To paraphrase Steve (Chippa) Tjepkema at the initial driver briefing for 2018: “The fact that you guys are here is evidence that the event’s new format is working.”
The inaugural Outback Challenge was run in 1999. It was fully supported by the publishers of 4X4 Australia and then editor Ron Moon, sponsored by ARB and Warn, and organised by Sharyn and Paul Vanderhorst (Sharyn being Ron’s deputy at the time). The event developed over the next decade from a muddle of stages more like a travelling 4WD club gymkhana, to a week-long, true hardcore off-road navigational race.
Chippa, a two-time winner of the event, reinvented the Outback Challenge in 2014. Using the traditional format of six days and up to 25 special stages – in terrain varying from the cloying mud of the Darling River overflows around Menindee, to the yellow sand dunes of Denien and the brutal rocks of the Barrier Ranges – he finessed the event further, to make it a true trial of vehicle and a demanding test of the crew’s navigational skills.
A big part of the event was always the self-reliance aspect, where crews were penalised for seeking outside assistance. Crews could help each other, and great effort was put into completing stages and achieving as few DNFs (did not finish) as possible. The camaraderie, the compromise and the improvisation in repairing breakages became legend.
But the event’s participation rate was waning. Maybe the cancellation through wet weather of the 2016 event disheartened many; it wasn’t the wet conditions of the competition areas that saw it cancelled, but the closing of public roads between those areas. Or perhaps it was simply getting too hard for some?
Myriad ideas were thrown around to generate interest. Many diehard, long-time competitors wanted no change, but changes were needed or the event faced extinction. Shortening the OBC to three days and having a central camp with pits where vehicles could be repaired was the chosen format. And for the first time, motorcycles were included in the final, long special stage (dubbed Mad Max because of nearby Silverton’s association with the Mad Max movies). For the bikes, the 200km special stage was promoted as a “hard enduro” with the catchword being “epic”.
The four-wheeled vehicles, which have now developed into much specialised winch-event machines, competed for the traditional trophy of a mounted Barrier Ranges rock, over the three days. Obstacles included crawling and bouncing over boulders, fast sandy creek runs, and punishing dust over seven special stages (plus Mad Max), most involving cross-country, point-to-point navigation, with some random navigation stages.
All special stages were on private property, with the base camp being on Mount Gipps, about 35km from Broken Hill. Other properties used included Wendalpa and Poolamacca. Because of the Silverton Hotel’s support in the past, a meet and greet was held there on the Wednesday preceding the event – a cheerio to the publicans, Pete and Patsy.
4x4 Country Pub: Silverton Hotel
Much of inland Australia is currently in drought and, with the Barrier Ranges receiving little rain at the best of times, the area can be best described as a dustbowl. Major creeks on the properties used are totally dry, and farm, feral and native animals are all suffering – kangaroos rest lethargically in meagre shade.
The several hundred people, spectators’ and support vehicles, combined with the 60-odd bikes and 30-odd competing cars, churned the central camp into something resembling a scene from an old Middle Eastern-based desert movie. But that’s the Outback Challenge: take the conditions as they come and conquer them.
Scrutineering took place on the Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning at ARB Broken Hill, and teams were into it by 14:00 on the Thursday. The first and second special stages seeded the competitors for the following day’s five special stages.
SS1: Rock ’n’ Roadsafe
A short course (relatively speaking) right by the central camp saw the vehicles clambering over rock formations the size of buses, and there was a mandatory winch only 50 metres from the start. Traction was king, and a good third of the field drove a second point where it was thought winching would again be mandatory,
SS2: Dynamic Darkness
At 19:00 the field left the camp for a random GPS point stage; the object being to reach as many points as possible, including compulsory points, within the two-hour DNF time.
Now seeded, competitors faced a day and evening of virtually nonstop racing. Point-to-point navigation was the order, through rocky terrain, with loose climbs on spectacular hills and ultra-fast creek-bed runs. Checkpoints between stages meant time management was paramount.
The Rallysafe system (app.rallysafe.com.au) was used to show in real time where all competitors were on the 156km of the five stages: Racebred Rocks, ARB Safari, WARN White Knuckles, Harrop Highway and Narva Night Moves. The stage names reflected sponsorship, with ARB, WARN and Narva being majors.
At 08:00 on the Saturday the bikes started the 200km special stage, Mad Max. The cars started two hours later; the same course for most part with the plan being that bikes would be well clear before the cars came through. It worked. Eight hours was the time allowed and, while a number of cars crossed the finish line, only four of them made it through the 86 waypoints and home within the allotted time.
The Barrier Ranges, and particularly the property Poolamacca, are known for their rocky terrain. Of particular roughness are the gorges and hills around the abandoned Paragon copper mine. A convoy of spectator vehicles (about 50 4WDs in all) ably led by Christian Whamond and a jovial local known simply as Simmo (a longtime supporter of the OBC) were escorted to points of interest during the Friday Stages, and to the old copper mine for Mad Max. There was action aplenty as the cars scrambled and scraped their way over boulders and winched up impossibly steep gorge walls to reach waypoints.
In the washup there can only be one winner, but to finish the Outback Challenge, and particularly to just have a go at the Mad Max stage (arguably the toughest event in Australian off-roading) is a worthy achievement. So, in that regard, all entrants are winners.
The 2018 event saw driver Dan Moulday and navigator Glenn Thomas, as team Silvertec, victorious. Previous winners Coops and Hummer (driver Neil Cooper and navigator Chris Hummer) rolled into second place, with driver Peter Thorpe and navigator Russell Andrew taking out third. Full results are available on the Outback Challenge Facebook page.
Unsurprisingly Dan’s car is a GQ Patrol, which runs an LS3 with manualised GU four-speed auto. GU diffs with ARB air lockers complete the running gear, and Dan made his own engine/gearbox adapters. Dan and Glenn first raced together this year in the Patrolapart Winch Challenge, but both have wide experience in major comps including a fourth place for Dan in the 2017 Outback Challenge, as a rookie.
Like most motorsport events, the Outback Challenge runs with the help of volunteers. Working tirelessly, the OBC marshal team did a miraculous job, often late into the night recovering broken vehicles from impossible situations.
Thanks to all volunteers and sponsors that made this event happen. With a staff of more than 90, 2018 was epic in every way. The amount of work that takes place behind the scenes is unbelievable, but the volunteers love it; they see spectacular places and are rewarded with being part of something epic. It’s about mates, old and new.
I met so many amazing new people this year who worked their butts off and left with a smile. It’s our goal to make the Outback Challenge a great experience for everybody, and that is how we get more volunteers every year.
The sponsors also make the Outback Challenge what it is and give it a prestigious name. Narva, ARB, Warn, Dynamic Wheel Co., Harrop Engineering, Roadsafe 4WD, Racebred 4WD, Coates Hire, Secondair and Dynamica Rope; you all know most of these companies and know the quality of their products. Please support our event by supporting these companies and make your next purchase with them.
Lets take 2019 to the world! – Steve ‘Chippa’ Tjepkema