We set out from Fitzroy Crossing to meet the Gibb River road, a thousand kilometre journey equivalent to driving from Scotland to the south coast of England on a single dirt road. The distance we had to cover today was 350km, the unsealed road easy going, scenery stunning… spirits were high. The buddy group was moving well, keeping in close contact on the UHF radio so that the following cars knew what to expect; after the experience getting to Marble Bar we were a pretty tight unit.

We stopped off at Tunnel Creek, a natural subterranean passage through the towering black limestone cliffs of the Devonian Reef National Park. Within, a pool of cool water for swimming that the shitboxers made good use of after two hours of hot, dry driving. We proceeded north to Windjana Gorge through fluted black rock-faces, the surface of this wide sweep of water punctuated by the heads of freshwater crocodiles. Even a sticky thirty degree heat and no air conditioning wasn’t quite enough to persuade us into the water.

From there we headed further north until we hit the Gibb River Road itself. The conditions were fairly good and we managed to keep our speed up on the gravel, though the still air meant that the dust from the road hung over us like a fine mist. We had the choice of winding the windows down and breathing in the Kimberley particle by particle, or keeping the windows up and slowing basting in our own juices. There was a Land Rover in our team; they shared our misery at one of the driver changeover stops… apparently they had to turn their air conditioning up a little in the fiery blast of the midday sun. We sympathised and applauded their fortitude… it was very spirit-of-shitbox.

The Gibb River road snaked up into the highlands of the Kimberley, through an ancient landscape of gumtrees and red sandstone. Fires burned ahead of us on the tops of the bluffs; as the road rose to meet them we found ourselves driving in shallow valleys with flames to the left and the right of the road, so close to the verge that we could feel the heat. We radioed back to the following cars and then put the foot down to get out of the area. [addendum: flying back after the rally over the the same landscape as we drove, it becomes plain that the Kimberley is always burning. From seven kilometers up, the brown land is shrouded by smoke from hundreds of fires].

We crossed seventeen rivers in one day, though most of them were dry or barely a puddle now the wet season had passed. The experience from the 2011 rally seemed destined to be wasted – here we were with our worldly possessions sealed up in dry bags and bin liners to keep them dry, tarpaulin over the bonnet and grille, and the Corolla air intake modified by ingenuity and duct tape to point backwards and high rather than sitting low, directly behind the headlight. There were a couple of crossings where we plunged into foot-deep water, but the Corrolla (unlike the mighty Camry in 2011) was unfazed and just kept chugging through the brown water. The crocs dined poorly that day.

The sun lowered in the sky and dusk approached; as before approaching Marble Bar, the visibility deteriorated. With the onset of night, the Gibb River road transformed from an unforgiving landscape of dry valleys punctuated by mighty Boab trees and blood red sandstone escarpments; as the sun set these blended into a yellow fog and finally into a grey netherworld of dust, sharp rocks and car tail lights. We crawled along, buddy groups unraveling as we put distance between cars to let the dust settle and lost radio contact with members ahead and behind. In the dark, twenty kilometres from home, Bruce finally decided he had had enough; we began to lose power and crawled to a halt by the side of the road, alone.

Standing on the roadside, bonnet up, dim figures in the dusty dark, we began to go through the causes: air filter clogged up by red dust? Electrical problem? Fuel intake? And suddenly we were in the other rally, the parallel universe that runs alongside the buddy group chatter and the silly driving games. Out of nowhere in the dark, two cars stopped for us and jumped in under the bonnet, theorising possible causes, eliminating the parts that might be going wrong. These were garage mechanics going bush two thousand kilometers from home, elbow-deep in red dirt trying to get a shitbox back on the road, and the only reason that the Shitbox Rally is really possible at all. In the end, Support 14 hooked us up and towed us the last few kilometres back to Mount Barnett and into triage.

At the Mount Barnett roadhouse, dozens of dead and dying shitboxes were parked around the bright lights of the triage area like patients in the ER, guys with red eyes and black hands working at speed on all types of cars, from Fords to Corollas to Rovers spanning three decades. We were guided to start isolating the causes and worked as best we could, dreading the worst. In the end, it was a $3 fuel filter choked with crap stirred from the bottom of the tank by three hundred kilometres of dips and corrugations. We were lucky. Other boxes had gearbox problems, even shattered axles, the kind of damage that would normally result in a sad shake of the head and a trip to the wreckers yard back in the real world. At Mount Barnett, half a thousand kilometres from the nearest sealed road, some shitboxes gave their lives so that others may live. The Barina with the shattered axle inherited one from a Festiva (though those parts don’t actually fit without angle grinders and sheer bloody-mindedness); we got a fuel filter from god-knows-where; and one by one lost causes were brought back to life. An engine roaring invoked the kind of cheers normally reserved for Grand Final goals. In the final reckoning the next day, we pulled out of Mount Barnett leaving only a single shitbox (the Festiva) behind, hollowed out, its vital pieces now integral parts in Holdens, Commodores, Barinas, Volvos. All in all, it could be considered an honourable death.