There’s a particular kind of quiet you can only not hear in the Outback. An absence of objects for sound to bounce off creates a deathly dearth of noise that’s close to eerie.
But at this time of year, between Alice Springs and the nowhere land of Finke, you can only feel it if you crawl out of your swag at 4am under a sky over populated with stars, your own foggy breath like a bellows.
For the rest of the June long weekend the air is constantly rent and ravaged by the ragged roaring of engines, revved to the max. The deep, angry bellowing of big V8s, jammed into the bonnets of strange off-road monsters that look like pond-skimming insects from above and monstrous beasts at ground level. The angry metallic bee sounds of Polaris and CanAm buggies, the machine-gun-like rattle and bang of highly stressed dirt bikes. And the very occasional quiet clunk and rattle of a single, showroom-spec Mazda BT-50 covered in Wheels stickers.
At night, those noises become intermittent, to be replaced by the fizz and crack of amateur fireworks displays, the cheering and hooting of the tens of thousands of spectators and support crews that line all 226km of the Finke track and congregate around the usually quiet Aboriginal settlement at its far end, which turns into something resembling an Orc settlement from Lord of the Rings on the Sunday night.
There are big beards, bloody faces, bandages, broken bones, grunting blokes and fires burning everywhere. You can see why off-road types love the atmosphere; it’s like a B&S Ball without the silly suits.
By the end of the first day the track is already littered with torn rubber; broken fiberglass; pieces of suspension and abandoned vehicles – some of them burnt to a crisp.
The Finke track doesn’t just damage vehicles, it eats them alive. Some years, more than two thirds of the trucks and buggies don’t reach the finish line. The 2016 event was slightly kinder, with 64 of the 127 four-wheeled entries making it back to Alice on Monday, and 329 of the 410 bikes surviving the trip.
It’s no wonder that, at the rowdy presentation night that evening, every single person who makes it “There and Back” gets a railway spike trophy to mark their achievement.
The most common question you hear these weary, but elated, competitors asking each other is “what did you break?” Judging by the number of limping wounded, and arms in slings, they’re not just talking about their machines, very few of which make it home unharmed.
Even those who are hurt, though, seem overjoyed to have been involved. There seems to be a certain magic around the Finke, a shared bond of suffering that brings people together, the kind that soldiers find in trenches.
And the stories they take home with them last forever. Finke is full of them, many of them beggaring belief.
On the Sunday night, after the first stage, we saw Nic Godde, 22, wheeling his dirt bike into camp with no rubber on the rear wheel and no smile on his face, as his mother mildly chided him for scaring her witless.
It turned out his back tyre had let go just 80km into the ride, so he stopped at a helpful camp, cut the remnants away and rode the next 140-odd kilometres on the rim. Yes, seriously.
“I knew I had to get here because my Mum was waiting and there’s no phone service and she’d be freaking out, but it was tough, every single rock you hit goes right through you,” Godde tells us, his exhausted face caked in a mud pack of sweat and dust.
It was his fifth Finke, and he’d qualified well in the Prologue the day before, so his Mum knew something was wrong, and said the 45 minutes past the point at which they’d expected him were pretty much the worst of her life. Her family knows how badly things can end.
“I was only doing 60km/h, I couldn’t go any quicker, you can’t go fast in the whoops , (giant, evil sand dunes) with no tyre because it bogs down, but I didn’t crash, so I was pretty happy with that,” Godde continues.
“We lost our mate, Dave, in 2008 - he was my Dad’s age, 37 - in the Finke, so we sort of come back for him every year, as a tribute.
“We try to come back as much as we can because we feel he’s here in the desert; that his spirit is here. We visit his memorial, at the 116km mark, there’s a memorial up on a tree there, so we come back to see him, and do the desert. We’ve got a lot of friends here now.”
Godde, from Albury, had already ruined three wheels and a gearbox, and had just one, slightly bent rim to use for the trip back the next day, but nothing was going to stop him trying.
After taking 3 hours and 33 minutes to get to Finke, he nailed the return run in 2 hours, 41 minutes to finish 123rd out of 329 who made it.
That night, at the presentation, there was an emotional speech about their mate, David Schmidt, an accomplished trail rider who’d done it all, but just wanted to do one Finke before he retired, and never came home. A special award is given each year in his name to the best performing rookie in his age category in the Prologue.
There seemed to be a lot of dust in people’s eyes, making them water, as that trophy was handed out.
Unbelievable performances, like Godde’s rim-riding, seem to be par for the Finke course, but none has ever been as stunning as Aussie Dakar champ Toby Price’s Iron Man effort this year.
It was taken as given that he would win the King of the Desert title for bikes in 2016, for a record-equalling fifth time, but the boy - he’s only 28, but looks even younger - loves a challenge, and decided to enter a Trophy Truck as well.
That meant getting his off-road truck racing licence, rolling the truck at least thrice in practice on the Friday, qualifying it - he came off twice in the Prologue but still managed 18th overall - and then heading off with the other four-wheelers early on Sunday morning. Not content with that, as soon as he crossed the line at Finke, Price jumped into a plane to fly back to the start line in time to leap on his bike and do it all again.
Not only did he complete this “Iron Man” challenge, a feat only even attempted once before, he smashed it, overtaking 13 cars on the first day - partly by “love tapping” them out of his way, somewhat illegally - and three more the next to finish a simply staggering second overall. Then he backed up to destroy the entire bike field, finishing a whopping six minutes faster on two wheels than he did when winning it last year.
Price, possibly the most affably Australian bloke you’d ever want to meet, then spent five hours signing every autograph he was asked for, before almost sheepishly sloping up to the stage on Monday night several times to collect his various trophies and winner’s cheques.
He described his initial truck crash as “a decent one” and said he lost track of how many times he rolled it, but he came out unhurt, and smiling like the wild man he is.
“If I could feel like that after falling my bike it would be amazing, so I was pretty pumped to get out of it and feel all right. After that I realised how safe I was in the thing, that I wasn’t going to get hurt, and I thought I might as well have a real crack,” he explained, summing up his astonishing attack on his more accomplished truck rivals.
“I’m sorry to the car guys, I did nudge a few, I thought I was going to get in a lot of trouble, but my co-driver, Kyle, kept telling me to stay up it.
“When we started catching people it was a bit blind in the dust, we definitely couldn’t see where we were going, so I was guessing a bit, but we guessed right. Sorry Kyle, I didn’t tell you at the time, but I was guessing a little bit, but we got it right, so it’s okay.”
A few minutes earlier the assembled crowd had gasp-laughed repeatedly as footage of Price bumping his way past other trucks at 140km/h plus, and occasionally running off the track completely before pouring back onto it, was shown on the big screens.
Price explained that he was in too much of a hurry to fly back to Finke on the last day to realise how well he’d done, and he celebrated his second place alone, mid-air.
Surely, by this stage, after three trips along a track that batters some people’s bodies to the point where they urinate blood afterwards, he was getting tired?
“The body was feeling really good, the truck was fairly easy to drive, but lack of sleep, yeah, I was definitely tired, and I’d taken on a lot of dirt, I’ve got quite a bit of red dust in the lungs, that’s why the voice is a bit husky now, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of red dirt in your body, it draws you back again I reckon,” he chuntered.
While the second and third place getters in the bike field loudly begged him not to come back next year, Price said he was hoping to do so, although the decision, in the end, will be up to his bosses at Team Red Bull in Austria, who know they’ve got one of the hottest properties in global motorsport on their hands. It truly seems there’s nothing the bloke can’t do.
“Oh well ,we’ve done the double, but we didn’t get the double win, so maybe we can try and do that,” Price said, before becoming genuinely apologetic to his four-wheeled foes.
“Now sorry, I’m not saying to the guys that we’re going to beat them in the cars, but maybe we’ll have a go at it.”
Sitting at the Wheels/Mazda table, our own local hero, Toby Hagon, could only shake his head and giggle in awe at what Price had achieved, and what he might do next.
His efforts might not win as many accolades, but what Hagon achieved - finishing one of the world’s most brutal, car-crushing off-road races, within the allotted time, in a virtually stock Mazda ute, and placing second in his Production class - is certainly worthy of joining the vast panoply of fabulous Finke stories.
Earlier in the evening, he and co-driver Bernie Webb had taken their place on that same stage and held their trophies aloft. In relative terms, what they’d done was almost as spectacular as what Price did this year. Although far fewer people thought their ambitious attempt would succeed.
Today, all is quiet again on the deep red rutted dust of the Finke track, aside from the odd buzz of a fly feasting on the detritus of departed campers.
Other than the odd local having a mid-year practice, getting ready for their next Finke Desert Rally experience, the track will go back to sleeping in the sun, waiting for its next victims to ride eagerly, and willingly, into its jaws.
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