WHAT is it with royalty? They take their pants off to sit on the throne, same as the rest of us, and yet some people treat them as if their excrement doesn’t stink.
Australia is not a republic, yet, but as a deeply egalitarian bunch, Aussies don’t buy into the high farce of being high-born, which explains why our locally bred royal family are such down-to-earth types, with firm, land-working handshakes.
They’re not exactly publicity-seeking, toe-sucking, in-fighting, pseudo-celebrity royals, either – they’re not even on Facebook – which is why you may not have even heard of the Principality of Hutt River, population “23-ish”, which sits on a piece of land the size of Hong Kong in a remote corner of Western Australia that you possibly didn’t notice has been hived off the rest of your country since 1970.
You’ll also, no doubt, be quite surprised to hear that Prince Leonard, the 91-year-old head of state for this far-out principality, has long travelled the world, including an official visit to The Vatican, on a Hutt River Passport (the Vatican was “alright, I guess, just something to do”). And all of his subjects have the right to do the same – not just his extended family of 57, but the 13,000 people worldwide who have applied and been approved.
People tend to assume the whole thing is an elaborate scheme to fleece tourists, or avoid tax, but the truth is more a tale of one man’s irascible reaction to a clash with bureaucracy.
When a fight over wheat quotas on his land spiralled to the point where the government wanted to reclaim his farm, the once plain old Len Casley – a self-taught student of the law who wields it like a mace – found a way to put it beyond their reach. He declared it an independent sovereign state and effectively removed it from Australia.
“I’ve been fighting a series of skirmishes with the government ever since. The pressure is there and it never goes away, but I can take the pressure because I’ve got the Commonwealth under pressure, see,” Prince Leonard tells me, grinning conspiratorially.
The Principality resembles the billionaires’ playground of Monaco, in structural and legal terms if not physically. It has its own coat of arms, an annual honours list, a national anthem (sung by the late Jon English), its own money and stamps, and a post office to send them from; despite sitting on familiar dusty red ground, a sign offers a price list for “postage to Australia”.
What it most vitally doesn’t have, aside from official recognition of its existence from the recalcitrant Australian government, is an official vehicle, which is where Wheels comes in.
Prince Leonard did previously deign to visit our country occasionally in a 1970 Rolls-Royce – “a gift from one of my subjects” – with his royal regalia slapped on its sides in the form of giant, bespoke fridge magnets. But the Roller was sold a couple of years back, with the proceeds poured into a rather unique Sacred Educational Shrine to his dearly departed wife, Princess Shirley, so we thought he might be in the market for a shiny new conveyance. Something regal yet rugged enough for his environment. Enter the Sultan of Sand; Bentley’s new Bentayga.
BENTLEY has a relationship with our other monarch, of course, Queen Elizabeth II, who recently sent Prince Leonard a letter – which he had framed and declares as one of his most prized possessions – congratulating him on the 46th anniversary of his country’s secession from her sovereign colonial outpost. Honestly, we’re not making this up.
It makes perfect sense, then, to collect a car in Perth – where moneyed-up mining types have already snapped up a few of the enticingly priced First Edition Bentayga W12s at $678,831 (plus options, which could easily bump it to $1m) – and drive it some 595km north to the Principality to see if it’s an off-roader worthy of an Australian royal blessing.
We had hoped the Bentley would be an English green, or a royal-blood blue, but sadly our Bentayga was of deepest black, a non-colour that made it look like a cross between a giant London cab and a dead fish. There’s just something about the huge, disc-like headlights that give it that glassy-eyed look you see on a permanently stunned mullet, which only accentuates the fact that the whole front end is vast, bluff and bland.
From side-on, things aren’t a lot better, with touches of Lexus and doors so big they wouldn’t look out of place on Windsor Castle, and the rear is equally massive and brutish.
Designing a Bentley this big and tall must have been a challenge unlike anything the great British/German company had ever attempted. Sadly, though, any sense of the grace and elegance they typically instill in their continent-crushing cars is missing here.
Fortunately, when you’re inside the Bentayga you don’t have to see the exterior, and you can luxuriate in a cabin fit for a prince. Everything you touch, from the key to the shift paddles and the door trims, feels rich and rock-solid, and all that leather and wood gives off the sort of luxury scent you get when you accidentally find yourself in a high-end jewellery store.
The thrones are so plush that a journalist who could never afford a car like this would seriously consider stealing them for use in his living room. Sitting in the back, as many owners will, is an experience not far off private-jet travel, with two individual couches offering all the comforts and personalisation of the front two.
A massage function that lurks within the seat backs, like a tiny robotic Asian woman, is nothing short of delectable, with varied settings, all of which will have you making the kind of noises your passenger will find alarming (yours as part of a plush 18-way adjustable seating package that costs a mere $21,657).
From the driver’s seat, you stare down upon the plebs and yet the sound-proofing is so thick and opulent that you can’t hear them living their pathetic little lives in their piddling, noisy little cars.
This is the kind of experience one expects from a car that offers a not-very-base driveaway price of $461,784.
AS FAR as actually driving the Bentayga goes, it’s the sort of experience you might expect to find on the options list. While sitting in the back will be hugely popular in the Arab Emirates and China, where this PUV (Posh Utility Vehicle) will do a lot of its business, even the chauffeurs don’t have to engage much with the dirty business of actually piloting the thing.
The effusive Bentley bloke who introduced us to the car insisted that we use the Active Lane Assist, which allows you to merely rest your hands on the wheel and pretend you’re driving, at speeds over 60km/h (or to take them off altogether for up to 10 seconds, purely to impress your friends). Mate that with radar cruise control and a stroll along the unchallenging highway that rolls up the coast from Perth is a doddle.
Personally, though, these auto-steering systems still feel slightly snatchy, with a tendency to nibble at corners rather than flow through them.
Similarly, the infra-red night-vision system seems a great idea, particularly in a stretch of country where multitudes of kangaroos and emus are joined by road-hogging wild pigs, but in practice our screen was shaky at speed and you only tend to look at it for confirmation once you’ve already spotted a bouncing hazard.
Choose to drive yourself the old-fashioned way and the experience is best described as effortless, with so little driver input required that the big bus feels more like a vast flying Persian rug.
There is fun to be had, of course, as you’d expect from a car with a 6.0-litre, twin-turbocharged W12 boasting 447kW, an earth-shaking 900Nm of torque and a top speed above 300km/h.
Put your foot down and the nose rears amusingly, then there’s a tiny pause while the laws of gravity look at you askance and wonder what you think you’re up to, and then you’re off in a thunderous, thumping rush. You can – and will, repeatedly – do zero to 100km/h in 4.1sec, because it’s hilarious.
Attempt this kind of thing on dirt, as we did after we crossed the border into the Principality, where all the roads are reddest gravel and, effectively, speed-limit free, and the results are almost comedic as the car’s computers attempt to get all that power to the slippery ground. Picture a cheetah trying to run on ice.
Hutt River has had a police force in the past, and an army and a navy (“they were mainly ceremonial”, Prince Leonard tells me, largely unnecessarily considering the Principality is landlocked), but they’re not much in evidence now. It also has a consulate, in Las Vegas, where a fleet of tanks are kept for its protection, but that’s another crazy story.
We find Prince Leonard in the midst of a typical work day, regaling open-mouthed tourists with the various stories of his life. Slightly too old to travel these days, he puts in 364 days a year entertaining visitors, and often works half of Christmas Day as well. Clearly one of the gifts of being royal is boundless energy and long life.
Getting your passport stamped with a Hutt River visa (yours for just $4) and taking a selfie with Leonard, in his monogrammed, crisp white shirt, keeps the tourists happy, but he also has some well-worn gags that he weaves into his Princely patter. “That’s a picture of me in the air force back in World War II, when I was much younger, in case you’re wondering why I look different.” He’s a bit like an older, more regal Daryl Somers.
We drag Len – as his sons call him, although some of the staff prefer “Sire” – away from his people to go for a drive in the Bentley and he’s hugely impressed, particularly with the heated seats, declaring the car worthy of royalty. He even takes it for a drive, and struggles a bit to see over the dash. Sadly, it’s no sale, however, because his Royal Fridge Magnets won’t adhere to the aluminium panels.
He takes us to a Hutt River crossing so we can put the Bentayga’s off-road credentials to the test and, while it doesn’t give up and die by any means, there’s a lot of unseemly whirring and clunking from somewhere far beneath us as the faux-wheel-drive systems desperately try to cope with actual mud and rocks.
We have a hard time working out which one of the off-road settings to use because they’re all depicted with silly pictures that suggest they’re only for things like Driving Next to Cactuses, or Catching a Snowflake On Your Tongue.
Frankly, treating the Bentley like this and getting it all filthy feels inappropriate, like asking Prince Edward to marry a woman. It would be far more at home driving to some Swiss ski resort.
AS WE gaze out across his unique corner of our divided nation, Prince Leonard tells me he’s in the process of negotiating a treaty with the Australian government, and points out a flat stretch of ground where he’s planning to build an international airport.
“Over the years I’ve had a series of skirmishes with lots of prime ministers – Malcolm Fraser particularly hated me – but I’ve outlasted them all, and recently we’ve been discussing a treaty,” he explains.
“If it happens, we’d basically have a Hong Kong within Australia, and I’d allow development because I’ve had people wanting to build big resorts here for years, and we could have an airport, direct flights from Jakarta, no problem. This area is the same size as Hong Kong, but we don’t want the same number of people.”
I ask one of his sons, Richard, if he thinks his dad has delusions of grandeur and whether the robes, the titles, the whole royal rumble, are really necessary.
“We became a principality rather than a province because it offered more legal protection,” Prince Richard explains. “That’s what it’s always been about. It’s not about tax because the ATO treats us as non-residents for tax purposes, so we still pay, but we don’t get Medicare or any kinds of subsidies or benefits; we’d be better off, financially, not having left.
“But Dad has always fought them, and we’ve backed him, and once you’re a principality you have to have your own currency, your own stamps (or you can’t mail things), and your own passports. You’re not independent if you’re using other people’s stuff.”
As for the money Hutt River makes off tourism, Richard says it’s been both minimal – “Dad won’t let us put the prices up, that’s not what he’s about, you can camp here for $5 a night and he’s selling cans of drink for $2” – and accidental.
“Tourism was never the plan; the plan was to save the farm, that’s it,” he says. “No bullshit, we were farmers. Secession arguments started and next thing there’s a coach pulling up … all we’ve got here is a farmhouse and a shearing shed, but they’d heard about Hutt River so the coaches started coming through and we were like: ‘Bloody hell, what are we going to do with all these people? I hope they don’t want morning tea!’”
At its peak, back in the days when people used to love coach tours, the Principality hosted 60,000 visitors a year, but it’s roughly a quarter of that now.
For his part, Prince Leonard is happy to see them all, and to explain to them his belief that you should never let authority grind you down. So does he feel satisfied with what he’s achieved, turning himself and his family into royalty, mainly through an effort of will?
“I don’t really have time to sit back and think about it like that because there’s always the next battle to be fought, but I feel good,” Len says. “I feel confident that we’ve never given up the fight, and I think we’ve succeeded because we’re still here.”
War with Australia
YOU might have missed this fact in your school history lessons, but Prince Leonard declared war on Australia, on December 2, 1977, mainly because he’d had a gutful of then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, which is understandable.
“He’d instructed his taxation department to go after us. We had three court cases in a row; they went to war with us, and I said let’s make it a real war then – that set them back a bit,” he chuckles.
“I heard later the politicians in Canberra were laughing their heads off; ‘That Prince has really flipped his lid now’.
“The thing is, it brought in the laws of war, and I was able to give notification to Malcolm Fraser and the Governor-General, and the Swiss Federal Council, that we did accept and apply the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which meant that our Principality had to be recognised.
“The war never really officially ended,” he adds. “I declared it finished, but they haven’t so the conflict continues...”
More fuel you
YOU might think the Bentayga would make the perfect vehicle for a cross-continental jaunt, but it’s actually so thirsty – and for Premium Unleaded – that you’d be lucky to make it across the Principality and back.
Despite being fitted with an 85-litre tank, which had us in tears at every overpriced West Australian roadhouse we visited, we struggled to get even 500km between refills.
Bentley claims an urban thirst of 19.0L/100km and a combined figure 13.1L/100km, but we saw closer to 16, despite most of our journey consisting of 110km/h cruising on long, straight highways.
Money no option
CONSIDERING you could have a top-spec Porsche Cayenne Turbo for $230,800, or less than half the price of the bonkers Bentayga, you get a sense that the pricing is set at a level designed to give owners something to brag about.
When you consider the options they’re gouging people with, though, it looks more like a case of fools and their money being soon parted. Sir can spend almost $3000 on floor mats alone – plush, lambswool mats that you feel bad getting mud on, which makes no sense for an SUV – or $14,767 for a rear-seat entertainment system, with Google Maps, in case you don’t trust your driver’s ability to read.
The list goes on and on, up to the Linley Hamper by Mulliner, for $57,807, which must be one hell of a picnic basket.
All these options pale into pocket change, though, next to the $300,000 Breitling clock, which on its own costs more than a Cayenne. Sadly, our car wasn’t fitted with one, so we can’t tell you what special things it does with time.