DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
Although not quite as challenging as Michael Palin crossing the Andes by frog, a trip across the continent in a softroader can have its moments.
“Audi wants to run some of its quattro machines from Sydney to Perth the hard way,” announced 4WD Off Road Driver Training’s Phil Poulter. “And you and I are going to check out the route for them.”
So there we were, in Broken Hill, with an Audi Allroad turbo-diesel, automatic-transmission wagon . It was bog standard, other than for a roof rack and optional 16-inch aluminium wheels, shod with reinforced 215/65R16 tyres. (No temporary spare or run-flat tyre rubbish on this trip!)
Inside it was stock, other than for a UHF CB radio for vehicle to vehicle communications and a satellite phone that we hoped we wouldn’t need to use.
We’d packed two spare wheels and tyres in the roof rack, leaving the cargo area free for a fridge, luggage and camping equipment.
The route Audi wanted us to check out started in Sydney and ended in Perth, but in between were more than 4000 kilometres of Outback dirt roads and tracks
The first ‘Two Corners’ leg began at Audi’s Sydney headquarters and took in the bitumen road to Broken Hill, before swinging north on the Silver City Highway for Tibooburra.
Improvements to this stretch of road meant that there were many kilometres of sealed surface, but there were still a few rough dirt and gravel sections. The challenge for the driver and vehicle was the necessary adjustment from good quality bitumen to stony dirt surfaces.
The Allroad’s variable-height air suspension was very handy in these conditions, raising the vehicle to the ‘3’ height position when conditions demanded extra ground clearance.
It wasn’t all hard driving on this leg, which features some of Australia’s richest exploration history. Charles Sturt’s party was stranded at Depot Glen, close to the historic township of Milparinka and we visited the waterhole that saved Sturt’s party from disaster. However, the grave of Sturt’s number two, James Poole, who died of scurvy, serves as a reminder that this is unforgiving country.
From Milparinka it was only a short drive to the comforts of the Family Hotel, in Tibooburra, for an overnight stay.
After some Outback hospitality in the town that regularly tops NSW’s summer temperature scale it was an undulating drive across the sandhills to the famous Corner Store, at Camerons Corner – the border between NSW, Queensland and South Australia.
Not far from The Corner we joined the Strezelecki Track and headed north to the little outpost of Innamincka and a campsite beside Cooper Creek. Next morning we visited the sombre site of Burke’s memorial on the banks of The Cooper and drove to the famous Dig Tree.
The tracks around Innamincka are very stony, rutted and corrugated – a fine test for the tyres and suspension.
The next campsite was on a hard-baked claypan at Haddon’s Corner, at the border junction between Queensland and South Australia. Getting there meant negotiating bulldust tracks and crossing a few sand dunes. The Audi’s off-road height setting proved ideal for negotiating sandy ruts.
Next day was a gravel road drive into the relative civilisation of Birdsville, where we enjoyed a shower and a real bed.
With Birdsville’s radio mast disappearing below the flat horizon we headed south on the infamous Birdsville Track and, on the way to a lunch stop at the
Mungerannie Roadhouse, detoured to the gravesite of the Page family members who lost their lives in 1963 when their car broke down.
The bush camp that night was at Clayton River with its open-air spa bath (a hot bore outflow), followed next morning by the gravel road drive to Marree and the Oodnadatta Track.
We stopped off for the mandatory blinding view of salt-caked Lake Eyre South and then swung south west for the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy. Following an underground dinner and sleep we departed next morning for the glories of the Painted Desert, before hitting the Oodnadatta Track once more.
The bush camp that night was at Olarinna Creek.
Next morning’s trek was a relatively civilised dirt drive into Marla, on the Stuart Highway, for a bitumen run to the resort at Yulara, close by Uluru.
From this famous landmark our trek took us past Kata Tjuta, on the Great Central Road,
heading for the Western Australian goldfields.
Most Australians have never driven across this harsh landscape that takes in the beautiful Peterman Ranges, Lasseter’s Cave and the northern edge of the Great Victoria Desert.
We pulled up the Audi for an overnight camp and refuel at Warakruna Roadhouse, and then visited the remote weather station of Giles. Next stop was the even more remote roadhouse at Tjukariyla. That night the allroad was the most remote Audi in the world.
The last dirt driving leg ended at Kalgoorlie, before the easy bitumen of the Great Eastern Highway, on the way to Perth.
However, since doing this trip we drove the NT section of the Great Central Road in 2019 and found it in appalling condition. The NT Government was broke and had little money for road maintenance and it showed. There’s no way the Audi could have handled the 2019 conditions that featured enormous corrugations, severe enough to cause road trains to drive at 15-20km/h, with low tyre pressures.
The Audi Allroad did the run without so much as a puncture, but a post mortem showed that despite the great care we’d taken to avoid large stone impacts
there were quite a few scars on the engine under tray.
A steel or heavy aluminium bash plate is a good insurance for any softroader venturing bush; even on ones with height-adjustable suspension.
‘Rogue’ rocks are quite common on central Australian gravel roads and we had more than one close encounter. Hitting a goolie the size of a rockmelon with your front suspension or your engine or transmission sump will end your trip and cost you a fortune, so preparation is essential.
Animal strikes are another potential hazard, which we avoided in the main by camping before dusk every night.
We didn’t score a flat tyre, but we came across many carcases on the road, indicating that some other travellers weren’t so lucky. However, we didn’t run super-low profile tyres and we did take care to get the heaviest-built options in the Audi cattle dog. We ran the tyres at a supple 26 psi.
‘light’ was another reason we had no tyre troubles. Two-up with lightweight camping gear and minimal luggage is the maximum load for a softroader making this trip.
The roof rack was invaluable for stowing the spare wheels and tyres, and the gas bottles.
Our diesel wagon was frugal, so we didn’t need to carry additional fuel. Unleaded is available at the two Great Central Road roadhouses, so petrol vehicles can also make the trip.