I was looking forward more than normal to our annual testing of 4X4OTY contenders; not only because we were heading back to the Melbourne 4x4 Training and Proving Ground but also due to the fact we were heading north to get some red dust beneath our tyres and fingernails.
The proving ground, north-west of Werribee and tucked into the steep-sided valley of the Werribee River, seems to be an anomaly so close to Melbourne and in a landscape of flat grassland. Once you drop down the side of the gorge to the proving ground itself, you quickly understand why it is such a popular and respected spot for testing all sorts of 4x4 vehicles, from SUVs to modified off-roaders to heavy 4x4 and 6x6 trucks.
The range of tracks, varying climbs, woopty doos and creek crossings is fantastic. Of course, we couldn’t stay away from the many water crossings the 4x4 park has to offer. We took all the contenders for a bit of a paddle, justifying to ourselves that such action was for the camera and video crew’s benefit.
This year we only had a day at Werribee, limited to set pieces including the tough hill climbs where a vehicle’s articulation, wheel travel, electronic traction control (ETC) and diff-lock activation are tested to the limit.
By tackling such obstacles with the same line and same speed, the surprises you get in regards to a vehicle’s off-road capability is incredible… and so it was with the six contenders for this year’s 4X4OTY.
The following day saw us on the highway heading north, swapping vehicles every hour or so as we cruised through central Victoria into the outback of south-western NSW. Such long hauls, which saw us cruising at the 110km/h limit for most of the way, soon highlighted deficiencies in vehicle comfort levels, ride and handling, NVH and cruising ability. Not that you can complain too much about those things in today’s modern 4x4s, but there are differences, and the two Discoverys revelled in it.
It was late afternoon when we pulled into Broken Hill for fuel. Not surprisingly, the slab-sided, box-on-wheels Merc G-Wagen had sucked down the most fuel on our highway run. From Broken Hill we drove on a second-class bitumen road, with lots of dips into and out of creek crossings, heading toward Eldee Station, our base for the next three days. This drive has the potential to be hazardous, owing to wayward ’roos, wandering feral goats and the occasional lazy horse or dusty camel that often graze beside the road or wander across it.
We didn’t even stop at Silverton’s iconic hotel as we pushed onto the dirt for the short 20km or so to Eldee Station and a warm welcome from hosts Naomi and Stephen Schmidt.
Eldee Station is a working sheep and cattle property covering some 150km² of varied semi-arid country. About a third of the property is taken up by the rugged Barrier Ranges, where steep and rocky gorges are carved by creeks that flood and roar after heavy rain. The rest of the property straddles the near flat Mundi Mundi Plains that are cut by the channels of the Mundi Mundi and Eldee creeks.
The tracks are as varied as the country, and while the routes across the Mundi Mundi Plains are generally easy, they are dusty and, where they cross a creek, can be rough. Recent rains had seen creeks flow, and each channel was a sheer-edged drop. If you hit one unprepared you were far more observant from then on!
Climbing into the ranges, the tracks edge along ridges or drop down flanks of rocky hills to cross a sandy creek before, again, ascending a boulder-strewn slope. Often the tracks took an easier route along sandy creeks until enclosed by slab-sided rock walls and becoming too narrow. Here, the track often led up craggy hills in a set of challenging stony steps that tested everything from suspension travel and damping to driver visibility and passenger comfort.
While there are five designated routes totalling around 120km, we spent the most time in the hills surrounded by red rock country, admiring the views from our eyrie-like vantage points.
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Shallow patches of water from when the creeks had run a few days earlier added to the fun. It also added a touch of coolness for the first two days, during which temperatures nudged 40 degrees. Then the rain came, and with it a spectacular sound and light show. The hungry soil soaked up most of the water and the creeks flowed for a short time.
We swapped regularly between the six vehicles (and the Tough Dog Ford Ranger), enjoying the varied tracks and their changing conditions. There’s nothing like going immediately from one vehicle to another to highlight different aspects of a vehicle’s performance and capability.
Sunsets were taken atop one of the many hills overlooking the plains and were a fabulous way to end each day. With Eldee Station open to the public, its tracks and sunsets are something you should try. All the judges highly recommend it.