Let the unsealed track fun begin!
This is Part 4 of our Report on driving a Haval H8 into the Australian Outback. See also Part 1: The Stakes, Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill and Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst. You can view the entire series here.
It’s 9am in Lyndhurst and the Lyndhurst-Marree section of the road leading to the Birdsville Track remains closed, with no hope of reopening today according to Jo from the Lyndhurst Roadhouse, as it rained overnight along the track and in Birdsville. It is also very difficult to predict how road conditions may have changed even on tracks that are open given these cover very large swaths of land that no one has traveled through overnight. I therefore decide to retrace my steps on the Outback highway for roughly 100km / 60 miles to attempt linking Birdsville from the east in Innamincka. For this, I need to take the last tracks still open to public, starting in Parachilna, crossing the Vulkatunha Gammon Ranges National Park through Bilnman for a lunch stop and wifi connection refresh in Arkaroola Village. Hopefully I’ll manage to reach Innamincka before sunset…
Click on map to enlarge. By Google MapsDamo discovering its first dirt track of the trip
The last stop before throwing ourselves onto dirt tracks is Parachilna on the Outback highway. But even at the legendary Prairie Hotel, described by the Lonely Planet as a world-class stay with slick suites and a mythical feral mixed grill – camel sausage, kangaroo fillet and emu, wish I had time to have a taste, the mobile network is non-existent so it’s all guns blazing towards the unknown. Damo is soon swallowing hundreds of km of dirt tracks, starting with the winding track through the Parachilna Gorge. However the onboard sat nav doesn’t take into account unsealed roads – that’s unfortunate for a 4WD – so we’ll have to fall back on the good old-fashioned paper map for the next few days of adventure.
Surprisingly “cheap” Premium Unleaded in Angorichina Village
Travelling in such remote areas means one rule needs to be added: never leave one place that has Premium Unleaded petrol without filling up, as you never know where the next one will be. Up to 430 km / 270 miles away as we’ll see further into the journey. A stop at the Angorichina Village petrol station for filling up is therefore mandatory. The pump is locked, and a friendly local comes out for the top-up at the surprisingly low price of 151 cents per litre. He’s unaware of road conditions further up though. The next and only town before Arkaroola is Blinman – population 30 – the highest town in South Australia (630m above sea level), originally a copper mining town but now deserted. Still no mobile coverage.
The road to – seemingly – nowhere…
As we go further east, the road becomes very muddy at times, and this prompts me to wonder how the South Australian authorities decide when to close a road and when to keep it open with restrictions, for 4WD only for example. It would appear the main arteries in this part of the Australian Outback, such as the Birdsville, Strzelecki and Oodnadatta Tracks, get automatically closed in case of heavy rain. This to avoid road trains creating insurmountable rutting on the tracks. As it dries up, first small 4WD then heavy trucks get allowed, then all cars.
The track to Arkaroola
But it’s hardly ever that straight forward, as more rain can complicate the situation, and a track open to heavy trucks at the wrong time can create such rutting that it might close again a few days later even in the absence of rain. So predicting the track opening patterns a few days in advance is almost impossible. On top of this, if the main arteries get closer attention from the SA government, smaller tracks such as the one I am driving along from Parachilna to Arkaroola get a lot less attention and may not be updated on the for a couple of days even in the event of rain. This is what I found out today…
Baptism of mud
50km or 30 miles before arriving in Arkaroola is where Damo got his proper baptism of mud. There were two 8km-long very slippery patches of mud across the entire width of the track with nowhere to escape to and no phone coverage to rely upon in case of trouble, making the passage that little bit more tricky. Given the depth of mud on the track, stopping to catch your breath is not an option as it would almost certainly equal to getting bogged down, so I would compare these two bouts of driving to swimming in apnea under water. Of course, it’s just when I am still grappling with trying to keep the vehicle on track that cows and kangaroos decide to come for a visit onto the road to witness the mess, becoming as many more obstacles to avoid. After the first few minutes of adaptation, it turns out the Haval H8 is mastering the art of controlled slippage through thick mud rather well. Once you get past the fact that the vehicle will slip no matter what and get used to turning left to direct the vehicle to the right and vice versa, it actually becomes an almost exhilarating experience. Saying that I’m begging for more would be an over-statement though.
Heavy skies and the constant threat of more rain to mess up with the tracks.
As far as I could see based on the tracks in the mud, only two vehicles before me had gone through this particular section since the rain. In the 158km/100 miles that separate Parachilna to Arkaroola, I only crossed two active vehicles: one Land Cruiser ute (aka the king of the Australian Outback) and one Ford Territory that had to slip-swerve wildly to its left to open a passage for me. I thought I was slipping particularly hard myself due to my highway tyres, but if anything the Territory looked to be having more difficulty manoeuvring the mud than I was. Or perhaps I was too concentrated on not slipping towards it that I didn’t really catch its motion. Hitting another car full-frontal – one of only two cars encountered in over 150km – would be such an irony that I won’t even begin to elaborate on this. Even though it sounds like I am crossing a particularly barren stretch of the country, the vegetation and colours keep changing all along. The track is successively orange, white and yellow with rocks, gravel, sand and mud giving Damo’s tyres the harshest time they probably have ever been exposed to.
Before the mud took over…
Just before reaching Arkaroola, a broken down bus lies in the middle of the road and upon stopping, the driver asks if I could get him something to eat and a drink in Arkaroola if I come back this way. With pleasure. I’m only there to fill up and check the Road conditions website so shouldn’t be more than an hour. “No rush, take your time!” Gotta love the Outback’s laid-back attitude. In this part of Australia, you shouldn’t expect to go faster than 50km/h or 30mph on average given how rough the track is. I therefore needed 3.5 hours to cover the 158km/100 miles separating Parachilna from Arkaroola.
Arkaroola Ridgetop Tour
After a lonesome, at times slightly stressful drive on dirt and gravel and through mud, the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is an oasis of high speed wifi in the desert – and the only location 200km around to actually have internet coverage. It is located right in the midst of the Vulkatunha Gammon Ranges National Park, a fascinating geologic location that gets frequent earth tremors. A must-do here is the trip to Sillers Lookout on the famous Ridgetop Track blazed in the late 1960s by Exoil Ltd in hope of finding uranium, but in vain. It is only accessible in one of Arkaroola’s open Toyota Land Cruiser tour vehicles – again we find this beast here. Next time perhaps. For now I’m focused on getting to Birdsville any way I can.
The orange arrow is the path I want to take, open until Merty Merty.
The road sign at the entrance of the village indicated the Mt Hopeless – Innamincka section of the track is closed. This is at odds with the Road conditions website (see above). This particular section – just right of the Strzelecki Regional Reserve on the map – is blue (= open to all vehicles with caution) all the way to Merty Merty while the track from Arkaroola to Mt Hopeless is yellow (=4WD only). The track I have just taken, Parachilna-Blinman-Arkaroola, is green (=open to all vehicles with no restrictions). This is incorrect: a 2WD vehicle wouldn’t have gone past the muddy patches I traversed. It should be yellow. So the website is wrong. What to do?
Arkaroola Village beats the record of the most expensive petrol price of the trip
One Sanctuary employee tries to discourage me from going any further: “The tracks are closed and won’t reopen for the next few days. We got more rain in a week than we usually do in an entire year!” But the website says it’s open. “[Shrug]. It’s your call.” Let’s get a second opinion. Another employee gives me the opposite advice: “Let me check the website. Yep, you’re all good to go up to Merty Merty! You should take a screen grab of the Road conditions website on your phone, just in case. To show the police if they say you’ve taken a closed road.” Sounds better – and this screen grab is displayed further up in the article. Outside while refuelling, the record of the most expensive petrol of the trip is beaten at 186 cents per litre – but we definitely are in the middle of the desert so it’s all forgiven.
Into the unknown…
One of the Arkaroola Ridgetop Tour guides asks what it is that I am driving but also what my accent is… Turns out he’s French like me, as well as two other staff in the Sanctuary: truly the last place on earth I was expecting to find a French contingent! According to him, it’s a good idea to come up with the Haval brand as Great Wall was a dead giveaway for a Chinese brand whereas Haval doesn’t let in on its origins. I had never envisaged this branding strategy this way and am starting to be proven wrong on my interrogations about Great Wall’s decision to launch a new brand from scratch in Australia where their namesake marque had already gained some recognition. He is also bearish on my plan to reach Innamincka. “You realise there’s nothing between here and Innamincka and it’s 460km away. Are you sure you have enough petrol?” A full 75L tank and 40L additional in jerrycans. “But driving in thick mud consumes a lot more.” I heard they closed the tracks. “They would have, because it’s downstream from here so all the rain accumulates in the basin. It will be closed for days.”
Outback driving is a lot about taking all elements from various sources into consideration but in the end making your very own decisions. Enough listening to opinions and time to drive off. Armed with food and drinks for the stranded bus driver, I am ready to spend the night in the Haval H8 if needed, it will be another facet to add to this review…
One element of this trip so far that is putting a big smile on my face is the sprawling wildlife present along the track. Hundreds, I’d even go as far as saying close to a thousand kangaroos in total show their curious selves, without ever venturing too close to the car for comfort. I always thought only kangaroos of a same species (=colour) stick together, but this is wrong: orange and grey fellows happily hop along together, and this part of Australia is also the habitat of the yellow-footed rock wallaby which I indeed spotted in generous numbers. A car is such a rare occurrence in this area that kangaroos are all very interested. A couple of them even raced me for a few km, carefully hopping across the track ahead of me and even showing me the way in the middle of the track for a while. Most herds of emus ran away madly and frightened, but one I approached slowly actually stayed put, and progressively got closer to the car, each throwing their neck forward in curious yet weary moves. A magical experience indeed.
Launching into the 430km service-free track to Innamincka, the skies grow heavier and the threat of more rain messing up with the already damp tracks is constant. Each km driven in dry conditions is a victory and one less km to have to endure before reaching Innamincka. I manage to tick off a further 150km before conditions get even more slippery than what I encountered before Arkaroola. At the same time some patches of savannah make leaving the track a daunting prospect and hitting trees a real danger. The Haval H8 engages the ESP a couple of times, automatically slowing the car down to 40km/h (I thought I was going to stall!) and then you can clearly feel the 4WD mode kicking in. Once again Damo gets out unscathed and I get out relieved. A few km down though, I cross the first car since Arkaroola, a Land Rover Discovery.
Damo post four very slippery mud patches. Doing well.
The driver, travelling alone, tells me he had to turn around as a flooded creek has mud too deep for his comfort. He shows me his sneaker full of mud and says he couldn’t feel the bottom of the creek when walking in so he wouldn’t risk passing. “You could probably go through with mud tyres and a high clearance 4WD but I wouldn’t risk it I were you.” I think I may need to follow his advice for once. Getting bogged down as the sun is setting with no car for 150km isn’t a prospect I’d like to experience if I have to be totally honest with myself. It’s time to get ready for a shut-eye stop inside the Haval H8.
No hope getting to Mt Hopeless…
By this time we have arrived at the Moolawatana homestead, 51 km before the MtHopeless junction where the track fuses with the Strzelecki Track, and even though it has a name and a location on the map that doesn’t mean anyone is living here. There was one house near the place I stopped for the night but no sign of life. Cows are roaming though and one in particular was very interested in the Haval H8, licking the mud out of its headlights… I haven’t been known to find comfortable sleep in a car – ever – so this will be an interesting experience. At 6′, I am not particularly short and always end up cramped in a car. This time though, the space in the rear seats and between the driving seat and the front door allows me to spread my legs and find a comfortable position. I did manage to sleep.
The rearview mirrors project the Haval brand name onto the floor at night… Pretty cool.
Yet it looks like my attempt to get to Innamincka will need to be aborted and I’ll have to get back to the sealed Outback Highway. I won’t give up on the Birdsville Track just yet, but the reality is that if the Lyndhurst-Marree portion of road is closed again tomorrow I may have to consider alternative options such as the Oodnadatta Track… But you don’t know how perseverant I can be…
Stay tuned for Part 5 coming shortly…