It's hard to believe that last year Bruce Garland was recovering from major heart surgery—just two months after fracturing a vertebra in a disastrous crash at the 2011 South American Dakar. But like an old dog that refuses to lie down, Bruce is back in the driver's seat and singing like a lorikeet after posting first in class at the Finke Desert Race.
Finke was his first opportunity to dial in his Dakar-spec, All-New Isuzu D‑MAX with its new suspension, frame and tyres. The fifth D‑MAX hand-built by him at his Sydney workshop, it puts out a huge 180kW of power and 590Nm of torque.
Next on the bucket list for Bruce is the 2012 Australasian Safari in Western Australia in September. There he hopes to rewrite the history books by taking first in the diesel class before returning to South America in January for Dakar 2013.
It's as if I'd been pulled from a crowd of spectators by some kind of eenie-meenieminie-mo and dumped into a rally car.
Bruce Garland is sitting next to me, his face a crumpled portrait of agony. He's sawing away at the steering wheel of his All-New Isuzu D‑MAX like a hyperactive lumberjack. And he's desperate to make it to the finish.
I'm covering the 2012 Tatts Finke Desert Race except I'm not standing at the finish line with notepad and pen with the other reporters as competitors come charging down the straight. No, I'm sitting right beside one of them. Somehow, I've been made Bruce's navigator even though I've had no preparation. It's as if I'd been pulled from a crowd of spectators by some kind of eenie-meenie-minie-mo and dumped into a rally car. That's pretty much how I feel.
"I've driven some pretty horrendous roads in Australia and that would have to be the worst in the country," Bruce says as we hammer from Finke back to Alice Springs, a 230km stretch of blistering, bumpy torture. It doesn't help that we have practically no rear suspension— it fell out towards the end of the race. So let me take you back to the beginning of this jack-in-the-box of an adventure, to when we touched down in Alice Springs.
Day 1: No Town Like Alice
The first thing that surprises me about Alice is that it isn't the flat, coppery ocean of land I expected it to be.
Everywhere I look are ancient ridges peeping over the horizon: once-great mountains sanded down by millions of years of erosion. Silvery clouds line the sky, gently bruised with rain—moisture the desert desperately wants but isn't going to get. The earth is stained that dry-blood red. It's broken up by the golds and yellows of desert foliage. It's cruel but beautiful.
Bruce and I sign on at the scrutineering. I'm officially his navigator. Like eating a four-dollar curry, I know what I'm doing is a little bit dangerous. But I do it anyway. You only live once, right?
Day 2: 8.3 insane kilometres
Having crashed at one of Bruce's mate's cattle stations for the night, we creakily arise to an extremely fresh morning. It's colder than a... no, I better not repeat that joke.
We rumble down to the prologue track 50km from Alice to sign on as drivers. And with that out of the way, we're suddenly strapped into Bruce's All-New Isuzu D‑MAX.
My eyes settle on the brochures and booklets race officials gave us:
"Uh, Bruce, am I supposed to read notes?"
"Nah, mate, just sit there and enjoy the ride," he says.
And with that Bruce plucks first gear in the vehicle's sequential box and we tremble against the ute's rev limiter. There's no question we're sitting in a very powerful and, in the wrong hands, dangerous beast. Who knows how fast this thing can go? I'm about to find out.
Bruce stares at a red light like it's a blinking competition. It turns green. The clutch is dropped. The ute bursts forward under a rubber band of diesel torque. We skate through the 8.3km-long dusty prologue circuit, sometimes sideways but always true. We record a time of 00:06:03—good enough for second in class. It's over quickly but it was serious fun, and all I know is that I want more. And more is exactly what I'll be getting the next day. Much, much more, as things turn out.
Day 3: Welcome to Whoopsland
I give Bruce's leg a shake: "It's 5.50am, mate. We're running late for the 6.15am drivers' briefing.
Bruce springs from his bed and, in pyjamas, we sprint to the car and power to the briefing. We make it just in time and provide good entertainment for other competitors. Soon after, we're in the car again and belted up, this time in our race gear. I feel hideously unprepared for the upcoming 230km ride.
Bruce sees it and tries to put my mind at ease: "Don't worry, mate, all you have to do is sit there and try not to spew. And if I get a puncture, I'll need your help to change tyres. Apart from that, enjoy the ride."
Feeling relieved and mildly suffocated by how tightly my belts are done up, we reach the start line. Bruce builds up the revs, releases the clutch on green and gobbles up the first kilometre in a heartbeat. Only 229 to go.
And those 229km are surreal. I may work for Top Gear and I love, live and breathe cars, but like most of you I'm used to watching motor sports from my armchair. So to actually be part of it is mind blowing. Am I really here?
I ask myself that question over and over as Bruce plucks gears and strangles the steering wheel, mouth agape with concentration. It's like watching an in-car camera, except the lenses are my own eyes.
That is, until they nearly pop out on to the road: it's that bumpy. You'll never appreciate how hilariously corrugated this old road is until you try to drive it at 200km/h. Those of you who know your off-road racing will be familiar with ‘whoops'. Those who aren't, imagine a one-metre, tumbling ocean swell. Now imagine that the surface of the ocean is a dirt road and you're driving over it. That's a whoop and that's what corrugations in a dirt road grow into if not tempered with the blade of a road grader. And the Finke has millions of them.
A buggy or a trophy truck with suspension more absorbent than an adult nappy can skip across a whoop merrily. But a vehicle like ours must potter over them patiently (if you regard an insanity-inducing 60km/h as a patient speed) or risk shaking its passengers to bits.
Fortunately, not every inch of this 230km circuit is made of whoops. Towards the end, the road finally exhales, delivering a stunning high-speed section where Bruce spins the All-New Isuzu D‑MAX's gears to high-speed heaven. It's the perfect way to end the day's driving. We cross the line in 03:06:11— first in class.
That night, we sleep in swags in front of the embers of a fire beneath the twinkling ceiling of the Milky Way. You see so many more stars in the outback than you do in the city. It's breathtaking. I plunge into a coma. I'll need the sleep for tomorrow.
There's no question we're sitting in a very powerful and, in the wrong hands, dangerous beast.
Finking About finke
For the first half of the 20th century, the Old Ghan Railway was Alice Springs' lifeblood—connecting it to the coast and the rest of the world at Port Augusta in South Australia. But then came the car and the highway, and the Ghan was consigned to the scrapheap.
Fast forward to 1976, when a group of dirt bikers from Alice Springs started a there-and-back race to the remote community of Aputula along a service track that ran parallel to the Old Ghan and crosses the Finke River—said to be the oldest river in the world.
Little did they know it then, but their weekend friendly would in time grow into the country's biggest off-road motor sports event.
In the 1980s, the Old Ghan's sleepers were removed and a new track was built in a different location, but the original course of the Finke Desert Race remains unchanged. Cutting along a winding, heavily corrugated track, this gruelling two-day, multi-terrain event takes in red dirt, sand, spinifex, mulga and desert oak.
This year's race saw more than 12,000 spectators and 610 competitors—85 in cars, buggies, quad bikes and trophy trucks, and 525 on dirt bikes—meet at the starter's line near Alice on the June Queen's Birthday long weekend.
Among them were Lord Wolf (Fa Guo Xiao) and Fat Wolf (Jin Lin Xien), members of the Wolfpack Off Road Club from Guangdong in China, who entered a Chevy into the Performance Two-Wheel Drive class.
"The first 60–80km were the hardest and I was worried if we could go on," Lord Wolf told www.alicenow.com.au after finishing 29th.
Fat Wolf added: "It's very good. Every time we finish a race it's just the best."
*The finishing line
As we approach, slowly sailing through a series of giant whoops, we notice an artillery of bum cheeks...
The All-New Isuzu D‑MAX gets a once-over
Oldhand Bruce Garland and novice navigator Dylan Campbell finished first in class—and look justifiably proud of it, too
Day 4: Hit the siren!
The stretching of cold race engines is enough to force us from our deliciously warm swag cocoons. It's time to race again. As quickly as I'm tipping a campfire-flavoured egg sandwich into my belly, we're back in the All-New Isuzu D‑MAX, nibbling away at the 230km return leg.
The track is even worse than yesterday. It begins with a fast and flowing section but deteriorates into kilometre after kilometre of whoops-infested wasteland. It's exhausting work just hanging on.
Our aching spirits are soothed by the time we reach a marker indicating 40km to the finish. As we approach, slowly sailing through a series of giant whoops, we notice an artillery of bum cheeks pointing our way. We are being mooned by half of Alice Spring's population.
"Quick! Hit the siren!" Bruce yells. Ambulance-style siren wailing, he takes aim right at them, so that most attempt to scurry off in total fear, pants around ankles. We swerve at the last moment and litter their nude derrières with a pair of gravelly rooster tails.
We share a laugh. It's a bit of welcome relief in what has otherwise been a very tense weekend. But it doesn't last long. A few minutes later Bruce is frowning. He doesn't look happy. Not happy at all.
The track has become incredibly bumpy. And I don't mean bumpy like there are a few extra speed bumps in the stage. I mean it's so bumpy my limbs feel like they're going to rattle right off. Having been pounded by hundreds of competitors on dirt bikes since yesterday, the track is in far worse shape. But the real culprits, we later learn, are the ute's rear springs: one fell out and the other was ajar in its holster, unable to do its job.
The stiffer suspension puts an edge on every bump. After a few especially large ones, Bruce is hurting, particularly his back, which he broke last year at the South American Dakar. And his shoulder is getting chafed raw from the seatbelt.
Yes, Bruce is in pain, but you can sense his attitude of gritted determination. With just 20km to go, he's desperate to make it to the finish. And he does—just. Our time of 03:22:11 gives us a cumulative two-day time of 06:28:23. It also puts us ahead of our nearest class rival by just 00:06:30. Over 460 competitive kilometres, we were just 0.8 of a second quicker per kilometre. It's tighter than a fish's bum.
As we cross the finish line, my eyes settle on Bruce for the last time. His face is crumpled in agony but awash with relief to have made it. After a sinew-liquefying four days, it's all over. And although it was an absolute thrill being a real-life on-board camera, I think I'll stick to the notepad and pen from now on.