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The legends of the Australasian Safari

23 Mar 2010 News

Legends of the Australasian safari

For 25 years some special characters have thrown themselves full tilt at some of the world's harshest terrains. Meet the legends of the Australasian Safari.

For 25 years some special characters have thrown themselves full tilt at some of the world's harshest terrains. Meet the legends of the Australasian Safari.

Aussie motorsport events become international icons. The Great Race at Mount Panorama, the Moto GP at Phillip Island and the AGP wherever it's held; but the average punter has as much chance of an entry as teeing off against Tiger Woods.

However, since establishing a home in the west, the Australasian Safari is back on every adventurer's bucket list; just as it was 25 years ago when the original Wynn's Safari made every outback enthusiast aware that the adventure of a lifetime lay waiting just over the back fence. We reflect on some of the more memorable moments of this legendary all-Australian adventure.

Mad Dane Excels

Smitten by the Paris to Dakar Rally, madcap Danish adventurer Hans Tholstrup had the grand notion of a trans-Australia marathon, open to all comers no matter what they rolled up in. The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport's development officer, Tom Snooks, loved the concept and, when CAMS chairman John Large gave it the nod, the Auto Cycle Union went along for the ride.

Wynn's Friction Proofing knew a good publicity stunt when they saw it and, immediately the Safari was announced, over 1500 expressions of interest flooded in from around the world. It was to be a free-for-all, without the prerequisite of any safety equipment. Never again would attracting a keen sponsor and huge numbers of competitors be so easy; nor plotting a 7000km route across the continent prove so difficult.

Ultimate Sportsman

Heading the eclectic mix of crews that actually made the start of the inaugural event were Mitsubishi Ralliart's Andrew Cowan and Dakar champion Gaston Rahier on his BMW R100GS. To demonstrate how serious it was, BMW had Euro champ Eddie Hau as first back-up plus two Pajeros packed with spares and factory mechanics. These back-up vehicles were piloted by no less accomplished drivers than Australian rally champ George Fury and world GP champion Denis Hulme. Serious stuff.

Come the final day, Honda privateer Steve Chapman held a slight lead over Rahier, but without a headlight couldn't ride to the dawn start. "Follow me and let's go racing," Rahier declared. The BMW executives suffered apoplectic fits and turned totally catatonic when Chapman led Rahier into Darwin. Journalist Peter Mackay recalls: "The pitch-black start produced one of the marvellous tales of sportsmanship to emerge from the craziness." A sportsmanship that has continued in the Safari ever since.

Racing for Survival

Appointed road director in 1986, with the brief to ensure the Safari was tough but humane, Stuart McLeod's concept of a reliability trial was to configure a course where only one team would finish, thus ensuring a clear-cut winner. This is possibly why crews remember Stuart treating them as enemies rather than competitors.

Senior officials were at loggerheads over McLeod's approach, particularly the section in the rugged Waggaboonya Mountains, north of the Isa, where Hans Tholstrup was adamant someone would be killed. After checking with his survey crews, Tom Snooks decided the Gunpowder section was to stay in. Tholstrup, the creator and major shareholder, told Tom where to stick it. Were it not for competitor relations officer Bob Carpenter stepping, in the Safari itself may have been killed off there and then.