This story was first published in the January 2020 issue of Wheels magazine. It was written, photographed, and filmed before Lithgow and the surrounding areas were impacted heavily during the devastating bushfire season. If you would like to help the affected areas you can donate to one of the fund or charities here.
TWO LEGENDS CONVERGE
Is it a thin line that separates the blindly optimistic from the moronically gullible? I’d like to think I lean towards the former, but on deeper reflection, I’m not so sure. For example, I did cling onto the Santa Claus myth a little longer than most kids. Eventually it was my Year 8 science teacher, Mr McGuire, who sat me down and said, “Look, Ash, there’s just no evidence of a fat guy in a red suit jetting around the world dropping off presents.”
The point is, I wanted to believe. Fast-forward several decades, and here I am again, perhaps naively optimistic that the multiple sightings of panthers on the fringes of dense bushland about 150km west of Sydney are based in fact.
Of course I want to believe. The ‘Lithgow Panther’ just has such a captivating hook to it, and at least some of those who claim to have seen this animal in the Blue Mountains region are not limited to dribbling lunatics who breakfast on VB longnecks.
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Even TV personality Grant Denyer, who lives on a property near Bathurst, reckons he’s seen it a couple of times. Denyer phoned a talkback radio show to detail his sighting: “I saw with my own eyes, and I grabbed the binoculars to confirm – a black panther. It’s 10 times the size of a domestic cat; it’s unmistakable,” he told 2GB’s Ben Fordham.
I could go on building the ‘for’ case. Back in 2003, a State Government inquiry found it was “more likely than not” a colony of big cats is roaming Sydney’s outskirts and beyond. The government! The government knows everything, so this thing is definitely out there.
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So we figured if we were going panther stalking, we needed a vehicle that could take us deep into the hostile terrain where a big cat might lurk. And properly off-road-capable 4x4s don’t get much more hardcore than the fourth-generation Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
It’s the Rubicon bit that calls it out as the most unstoppable off-road variant in the range, named as it is after the absurdly rocky and borderline impassable Rubicon Trail near Lake Tahoe in California.
As myself, photographer Nathan and video bloke Sean head west out of Sydney, I take a mental inventory of the oily bits that define the Rubicon model. There’s an uprated all-wheel-drive system, tougher axles, locking front and rear diffs, as well as a button on the dash for electronically disconnecting the front anti-roll bar, which allows extra axle articulation in extreme terrain.
I’m quite taken with the dash treatment, with its red anodised panels, rubberised control knobs, and Allen-heads fastening the various fascias. It looks superbly fit for purpose, and the overall design exudes a confidence that this thing knows exactly what it sets out to be. Both the selector for the drivetrain modes and the transmission selector are fat, masculine things, and just the act of shifting them makes me feel kind of manly and capable, like I could grow a really legit beard, or wrestle a steer.
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The driving position is fine, but what does detract from serene cruising is the noise from the BF Goodrich off-road tyres. Their ultra-chunky tread pattern and bulletproof sidewalls will no doubt prove essential when we start delving deep in the dark heart of the Blue Mountains, but on the freeway, they sing a loud and insistently tuneless song.
The 2.2-litre turbo-diesel feels a bit old school, both for NVH and its lowish rev ceiling, while outputs of 147kW/450Nm are adequate, rather than exceptional. It does have a range and economy advantage over the alternative 3.6-litre petrol V6, but comes at a hefty $5000 premium for those benefits.
Still, the eight-speed auto does a decent job of extracting the best from the oiler’s relatively narrow rev range, and there’s ample passing poke for overtaking the lumbering trucks as we head further west along the Bells Line of Road. But the raw facts are that if you’re going to buy the most off-road-capable vehicle that can be driven out of a showroom, be tolerant of on-road compromises. Taken in context (and tyres notwithstanding) the Rubicon’s road manners are not woefully inferior to plenty of 4x4 utes that top the sales charts, yet it has the off-road prowess to slaughter all of them on properly hostile tracks.
We roll into Lithgow without seeing a single cat – domestic, feral or exotic predatory – so let’s call it a slow start. I figure a chat with some locals could be useful, but it’s too early for the pub (apparently there is such a thing), so we drop into the visitor information centre. Behind the counter, tourism adviser Vicki Curry, who’s lived in the area for 18 years, lights up like a pinball machine when we explain the reason for our visit. “Oh, that’s so wonderful!” she beams. “My mother lives not far out of town, and she found the carcass of a goat stuck up high in the branch of a tree near the edge of her property. That’s apparently what panthers do; they drag their kill up a tree to avoid other animals trying to scavenge...”
She explains it with a buoyancy which suggests it wasn’t her goat that ended up with its throat torn out and left rotting in a tree, but I like her enthusiasm. She suggests the whole panther thing is a bit of a divisive subject in the town, splitting the believers and sceptics pretty much clean in two. Farmers, who, like Vicki’s mum, have found their livestock with otherwise inexplicable claw slash marks in the animals’ hides, and mainly the soft, tasty organs eaten, tend to be among the believers.
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THE SEARCH BEGINS
It’s slightly startling just how abruptly Lithgow’s suburbia ends and wilderness begins. A well-groomed dirt road leads to Dobbs Drift Lookout, which promises to be an ideal elevated position in the upper reaches of the mountains, and a chance to use my zero-magnification binoculars purchased from the $2 shop. To get to the prime viewing position, there’s a properly forbidding series of steep, sharp, rock ‘steps’, which provide an opportunity to select the Rubicon’s low range and allow it to do what it’s built for.
I resist the temptation to disengage the front anti-roll bar and lock the diffs, even though I know these actions would only accentuate the masculine tang that hangs in the air. Instead I want to push the Jeep to ascending failure before I employ systems assistance, just to get a read on its capability.
The low-range gearing is perfectly judged for cautious inching up tricky sections, and the throttle tip-in is millimetre precise, allowing you to extract exactly what’s required from the engine. Fact is, the two core barriers to 4x4 vehicles progressing on tough terrain are ground clearance and traction, and the Rubicon is untroubled by either of these two metrics as we crawl slowly, resolutely to the crown of the trail.
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The view is a vast expanse of just a portion of the 11,400 square kilometres that makes up the greater Blue Mountains region, with massive sandstone monoliths standing sentinel to the tranquil bush. The enormity of the area available to even a handful of big cats was not lost on me from the beginning of this trip, but gazing out at this wide-screen landscape, the signature faint blue haze cloaking the horizon line, really hammers it home.
But the possibility still gnaws away at me; that nagging, flip-flopping mindset; almost simultaneously cynical yet willing it to be true. David Waldron, a university lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University (and also an author on big-cat folklore) tells me over the phone of another theory. “There was widespread exotic animal trade in the 19th century; that’s easily proven. You can see it in the classified ads of the day,” Waldron says. “Then there were Australian servicemen returning from Asia and North Africa with all sorts of exotic animals; government records indicate one ship had 1650 animals on board, including bear cubs…”
Bears! I add that to the growing list of creatures out here that could maul me to death. It’s all a bit unnerving, so my attention swings back to the bluff, white, unashamedly American 4x4 perched proudly at the trailhead. While I’m no fawning fanboy, I realise I’m developing a fairly deep appreciation for how the Wrangler nails its design brief. Its on-road-to-off-road transition kind of reminds me of a UFC fighter who’s slightly awkward and a little inarticulate in the pre-fight interviews, but an absolute demolition machine once in the ring.
A HYPOTHESIS IS FORMED
As the sun starts sinking behind the vast escarpment that flanks our camp site, we set up the tent and prepare for what must surely be panther-spotting prime time.
I see Sean wandering around with the video camera rolling, which I immediately take as a positive sign, as I understand he’s here to document any sightings. Has he seen a movement in the bush? Heard a noise?
Slowly, he turns the panning camera on me, and hands me a pink stick with a small bell and ribbon on the end. It’s a cat toy from a discount store. “Ash, just take this and start wandering around the bush, and make cat-calling sounds, okay?” he asks.
I feel a rising tide of dread in my stomach. Turns out Sean is not here purely to capture any panther sightings. He’s on a mission to create some hellish ‘visual narrative’, and appears to have cast me as a cross between bumbling bushman Russell Coight and David Attenborough’s halfwit son. What little was left of my dignity starts dissolving into the loamy soil beneath my feet. Still, I feel I’ve let the team down a bit when not a single crazed panther leaps from the undergrowth to tear me apart while Sean films.
After a camp-fire steak and a couple of beers, Sean suggests I open a can of Whiskas, dump it into a dish, and place it near the entrance to my tent. I’m okay with this, as it seems preferable to being asked to wear a salami necklace to bed, which is likely his next idea.
There’s barely a sound from the surrounding wilderness, so sleep should come easily. Instead I drift into a pre-slumber twilight zone. Clearly prompted by a hypothesis I’ve just read in the book Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers, a vivid montage unfolds in my mind. I see a WWII US soldier on Australian assignment reclining on a swag under a tree, a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips. Behind him, chained to another tree, two juvenile panthers lie quietly in the shade, clearly now too large to fit in the timber crates they once occupied as ‘mascot’ cubs for this military division. A senior officer approaches, and issues a curt directive: “It’s time to roll out. You know what you have to do with that pair…” The soldier glances at his rifle, but is unable to follow the order. Instead he waits until the senior brass is preoccupied, and an offsider secures one of the cats as the soldier unfastens the chain shackled to its neck. The first panther slinks off into the undergrowth…
Now, if only I’d imagined them driving off in a Jeep, that would have been really profound.
2020 JEEP WRANGLER RUBICON PRICE AND SPECS
Model: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Engine: 2143cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo-diesel
Max power: 147kW @ 3500rpm
Max torque: 450Nm @ 2000rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 9.6sec (claimed)
On sale: Now