October 26, 2002

The Best Kind of History Lesson

I was never a big fan of history at school. Oh sure, there were some fun bits, like hearing how the ancient Egyptians used to pull dead peoples' brains out through their noses, or how Henry VIII used to lop the heads off any wives he got fed up with, but by-and-large, history seemed pretty dull to me. Of course, Australian history was even worse… it was full of people like Leichhardt, Sturt, and Burke and Wills, who went off exploring inland Australia… big deal.

And that's the fascinating thing about history. When it has no relevance there is nothing quite so boring. But when you manage to get directly involved in it and see the sights and go to the places in which this history actually took place, it suddenly takes on a whole new meaning and interest.

Like most people, I knew the names Burke and Wills. They were those explorer dudes who went off across Australia looking for goodness only knows what and I can't even remember if they found it or not. I'm sure I must have been away the day they taught that in school. I remember something about a "Dig Tree", whatever that was, but never knew anything about what it was or what relevance it had.

Then a while ago, while researching the trip to Cameron Corner, Innamincka and Coongie Lake on the web I started to see lots of references to Burke and Wills, the Dig Tree, and the exploration of inland Australia during the second half of the 1800s, but still really had no idea what it was all about. However, when my son came home from school one day saying he had been learning about the Burke & Wills expedition of 1861, and explaining to me what the Dig Tree was all about, I began to take a renewed interest in it. It's funny how seeing things through your kids' eyes changes it for you.

So by the time the trip came around on Friday the 4th of October, it was with some enthusiasm and excitement that we set off to meet the troops and head to Cobar in central NSW. Arriving at Lithgow McDonalds in good time, we met Dave and Jen Shappcott in their 'Cruiser and Tim and Leah Steele in their V6 Vitara. It wasn't long before we were all on our way, with the two V6 Zooks and the Landcruiser eating up the kilometres between Lithgow and Cobar. We took the last hundred kays or so quite easy, very aware of the number of dead roos scattering the sides of the highway and not wishing to add to the tally.

We met up with Monica at the motel in Cobar and everyone got together that evening for a very enjoyable dinner at the local club/pub.

I had a discussion with some friends recently where we were debating exactly where the ''outback" starts. My contention was originally Dubbo. After you drive through Dubbo the land gets very flat and the roads start to straighten out. I think I've changed my mind though. There is a much more pronounced change to the landscape once you pass Cobar - the road passes through low scrubby land filled with saltbush and the distance between towns increases dramatically. It was this sudden expansion of distance and the reality of the vastness of the Australian continent that would later make the achievements of these early Australian explorers so evident.

We eventually swung north through Wilcannia and headed up the dirt to White Cliffs. White Cliffs is an interesting place. An opal mining town with a population of between 100 and 200 depending on
the time of year, most of the town lives underground and thanks to Donna, we were lucky enough to get invited in to visit one of the gentlemen that live there. We drove up onto the hill at the edge of the town where many of the dugouts are located, and Donna went for a wander to see what she could see. Next thing we know, she's managed to meet a fellow by the name of Jim, and he's invited us in for a look around his house. He told us he works in Broken Hill for part of the year and comes up to White Cliffs the rest of the time. We got to see his "extensions"… every time he wants a new room in the house, he just gets a jackhammer and makes one. Sometimes the rooms even pay for themselves, as he showed us where his "hallway" revealed quite a profitable opal vein. After that we went for a drive around the town, popped in to see the Underground Motel, the old Solar Power station, and of course, no visit to White Cliffs would be complete without a visit to Joe's Opal Shop. Made entirely of beer bottles embedded in concrete, the walls of the house form an effective insulation against the outside heat. Many years ago, Joe used to encourage visitors to engrave a message into the glass circles of the bottle bases in the walls, but he no longer does this. However, we still managed to find a bottle engraved with "Suzuki 4WD Club of NSW - Jimny Club of Japan, Outback Trip 1988" - a leftover from the Club's outback trip with our Japanese counterparts back in the Australian Bicentennial Year.

After a pleasant round of drinks and pool at the pub that night, (where due to an apparent time zone difference, Alex was suddenly 12 years old), we retired back to the campground for the night. We set off bright and early the next morning heading for Tibooburra via Milparinka and the Silver City Highway.

Tib is your typical quiet Outback town, but when we arrived there we had to fight for petrol bowser space with about 50 other cars that were part of a fundraising "bash" organised by the Cobar Rotary Club. We got a few raised eyebrows and comments about our "little buses"; some of these fellas seemed surprised to see Suzukis being used as serious outback touring vehicles.

We then made a quick stop at the local National Parks and Wildlife Office where we had a bit of a chat to Ingrid the Ranger. She gave us her advice on road conditions and the best ways to go. It's always worth checking in with the local rangers when you head Outback, as she suggested we take a completely different route to the one I'd originally planned, and it turned out to be a much better choice. She told us some of the horrors of the drought situation, including some awful things that were happening to the local kangaroos. She was also pretty concerned about the state of the roads, saying that they had not been graded properly for ages because it was just too dry to do it, and warned us that by the time we got back to Bourke the endless corrugations would make us "feel like killing somebody!"

Sturt National Park is rather unique and not at all what you might imagine when you think of National Parks. Very dry, very flat, very dusty and very rocky, the road took us out through stony gibber plains, across the famous Jump Up territory, and eventually headed north until we were running parallel along the Vermin Proof Fence. The fence, sometimes known as the Dog Fence or the Dingo Fence, is the longest fence (and in fact the longest man-made structure) in the world. Starting in South-East Queensland and finishing near the coast along the Great Australian Bight in South Australia, this section of the fence almost forms the boundary between NSW and QLD. (It's actually a few metres north of the real boundary we later discovered.) We stopped for photos, and then headed off towards our evening camping spot at Fort Grey.

Fort Grey, so named because it was originally the site of a supply stockade by the early explorers, is situated on the edge of Lake Pinnaroo, one of the Outback's many ephemeral lakes. It was completely dry of course; in fact many of the gum trees in the region had started to drop leaves in an attempt to survive the incredibly dry conditions. The region has not seen rain since June 2001 - over 16 months.

Next morning we headed towards the Corner. I was actually a little disappointed with the drive out there - when I was last in the area about 14 years ago with the Bicentennial Trip, the road to the corner was little more than a couple of sandy wheel ruts that travelled over countless red dunes. It was quite an adventure, cresting the soft red sand dunes, making your way to the Corner of NSW. Nowadays, with all the tourism in the area, the track to the Corner is a wide graded "highway", often laid with white gravel to make the ground firmer. Although still quite corrugated in places, it was a far better road than I expected and in some ways made the trip less of an adventure. It was still good fun being out there, just not what I expected. I suppose that's the price of progress.

After doing our border crossing and taking photos of our cars going through the gate, we stopped in at the Corner Store for fuel and supplies and visited the actual Corner marker. The state boundaries were originally surveyed by John Cameron, hence the name. The kids, including the big kids, all had turns at being in three states at once.

From here we headed out into the enormous expanse of parallel sand ridges that form the edge of the Strzelecki Desert. Again the road was quite good, wide and graded, as it headed west. We were able to drive at a reasonable pace, and found that if we approached the dunes at around 90 kilometres an hour we got a wonderful weightless sensation as we went over the top. We could feel the suspension unload as we crested each ridge, and then absorb the trough as we came down the leeward side, much like a giant rollercoaster ride. It was good fun, and had the kids giggling their heads off in the back seat.

From here, the road progressed through Bollards Lagoon Station property, and then gradually turned north until it met the Strzelecki Track at Merty Merty Station. We had the option of travelling along the Strez itself, or using the Old Strzelecki Track, so we opted for the latter. It was actually a pretty good road, very dusty and fairly corrugated in places, but we found that by choosing your speed it could be driven on at a good pace so the corrugations were not too severe. There is really no good speed for driving on outback corrugations - too slow and you feel every jolt in the road and too fast finds you hitting unexpected potholes and bulldust. One the whole we found it better to go a bit faster and just keep our wits about us.

The Old Strez eventually rejoined the New Strez, and took us towards Innamincka along possibly the worst road I've ever travelled across. It was made entirely of gibber stones, and was one of those roads that was uncomfortable at any speed. One of the things you become aware of very quickly when driving through the Outback in a Suzuki is the narrower track of the vehicle compared to the Toyotas and Nissans which form the bulk of the traffic out here. Driving in the wheel ruts of these bigger vehicles is an interesting exercise, as the Zooks tended to sit on top of the raised trail of stones which form between the wheel ruts. This gives you an often awkward feeling of falling either left or right into the ruts of the bigger vehicles. It's a driving technique that eventually comes together with practise, but it does take a little getting used to, especially at speed. We found that every so often one of the ruts would "grab" a bit more that the other, and it was easy to get into a pretty interesting tramlining situation if you weren't careful. There were a few occasions when I found us pointing in a slightly different direction to the one I expected.

Innamincka at last and we refuelled again, bought supplies and had a great lunch at the pub. It was here I kept seeing lots of references to the famous Burke and Wills expedition, but still didn't really understand what it was all about. I saw a book about Burke and Wills in the General Store, and although tempted to buy it, decided not to for some reason.

Our destination that night was Coongie Lake, about 100 kilometres North-West of Innamincka. Coongie is a permanent body of water, fed by the Cooper Creek. Cooper Creek is poorly named - not actually a Creek at all, it forms one of the largest river systems in Australia, with a watershed stretching across most of northern Queensland, and along with the Diamantina River forms the enormous expanse of land known as Channel Country. Dry for most of the year, the Cooper is capable of filling quickly when it rains in the catchment area, which can be thousands of kilometres away from Innamincka. There are however, a number of permanent or semi-permanent waterholes along the Creek such as Burke's Waterhole, Cullyamurra Waterhole and the beautiful Coongie Lake system.

The trip to Coongie started out OK on some fast and smooth desert roads, but soon deteriorated into a pretty rough and bumpy track. The last 10 kays into the lake area were atrocious and I think we were all pretty pleased to get there. But get there we did, and it was well worth it… quite literally an oasis in the desert, Coongie is a large shallow lake right in the middle of nowhere. Because it is the only permanent source of water for miles around, it attracts a great number of birds, and the drought only increased its popularity with the local birdlife.

We set up camp right on the shore of the lake, but only after we had a chance to cool off in the milky waters. Monica especially found the water a treat after having so much dust pouring through the open soft top of her little Suzy for the last few days.

We really enjoyed our time at Coongie. It was nice just "sitting on our dots" with very little to do except read, play games or swim. We managed to entertain ourselves quite nicely. We had a chat with the folk camped down the beach from us in a couple of new Nissan Patrols, and they have turned me off ever owning a Nissan (like THAT was ever going to happen!) They blew an injector pump near Dubbo and were stuck there for a few days while they had to wait for parts to be flown up from Melbourne. What a great way to spend your holidays.

After two nights at Coongie, it was time to head back to Innamincka to then head west along the Cooper itself. We pulled into Innamincka to refuel and restock, and also to ring Hammo to offer or apologies for being unable to attend the club meeting that evening. He actually sounded like he would have quite liked to have been travelling with us on our adventure through the outback rather than sitting in his office counting beans, but it's hard to be sure about these things over the telephone. I'm sure he was quite happy to be at work really. We also bumped into our friends in the Nissans again… this time, it seems one of the cars had blown a turbo and was facing a 750 km "nurse" drive into Broken Hill, where another long delay waiting for parts seemed inevitable. Seems the Nissan advertising phrase "just wait till you drive it" was proving very accurate for these folk …

While in the Innamincka store, I also decided to buy that book about Burke and Wills I had been considering on my previous visit a few days earlier.

Heading out of the town on "the worst road in Australia" (apparently), we then headed east towards Cullyamurra Waterhole, the largest waterhole on the Cooper Creek. On the way there we took a slight detour to see the very spot where Burke died back during his fateful expedition of discovery.

Burke's place of demise is under a big old Coolabah tree on the banks of the river. Marked by a stone cairn with a simple plaque stating "Robert O'Hara Burke, died here, 28 June 1861", it was an amazingly understated tribute to one of Australia's most significant explorers. I suppose if you've got to die, there are worse places it could happen. There was a certain eeriness though; walking along the bank of the creek, knowing you were walking in the footsteps of the famous expedition which took place 141 years earlier.

The next two days camped along the Cooper were wonderful. We happened to find a canoe by the river belonging to the Innamincka Hotel, so decided we should probably mind it for a few days. It was a good way to explore the river, and we all had a go of paddling our way around the creek. Like Coongie, Cullyamurra Waterhole was also a haven for birdlife and we managed to spot lots of locals in the trees surrounding our campsite… pelicans, eagles, crows, sparrows and a very majestic kite who kept us enthralled with his soaring directly overhead for hours on end.

This campsite was the only one we were able to have a campfire, so we made the most of it that night, and the Steele's cooked up a delicious roast. I became enthralled in the Burke & Wills book, sitting reading it and feeling the need to glance up every so often just to take in the surroundings which were being described so vividly within the pages of the book. It was bizarre reading about the history behind the expedition, and then getting to the part where they were camped along the Cooper, and here I was, sitting on the same land they traversed all those years ago. The story described the gibber plains to the south of the creek - and I could glance to my left and see the reddish orange of the gibbers through the trees. There's nothing like being there to bring the story to life. It really was the best kind of history lesson.

Our trip home took us out to the actual Dig Tree - Burke's infamous Camp 65, where he took Wills and 2 others on a desperate sprint to the Gulf to claim his position in history as the first white man to cross the continent from south to north. The debacle of that story, of how they returned to camp on the same day the support team at camp 65 left for Menindee, and how they covered their tracks so it looked like no one had been to the camp, and the ensuing comedy of errors that followed… it gave me goose bumps to actually BE there where all of this Australian history took place. To stand at the tree and see "B LXV" (Burke's camp 65) engraved into the tree and look around the see the spot by the river where he and Wills must have been digging up the camel chest to get the supplies… it was quite eerie, and very humbling to have spent the last few days travelling through this amazing country in an air-conditioned 4WD, but being able to more fully understand the incredible hardships that the heat and dust and vastness must have put these people through.

Had I simply read about all this in a book it would have meant very little. To actually be there, standing in the shade of the Dig Tree, staring out into the vastness of the great Australian continent, was a truly awe inspiring feeling. I don't think there is any way someone could truly appreciate just how enormous an achievement it was for these pioneer explorers unless they had actually been out there and seen it and experienced it for themselves.

The trip home from there was long, but straightforward. A change of plans saw us heading west through Queensland out to Noccundra and Thargomindah, instead of the route originally planned through Warri gate and back to Tib. Leaving Thargomindah the next morning had us heading south through Hamilton Gate back into NSW for the long drive home. Our original plan to stop at Nyngan for the night was shelved and we eventually drove all the way back to Sydney that day, with stops in Bourke, Dubbo and Orange - a total day's drive of over 1250 kms.

It was a great trip, with great company and some stunning scenery. If you've never been out that way, all I can say is do it. You may never really appreciate the true spirit of the Australian landscape until you do.

Chris Betcher
October 2002

July 17, 2002

Zookimelt - The Big Picture

How can you explain a phenomenon like Zookimelt?

Individual people from all over the world, people who have never even met each other, who have nothing in common except for their choice of vehicle, getting together in a global show of solidarity. It's not like we are trying to change the world or anything. We simply all went for a drive. Just got in the car, and went for a drive.

But there was something special about the fact that we all got in cars that had something in common. All over the world. Different languages, different timezones, different continents. Same spirit. Quite remarkable when you think about it really.

You see, while we were trundling along through the Gardens of Stone National Park in Lithgow, there were other people doing the same in their little corner of the world. Some likeminded Americans were doing the zook thing over in the Badlands Offroad Vehicle Park in Attica, Indiana. On the other side of the globe, the members of the Samurai Club of Portugal were doing their thing too. So were fellow zooksters in Thailand, England and New Zealand. The Ba'Zuki group in Sweden were doing it Swedish style and of course the Jimny Club of Japan were doing it in the land of the rising sun.

So what? What's so special about the fact that a bunch of people all went for a drive on the same day? I guess it's pretty trivial really, I mean we just went for a drive and had a bit of fun in our cars, right?

Maybe, but maybe it's bigger than that. I really enjoyed the day, even though Lithgow has never really been one of my favourite places. (though it is growing on me!) But I had a real sense that we weren't just going for a drive… that we were part of something much bigger. That we were a part of a global family who shared something in common even if it was just something as silly and insignificant as all driving a particular make of 4WD.

I remember a few years back we invited some members of the Jimny Club of Japan out to Australia, and the most remarkable thing about the week or so that we spent travelling together was the fact that despite our lack of common language, we actually had a lot of other stuff in common. We would look under the bonnets, point and gesture at things and we knew what each other meant. We camped together, sat around campfire and spoke with our hands. The 4WDing experience became like a common language that held us together… it was quite remarkable. And another time I recall going to Bali and having all these conversations with other Suzuki owners who didn't speak a whole lot of English but who gladly let me poke around their cars, checking out stuff that was different to what I'd seen in Australia. I owned a Suzuki - I was a friend.

And over the next few weeks, we'll start to see stories emerging over the Internet of how the world's Suzuki clubs celebrated Zookimelt. And you'll hear stories and see pictures of how someone else in some other part of the world just went for a drive too, but don't lose sight of the bigger picture.

Most of the world's governments can't get people to cooperate globally like the world's Suzuki Clubs did on July 13/14, 2002. There are places in the world where they blow each other up simply because the other guy's a bit different. You can watch countries bitch and fight about all sorts of stupid issues just because they can't seem to agree on how things should work or who should be in charge or what colour the other guy's skin is.

So when you think about Zookimelt, think about what it stands for. On a single weekend in July, a bunch of people from all over the world, who were separated by oceans but not by passions, just got in their cars and went for a drive.

And that's how the world should be.

Chris Betcher
July 2002

May 22, 2002

The Explore Sydney Series

Three day trips which skirt around the outside of the Sydney Basin, exploring the roads and tracks which surround the region.

Explore Sydney One – The Northern Loop

On Sunday the 25th of May, a group of Zooks (plus a Landcruiser) met at the Colo River Roadhouse to spend a day exploring the northern edges of the bush surrounding Sydney as part of the Explore Sydney One trip - a trip that would start at Colo on the Putty Road and work its way across to the Watagans SF near the Central Coast.

After leaving Colo, we headed back over the bridge and then looped back under it to travel along the road to Upper Colo where we found a wooden bridge that led us along a track to the Upper Colo Reserve – a beautiful camping area by the river which could accommodate a huge group of campers on flat, grassy ground.

Leaving the Reserve, we headed back up the trail to rejoin the Putty Road at Colo Heights where we turned right and did the short hop back to the Wheelbarrow Ridge turnoff, which we were proceeding along when we heard a call on the UHF from a delayed Ian and Sarah so it was decided that the main group should wait while the Betcher’s returned to the main road to get them and bring them back to rejoin the trip.

Reassembled, we made our way along the ridge, with the road turning from tar to gravel, until we eventually reached a turnoff marked Wheelbarrow Ridge Track so we decided to follow it; this trail stayed high on the ridge whereas the main road would have dropped us down along the banks of the Hawkesbury until it eventually climbed back to meet the ridge trail – a trail that had a few bumps and holes in it but was still a pretty easy drive despite the wet surface.

Eventually arriving at Webbs Creek Ferry via the recently constructed Bicentennial Road, we turned towards St Albans, where we stopped for a lunch break and a relax before continuing on our way north to Buckety, stopping to have a poke around in some rather narrow and overgrown trails not far from the Mogo campgrounds – another very nice open flat camping area which is well worth another visit.

From Buckety, we drove about ten kilometres to the turnoff known as “The Letter A” which forms a western entry point to the Watagan area – an area which was quite wet in places causing some of the tracks to be closed to all traffic so we took an alternate tar route via some small villages before turning up Bumble Hill.

Back on the dirt, we took the turn to Middle Ridge Road which would hopefully lead us out to civilisation near Ourimbah, but we took a fortuitous detour up to an electricity tower and while waiting for the rest of the group to ascend, we discovered a nice little hill which was very wet and rutty so Marcus, Hammo, Chris and Shaun decided to go to the bottom and see what was there.

Only Hammo was able to return to the top, and even that was with some difficulty as the steepness and muddiness of the hill afforded very little traction, but after a number of attempts the Hammo-mobile made it back to the top, leaving the Vitaras to take an alternative route back to the top of the hill where we regrouped for the final run out to the main road.

A few short kilometres had us at the back of the Palmdale Crematorium, where we said our goodbyes and then headed out to rejoin the F3 near the Ourimbah turnoff and fight it out with the traffic heading back to Sydney which was a little heavy due to the wet weather although it flowed reasonably well considering the conditions.

Participants for the day were the Betchers, the Cheungs, and the Hammos, Hedley, Marcus, Shaun and Ian and Sarah, making a total of seven cars and seventeen people.

PS, If you think this article reads a bit strangely, it’s because Tim Steele told me that a trip report only needs to be a minimum of 10 sentences… so I took him up on it. ;-)

Explore Sydney Two – The Southern Loop

Explore Sydney is a series of one day outings designed to explore what lies to the north, south and west of the Sydney Basin. Last month’s northern trip was good fun, so Part 2 of the Explore Sydney trilogy saw us heading southwards. We met at Engadine Maccas, before taking a drive through the beautiful scenery of the Royal National Park and down to Bald Hill, overlooking Stanwell Park. No hanggliders today – not enough wind – but the view from the top of the peak is still stunning, and it’s easy to see why it has been called “the most photographed view in Australia”. We added to the theory by clicking off a few pixels, before heading down Lawrence Hargrave Drive, perhaps better known as The Coast Road.

Upon reaching Bulli Pass Road we turned right and headed up the hill, blowing some of the carbon buildup out of the engines. The V6 Vit loves being driven hard uphill, so this first ascent up the escarpment was a great deal of fun. At the top, we headed down the freeway, before exiting onto Picton Road to head inland. From there, we followed a tourist side road up to Mount Keira Lookout where we had marvellous views right up and down the coast.

From here, we were treated to the tour guiding skills of Ian Harris as he pointed out many of the side roads, shortcuts and points of interest he has learned from the work he does driving buses for the old folks. We descended down the escarpment again, and a group decision was made to pop in and look around the Nan Tien Temple. It wasn’t the sort of destination that a club trip normally goes to, but all were keen to see it. Very interesting place if you’re down that way. It’s the place on the big golden rooves on the left as you head through Dapto, and is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the southern hemisphere, or so I’m told.

A few hungry tummies were calling, so we decided to cruise down to the Macquarie Pass turnoff and give the cars another fun ascent up the ‘scarp to visit the famous Robertson Pie Shop. I know that driving on dirt is more fun that driving on tar, but there aren’t too many untarred roads down this neck of the woods. We were musing on the UHF what it must have been like to travel the road back before it was tarred, but tar or no tar, it is still a really beautiful (and enjoyable) drive.

Lunch was taken at Robertson, and then we cruised up through Bowral and Mittagong back onto the Freeway towards Sydney.

Not a lot of 4WDing so far you might have noticed… so I perused some old maps which showed a few dotted lines off into the hills behind Colo Vale and Hilltop and a decision was taken to see where they went, if anywhere. The track on the map did indeed exist, and we aired down to see where it would take us. A couple of ledges, a few rutty bits, an interesting crossing of a stream (at the top of a fairly large waterfall drop) and we then wound up a rocky hill to see where it went. Tim found a log that seemed to want to jam itself under his front diff, but he was soon released with a bit of help from his friends, and we continued on, only to discover that the track dead-ended. Oh well, you’ll never never know if you never never go. Some further explorations of the area led to more dead ends, but there were still lots of lines on the map that had potential for another day. So although we only got a limited amount of offroad play, it was still a nice way to finish a fun day of touring around. The bottom line is that the southern region doesn’t have a lot that is untarred, or open, unless you travel a bit further south.

One last sprint down the freeway to refuel and regroup at Pheasants Nest and we said our goodbyes. The consensus of opinion for the day was that it was a good trip, and despite the lack of serious 4WDing, most of the crew said they had a good time.

The final west trip? Ah, now that’s going to be a different story! Be prepared to get a bit dirty on that one.

Explore Sydney Three - The Western Loop

The Explore Sydney series concluded on Saturday November 29 with the final western loop. As you may recall, I've been running a series of trips which were aimed at skirting around the edges of Sydney on some of the lesser road and trails. The original idea came from taking a turnoff on the Putty Road at Colo one day and just following it to see where it went. At the time I had no idea where it was going, but sure enough, it eventually led me to more familiar territory down near Sackville. It seemed to me that there must be lots of tracks, roads and trails around the outskirts of our city that we rarely use so I decided to run this series of trips just to explore them.

The first trip met at Colo River and headed along the northern boundary via Wheelbarrow Ridge and the Hawkesbury River , up through Yengo National Park and Bucketty, across the Watagans, emerging at Ourimbah on the Central Coast .

The second trip headed south, via Royal National Park and down Lawrence Hargrave Drive – the coast road – where we criss-crossed up and down the Illawarra escarpment a number of times before heading back up onto the Southern Tablelands at Robertson, then went via Bowral, Mittagong and a short spot of 4 WDing near Hilltop.

The final trip went west, meeting at Richmond then heading up the hill to Kurrajong with a peek at Wheeney Creek camping area, back to Bells Line of Road via Mountain Lagoon, then via Burralow Creek, Kurrajong Heights and Agnes Banks, before we climbed the main range again into Springwood. From there we drove down to the Blue Mountains National Park for lunch with the kangaroos at Euroka Clearing followed by a pleasant afternoon swim at the Jellybean Pool.

The aim of the series was not really to do hard 4WDing – there simply aren't that many places to go hard 4WDing close to Sydney any more – but just to poke around and see what lays beyond the city boundaries. We did manage to find a bit of easy fourwheeling on each of the three trips, and even if it was pretty tame it was still quite scenic. What was most rewarding to me as the Tripleader was that on each trip people commented on the fact that they had lived in Sydney for many years and yet were going places and seeing things that they never knew existed. We found lookouts with spectacular views, and shortcuts to places that we never even realised were there. Speaking for myself, I thought I knew Sydney pretty well, but I discovered a lot of new places, and connections between those places, that were completely new experiences. I'm hoping that if some of it was new to me then it was also new to others as well.

We had 11 participants for this final trip – a good turn-up I thought. I especially wanted to thanks Marcus for his suggestions and advice on this last trip, and for coming along to help lead parts of it. The feedback from the Explore Sydney trips has been very positive and everyone seemed to have had a good day out, even if we did make it up as we went along at times. One thing that did really strike me was just how many tracks we have lost over the last few years; it's a real shame and something we need to work very hard at changing for the future.

Chris Betcher

April 12, 2002

Victorian High Country - A Parent's Perspective

I like the challenge of 4WDing. The thrill of trying to do something difficult. The adrenalin rush from overcoming the insurmountable. That wonderful feeling of accomplishment when you do something that other say can't be done. Am I talking about fording a river up to the windscreen? No. Climbing a seemingly never-ending set of rock ledges? No. Driving for hours across desolate and forbidding desert terrain? No.

No, our latest challenge was much bigger than these. It required skills and expertise, daring and resourcefulness. The challenge I'm referring to was fitting two adults and two kids into a Suzuki for a week of camping in the Victorian High Country.

Last time I did this I was in a SWB Sierra. It was just Donna and I and we seemed to have room for everything we needed. This time we were in a Vitara V6 Estate wagon so you'd assume it would be somewhat roomier, but with our two kids, Alex and Kate, we were a little short on space. The leadup to this trip had us a more than a little worried about just how on earth we would fit in everything we needed to take. Despite the fact that the V6 Vit is a much bigger car than the Sierra, once you realise that the kids actually need the whole back seat, there isn't a lot of room left. The luggage area behind the rear seat is pretty small - much smaller than in the Sierra - and we had to carry a much bigger tent, 4 sleeping bags, 4 sleeping mats, enough food for 4, … basically 4 of everything. On top of that, Donna was packing clothes to suit every eventuality of weather, so it was starting to look like being a bit of a squash.

Now I've always been a pretty good car-packer. Most times, my pack is like a jigsaw puzzle and it's always pretty amazing just how much can fit in, but there was no way this was going to work out! To make matters worse, the planning meeting at Det and Hemmi's place highlighted a bunch of other stuff that I had not even thought about taking…

But we did it. We added a cargo barrier behind the kids - partly to keep them safe, but mostly so we could pack the car to the top - and a roof basket with a Rack Sack on the roof racks. Our thanks to Tim Steele for his great suggestions and advice on these things.

Anyway, we somehow managed to make most of the stuff fit in, and after a couple of practise packs we were looking forward to Friday night when we could pack it all for real in anticipation of Saturday morning. It was great… I can't remember the last time I looked forward to something as much as this trip. I was counting the sleeps till Saturday!

When Saturday finally arrived we threw the last few items in the car, squeezed ourselves in and cruised on down to Goulburn to meet the rest of the crew. It's a pretty quick trip to Goulburn these days and we arrived at South Goulburn Maccas in plenty of time to meet Det and Hemmi, Tim Hill and (when they finally arrived) Tim and Leah. :-)

A quick refuel and we were back on the road to Jindabyne, where we stopped again for food and fuel. The fuel issue was also concerning me a bit too, as the V6 can be a bit heavy on petrol and I really hadn't had it offroad for an extended period like this so I had no idea what the offroad consumption would be like. Because our cars are basically twins, Tim and I were constantly comparing things like fuel consumption, gearing, tyres, etc. For some unknown reason Tim and Leah's car was sucking slightly more fuel than ours, so I figured that at least he'd run out first. For some odd reason this made me feel better about the possibility of running out myself. And since Det was driving a mobile petrol station in the Prado, I wasn't too worried.

The run through Thredbo was easy, and we then wound down through some very pretty countryside towards Tom Groggin, where we stopped to air down and let the brakes cool before we crossed the Murray River into Victoria. The crossing was straightforward as the water was quite low, but the sky looked like it could rain and the river can rise quite fast so rather than camp at Tom Groggin as planned, we were eager to get across it. Camp was struck at the edge of the Indi Wilderness where, despite the soft rain, we had a pleasant first night's camp.

Off the next morning, the second challenge struck me. Man! I have to put up the tent and set up the sleeping mats and roll out the sleeping bags and sort out the food boxes and remove the racksack… and then reverse the process the next morning! Hey, this is supposed to be a holiday! I'll be exhausted by the end of the week!

Well, it turned out to not be too bad, and like anything else, once you've done it a few times, you develop a system for it. I think we need to refine a few things, and there are a few changes I'd make to what we take and how we take it, but on the whole it worked out pretty well. We traversed up to Davies Plains, checked out the hut and had a nice morning tea. Moving along McCarthy's Track took us down to where the Murray River rises… and interesting spot, where we stood in Victoria and threw rocks into NSW.

But I won't go on telling you where we went, because you can read that in the other reports. I just read the excellent report by UPP-11T, and combined with Det's summaries, I'm sure you can find out where we went if that's what you want to know. The things I took away from this trip are more mental snapshots. Experiences and moments that are hard to describe on paper, and fall into the "you just had to be there" category.

Like the indoor camp oven cooking session inside King Spur Hut, followed by my kids doing Monty Python renditions. (yes, my kids! Jeez, you know you're kids are growing up when they can recite Monty Python sketches!) Like the climb up Blue Rag Spur track, where we finally got mobile phone and radio reception, listening to Lawsy on the radio and trying to ring him to tell him that Suzukis are much better than Toyotas. ;-) Like the look on Donna's face as we got to the last final ascent to the summit of Blue Rag… bugger me, it was steep too! We've driven steeper, but the sheer drops on the edges of the tracks added a certain something to the adventure.

How can a trip report convey the colours of the mountains down there, where each layer of hills gets fainter and bluer than the one before it? Or describe the intensity of the colours showing on the trunks of the wet snowgums. Or the silence one experiences when you get to the top of a mountain like Hotham, or Bald Top, and then just shut up and listen. To the sound of nothing.

We saw some incredible scenery. It's really difficult to describe the feeling of being on a huge mountain overlooking a stunning cloud filled valley, or in the middle of a forest full of enormous, towering stringybarks, without realised what a tiny speck we are. The feeling of insignificance in the midst of all the natural majesty is quite overwhelming. But it's a good feeling.

I loved the experiences of staying in the mountain huts like King's Spur and Lovick's. It added a marvellous dimension of history and heritage to the trip. Visiting Wonnangatta Valley and checking out the ruins of the homestead and the old cemetery was a really educational experience, and made even moreso by Leah's running historical commentary as we headed out to Zeka spur track.

Part of the joy of seeing and doing and experiencing all this was to see it through your kids' eyes. Indulge me for a sec, but as parents and teachers, Donna and I both know how tedious and irrelevant school can sometimes be, and how it can bore some kids to tears. Quite apart from anything else, I can tell you that the educational value of being able to get out into the bush for a week like this, meeting real people and seeing real places, is beyond measure. It's a great experience for adults, but I just loved seeing the way it affected our kids.

No matter how challenging it might be to fit it all in, I'm so glad we found ways to do it, to fit the four of us into our little zook along with all our gear, and get out there and see this stuff. It was the sort of challenge worth overcoming.

Chris Betcher
April 2002

March 07, 2002

How Times Change… 1985 to 2002

In 1985, I decided to buy a new car. I was young, I'd just started my first fulltime job, and I actually had some money coming in, so I figured I'd wander down to the local dealer and buy a brand new car. I had a pretty bad accident down on the Perisher Valley Road the previous winter, so I was pretty sure I wanted a 4WD, in fact, a friend had a Subaru Wagon and I'd pretty much decided to get one of those. So off I went, down to the Subaru dealer at Sylvania to check them out.

Right next door to the Subie dealer was Tom Fry Suzuki. Sitting in the front yard was a really cute little red soft-top Sierra and it suddenly occurred to me that if I bought one of those, I'd be able to have 4WD for my winter trips AND take the top off during the summer… cool!
And so a plan was hatched. After doing the negotiating with the bank, I was soon the proud owner of the little red Sierra. I didn't know much about Suzukis, in fact my Sierra was one of the first JX1300s… a big step up from the 1.0 litre models, though I didn't even realise that at the time. All I knew was that it was a heap of fun to drive and I really enjoyed going topless on those warm summer days.

On the urging of a friend, I took my new toy down to Boat Harbour a few times, playing in the sand, climbing sand dunes and driving in puddles. Eventually though, I started to wonder what other things this little car might be able to do.

I remember buying my first copy of a 4X4 Australia. It had a short article in there about Newnes - some track notes and a few photos. I thought it looked great, and Donna and I decided that we would start making the most of being 4WD owners and start to get out and see some these wonderful looking places.

Quite coincidentally, the same issue of 4X4 also had a story about track closures, and talked about how many of the places that 4WDers could visit were under threat from the environmental do-gooders. It urged 4WD owners to get involved in a 4WD club of some sort, mainly because it allowed the 4WD movement to have a political voice and unless you were in a club you really weren't "countable". That sounded like a good idea to me, and besides, being in a 4WD club sounded like it could be fun… who knows, we might even go on a trip with them sometime. The magazine had a listing of 4WD clubs in the back and naturally I found the Suzuki 4WD Club of NSW. That chance decision introduced me to one of the most wonderful groups of people and some of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Our first venture with the club was actually quite a mess. We phoned the number in the magazine and was told we could join in a trip to Limeburners on the weekend. Where on earth was Limeburners? We were told to meet at the Wombeyan Caves turnoff just the other side of Mittagong on Saturday morning. Cool. Our first club trip.

We arrived on time on Saturday and waited for the other Suzukis to arrive. And waited. And waited. Eventually an old Land Rover pulled up. Then another. Then a Landrover 110. Then a Range Rover. What was going on here?

A conversation was struck up with the Landrover drivers and we were informed they were from the Sydney Landrover Owners Club, and were also heading down to Limeburners for the day. It seemed we had either gotten the wrong turnoff as a meeting point, or the Suzuki Club had cancelled the trip and not told us about it. Either way, we weren't going to waste the day, so we joined the Landrovers on their trip. They were a really nice bunch of people and when they realised that we didn't know anything about 4WDing they were very helpful to us. They also had nothing but good things to say about the Suzuki 4WD Club and encouraged us to make sure we got back in contact with the Suzuki Club during the week.

Well, we obviously did contact the club, and we've never ever regretted it. Being members of the club opened many, many opportunities for Donna and I … not just in the places we visited during our years with the club, but also with the people we met, the connections we made, the skills we learned, and the way it actually changed us as people. They say that truly strong bonds are formed through adversity, and I believe that's very true. When you spent numerous weekends with people whom you get to know intimately, when you often place your safety in their hands and rely on their experience, you form bonds of trust and mateship that become incredibly strong. It's hard to define what ties people together who go through the sometimes arduous, difficult experience of "going bush" for a few days, but you certainly form stronger bonds with these people than others who just come into your life on a purely social level.

It wasn't long before I ended up getting very involved in the activities of the club. The concept that this was a club, run for members by members, was a really important realisation for me. I think we get so used to a world run by the ubiquitous "they", that we sometimes lose a sense of personal responsibility. It's so easy to say "they should do this", or "they should do that". But here in this club, it just became so obvious that "they" was in fact "us". We had the responsibility. We had the power to make the club into anything we wanted. It was not a faceless organisation that surreptitiously held events for it's membership. The members were the club. That seems such a stupidly obvious thing to say, but the Suzuki Club was the first organisation I had come into contact with where the decisions, the activities and the possibilities were driven by the members themselves, so it was somewhat of a revelation to me.

I learned so much from so many people when I first got involved. People like Graham Walker, Darryl Sheather, Kevin and Gail Hunter and Mick Lord. Yes, they taught me to drive a 4WD, but I actually learned a lot more from them than they will probably ever realise. I learned about passion and conviction, and speaking up about issues that needed speaking up about. I learned about believing in your own abilities and learning to trust yourself and your judgement. About the paradox of being self-reliant and independent while still being able to work together with others as a team.

When I think back to those early experiences in the club, I thought the clearest memories would be about events and places, but in fact they are about people. People like Geoff Mason, Rod Graham, Grant Vella, Andrew Gordon, and Gavin Shepherd. Grant and Dale Rutledge. Peter and Theresa Warman. Dave and Marie Haggar. I'd better stop as I'm sure to leave someone out, but these people changed my life, they really did. We had experiences and went places, did things, shared stories in ways that you just don't do in normal life. Even though I haven't seen some of them for years now, I believe the experiences we shared through the Suzuki Club will always be remembered as special times.

But enough of that. We did go on some great trips to some great places as well. I remember some of those early trips with the club - Chichester State Forest, Helensburgh Gorge, Mangrove Mountain, Yalwal Creek, Wheelbarrow Creek, Brindabella Ranges, Bendethra. Some are still around, but many are not. When I think back of trips, I remember parts of them, like scenes from a movie… certain ledges, certain river crossings … these play in my mind so clearly. I know the trips were longer and many involved driving for hours, but it's the little short memory grabs that still live in my head. I recall particular experiences … like meeting Mick and Graham for a trip to MacDonald River Ridge at night, and driving down the first set of rock steps with a sheer drop to the right, only we couldn't see it because it was so dark. Like sleeping in the car on the side of the Great Western Highway waiting for Peter W to turn up so we could head to Sunny Corner together. Like my first drive down Hansen's Hill to Yalwal, and doing crossing after crossing after crossing of the creek. Like working as a team to get the groups of cars safely down the last tricky section in Chichester. There are so many memories in my head. I have a friend who says that living a full and rewarding life is really about creating a lot of special memories, and that's certainly what the Suzuki Club gave me.

As time went on, I got even more involved in the club. I got very involved in planning for events like Zukanas and 4WD Jamborees. My first Zukana in '87 was quite an experience, and by the time the '89 and '91 events came around, I was pretty heavily involved in the organisation of them. Geoff and I had this dream of making the Suzuki Club more national, and even international, so we made moves to get interstate clubs involved in Zukana for the first time, something which happened in a big way for the '91 Zukana with clubs members from Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland joining us. We ran a couple of week-long trips which acted as escort trips for the interstate visitors, so they could make the most of their trip to NSW and experience some of the best 4WDing we have to offer. That was a fabulous Zukana.

1988 was the Bicentennial year and Geoff had this idea to invite members from the Jimny Club of Japan to Australia on a week long jaunt into the outback. With a lot of hard work and effort we pulled it off, and in April 1988 we took a group of some 12 or so cars, with 7 members of the JCJ on a trip out through Dubbo, Wilcannia, White Cliffs, and then out to Cameron Corner, along the Strzelecki Track to Innaminka, and finally back towards the coast. We went over to Fraser Island for a couple of days and then down to Brisbane for Expo '88. It was a great trip, and was made all the more special by having the JCJ guys along. I still recall the traditional Japanese tea ceremony we had along the banks of the river in Wilcannia, and sitting around a campfire just outside Tibooburra discussing 4WDing with our Japanese friends, they with little English and we with little Japanese. It really didn't matter. The bond was much bigger than the language barrier.

1988 was a big year for me personally too. When I first met Mick Lord he had competed in the inaugural Wynn's Safari rally and I was completely smitten with the idea of doing it myself. It seemed like a real adventure, and was being portrayed in the press as an extremely challenging event, designed to test the skill of the driver and navigator, and the toughness of the vehicle. By '88, I had the rallying bug real bad, and one day just drove up to Brookvale to Automotion's office and laid down a $1000 non-refundable deposit to compete. I had no idea where the rest of the money would come from, or the car, or anything else, but I'd learned that anything is possible if you want it badly enough. Anyway, long story short, we came up with the funding, set up a car and managed to do the race. It started in Alice Springs, went out across the Tanami Desert, up to Darwin, across the Gulf, down through the Channel Country and back towards Sydney. I can honestly say that it was the skills, experience and knowledge that I learned from my involvement with the Suzuki Club that not only allowed us to compete in and finish the gruelling event, but if it weren't for the things I learned and the inspiration I got from being in the club, there's no way I would have even started that event.

Donna and I bought a 1974 LJ50 just for fun and absolutely loved it. Those early Suzukis were just so cool! We took it on lots of trips, and really loved the way it performed offroad. The gearing was just so low - about 56:1 - and being small and light you could take it just about anywhere. The rust eventually killed it, and despite my best intentions to fix it up, it never really happened. But there were some great little LJs in the club back in those days, like Peter Lawrie's little duckegg-blue '50 or Mick Lord's black '50 that he sold to Darryl. Rod Caton had a great '50 as well and used to take it on all the clubs trips, no matter where they were. Rod Graham's LJ80 was a class act. Known as the Mongrel, it was fitted with a 1.0 litre engine, a ton of other modifications, and was one capable little '80.

Over time, we found ourselves doing the same trips over and over so Gavin Shepherd and I decided our mission in life was to find new tracks. We spent many weekends driving up and down the coast, along the Putty road, down the Southern Highlands… 1:25,000 scale maps spread out all over the car's dashboard as we drove… looking for anything that seemed remotely like it could go somewhere. We found plenty of interesting places to go and actually did create some new trips, like Putty to Rylstone across the Wollemi Range.

There's a saying that you can always tell when the neighbours are going to move, because they finally finish all the renovations on their house. By about 1993, I started to feel like I'd done just about everything there was to do in the club. I'd held virtually every committee position, rewritten the driver training course and redesigned the way it was taught, computerised the Club Magazine, and driven pretty much every track there was to drive. (Except for Newnes, funnily enough) Our first baby was on the way, we were in the process of buying a new house, there were a few other distractions in our lives, and we just sort of drifted out of the 4WD club scene. It wasn't a conscious thing, it just sort of happened. We went to club meetings every now and then, but trying to do a weekend camping with a new baby in a short wheelbase soft top Sierra just seemed too hard. Our membership lapsed, but inside we always felt like we still somehow belonged in the club, and I think Donna and I knew it would only be a matter of time till we got back into it.

So one afternoon in 2001, Donna came home from work annoyed and frustrated with the Magna she was driving (which badly needed some work) and I just said "OK, lets go buy another Suzuki." It was that simple. By Saturday afternoon we had put a deposit on a '96 model V6 Vitara Estate.

So here we are. Back in the club in 2002 after an almost 10 year hiatus. Ultimately, it was the thought of trying to go 4WDing with kids, especially when they were really little, that caused us to keep putting it in the too-hard-basket. By the time the first was "old enough" to take camping, the second came along, and by the time she was "old enough", we had just lost touch with the camping and 4WDing scene, so it just never happened. Which is kind of funny really, because before we had kids we were always talking about how we would take them 4WDing with us and raise them as campers, and share all those wonderful experiences with them. Ah well, better late than never I guess.

Has the club changed over the last 10 years? Of course it has. New people come and go, tracks close and vehicles change. The places to go are different. Many of the "classic" trips no longer seem to be on the trip calendar at all… Heartbreak Hill, Wirraba Ridge, Oxford Falls … casualties of a mix of 90s political greenism, and an increasing tendency of 4WD makers to soften their products. As the years have gone on, 4WDs have gotten more luxurious, gear ratios have gotten taller, suspensions have gotten stiffer and more car-like, all of which combine to fundamentally change the basic ability of today's 4WDs. But then, these same arguments were being thrown around back in '85 when I joined the club, only back then they were predicting the demise of offroading when comparing the Sierra to the LJ series. In the early 90s, they said the same thing about the Vitaras. Throughout it all, the club's 4WDing activity hasn't really changed all that much. I guess the more things change, the more they really stay the same.

I clearly remember Mick Lord resigning his membership when the club incorporated. He was disgusted that we had to go to such lengths to protect ourselves from ourselves. He very clearly articulated his view that if people get involved in activities that have an element of risk, they needed to be fully aware of the risks involved and be prepared to take responsibility for their own decisions. When you think about it, it is quite sad that the Club had to legally protect itself from people who were careless and would blame the Club for their own stupidity. But that's the way the world's moving. There has been a growing tendency for all organisations, not just 4WD clubs, to protect themselves from potential lawsuits, and in doing so, refuse to take any form of risk. The result is a blandness, a watering down of the life experience, and I'm so glad the Club has not gone down that path, and still offers an authentic outdoor experience.

Other aspects have changed. The monthly meetings are in a newer bigger venue. The Club website is about as slick and professional as you are likely to find, and a real credit to the people who put it together. There are tons of new faces that I don't know these days, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them as we go on trips together. But you know, apart from a few surface changes, the club is still essentially the same. It still thrives on the passion of its members - people who come together initially to share a common interest in Suzuki 4WDs, but who stay because of the bonds of friendship they form with other people.

At the moment, we're planning for our "first trip" to the Victorian High Country. Should be wonderful, but taking the kids along is presenting a whole new set of challenges in terms of space, packing and equipment. We've needed new tents, new sleeping bags, new everything basically. We're making a few adjustments to the car to try to find ways of carrying all the gear we'll be needing and to make space for the four of us. It's a bit of a challenge, but it'll be worth it, I'm sure. We could always get a bigger car I suppose, but if I can't drive a Zook I'd rather not go at all. I can't imagine ever wanting to drive any 4WD other than a Suzuki.

And so my whole outlook on what I want from going offroad has changed somewhat. Back in the Sierra days, I was into the real hardcore 4WDing, entering competitions and finding the toughest terrain we could find… driving over stuff just to prove it could be driven over. Nowadays, I just want to go places and see things, and experience the joy of getting to places far from the madding crowds. We're looking forward to doing some touring trips, maybe getting out into the desert areas, or up the coast, or into the mountains. We're planning to do the Cape York trip next year, and going back to Fraser Island would be nice too. We still have plans to get down to Tasmania and spend a few weeks touring around there, both onroad and off. The list goes on…

Whatever happens, it's nice to be back.

Chris Betcher,
March 2002