The Track Less Travelled: Roothy challenges the deep south
Heading off to 'do' Victoria might have brought on a few yawns if anybody else except our LowRange crew had been involved.
Not that there's anything boring about off-roading down south - totally the opposite in fact - it's just that the poor old High Country has been driven to dinner by everybody, his hat and his dog...
Including me over the years. I've lost track of the number of bits Milo's left down south, possibly as many as the wonderful nights I've spent in country pubs down there too. Hmm, there's a thought to hold for a while. Cold beer, warm fires, Victorian hospitality.
But tackling tracks we've already done isn't really on the LowRange agenda, so almost as soon as our producer Mel and I started yarning we figured there were tonnes of options. For one thing there were a couple of big areas that had been largely ignored south of the border.
I mean having driven and ridden the Great Ocean Road a few zillion times in the last 40 years I'd always wondered what was back there in all that hill country behind the coast. Then there was the country at the end of that trail, the majestic Grampians that I hadn't seen since blasting through there on a trail bike back in the 1980s.
I figured those two destinations alone would provide us with plenty of new adventure, lots of fresh coverage for the cameras and a whole new slant on Victoria. But as usual there were also the possibilities of what lay in between, including the Great Otway National Park and hopefully a visit to Kingslake because it's there and too good to miss!
Yep, a real LowRange style trip with plenty of bucket list destinations, adventuring and exploring along the way. Mel had plenty of ideas of her own of course and hers usually come with the Gav seal of approval for beautiful camera views too. Our production team, including stills shooter Anthony 'Anton' Warry have a big part to play in deciding destinations because we're all on the same page with LowRange - we want Australia to look her best, even if the mugs blocking the view don't always...
Mugs? The ones you see in front of the camera haven't changed - Kenno, Gleno and myself. Slightly uglier than three skittles stuck in a well used one holer and, err, given Glen's efforts to 'break in' the loo in Kenno's XT10 maybe that's not such a bad analogy. Ah well, when we test products we do it all the way, ahem.
Kent had his Hilux along and as usual he gave it the berries from day one. What wasn't usual was the hat he's picked up with all these dangly things hanging around to keep off the flies.
And then, somewhere up in Kinglake, Kenno bought a stuffed dog that's become a bit of a constant travel companion ever since. Only trouble is nobody told him it was stuffed. I'm thinking his missus must feed the real dogs at home or he might have noticed. Glen and I both discussed plenty of ways of introducing Kenno to reality - like dragging the thing behind the trucks until it bursts in a cloud of polyester stuffing - but Kenno's gone so soft on it, it might break his heart. Hmm...
Gleno brought the big muscle Land Rover along again and yes, it still looks so sedate when the air drops out of the corners you'd think it should be pulling ponies in a trailer instead of poking up hills. But since our first adventure and the Disco's serious blooding on the Powerline track, Glen's read the manual.
The results this trip were incredible, suddenly all that Roo Systems power has been harnessed by the Landie's computers, and with the right combination of buttons it's absolutely amazing what that thing can do. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Mel, Roller Gav and Anton the Incredible were all along to record our trip but the big change in the line-up was that, while Kenno bought his brother Vaughan along to lend a hand, Glen brought his workshop apprentice Josh Davey.
Now I've known Josh for a while, and he's a really switched-on kid, but to see him on the trip was absolutely incredible. I know he felt privileged to be there but wow, every time I turned around he was offering to unroll an awning or clean a pot or just generally speed the day up by being helpful.
I know the camera crew found Josh's input terrific because at the end of a day's filming, when you're trying to sort downloads and copy memory and all that other stuff, to have someone set up your roof topper is just too good! We all enjoyed having Josh along because there's something about the sheer enthusiasm of a young person seeing whole great swathes of their own country for the first time that's pretty inspiring too. That's why we do LowRange in the first place!
And do it we sure did, although the trip kicked off with a bit of highway hauling around Victoria that saw something totally different. Yep, the first ever sealed road recovery I've ever been involved in and typically, it involved Kenno...
It wasn't his fault but it does highlight the importance of being aware that not all you can see is how it should be. There was a monster steep trench right next to the road and whoever had mown the grass had just tracked along the top of it. That's fine if you're a local and know the lie of the land but when Kenno turned off with the XT10 van behind him he was in for a shock. Yep, the van dropped off the edge of the world.
Kenno tried the lockers and the rest but the weight transfer on wet grass meant his rig wasn't going anywhere! But they're tough suckers and so all we had to do was hook up the big Landy and haul her out. It was only mid morning but with the pub mere metres away you can bet there were plenty of calls for an early day. Not that our producer would hear any of that!
Kenno had his Husqvarna trail bike along and was pretty quick to get it off the rack and up a track as soon as we needed a bit of forward planning. If you've been around for a while you might know I got my start as a journo testing motorcycles back in the 1980s for Two Wheels magazine, and bikes are still a big part of my life.
Funny thing is, that like the trucks, my machines are stuck in the past. There are bikes in the shed I've owned over 40 years and they were old when I bought them. The latest is a 1986 Transalp so you can bet first chance I got to chuck a leg over the Husky was totally mind-blowing.
Wow, how far have bikes come? This thing's a 450 single but it makes 60 horsepower and spins out to 11,500 rpm! Compare that to my old Matchless 500cc single punching 30hp at 2500rpm. And the old Pom weighs 190kg, almost twice as much as the lightweight Husky. Add in twice the suspension and double the damping and wow, wow, wow!!! I need one!
But then as Glen pointed out, those kind of power figures are pretty close to the differences between my old Milo and his new Disco, even though both have popped their Roo Systems steroids. The big difference is that while dirt bikes have lost weight, trucks just keep on adding features. Even with the extensive use of alloys and plastics a new Disco comes out half a tonne heavier than old Milo straight out of the box.
Mind you, we're talking undreamt of comfort levels here aren't we? When I was riding the Matchless to school the only four wheel drive on our place was the old Land Rover tray back. Flat cushions on a steel panel for seats, slider windows, a gearbox that made more noise than ex-Premier Newman and steering that broke just as many promises. Nobody thought about comfort in off road vehicles in those days which is probably why I'm still happy with Milo - it's such an improvement by comparison!
I took the Handbrake for her first off-road trip in my Series 2 Landy. Nine hours of slow grinding from Brisbane to Coffs Harbour. Despite that, she still wanted to get married.
After kicking this episode off on the Great Ocean Road we worked our way slowly through the beautiful Victorian hinterland and saw some incredible bits of country. From the insane Red Cedar forests to the deep shaded waterfall gullies, from having koalas cross the road to finding glorious green grassy campgrounds, with Mel's help on the research we were able to nut out some of the diamonds our wonderful land has to offer. But neither Glen nor I was prepared for what Mel, Gav and Kenno had in mind...
Seals? Look, in my book they're things that keep the dirt out of bearings. But no, apparently they're kind of like dolphins with stubby fins and noses and there's heaps of them along this southern coast. There used to be a lot more, but sealing was a very lucrative industry back in our pioneering days. Boy, hasn't that clock done a total turn around!
Which is about what I was planning with Milo when Mel called over the UHF to pull in next to the rack of kayaks near Apollo Bay. The bloke running the show was a local called Tim who's probably more used to helping Swedish backpackers into their swimmers than handing out wet suits to slim fellas like me and Glen. But either way with a bit of shoe horning and a whole lot of shaking we got all equipped for our little adventure.
I used to do a fair bit of surfing about a hundred years ago so it felt sort of familiar, but Gleno with his fear of sharks wasn't too happy. He didn't say anything, but I saw him blanch a bit when Tim started telling us that sharks were the number one predator for seals since man started lighting his huts with electricity instead of seal oil.
Mind you, as far as comfort goes, I was lucky to even get on that bloody surf ski. A few weeks before I'd blown the back out of a knee when the old Harley backfired. Combine that with my ballet-dancing like figure and I kind of fell over and landed somewhere near the kayak. If a shark had shown up he'd be getting the full all-you-can-eat version with no chasing involved.
Was it fun? Nah, maybe I'm just not cut out for stuff like this. It was a thrill watching Kenno dive in and go for a swim with the seals close up and we all had a good laugh when the Gleno/Kenno combination managed to almost sink their ski but fair dinkum, my idea of enjoying the ocean these days is more seafood platters than watching charging herds of monster slugs drop off the edge of the rocks. OK, maybe it was kind of thrilling, just a little bit.
It left me hanging out to go do some tough tracks though, searching for that thrill that only defying rocks and gravity with machinery can give a man. Mel was cool with that but she had another little venture in mind first. We'd planned this trip with a bit of a pub crawl theme - yes, you're right, it's a tough gig - but before letting us anywhere near another pub Mel decided we should do some pie tasting first!
Oh, the hardship of being forced to find the best bakeries around and then plate up with a pie. You can imagine what the Handbrake said when she heard about this one: "You thought of that didn't you? Don't blame Mel, that idea's got Johnno written all over it in puff pastry and sauce. And don't blame Glen, I've been talking with Vanessa and she assures me he's gone totally vegan for this trip!"
Hmm, at least I'm not alone in telling little fibs.
Pretty soon after leaving the bakery, having been forced to consume the whole pie because Gav was having trouble getting his focus right, we met up with Salv Rizza from Darche. Now you're all aware of Darche products, their swags and awnings and camping gear have really taken the country by storm. Err, maybe because they survive storms better than most?
Maybe, or maybe it's because senior Darche management like Salv actually get out there and enjoy the thrills of genuine product testing in the bush. Salv's an off-road enthusiast too so he was there to show us a few of the tracks we've not tried before. Yep, it was fun time!
But first we settled in for a cookup with the Spithouse spit, a guaranteed way of feeding the hordes. There's nothing better than camping out in the Aussie bush with a roast slow turning on the coals, a fridge full of coldies and a bunch of good mates. When it's all been sharpened up by a day of bush adventuring, then it's even better!
We'd had a bit of adventure too. I'd pushed Salv for a tough track - now that Gleno had read the Landy manual we needed to see the difference - and with some help from his Jeep driving mates Salv'd come up with the goods. Straight up, plenty of rolling boulders and a couple of dug outs to get the wheels clawing air.
This is where Milo, with her tractor-like torque, Gearmaster low range and diff locks both ends can really shine. A bit of hand throttle and the Coopers softened to 16 and she'll usually clamber up almost anything until it's time to fall over backwards. A bit like my mate Chooka last Friday after happy hour, but we won't go there...
So off we went, both of us humming away because this is what we live for. But with the back wheels rolling out a rock on the first ditch suddenly Milo dropped down and let out a couple of big 'crackkkks'. Damn, no drive at either rear wheel.
I thought I'd blown the diff and was just about in tears at the thought because my old girl runs the rarest diff ratios of all, the little 3.54's. I'd found a couple ten years ago in a wrecking yard and they gave the little turbo diesel the legs she needed for top gear touring with revs in fourth slower than a five speed in top.
Maybe I figured it was time for trouble because they've never given any along the way. But as luck would have it, the diff was fine, Milo had blown a hub on one side and split an axle on the other!
When things happen like that - both ends of an axle at almost the same time - you've got to get a bit suspicious as to the cause. That night, having stripped her down outside the Beveridge Hotel - ahem, purely for historical reasons of course - I talked it over with Gleno and Allan Gray and we all figured it might be a bent axle housing. A slight bend is all it takes to create a whole heap of metal fatigue in the rear axle - I know, we've been here before!
But armed with a bunch of new parts - this was the first time I realised Terrain Tamer stocks brand new hubs for the mighty 40s - we did as much checking as we could and figured she'd just have to do.
Maybe the decision was helped by the feeling of old Beveridge itself, birthplace of Ned Kelly and where the family's first house still stands. It's kind of strange to knock back a few beers under the same roof where Ned Kelly would have enjoyed a brew. I couldn't help wondering what the Kellys, who never had a lot of time for the spoilt rich kid behaviour of Governments, would have thought of the current government policies of locking us out of our own bush. I reckon they'd be jumping the gates.
Which is pretty much the way we all woke up next morning, keen to jump up and hit some more tracks. We drove west across Victoria for some adventuring in the magnificent Grampians, somewhere else I've driven past for too long without stopping. What incredible country that is, even if we did nearly freeze clambering up those misty slopes.
Nothing beats travelling the Aussie bush. Whether it's soaking up the beauty, appreciating the incredible variety or just enjoying the feeling of travelling a big wide land, somehow you've just got to get out there and do it!
Go on, do yourself a favour. See you on the tracks!