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!

Day two: Mitchell to Longreach. Another 500-odd kilometres under our belt. We passed the first thousand kilometre mark without major incident, unless you count the police RBT stopping the entire rally at Tambo and checking 110 shitboxes for defects.

The magic carpet did not escape; we were told to swap the bald rear tire for the spare. Not swapped in Formula 1 time but we were on the road again within 10 minutes and dodging wobbly road trains for the next three hours….

Fuelled by bacon and egg butties and an unwarranted sense of optimism, we just pulled out of the Breakfast Creek Hotel, Brisbane, en route to Mitchell for the first leg of the rally.

An inauspicious start: the rally chief mechanic pulls to the side to do work under the bonnet before we even get to the first set of traffic lights. Then Team Stinkeroos, the guys with the multiple redundant GPS systems, lead us deep into the suburbs before we switch to Google Maps.

Well, for better or worse, we are now underway. What could possibly go wrong?

We made it to Byron Bay. And of all the bars in all the world look who we bump into at Balcony Bar… the Shitbox Rally High Command: James, Nadine and Alex.

We’re off! The team’s all kitted out in Viking costume, even the Camry is in on the act. We had a great send off from the boys and girls at Ekidna Daycare, despite looking a bit berserk!

Having looked on the map at the distance in front of us it’s a bit daunting. The rally itself plus the drive up from Sydney to the start is Brisbane is about 5000km, or the equivalent of driving from London to Baghdad, but without crossing a national border. All we have to do is remember to take off the handbrake when we set off….

One one side, a two year old Honda CRV sporting computer controlled fuel injection with more processing power than NASA used to put a man on the Moon, all wheel drive, dynamic stability assist, traction control and a fuzzy logic algorithm that actually learns your driving style and adjusts the automatic gear change accordingly. On the other side is a 25 year old Toyota Camry with an odometer reading like a phone number that has just been put through its paces on a full throttle two hour run up the coast. Improbably this is a picture of the Camry jump starting a very poorly CRV, rather than the other way around…!

The first big run for the shitbox didn’t have the most auspicious start. I popped into Spotlight for a length of fabric, as you do, to find a bright green pool of radiator fluid under the car. Oops. I bunged in the bottle of leak stopper, checked the levels, cursed my idleness in not having joined NRMA, and then recklessly pulled onto the F3 for the two hour run up to Port Stephens. Twenty minutes in, I got my first surprise: a tiny button marked ‘cruise’. Being a button-presser by nature, I gave it a go and settled in to an absolutely unexpected smooth 100km/h cruise all the way up the coast. The revs stayed steady, temperature didn’t budge and best of all, the cruise button must have engaged some form of infinite improbability drive because the 200km trip only took a single litre of petrol according to the fuel gauge.

In a fit of unwarranted bravado, I decided to take a spin on the unsealed road into the Stockton sand dunes at Anna Bay, intending to only go a couple of hundred metres.  I now know that a light dusting of sand across a dirt road is one of the best ways of bringing a Camry to a gentle halt, it’s just a pity that these sorts of conditions are likely on the rally itself.  So, a bit of a worry that the shitbox turns wombat and digs to victory at the first sign of sand on the road surface – though we did have some luck with a passing 4WD who towed us out the 20m or so back to hard surface.

So the car succeeded beyond all expectations on the tarmac, and gave me a good lesson on the sand.  But finally, it was still able to roll into Artarmon and give its younger brother the kick up the bum it needed to get going again. I’m getting more and more optimistic about this shitbox after all.

I just had a bit of a shock looking at the calendar… this time next week we will be honking the horn and pulling away from the curb to start the long drive to Darwin. Thanks to many generous supporters we have leapt up to $2,300 collected so far, and there’s still some more to come!

A big thanks to the guys at Jobsons motor mechanics in Artarmon for giving the car the once over. They were able to give me a long list of the things that were wrong with the car that I didn’t have the money to fix, so I now have a set of ACTUAL problems to worry about rather than general vague uneasiness. Forewarned is not so much forearmed as just not able to sleep quite so well on a night. Front suspension may turn out to be one of those overrated nice-to-haves, better get used to the car handling like a magic carpet.

Still, at least my boy is impressed with the sports car, but then, he’s four years old. The big test will be the drive up to Port Stephens at the weekend. It’s a good 2 hour run, followed by the 8 hour stint up to Byron Bay this time next week. Fingers crossed….