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