I had bad dreams before this drive, jump-cut scenes of amphetamine-crazed truckies running me off the road and dark images of breaking down on the lonely Nullarbor and being abducted by a sweating psychopath. Maybe I shouldn't have watched Wolf Creek or Duel.
The Outback can be a hostile place for a 'townie' and I'm about to tackle the 4000km drive from Melbourne to Perth for the first time, accompanied by a photographer I haven't met and a tote bag carefully packed with four days' worth of T-shirts and Reg Grundies. I'm ill-prepared to fight off a well-armed psycho, but guess I can always out-run the bastard's lumbering Landcruiser in our Porsche 911.
A week earlier editor Bulmer had drawled, "How'd ya like to drive a Porsche across the Nullarbor, Nal Pal?" Naturally, I had the odd question. "Is this a Porsche-chaperoned trip or am I on my own?" I asked, imagining a Cayenne chase car packed with mechanics, spares, and gourmet hampers. "You're on your own, mate," Bulmer deadpanned. Not what I wanted to hear.
But I needed little convincing. The Nullarbor exerts an almost mythical pull, like some sort of alien brainwashing beam. And the Porsche is a bonus because, well, it's a 911.
But with this assignment comes great pressure. Ours will be the first of four legs in a 17-day lap of the continent, and if snapper Chris Benny and I don't deliver the Carrera to Peter Robinson in Perth on time and in one piece, the whole shooting match will be, well, shot. We will also be hot on the heels of Porsche's official Panamera media launch with the plan being for Robbo to catch the tour in Darwin. It's another reason why failure is not an option.
A few days before departure, I collect the car from Porsche's Melbourne HQ, where I'm briefed on mechanical and safety issues by a helpful mechanic. I'm shown how to inflate the scrawny space-saver spare that's been included as a safety measure, given that 911s don't come with a spare. Along with a five-litre bottle of oil, the 'space-saver' takes up most of the car's boot space. "When most owners get a puncture they just get their cars towed to a dealer," notes the mechanic, who unwittingly exudes a clear sense of pessimism about our chances.
Exactly where we're supposed to stow a deflated 19-inch tyre and wheel should we have a flat is never explained. The standard first-aid kit is replaced, ominously, by a much larger one and the rudimentary tool kit is explained. I feel a stab of anxiety when I realise there isn't even a proper wheelbrace with which to clobber a psycho.
I pick up Benny from downtown Melbourne bright and early on D-day and we make for the Westgate Bridge and the Princes Highway, bound for Geelong and all points west. The talented snapper is only 22 and we haven't worked together before, so I'm hoping he's no prima donna. When you're stuffed inside a tin can for 16 hours a day it pays to get along. As it happens, we get along famously.
According to the weighty road book prepared by dep ed and chief trip wrangler Jesse Taylor, Adelaide is only 896km away. Today will be the shortest leg; it's mostly familiar territory, something of a 'transport' stage. We push on to Portland, on the coast, then turn inland towards Mount Gambier, rain slapping a gloomy filter on our first-day excitement.
Question: How many corners does it take to fall in love with a 911? Answer: Not many. The Porsche is everything you've read about in these pages. Its brilliantly flexible 3.8-litre flat-six howls with that distinctive metallic rasp, the gearbox has a buttery change, the brakes are powerful and the steering is accurate and full of feel. But with the constant threat of radar we barely trouble the boxer donk's 283kW, cruising just over posted speed limits. It's such a waste, we might as well be in a Corolla.
Outside Millicent, the rain eases and rays of sunlight stream earthwards to create a dramatic skyline. Lush paddocks are dotted with fat, contented sheep and lambs. But things are not so peaceful in the Porsche.
Question: How many kilometres does it take to fall out of love with a 911? Answer: Not many. On coarse surfaces - which is most Aussie roads - the roar from the low-profile Michelins is deafening. The noise is akin to being in a cement mixer and turns conversations into shouting matches. I'd gladly exchange a slightly slower 0-100km/h time for some more sound deadening.
With the computer showing 92km of range left in the tank, a warning chime sounds on the outskirts of Adelaide but we easily make it to the Mercure Hotel and hit the sack circa 11pm. With photography stops, an easy 10-hour drive has become a 14-hour slog, but day two will really test our stamina.
After a bad night's sleep, I almost nod off while warming the car up, a time-wasting ritual I'm advised by Porsche to conduct religiously every morning. Benny, who has slept like a log, is annoyingly chipper.
In town we meet Stewart Kay, who owns the first 911 ever imported into Australia, a pretty Stone Grey/dark green leather 1965 model in brilliant condition. It was originally bought for £2000 by wealthy pastoralist Ron Angas, whose family settled the Barossa Valley and after whom the town of Angaston is named.
A smitten Kay, who relishes flogging it at every green light, bought the car from its second owner in 1992 after pestering him for five years. "We know of only about six other RHD cars in the world in this early style [wooden steering wheel and dash]," he says proudly. "What I really like about the car is the adventures we've had in it and the places we've gone." As Kay roars off into the rush hour, I wonder if we'll be as lucky.
It's still overcast as we meander north on the A1, regularly monitored by radar jockeys that we pass at 115-118km/h (the limit is 110), which doesn't seem to worry them. At Kipling's Bakery on the highway near Port Wakefield we locate a frontrunner for that most important of all road-trip indicators, the Best Pie of the Trip, a spicy pepper number bought for $3.20.
Outside Port Augusta, at the northern tip of the Spencer Gulf, we turn onto the 1671km-long Eyre Highway, named after Edward John Eyre, an English explorer who, with his aboriginal companion, Wylie, was the first European to cross the continent from Adelaide to Albany in 1840-'41, tracing the Great Australian Bight and braving the barren Nullarbor. For me, this is the real start of the adventure because everything from now on is new to me. Ceduna is 443km to the west, Perth two days away. Today's destination, Nundroo, doesn't even register on the sat-nav.
The sign welcoming us to Iron Knob brags that it is the birthplace of the Australian steel industry. Flour merchant Ernst Siekman began mining here in the early 1880s, but in 1899, BHP took over and continued digging up high-quality ore for the next 100 years. The 'knob' that held so much ore is 150 metres lower than it was a century ago and the mine is now closed. And so, it appears, is the town. It's virtually deserted except for some school kids playing in the main street and a couple of blokes kicking back on a veranda.
At Wudinna we pull over to snap an old servo and are bailed up by a colourful chap who claims to have lived in the now-abandoned building for the past 30 years. A mechanic by trade, Graham Finearty elaborates on the virtues of two-stroke engines at some length, including an extraordinary 2.0-litre, two-stroke he's developed that's reportedly good for 600kW. I make a mental note to call him should my lawn mower ever need a hot-up.
With the light fading, we begin scanning intently for roos. Under a 'safety' sub-heading, Taylor's road book counsels against driving after dark and recommends dropping to 70km/h to minimise the chances of hitting rogue wildlife. So far, though, we've hardly seen any road kill, let alone live animals. And if we drive at 70 we'll never get anywhere. I decide to live on the ragged edge and lock-it-in-Eddy at 120km/h.
We make Ceduna, on the Bight, at 7:45pm, just in time to get a meal of excellent King George whiting at the smart new Foreshore Hotel. But with Nundroo still 160km to the west we don't dally over dessert. Benny and I are both knackered and just want to start counting sheep but prod ourselves to stay focused on the live roo count, which still stands at zero. At 11pm, energy flagging and eyeballs bulging after 17 hours and almost 1000 clicks, I drive straight past the blacked-out Nundroo Hotel Motel. Opened in 1957, the year Holden released the FE station wagon, the motel looks and feels its vintage. I sleep like a dead man on the saggy mattress - until my alarm goes off at 5:30am. Groan.
After the mandatory warm up, we're on the road again by 7am, cruise set to 120km/h (a busy 3000rpm in sixth), gazes fixed in the direction of Norseman, some 1000km distant. Ninety minutes later we arrive at the eastern edge of the Nullarbor (or 'tree-less') Plain. In the sandy silence of this limitless landscape I feel like a pioneer. For some reason my thoughts switch to Neil Armstrong and the Eagle module on the surface of the moon. Curiously, our 2009 model Porsche probably has more computing power than the flimsy contraption that first carried man to the moon 40 years earlier.
Of course there were no computers at all in 1941 when army engineers took six months to construct an unsealed road across the Nullarbor. That road cost £250,000 to build and was named the Forrest Highway, after WA pioneer John Forrest. It wasn't until 1976 that sealing of the road was completed, at which time it was renamed the Eyre Highway.
At the Nullarbor Roadhouse, we meet Brisbane-based truckie Mark Gonsalves, who's been crossing the continent since the '70s. I ask him about the lack of wildlife. "There was lots back then," he shrugs. "In the '70s, we saw wombats, camels and roos; now you just don't see anything. I think they've all moved more inland." Aware that truckies also usually know the best places to eat, I take the opportunity to ask about the best place for nosh on the Nullarbor. "No such thing," deadpans Mark. We'll later concur with this assessment.
The Roadhouse used to have trouble with people filling up and doing the bolt, apparently, so these days you have to hand over your licence before the pumps are turned on. The manager Adam, a big
bloke with a goatee and a fierce expression, reckons he's seen his share of wackos out here.
"There was a bloke here saying the radiation from Maralinga had come down and [that] he was really scared and thought he should wear tin foil under his clothes. I think he had a couple of screws loose."
Ya reckon? Nevertheless, pondering the proximity of the former nuclear test site, I opt to run with the windows up and the air on recirc for a while.
Nearing the WA border, we haven't passed or been passed by another car for hours and, with 2317km now under its wheels, the Porsche is still burning premium at a metronomic 10.8L/100km, just 0.2L more than its ADR81 figure. Impressive.
The Border Village Roadhouse is spitting distance from the SA/WA state line and here we find truckies Tony 'The Hat Man' and his cousin Colin relaxing in the shade. They drive their road train two-up and cross the Nullarbor each and every week, sometimes covering 14,000kms in nine days.
Tony has a theory about the incredible vanishing wildlife. "They're all in the bush," he explains. "They only come to the road when there's no water; to drink the morning dew off the road." We ponder this bush logic and decide it makes perfect sense, agreeing to keep a special watch for thirsty camels from here on.
Crossing into WA just before midday we're greeted by a quarantine officer who tells us the Panameras passed through a few days earlier. I wonder if this sudden influx of Porsches rates on his scale of unusual border incursions? "Strangest thing I've seen is an Indian tourist on a unicycle," he laughs. "He was only a thin fella but he obviously knew what he was doing."
Near Cocklebiddy we finally spot one half of the coat of arms as three startled emus sprint off into the scrub. An indignant Benny, meanwhile, is thinking more about cows: "How come the women never wave?" he asks, his right index finger frozen in a forlorn mid-air salute to yet another campervan girl who has motored by, oblivious to his outback etiquette.
By 4:30pm, we're on the famed Ninety Mile Straight heading directly into the sun at 120km/h. This is perfect V-max territory, but it would be just our luck to hit the hopping half of the coat of arms, or be sprung by the only radar gun in hundreds of kilometres.
By mid-evening, having been sans phone reception for most of the day and with vehicle sightings few and far between since the sun went down, it's a relief to see the lights of Norseman emerge out of the darkness. All the pubs and restaurants are closed so we settle for a meal of radioactive-looking fish 'n' chips at a local servo before hitting the hay early.
The next morning, a quick calculation on the back of a napkin prompts us to veer from Taylor's script for our final run into Perth. We peel off Highway One and head inland on Highway 94 via Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie. It's a shorter 858km run and we can't afford to risk the wrath of Robinson by being late.
Founded in 1893 on the back of gold and nickel mining, Kalgoorlie today is an impressive enough inland town of 29,000. It's a shadow of its former self, though, as during the 1890s up to 200,000 people called it home. The town's early affluence shows in the substantial period buildings and pubs on every corner. There's still a quid to be dug out of the ground, too, as evidenced by the 3.6km long, 1.6km wide and half-a-kay deep 'super pit' open-cut gold mine that sustains the place.
Our decision to take the shortcut to Perth is vindicated when high winds begin to buffet the Porsche near Coolgardie and rain clouds mass ominously. With 120km to go, torrential rain and high winds set in and, incredibly, after four days spent crossing one of the most arid landscapes on earth, I now begin to worry about aqua-planing into a swollen creek.
The monotonous roar of the Michelins and four long days in the saddle have worn us down, and there's a palpable sense of relief on my part at least when we finally see the lights of Perth in the distance.
Benny has Robbo and the Perth-to-Darwin leg still ahead of him, but I'm done. I've added the mysterious, marvellous Nullarbor to my list of driving accomplishments and can say with some authority that it's a road trip every Aussie should take at least once in their life.
Over dinner Robbo asks whether I bonded with the car. I quickly forget about the tyre noise and bang on about how 'intimate' one becomes with the 911, how it seems to mould itself around you, and how connected you feel to it. He smiles knowingly. Over 4000km, I fell in and out of love with the Carrera many times but in the end, love prevailed.
Take care of my car, Robbo.
Tudor is the timing partner of Porsche Motorsport for the Mobil 1 Supercup series. Making Steve Nally's arm even more functional and aesthetically pleasing (below) is the Grantour Chrono in triple black; bezel, dial and leather strap with large perforations. Waterproof to 150m, this version of the Grantour Chrono retails for $4570. More info and stockists at www.tudorwatch.com or phone (03) 9654 3988.
The Accor hotel group offers weary travellers 150 locations Australia-wide at which to put your feet up and your head down. The group includes the five-star Sofitel and Pullman brands, four-star Novotel and Mercure and three-star Ibis, which you'll find in far-flung locations like Kununurra, Alice Springs, and Mount Isa. We rested at the Mercure in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.