Sunday, April 20, 2008

Offroading in the outback

They wouldn't give me a 4WD car... Technically that's not really true - they'd give me one, it would just cost twice as much, so I ended up with a little gray Toyotta Corolla Seca, which looks very little like any Corolla I've seen back home, but a fair amount like a rally car actually, what with its stubby hatchback shape. So, I took the car into the outback and spent a couple of days looking at Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon, and various red rocks around them, mostly staying on sealed roads, just like I was supposed to, according to the Avis contract...

The Corolla... next to a monument commemorating a few people who had died in the Aussie version of the Cannonball run

And then around 5PM on Saturday, on the way back to Alice Springs, I had a choice - take the long paved road back, or take an unpaved shortcut and shave about 150km off of my travel time. It wasn't really all that much of a choice, since I'd already decided to take the shortcut (Safety Third!), so I was going offroadin'! The road was surprisingly decent as a matter of fact - very wide (at first), nice hard-packed sand and gravel for the most part (with exciting patches of loose sand on occasion), and even banked turns(!). All in all, this tiny shortcut road through the Australian outback, in the middle of the largely empty Northern Territory, was a better road than some of the major, arterial (but also unpaved) highways in Kazakhstan (which see cargo being hauled for thousands of kilometers from China...), and just about any road in India (paved or otherwise).

Seriously, this is a superhighway in Kazakhstan!

I started off a bit tentatively, in spite of the 110km/hr speer limit. Side note: does that seem a bit fast for an unpaved road in the middle of nowhere? Especially considering all the kangaroo corpses I saw lining the roads in the Northern Territory? Or the cows that I found leisurely grazing in the middle of the road? Back in Alice, I was told that Outback Car Rentals (the cheap rental agency my 3-yr old Lonely Planet talked of) had gone out of business becase backpackers kept taking cars and getting into accidents... wonder if there's much of a correlation with the 110 km/hr speed limit! Getting more comfortable, I was soon racing down the line, approaching 100km/hr, trying to decide if there are any lessons I may have learned from the Rally Racing video games that can be applied here - sliding around corners was a consideration, but somehow didn't seem like a good idea! (I did just read a Top Gear article about the amazing rally drivers that Finland produces - after some brief consideration,m I felt I wasn't Finnish enough to be sliding around corners. Related note: New Zealand managed to take a perfectly good British Top Gear magazine and screwed it up!) All in all, the front-wheel drive handling was holding up without a problem, even through the occasional loose sand. The suspension seemed just fine, in spite of me coming sorta close to getting airborne on a couple of occasions. I was both surprised and excited to pass a pair of campervans going in the opposite direction (considering that I had seen exactly five cars going in my direction on the 3 hr drive early that day from Ayers Rock to Kings Canyon on paved roads, I didn't figure it was likely to see any cars on the unpaved road at 6 in the evening!). These suggested that if the car did break and die in the middle of this, eventually somebody would likely be coming along to get me out... right? Also found a flock of cows just hanging out in the middle of the road - very India-like, except these cows weren't anorexic. Each of them looked about the size of a pair of skinny, malnourished, yet holy Indian cows.

I was also a bit distracred getting on as there was a fly in the car with me since Kings Canyon. I had summarily senteced the flight to death (the flies, which are perectly immune to bug repellant here, drove me insane while being outside earlier, so the one that had made it into my car wasn't going to get away by simply flying out the window!). Finally, about half way through, it lingered on the driver side window just a little too long and met its fate! I celebrated by almost getting the car airborne (again). Also about half way through, the road started to get a little more narrow and twisty, so I had to actually start using breaks - up until then, I'd been happy to just coast to slow down. At about 20 minutes after 6, the sun set, bringing the full moon into full view - between some sun light still coming over the horizon and the bright moon in the perfectly clear skies, it stayed light a while longer, creating a serene and beautiful scene. At about 6:45, I was back on paved Stuart Highway, racing towards Alice Springs at a very happy speed limit of 130km/hr! And thinking that it might be fun to try and catch a road rally race some time in Europe... and it'd be even more fun to drive a real rally car on one of those courses. Wonder how the mini would do? The Lada? No reason to wonder there actually - the Lada is indestructible!

I liked the long shadows the car was leaving on the road as the sun was setting... Taking pictures while driving on this road may not've been the best idea though

Oh, and I also saw Ayers Rock and Kings Canyon while in the Northen territory... The offroading was more memorable, I think, but the pictures are admittedly better here:

Sunset at Uluru (Ayers Rock)

Getting close to the base

Kings Canyon

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