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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.