AOR trip blogs

Aurora Australis

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Shake down trip for AOR's all new Aurora Off Road

No matter how tired and in need of a break Steve was when we left there was no way he was going to be able to nod off at the wheel.  Not because the conditions demanded particularly attentive driving: it was all because of the clouds.

Click on the thumbnails to view larger images

You see with the clouds came the beautiful soft light so sought after by photographers, and this just happened to coincide with passing through the rich canvas of cropped countryside around Dalby. Picture densely laden clouds painting a dramatic backdrop to patchwork properties of black soil, and green crops dotted with the ubiquitous tumble down sheds.  With photo opportunities at every turn Steve had to be ever alert to hit the anchors and find a (non-boggy) spot to stop right on cue. Here we need to insert the ‘beep beep beep’ for the colourful language ……..but despite this he did extremely well, ably assisted by the Aurora’s incredibly capable towing manners.

This was the maiden voyage for AOR’s newly created masterpiece, the Aurora, and while we anticipated lots of dust in the days to come the mud was entirely unexpected – right from the get-go.  No, we didn’t do the more sedate thing and pull into a nice clean caravan park - we did what most AOR owners are more inclined to do and looked for something more off the beaten track.  Hence our camp on the riverbank near Chinchilla.  Yes, it was lovely right by the river, but what we weren’t so thrilled about was the baptism in mud!

If clouds were destined to become the overarching theme of this trip mud was a close second.  Perhaps there’s a connection there somewhere?  Steve’s valiant attempt to wash both Aurora and Disco at a caravan park in Charleville was all for naught because we were splattered once again as soon as we left the bitumen.

Paul and Maria with their Matrix had gone as far as Lakefield, planning to tackle Cape York, when torrential rain forced them to abort their plans – the horror stories of those returning being just too compelling.  As an alternative they called to see whether they could join us somewhere out west and hopefully find some sunshine.  A mere 2000km away…….no problem!!!

WELFORD NATIONAL PARK

Arrangements are always problematic given the huge distances and lack of phone service but, in a remarkable piece of serendipity we were fortunate to find them at the entrance to Welford National Park within just an hour of their arrival!  There was some doubt about the conditions in the park as they’d already become well and truly bogged during an earlier recce, but we decided to camp the night and, hopefully with more safety in numbers, investigate further the next day.

Fortunately, with some careful negotiation through the muddy areas we found a great campsite by the Barcoo River.  It seemed our success at getting in was the impetus for the owner of a large off road caravan to get out, having been marooned there for some time waiting for conditions to dry out.

Welford has much to offer with the Desert Drive around the red sand hills and lots of birdlife in the river red gums lining the Barcoo.  Being able to camp right on the river gave us a box seat for watching the little flocks of budgies nesting in tiny holes in the trees. The joy of seeing these in the wild instead of in cages is really something and they were a great excuse to sit for hours with tripod and long lens within easy reach.

It goes without saying that is camping is nothing without a campfire and the firewood racks on both Aurora and Matrix provided lots of bounty for this nightly ritual.  Is it the mesmerizing effect of a campfire that provides the impetus for great conversations, lots of laughs and serious relaxation, or is it the multiple glasses of excellent red???

The intense isolation and open spaces also made it a great spot to experiment with Steve’s new drone.  The idea was to mount the drone with the Go-Pro and get some aerial footage of the Aurora.  The first step though was to master the controls. This was something of a learning curve for Steve and Paul with some tip pruning of nearby trees and a few anxious moments with said drone poised over the Barcoo and a potentially flat battery!     Once mastered it made for an entertaining afternoon with Steve driving the Aurora up and down the tracks, while Maria and I took still photos and video and Paul did the honours with the drone.

WITHDRAWALS FROM TECHNOLOGY

We arrived in Windorah expecting to catch up with phone calls and emails but instead it was a step back in time dealing with the inconvenience of what now seems like antiquated public phones.   It’s at this time we become aware of how insidiously and unintentionally the addiction to technology takes hold.  Interestingly, it usually takes a few days to overcome the need to be in constant touch with civilization but the point at which this is achieved is usually the point where serious relaxation sets in.

EN ROUTE TO DIAMANTINA

An even minimal amounts of rain seems to have a dramatic effect in these parts and the countryside between Windorah and the Diamantina Development Road was picture perfect. Though some may question the interest of scenery comprised of endless kilometers of treeless plains we are constantly awed by its ethereal beauty.  Our interaction with Paul and Maria on the UHF was mostly about the stunning beauty of the countryside – particularly special for them being their first time this far west.

The only problem was an absence of clouds.  Clouds? Yes……..clouds.  You see as lovely as this countryside is, when enhanced by interesting cloud formations (as different from boring blue sky) it offers a whole new dimension to the photographic endeavor. The other great thing about clouds is that they bring with them the possibility of fantastic sunsets. The universe must have been paying attention to my expression of this sentiment because right on cue a cloud formation began developing increasingly throughout the afternoon

The great thing about this type of remote travel is that so often it’s more about the journey than the destination - the adventures that happen along the way.   The 4W drives are being used for their intended purpose, the conditions challenge both drivers and vehicles, there are always new horizons to explore, and the AOR trailers make the experience perfectly comfortable. But be warned, the feelings of attachment to the vastness and isolation of these places can be addictive and you may end up wanting to experience them more….and more…..and more.

Of course being the Channel Country there were lots of muddy dips, some quite deep and squishy.   With the extent of these being an unknown quantity we stopped to speak with a road crew - always a good idea in remote places. They advised that though the road was OK, if we got into strife we should call up the next crew on UHF 39 and they would be able to assist.  How close this advice would come to being acted upon, but probably not quite in the way they had in mind!

NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE

Although received wisdom suggests driving right through the middle of the muddy sections, perhaps because (hopefully) the road base makes for a more solid foundation, it’s often tempting to take the road less travelled.  The deeper, longer dips in this instance required significant driving skill and were a revealing test of the performance of the Aurora.


Steve was extremely impressed with its towing manners because it was as solid as a rock in these conditions as well as in situations where quick action was needed to avoid wildlife.  He was also pleased that even with the 2100 width (150 more that the Matrix) it was still possible to get a visual either side without extension mirrors.   Perhaps most gratifying of all was that the Aurora’s extreme aerodynamic shape enabled fuel economy very similar to towing the Matrix, even with an approximately 600kg additional payload.  

The distances out here are almost incomprehensible.  It seemed like the more we drove the further away the national park seemed to be – until it gradually dawned on us that if we continued on to Diamantina we wouldn’t have sufficient fuel to get back to Windorah, even with the  extra jerries.  Mmmm.  And yes, we’ll confess here to not having done sufficient homework…..hey, we’re on holidays!  We’ll also confess that in this situation the limited fuel capacity of the Disco is a problem - although we hasten to add in its defense that the 200 Series was in the same boat.  Because even though the 200 Series had a larger fuel capacity it was also chewing through more - about 20 – 22 L per 100kms to the Disco’s 16 – 18.  Time to stop and have a think.

THE WATER TRUCK AND THE ROAD ROLLER

Our first option was to try to locate a cattle station indicated on the map so we set off in what appeared to be the right direction -  until we quickly realized it was the wrong way. At that point we came upon the machinery from the second road crew.  Could ‘assist’ be interpreted as ‘lending’ us some diesel???  First there was a dilapidated old water truck……with an empty fuel tank.  Dammmm!   Then along a bit further we came across a road roller. Steve was mystified when I fell about laughing at the ludicrousness of potentially helping ourselves to fuel from a road roller, but somehow I found the situation hilarious.

I’m not sure how we would have arranged payment for the fuel but in the end we decided that, as well as being a logistical nightmare,  any fuel we were able to acquire still wouldn’t be enough for the requirements of both vehicles.  Our next option was to camp beside the road and approach the road crew the next morning.  Whatever happened we still had all the comforts of home in both Aurora and Matrix not least of which comprised a nice hot shower and comfy bed.

DAVENPORT DOWNS

Just as we were contemplating this option Maria came to the rescue courtesy of the app for the Hema maps on her i Pod.  This app has the advantage of indicating current positioning via satellite, making it far more effective than hard copy maps.   By this means Maria was able to find the location of Davenport Downs– no small feat given the turnoff was a nondescript sandy track in the middle of a paddock with a complete absence of signs.  

We drove in with some trepidation wondering whether it would be a case of ‘bloody tourists’, but country hospitality is not just a myth and in fact is very much alive and well.   We were greeted by a couple of young stockmen who were happy to sell us enough fuel to fill up both vehicles and jerries their only hesitation being, with their boss away, to know how much to charge.  We insisted on paying at least Windorah prices of $1.75 per litre, though at that stage double would have still been OK.  Their hospitality extended to an invitation to camp the night, use the staff facilities and join their evening camp fire.  As if the day couldn’t have a better conclusion, and in another example of the perfect serendipity of this trip, the promising clouds developed into a rippling sunset that bathed our campsite in a rich golden glow! Davenport Downs is a staggering 3.6 million acres, the third largest in the country, running mostly Brahmin and Charolais cattle. There’s plenty of eye candy out here for jaded city girls with lots of good-looking, extremely fit young men.   As to my query about where they go to meet the fairer sex the response was an enthusiastic ‘anywhere we can’ and they had high hopes for upcoming Rodeo at Bedourie.  Lucky country girls!


DIAMANTINA NATIONAL PARK

Hunter’s Gorge at Diamantina is the only one of the two available camping areas large enough for trailers and sites are located a short distance back from the water.  The Warracoota Circuit is a 90km drive through varying countryside with some pastoral relics but, disappointingly, the rare bird life the park is renown for was not evident.  Our compensation was to have happy hour by the water entertained by the antics of a flock of Little Corellas migrating from one favourite true to another, and the pelicans with their synchronized swimming.   

So was Diamantina worth the effort?  Its listing as one of the top ten national parks in the country leads to quite high expectations but we concluded that it was not high on our list of favourite destinations.  But in this case in particular, it was so much more about the journey.

Returning directly to Windorah was out of the question as it would have presented the same difficulty with fuel as on our inbound journey so we had no choice but to take the long way round and head for Birdsville  via Bedourie.  Who needs an itinerary anyway?  This was an enticing prospect for Paul and Maria who hadn’t yet experienced these legendary places, and besides, Steve is never averse to an opportunity of playing on Big Red.   

Once again the road delivered lots of muddy dips.  Probably because Steve had just mounted the Go-Pro on the awning of the Aurora and was after some good footage (read showing off??) he took one muddy stretch just a tad too fast and the Disco, Hobie and Aurora had a mud bath top to toe.   I’m not sure what the scenery was like after that because I had a curtain of mud over my window!

As it turned out the Eyre Development Road between Bedourie and Birdsville was closed so the only option was the Lake Machattie flood by-pass road.  I’ve mentioned in previous trip blogs just how much Steve and I love red sand hills, perhaps because they seem somehow to represent the quintessential desert driving experience with their beautiful shape and colour.  Again in an example of the marvelous experiences of the happy coincidences on this trip it turned out this road had the richest red, most colourful sand hills we’ve ever seen and it made for a very special journey.

BIRDSVILLE & BIG RED

The rain hadn’t penetrated as far as Birdsville so dust replaced mud as the prevailing influence.  The town’s free car wash was extremely welcome, as was the Hard Road Bakery which actually bakes fresh bread, as well as exotic fare like curried camel and kangaroo with red wine pies.  

No visit to Birdsville is complete without some fun on Big Red - but what we didn’t anticipate was just how dry the sand would be.  The run up to the top was accomplished easily by both 200 Series and the Disco, then Steve took off down the western side while I dutifully videoed from the top.  The problem came when he reached the top and hung a sharp left,   the Disco almost tipping and going into a backwards slide.  Very scary!!!   Good thing there’s a delete button to deal with some of the colourful expletives in the footage!

The wind was howling at this stage and though it made conditions quite difficult it had the advantage of bringing in some interesting cloud patterns and softer light.  Yes, clouds!!! So the still camera replaced the video and I went in search of a much anticipated shot of rippling sand formations enhanced by the clouds.  That is until another great shot presented itself – the 200 Series bogged!  When Paul want to take off it went down to the axles. Unfortunately we didn’t have long to gloat at the expense of the ‘Cruiser because Paul was organized enough to have both shovel and Max Trax available……. and we had even less to be smart about when Steve went to take off and the Disco also bogged down to the axles!

BIRDSVILLE CAMPSITE

The clouds continued to build into more and more interesting formations bringing with them the potential for a spectacular sunset, so preparations went into overdrive.  The camera went into the compartment of the Hobie, the idea being to photograph our campsite with the lagoon in the foreground.  I donned my trusty gumboots and enlisted Steve’s help to launch the Hobie, but then disaster struck.  My gumboots got stuck in the mud and with the momentum of pulling the Hobie I landed on my rear none too gracefully in the water/mud.  Though it felt like an episode of slapstick comedy Steve was gracious enough not to laugh and certainly I was not amused having spent a good bit of the day doing laundry.

But with rich colours beginning to appear through the buildup of clouds and the highly anticipated sunset coming to fruition the frustration was building.  Missing a shot like this would be worse than losing the lottery.  

Undaunted, after a quick change and successful launch I pedaled off to find the best angle……only to get the pedals stuck in the mud!!!  Though the Hobie is great in deeper water it is much less effective in shallows and by this time I was ready to try walking on water to get back to dry land.  Fortunately, Steve and Paul came to my rescue, then it was panic stations to set up tripod and camera.

Those aspiring to master their camera will note from this little anecdote that the best shots are often hard won, although for the most part, not quite so dramatically!   Think crawling out of a warm bed on a frosty morning or sacrificing the fun of campfire time to make best use of the ‘golden hours’ and waiting, often interminably, for those fleeting moments of pure perfection.  But it’s all worth it when the shutter clicks and you feel the buzz ……… and you know you’ve got ‘the shot’.  

Fortunately, despite my mishaps, I was set up in time for the blazing reds, golds and blues of a sunset that kept building, and building…...and building……until we stared in awe at what was nothing short of a breathtaking cosmic masterpiece!  Although far distant from the frozen wastes of Antarctica, we nominated the spectacle the outback version of the Aurora Australis.

The conditions seemed determined to persist with a blood-red sunrise the following morning and big, beautiful cloud formations pursuing us throughout the next day on our journey to Windorah.   

This trip had been so full of special experiences neither couple wanted it to end.   The Aurora fulfilled our wildest expectations.  The towing economy was even better than anticipated; it handled brilliantly in all conditions and was a cozy, luxury cocoon on the freezing winter nights.  Our only question is:  how long before we can go again???

NOTES:

  1. Having experience the advantage of the Hema map app it is definitely on our shopping list.  With the advantage of indicating one’s current position via satellite without the need for internet or phone reception it much more useful than hard copy maps.
  2. Following our bogged experience Max Trax are also on the shopping list.
  3. Though the Free Camps book indicates toilets at the Hopevale School campsite at Chinchilla they were washed away in floods of recent years.