1989 Australian Safari

Crocodile officer!

Automotion Australia has set itself the ultimate challenge. By 1992 it hopes that the Australian Safari will be the most prestigious and keenly fought Raid in the world, better even than the Paris-Dakar. After four experimental years, the 1989 Safari heralded a new era in the event’s history for, with a new Japanese textile sponsor TSP Taiyo, Autornotion commenced its ambitious three year plan.

After a special 15 day bicentenary Safari in 1987, which started in Alice Springs, journeyed to Darwin and turned tail to finish in Sydney, this year’s event returned to its traditional Sydney-Darwin schedule. The format is simple: the fastest crew to complete the course, which consists of non-competitive road sections and competitive stages timed to the second, wins. One problem: between the two cities lies the Land of Beyond, the Never-Never, or the Outback as it is most commonly known.

The 6,500 kilometre route takes competitors through some of the most desolate and unforgiving regions planet Earth has to offer. For ten days, mad dingos and Australians are joined by a 600 strong Safari circus in the desert wastes. Each night competitors, team managers, mechanics, officials, caterers, media, etc., convulge on a small area of the Outback in their four-wheel drive vehicles, buses, lorries, helicopters, light aircraft etc. to set up bushcamp. It is an enormous exercise moving the Safari from each overnight halt to another, but, apart from a few mechanical failures (the most serious of which was the giant catering lorry breaking down once) it all passed amazingly smoothly.

The bushcamps were purposely situated away from any settlements, and therefore had to be totally self-sufficient. Accommodation in local taverns or Road Stations was treated with contempt, and once the first day’s overnight halt in Parkes had passed, modern civilisation and every day creature comforts were limited to the imagination only.

After cars left Hyde Park in the centre of Sydney, the first day was a scenic transport section over the Great Diving Range to the rolling farmlands of the interior. After passing Bathurst and the foot of Mount Panorama, the three hour journey stops at Parkes for the first overnight halt. From now on, the Outback would either be your best friend or dreaded enemy.

Mitsubishi holds an unprecedented victory record in the Australian Safari, and the presence of its chairman at the pre-event press conference suggested it was intent on making the most of a highly predicted fifth success. However, all was not well. Just three and a half days before the start, Ross Dunkerton’s Pajero SWB prototype had arrived at Ralliart Australia’s new headquarters in Sydney as a rolling chassis. Initial fears that last year’s winner would be forced to withdraw evaporated after a titanic effort by the team enableded all the five-vehicle Team Ralliart Nikon brigade and the four-vehicle Team Mitsubishi Ralliart appear on the start-line.

The hurried preparation had taken its toll. Not only had 110 specially imported kevlar-walled Bridgestone tyres been held in quarantine, and subsequently missed the official tyre transport’s departure time, but several of the Pajeros were experiencing turbo troubles. Indeed, after the first competitive day, which took crews due west across New South Wales to Menindee, Mitsubishi wasn’t in the lead.

David Stuchbery and Ian Swan had surprised even themselves by taking the lead in their Ford Maverick. The experienced 35 year old buggy driver from Victoria had embarrassed the might of Mitsubishi. However, contrary to what most onlookers predicted, Ralliart was growing in strength as the event progressed and retirements hadn’t materialised. As the secret route (the following day’s schedule was only issued at 21.00 the previous night to eliminate illegal servicing) turned north and headed for Queensland, Mitsubishi took command, with David Officer/Ross Runnalls and Dunkerton/David Kortlang overtaking Stuchbery in their Pajeros. Mazda was also featuring strongly as Frank Johnson/Paul Lawrence had moved into third in their B2600 pick-up and team-mates Stuart Kostera/Greg Flood poised behind the early leader in fifth.

Ralliart’s resources (limited as all spares must either be carried on a competing vehicle or on the offical spares’ transporters) were already diminishing at an alarming rate. Denny Hulme and Mal Crockenberg were driving one of the two Pajeros in the Team Ralliart Nikon section that were basically support vehicles for the Officer, Dunkerton and Doug Stewart cars, but the former F1 World Champion was experiencing early problems of his own which would ultimately continue throughout. Already fuel consumption was causing concern, but more embarrassing was the loss of his door. An overshoot at a creek crossing had seen Denny hurried open his door to reverse back. Concentrating on the manoeuvre, he failed to notice an outstretched branch of a Gidgee tree which ripped the door from its hinges! A rear axle shearing at high speed five days later was more significant and all hopes of a good finish were lost during the 90 minutes it took to repair it.

Queensland is notoriously known as the Channel Country, for the fast arid state is littered with giant creeks, gullies and wash-a-ways. After the Toona Gate separating NSW and Queensland has been closed (10,000 dollar fine for anyone than doesn’t close it and threatens NSW with an invasion of unwanted dingos) the scenery changes dramatically. The eloquently named stage ‘Oriental Torture’ was on the periphery of the Start Stony Desert and traversed some rugged seismic survey lines which are little more than tracks carved by geologists searching for precious minerals. These shot-lines were to host the roughest of all the tests, and if the four-wheel drive crews felt the jolts, it was only a matter of time before one of the motor cyclists succumbed to the conditions.

Mark Chapman was leading the cycle category at the time of his accident. Following in the unavoidable dust wake of Stewart’s Pajero, he failed to see a deep wash-a-way, hit it at unabated speed and was catapulted high into the air. Miraculously he sustained only an arm injury. Johnson, who was following, foresook third place to stay with the injured Chapman until the rescue helicopter had whisked him away skywards. This action dropped him down to tenth place, while team-mate Kostera had also been relegated outside the top 10 thanks to two punctures on his similar Mazda B2600.

To survive the Australian Safari you must show great resilience and determination. When the front differential on Andy Scott’s highly modified Dundee-registered Holden Statesman collapsed, he was determined to retain the record for finishing every Safari in an Australian-built car.

After an unsuccessful attempt to buy a front differential from a station master’s similar Statesman, Scott decided to remove the unit entirely and weld strips of metal to hold the axle arms together. Three hours later the former four-wheel drive machine regained the track in just rear-wheel drive configuration. Even as he entered Darwin the engine seized, but mechanical mayhem couldn’t disguise his delight at finishing his fifth Safari.

Back at the head of the field little had changed, and if everything was to go according to the Ralliart plan, nothing would. With Officer out in front by three minutes, team orders were imposed which put into effect the gentleman’s agreement that team-mate Dunkerton would stay behind him on the road in case of any last minute emergencies. It was a gesture that would prevent any embarrassing internal rangles which may have arisen when Officer planted his Pajero on top of a sandbank. With the nearest Mitsubishi ‘service’ vehicle now running 20 minutes behind the leader, it was fortunate that Dunkerton was in hot pursuit, stopped, and pulled `Dinta’ out.

Dunkerton had also been to his boss’ rescue when Stewart left the road in a spectacular aerobatic display. Within sight of the South Australia state border the Ralliart Australia President attacked a series of three sand dunes too fast, launching his Pajero into a violent series of rolls. The shattered vehicle came to rest on it side, and with the assistance of a few media personnel who witnessed the incident, and a tow rope attached to Dunkerton’s car which had been flagged to a halt, Stewart’s Pajero was righted. Two hours elapsed whilst essential parts were temporarily re-attached for Doug to continue, and the 61 year old veteran limped into the overnight halt having dropped from fifth to 30th position. What followed was a remarkable illustration of perseverence as without a windscreen (one was fitted, but it acted like a vacuum sucking in dust, and was rapidly removed), he continued to enter Darwin in 18th place.

The journey through the Northern Territory, a state six times the size of Britain, was a tense journey for Officer. When Dunkerton punctured on the penultimate day and lost ten minutes arguing with stubborn wheel nuts, and Stuchbery was over two hours further behind in third, the pressure was lifted. Nevertheless, his relief was obvious when he exited the loose surface roads of the famous Kakadu National Park and joined the asphalt Arnhem Highway en route to the tropical city of Darwin and victory.

The event is still very much an all Australian affair, but overseas media interest, especially from Europe, Japan and the U.S., outweighed the home coverage. It was hoped that French cycle rider Cyril Neveu, five times winner of the Paris-Dakar Raid, would preach the Australian Safari gospel, but he left in disgrace after being awarded a two hour penalty for repeatedly not closing gates on the course (an essential rule as all the route goes through private farmland in which certain stock must remain separated). However, he was just a small pawn in the massive media interest which followed the event.

Automation Australia’s plans to organise the best Raid by 1992 is a difficult challenge. It has, however, a lot going for it, not merely geographical (ie. no border crossing and immigration problems, a seemingly endless choice of route on isolated territory, demanding terrain etc.) but its greatest asset is its determination to succeed. In many ways its task is made easier because it believes it already has the best Raid in the world, and all that is left to do is convince the uninitiated. POE