Mount Barnett to Victoria River roadhouse was always going to be a mammoth day. We were facing over seven hundred kilometres, five hundred of which were on dirt road, plus thirteen river crossings of unknown quality. It was the day that we drove all this way to do. There was a plan to separate the rally into three groups of eight buddy groups (or about eighty cars), with their own support and medical vehicles. However, as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

We set out in good order, the first wet river crossing was not a problem even though quite deep and rocky. We proceeded from crossing to crossing through the ever-present dust until arriving at a larger river, some thirty metres across. Support 16, our scout, decided on common sense being more useful than the battle plan and began sending shitboxes ahead, so we ended up in the lead for group three with the mandate to wait at the next big river crossing. This sparked some interesting debate within the car, as to what a major river crossing looked like. We hurtled through inch deep river beds for perhaps another couple of hundred kilometres looking for the big crossing. Rounding a bend on one of the long rises we finally understood what he meant.

There is a place, about eighty kilometres from where the Gibb River Road transitions back to sealed bitumen, where you realise why you’re on the rally. We crested the rise to look out across a twenty-kilometre-wide valley through which passes the mighty Pentecost River, silver in the sun, snaking in wide loops northwards towards the Timor Sea. It is buttressed on the opposite bank by the collossal red sandstone cliffs of the Coburn Ranges, stretching in a line as far as the eye can see in both directions. In the afternoon light, it was such an awesome sight that we actually halted our onward rush for a few minutes to take photographs. Far below, a thin orange ribbon met the silver. We finally understood what Support 16 meant.

Half an hour later, we rounded a bend and drew up to the west bank of the Pentecost River crossing, looking out at a hundred metres of flowing water and in the distance, the eastern bank. Franzl had taken the previous crossings and there was a tacit agreement that one of us should cross the Pentecost and the other should drive into Darwin. At that moment, I wished I was driving into Darwin. I kept the speed low, revs high, and entered the water. The bottom was rocky, the wheels bumping over submerged obstacles, Bruce’s shocks complaining about the rough terrain. In 2011 I managed to be the one that killed the shitbox in similar circumstances by getting water into the engine, so this was a chance to set things right. Metre by metre we chugged across, slowing down as the car got bogged. A flick on the accelerator and we moved forwards again, suddenly climbing into shallower waters on the other bank and out. Sphincter unclenched, I drove us up onto the dry, Bruce purring. Clearly our 1990 Corrolla that had spend 25 years only going to the shop and back had delusions of Land Rover. But without the cup holders.

We caught up with Rebel Base there, part of our buddy group that had gone on ahead due to not actually having headlights; this was considered to be a problem for night driving. We spent three quarters of an hour filming the shitboxes coming over the river, waiting for our group, but it became clear that they were separated. Given Rebel Base’s problems, we decided to form up a mini-peleton and head towards base while there was still light.

We swept around the foot of the Coburn Ranges towards El Questro. At that turnoff, the road unexpectedly shifted back to bitumen, no doubt to spare the discomfort of the visitors to the El Questro outback resort. We still had three hours to go, and the sun was dropping so we didn’t argue… we picked up the pace to Kununurra and the first fuel stop since Mount Barnett.

Leaving the dirt, we were both a little sad at the end of the challenge, but also grateful since we still had three hours to go to the nightly stop. Without the need to concentrate so keenly, the bullshit once again began to flow and we kicked back into the same easy rhythm that got us to Broome. This lasted as far as the dam at Kununurra. Rebel Base put a call out that they were losing power, and sure enough they died right in the middle of the one lane road over the dam. Another shitbox behind them shunted the car over to the other side, where we hooked up our tow line to bring them into the service station a few kilometres ahead, the reversal of fortune from the previous day not lost on us….

We set to on the Rebel Base’s engine like pros, for about five minutes, until we realised that none of the experience we gained at Mount Barnett was applicable. In the end, with the aid of Support 6 (who frankly had a lot more going on), we all came to the conclusion that it was an electrical problem. In all probability, the Pentecost had extracted its passage toll on their alternator, and they were now bleeding battery charge. As on the previous night, the spirit of shitbox presented a unique solution: their battery was dead, but our battery was fully charged and out alternator still worked because… well… Toyotas are invulnerable. We hatched a plan to switch batteries and run until they ran out of juice again, then swap. Unfortunately, this meant we needed a third car that could provide a battery jumpstart if the worst came to the worst. Our team, 27, were nowhere on the airwaves which suggested they were well behind us with their own problems (it turned out that Team BMC running the Mini had their own issues and the remainder of the buddy group were sticking with them to make sure they made it). We were also not going to leave a man behind, even if it meant crawling into base in the wee small hours of the morning, so decided to head out on the road.

Daffodils from team 24 offered to be our third car, which meant that we inherited the whole of team 24 for the trip back. As mentioned previously the Rebel Base had no headlights, and now no means of charging their battery and keeping the engine going. Valiant Effort from 24 took the lead in the dark with their roo bars, we followed behind lighting the way for our team member, Rebel Base tucked in just behind all but invisible on the road in the dark, and the rest of 24 followed on behind, headlights blazing. We moved at speed given the large distances still to cover, Rebel Base lighting up the hazards for oncoming traffic, the UHF radio tight with comms. Suddenly, IT specialists and lawyers were asking each other for their twenty and warning for oncoming civilians. Once again we had crossed over into the alternate universe of the other rally.

We had a sweepstake on arrival time, based on speed, set at 250km out from base. Two hours later, and with the one and a half hour time difference going into the Northern Territory from Western Australia, I lost by two minutes to Franzl. Team 24 were either side of us… go Brown Pointers! When we crossed into NT, the call went out regarding a photo opportunity. Needless to say after twelve hours in the dirt and then in the dark, it wasn’t taken up.

We arrived into Victoria River Roadhouse at about quarter to midnight, Northern Territory time. Worryingly, we were still among the first half of teams to sign in… it was clearly shaping up to be a big night. We rolled Rebel Base into triage, set up camp, got some dinner and then set up the camp chairs in triage to await developments. Andy and Melvin showed their appreciation to team 24 by cracking out the whiskey. It was most welcome at that point. The night dragged on and teams limped into base. Shitboxes on trailers were declared dead, and then the support guys headed back to pick up stragglers abandoned by the wayside. Some support teams covered another five hundred kilometres that night. We saw the remnants of team 27 finally roll in and headed to bed as the sign in board finally completed. A quick check of the time told us it was 3.15 in the morning.