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Australian Red Centre vs. Toyota Prado – Part 3: Uluru and Coober Pedy

Omar with magical Uluru.

This is Part 3 and the last iteration of our exploration of the Australian Red Centre with a Toyota Prado which we baptised Omar. You can see Part 1 taking us from Sydney to Birdsville here and Part 2 from Birdsville to Alice Springs here. We now reach the “true” Red Centre of the country and one of the world’s most iconic natural wonders: Uluru. We end this Test Drive as is the tradition on BSCB with a quick review of the Toyota Prado.

Our itinerary for leg 3 of this adventure, taking us from Alice Springs to Uluru then Coober Pedy.

I could go the “short” and sealed way between Alice Springs and Uluru, down the Stuart Highway and then right onto the Lasseter Highway. But I couldn’t for the sake of this trip and its Red Centre label miss the Namatjira drive going through the MacDonnell Ranges, then catching the Larapinta drive that becomes the “Red Centre Way” leading to Kings Canyon. The Namatjira drive is named after Albert Namatjira (1902-1959), born in neighbouring Hermannsburg, a pioneer of contemporary Indigenous Australian art and the most famous Aboriginal Australian of his generation. As for Larapinta, it is the name of the Finke River, a major watercourse in the area, in local Arrernte Aboriginal language.

Road signs to Kings Canyon

A reminder that this section of our exploration is mainly used by tourists that have flown into Alice Springs or Uluru and are driving rental cars, the most frequent road sign here is “Drive on left in Australia” which at first seems incongruous as we are right in the (red) centre of the country. Also of note are the translations in various languages of road warnings such as “Gravel Road”, including in local Aboriginal language (see bottom of the middle picture above). This is actually the first time that I see a road sign displayed in Aboriginal language in Australia, a testimony of the isolation of the communities that live in the area but also how taken for granted English-speaking is in this country.

Omar on the Red Centre Way

The 150km-long unsealed section of track that is actually called the Red Centre Way surprisingly ended up being the roughest and most challenging of the entire trip by far. Heavy corrugation, treacherous ruts and hidden ravines created by recent rain make this a true test of the Toyota Prado’s braking and handling capacity. Also, above you can see the damage caused by the eagle I hit during the first leg of this trip. I have made sure most photos I published since are angled on the other side of the car so this is the one I’ll put there to remind you of that unfortunate episode.

Omar near Kings Canyon, and a flashback to my last visit here in December 2003 with a Toyota RAV4.

After only crossing just four vehicles in the 280km since Alice Springs, we soon arrive at Kings Canyon, one of the natural wonders of Australia with cliff walls over 100 metres high. Unfortunately, due to extreme heat the fantastic Rim Walk was closed on the day I visited, while the Creek Walk was shortened due to repair on the boardwalk. Very disappointing given the lengthy and challenging detour I drove on just to come here. But I have a back-up plan for you: I dug up a few photos of my first visit of the Canyon in December 2003 onboard a Toyota RAV4…

Is it Uluru yet? Nope, this one is Mount Conner or Attila.

After Kings Canyon all the way to Uluru (and home to Sydney) the road is all sealed, so it’s (kind of) the end of the “true” adventurous stretch of this trip. But we still haven’t seen the best part (Uluru) yet. Roughly 100km after Kings Canyon we hit the Lasseter Highway and almost immediately a large mountain appear on the horizon. Uluru? Not yet. This one is Mount Conner, also known as Attila, located in in Pitjantjatjara country and towering 300m (984 ft) above ground level. It was named by William Gosse in 1873 after Mountifort Longfield Conner an auctioneer, politician and sporting journalist in South Australia.

Omar admiring Uluru at sunset.

Here we are now in Uluru (pronounced ool-or-roo), Australia’s most recognisable natural landmark and a World Heritage Site, also known as Ayers Rock. Although you will probably feel like you have already been here given the countless photographs and footage you would have come across in your lifetime, nothing replaces seeing it for real. It is much bigger than you’d expect at a height of 348 m (1,142 ft) – that’s 24m/63ft taller than the Eiffel Tower and only 33m/108ft shorter than the Empire State Building – although most of its bulk (5-6 km or 3-4 mi) is underground. It is also 9.4 km (5.8 mi) in circumference: indeed it is not a “wall” as the famous pictures seem to convey, but a full sandstone rock formation. I don’t get tired of it, this year being my 4th visit to the site after 1999, 2003 and 2005. One of the most fascinating features of Uluru is its seemingly changing colour at different times of the day and year, especially at sunset – I don’t recommend the sunrise at all!

Hard to find a better view from the wheel.

Uluru is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu, the Aboriginal people from the area. As such, climbing the rock is currently discouraged (only about 15% of tourists do so) and will be outlawed from October 2019. There is also a permit process all media have to go through in order to avoid publishing pictures of sensitive and sacred sections of the rock, for reasons related to traditional Tjukurpa beliefs. The sites of gender-specific rituals are forbidden for Aṉangu of the opposite sex, and the photographic restriction is intended to prevent Aṉangu from inadvertently violating this taboo by being exposed to photographs of the forbidden sites in the outside world. A heavy responsibility to all those photographing the rock. As such, all pictures in this article have been pre-approved by the Park management and therefore its elders.

Uluru, viewed from the Base Walk.

Although human settlement in the area dates back to over 10.000 years, it was only discovered by Europeans in 1873 and named Ayers Rock by explorer William Gosse after the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. At some point described in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest monolith in the world, this is a somewhat ambiguous term that is generally avoided by geologists. The remarkable feature of Uluru is its homogeneity and lack of jointing and parting at bedding surfaces, leading to no soil developing. All tourist accomodation was removed from the direct surroundings of the rock in 1984 and replaced with one single facility and airport called Yulara, now owned by one company: Ayers Rock Resort. This monopoly situation means staying in Yulara is far from cheap, but well worth it. A must-do if you visit: the 10km/6mile Base Walk that will enable you to see the rock from the ground in every possible angle. Set aside 2-3 hours and lots of water and you will want to stop every 5 minutes to take more pictures. Unforgettable.

Rental cars in Yulara and Uluru.

As is to be expected, most cars in circulation in the area and on the site are rental cars. Between Alice Springs and Yulara, I crossed 2 Toyota RAV4, 3 Mitsubishi Outlander and 3 Mitsubishi ASX. Near the site Toyota Prado siblings of Omar as well as the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport were also popular, although the Prados were all armed with menacing roo-bars (see above). Mitsubishi is clearly over-performing here which seems to indicate particularly sharp deals with rental companies both in Northern Territory and South Australia. It’s during the relaxed tour of Uluru that Omar reached its best fuel consumption average of the trip at 7.8L/km (30mpg).

Kulgera pub and its “shoe tree”

After a day of rest where I was lucky enough to do the Uluru Base Walk, we are now headed back to Sydney, 2810km / 1750mi away. First there’s 250km/ 155mi on the Lasseter Highway then it’s a right turn onto the Stuart Highway and an incredible 852km / 530mi of straight line without any further road directions (see GPS above). The last town before the South Australian border is Kulgera, population 50, with a roadside pub and service station sporting a gloomy “shoe tree”…

Crossing into South Australia.

Omar now speeds through to South Australia, or rather brakes through because crossing the state border also means you must reduce your speed from 130km/h to 110 for the rest of the trip to Sydney. It’s time to have a look at the best-selling models in South Australia so far this year.

Best-selling models in South Australia – 5 months 2018 (Source VFACTS):

PosModelSA 2018/17SA 2017Pos
1Toyota Hilux1,24318%1,0532
2Mazda31,037-6%1,1011
3Ford Ranger1,014-1%1,0263
4Toyota Corolla962-5%1,0174
5Mazda CX-580111%7198
6Mitsubishi Triton7713%7467
7Toyota Camry704-18%8546
8Mitsubishi ASX60821%50415
9Toyota RAV456110%51213
10Holden Colorado551-4%5739

The Toyota Hilux surges 18% to snap the state leadership off the Mazda3 (-6%) with the Ford Ranger (-1%) rounding up the podium but disappointingly in decline, so is the Toyota Corolla (=5%) at #4. The Mazda CX-5 splendidly gains 11% to remain the best-selling SUV in South Australia, dislodging the Holden Commodore (-72%!) from the Top 5 and the Top 20 for that matter. The Mitsubishi Triton (#6) and Holden Colorado (#10) make it four pickups in the Top 10 as it was also the case a year ago, while the Mitsubishi ASX (+21%) and Toyota RAV4 (+10%), potentially helped by a good serving of rental sales as observed above, break into the Top 10, nudging the Mazda CX-3 (-2%) out.

Marla, Coober Pedy, Road trains and kangaroo road signs.

Following the Stuart Highway south brings us to Marla (population 100), named after marlu, Aboriginal language for kangaroo – even though I saw none in this arid region – and only gazetted as an actual locality since 2001. Next is Coober Pedy which I detailed our last visit in the Australian Outback vs. Toyota C-HR reports. Located in the largest opal mining area in the world, it is named after the local Aboriginal term kupa-piti, which means “White man’s burrows”, because most of the population lives underground due to the stifling heat that engulfs the region most of the year, including when I visited the 2nd time with the Toyota Prado last February. Unfortunately this time I didn’t have the opportunity to stay overnight in town and sleep in one of its many underground motels. Maybe next time. Next is the ultra-secret Woomera Defence Force area housing James Bond-esque rocket-launching platforms integrated into the dried-up inland sea nearby (but shhh, I’m not supposed to tell you it’s a secret) – For more details on this fascinating location, see our last Toyota C-HR report. Sydney is reached 2 full days of driving later, after a total of 6.860km (4.263mi) in only nine days. Time for a quick review of Omar our Toyota Prado…

The Toyota Prado is the ultimate Australian Outback touring machine thanks to its world-leading 150 litres (40 gal) standard fuel capacity. Depending on how hard you push the 4WD, it could mean a range of up to 1.600-1.700km (over 1.000 miles), and I honestly haven’t heard of any combustion car able to beat that. This range is absolutely perfect for the type of trip I have just done as it removes the need to embark additional fuel jerrycans to cater for the extreme distances between petrol stations in some areas (up to 500km).

Onboard fridge is something that sounds gimmicky when you read it on paper, however when the heat outside reaches a blistering 42°C (108°F) as it was the case in Tobermorey at the border between Northern Territory and Queensland and it’s impossible to remain outside for more than few minutes, it’s like the gift that keeps giving. Only issue: I will miss it forever after in all cars that don’t have one (meaning, actually, all other cars in the world I believe).

Cockpit sound proofing is one of the best I’ve experienced in any car I’ve driven with the diesel engine noise hard’t noticeable inside – whereas it is louder than most vehicles outside.

Overall comfort in the cockpit is extremely satisfying with great back hold and h seats and a very spacious cabin.

Very high driving position does make you feel dominant on the road.

Although I didn’t get to really test the 4WD capabilities of the Prado on this trip, with dry unsealed tracks being the worst that was thrown at it, it did manoeuvre perfectly around the multitude of ruts and ravines and handled the corrugation as best as it could possibly be asked to.

September 2017 facelift streamlined the front design in a very welcome way.

By now you would have guessed that this is who Omar was named after (Omar Sharif)…

The average fuel consumption for the entire trip was 10.1L/km (23.3 mpg) at mostly highway driving speeds (trip average 86km/h or 53mph) which is on the thirsty side for a diesel vehicle. One surefire culprit is the car’s generous weight (2.445kg kerb), 300kg more than a top-spec Toyota Fortuner for example.

Drive feel is boat-like, I’d also call it “voluptuous”, or “plump”, meaning the steering wheel directions are understood and acted upon in an ok timely manner (not the quickest reaction time though) but seemingly with the cabin over-exaggerating the movement, a little bit like a boat. Again that’s due to its large weight, and the Prado definitely doesn’t drive like a car.

Again due to its large weight, braking distances are far from optimal and the car tends to wiggle dangerously when brakes are hit hard in an emergency. I won’t go as far as blaming the Prado’s braking for my hitting an eagle on Day 2, but I will just say that it is the first time I hit anything in all my years of test driving cars.

Although the car is a perfect fit for Outback travel (something very few vehicles can honestly boast), its GPS isn’t. Unsealed tracks do get included but driving times on them are grossly overestimated, by up to 50%. It’s a little unfair to criticise the car on this, as shorter times have the potential to trigger overzealous driving to match them, but overall the GPS should match reality a lot closer.

The line departure alert is way too sensitive and strident, triggering when you start driving on the middle-lane and not waiting for you to cross the line. I had to swiftly deactivate it in the first 10 minutes of driving.

The clock on the centre console is lost in-between air con indicators and always take too long to read, meaning your eyes are not on the road as you do so and it can become dangerous.

Cruise control tends to drop off when driving on unsealed tracks due to the sensor becoming obstructed (but as Stephan Pursell the Birdsville Police Officer told me, you’re not supposed to activate cruise control on unsealed tracks anyway!).

Toyota charges dearly for all the capability and comfort of the Prado, priced at AUD$85.900 (US$64.400, 55.900€) for this Kakadu version.

That’s it for the Prado! Stay tuned for the return of our Chinese adventures following the Beijing Auto Show.

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