One 2015 Mitsubishi Triton, a bunch of girls and the Birdsville Races
#bachelorau wasn’t trending in QLD last week, it was all about #birdstobirdsville as 11 girls went on an 1900km roadtrip to Birdsville with a new 2015 Mitsubishi Triton.
IF YOU THINK girls trips are all about rom coms and red wine and chocolate, you’d be wrong… but only about the movies. This ladies-only road trip was as epic as Thelma and Louise, as 11 ladies, six cars and one brave man (not Brad Pitt, although he’d like to think so), motored almost 2000 kilometres to the iconic Birdsville Races. Led by Australian Offroad Tours, our mission was to travel to the western-most corner of Queensland and tick off the crème de la crème of outback roads, the Birdsville Track. All this, in a fleet of press cars including the 2015 Mitsubishi Triton, whose reputation precedes it in this review.
Cutting through the estrogen was brave Dave, our Trailmaster from Australian Offroad Tours, who was tasked with getting these birds to Birdsville in one piece. Aside from Dave, we were mainly roadtrip newbies, although a handful of the girls had completed Dave’s Girls Got Grit package on Fraser Island a few months before, giving them an appetite for off-roading and the outdoors. Our lack of driving experience was no deterrent though – Dave taught us everything we needed to know about Outback road trips. If there was just one thing I learnt, it was that two-way radios are king of the outback and no trip should be completed without one.
Australian Offroad Tours regularly lead groups of self-drivers on custom-made itineraries to outback Queensland regardless of their 4WD experience. They plan the trip, coordinate the logistics and look after on grounds, so basically you just show up in your 4WD, put your foot on the accelerator and enjoy the scenery. For ‘newbs’ to the outback, it’s a safety net, and one I’d recommend, especially if you don’t know anything about the destination or cars. It’s a long way to the nearest petrol station in regional Queensland and if nothing else, Australian Offroad Tours won’t let you run out of fuel, get lost or leave you stranded with a flat tyre in the middle of the desert.
Our trip started like any blind date, with 11 strangers introducing themselves in the lobby of a hotel. We weren’t strangers for long, we had two States and four deserts to get acquainted with one another, and by the time we reached Birdsville, we didn’t have many secrets left. Our aim was to make it from Brisbane to Birdsville in four days, a lazy pace, designed with enough time to actually enjoy the drive, soak in the Eulo Mudbaths and meet a few locals along the way. Sure, you could do the trip faster, but what’s the point of driving to Birdsville if you miss all quirky side tours and characters along the way? Hard core road trippers gun it from Brisbane to Birdsville in two days, but I’d recommend an eight day round trip (at very minimum) if you want to take a similar pace to us.
Dave set the ground rules – we’d stop as often as we need to, rotate drivers every two hours and avoiding sunset driving at all costs (because of roo factor). His fastidiousness on all things safety earnt his nickname Safety Dave, which jokes aside, is what you want in a tour leader. Following his pep talk about independence (read: girl power), we hit the road with more gumption than Germaine Greer, pointing our bonnets west and driving towards St George, 800 clicks west of Brisbane. We drove in convoy, connected by radios, tuned to our own personal channel (15).
Driving conditions were surprisingly good and I had the opportunity to test the Triton on bitumen all the way to our first night’s accommodation at Begonia Farmstay, St George. Driving at dusk presented a risk of hitting a kangaroo, but we were under instructions from Dave to use the ABS brakes if we needed to and hit a roo straight on if it jumped across our path.
Thankfully we never needed to use our ABS brakes or hit a kangaroo. Dave was at the front of the convoy and let us know when there were roos on the side of the road. If you can’t afford the luxury of a convoy drive where your trail master can play roo-spotto for you, travel with a passenger who can keep their eyes peeled for kangaroos on the side of the road. These natives are known to spring out of nowhere, and there’s no shortage of evidence that accidents are a frequent occurrence. There’s a reason everyone drives with a bullbar out here.
Fuelled with a country hospitality (a good night’s sleep and a camp oven roast), we waved goodbye to two-way driving and dropped back to single-lane bitumen on the long, straight road to Cunnamulla. To break up the long stretches road, we ate our way through a 4kg bag of lollies and countless baked treats. Snacks are essential on any long road trip to avoid hanger, especially when there’s up to 400-kilometers between meals.
Fence-less farming means you have to be on the lookout for cows, sheep and goats at all times and adjust your speed accordingly. We generally averaged about 100-kilometers an hour on this stretch, slowing down for animals and cattle grids every few kilometres.
Despite ignoring most of our two-way radio banter, Dave was quick to use the radio when we passed our first road train. “Four wheels off ladies, they are bigger than us and have places to be,” Dave warned. Like 11 ducklings, we followed Dave’s suit and pulled completely off the road and patiently waited for the road train to pass. Dave explained that we could pass normal cars on single lane bitumen without moving completely off the road, but road trains could flick rocks and cause real damage to our cars – reason enough to get right off the road.
Unbeknown to us chatting away on our own private radio channel, Dave had been communicating with the truckies on channel 40 the whole way to Birdsville to find out road conditions in real time. The truckies shared roadworks, obstacles on the road and their whereabouts which enabled us to pre-empt road conditions. It goes without saying that no trip to Outback Queensland would be complete without a two-way radio system tuned to channel 40 (the truck channel) for road reports.
Beyond the excitement of our first road train, we tick off a few more firsts: an echidna crossing the road and wild emus running in fields. Our photographers insisted we stop for photos as the landscape changed from dry scrub to red dirt, which is where the Triton earned its stripes as the most photographed car in the convoy. Looking back on the trip, I don’t know how we even made it to Birdsville with so many photo stops. From jump shots, silhouette shots and action shots, you name it we photographed it. Long suffering Dave turned from trailmaster to photographer, and at one point had to art direct a photoshoot (which included hair and makeup) on the top of a camper trailer. Sorry Dave.
Photoshoots aside, we were welcomed into Cunnamulla with the best meal of the trip at the Cunnamulla Boutique Hotel. With no parmigiana or schnitzel in sight, we tucked into a menu showcasing the local produce we’d seen grazing in the paddocks out west with a choice of sirloin steaks, lamb racks and stuffed chicken breast.
Fuelled with good food and a decent night’s sleep, we took this convoy offroad to Innamincka, a tiny town of just 12 people in South Australia. Driving through Sturt’s Stony Desert allowed us to play with the Triton’s super select gear system for the first time as we dialled the action up to 4H. Sunglasses are a must for this leg of the journey because mirages on the horizon feel like they have retina-burning properties and there’s a glare factor to the white sand that you could live without.
Even though we were crossing the desert in a car, we went through 3L of water each per day. I couldn’t recommend stocking up on water enough and packing extra bottles in the boot. You can drink the tap water in Outback Queensland, but bear in mind its bore water. More power to you if you can get past the smell to drink it, so my tip is to pack plenty of bottled water for the journey.
Driving conditions in the Stony are (not surprisingly) bumpy and corrugated. Allegedly you can cross the Stony in a two-wheel car but I wouldn’t be game. Even inside the Triton, a normally quiet and comfortable ride, the corrugations vigorously shook every lump and bump as if we’d signed up for some sort of desert fat blast. I can’t speak for the actual toning of my arms and legs, but we were shaken like ice cubes in a 007 Martini as we crossed the Stony Desert into Innamincka in time for dinner on night three.
Saving the best ‘til last, our final hurdle was the Birdsville Track, without doubt, Australia’s most famous dirt road. It’s no surprise that this track is so well known – it’s surrounded entirely by desert – Tiari, Sturt’s Stony, Strzelecki and Simpson – and averages less than 100mm of rainfall annually. Approaching the Cameron’s Corner, Dave couldn’t resist what he calls a “teaching moment” and we gathered around for a lesson in deflating tyres. Dave spent some time talking about tyre compliance, tyre walls and psi – but we were itching to have a go at the air pressure deflator ourselves and dropped the Triton down. Once the tyres were down and adrenalin up (thanks to a stash of Lindt balls we’d discovered in the esky), we hit the sandy pavement towards Birdsville – 226km north.
The Birdsville Track is not to be taken lightly. There are plenty of signs that warn you to carry fresh water, fuel and spare parts for the in case of emergency. After all, this is the same terrain that Burke and Wills met their respective ends and you can turn off the track to pay your respects at their graves. No risk of that for these Birdsville pilgrims, we packed what looked to be the inventory of a 4WD store on the back of “Mother Trucker” (the Hilux Ute) with four sets of max tracks, countless jerry cans (full of fuel) and a colourful selection of snatch straps. Thankfully we never had to use our recovery gear, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, isn’t that right Burke?
As far as driving conditions go, the track is in fairly good condition and makes for easy driving in the Triton’s 4HLC gear. We were sometimes sitting between 80-100-kilometers an hour but then other times dropped to 30-40-kilometers an hour. Dave warned not to get complacent – conditions can change at the drop of an Akubra hat – and this stretch of road has been known to flash flood. The key to the Birdsville Track is to drive to conditions, because no two days are the same in the desert. There’s also cross-wind and thermal pockets to consider, which can shake the car about. It’s nothing to be worried about, but you’ll see why you need to keep two hands on the wheel when desert driving.
The only real challenge we faced was visibility. Each car created an ash cloud of dust as it tootled down the track. Dave had already attached desert flags to our bull bars, which increased our visibility and made our bonnets look hard core. These little accessories are a must in the desert, especially if you want to have a go at dune driving. Given the dusty road conditions, Dave suggested we keep at least 100m between the cars, but we found we needed more space between the convoy and opted for about 300m between vehicles.
Even though it’s a feature-less stretch of road, it’s not a boring drive. There are dry creek beds, sand dunes to cross and the vast emptiness of the outback is quite mesmerising. All that changes when you get to Big Red, the tallest sand dune in the Simpson Desert. This was the first soft sand on the trip, and the only opportunity to test the Triton in low range, dropping it to 4LLC. True to form, the Triton made it up the 30 meter sand dune with ease, which is more than I can say for other cars in our convoy. Dave sold us on safe dune driving – and we put a call out on channel 10, the Simpson Desert channel, to alert anyone coming down the dune that we were coming up at the same time. If you plan on tackling Big Red, be sure to pack a bottle of bubbles to enjoy at the top. The view is too good to not kick back and savour.
But enough about driving. We were here to see a horse race – and boy were the kilometres worth it. Birdsville in race week is one of those things you have to see to believe. The tiny town inflates from 115 residents to 10,000 and brings in all manner of supplies to accommodate the crowds. On the track, the competition is stiff with over $200,000 of prize money on the line for horses to hoof it around a 1600m course. Off track, an even hotter competition fires up in fashions on the field, with a novelty category that would make any Lady Gaga or Gabi Grecko outfit seem straight laced.
Despite losing every bet I made, the Birdsville Races don’t disappoint. I’d do it all again, especially the road trip. I laughed from Brisbane to Birdsville, enjoyed the challenge of long distance driving and loved watching the landscape constantly change. For my money, a convoy drive is a safe way to see the outback, especially if it’s your first time. Sure you could fly in and fly out, but where’s the sense of adventure or interesting story in being a Birdsville Races FIFO?
Here’s a video of the Birds to Birdsville trip:
Some tips if you plan on doing this drive yourself:
- Plan, plan, plan your itinerary. Sure you can wing it, but if you are going to the Birdsville Races, accommodation sells out along the well-beaten track between Brisbane and Birdsville;
- Take at least four days to make it from Brisbane to Birdsville if you want to sightsee along the way;
- Rotate drivers often. It would be easy to become fatigued on these long, straight roads;
- Pack lots of snacks and water to stay alert. It can be up to 400-kilometers between treats and no one likes a hangry driver;
- Leave at least 100m space between cars travelling ahead of you. The dust is impenetrable at times;
- Use your 4WD options in the desert;
- Avoid driving at dawn and dusk. If you have to, don’t be afraid to use your brakes and hit a kangaroo straight on. The worst accidents occur when people swerve to avoid hitting them;
- Buy a two-way radio and tune it to channel 40 from Brisbane to Birdsville for real-time reports on road conditions;
- Pack spare clothes in case you have to change a tyre in a desert (the dust will get everywhere);
- You definitely don’t need as many clothes as we brought. Sensible driving shoes and a pair of thongs for the shower is all you need in the footwear department;
- Don’t forget National Park vehicle permits. You’ll need one for South Australia and Queensland if you want to follow our itinerary;
- Pack plenty of hand wipes – bathrooms are few and far between in the desert;
- If you’ve ever wanted to buy an Akubra, get one before you head west. I had total FOMO because some of the ladies bought them;
- Bit nervous about going alone? Join a convoy like Australian Offroad Tours.