Thursday, 3 July 2014

A Range Rover in the Kimberley

On a warm sunny June day in the far north Kimberley, many hard and corrugated kilometres along the road to Kalumburu and the Mitchell Plateau, a lot of bad things can happen.

And usually do.

At our bush camp alongside the King Edward River, 100 kilometres north of Drysdale River Station, I’m on a borrowed satellite phone, making no attempt to disguise the anxiety in my voice generated as much by our dire predicament as it is by the eye-watering cost of the call, measured in increments of seconds. I’m talking with the Land Rover Roadside Assistance centre in far-away Queensland, and the conversation with the genial Caitlin is going something like this:

“Caitlin we need help please. I’ve blown a rear shock absorber on the Kalumburu Road, and another one on the camper trailer. I need a tilt-tray truck to get us out.”

“Certainly Mr Milner, I’m sure we can organize something for you. If we can get a recovery truck to you in a couple of hours would that be okay?”

“Caitlin, you’ll be lucky to get a truck to us within a couple of days, let alone a couple of hours. I’m calling you on a satphone, at a bazillion dollars a minute, from (and I spell it out) King Edward River Crossing, 100 kilometres north of Drysdale River Station, in the far north Kimberley. Google it, please…”

“Oh….I see….Oh dear…”

The road to Kalumburu and Mitchell Falls. Horrible corrugations. 
As I write this, 36 hours later, I’m sitting in the dappled shade of the famous Drysdale River Station outdoor bar, and as yet I have no idea if this story is going to end in relief and hard-won experience, or snot and tears. But it began with months of planning, much anticipation, excitement, and not a small amount of nervousness.

For off-road die-hards, adventurous grey nomads and young families alike, the Gibb River Road through the heart of the Kimberley region has become something of a holy grail. To say ‘we’ve done the Gibb’ seems almost a badge of honour, a phrase worthy of saving up and dropping into suburban barbecue conversation in such a way that, if your timing is good, can be assured of eliciting gratifying gasps of awe from envious family and friends.

Actually, these days much of the Gibb itself is a bit of a doddle. Constructed as a stock route to get cattle from the Kimberley’s million-acre stations to the export ports of Wyndham and Derby, the road once had a fearsome reputation as a breaker of suspensions and dental fillings. These days, depending the work of the graders, and your right foot, you could be pretty confident of driving a Toyota Camry along its 670km without breaking too much. There are still some suspension-busting rough patches, but it’s nowhere near the horror road of even a few years ago.

Three years ago my wife and I had towed a rented camper trailer with my then-new Range Rover Sport from Perth to Broome and along half of the Gibb’s length from the south-western (Derby) end and back with nothing more troublesome than one flat tyre and a car full of red dust so stubborn that after every wash it was still dribbling out of crevices two years later.
A sandy track along the croc-infested Pentecost River, Home Valley Station

We’d loved the adventure, the camaraderie of the campgrounds, and the spectacle of the big country so much we were determined to do it again. But by now I’d been seduced by the boat-towing ability, awesome off-road capabilities and sheer luxury of the full-size Range Rover 4.4 TDV8. After months of searching, I’d found exactly the one I was after, a white L322 2012 model with just under 13,000km on the clock and well-and-truly still under new car warranty. It was for sale at an excellent price, (and less than a new Landcruiser Sahara!) I took possession and immediately began planning for my new pride and joy’s first major off-road adventure.

But I was more than a little nervous, not the least because a Range Rover is not a Toyota. A Range Rover isn’t even a car, it’s a hobby. And in spite of billions of development dollars tipped in by relatively new owner Tata Motors, vast improvements in technology, engineering, engines and transmissions – there is daylight between a Rangie of today and even the mid-nineties – these very British vehicles still suffer a hangover of reliability doubts.

Yet thanks to stunningly effective marketing over many decades, and dozens of awards, Land Rover has done a brilliant job of selling the Rangie and its siblings as the ‘Gold Standard’ in luxury off-road vehicles.
While the agricultural Defender and tricked ‘n slicked Discovery are rightly marketed as serious off-roaders, the Vogue and little brother Sport’s similar off-road abilities are submerged under LR’s polished pitch to the up-market urban buyer. This would be the big Rangie’s real test. Would it hold up? Is it the real deal, a world-class off-road champion? Or is the full-fat Range Rover just an overblown, over-engineered urban status symbol almost entirely designed for  Sydney stockbrokers who’ll never venture further than Bowral?

Well, as it turns out, a bit of both.

But while I had no doubts my Rangie’s gymnastic wheel travel and advanced Terrain Response system was more than competent in the rough stuff, I was less confident about those ridiculous 20 inch wheels, so large you can only fit relatively low-profile tyres, in my case, Cooper LTZs bought specially for this trip to replace the standard Continental road tyres. I was comforted only a little by Land Rover’s much-touted pledge to recover a disabled vehicle from anywhere, no matter now remote, if any of the vehicle’s systems suffered catastrophic failure.

20" wheels - barely appropriate for the Aussie outback.
My fears about the tyres were to prove well founded, if in a roundabout way. The trail of broken suspensions, abandoned camper trailers and trucks carrying disabled vehicles out of the danger zone as we approached it should have been fair warning. But, on a trip that was months in the planning, we pressed on regardless.

It had started perfectly predictably. A three-day drive to Broome where, after celebrating Michelle’s 50th birthday with friends and family who flew in and back home again, we collected the familiar Camprite heavy-duty off-road camper from Brett & Kathy Campbell’s Travelabout Camper Hire, loaded up, and the following day drove out of town for the famous Bungle Bungle range in Pernalulu National Park via Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek on the blacktop Great Northern Highway. It was there where we would meet friends, Glenn McLean and his wife Jacquie, who had driven up the east coast from Melbourne and across the Top End.

The 53km drive into the Bungles from Great Northern Highway is often touted as ‘challenging’. It’s certainly slow – allow up to two hours – and you certainly can’t take caravans in, only single-axle camper trailers. But in the middle of the dry season there’s only a handful of shallow creek crossings to negotiate, and the road itself, while steep and winding in places, is in generally good condition.

Bungle Bungle Ranges, Pernalulu National Park
Our only casualty here was a front number plate, shaken off in the corrugations, and never to be seen again. (This particular number plate had already lived a hard life. On our previous trip it had gone awol during a particularly rough river crossing at Mornington Wilderness Camp, only to be retrieved by another camper later that day. Luckily he’d spotted it lying face-up in the river, and tracked us down by wandering through the camp grounds looking at rear number plates!) A few days later, at El Questro at the northern end of the Gibb, a friendly artist lent me a pot of white paint and a small brush so I could inscribe a temporary solution on the Rangie’s backing plate.

For the next few days we enjoyed the eye-watering spectacles of over-saturated colour only the billion year old ranges, gorges and plateaus of the Kimberley can offer. At El Questro – now a massive American-owned enterprise, much bigger and more commercial than when I first visited in 1991 to film a TV story on founders Will and Celia Burrell – we bathed in the warm waters of 1800 million year old Zebedee Springs and walked through the towering Emma Gorge for a swim under the permanent waterfall, in water so cold it takes your breath away.

Michelle and me after a barramundi fishing session on the Pentecost
We forded the famous Pentecost River in the shadow of the stunning Cockburn Ranges – surely the most photographed river crossing in the Kimberley – and at Home Valley Station, only 50km from El Questro, spent a day fishing for barramundi from the banks of the river using live mullet netted by our guide Tom and his sidekick Shawn. The Pentecost is lousy with big saltwater crocs, and Tom made sure we kept at least a couple of metres back from the bank. “I do not,” he said, “want it recorded on my resume that I went out with 6 guests and only came back with five.”

Pentecost River at Home Valley Station. The most photographed river
crossing in the Kimberley. Crocs make it a bit risky to get out and check
the depth!
But Home Valley and El Questro weren’t the major drawcard for us this trip, as much as their facilities, outdoor bars and restaurants were welcoming enough. It was Mitchell Falls, at the very edge of the far western Kimberley, that we really wanted to see. Michelle and I had choppered over the falls as part of our previous trip north, and as spectacular as they were from the air, none of us had been in on the ground. To get there we had to turn off the Gibb, up the notorious Kalumburu Road to Drysdale River Station, then cross the King Edward River and make our way up the even more notorious Mitchell Plateau Track.

This, it turns out, would be the Rangie’s downfall. But it would be in good company. LandCruisers, Patrols, Pajeros and Prados would all suffer the same fate.

A hundred and seventy five kilometres west of Home Valley we turned off the Gibb and headed north to Drysdale River. Well aware of the limitations of silly 20-inch tyres, I had let them down as much as I dared, to about 33 pounds cold, and even then we were careful to keep our speed down to 60kmh over the short, sharp corrugations that soon made themselves heard, and much slower as the road surface deteriorated the further north we drove. But Glenn and I were continually amazed at how many vehicles went past us in both directions, barreling along at 80, 90, even 100kmh.

Wayne, Drysdale River Station
We overnighted at Drysdale, a million-acre cattle station that’s been in the hands of John and Anne Koeyers since the mid-eighties and surely the site of the most remote station restaurant in Australia. In the dry season it plays host to hundreds of travelling campers and a steady stream of off-road buses loaded with bulbous-bottomed ladies and elderly chicken-legged men in beige Bermuda shorts, long white socks and sneakers, largely unspoiled by red dust.

But it’s not all road-based tourism. Behind the station homestead, we counted six - six! – helicopters parked in a paddock. All of them were being flown by their owners and friends on a private round-Australia jaunt, casually dropping in on various otherwise-inaccessible fishing spots. Now that’s the way to do a Kimberley trip!

You can get unleaded and diesel here, diesel at an eye-popping $2.40 a litre! It’s expensive to truck fuel up to here. The previous day we’d overtaken a BP tanker, crawling along at walking pace over the corrugations. We fuelled up, took a deep breath, and drove back onto the Kalumburu Road and across the Drysdale River. 

The 100km drive to the King Edward River crossing was appalling. Keeping our speed to 40kmh or less gave little comfort, as the corrugations became more widely-spaced and deeper. We cursed other drivers who drove far too fast, with tyres far too hard, and I was convinced this was the cause of the road’s dreadful condition. Cossetted by the Rangie’s air suspension and plush upholstery, we were quarantined from much of the violence, but I had no doubt about the impact it was having on unsprung weight in a vehicle and camper combination tipping the scales at 4.5 tonnes.

Disconcertingly, we were already beginning to see evidence of the road’s destructive tendencies. First, a tilt-tray truck travelling in the opposite direction with a camper-trailer lashed to its tray. A few kilometres further on, another camper trailer abandoned by the roadside, one wheel missing. Finally, after two and a half hours of anxiety, we crossed the King Edward River and pulled into the campground. And discovered that even my careful nursing so far hadn’t been enough. The camper’s right side shock absorber had given up the ghost. But there was worse to come.

Next morning, with the campers left behind, we headed up the Mitchell Plateau Track, Michelle & I in front, Glenn and Jacquie a few hundred metres behind our dust cloud. If anything, the going was worse than the Kalumburu Road. John from Drysdale River had started to grade the track from the eastern end, but he hadn’t got far by the time of our visit. We weren’t able to do any more than 25kmh, and even that was hard work. And yet, to our amazement, Land Cruisers and Prados were belting past us – overtaking in our dust – at more than double our speed.

Less than 20km into the 85km trip, Glenn called on the UHF: “Mate, you’re dropping some kind of fluid on the dirt…” We stopped, blocking one side of the track. There was nowhere to pull over. A look under the right rear of the Rangie and my worst fears were realized. Hot hydraulic fluid was oozing over the suspension, dripping in smelly, smoking puddles in the gravel. While the girls watched and fretted, we jacked the car up and removed the wheel. Yep, the shock absorber was blown.
(I learned much later from experts on the Aulro forum that 25-35kmh was the ‘speed of death’ for shock absorbers on rough roads. Fast enough to generate enormous heat, but too slow to keep them cool.)

We were so near, yet so far from our destination. But as far as Michelle and I were concerned, our holiday was over. But what now? Miles from anywhere, in a Vehicle That Is Not A Toyota? Sweating profusely as we replaced the wheel and let the car down, we pondered the options. And kept pondering them as we gingerly turned the vehicles around and picked our way back to the campground back at the crossing. Borrowing a satellite phone from one of the many tour groups travelling in big off-road buses, I called Barbagallo Land Rover in Perth. It was 4pm, the service manager couldn’t be found, and in any case he would be heading home shortly. We hit the hay that night, and I woke up at 2am wondering how – if, even – a replacement shockie could be found, and how where we were going to get it here.

Glenn’s HiLux dual cab had towed their camper trailer 15,000km from Melbourne without an issue. I quietly appreciated his restraint. He didn’t once even whisper ‘Ya shoulda bought a Tojo mate…”

Middle-aged off-road bikers line up for fuel at Drysdale River. Their trip was to end in disaster a few days later near Broome, when two riders collided at high speed, putting both in hospital with critical injuries. 
In the morning, in exchange for a couple of bottles of wine, I borrowed another satphone, this time from a generous group of jovial middle-aged off-road bikers from Melbourne, and called Roadside Assist, Land Rover’s outsourced service provider. Thus ensued the rather convoluted conversation at the beginning of this story. They couldn’t help. Apparently the ‘fine print’ didn’t allow them to send a recovery vehicle to a non-gazetted road. I started to wonder about the point of a recovery program for an ‘off-road’ vehicle that only worked if you were on a recognized road.

More horror stories emerged from other campers. Two Pajeros, both with shockies destroyed by the road. One had even had heavy duty Konis installed only a few days before in Kununurra. A tilt-tray was on its way from the same town to haul his car and trailer out, hopefully with replacement parts on board for the other Pajero. And from the Mitchell Falls itself, the story emerged of a Landcruiser owner who was getting replacement shock absorbers helicoptered in from Kununurra, for an eye-watering $2,000!

But in the far north, there are no replacement shocks for a Range Rover Vogue. And even if there were, I didn’t have the tools, the expertise or the inclination to attack such a job in the bush, with a single bottle jack and a set of spanners.
(I was to discover later that no shockie other than a Land Rover one will fit. Even the left and right hand side are different part numbers.)

We resolved to nurse the car and camper back to Drysdale, and figure it out from there, while Glenn and Jacquie made the long-anticipated trip to the falls. We’d catch up with them the following day.

Roger. 75 years old, had flown out alone from the UK to Darwin, hired his
camper van and set out on a 3 month adventure through the Kimberley.
He got as far as the track into Mornington Camp when his van broke an
axle. The bill to truck his van out was $6,000. 
The trip back to Drysdale was horrific. It took us more than 5 hours to cover the 100km. Even at 5kmh, the now un-shocked Rangie’s rear was subjected to a level of violence I feared would shake the thing to pieces. Over and over again, while Michelle tried to sooth my nerves, I swore loudly as we hit another vicious stretch of corrugations. I stopped and measured them – 600mm apart, it seemed they were specifically designed to do as much damage as possible to man and machine. We encountered another pair of vehicles towing campers, stopped by the side of the road, the two men sweating underneath one of the trailers. Two of the trailer’s four springs had snapped. After makeshift repairs, they turned back south. It wasn’t worth the effort.

I had thought I might be able to nurse the car and camper all the way down the Gibb to Shinju Motors, the authorized Land Rover agent in Broome. But the fear of doing more damage to an already wounded vehicle put paid to that. And the hired camper wouldn’t have made it either.

The pay-phone at Drysdale River Station. It was in high demand from dozens of
travellers with broken vehicles and trailers. 
Over the next two days, I took up semi-permanent residence at the station’s pay phone (housed in an old fridge!) making innumerable calls to Roadside Assist as they did their best to organize what must have been one of Land Rover’s most expensive, logistically-difficult recovery operations in recent memory. Finally, a tilt-tray was located in Kununurra, 450km away. But it wasn’t large enough to carry both the Rangie and the camper trailer. So it would have to make not one, but two return trips to Broome, another 700km and 18 hours further on down the Gibb. And then go back to Kununurra, a total recovery of more than 3,500km.

There was another problem – getting a replacement shock absorber. I called the dealer in Perth and spoke to Gordon Wales, the service manager. (Like many Land Rover customers, I was on first name terms with my local service manager.) “Greeg,” he said in his thick Scottish brogue, “I’ve got some good news, and some bad news. We’ve found you a replacement shock absorber. It’s in Melbourne!”

Gordon, I said, what if I need more than one?

“Er…they’re in England.”

Then there was the dilemma of how to get Michelle and I out of there. Initially the Roadside Assist people suggested we might like to ride in the truck cab with the driver. “That’s how most people do it when we recover a vehicle.”
Tempting…but no. Fine for a half-hour trip to the dealer’s workshop in Sydney or Melbourne, but I wasn’t brave enough to suggest to my wife that she sit in a truck cab for 15 hours, including a couple of hours by the side of the Gibb in the middle of the night while the driver took a nap.

So I called Broome Air Services and hired a small Cessna to make the four-hour round trip to pick us up. A lazy $2,310 on the credit card. Ouch.
Darryl the truckie arrived at Drysdale just before the aircraft touched down at the station’s strip, and as we took off we looked down to see the Rangie sitting ignominiously on Darryl’s truck, enveloped in a cloud of red dust as he began the long slow haul down the track to Broome. Fifteen hours later, he pulled up in Broome. He took a snap of his odometer: 666,666km. The devil’s number, twice!

Relaxing with truckie Darryl Pearson after he'd delivered our car
and camper to Broome. Took him three days. Grateful, we bought him
a hotel room, a meal and as many beers as he wanted:-)
With the car up on the hoist at Shinju Motors the following morning, I breathed a sigh of relief. There was no apparent damage other than the one blown shockie.
But it was never going to be as simple as that. Two days later we discovered that no, being a part containing compressed fluids, it was classed as a ‘dangerous good’ – air bagging it was out. It had to come by road to Perth, then up to Broome, 7,000km!

We did the sums. It would mean another two weeks before we’d be back home. Land Rover, to their credit, decided to truck the part to Perth, fly us home, and truck the Rangie down from Broome. In the meantime, they’d provide us with a hire car until ours was fixed.
Four days after we returned to Perth, my now-repaired Rangie was delivered back to me.

Now that’s what I call service!

I asked Land Rover's product manager James Scrimshaw for a comment on the whole episode.
"Owners (planning remote trips) should consider expert tuition from a qualified Land Rover Experience instructor. With regard to comments on the suitability of the wheels, 20" wheels are fitted to the most powerful versions of the Range Rover to accommodate the larger performance brakes. The least pwoerful models are fitted with 19" wheels as they do not have the same brake package fitted."

Some conclusions, and useful suggestions for anyone contemplating an expedition to some of the most breathtaking country in Australia:
1)     I’d never attempt such a trip again in any vehicle shod with 20 inch tyres. Even my previous car, a Sport with 19s, was pushing it. Eighteens would be better.
2)     I’d carry spare shock absorbers. Everyone carries spare tyres – I had three, and didn’t have a single flat – but nobody we spoke to on this trip had spare shocks. For any vehicle. And, over heavy ground, I’d stop every few kilometres and check the temperature of the shockies. And if too hot, let them cool down.
3)     Would I do it again in a Rangie? Given bigger tyres, absolutely. Land Rover’s Roadside Assist people did an excellent job in trying circumstances. And I’m pretty sure that of all the cars and trailers that had to be pulled out of the Kimberley in the week or so we were there, mine was the only manufacturer who picked up the tab.

Considering I’m probably the only owner of a near new Range Rover in Australia to ever attempt to get to Mitchell Falls, there wasn’t a lot of directly comparable experience to fall back on prior to making the trip. As an exercise to determine if an off-the-showroom-floor Rangie could cut the mustard, it was, to say the least, interesting. 
But I have no doubt, knowing what I now know about shock absorbers, I'll get there next time. In supreme comfort, in a Rangie. With higher-profile tyres!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Wednesday, June 10.
So this will be interesting. It's 7.30am and we're due to drive out of Broome this morning for an overnight stop at Lawarra station between Fitzroy and Hall's Creek, and then into the Bungle Bungles the next day, after that El Questro, Home Valley and beyond. 

The spare tyres I ordered last Thursday after the blowout north of Carnarvon still haven't arrived yesterday, so I call Tyrepower here in Broome. Nah mate, the truck hasn't arrived yet. Oh do you think it'd be a good idea to call the freight company in Perth to inquire about their status. Gee, what an excellent idea, we'll get back to you. Half an hour later: Er, they've been sitting on the freight company's loading dock since last Friday. They forgot to put them on the truck. 

Brilliant. So we're leaving for the Gibb River Rd this morning with only one spare. Tell you what, Tyrepower Man says brightly....I should be able to get them here by Friday, and put them on the Greyhound bus to Kununurra for you. Should be there by Monday. Which means we'll have to back-track from El Questro and (maybe!) get the tyres fitted before we travel too far down the Gibb.

And he wonders why I was sounding a tad grumpy. 

Monday, 9 June 2014

The adventure begins

If you don't love driving, the 2,400 km stretch from Perth to Broome would be a chore. Fortunately, I enjoy driving in inverse proportion to my loathing of flying (I do enough of that for work) and Michelle's happy to sit in the passenger seat.
This trip had been a long time in the planning. Three years ago we'd driven half way up the famous Gibb River Rd, as far as Mornington camp, before we'd run out of time and had to head back to Perth. We'd loved it, flooded creek crossings and all, so when our Melbourne friends Glenn and Jacqui McLean suggested we meet them half way through their round-Australia drive we jumped at the chance.

It would also coincide with Michelle's 50th birthday, so with that in mind we'd rented a large house overlooking Roebuck Bay and invited about 30 friends and family to fly up for the party.

We certainly had the appropriate vehicle for it, a 2012 Range
Rover diesel 4.4 V8. But all cars rely on tyres, and I'd fallen for the false economy of buying a set of half-used Cooper off-road tyres for the trip, one of which threw a tread somewhere north of Carnarvon after only about 10 hours on the road. Back in phone range somewhere near Karratha, we phoned ahead to Tyrepower in Broome and ordered a pair of brand new Cooper LTZs to be brought up from Perth, hopefully in time for us to head off into the Kimberley proper by the following Wednesday. In the meantime, we had about 30 friends and family flying into Broome that weekend to help celebrate Michelle's 50th birthday and enjoy the little luxuries afforded by renting one of the town's top private houses, Koolinda (owned by Karl and Donne Plunkett - thanks guys!) overlooking Roebuck Bay. Highly recommended - if you're part of a big group looking for accommodation in Broome, this one's hard to beat, check it out on Stayz here:
By day 6 we we ready to collect the Camprite camper trailer from Kathy & Brett Campbell's Travelabout hire business in Broome and pack it ready for 2,000 kilometres of travel through the heart of the Kimberly. If only those tyres arrive in time!