Story by Paul O’Brien, pictures by Donna O’Brien and Paul O’Brien.
The name says it all, desert race! And to get to this particular Australian Desert, where ever you live, you need to travel inland, to the red centre of Australia. The red centre, because that is all you see after attending The Finke Desert Race, RED, red dust!
My wife and I live on the east coast, actually Far North NSW, not too far from the most easterly point of Australia, in the Tweed Valley. It is a mostly lush green area, known for sugar cane, bananas, dairy & beef cattle. The Finke trip is a fair travelling distance for us, and the time needed including taking in the race, we will need 2 weeks away from home, so, let’s start planning.
Like all of the competitors that compete in this iconic event, and now in it’s 43rd year running, (an epic journey of woops, jumps, bumps and stutters over 228km there, plus same again back), you need to plan and prepare for the trip to Finke as a spectator. Which way will we travel? Are the roads open? Do we have the fuel range? What are the accommodation options? Is it going to be hot or cold? Is my vehicle capable of what I am going to ask of it? And many more questions to be answered. Luckily, the Alice Springs Dirt Bike Club has a webpage, www.finkedesertrace.com.au that can answer some of your questions.
For us, it is a journey we look forward to, but we use many weeks prior to plan and set the vehicle up, as we choose to travel via the Simpson Desert, and this trip is a favourite, as we love using our 4 wheel drive vehicle, and exploring one of Australia’s great wilderness’s. Our trusty 150 series Prado, turns from the family car into our off road tourer. Seats come out, cargo barriers installed, roof rack on, containers of food, kitchen gear, tables, water supplies, tools, swag, and many more essentials, but carefully calculated items, are loaded in. This is where your planning comes in. Weight is the enemy of the off road driver, as is costs extra fuel to push that weight, and has a detrimental effect on tyres, and their ability to run at a reasonable temperature/consistent pressure. (Plus we all have a max vehicle load anyway).
After leaving the Tweed Valley, we manage to jag our run to Birdsville, and in good time, as the Eyre Creek bypass road has just opened. We are able to travel as planned, from Birdsville, west into the desert, for some great days climbing sand dunes and great nights looking at brilliant stars. This is the best camping on offer, plenty of space, plenty of great scenery and plenty of top camp spots. After some great home cooked meals over the fire and a few days in the desert, we start towards civilisation again. We managed to check out Old Andado, a station property on the Finke River, where Molly Clarke and her husband farmed the land. It is an insight into how we were, and left exactly the same as when Molly passed away in 2012. We also saw plenty of bike riders warming themselves up on that Thursday, before heading into Alice Springs via Ltyentye Apurte, (Santa Teresa).
Into Alice for showers and a motel bed on Friday, we pop down to the start / finish area just in time for the scrutineering evening of approx. 800 plus bikes and cars entered. You definitely get up close and personal with the machines and their operators, and listen whilst tactics are discussed or you can ask a question like, “How many litres is that long range fuel tank mate?”. There are awesome photos of great off-road cars, and plenty of great bikes, like old mate’s Yamaha IT200 1986 model. I wonder if he made it there and back?
Saturday is prologue day, where we watch competitors race against the clock to determine their starting position for the race to Finke on Race Day 1. The car competitors are first to start the 8.3km prologue track. The bike competitors then get their go at the track, as the warm breeze pushes the dust away to make it easy going today. In the car class, crowd favourite Toby Price, in a V8 Trophy Truck blows them away, 46 seconds quicker than the next bloke. For the bikes, local fellow David Walsh on a KTM 500 EXC, is the fastest, the next ten riders are only seconds off his time, it’s going to be an interesting race. We retire to our digs and get ready for any early start, we will head to Finke early in the morning, and watch the racers come in.
Finke, the true desert country. Via the race track, its 226km, via the bitumen road to Kulgera its 226km then another 146km of gravel and you’re at Finke. We arrive approx. 9.15am, and the leader cars are just hitting the finish line. We go over to the big jump, 700 metres before the finish line, and watch the machines jump high and some, land hard. Camera’s everywhere and plenty of cheering from the local Indigenous crowd and us fly in’s. We get some more photos, and talk to drivers coming in, crews setting up camps/pit areas, and generally just take in the spectacle. We decide to have a look at where to set up a camp and have a bit of lunch, before the bikes come in.
After finding a spot, very easy out here as there is tons of room, we have a bit of lunch, next thing, the neighbouring camp turns up in a helicopter! We walk back over to watch the bikes hit the big jump, and then wander down to the finish line. Stories abound of their personal journey down, and parents congratulate their kids, and so much more intimate stuff. In the background, the local Finke community kids are hosting an AFL carnival, and there are teams from across the Northern Territory here competing on the hard gravel surface. Next thing its night time, and when the sun goes down, I reckon two hours later, everyone’s asleep, exhausted. The dust has settled, the stars are out again, and we are in the quiet of the desert again.
We awake to the sounds of V8 Trophy Trucks, turbo V6 buggies, twin cylinder Can Am /Polaris UTV’s and all other types of ‘specials’. They are rolling out of camp up to the start of Day Two, Finke to Alice. We lie there listening to all the engine sounds, to me it’s awesome. (Birds calling some mornings, V8’s another, all good to me). There is not much light yet, the sun isn’t even up, so we lie there listening. Then we hear a roar, it’s Toby Price in the V8 Trophy Truck, and he’s off on leg 2. We doze off for a while, no hurry today. A bit of cooked breaky and a pack up, we head out of the now dwindling in size camp ground. We park up near the Day Two start line and watch the riders prepare. I was getting adrenaline just watching them rest and wait to be called to start. After the first 10 or so riders leave, we hit the road, on the way back to Alice. Once on the bitumen, the sign says 130km/hr, but we don’t go that fast, save the fuel and vehicle and we cruise up to Alice.
We can now hear the chatter of race control on the UHF radio, and as most of the riders have now come in, we decide to fuel up, and head out to Trephina Gorge, where the afternoon light made it all that more a special sight. A great camp that night and after some more star gazing, we drift of the sleep, it’s been a big day. We ‘break camp and head up towards the Plenty Hwy, via Pinnacles Bore, and we get out our fossicking gear. There are plenty of great spots to find Zircons, Garnets, Mica and Almandine Garnets. We spend the day zig zagging around, and end up camping on an old digging, behind Mount Riddoch. Another great sunset, but the flies are keen here, glad to see the sun to go down for some relief.
An early pack up, and we are on the road. We pass Jervois Station, then pop into Tobermorley for lunch and a look around after the floods went thru there. Back on the road and into Boulia. A bit of fuel, then off to see Lester at Middleton Hotel. We arrive at Middleton and set up the slow cooker, knock up dinner, and then head over to the pub for a few drinks whist dinner finishes itself off. Another spectacular sunset yet again.
Next day back into our trusty Prado and we head back east, a couple more days and are we are home. What a terrific road trip we say to each other. No problems or breakdowns and we are pleased with our planning and set up. And plans are in place to do it all again.
NOTES: We use the Hema HX-1 in the vehicle and Hema maps for planning. We use TyreDog tyre air pressure monitoring system to help us look after our tyres.
Paul & Donna O’Brien
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