There was an almost audible sigh of relief from the Mini as it pulled into my garage, after its grueling 9,000km run across Australia and return.
When Brett and I left for the 2013 Shitbox Rally we were very confident in our trusty Mini. Sure, it classified as a Shitbox because we had only spent $800: the rules stipulating a maximum of $1,000.
Most of the car had been donated to us, thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, as described in detail by Brett over the past few magazines.
Still, the job to get the car ready had been a mammoth task that even I underestimated when we started. It seemed the more we did to the car the more we still had to do. We had bitten off more than we could chew, then had to chew like crazy.
We eventually had the Mini ready, and renamed Desert Assault Van (DAV). What a feeling of elation. We had done everything we could to ensure DAV would be as reliable as possible and would handle the rough conditions expected in Central Australia.
The one unknown was going to be the engine. It had lain idle under Brett’s workbench for about seven years. We dragged it out and, after a few irritations described in last issue, had it running.
We drove the Mini around as much as possible over the next three weeks, visiting a number of our supporters, and doing presentations to the Victorian Mini Club and the Rotary Club of Geelong East.
DAV ran really well, though a little rough at certain speeds and slightly smokey at times. Nothing really to worry about, we thought.
The run to Adelaide was uneventful. From Geelong we followed my usual route to avoid most of the Western Hwy: Skipton, Dunkeld, Cavendish, Balmoral, Harrow, Edenhope, Bringalbert, Francis and Bordertown, then along the highway to Adelaide.
The engine never missed a beat and we cruised at a steady 100km/h for most of the trip.
The drive was only broken by a visit to the Harrow Transport Museum after lunch, and the obligatory photo stops at the border and the Land-Rover-on-the-Pole at Keith.
We spent Thursday doing some minor repairs, after visiting Minisport who helped us out with some important spare parts. One annoying job was the speedo cable, as the speedo had failed only an hour or so from Geelong.
Thanks to Andrew and the gang at the Princes Lodge in North Adelaide, for allowing us to turn the car park into a rally service depot.
On Friday afternoon we took a drive up to Birdwood, in the Adelaide Hills, to visit the National Motor Museum, but also to give DAV a really good run. Even pressing on through the hills didn’t seem to worry the engine, so we were still confident in the car for the start of the Shitbox Rally the next morning.
That evening we met most of the Rally entrants at the official briefing, where rally packs and more sponsor stickers were handed out, the organiser James Freeman introduced his team and all the support crews.
The newcomers, myself included, learned about the Mine Game, where if you say the word mine, in any context, at any time on the rally you have to do ten push-ups.
It sounds simple enough, but it is very difficult to avoid saying the word – especially when every entrant seems determined to trip you up. Even if you say the word while driving the car, you have to pull over, get out and do ten push-ups on the side of the road.
Over the course of the rally, Brett did around 70 push-ups, while I did in excess of 150. 20 of those were courtesy of my wife and kids, who weren’t even on the rally, but trapped me when I was talking to them over Skype from Kalgoorlie.
From 6am on Saturday the Rally entrants began to arrive at the start on Hackney Rd, near the zoo and Botanical Gardens. Within the hour, the carpark was crammed with the oddest collection of Shitboxes you would ever see.
There were 198 entrant vehicles, two for the Channel 7 Sunrise crew (one being co-driven by weather presenter Edwina Bartholomew), around 16 support crews, four with car trailers, a couple of catering vans and a handful of other official vehicles.
Among the entrants was the usual Mazda/Nissan/Holden/Falcon brigade, with a handful of more interesting vehicles. A VW Kombi camper, tastefully decorated as the Wolf Creek Taxi Company; a poo-beige Daimler Sovereign with purple lace work painted over the roof; a Humber Super Snipe dressed up as a New York taxi; a Renault 12, named S-car-go and driven by a pair of clichéd Frenchmen who didn’t speak a word of French; a Ford Transit Channel 4 news van, with Ron Burgundy and crew; a Leyland P76 that had been built up from two derelict donor cars; a bevy of Alfas; and of course our DAV.
Many thought us crazy to contemplate such an event in a Mini, but the couple of Daihatsu Moves and a Suzuki Mighty Boy might have been even more ridiculous.
Most people had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to decorate their otherwise standard vehicles – the Knitboxers with their Mitsubishi Magna covered from top to bottom in knitted rugs was a crowd favourite.
Meanwhile, our rally-prepared Mini got a few comments about being too good to be a “real” Shitbox. We would soon prove the doubters wrong.
Within an hour of the start DAV was experiencing overheating problems. Trying to maintain a speed of 110km/h to keep up with the others in our group, on a day that got to over 35 degrees, was just that little too much for the Mini.
By the end of the first day we’d already experienced two blown lower radiator hoses (where it joins the heater hose), had seen water bubbling up through head bolts and thermostat housing studs and got to the point of having to stop every 100km or so to top up the water.
We didn’t get to Coober Pedy until 9pm, but we weren’t the last into camp. We fitted an external auxiliary water cooler, in the form of a heater core, in the hope it would keep the engine temperature down a bit.
Another hot day on Sunday saw us stopping regularly to top up the water, as the ambient temperature again climbed into the mid-30s. We noticed that the water temperature would be stable, though a bit hot, as long as we kept moving, but would spike alarmingly as soon as we stopped. We therefore kept our stops to a minimum, but still had a number of fuel stops and the essential photo shoot or two at the SA/NT border and near Mt Connor on the way to Ayers Rock (Uluru).
It was at one of these stops that we found our auxiliary water cooler was in fact blocked; actually making matters worse because the water was therefore not circulating through the heater either.
Up to this point, although we had covered some 1,580km, it had all been on bitumen and, by keeping our average speed down to around 90km/h, the overheating issues seemed to be solved.
At Yulara (the closest camping to Uluru) most of us took in the Sounds Of Silence experience. We were bussed out to a point where we could watch the sunset over The Olgas (Kata Tjuta) and see Uluru at the same time.
The sunset was breathtaking and some couples were so inspired that there were three engagements made, to much cheering from the gathered throng.
A fire-lit dinner among the sand dunes followed, while we were regaled with local Aboriginal stories about the Dreamtime and the meaning of the Milky Way.
The following morning we were free to explore the National Park, before heading out to the Docker River Road. I couldn’t convince Brett to climb Uluru, but did get him up as far as Chicken Rock. Even from here the view was spectacular. Having climbed the rock in 1991, when on a Moke club trip, I was happy to not do so again.
After a quick drive around Uluru we headed out to the Docker River Road, where just about everyone had gathered. Copious photos were taken while Buddy Groups reorganised for the start of what would be almost 1,500km of dirt driving.
Almost as soon as we started on the dirt we discovered that while DAV was one of the slowest vehicles on the bitumen, maintaining an average of 90km/h, it was one of the fastest on the dirt, averaging the same speed.
Many of the entrants had never driven on this sort of dirt road before and took James Freeman’s advice about driving at 40 to 50km/h to heart. A few of us, with Outback experience, knew that the only way to drive on these roads is to get up to a good cruising speed and skim across the top of the corrugations.
Suddenly, we found ourselves in the lead group, comfortably sailing along what was a veritable dirt highway, and passing numerous slower cars that bounced and rocked over every bump.
The Mini seemed to be on-song and just loving the conditions, but the outside temperature was steadily climbing.
We stopped for a look at Lasseter’s Cave, about 170km from Yulara. It was here that gold prospector Harold Lasseter, while on an expedition to find his “lost” gold reef in January 1931, spent nearly a month alone before wandering off into the desert and perishing.
After a nice break at the cave, we got back onto the main road toward Docker River and the Western Australian border. After only about 10km DAV suddenly lost power and the engine temperature spiked. Upon checking we found we had blown a head gasket.
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The BMC Experience Issue 7. Oct-Nov 2013 Magazine
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