error: This content is protected, please contact if you would like to license for reuse.

Australian Red Centre vs. Toyota Prado – Part 3: Uluru and Coober Pedy

Omar with magical Uluru.

This is Part 3 and the last iteration of our exploration of the Australian Red Centre with a Toyota Prado which we baptised Omar. You can see Part 1 taking us from Sydney to Birdsville here and Part 2 from Birdsville to Alice Springs here. We now reach the “true” Red Centre of the country and one of the world’s most iconic natural wonders: Uluru. We end this Test Drive as is the tradition on BSCB with a quick review of the Toyota Prado.

Our itinerary for leg 3 of this adventure, taking us from Alice Springs to Uluru then Coober Pedy.

I could go the “short” and sealed way between Alice Springs and Uluru, down the Stuart Highway and then right onto the Lasseter Highway. But I couldn’t for the sake of this trip and its Red Centre label miss the Namatjira drive going through the MacDonnell Ranges, then catching the Larapinta drive that becomes the “Red Centre Way” leading to Kings Canyon. The Namatjira drive is named after Albert Namatjira (1902-1959), born in neighbouring Hermannsburg, a pioneer of contemporary Indigenous Australian art and the most famous Aboriginal Australian of his generation. As for Larapinta, it is the name of the Finke River, a major watercourse in the area, in local Arrernte Aboriginal language.

Road signs to Kings Canyon

A reminder that this section of our exploration is mainly used by tourists that have flown into Alice Springs or Uluru and are driving rental cars, the most frequent road sign here is “Drive on left in Australia” which at first seems incongruous as we are right in the (red) centre of the country. Also of note are the translations in various languages of road warnings such as “Gravel Road”, including in Aboriginal language (see bottom of the middle picture above). This is actually the first time that I see a road sign displayed in Aboriginal language in Australia, a testimony of the isolation of the communities that live in the area but also how taken for granted English-speaking is here.

Omar on the Red Centre Way

The 150km-long unsealed section of track that is actually called the Red Centre Way surprisingly ended up being the roughest and most challenging of the entire trip by far. Heavy corrugation, treacherous ruts and hidden ravines created by recent rain make this a true test of the Toyota Prado’s braking and handling capacity. Also, above you can see the damage caused by the eagle I hit during the first leg of this trip. I have made sure most photos I published since are angled on the other side of the car so this is the one I’ll put there to remind you of that unfortunate episode.

Omar near Kings Canyon, and a flashback to my last visit here in December 2003 with a Toyota RAV4.

After only crossing just four vehicles in the 280km since Alice Springs, we soon arrive at Kings Canyon, one of the natural wonders of Australia with cliff walls over 100 metres high. Unfortunately, due to extreme heat the fantastic Rim Walk was closed on the day I visited, while the Creek Walk was shortened due to repair on the boardwalk. Very disappointing given the lengthy and challenging detour I drove on just to come here. But I have a back-up plan for you: I dug up a few photos of my first visit of the Canyon in December 2003 onboard a Toyota RAV4…

Is it Uluru yet? Nope, this one is Mount Conner or Attila.

After Kings Canyon all the way to Uluru (and home to Sydney) the road is all sealed, so it’s (kind of) the end of the “true” adventurous stretch of this trip. But we still haven’t seen the best part (Uluru) yet. Roughly 100km after Kings Canyon we hit the Lasseter Highway and almost immediately a large mountain appear on the horizon. Uluru? Not yet. This one is Mount Conner, also known as Attila, located in in Pitjantjatjara country and towering 300m (984 ft) above ground level. It was named by William Gosse in 1873 after Mountifort Longfield Conner an auctioneer, politician and sporting journalist in South Australia.

Omar admiring Uluru at sunset.

Here we are now in Uluru (pronounced ool-or-roo), Australia’s most recognisable natural landmark and a World Heritage Site, also known as Ayers Rock. Although you will probably feel like you have already been here given the countless photographs and footage you would have come across in your lifetime, nothing replaces seeing it for real. It is much bigger than you’d expect at a height of 348 m (1,142 ft) – that’s 24m/63ft taller than the Eiffel Tower and only 33m/108ft shorter than the Empire State Building – although most of its bulk (5-6 km or 3-4 mi) is underground. It is also 9.4 km (5.8 mi) in circumference: indeed it is not a “wall” as the famous pictures seem to convey, but a full sandstone rock formation. I don’t get tired of it, this year being my 4th visit to the site after 1999, 2003 and 2005. One of the most fascinating features of Uluru is its seemingly changing colour at different times of the day and year, especially at sunset – I don’t recommend the sunrise at all!

Hard to find a better view from the wheel.

Uluru is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu, the Aboriginal people from the area. As such, climbing the rock is currently discouraged (only about 15% of tourists do so) and will be outlawed from October 2019. There is also a permit process all media have to go through in order to avoid publishing pictures of sensitive and sacred sections of the rock, for reasons related to traditional Tjukurpa beliefs. The sites of gender-specific rituals are forbidden for Aṉangu of the opposite sex, and the photographic restriction is intended to prevent Aṉangu from inadvertently violating this taboo by being exposed to photographs of the forbidden sites in the outside world. A heavy responsibility to all those photographing the rock. As such, all pictures in this article have been pre-approved by the Park management and therefore its elders.

Uluru, viewed from the Base Walk.

Although human settlement in the area dates back to over 10.000 years, it was only discovered by Europeans in 1873 and named Ayers Rock by explorer William Gosse after the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. At some point described in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest monolith in the world, this is a somewhat ambiguous term that is generally avoided by geologists. The remarkable feature of Uluru is its homogeneity and lack of jointing and parting at bedding surfaces, leading to no soil developing. All tourist accomodation was removed from the direct surroundings of the rock in 1984 and replaced with one single facility and airport called Yulara, now owned by one company: Ayers Rock Resort. This monopoly situation means staying in Yulara is far from cheap, but well worth it. A must-do if you visit: the 10km/6mile Base Walk that will enable you to see the rock from the ground in every possible angle. Set aside 2-3 hours and lots of water and you will want to stop every 5 minutes to take more pictures. Unforgettable.

Rental cars in Yulara and Uluru.

As is to be expected, most cars in circulation in the area and on the site are rental cars. Between Alice Springs and Yulara, I crossed 2 Toyota RAV4, 3 Mitsubishi Outlander and 3 Mitsubishi ASX. Near the site Toyota Prado siblings of Omar as well as the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport were also popular, although the Prados were all armed with menacing roo-bars (see above). Mitsubishi is clearly over-performing here which seems to indicate particularly sharp deals with rental companies both in Northern Territory and South Australia. It’s during the relaxed tour of Uluru that Omar reached its best fuel consumption average of the trip at 7.8L/km (30mpg).

Kulgera pub and its “shoe tree”

After a day of rest where I was lucky enough to do the Uluru Base Walk, we are now headed back to Sydney, 2810km / 1750mi away. First there’s 250km/ 155mi on the Lasseter Highway then it’s a right turn onto the Stuart Highway and an incredible 852km / 530mi of straight line without any further road directions (see GPS above). The last town before the South Australian border is Kulgera, population 50, with a roadside pub and service station sporting a gloomy “shoe tree”…

Crossing into South Australia.

Omar now speeds through to South Australia, or rather brakes through because crossing the state border also means you must reduce your speed from 130km/h to 110 for the rest of the trip to Sydney. It’s time to have a look at the best-selling models in South Australia so far this year.

Best-selling models in South Australia – 5 months 2018 (Source VFACTS):

PosModelSA 2018/17SA 2017Pos
1Toyota Hilux1,24318%1,0532
3Ford Ranger1,014-1%1,0263
4Toyota Corolla962-5%1,0174
5Mazda CX-580111%7198
6Mitsubishi Triton7713%7467
7Toyota Camry704-18%8546
8Mitsubishi ASX60821%50415
9Toyota RAV456110%51213
10Holden Colorado551-4%5739

The Toyota Hilux surges 18% to snap the state leadership off the Mazda3 (-6%) with the Ford Ranger (-1%) rounding up the podium but disappointingly in decline, so is the Toyota Corolla (=5%) at #4. The Mazda CX-5 splendidly gains 11% to remain the best-selling SUV in South Australia, dislodging the Holden Commodore (-72%!) from the Top 5 and the Top 20 for that matter. The Mitsubishi Triton (#6) and Holden Colorado (#10) make it four pickups in the Top 10 as it was also the case a year ago, while the Mitsubishi ASX (+21%) and Toyota RAV4 (+10%), potentially helped by a good serving of rental sales as observed above, break into the Top 10, nudging the Mazda CX-3 (-2%) out.

Marla, Coober Pedy, Road trains and kangaroo road signs.

Following the Stuart Highway south brings us to Marla (population 100), named after marlu, Aboriginal language for kangaroo – even though I saw none in this arid region – and only gazetted as an actual locality since 2001. Next is Coober Pedy which I detailed our last visit in the Australian Outback vs. Toyota C-HR reports. Located in the largest opal mining area in the world, it 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, including when I visited the 2nd time with the Toyota Prado last February. Unfortunately this time I didn’t have the opportunity to stay overnight in town and sleep in one of its many underground motels. Maybe next time. Next is the ultra-secret Woomera Defence Force area housing James Bond-esque rocket-launching platforms integrated into the dried-up inland sea nearby (but shhh, I’m not supposed to tell you it’s a secret) – For more details on this fascinating location, see our last Toyota C-HR report. Sydney is reached 2 fill days of driving later, after a total of 6.860km (4.263mi) in only nine days. Time for a quick review of Omar our Toyota Prado…

The Toyota Prado is the ultimate Australian Outback touring machine thanks to its world-leading 150 litres (40 gal) standard fuel capacity. Depending on how hard you push the 4WD, it could mean a range of up to 1.600-1.700km (over 1.000 miles), and I honestly haven’t heard of any combustion car able to beat that. This range is absolutely perfect for the type of trip I have just done as it removes the need to embark additional fuel jerrycans to cater for the extreme distances between petrol stations in some areas (up to 500km).

Onboard fridge is something that sounds gimmicky when you read it on paper, however when the heat outside reaches a blistering 42°C (108°F) as it was the case in Tobermorey at the border between Northern Territory and Queensland and it’s impossible to remain outside for more than few minutes, it’s like the gift that keeps giving. Only issue: I will miss it forever after in all cars that don’t have one (meaning, actually, all other cars in the world I believe).

Cockpit sound proofing is one of the best I’ve experienced in any car I’ve driven with the diesel engine noise hard’t noticeable inside – whereas it is louder than most vehicles outside.

Overall comfort in the cockpit is extremely satisfying with great back hold and plush seats and a very spacious cabin.

Very high driving position does make you feel dominant on the road.

Although I didn’t get to really test the 4WD capabilities of the Prado on this trip, with dry unsealed tracks being the worst that was thrown at it, it did manoeuvre perfectly around the multitude of ruts and ravines and handled the corrugation as best as it could possibly asked to.

September 2017 facelift streamlined the front design in a very welcome way.

By know you would have guessed that this is who Omar was named after (Omar Sharif)…

The average fuel consumption for the entire trip was 10.1L/km (23.3 mpg) at mostly highway driving speeds (trip average 86km/h or 53mph) which is on the thirsty side for a diesel vehicle. One surefire culprit is the car’s generous weight (2.445kg kerb), 300kg more than a top-spec Toyota Fortuner for example.

Drive feel is boat-like, I’d also call it “voluptuous”, or “plump”, meaning the steering wheel directions are understood and acted upon in an ok timely manner (not the quickest reaction time though) but seemingly with the cabin over-exaggerating the movement, a little bit like a boat. Again that’s due to its large weight, and the Prado definitely doesn’t drive like a car.

Again due to its large weight, braking distances are far from optimal and the car tends to wiggle dangerously when brakes are hit hard in an emergency. I won’t go as far as blaming the Prado’s braking for my hitting an eagle on Day 2, but I will just say that it is the first time I hit anything in all my years of test driving cars.

Although the car is a perfect fit for Outback travel (something very few vehicles can honestly boast), its GPS isn’t. Unsealed tracks do get included but driving times on them are grossly overestimated, by up to 50%. It’s a little unfair to criticise the car on this, as shorter times have the potential to trigger overzealous driving to match them, but overall the GPS should match reality a lot closer.

The line departure alert is way too sensitive and strident, triggering when you start driving on the middle-lane and not waiting for you to cross the line. I had to swiftly deactivate it in the first 10 minutes of driving.

The clock on the centre console is lost in-between air con indicators and always take too long to read, meaning your eyes are not on the road as you do so and it can become dangerous.

Cruise control tends to drop off when driving on unsealed tracks due to the sensor becoming obstructed (but as Stephan Pursell the Birdsville Police Officer told me, you’re not supposed to activate cruise control on unsealed tracks anyway!).

Toyota charges dearly for all the capability and comfort of the Prado, priced at AUD$85.900 (US$64.400, 55.900€) for this Kakadu version.

That’s it for the Prado! Stay tuned for the return of our Chinese adventures following the Beijing Auto Show.

Australian Red Centre vs. Toyota Prado – Part 2: Birdsville to Alice Springs

Australian solitude at its best.

This is Part 2 of our exploration of the Australian Red Centre with a Toyota Prado which we baptised Omar. You can see Part 1 taking us from Sydney to Birdsville here. After a half-day of rest in Birdsville we set our sights on Boulia for Day 3 of this adventure and Alice Springs on Day 4 via the (very) lonesome Plenty Highway, which is actually a highway only by name. We have now entered some of the most isolated parts of Australia, and as this exploration happened in late February this year it is also the hottest time of the year. A perfect torture test for Omar our Prado.

Our itinerary for leg 2 of this trip / roadsigns leaving Birdsville.

When I say isolated, I actually mean it and having grown up in Europe it is sometimes hard to wrap your head around the fact that the towns indicated on the road sign above are actually the only towns around. On my way to Bedourie traversing an eerily white rocky landscape (see below), I crossed only three vehicles in 192 km. Then during the 196 km that separate Bedourie to Boulia I only crossed… one vehicle.

The desert between Birdsville and Bedourie.

Traversing Bedourie (population 122) after such a stretch of empty and lonesome landscape is a little eerie. The road I have taken from Birdsville is almost entirely unsealed and even after months of dry weather there were ruts so deep I was very happy to be at the wheel of a high ground clearance 4WD, while traditional vehicles would have had a very difficult time. However Bedourie is linked with Windorah (see Part 1) by a mostly sealed road, and as such I spotted a Suzuki Celerio in Bedourie which I had to do a double take on as it seemed completely out of place. Or perhaps it is only used in Bedourie… The preference in town once again goes to the Toyota Land Cruiser 70, Hilux, but also our very own Prado.

Above: Between Bedourie and Boulia. Below: Boulia Airport

We arrive at Boulia just before sunset as swarms of kangaroos start hopping along the road, greeted by the now traditional Land Cruiser 70 police car in town. Diesel at the local petrol station is a very honest AUD 154.9 cents per litre. Boulia (population 301) is at the heart of Channel Country where during rain events, channels running between rivers and creeks spectacularly fill with water, making it some of the finest beef producing regions in Australia. Thankfully there was no chance of any flood in the middle of summer when we visited. The area is famous for sightings of the Min Min lights, mysterious shimmering lights appearing at night and caused by atmospheric refractions that occurs when cold air is trapped below warmer air. No luck for me this time: I didn’t get to see them. However I spent probably the best night of the entire trip at the Desert Sands Motel: Genevieve Hammond has my room pre air-conditioned, cooked a hearty breakfast in the morning and had very useful maps and advice for the road ahead the following day.

Leaving Boulia onto the Donohue Highway.

And it’s a perilous road indeed. It is 811km (504mi) from Boulia to Alice Springs, but going deeper into the Red Centre means I will not cross a single town for a hair-rising 601km (373mi)! This stretch of track crosses the country north of the legendary Simpson Desert and the only human presence in 600km are two cattle stations, Tobermorey and Jervois, that reportedly have petrol and snacks. This is one of the exciting parts of this Toyota Prado test drive as I have never explored this region before. There is no mobile coverage at all for the more the 800km that separate Boulia and Alice Springs… The track is called the Donohue Highway all the way to the border between Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Donohue Highway near Roxborough Downs

We now are submerged with what I have been looking forward to: emptiness. If you are a long-term BSCB reader you will know by now that I am a big fan of the Australian Outback, so much so that I need my “fix” every few months or so. It’s a great way to reset, think and enjoy the surroundings. As it was the case between Oodnadatta and Coober Pedy during our last adventure in a Toyota C-HR, the terrain is also constantly changing, getting redder as we leave Boulia but yellower as we approach the Northern Territory border and it would return to ochre red further along as you’ll see below. The vegetation also changes but never grows bigger than scrubs. And everywhere, silence is deafening, omnipresent and uplifting.

Omar and I are now in Northern Territory.

We are now in Northern Territory. First a quick update on the car landscape: I have crossed only two vehicles since Boulia (250km): two Land Cruiser 70, one wagon and one pickup, cementing the legendary status of the vehicle in Outback Australia, as demonstrated in Part 1 with the Birdsville Police and Rangers. Northern Territory has a population of only 246,100 spread over 1,420,970 km² (548,640 sqm): that’s larger than France, Germany and Spain put together! And yet 60% of its inhabitants are located in the capital, Darwin, which gives the rest of the Territory a mind-bending 0.07 inhabitant per km² or 0.18 per sqm… Look at it the other way: outside of Darwin, there’s (theoretically) 14 km² or 5.5 sqm of territory for each inhabitant. You might not know it, but Australians have the most space per inhabitant of all nations in the world, and within Australia, they then have the most space in Northern Territory. Not that they are using it, and my Outback trips are something only a fraction of Australians have ever done in their lifetime. Contrary to an international pre-conceived idea, the overwhelming majority of Australians are cityfolks through and through. Quick update on the car landscape

Best-selling models in Northern Territory – 4 months 2018 (Source VFACTS):

1Toyota Hilux324-12%3701
2Toyota RAV423266%1403
3Toyota Corolla16814%1482
4Ford Ranger1447%1344
5Toyota Prado14211%1285
6Mitsubishi Outlander11018%939
7Toyota Land Cruiser Wagon10427%8211
8Toyota Land Cruiser PU/CC9620%8012
9Mitsubishi ASX85-22%1096
10Mitsubishi Triton85-9%938
11Mitsubishi Pajero Sport84236%2532

Looking at the best-selling models in the Northern Territory is like finally looking at a more accurate description of the car landscape of Outback Australia Toyota holds a round 40% of the NT market vs. 18.5% nationally, and it shows in the models ranking. No surprises in the lead, the Hilux has been the favourite for the past 20 years here and reigns supreme again in 2018 but drops a surprising 12% on the same period a year ago, while the RAV4 soars 66% to overtake the Corolla (+14%) and snap the #2 spot. The Ford Ranger (+7%) is the only non-Toyota in the Top 5 while our very own Prado (+11%) remains at a nation-best 5th place. The Land Cruiser Wagon (+27%) and Pickup (+20%) both soar year-on-year to brilliantly break into the Top 10. A very strong push by Mitsubishi sees the Outlander (+18%) jump to #6 and the Pajero Sport (+236%) to #11 with the ASX (-22%) at #9 and the Triton (-9%) at #10. But as we’ll in Part 3 of this series this is mostly due to rental sales. Not the RAV4, Land Cruiser Wagon, Land Cruiser Pickup and Pajero Sport all hit their highest ranking of any state or territory here.

It doesn’t look it, but the heat is almost unbearable and this cow was unsteady on the track…

Now that we have crossed into Northern Territory, the Donohue Highway becomes the Plenty Highway and I am at a loss to explain why it is called this way, as the only thing there is plenty of here is dust, sand, skies and silence. I guess that’s a good enough reason. We are now at the beating heart of Australia’s Red Centre and the track is much better maintained on the NT side, allowing me to comfortably cruise control at 95 km/h / 60 mph. It is on this 217km stretch of track between the Tobermorey and Jervois homesteads that the air temperature would reach its highest in the entire trip: a blistering 42°C (108°F).

 …luckily the Prado comes with a built-in fridge so my lunch was safe.Omar on the Plenty Highway in unbearable heat.

That’s daunting in itself, but step outside and the strong wind is like a hair dryer burning your skin, throat and nasal canal to a crisp. The sensation is almost unbearable and I can hardly breathe after less than a minute outside snapping a few shots, so it’s actually a pretty scary experience. I don’t think I have ever had to endure such dangerous heat. The climate is so intense that at one point a lost cow was faltering in the middle of the road, groggy with exhaustion. I stopped to offer some water but must have spooked it as it shakily ran away. It’s on days like these that Omar’s built-in fridge becomes a need you didn’t know you had. In fact, not only that but the entire controlled environment of the Prado cockpit does really feel like a cocoon. The air con is having no difficulty combatting the exterior extremes and the noise insulation means you can hardly hear the engine, whereas it is quite loud when your standing outside next to the vehicle. Omar really is an Outback travelling machine, the perfect companion to have under such harsh weather.

Jervois Homestead “Shop” and Petrol “Station”Giant termite mound and seriously red earth. Near Jervois Homestead.

This part of Australia is peppered with a multitude of termite mounds, becoming more and more frequent as we travel north (which we won’t) as I remember some sublime landscape in the Kakadu National Park dear Darwin when I visited a decade ago, Kakadu also incidentally being the name of this version of Prado I am driving. 467km west of Boulia is the Jervois homestead and given it is located right on the Plenty Highway I stopped for a look around. Diesel is priced at AUD 188.7 cents a litre, 34 cents above its Boulia price but for once I don’t blame the Jervois folks: it’s a wonder how any petrol has made its way here. We are really, really in the middle of nowhere. “The Shop” is a corrugated iron shed that could be appealing if I didn’t have my own on-board fridge. There’s a Land Cruiser 70 parked (of course) but the place is eerily quiet, in line with the rest of the, well, close to 500km since Boulia.

Above: Rain! Below: 100% of the vehicles I spotted in 8 hours were Toyota Land Cruiser 70s.

Over 600km north-west of Boulia, I reach the end of the unsealed section at the Atitijere Aboriginal Community. All-in-all, I have crossed only four vehicles in the eight hours it took me to complete this section: that’s one every two hours! Let that sink in for a bit. Another striking observation is that all these vehicles were Toyota Land Cruiser 70s. Talk about being king of the Outback! The Atitijere Community is like an oasis after a long, exhausting drought with a small supermarket and a petrol station. And as if it recognised the sudden flourish of vegetation, the temperature drops by 16°C to 26°C (79°F) in less than hour and rain (!!) cleans up the sand on the Prado so I can arrive in Alice Springs, a further 200km, pretending I have never driven in the desert. Before getting there I hit the junction with the Stuart Highway which connects Darwin to Adelaide, and the speed limit is set at an extravagant 130 km/h (80 mph), a rarity in Australia where most highways won’t let you go faster than 110 km/h.

Road signage on the Stuart Highway / Heavily roo-barred Toyota Land Cruiser in Alice Springs.

Alice Springs (population 23,726) is nothing special, but offers the welcome comforts of a plush bed and the dubious nutritional benefit of a supersized McDonalds dinner. The popular cars in town are the Toyota Hilux (surprise surprise) and Land Cruiser 70 (another surprise, or is it) with seven of the latter proudly displayed at the very front of the local Toyota dealership with the mention “available stock” in big fat letters. I also spotted a Holden Equinox, still a very rare occurrence on Australian roads after its launch in December 2017, as well as a new generation Great Wall Steed, as the Chinese carmaker has a dealership in town. Diesel is at 149.9 cent per litre (vs. 154.9 in Boulia) which is expensive given we are on one of the main arteries in Australia. A final observation on Alice Springs is its rocky hills and desert surroundings reminding me a little of Palm Springs in California which I visited with Albert the Ram 1500 in 2014.

Stay tuned for the last Part of our Red Centre series to iconic Uluru…

Omar and I have arrived in Alice Springs.

Australian Red Centre vs. Toyota Prado – Part 1: Sydney to Birdsville

Omar our Toyota Prado posing in front of the legendary Birdsville Hotel.

We interrupt our annual Chinese exploration to travel to some of the most isolated – and beautiful – regions of Australia with the ultimate travel machine, the Toyota Prado. The Prado is one of only 9 nameplates in the world to top the sales charts of at least five markets in 2017, along with three other Toyotas: the Hilux we took to Fraser Island, Australia, the Land Cruiser and Corolla which we will both endeavour to drive later this year. Our official records have the Prado #1 in Kuwait for the past seven years and in Lebanon for the past two, and our estimates place it on top in Guinea, Guinea Bissau and South Sudan as well. The Prado is at its best in the Middle East, ranking #2 in Bahrain, #4 in the United Arab Emirates, #5 in Oman and Qatar and #6 overall in the Gulf Cooperation Council, but also on the treacherous roads of Central Asia, topping Georgian sales charts in 2016. In Australia where I will be driving it, the Prado has been the best-selling 4WD wagon for many years, selling just under 16.000 units in 2017.

(Very) sparse fuelling stations are a typical characteristic of the deep Australian Outback.

Such commercial success is the main reason we here at BSCB want to test drive the Prado as we do our best to get a better feel of the most popular nameplates worldwide. Shortly after lending me a C-HR AWD, Toyota Australia was kind enough to loan me the Prado Kakadu version priced at AUD$85.900 (US$64.400, 55.900€). It is powered by a 170hp 2.8l, 4-cyl. twin turbo diesel engine mated with a six-speed auto gearbox, comes in at 4.93m long and weighs 2.445 kg. After Lars the Volvo V90, Mikey the Tesla Model X and Natasha the Toyota C-HR, we need a male name starting in O as this is a 4WD truck, which has a masculine gender in my native tongue, French. I can never stray too far from these ingrained perceptions even though I have been living in Australia for over 15 years now… Given the Prado’s exceptional popularity in the Middle-East, we will go with Omar.

The first leg of our itinerary, from Sydney to Birdsville, will take two full days of driving.

Omar has 4.923 km on the odo when we pick him up at the Toyota Sydney offices in the southern suburb of Caringbah, that figure will likely double in the next week we have it. A few steps up from the C-HR, the Prado is not an AWD but a “true” full-time 4WD with electronic locking centre and rear differential and two-speed transfer case, so we don’t have to worry too much about road conditions, as long as they are open. It was still full-on Summer when we took the wheel of the Prado in late February so the dirt tracks should be at their driest, particularly in the region we will traverse that only get smidgens of rain – if any – at this time of the year. I am also expecting blistering heat and, as we will see further on, won’t be “disappointed” on that front.

Over 1.300 km of range on a full tank!

The first thing when turning the power on is trying not to gasp at the fuel range. Thanks to a mind-blowing 150 litres (40 gal), the fuel tank can take you on exactly 1328 km (825 miles) based on an average fuel consumption of 15.4L/100 km or 15mpg. Yes, that doesn’t add up as it should be less than 1000 km with that fuel average but the latter seems quite significantly overestimated so it could match after all. In any case, I have never been exposed to such a generous range. The closest I got to this was 1030km by the Volvo XC90 I drove to Cape North in 2016, which was then based on a 7.0L/100 km average consumption and a 75L fuel tank.

Kangaroos are the main danger on Outback roads.

The Prado’s front has been facelifted in September 2017, achieving a much more modern, robust and incisive look than the convoluted style of the previous model. It’s still far from the cutting-edge shapes of the C-HR but this design uplift is in line with Toyota’s progress in this area, further showcased by the new generations Corolla and, to a lesser extent in my view, Camry and RAV4. Toyota is as excited as I am about its new design direction, even organising a media event in Sydney earlier this month where we got to meet the President and Chief Designer of their South Californian CALTY Design Research Centre, Kevin Hunter and William Chergosky.

Toyota FT-4X Concept: a glimpse at the future of Toyota 4WDs? Yes please!

Including Akio Toyoda’s quote of “No more boring cars!”, the event was complete with a quick lesson is sketching and our very own clay “chef d’oeuvre” which I will spare myself the embarrassment of showing you… What I was more interested in was the info shared about the recent FT-4X concept car, pictured above. The trick is to build on Toyota DNA stemming back from the original Land Cruiser and 4Runner vehicles. Let me pause here to state that this DNA is incredibly powerful and in my view way underused in today’s Toyotas. And as expected, the FT-4X is a very appealing 4WD design study, with a X shape starting from the “stout grip” and a Rugged Charm attitude. If this is what the future of Toyota 4WDs looks like, I want more right now. CALTY President Kevin Hunter admitted one of his favourite Toyotas ever is the FJ Cruiser and that makes me very happy indeed, and confident the brand is veering towards more playful style in the future.

Best-selling models in New South Wales – 4 months 2018 (Source VFACTS):

1Toyota Hilux5,12810%4,6641
2Toyota Corolla4,6531%4,5922
3Ford Ranger4,1285%3,9174
5Hyundai i303,1255%2,9665
6Volkswagen Golf2,69917%2,2989
7Mazda CX-52,5572%2,5176
8Mitsubishi Triton2,51716%2,16512
9Toyota RAV42,197-2%2,25010
10Kia Cerato2,147-1%2,17711

Even though we will be driving for 1000km/620mi today, most of our day will be spent in the state of New South Wales, and although the best-sellers in the State are heavily influenced by the Sydney market accounting for a large majority of sales in the state, there is still a countryside flavour in the charts, embodied by the two pickup trucks we find on the podium: the Toyota Hilux (+10%) and Ford Ranger (+5%). City cars overperform such as the VW Golf at #6 and the Kia Cerato at #10, while the Mazda CX-5 is the most popular SUV above the Toyota RAV4 while the Hyundai Tucson, #8 a year ago, steps out of the Top 10. The ranking above confirms my spottings on the highway leaving Sydney: the new generation Hyundai i30 has clearly made its mark on the NSW market.

The very straight road to Bourke.

Back to Omar the Prado and my first impressions. Not since Bob the Ram 2500 Heavy Duty I drove back in 2015 have I felt that “dominant” on the road. The Prado sits very high and the size of the vehicle takes just a bit of time to get used to on crowded Sydney streets. “Plump” is the word I would choose to describe the Prado’s ride for now, with a boat-like demeanour but quick reactions. The line departure alert is way too sensitive and strident, triggering when you drive on the middle-lane, not even when you drive across, and I had to swiftly deactivate it. In Nyngan, 550km/342mi north-west of Sydney, there is a big road sign welcoming us to Outback Australia which also coincides with people starting to wave hello from their car when you pass them on the road, an endearing and typically Australian Outback habit.

Omar in Bourke.

A further 200km through one of the straightest bouts of road in the world (see above), Omar and I arrive in Bourke, which we already visited towards the end of our Haval H8 adventure in 2016 and in a Skoda Octavia in 2014. The town is considered the edge of “civilisation” – read settled agricultural districts – and the gateway to the, well, middle of nowhere to the north and west of town. Accordingly, the Australian expression “back o’ Bourke” refers to this. Once you pass Bourke, you’re basically lost. The main characteristic of cars in Bourke is that the overwhelming majority of them are equipped with a roo-bar, in order to protect against unpredictable kangaroos on the road. Kangaroos are most active at dawn and dusk, so one main objective of our first full day of driving is to arrive in Cunnamulla, a round 1000km north-west of Sydney, before night fall hence our early 8am start.

Road trains and menacing skies before leaving Cunnamulla.Old roo-barred Toyota Land Cruiser in Cunnamulla.

And already just outside of Bourke, a solid 335 km from arriving in Cunnamulla, I spot my first kangaroo, a tiny joey car watching on the side of the road. This will be a tense three hours drive (at best) to get to my first destination of this trip. If you aren’t familiar with how dangerous driving surrounded with kangaroos is, you can check out here my – slightly stressed – recollection of the first encounters with the wildly unpredictable animals at the wheel of a Haval H8. Other animals make predictable moves as they escape in one direction or stop frozen, making them relatively easy to avoid. Not roos. They are like monkeys on speed, jumping randomly and even towards you as they get psyched by your headlights. There’s only one surefire way to avoid them: brake to a complete stop, wait for the road to clear and repeat as many times as you see a roo closing in.

It’s Road Train territory. Step aside please.The Prado’s GPS overestimates travel times by 50% when including unsealed tracks.

Thankfully I did not have to repeat this measure too often and crossed into Queensland state to arrive in quiet Cunnamulla (population 1.140) – long after dark – without having passed a single car since Bourke. That’s the liberating loneliness of the Australian Outback. Over the first day of driving the Outback machine that is Omar our Toyota Prado, we erased 1014km (630mi) at an average of 81 km/h (50mph) and 9.4L/100km (25mpg), which lifts the car’s range to a whopping 1600km. One little annoyance is the dashboard clock being hidden between the air con temp indicators (see above) to the point where trying to read the time steals a few previous seconds of your attention to the road in a rather dangerous way. One luxury that will be sorely missed in any future car that doesn’t offer it (meaning almost all of them) is the centre console fridge, keeping all my drinks, cheese and ham slices cold for the entire duration of this trip. Plush.

Wide open road here we come! Click to enlarge.

Best-selling models in Queensland – 4 months 2018 (Source VFACTS):

PosModelQLD 2018/17QLD 2017Pos
1Toyota Hilux4,18420%3,4781
2Ford Ranger2,5473%2,4763
3Toyota Corolla2,427-9%2,6712
5Hyundai i301,8943%1,8325
6Mitsubishi Triton1,8877%1,7596
7Nissan Navara1,73613%1,5319
8Toyota Prado1,66421%1,37912
9Mazda CX-51,660-3%1,7057
10Isuzu Ute D-Max1,62232%1,23014

As we are now in Queensland it’s time to have a quick look at the best-sellers in this state as opposed to the ones in NSW we detailed above. Queensland is the paradise of pickup trucks (called “utes” in Australia), with five of them in the Top 10 like last year. The Toyota Hilux surges 20% to cement its iron-tight grip on the charts, the Ford Ranger has managed to outsell the Toyota Corolla to rank #2 and the Mitsubishi Triton holds onto the 6th spot while the Nissan Navara is up 13% to #7 and a more frugal, cheaper option, the Isuzu D-MaxM is up a whopping 32% to break into the Top 10, replacing the Holden Colorado. Especially in the more remote regions I am travelling to, the D-Max is indeed getting more and more popular thanks to a sold value for money equation. And yes, our very own Toyota Prado also makes its entrance in the QLD Top 10 at #8 thanks to deliveries soaring 21%. Omar is in home territory here. What you can’t see in the charts is the legendary status of the Toyota Land Cruiser 70, the police car of choice in all ‘major’ towns here: in Bourke, Barringun, Cunnamulla, Eulo and Birdsville as we’ll see further down.

From bitumen to dust…

The second day of driving is shaping up to be a replica of the first in terms of distance covered: roughly 1000km to reach Birdsville, the difference being a lot of it will be on unsealed tracks this time. And Omar’s GPS is struggling to calculate a realistic arrival time for this leg of the trip, warning me it will take almost 19 hours and I will get there at 5am. Not quite. It was another long day of driving but I did purposely record my exact departure and arrival times to set them against the GPS prediction: start was at 9:15am and arrival 8:53pm, making it 24h of driving in the past two days and just under 12 hours today, exactly as Google Maps predicted. On the way to Windorah we reach our best fuel consumption so far at 8.6L/km (27mpg).

Above: wedge-tailed eagle. Below: I wish one of these signs were on the road today!

Between Quilpie and Windorah, disaster strikes. I had been mainly focused on avoiding kangaroos at dawn and definitely did not expect what would happen next. This region is home of the largest bird of prey in Australia, the wedge-tailed eagle, sporting a wingspan of up to 2.85 m (9ft 4in). The roads around here are littered with roadkill (mainly kangaroos) which all sorts of birds, including the wedge-tailed eagle, feed on right in the middle of the road. During all my previous trips in the region, all large birds managed to leave the road in time to avoid me, but not this one time and this particularly sated eagle that took half-a-second too long to clear the way and dented the bottom right bumper of the Prado. I am sorry to say that as a result of this unexpected encounter, the population of wedge-tailed eagles in Australia has been reduced by one. Note only Tasmania has “Warning Eagles” road signs, not Queensland, and it might be a good idea to change that ASAP.

Big sky galore and Omar in Windorah after an unexpected encounter with a wedge-tailed eagle.

As you can imagine, I remained quite frazzled by the hit for a while, but was also curious as to why it happened in the first place. I shared my sad experience on my next fuelling stop in the tiny settlement of Windorah (population 110), the last human presence on my way to Birdsville almost 400km (250mi) west. The lady at the service station looked sideways at the Prado and scolded me: “that’s what happens when you don’t have any roo-bar”. I know, but I also never hit an eagle before, nor any other animal for that matter. So why now? Turns out the drought affecting the region is particularly severe this year, and as a result all animals are weakened and slower, even after feasting on roadkill. True to form, I narrowly missed a couple of pigeons a few hours later. One more thing I didn’t think I’d have to worry about on a road trip: birds!

Road? Tick. Emergency Airstrip? Also Tick.

This part of Australia is also the location for numerous iterations of a fascinating concept in itself: the road becoming 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 above. There are three of these airstrips from Quilpie to Birdsville. The Royal Flying Doctor Service, an iconic Australian institution, was founded in 1928 as a “Mantle of safety for the Outback” and remains to this day the only health care provider and emergency medical support for remote Australian communities that cannot access a hospital or general practice due to their isolation. Operating out of 23 bases with a fleet of 66 aircrafts, the service travels on average 73.550 km by air and performs over 200 landings, both each day. Yes, read that sentence again until it sinks in.

No, this is not a hoax: the Betoota Hotel really is re-opening.

Roughly half-way between Windorah and Birdsville is the ghost town of Betoota whose last permanent resident, Sigmund Remienko, died in 2004. Ghost town not for too much longer in fact, as the Betoota Hotel, the only building in town, is now being refurbished with the aim of re-opening it in August 2018. Why the sudden interest in Betoota? There’s a great story here. The Beetota Advocate, started in 2014 and actually run out of Sydney, has become in the space of a few years Australia’s most popular satirical news site. Its articles put a sarcastic spin on everyday Australian life and hit the mark most of the time, with several of them even having ironically been mistaken for real news items by major Australian media outlets… The news of the reopening of the Betoota Hotel had all local media checking and rechecking to make sure it wasn’t a hoax from the Betoota Advocate. But it is real, and it is reported that the Betoota Advocate’s journalists just “couldn’t believe the news” of the renaissance of their purported origin town…

Sunset in the desert.The legendary Birdsville Beetle, and big skies…Before Land Cruisers, police officers used camels for transport. The first car reached Birdsville in 1915.

I reach Birdsville well after sunset once again but this deserted part of the country is not the favourite playground of kangaroos so despite a few pointing their nose after Betoota, there were no more nasty encounters to report for the day. I allow myself a half-day rest and take this opportunity to meet the locals. I particularly wanted to meet Stephan Pursell, the only policeman in town, made “famous” by a long feature in local magazine Wheels which hilariously chose to truck in a Mazda CX-3 for the photo shoot. Perhaps they should read our Toyota C-HR to the Oodnadatta Track coverage… You can also check out the reports I did of my last visit in town in 2016 with a Haval H8 here and here.

No better advertising: The Land Cruiser 70s of the Birdsville Police and Ranger station.

Meeting the locals in Birdsville in the middle of summer is a fantastic experience as I was the only tourist – and therefore the main attraction – in town, with everyone very curious about my whereabouts, itinerary and destination. Stephan the policeman is as jovial as I expected and kindly let me bombard the station’s few Land Cruiser 70s with photos. The tourist centre has all the advice I need for the next leg of my trip as the sole visitor in town, and the Birdsville Bakery owner, also running AdventureAustralia tours, chips in with a complimentary curry and camel pie, promising to tag along if I ever decide to one day cross the mighty Simpson Desert. Birdsville (population 115) is an adorable little town lost in the middle of the desert and the hospitality of its inhabitants is as Australian as it gets. I will be back for sure.

Stay tuned for the next leg of our exploration across the perilous Plenty Highway.

Omar in Birdsville.