The Mini ploughed along the rough rust-red track, its little engine groaning in first gear. The track was broken and sandy, and the small car's speed rarely rose above 15km/h. It was 150km from Uluru, heading west, into one of the most deserted parts of one of the world's most deserted continents.
Occasionally thick sand slowed progress almost to a standstill as the Mini's front wheels desperately clawed at the ground, scrabbling for purchase. It was on a sandhill that the front suspension broke.
The driver felt the car drop, the left corner ploughed into the track, and the car came to a stop, almost tripping as the nose dug into the loose sand. The Mini lay lopsided in the sand, panting like an athlete with a stitch.
The nearest settlement ahead, the old gold mining town of Laverton, was well over 1000km away, and every one of those kilometres was on tracks that were either rocky, sandy, or just plain rough.
But the car was still mobile. So rather than turning back 600km to Alice Springs for help, the crew moved on. They camped and, next morning, they used their axe to chop wood, carefully shaping branches from a mallee tree. The timber was wedged between the suspension arms and the body of the car. And thus, with no suspension on the left front corner, but riding level, the Mini limped to Kalgoorlie for repairs, before continuing on to the west coast.
It was the first-ever east-west crossing of Australia, through the Red Centre, by land.
That was in late 1965. Four adventurers shared the driving of the Mini and its back-up car, an Austin 1800. A Land Rover supported the team on the roughest WA stretch. After that crossing, the team then did a (less challenging) north-south journey. The figure-of-eight crossing used Alice Springs as its axis.
Forty-four years later, on the same stretch of track where that old Mini's suspension broke, a new Mini driven by one of those adventurer's sons - me - also battles with thick sand and dust. We're on the fringe of the Great Sandy Desert, heading for the WA border on this sandy track which now has a name - the Tjukaruru Road - and on to the west coast through some of the world's harshest desert terrain.
We, too, have come from Sydney, attempting a crossing using, where possible, the same roads and tracks.
I have wanted to recreate my dad's historic journey for years. As a child, I remember a map in my dad's study, specially presented to him to commemorate his journey. It was of great Australian expeditions and among the roll-call of worthy Victorian-era explorers, with their thick beards and unsmiling faces and their formal woollen suits, stood a familiar name and date: 'E Green, 1965'. His crossing was the last entry on the map.
Plus, the time was ripe for a recreation. It is, after all, the Mini's 50th birthday.
BMW, now Mini's owner, was keen to loan me a car and, what's more, also suggested a back-up vehicle. We'd be going through some harsh and dangerous terrain, in a car about as well suited to desert adventure as Gucci loafers are to outback trekking. A breakdown could be disastrous. The assigned back-up vehicle is a BMW X3 - hardly a 4WD tough guy - while its driver, BMW engineer Darryl Cook, happily proves great company.
My co-driver in the Mini is photographer Mark Bramley, like me an Aussie based in London. Mark's a good mate. He knows the outback, is a good driver, and is someone with whom you can spend all day cooped up in a small car and not want to kill. He's also one of the world's best car photographers.
Our brand-new Mini Cooper is standard apart from a big steel sump guard. The rear seat has been removed, to make it easier to carry two spare tyres and two 20-litre fuel containers. There is also a 20-litre water container. The X3 carries two more spare tyres, more fuel cans, assorted spares, a satellite phone and an emergency beacon.
Tyres are a worry. I wanted all-terrain 'rally' tyres but was told they wouldn't fit on the Mini's run-flat rims. The BMW/Mini engineers in Germany insist that the strong sidewalls of the standard run-flat tyres will cope with the rough roads and sharp rocks, although I'm sceptical: they're in Munich, and have never been to the Gibson Desert.
I try to follow my dad's route where possible. He went right up the coast road, from Sydney to Rockhampton, before turning left to follow the Tropic of Capricorn. Instead we cut north-west through Bourke, to join his tracks in central Queensland. The plan is to follow his route all the way to Laverton, 1000km from our finish in Perth. The only early hazards are the grey kangaroos, which reach plague proportions at dusk. One in particular jumps from the gloom, phantom-like, and nearly ends our adventure.
West of Winton, on day three of our expected 10-day journey, the sealed road narrows to a single lane. Traffic is non-existent. Locusts bounce off our windscreen and grille. Halfway along the Winton-Boulia road, we stop at the remote Middleton Hotel for a drink. Owner Lester Cain comes out to greet us, in well-worn outback hat, open shirt, shorts and barefoot. "G'day," he says. "We're ya headin'?" We tell him. His eyes narrow. "What," he says, nodding to the Mini. "In that?" He scratches his chin and stubble and his face breaks into a half smile, half laugh. "Whaddya gonna do? Carry it?"
At Boulia, on the Burke River, we rest at the Australia Hotel, the same pub where my dad stayed 44 years earlier. We tell proprietor Trevor Jones where we're heading. A little red Mini with white stripes and a Union Jack on the roof driven by two city boys is never going to impress. In Boulia, the usual set of wheels is a vast 4WD with a 'roo bar the size of palace gates, tractor-like tyres and enough ground clearance to vault a small hatch. "Well, ya'll neva git down the Donohue in that," he says. "They've had heavy rain. Road's been cut up real bad."
Next morning, we are at the beginning of the Donohue 'Highway' and Trevor is right. The road is closed to all but high-clearance 4WDs. Our first big test and we capitulate. We loop north on tarmac roads through Mount Isa and Tennant Creek, before our halfway destination of Alice Springs. It adds 500km to our journey.
With 3844km on the clock, we arrive at Alice Springs with an expected 3000km still to go, most on rough roads. We drive down the Stuart and Lasseter Highways to Uluru, and watch this eerie spiritual symbol of geological might magically turn from dull terracotta red to bright orange with the sun's last rays.
After the spectacular Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), the tarmac stops. The real test is about to begin.
The road is sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy, never smooth, but the Mini scoots along well enough. We are entering Australia's Great Sandy Desert, one of the driest areas of the world's driest continent. The sun is now hot and strong, standing smug over one of its greatest conquests.
The road is bad. Yet it has been widened and improved since my dad's day. Forty years ago no outsiders ventured here. Nowadays one vehicle, on average, uses this road every few hours by daylight, almost every one of them a 4WD.
A motorcyclist, wearing a Darth Vader helmet with integral dust mask, approaches, a long rooster tail of dust chasing his chunky back tyre. He waves us down and pulls up alongside. He speaks with a French accent and is riding a big Paris-Dakar-style dirt bike. "Turn around," he yells. "You'll never make it! Especially," he adds rather dismissively, looking at our car, "in this."
We ignore him. Short of diverting to the north or south coasts, there is no alternative. Forty-odd years after my dad's journey, there is still no sealed road from east to west coasts through the centre.
As the French motorcyclist warns, the sand does indeed get worse. Big ruts, cut deep by previous vehicles, scar the soft road. We hit the sand fast, trying to use our momentum to skim over the loose surface. The Mini nearly grinds to a halt as it first hits that wall of sand. I turn off the traction control to get the front wheels spinning and we break loose again, the engine revs hard, and we gain speed. In the passenger seat, Mark yells encouragement: "Go, go, go!"
Luckily, the little Mini keeps surfing over the sand. Darryl Cook, following in the X3, reckons it looks like a radio-controlled toy car skipping over a beach.
We sweep past a deserted 4WD stuck in the sand then, soon after, a stricken 50-metre road train, sunk up to its axles. After about 20 minutes of intense driving on the winding but wide track, the sand thins and our tyres grip.
The first big test is over. We resume our routine, piling on kilometres steadily, listening to ABC radio. Worryingly, rain is forecast. Heavy rain would likely cut up or flood the unsealed Great Central Road, which will take us from the NT/WA border all the way to the tar at Laverton. There is no diversion. We could be stuck for days, maybe weeks.
Mark goes back to reading, sometimes aloud, reviews in a 4WD magazine he bought in Mt Isa. It's our major source of entertainment. We discuss what sort of 4WD we'd buy if we lived in the bush (Discovery 3 or Prado, we conclude, after days of vigorous debate).
Just before we reach the WA border, the rain starts falling. Little channels of brown water gush over the dirt track. We camp that night at Warakurna. A storm destroys our temporary roof, made of a groundsheet tethered to the X3 and some mallee trees.
Next morning, the sky is a deep blue and the light is achingly bright. We see herds of feral camels, and every time we stop, flies attack us. We camp that night near Tjukayirla, on the fringe of the Great Victoria Desert.
The stars, astonishingly vivid in that ink-black sky, entertain us as we drift off to sleep. At sunrise, two emus wander into our campsite and try to steal our breakfast.
As we prepare to leave, a truck driver tells us the road ahead is muddy. Storms are expected. He suggests we hurry. We head off, hoping to average 80-100km/h. The deep corrugations often slow us but the Mini usually skips over bumps like a windsurfer skimming a choppy sea.
Soon after, the sky darkens and rain pelts our car. River crossings, usually bone dry, gush with muddy water. Nearing Laverton, where the sealed road to Perth begins, the track is impassable because of a deep flowing creek. A diversion routes us around the water and back onto the main track.
We survive the worst the outback can throw at us. We don't get bogged; we don't puncture. A brake warning sensor has failed - the dust got to it - and there are dash and tailgate rattles. A subsequent examination also reveals damage to the car's underbody piping, the plastic fuel tank shroud is smashed, and our 5mm-thick solid steel sumpguard is now 3mm thick in most places.
After 10 days and 6648km, we reach Perth and are ready for a break and a decent bed. The little car has been impressive, far more capable over such ill-suited terrain than we'd imagined. But next time we have a Mini adventure, Mark and I agree, we'll do it on sealed roads. We'll use a 4WD for our next off-road trip. Mark is still reading his well-thumbed magazine. And we still can't decide whether to take a Discovery 3 or a Prado.
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