This is Part 5 of our Report on driving a Haval H8 – baptised Damo – into the Australian Outback. See also Part 1: The Stakes, Part 2: Sydney to Broken Hill, Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst and Part 4 Lyndhurst to Moolawatana. You can view the entire series here.
To my surprise I managed to sleep for a few hours in the car, but dusk means kangaroos streaming from everywhere in the savannah so I have to wait until the sun is frankly installed in the sky to get going. After a couple of days of rain and closed tracks, today is the day everything goes in the right direction, and the day I finally manage to set wheels on the legendary Birdsville Track.
The prospect of retracing my steps and going through the same very slippery muddy patch I had just barely managed to pass the night before isn’t enchanting me, given the early morning dew has made the track even damper. Yet I don’t know if I have gained experience in mud-driving or the track actually dried up overnight, but this second pass was much easier than yesterday. I soon arrive at Arkaroola Village and decide to cut short directly to Copley. This section of track is categorised yellow (4WD only) but apart from a couple of overflowing creeks, it’s nowhere near as hard work as what I experienced the day before, and once again the Road conditions website is (fortunately this time) incorrect.
In fact, the patch of track from Arkaroola to Copley is so clean that it’s a good opportunity to test the Haval H8’s more sporty inclinations. Constantly swapping high speed straight lanes for slow-motion creek passes, I manage to push the H8 up to 130km/h or 80mph on dirt tracks and brake to an almost full-stop in order to pass rock-filled creeks with no trouble. Damo takes it all in its stride and revels in the challenge. I’m impressed. This fast-and-furious drive remains very lonely: we crossed just one car – a Ford Escape – in 210 km / 130 miles just before arriving in Copley where we got in no time. There, wifi connection and a very good surprise await – probably the best gift in the entire trip: a check of the Road conditions website reveals the Lyndhurst to Marree portion of unsealed road has reopened, giving me access to the Birdsville Track!
I can hardly contain my excitement when refueling for petrol and coffee in Copley, and the careful forecast of the Copley Motel and Cafe manager barely registers: “You will be lucky to get to Mungerannie before sunset, you can’t expect to drive at more than 50km/h average on the track”. Try me. What I had been aiming at for this whole trip, and what I had almost given up on is now shaping up to be a reality: I am going to get to drive on the Birdsville Track! But before that we have an obligatory stop in Marree where Damo is turning heads during his short stop at the Hotel and in front of one of the very first Royal Mail utes to ever serve on the Birdsville Track, driven by the legendary Tom Kruse (more on this further down this article). No, the actor came long after.
While in Leigh Creek filling up on food supplies, I managed to call the Mungerannie Hotel – the only motel accommodation option on the Birdsville Track – to book a room there as I was worried given the Track hadn’t been accessible for a couple of days that it may have been fully booked with stranded travellers. Pam answered: “Of course we can book a room for you luv. Are you coming from the North or South?” South from Marree. “Alright, from Marree the track is a little slippery for the first 10 to 15 kays but then it’s dry all the way.”
Doesn’t seem like much, but when you launch your four wheels onto deep and slippery mud, it makes a lot of difference to know that hell will only last for a dozen km as it is a bit like driving in apnea, with stopping not an option or else you get bogged down. Now the true meaning of “a little” slippery remains to be deciphered…and could well mean “awfully” in a typically low-key Australian way. These areas of Australia are so remote that travelling safely relies essentially on the generosity and care of fellow travellers and locals, so I welcomed Pam’s coaching with wide open arms and thanked her profusely.
Just as we launch onto the track, a road sign cheekily announces: “Only 200km until the Mungerannie Hotel – not far now!” I see what you did there… As indicated by Pam, the start of the track from Marree is a little (not awfully) muddy, but being a main artery a few heavy trucks have already marked the way and it’s nowhere near as challenging as yesterday. Or perhaps I have now markedly improved my mud-slipping skills… After that it is dry indeed, enough to push Damo up to 100km/h or 60mph.
The Birdsville Track is 517 km / 320 miles of pure legend. Starting in Marree and arriving in Birdsville across the Queensland border, the track traverses three deserts along the route: the Strzelecki Desert, Sturt Stony Desert and Tirari Desert. Now a graded dirt road, it is a road train route and a main artery for cattle trucks carrying livestock. It passes through one of the driest parts of Australia with an average rainfall of less than 100 mm / 4 in annually… except right now. According to Jo from the Lyndhurst Roadhouse, the region has already received 300 mm / 12 in since January!
A muddy Birdsville Track is a rarity, and along with my adventures of the past couple of days trying to join Birdsville via Innamincka, this is turning out to be an excellent 4WD test for the Haval H8. Driving on the Birdsville Track in dry conditions is something any vehicle could do. Add rain and mud and it’s a different story altogether. The opening of the Lyndhurst-Marree section giving me access to the Birdsville Track was blue (all vehicles with caution) as well as the Marree-Mungerannie section even though the mud at the start of both tracks would have scared most 2WDs away. In fact, I was the only non-modified 4WD on the track the day I drove on it.
According to all the guides of the region, the area the Birdsville Track traverses is extremely barren, dry and isolated. However after going through secondary tracks yesterday to Arkaroola and Moolawatana HS (see Part 4 Lyndhurst to Moolawatana), it almost seems like a highway: I did cross four vehicles in 205 km / 130 miles, exponentially lifting my average! One of them was, once again, Eric’s Rig (see Part 3: Orroroo to Lyndhurst) and Eric the driver had a big smile on his face seeing Damo full of mud. Me: “See you later, or never!” Am still scared I will see Eric’s Rig when I really don’t want to. The landscapes I’m driving through are breath-taking: I don’t think I have ever driven on a flatter area in my entire life. You can literally see hundreds of km around: a couple of patches of rain, changing clouds that get a red tinge reflecting the red earth below, but mostly sunny weather all the way. It’s simply magical.
The most frequent road sign you will encounter in this part of the world is one warning for a “Grid”. No, this is not evidence of an intricate network of underground plumbing in the desert. Barely registering under the wheels when passed at high speed, these grids are actually scary-wide when explored on foot: care is needed to walk across. Their utility is both simple and emblematic of the isolated Australian outback: there are here to keep cattle within the bounds of their respective homestead without having to resort to gates that each driver on the Track would need to stop to open then close. The grid bars are so widely spaced that no livestock would ever venture across indeed. All grids are connected to a network of barbwire separating the immense homesteads, which sometimes cover areas many thousands square km large. Some properties are so large, the owners use planes to herd stock back to the homestead…
Time for a bit of history about the legendary Birdsville Track. It was opened in the 1860s to walk cattle from northern Queensland and the Northern Territory – Darwin is 2.400 km/1.500 miles north – to the nearest railhead in Port Augusta, 380 km/240 mi south of Marree. The pioneering drover credited with establishing the track is Percy Burt: he set up a store at Diamantina Crossing, today known as Birdsville, and used the path to bring cattle out of the Channel Country to the north all the way to the new railhead at Maree that was completed in 1883. This stock route was more than 1.000 km/620 mi shorter than the alternative path to Brisbane, this according to Wikipedia.
Along with livestock, camel trains and drovers, the most famous travellers on the Birdsville Track were the postmen. The first mail service along the Birdsville Track was engineered by Jack Hester in 1884 using a buggy and pack horses. Given the track was often flooded, a boat was necessary at times, making it an almost impossible adventure until enough bores were drilled along the route to drain the rain and reduce flooding occurrences. But it’s outback legend and mailman Tom Kruse, featured in the 1954 documentary film The Back of Beyond, that made the Birdsville Track famous. He served the track from 1936 to 1963 when he was replaced by an air service from Adelaide – still to this day the longest mail run in the world.
Despite very threatening clouds towards the end of our journey, Damo and I arrive in the Mungerannie station – population: 3 – a full hour before sunset scheduled for 5:45pm. Mungerannie is the only pit stop along the 517km of the Birdsville Track. All other locations listed on the map below are in actual fact either ruins or homesteads that don’t offer any services. But Mungerannie has accommodation, food/beer, a McDonalds (just kidding) and petrol, but no premium unleaded so I had to empty one of my two jerrycans to be able to continue the trip.
Booking in advance ended up being unnecessary but had I come here a couple of days earlier it would have been a great idea indeed: all motel rooms were occupied until the night before with a groups of stranded travellers whose vehicles all broke down on the track. Arriving at the station, I crossed paths with the only road train on the Birdsville Track that day. His driver gave me his impressions on the track’s conditions further north, some precious information that will hopefully help me get through to Birdville tomorrow: “I struggled quite a lot coming out of Birdsville but the rest was fine”. So here is someone who gets paid driving trucks through the desert every day of the week and he says he “struggled”. Christ almighty. This is going to be fun…
Co-owner Phil seemed paralysed by the (relatively) cold weather the night I arrived, but Pam was very chatty: “You’re the first normal car we see in at least a week! It’s been crazy weather out here, so much rain. Never seen this brand before, what is it?” Haval it’s Chinese, made by the same blokes that did Great Wall. “Ah looks nice, did ok yeah? Looks like you got a lot of mud coming through. But the rest of the track is going to be a lot wetter for you I’m afraid… I’ll call the Birdsville Hotel first thing in the morning so we can see how bad the track is and where the tricky parts are. We normally open at 9am but if I’m awake I’ll just come in and open – I’ll turn the outside lights on so you can see from you room, no need to come all the way for nothing. Try the hot pool just behind the bushes it’s so nice after a long day’s drive!” I haven’t heard that many words coming out of a human for days and it’s deliciously refreshing. I feel at home already in Mungerannie.
The bar at the Mungerannie Hotel is the stuff of movies, with travellers all leaving a souvenir behind: a hat, flag, shirt, mug, a business card: if you visit this place you must try and locate the Daunhotcongnghiep business card that has been added to the wall behind the bar! But wait there’s more: some people have left actual hair locks and you can see them all hanging from the ceiling! I told you this track was legendary…
Stay tuned for the next instalment in the Series: Mungerannie to Birdsville.