You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘shitbox rally’ category.



The sun was an unwelcome addition to our lives. The previous night had seen the last teams arrive in time for an early breakfast rather than a late dinner, but incredibly 27 was still intact. Rebel Base had received an alternator from a completely incompatible vehicle, persuaded by an angle grinder to fit. They had even rigged up a single working headlight. Life was rosy. The Mini, team BMC, had fared less well on the last part of the Gibb River road, adding a cracked windscreen to their existing engine problems, which meant that the remnants of 27 had been heading at a steady 85 kilometres per hour all of yesterday. This was due to piston failure: the Mini was now running on three cylinders, a pop rivet patching up the hole in the cylinder they had picked up due to burning it out.

The American Marines have a credo that they adopted from the Shitbox Rally: never leave a man behind. We made the long procession north through Katherine to Darwin all together at a stately pace, though still faster than Braking Bad, an ancient VW that was only able at this stage to manage 80. Vintage cars attempted to pass each other while the Northern Territorians in their Hiluxes roared past in the far outside lane, used to the 130 speed limit. As in 2011 on the same route we missed the Stuart Highway turnoff into Darwin, but this time experience prevailed and we were able to form up in close convoy on the alternate route towards the main drag through Darwin city centre, horns honking. In a startling break with tradition, we rolled across the finish line before sunset, parked the car and then headed into the hotel bar for the first proper cold beer since Broome. As a baromter of our mental state at that point, I’ll just say that it was Castlemaine XXXX and it tasted like nectar from the gods themselves.

Hyped, we checked in, grabbed a quick shower and headed back out for more food and drink. After the shower, I was suddenly my usual pale complexion, all the orange fake tan of two days of Kimberley dust washed down the drain, hair no longer sticking up as if I had received an electric shock. Franzl fared better in the hair department, but that was due to general sparseness. A good group gathered for dinner, cracking jokes and retelling tales, but one by one falling quiet as the expenditure of the last week caught up with them. We were back at the hotel by 10.30pm.

Next day, we headed out to the Showgrounds for the car sale. In 2011, it had been a challenge to offload a hundred shitboxes into the local market, and this time there were two hundred and fifty. Learning from previous experience I parked Bruce up at the front to make sure there would still be some interest when his number was called. In the end, we got $100 for him, which was better that the Camry in 2011 that went for $60 – and that included a brand new jerry can and $30 of fuel. Franzl, however, was not to be put off and registered himself as a bidder. In a dazzling display of auctioning prowess mixed with bloody mindedness and seasoned with a pinch of mid life crisis, he entered into the bidding for the Land Rover that Alicinda Outback Safari were driving in (and usually at the back of) team 27, and clocked a Shitbox Rally record of $4280 when he secured it. The plan quickly fell into place: Troy from IT Crowd, a 27 team mate who is from Perth, would drive it back to home over the course of a week while we flew back.

So, Shitbox Rally 2014 is finally over. Franzl and I have covered the longest course in Shitbox Rally history, sharing a confined space from sun-up to sundown for seven days without me once having to resort to the tire iron and the spade in the middle of the desert. It’s the kind of event that lets you take a good look at your life and where you should be heading. For Franzl, the proud new owner of a Land Rover Discovery on the cusp of his fortieth birthday, that’s obviously towards the life of the landed gentry. I just hope that if he takes it on Shitbox 2015 he has an accompanying shitbox for his butler….


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.


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.

We are bombing along the Great Northern Highway to the sounds of Nirvana, having crossed the Pilbara from Newman north through Marble Bar on the dirt. So far Bruce Almighty is proving robust yet economical on the fuel, which is good when it’s 300km between pumps.
This was Bruce’s first taste of the dirt. We had a good run on the gravel out of Newman past the new mining camps but conditions rapidly deteriorated as 250 teams kicked up dust in the still afternoon air. Within an hour, it was hanging over the landscape in the bottom of the valleys like an eerie yellow fog, the lowering sun combining to make conditions very difficult and progress painful. To the east, fires burned all along the ranges lifting dark clouds into the sky as we pulled back onto the strip of bitumen running into Marble Bar in the dusk.
We spent the night in the Ironclad Hotel, shitboxers mixing with the locals before heading back to the campsite for more festivities. Later, I climbed the hill behind camp in the dark to get a better view of the clear night sky. Looking across the town, a hill on the outskirts had a different kind of glow and as the minutes passed, the light intensified until the whole hillside was on fire. It’s an unsettling sight when there’s nothing between you and a wall of fire except fields of dry grass. The wind was behind us though, so after a while watching the blaze we turned in for the night. The outback is like that….

Shitbox Rally 2014 kicked off with a beautiful sunrise over Kings Park in Perth over 250 of the least fit vehicles to embark on the 4,200km journey to Darwin. We had nearly 800km to cover today, and all of it on sealed roads, so should have been easy, right? Burned out clutches and weak bladders dogged progress. We covered the first 300km in four hours and then bedded down some faster times once the team synchronised toilet stops. The road has been good so far and the Corrolla is just eating up the miles.

I’m looking forward to Shitbox Rally 2035, when you’ll be able to pick up a 2009 Honda CRV for $1000. In 2014, it’s going to be a white 1990 Toyota Corolla where power steering is still the future. As Franzl points out, it’ll be good to build the guns up.

This is the last chance to work out if the shitbox is up to the job, since a week from now we will finally be on the rally! Lessons learned from the 2011 rally include the (obvious in hindsight) revelation that shock absorbers are not a nice-to-have when you’re going to be doing 4000km, a quarter of which is going to be on some of the roughest dirt roads in the country.

Fortunately Franzl’s mate Ray opened his workshop for us to fit a new set of shocks on the back. So, good that we now have rear suspension, but bad that some crucial parts were fitted by an IT guy…. Still, when we took her out on the limestone tracks north of Perth with Fletch as the navigator to test the shocks they held up pretty good. Well, we didn’t end up axle deep in a sand dune. Not that they sort of thing tends to happen to me. Ever. The night drive in the rain also passed without incident… too good to last, right?

So now, it’s down to finishing off the decorations for the car and making tough decisions like just how many pairs of underpants counts as over-packing…!

One last thing…we are still raising money to hit our $4000 target for the Cancer Council so if you want to sponsor us, here’s the link to our fund raising page:

There was a point yesterday when the Camry and I reached an understanding. The point was the Daly Waters junction where we finally hit the long straight run up to Mataranka on the Stuart Highway where the speed signs say 130 and the tarmac is like silk after four days of single lane highways and dirt roads. The understanding was that the Camry, after two decades of going to the shops and back, had risen to every challenge the road could throw at it and was in all likelihood going to Darwin to die. So, I granted a condemned machine’s last request, opened the throttle to 150 and we flew up the highway to Darwin.

After an overnight stop in Katherine and a river cruise to view the spectacular gorge, we turned off to Kakadu for the final leg. Disaster struck 200km in, with the front passenger side wheel rim shearing in two at 110km/h after a pothole, but we stopped safely and installed the spare that the Queensland cops had pinged us for being too bald.

We made it through Kakadu with the CV joint knocking at every corner, stopping at Humpty Doo for a cold one before heading into Darwin to join all the other shitboxes at the mustering point 5km out of the city centre.

As the sun set, the call went up and the battered, multicoloured pandemonium of a hundred-odd cars pulled out onto the highway, horns honking, for the victory parade through Darwin to the finishing point at the Holiday Inn on the Esplanade. There was a mixture of excitement, joy and no small amount of relief as we all cruised up to our parking spots and turned the engine off for the last time, ready for the auction. Our car, bought for $790 in Sydney, fetched the princely sum of $80, which valued the car itself as worthless since I threw in about $80 worth of jerry can and petrol…!

Some time later in the night, I happened to pass through the underground car park where the shitboxes were being held after the sale. The life and unique character that had been so evident in them out on the open road was gone. New owners were milling around them: tradies who had picked up a Ute for a bargain, wreckers looking for parts, eighteen year old kids who spent $200 on three cars to take them out on the flats, smash into each other and finally drive the shitboxes into a tree before abandoning them. Ours apparently was bought by an old bloke looking for a runaround, so at least spared a worse fate. I wish him well with the Camry. Given the state of the transmission after going underwater, CVs and shocks I also wish him luck.

The rally gallery is available on Shitbox Rally Gallery.

Today we started the real rally; that is, there was a point we reached today where it stopped being a road trip and became a journey. I’m writing this, dripping wet, from the veranda of the Heartbreak Hotel in the Northern Territory after what can only be described as an epic day on the dirt.

We started from the Hells Gate roadhouse in the far northwestern corner of Queensland and headed west across the NT border along the Savannah Way. It’s marked on the map as a major road, but is is impassable for half the year due to the rivers that cut across it, draining the flat savannah lands of northern QLD and NT into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Our original route would have hugged the edge of the Gulf, crossing seven rivers, but had to be changed because these were still running too high to be forded safely. Instead, we were to head inland on the Calvert road after two smaller river crossings.

The previous day from Gregory Downs up onto the Savannah Way and west to Hells Gate had taught us some valuable lessons on what not to attempt with ancient shitboxes on dirt roads. Firstly, if you hit sand, front wheel drive cars will go wombat and dig a burrow if you don’t keep your speed up. Unfortunately, and secondly, wide trenches will appear through the dust left behind by the car in front with almost no notice, so it becomes a fine line between keeping speed up and getting no chance of negotiating hazards. Thirdly, if you hit a pothole hard enough in an ’87 Camry with no shock absorbers the onboard fuel injection computer will assume you have just crashed into a wall and shut the engine down. Finally, an oncoming thirty ton fully laden road train on a gravel road beats eight shitboxes coming the other way. Every time.

Having survived the trip to Hells Gate with only a single oh-no-we-are-out-of-the-rally moment (see point three above), we set off cautious but optimistic, which lasted as long as the first river crossing when we arrived through a sooty haze of grass fires to a queue of cars waiting to attempt to get across. It happens that there is a magic combination of speed, revs, route and blind luck that decides whether your shitbox sails across or makes like a sub. We were lucky three times, and were whizzing along through pasture land on a crazy switchback track until we encountered crossing number four. This one was different: there were no support vehicles (they were still pulling shitboxes out of the previous crossing) and there was a telltale line of stationary vehicles on the other side oozing water.

Now, we had reason to believe that we were fated to make Darwin when on the previous day we lost the oil cap due to not getting it back on right and chanced upon a weed infested wreck of an ancient Toyota van in the back of the roadhouse that had a cap that was a perfect fit. Fate deserted us two thirds of the way across the river, when the bow wave broke over the bonnet and the engine stalled. We threw our already attached tow rope to the guys on the bank but it was too late… the carpets began to lift as the water level (which was mid way up the door on the outside) began to rise in the car. By the time we were towed clear of the river we were sitting in a foot of brown river water, saturating everything. Even worse, water had gotten into the engine, potentially a rally-ender.

We travel in buddy groups of about ten cars. Three in our group are Camrys, and all three were sitting, sad and soggy, at the edge of the road, unable to start. Byron, from Stinkeroos, gave us our marching orders and we began the long process of drying out the engine, air intake filter, and onboard computer. It took two hours of patient cajoling of the venerable machines but our team and the Stinkeroos managed to finally get the engines turning over again. There is no finer sound in the world than the first time a waterlogged Camry engine two hundred and fifty kilometres from the nearest proper road turns over.

This presented us with another problem. To keep the revs up and flush the crap out of the engine, the idle rev rate was set to 2500 rpm. For an automatic transmission, this is exactly the same as setting cruise control for 80km/h and then not being able to turn it off. On dirt roads full of shitboxes in low visibility.

We went like hell, using the UHF radio to contact the guys in front to pull over to the side and let our crazed convoy through. We were quite literally unstoppable; I slammed on the brakes to avoid a large hole in the road only to go into a massive set of fishtails in the gravel, struggling to bring the car under control as we slid from bank to bank and back again. And then just as suddenly, the dirt track gave way to a perfectly graded gravel road stretching across the vast, treeless prairie of the Barkly Tablelands. Maintaining speed safely was no longer a problem for us but for the Stinkeroos, whose coil set had partially shorted out from the water leaving them with just two operating cylinders, speed was becoming an issue. As the sun went down in spectacular fashion, and after an aborted effort to tow the Stinkeroos the remaining 170km to base, Byron hatched a plan to share the cables three each between the Camrys, leaving us both with three out of four cylinders firing and just enough poke to roll into the Heartbeat Hotel wet, tired and sore an hour and a half after sunset.

So, so far, the ’87 Camry with very little suspension has survived over 3,000km of driving on roads of all conditions, potholes, river crossings, engine flooding and finally cylinder tinkering. Will it make Darwin? I think it just might be fate after all.

Today we finally turned off the highway north towards the Savannah Way. Yesterday we got our first taste of the conditions ahead, dodging cattle, roos and wild horses as we peered into the sunset.

This leg is only 260km but will be our first dirt and our first water crossings. Already the country is changing from wide, flat grassland to scrub. Wedge-tailed eagles are circling our convoy looking for an easy meal, though whether it’s small rodents spooked by our cars or the boys in the Beemer burning oil at the back remains to be seen.

It’s going to be a long day… we have 850km to cover between sunrise in Longreach and roo-infested sunset in Gregory Downs. The landscape is changing as the gum forests give way to wide, flat savannah plains which is just as well, since the Camry’s not been too sharp on the hills.

Today we are going into the proper outback, so time to see if the old radiator can handle the extra work as the temperature climbs. The air-con is best described as psychosomatic in that you press the button and imagine it gets a little cooler….

So here we go, off into Crocodile Dundee territory. No network coverage likely from now to Thursday. Fingers crossed on the Savannah Way!