Herald motoring writer Brent Davison is travelling the infamous Canning Stock Route, in Western Australia, pitting Mercedes-Benz's four-wheel-drive G-Wagens against all the Aussie outback can pitch up.
Somewhere, in the middle of the Gibson Desert
There is nothing quite as beautiful in nature as the sight of dawn breaking over the Australian desert.
Black dances into varying shades of purples and pinks before settling into the brightest blue as the stars fade out and the sun starts its march across the sky.
Animals stir, people move about, keen eyes look to the sky, noses sniff the ever-present desert wind and booted toes brush back and forth making patterns in the sand.
Thought processes change out here. Civilisation is the station-style accommodation that was last night’s sleeping quarters and the hot, cleansing shower that was part of it.
And into this strange, dusty and lonely world comes the might of Mercedes-Benz, the giant German car maker bringing a fleet of six four-wheel-drive G-Wagens, a squad of German, Austrian, English and Australian journalists, a doctor, a paramedic, a cook, a senior factory technician and test driver from the Graz plant in Austria, an Australian technician, a photographer and the company’s Australian PR department.
The plan? To take the four-wheel-drives from Wiluna, at the southern end of Western Australia’s infamous Canning Stock Route, to Halls Creek at the northern end, 2000km in just under two weeks over a track that is recognised as being one of the world’s toughest.
The run is being undertaken in two 1000km stages and we were invited along for the second stage from Well 33, the CSR’s halfway point, to Halls Creek.
Rough as guts
Rough as guts. It is the only way to describe the Canning Stock Route.
And after 30kms grinding away over washboard corrugations that would shake out your false teeth we started smelling something hot. Oily. Unpleasant.
As a show of faith in its product (and because it is using the Canning Stock Route as its longest-ever field trial) Mercedes-Benz put its six-strong fleet of G-Wagen test cars on the track in stock standard trim.
And now it was paying the price. After six days of relatively uneventful driving (three tyres spiked and a rear-view mirror knocked off) the Canning had caught-up with the Benzes and in the space of a couple of hours five of the six cars suffered rear shock absorber issues.
The corrugations managed to do what the sand dunes and Spinifex could not – bring the convoy to an early stop.
Were the men from Mercedes-Benz upset by it?
“Not at all,” said senior communications manager, David McCarthy. “Look, they see this as a field trial and they deliberately avoided using special after-market equipment.
“The cars are carrying a lot of weight inside and on the roofs and they have been driven pretty hard for the whole week. We’ll fix it and get back on the road.”
The “fix” involves getting a shipment of new shock absorbers overnight from Melbourne to Perth and then onto a charter flight from Perth to Well 33 (the Canning’s halfway point) where they will be collected and brought to the campsite.
While they are getting here the damaged shock absorbers will be stripped from the cars. It is, says McCarthy, a 45-minute job for each car.
The convoy will be back on the road on Saturday, August 6 and is still expected to arrive in Halls Creek as scheduled next Tuesday.
Playing the name game
Nicknames. We get them at school, at work, in our social groups. And on the Canning Stock Route.
“Nicknames on our drive,” says Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman David McCarthy,” are earned, given-out for things that have been done.”
Which explains ‘Sidewall’ (one of the German journalists managed to destroy three tyres, spiking the sidewall on each one) and “Rear View”, another journalist who managed to break off a mirror by belting it against a tree.
The mirror became a shaving mirror and is, says McCarthy “possibly the world’s most expensive shaving mirror and the only one with an indicator in it.”
Two BBC staffers, a presenter and a cameraman, became Coco and Chanel. Why? Explains McCarthy: “we asked the journos to try and keep to 15 kilos on the luggage and the guys turned up with about 60 kilos.
“They had more luggage than Coco Chanel and the names just went out there and stuck.”
This reporter is extremely pleased to report that he has not yet earned a nickname and hopes not to.
Mercedes-Benz is driving the Canning stock Route from south to north with a fleet of standard G350 G-Wagens.
Lonely, unforgiving track
Western Australia’s Canning Stock Route is often described as one of the loneliest, most unforgiving tracks in the world – and for good reason.
From Wiluna in the south it winds its way north almost 1000 kilometres, punctuated only by a string of wells established by Canning to allow cattle drives south from the Kimberleys and nothing else.
At its halfway point, Well 33, is the Kannwatija Aboriginal settlement with a petrol station, a shop, a motel of sorts and a gravel airfield for the weekly mail plane or the Flying Doctor.
After that there is another 1000 kilometres of desert with nothing more than the rutted corrugation that is the Canning Stock Route by which to traverse it. If you didn’t pack it for the trip you won’t get it until you get to Halls Creek in the north or Wiluna in the south.
Medical professionals are treasured out here. Three days into our Mercedes-Benz Canning crossing some tourists from a nearby camp arrived at our camp. One of their number was sick and they had heard we had a doctor travelling with us. The patient presented, our doctor went to work and a few minutes later we had a happy camper ready to leave us.
Life is harsh in other ways. A camel, we heard, had fallen into Well 36 and died. The locals had retrieved the corpse, the dingoes ate well and life went on.
Are we there yet ...
We've done it. Well, almost.
After a 150 kilometre drive from Breaden’s Hills, Well 46 on the Canning Stock Route, the 2000 kilometre Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen drive program is almost at an end.
Officially, the stock route ends (or starts, depending on your direction of travel) at Bililuna, a small settlement about three suburbs west of The Middle of Nowhere and around 20 kilometres from our final night’s camp.
If yesterday’s nine hour drive was tough then today’s three-and-a-bit hour run was a jaunt, a walk in the park on roads that were mostly wider and smoother – though still rutted and corrugated – than those we have been driving on for the last five days.
Our tour party is a diverse group of 16 comprising an interesting mix of personalities from outright city slickers to almost-bushies, the sort of blokes who have perfected the “thousand yard stare”.
Trail boss Geoff Becker, two doctors named Luke (one ministers to human patients and the other to the mechanical ones), chief cook and bottle washer Billy who seems to be the first one out of bed and the last in, David “Macca” McCarthy and his trusty assistant Nick represent the corporate face of Mercedes-Benz and big Erwin, nicknamed the Desert Fox, is the Austrian chief test driver for G-Wagen.
Most of the international media drove the first leg of the Canning before flying back to Perth and on to Europe but Austrian journalist Christian and British freelance documentary makers Steve and Alistair chose to do the second leg.
And all of us have had an experience no amount of money could ever buy.
The cars? Apart from some flat tyres, a couple of small mechanical issues and a mid-track shock absorber replacement program the military-style G-Wagens have just rolled-on, chewing up the kilometres and spitting them out, covering in 12 days what most tour parties cover in a month.
It is worth noting, by the way, that after the shock absorber issue Erwin has instructed the production plant in Graz, Austria, to make changes to the suspensions of Australian-spec G-Wagens.
The end of the road
from Perth, Western Australia
ALL good things must come to an end and for the Mercedes-Benz Canning Stock Route drive the end came a little after 10am on the final day, just north of Bililuna.
At that point and that time the seven vehicles – five G350 G-Wagens, a G-Wagen Professional station wagon and a Professional utility – filtered onto the Tanami Track to mark the official end of the Canning drive some 2000km and 12 days after it started.
Photographer Peter “Watto” Watkins took a photograph of the cars and their crews at, appropriately enough, the Bililuna stock yards from which cattle drives down the track started, we all shook hands and congratulated each other then headed out, stopping three hours later at the Katherine Hotel in Halls Creek where we downed a cold beer in the name of a job well done.
For me, the Canning was something special and it was not all about the bonding sessions that become part of the package when a group of people are isolated and thrown into the same situations. No, it was about seeing a part of our country that relatively few will ever have the chance to do, learning a few handy little lessons and even having a moment or two of self discovery.
The country? Well, very little has changed since Canning surveyed the route back in 1906 and, truth to tell, probably since the original inhabitants trod the land 40,000 years ago. Yes, the track is there as a scar on the landscape but the desert sands, the endless spinifex, the escarpments that rise out of the desert floor and the endless, rolling dunes are there as some sort of living time capsule that we can reach out and touch.
Lessons learned? Mateship, of course and understanding, figuring out that pitching-in gets jobs done quickly and that selflessness should be the way we operate rather than something for which we reckon we deserve a pat on the back.
I also learned that a good, broad-brimmed hat is very useful in the outback. It keeps the sun off the face during the day, serves as a storage place beside the sleeping bag during the night and covers unkempt hair any time.
And the self-discovery? Nothing special really but the vastness of our country should make us re-evaluate our place in it. It also showed me that all of us have a reserve of inner strength we can call upon when needed.
My week on the Canning was something very special, something I can cross out on my personal “bucket list” and the fact that I have now put my name – even though it is in an extremely minor way – into the Australian automotive history books is something to be treasured.
Would I do it again? At the drop of a broad-brimmed Akubra hat.
* Brent Davison travelled the Canning Stock Route as a guest of Mercedes-Benz Australia-Pacific as part of the G-Wagen development program.