limit displayed by the GPS.
- Outstanding fuel economy: 5.4L / 100 km while on sealed roads from Brisbane to Laura, final of 7.0L / 100 km which is excellent given the 3.000 km driven on unsealed tracks.
- Surprisingly limited damage following kangaroo hit speaks volumes about the car’s capacity to absorb very significant shocks.
- No Apple CarPlay, no pause or next direct command for the music (Note as of November 2019, early-build models without Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now eligible for a free dealer retrofit).
- No hotel recognised on GPS (same as 2017 Hilux). Given there are no street numbers in the Outback, you can only enter the street alone and try and find the hotel yourself on that street.
- Ground clearance could be higher: 190mm vs. 200mm for Mazda CX-5, 201mm for VW Tiguan and 220mm for Subaru Forester. As a result a rubber protection plate dislodged itself during one of the numerous creek crossings of this trip and required a visit to Mike “the Mountain” at the Bamaga repair shop.
- Brakes often fail on gravel unsealed tracks, meaning the car can be skidding onto a creek or pothole – rather dangerous.
- GPS estimated arrival times are grossly exaggerated on unsealed tracks: over 6 hours to do 100 km at one point.
- Sealing isn’t great: the car lets dust in big time. Cost me $200 to remove inside the car especially on the door arches.
- Build-up of water on the windscreen under heavy rain, wipers not very efficient. Happens at eye level which is borderline dangerous as you can’t see the road properly. then automatic wipers continue for too long resulting in squeaky noises on the windshield.
- One USB plug at the front: not enough at a times Chinese cars get two in the front and two in the back.
- Automatic high beams are 90% there. On straight lines can’t recognise far away cars, sometimes goes on low beams for no reason in pitch black darkness, wiggle the car a bit and high beams get back on. Easier to leave auto rather than put it in manual because it’s still a relief but it’s not the best I’ve had, that title remains with the Peugeot 3008.
- No sunroof.