There are two aspects frequently glossed over in tales of grand outback adventures, and yet they are constant in the red-hot heart of Australia: flies and heat.
On almost any outback adventure, the air will be abuzz with countless winged bastards drinking the moisture of your skin, hair, mouth and, most annoyingly, eyes while the dry heat bakes your skin and saps your spirit.
But that’s part of the fun. The combination of the two is nature’s way of sorting the human wheat from the chaff; those not hardy enough to cop the discomfort suffer in the conditions and swiftly fade.
The outback and the desert are welcome challenges. Endure them and you enjoy them.
THE OPAL CAPITAL
Coober Pedy is a stunning town; a quirky mishmash of indigenous and migrant culture, sprinkled with the trappings of modern-day life, including fast food, satellite television and brand-new dual-cab utes. All of this is set in – what from above looks like – a barren landscape peppered with potholes. Those potholes are signs of opal exploration, which has at times been the region’s lifeblood.
We landed on the small airstrip at Coober Pedy, threw our gear in 4X4 Australia’s new long-term Mazda BT-50 dual-cab XTR – bush-ready with bullbar and snorkel – and set off.
The search for opals here, about 846km from Adelaide, has been going on for more than a century; the first opal claim was pegged in February 1915. Living conditions above ground are so harsh that many years ago, some people started building their homes below ground, where the temperature is reportedly a constant 21°C – so you really can’t blame them.
We weren’t here to discover precious gemstones; we were here to tackle some of the toughest outback driving in Australia. Our convoy, heading north for Oodnadatta, had only hit about 9km on the trip meter when the bitumen ended and the fun – and gravel – started.
South Australia’s bewitching outback stretched away from us in all directions, beckoning us.
It’s a mixed-up world out here, a captivating blend of gibber plains and sand hills; sometimes a moonscape; sometimes a stark blue sky over rocky outcrops. It hasn’t rained here in six years. Our route led through cattle stations north of Coober Pedy, including the imposing Mt Barry Station, which begins about 100km north of the dusty town.
Suffice to say, this is no country for city-slicker utes. If a vehicle doesn’t have what it takes to help its user survive out here, then it’s found out pretty quickly. Looks don’t count out here; ability and reliability do.
Journeys between towns are adventures unto themselves – through washouts and over corrugations in hard showers of scattered rocks. You could tackle these trips in a two-wheel drive, sure, but a four-wheel drive offers much more in the way of comfort, sure-footedness and dependability.
Our BT-50 had no problems. Most of the major tracks we drove during this bush jaunt were in pretty good nick and the section we did of the 620km-long Oodnadatta Track, stretching between Marree and Marla, was no different. But venture off-road and it takes judicious driving to avoid punctures.
After 230km, we entered Oodnadatta, the “hottest and driest” town in Australia, and pulled in to the legendary Pink Roadhouse – where it’s just $2 per litre of diesel – and tucked in to some burgers.
Later, a police officer borrowed our BT-50 to do some low-speed doughnuts around a dusty claypan. We watched on, sipping water and eating Jelly Babies below the scorching midday sun and a huge stagnant cloud of dust.
The ‘6x4 trail’ the South Australian cop was doing gentle circle-work on was located just outside of Oodnadatta. The bloke was having a ball.
Only minutes earlier, we had seen the police Land Cruiser approaching our position from a kilometre away, gliding across a rich-red, sandy track. We had seen this because we had been stuck – the door-sill was deep in sand, atop a dune. Bogged.
Don’t get me wrong: the BT-50 can go almost anywhere. It took two experienced but easily distracted journos to prevent it conquering this particular obstacle. We’d made a clumsy error: we’d relied on speed to tackle a small but steep-ish dune and had come unstuck at a mound of deep sand just before the dune’s crest.
Corrugations in the sand at the top – caused by drivers, such as us, with over-inflated tyres – had forced us into a terminal bounce, which had then drained all of our momentum. The more we tried to gun out of it, the deeper the wheels dug. We were going nowhere under our own steam.
We deserved the strife; we’d been running our tyres at 30psi, which, by my reckoning, was almost twice as much air as we should have had in them. With temperatures tickling the upper 40s at that stage, our tyres would have been nudging 35psi or more. The Mazda support crew swung into action, dropped our tyre pressures and snatch-strapped us out in no time.
We headed for our overnight accommodation at Arckaringa Station, about 90km south-west of Oodnadatta and 150km north of Coober Pedy, stopping at a lookout to marvel at the majestic wonder of the Painted Desert, an ancient inland sea bed so named because of the brightly coloured orange, yellow and white shale on the hills.
Standing there, soaking up the atmosphere, the Painted Desert looked unreal, like a massive painting perched in front of us, close enough to touch. Photographers and videographers in our party were working overtime, making the most of the stunning backdrop this amazing natural attraction provided (visit www.thepainteddesert.com.au).
After ditching our gear in our tents, we accepted an invitation from Arckaringa’s owner Paul to test out the BT-50s on an improvised 4WD course along twisting, sandy tracks, through dry riverbeds and up and down washed-out and rocky creek banks.
The BT-50s looked the goods and proved their mettle, but Paul still refused to commit when we asked him if he was going to ditch his Toyota for a Mazda.
That night, we slept under billions of stars at Arckaringa. The station covers 2745km² and is rated by the South Australian Pastoral Board to run up to 2100 head of cattle. It has on-site cabins and camping and it’s a bloody top joint.
The next morning, as we drove out of the station in convoy, a wedge-tailed eagle wheeled about in the sky high above us.
On the return trip to Coober Pedy, we pulled off to the side of the track to tackle a bit of rock-crawling. We didn’t want the adventure to end. It was low-range fun on the steep climbs and hill-descent-control heaven on the descents.
There’s a raw delight to driving in the outback. Nothing like it. The scenery is incredible and ever-changing, as is the terrain, and the light is eye-scaldingly bright. During the day, the sky is crisp and clear blue; the night sky is a black blanket, peppered and aflame with bright, twinkling stars.
After more than 500km of outback adventure, every bloke in the BT-50-touring crew had a big-sky smile.
We’ve been out here loads of times, but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, because the landscape and light, the blue-sky brightness and the sun-bleached sand, the people and the places never fail to surprise. Never mind the flies and heat.
Mazda’s updated BT-50 looks tougher and better than its predecessor. The old front end’s upswept ‘eyes’ and bashed-crab look have gone – replaced with a tough, chunky, squared-off presence (the ugly nose had been the only thing anyone could agree on as a flaw in the previous model).
New optional gear includes a great Hema Maps package, which you’d be crazy not to tick off on the order form.
Off-road, this BT-50 went everywhere it bloody wanted to – and it did it in comfort and style. We drove it over heavily corrugated dirt tracks, flirted with gibber plains and took on super-heated sand; all without feeling rattled, jolted or out of sorts; as we would have in some older unladen utes over such terrain.
With four-low and electronic aids selected (rock-solid Hill Descent Control included), this ute virtually drove itself over every off-road challenge we pointed it at. Choose the line, choose the gear and away you go.
The 3.2-litre five cylinder – producing an outback-ready 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm at 1750-2500rpm – is nicely mated to the six-speed auto, producing plenty of real-world power and low grunt when it matters.
It’s no disappointment on gravel or bitumen, offering a car-like ride that’s stable, predictable and comfortable. We also drove along sandy creek beds and up and down deeply rutted washouts without a problem.
We drove it up a rocky hillside as high as we could until the severity of the slope screamed at us to stop – or was it the Mazda crew?