"Six days, 16 hours and 27 minutes, to be exact – that’s how long it took us to drive around this vast country in our marathon Ford Falcon XD.”
This article was originally published in the June 2004 issue of MOTOR.
These exact words appeared in Modern MOTOR, June 1979, when Matt Whelan and Evan Green reset the quarter-century-old record for a drive around Australia on Highway 1. It stood for more than 25 years, until April 2, 2004.
Twenty five years and six days after the last attempt, on Thursday March 25, 2004, at 4am, MOTOR set off to do it all again. But this time it was to be with two cars, more spares and better roads: just under 15,000 kilometres on Highway 1, with drivers sleeping in shifts and scheduled stops only for fuel.
Those selected as enthusiastic and masochistic enough to make a Commodore SS sedan their home for a week were deputy editor Jesse Taylor, news editor Dean Evans and freelance photographer Thomas Wielecki aboard Car One, the ‘Red Rocket’.
Aboard the ‘Silver Bullet’ – cruelly dubbed the “support vehicle” by those in Car One (they preferred “Car 1a”) – were columnist Paul Cockburn, logistics mastermind Marcus Hofmann, and UK-import, do-everything guy John Mahoney.
BP jumped in as a partner in the endeavour, ensuring all our stops were met with good fuel, food and drinks, while Telstra offered up a pair of satellite phones for around-the-country coverage.
Against convention (and to minimise cyclone effects on road closures), we chose to run anti-clockwise. With Taylor J and Hofmann penning out a scheduled plan to ensure efficient fuel stops and avoidance of peak-hour city traffic, the starter’s gun (or the 04:00 clock on the red SS) fired outside the General Post Office in Martin Place, Sydney.
LEG 1: Sydney to Mackay
The mind is an odd thing: it controls the body and fatigue, it presets endurance and it conditions perspective. Normally the Sydney to Brisbane run is a full, exhausting day trip. This time it was a mere jaunt up the road.
With around 1200km to the tank, full bladders rather than empty tanks would dictate our stops. Each would soon be choreographed like an F1 pit stop, with participants designated a task alternating between refuelling, windscreen cleaning, food and drinks and, thankfully, the toilet.
At least that was the case for Car One. The sinking look on Cockburn’s face as Car One blazed off during each of his mid-break smoko wanders and back stretches would prove enduringly priceless. It was clear, even at this early stage, that we were taking this record seriously.
Over the Queensland border, bypassing Brisbane via the tollroad and the name-change from Pacific to Bruce Highway, we pulled into the Sexxe Coffee diner, just north of Maryborough.
Heading into our first night and refuelling at Rockhampton, Cockburn fell out of the car, visibly wearied by our non-stop pace. It continued. The Tropic of Capricorn passed in a blur and after a few more hours of air-conditioned comfort, we were in the humid, sweaty frog-flourished region of Mackay.
After 2042km, this was also the site of our first wrong turn, the Highway 1 signs proving as clear as the thinking of the cop who, seeing us waving at him to ask directions, happily waved back!
LEG 2: Mackay to Camooweal
From Mackay to Townsville, past the Whitsundays, the sound of a 5.7-litre V8 at 1600rpm at 110km/h was broken only by the frequent melodic popping of roadside toads. The run to Townsville summed up the east coast leg: fast and efficient.
Arrival in Townsville at around the 24-hour mark would now reset our bodies into the irregular sleeping patterns which would be ours over the next six days. And the two lovely blonde girls in the Townie BP diner provided a temporary visual high.
Out of Cairns, Highway 1 heads north and doubles back inland with some fantastic twisting roads, topped by an incredible view back over the town.
Through Mareeba and Atherton, things were looking good until we tried to fill up at Georgetown. Even once the slack-jawed locals had moved their parked cars from in front of the bowsers, still no-one inside the shop bothered activating the pumps.
After three minutes of toe-tapping, we blazed out with our Australian service low-point. Sorry, Georgetown BP, you lost our $250.
Still, we were, at that point, ahead of schedule, and rural Queensland’s great roads were helping our pace – until we reached Mount Surprise and pointed west. Finding ourselves now stalking 443km of sealed, single-lane road with intermittent overtaking sections, meaning road-train and caravan-overtaking manoeuvres needed to be well timed.
From single-file roads to locust fields of incredible density. At 110km/h, tens of thousands of bugs now caked the cars’ fronts while their guts were roasted, creating a test of intestinal fortitude with an acrid, sickly sweet aroma akin to rancid orange peels and, er, Cockburn’s three-day old socks.
As we refuelled and unsuccessfully searched for hot, edible food at Croydon, and cleaned the screen, the Silver Bullet rolled in, with three dementedly disgruntled occupants.
It seems Red Rocket’s hot pace was upsetting its ‘support’, and the fatigued Cockburn and Teutonically-disciplined Hofmann crowed in concert: they thought we should slow the pace. Drowned out by revving and exhortations to “hurry up” from Car One’s occupants, however, Cockburn’s argument quickly imploded as the Red Rocket swept up Taylor J and blasted off the forecourt!
Our attempt to rediscover major civilisation in Normanton was thwarted when we realised, 3km into the 6km trip, that we’d inadvertently turned north instead of south. A prompt u-turn and 376km of developmental Highway 1 was then broken only by engine temperatures almost touching red on account of the bugs blocking the entire radiator.
Moments later, Car One’s cabin temperature reached the point at which nuclear fission occurs when the Telstra phone rang for Taylor J. Taylor M, in the office, had a request to pass on: that we slow up – the weeping babes in Car Two were complaining that we wouldn’t wait for them.
Reacting instantly to this most inappropriate request, Taylor J’s temple veins bulged violently as he pegged the nearest object – a disposable camera – into the dash. It promptly ricocheted into his angry red head. We dared not laugh. For about 20 seconds.
At Cloncurry, a sharp right enjoined us with the Barkly Highway and the sweep of its 117km of wide roads leading to Mount Isa and our first extended stop. With the Silver Bullet catching up, a high-pressure hose prised the bugs from the radiator, and a 45-minute break and run to McDonald’s during a local newspaper interview restored the crews.
With the NT border just 201km away, pulling out of Mt Isa, we promptly got pulled over by the local plod. No reason, just a random check and a hello. Twenty minutes later, on possibly the worst road of the trip, 100km of Highway 1 rose and fell in concert with the road-sick groans of six grown males. Blazing through Camooweal, we were 4189km down.
LEG 3: Camooweal to WA border/Warmun
After passing through Camooweal, our crossing into the Northern Territory was accompanied by an amazing sunset and a 360-degree view, bringing with it our favourite road sign: Derestricted Speed!
At a pace rising to 170km/h, and with 595km falling away, Three Ways Roadhouse signalled a fuelling stop and a grasshopper greeting. One of their number then glued himself to the rear window for the next 1300km.
As hardy a companion as could be found in either car, Harold the Hopper’s stamina was remarkable. He endured the northbound Stuart Highway 1, two refuelling stops, heavy rain, Darwin and 200km/h-plus speeds. Harold even saw cruise control bugging (sorry) out above 190km/h.
In the early hours of the morning, Katherine greeted us in the form of a young girl out with her boyfriend stopping by the BP after a night at the local club. A good sport, she agreed to swap T-shirts with Marcus, wearing a prized MOTOR shirt. The treat, however, wasn’t so much seeing her in her black bra, but Marcus squeezed tightly into his tiny ‘Bitch in the Mood’ black number.
Day broke about 30km south of Darwin after a brief 618km round trip into town for a shot of its welcome sign. Fewer animals road-side now allowed frequent, safe 200km/h speeds – until an apparently random-flying common black kite, about the size of a small eagle, tried to take out the red car’s windscreen. And Jesse didn’t flinch from his coma.
West-bound out of Katherine on the Victoria Highway 1, a 10-minute early morning rest stop at a stinking-hot Victoria River Roadhouse allowed Car Two to catch up. Again.
Then, with 294km to the WA border and perfect, clear conditions and unlimited-speed tarmac reaching beyond, the wick was turned up and with it speeds up to a trip maximum of 240km/h. In this terrain, however, it’s neither the cars nor roads that threaten human life and limit safe speeding, but the ever-present and ever-ready roadkill.
At 160km/h, bang on midday on day three, a kamikaze roo made his last move. We’d spotted this little fella about 300 metres off, facing away at the road’s edge.
But, determined not to be ignored, even the effort of maximum brakes on a vehicle rapidly decelerating to 80km/h could not deter him from greeting us head-on, ensuring the BANG which, sadly, brought about his untimely but inevitable conclusion. What’s that Skip? Nothing?
With no clear need for CPR (nor any willing participants) and no radiator damage, we pressed on. The damage we did sustain, however, included a reshaped bull-bar two spotlights, a bent grille and minor bumper reshaping.
The NT/WA border marked 6570km, along with the strictness of quarantine inspectors, the loss of our unlimited-speed roads, and the thwarted attempt to lose Wielecki. Exiting quarantine, we asked if he wanted a shot of the ‘Welcome to WA’ sign. Running hard with waving arms, his reply came in our mirrors. Almost got away!
Check out part 2 of our record-breaking lap of the map!