Outback mystery . . . or tragedy?

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Here’s something I’ve concluded over three trips to Australia and a cumulative 15,000 kilometers or so of driving: Ninety percent of the time, 90 percent of Australia’s great historic tracks are more or less simply very, very long dirt roads that traverse vast expenses of bush and desert—terrain that can be considered strikingly beautiful or forbiddingly barren, depending on your sense of aesthetics. (Count me firmly in the former group.) 

All that changes when it rains and many of those tracks become simply undriveable, and a few routes (such as driving east to west on the Madigan Line) require skill and frequent four-wheel-drive use even in optimal conditions, but otherwise such legendary routes as the Birdsville Track can easily be driven in a Subaru Outback—or a Corolla. The world-class corrugations (washboard) you’ll find will test the structural integrity of the stoutest chassis, but your Land Cruiser’s dual lockers and low range will go unused.

With that said, one aspect of travel in central and western Australia has never been exaggerated: It is a very, very remote region. Even on the Oodnadatta Track—one of the most popular routes in the Outback—we sometimes drove for hours without seeing another vehicle. On other tracks, such as the Madigan Line, you can go a week not knowing if all other humans on the planet have been raptured away. So while ultimate capability might not be a critical requirement in your outback conveyance, reliability surely is, along with your ability to repair likely problems if you travel solo.

Tales of epic repairs, jury-rigged and otherwise, abound in outback literature—and video: If you’ve seen Bush Mechanics on YouTube you’ve been exposed to the wackier side of this skill, but real, and sometimes desperate, examples abound.

However, I found myself wondering if the owner of the vehicle whose parts I found in the Australian desert had the skills, and the spare components, to recover it. 

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We were camped in a wash off Mulga Park Road, actually a renamed section of Australian legend Len Beadell’s Gunbarrel Highway, about 150 kilometers southeast of Uluru (aka Ayers Rock). I was wandering through the scrub with my binoculars in pursuit of a new bird (which, if you’re curious, turned out to be a western bowerbird, a prime find), when I caught a dull glint of metal among the grass. A closer look revealed it to be an ancient single-barrel carburetor—one side of which was melted aluminum slag, the obvious result of a serious engine-compartment fire. The choke plate was locked in place by wrinkled solidified rivulets of non-ferrous metal; where the float bowl had been was an amorphous gray blob. The aluminum base appeared to be fine, leading me to think the fire might have been contained relatively quickly. However, the cast iron throttle plate housing was still attached to the bottom, as was linkage. If my broken-down fellow traveler had access to a spare carburetor I would have thought the ancillary fittings would have been swapped out.

Then the mystery deepened considerably—a few meters away I found an entire rear axle assembly, almost certainly from the same vehicle as the carb, judging by its configuration. Nothing else within a subsequent search circle of 50 meters or more—just an orphaned carburetor and axle from a vehicle at least a half century old, if not much older. 

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The carb on its own suggested a straightforward breakdown scenario. The addition of the axle left me scratching my head. I’m afraid this mystery will remain one.


To climb or not to climb . . . Uluru

I'm confident most people reading this will recognize the image above without the need for a caption. Formerly known as Ayers Rock (as christened by William Gosse in 1873 in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia), it is now preferably referred to by its Aboriginal name, Uluru, bestowed some few thousand years before Europeans chanced upon the 1,100-foot tall (from the base) sandstone inselberg.

We very nearly missed seeing it, fearing the commercialization of the site would spoil it for us. We're glad we decided to go, because the overwhelming grandeur of the place simply crushes any banality humans might tack on to it—besides which we found the visitors' center and associated community extremely well-run, and observantly respectful regarding the deeply held Aboriginal spiritual traditions attached to Uluru.

However. We also uncovered a disturbing controversy.

The local Pitjantjatjara Anangu never climb Uluru, partly because, as I read it, the route to the top crosses a sacred Dreamtime track. Around the site are numerous signs requesting that visitors also refrain from climbing it, both to respect this spiritual tradition and because the people feel responsible when someone is injured or needs rescuing—which apparently occurs with some frequency. 

Why not simply ban climbing? Because the 1985 agreement with the Australian government, which finally granted co-management of the rock to the local people, forcibly included a clause that precluded them from doing so. Numerous pleas from them to rewrite the agreement have fallen on deaf ears. As a result, each year several thousand tourists ignore the local beliefs and requests and climb the rock. Some do so simply to say they have; others apparently believe they gain their own special spiritual benefits from doing so. For some even this is not enough—one visitor apparently thought it would be oh so clever to hit a golf ball from the top; a young French woman decided it would be equally clever to have herself filmed running topless along the crest, to be posted on her Facebook page.

More? Sure: There are no facilities on the summit. Many of those climbers who feel their needs are more important than the beliefs of the local people also suddenly feel the need to urinate or worse after their triumphal ascent. When storms deluge the rock with rain, it forms stunning waterfalls, each carrying with it a little something from all those climbers.

Amelie, lovely young French woman at the excellent tribal arts center, informed us of much of this, expressing disgust at the solipsism of her topless compatriot. She also let us know there was a book we could sign, declaring that we had chosen not to climb Uluru in solidarity. We did so proudly.

The Anangu still hope to change the restrictions the government places on their management of their own sacred site. In the meantime, I'll state this: If you visit Uluru and ignore the requests of the local people because you have something to prove, or your shaman told you your spirit would be healed by the magical air on top, and you fall off—I won't shed a tear.


The most interesting Land Rover I ever saw . .

. . . was not the fully kitted double-cab 130 in Namibia, or the 110 pickup veteran of the Rhino Charge in Kenya, or even the ex-Camel Trophy Defender owned by a friend. 

It was in the spring of 1986. Roseann and I had been doing surveys to map Harris’s hawk nests in the deserts north of Tucson. We’d driven up Highway 79 to the Gila River area early one morning, and after several hours of glassing for nests stopped to refuel our Land Cruiser in the dusty little town of Florence, whose single claim to fame was and still is the massive state penitentiary on its outskirts. We pulled into a Circle K, and Roseann went in to buy a couple of Cokes while I filled up.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a vehicle pull in to another pump, and did a double take. It was an ancient Series 1 Land Rover 86—essentially an impossible vehicle to exist in Florence, Arizona, where anything not from the Big Three would have still been looked on even then as deeply suspicious and probably Democrat.

That it was local became apparent when the driver, a craggy 60-ish gentleman, got out, dressed in faded Wranglers, a tattered western work shirt, and a generic feed cap. I walked over and said hi, which he returned in a drawl as thick as gear oil. Yes, he lived there, yes, he’d owned the Land Rover for a couple decades, although, “I can’t remember where it’s made—somewhere in Europe I think.” As I silently gaped at this, he continued, “When I need parts the fellas at the NAPA here get them for me. Never had any trouble with it though.” He raised the hood and started the engine, which ticked away with a barely audible murmer through its oil-bath filter. 

The Land Rover was dead original—even the tires looked like they might have rolled it out of Solihull. Winch. Canvas hood. The only additions were a rifle rack and a CB radio.

“That your Tiyota?” He pronounced it tie-ota. Nodded when I nodded. “Mmm-hmm. Nice looking vee-hicle.”

Improbable enough already, but then—look closely at the photo here, scanned from a black-and-white print that is the only record I have of the encounter. See the bottle mounted in front of the windscreen on the driver’s side? Look even more closely and you might spot the pipe leading from it, through the fender, and attached to a fitting on the exhaust pipe.

“That? That’s my gopher getter.” Said with not a little pride.

It turned out that Mr. . . . I never got his name . . . derived a fair amount of his income from eradicating the “gophers”—actually pocket gophers—that plagued the nearby farmers, burrowing up from underneath their crops. The bottle contained some viscous and evil-looking brown poison—I never got its name either—which gravity-fed through the tube and was emulsified in the exhaust stream, whence it was pumped via a hose into the holes of the unlucky gophers.

“My own invention! Kills ‘em real quick. No reason for 'em to suffer.”

I was not sure how he had determined this, but . . .

All the nearby landowners had his phone number as well as his CB handle, he said. Nope, no business name, just . . . whatever his name was. Paid in cash per dead gopher.

After a few more pleasantries, he said, “Well, you take care, young fella. Be seein’ ya.”

But we never did again.


The Lion Man

If you're not familiar with him, his work—and his well-used vehicles—this interview on the Leisure Wheels site with Dr. Flip Stander, who studies desert lions in the Namib, is well worth the read. A donation would be well worth it, too. No, your eyes aren't deceiving you: That is a Toyota Hilux in the photo above, with a Land Rover roof and windshield Siamesed on top. Stander put over 750,000 kilometers on it before the South African Land Cruiser Club donated a Land Cruiser to his project. 

The first "adventure trailer" and "earth cruiser?"

If you know anything about T.E. Lawrence you are aware of Lowell Thomas (and vice versa, I suppose). Thomas, the indefatigable journalist and travelogue producer, was nearly single-handedly responsible for making "Lawrence of Arabia" a worldwide legend through his sensational traveling multimedia show, With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, seen by over four million people in the years following World War I. 

Lawrence and Thomas in Arabia

(Ironically, it almost never happened. Thomas was originally scheduled to cover the Great War in Europe to drum up support for the potential entry of the U.S. into the conflict. When it became obvious that trying to romanticize the gruesome quagmire that was the Western Front would be futile, he looked for a more promising theater, and thus landed in the Middle East.)

After the success of the Lawrence show, Thomas went on to star in and narrate innumerable other travelogues, of which one is this nine-minute 1940 production, Royal Araby. My friend Bruce sent me the link after he spotted one of the spectacular armored Rolls Royces employed with great effectiveness by Lawrence during the war, this one still in service years later. Indeed at about 2:38 you'll spot the turreted vehicle front and center. (See here for an account of one of Lawrence's unarmored Rolls Royce cars, and the impressive bodge repair he managed under enemy fire.) 

But something else caught my attention: two of the vehicles used by the Thomas expedition. One, an American sedan, is towing what could easily be taken for any number of the modern "adventure trailers" so popular with overlanders. Behind that is a behemoth of some sort of articulated truck with what would seem to be spacious living quarters in the back section.

I must try to find out more.

Check it out on YouTube, here.

The new Defender is coming! (However . . .)

When the Land Rover Defender finally reached the much-delayed end of its production run last January, after 68 unbroken years rolling off the assembly lines of Solihull, it seemed like not just the end of an iconic expedition vehicle, but of the very image of exploration that fueled the early dreams of so many of us. Those black-and-white photos of a 107 or 109 wagon, cruelly overloaded, canted sideways on a muddy track in the Congo or parked under a camelthorn tree in the Kalahari, stopped us in astonishment as we paged though books or National Geographic magazines. 

That’s it. That’s what I want to do. 

How many of those who in the last few decades have done the most vital research in wildlife conservation, archaeology, anthropology—even astronomy—felt their first pang of yearning for an adventurous future gazing at a picture of a Land Rover in a far away place? How many thousands more became advocates for conservation after accomplishing more modest explorations, inspired by those same images?

For its entire history, the Defender (as it came to be called only in the 1980s) stayed true to a formula nearly ideal for an expedition vehicle and a product designed to suit developing world conditions and markets. A boxed chassis provided necessary torsional rigidity, and separate aluminum body panels bolted on, easily replaceable. Entire vehicles could be shipped in pieces in crates to remote regions to be assembled on site, a program known as CKD, for Complete Knock Down. 

The layout of the Defender—all angles and straight lines—meant the interior was ideal for storing cargo or modifying with interior cabinetry. Running gear stayed simple until the needs of the late 20th century mandated electronic controls for some engine functions. An increase in comfort and ability (with no loss of strength or dependability) came with the bold move to all-coil suspension, long before Japanese competitors copied the design.

Was it perfect? No. The factory’s stubborn six-decade-long refusal to galvanize the thin steel of the chassis severely compromised durability in damp environments (such as, er, England), and the equally stubborn refusal to offer cross-axle diff locks allowed competitors to exceed the Defender’s performance in severe conditions. Reliability as well lagged behind Japanese competition. But the Defender remained a viable choice for far-flung journeys right up until . . . it was gone. 

Only the name remained. But what a name—swirling with all the potential for adventure we remember from the actual vehicles. So it was inevitable that it would sooner or later be attached to a new vehicle. 

What would that vehicle be like? Speculation was rife. The faithful gathered on forums, lit candles in pentangles, and with false bravado claimed, “It’s Land Rover; it’s the Defender; they wouldn’t dare sully it.” Surely, they predicted/prayed, the new Defender would be much like the old—separate chassis, solid axles, simple, just modernized with whatever technology was needed to make it compatible with 21st century regulations. And bring it to the U.S.! With a diesel!

There was just one problem, the unmentioned elephant in the chat room: That simple old separate-chassis, solid-axle Defender wasn’t selling. Twenty thousand units a year is not sustainable for a modern manufacturer (by contrast, Toyota sells about 75,000 70-Series Land Cruisers annually). And it had been that way for some time. Even when U.S. Defender fans’ dreams came true and we were blessed with access to the federalized V8 Defender 90 for several years, sales peaked early, then sagged. Enthusiasm among a devoted fan base couldn’t compensate for the fact that the actual market for what most viewed as an expensive British Jeep Wrangler was miniscule. Elsewhere in the world, Land Rover steadily lost military and NGO contracts (not to mention sales to various insurgent groups) to Toyota and Mercedes Benz. There’s no reason to believe that even an extensive revision of the existing body-on-frame platform would have changed things. Thus, the vehicle itself had to change.

All the worst nightmares of fans regarding that change came true when Land Rover rolled out the DC100 concept vehicle in 2012, when the end of Defender production was prophesied but not yet calendared.

So not working, Land Rover

Even among impartial journalists the response was, at best, a sort of collective “Eew.” Among aficionados, the reaction was a bit more strident, as this photo taken outside LR headquarters in Whitley, Coventry, at the time, shows.

Land Rover reportedly hired magician David Copperfield, at huge expense, to make the DC 100 disappear, and it was never seen again.

The die, however, was cast. It was pretty clear that the new Defender was going to be a substantially different beast than its predecessor. Now that development mules for a 2018/2019 launch are circling secret Land Rover test facilities around the world, we’re getting what seems to be reliable information from such people as CEO Ralf Speth. No photos of the vehicles yet—Land Rover probably has SAS snipers with Barrett M107s deployed around each prototype—but we do know more about the construction.

Which will be . . . an aluminum-intensive unibody structure built on the same architecture as the current Range Rover and Discovery, with all-independent suspension. No more mechano construction, no more CKD vehicles in crates shipped to remote African outposts on bullock carts. (And no more changing out a rusted chassis in your back yard with hand tools, a few friends, and a come-along.) Furthermore, while the company promises that the new Defender will have four-wheel-drive capabilities beyond anything in the current lineup, those capabilities will be heavily based on sophisticated electronic traction-control systems and computer-controlled parameters for throttle response and shifting. You won’t be repairing your new Defender in Bamako with a multitool and a hammer.

This is not all bad news. First, despite myths to the contrary, unibody vehicles almost always display superior torsional rigidity to body-on-frame vehicles, even those with a substantial boxed chassis. In essence the entire unibody acts as a boxed chassis member. And independent suspension has certain advantages as well—especially, of course, in on-road comfort and handling. Land Rover's pioneering experience with electronic traction control systems will surely pay dividends.

It’s a good bet, in fact, that the new Defender will hugely surpass its progenitor in comfort, ergonomics, and efficiency—and in actual backcountry ability as well.

However, the Defender we knew, the one that inspired our dreams, is gone. The new one will be made for a different world.

The sky didn't fall after all . . .

A scant and diminishing few of you reading this might recall the dark days of the early and mid 1970s—dark at least for automotive enthusiasts, who were convinced that the seven-decade-long history of increasingly interesting—and fast—automobiles was over forever, thanks to OPEC embargoes and the rising influence of commie environmentalists who thought all Americans should have access to clean air and water. Executives from the Big Three stood before Congress and swore they would go bankrupt if forced to install catalytic converters on their vehicles. In 1975 a base Chevrolet Corvette’s 350 cubic-inch V8 produced a wheezing 165 horsepower, and the venerable MGB was choked down to 68—exactly the same as a 750cc Honda motorcycle of the day. 

Not all manufacturers simply wrung their hands and complained. Honda produced its CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) four cylinder engine for the Civic, which handily met all proposed pollution requirements without a catalytic converter. When the CEO of GM sneeringly dismissed the technology as suitable for “a toy motorcycle engine,” Soichiro Honda bought a Chevy Impala and had it flown to Japan, where his engineers designed, built, and installed CVCC cylinder heads on its V8, then flew it back to Michigan—where it passed EPA requirements without a catalytic converter. GM’s CEO immediately apologized and asked to license the technology. Actually he did neither.

In any case, aside from a few bright spots (Porsche managed to retain much of the 911’s performance by adding engine capacity and keeping weight down, not to mention introducing the Turbo version), the future looked bleak. 

For truck buyers the situation was similar. Although emphasis on 0 to 60 times was minimal, fuel economy was an issue, with single-digit averages commonplace (actually single-digit averages had been comonplace all along, but with gas prices skyrocketing from 30 cents per gallon to 80, it started to hurt). 

I was reminded of all this when I came upon an image of a road test of a Chevrolet C-10 pickup from a 1974 edition of Pickup, Van, and 4WD magazine. The truck’s 350-cubic-inch V8 produced just 145 horsepower and a surprisingly meager 250 lb-ft of torque (torque was generally less affected by pollution controls than horsepower, but apparently not in this engine). The truck took 12.6 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph with a three-speed automatic transmission, and averaged a wince-inducing 9.8 mpg in “normal driving.” Also, astonishingly, the weight capacity on the tested model was only 760 pounds including passengers (although options could boost that to 1,360). And this was a two-wheel-drive truck.

How far we have come, and how silly seem the predictions that reducing pollution spelled the death of performance. Consider the 2016 Chevrolet Silverado Crew Cab tested by Car and Driver. Its 5.3-liter (325 cubic-inch) V8 produces 355 horsepower—well above the one horsepower per cubic inch figure that was the Holy Grail in (completely unregulated) 60s muscle cars—and 383 lb-ft of torque. With an eight-speed auto it propels the truck to 60 in just 7.2 seconds (quicker than that 1975 Corvette), yet the testers saw 15 mpg in normal driving. (Other half-ton trucks are now achieving significantly higher fuel economy figures; I cited this review because its subject was the closest I could find quickly to a direct descendant of that C-10.) This on a four-wheel-drive truck capable of hauling 2,130 pounds and towing over 10,000. Need I add that it produces a fraction of the pollutants that ’74 truck did? And is vastly more comfortable and safe?