Photos Andrew Wilmot and courtesy of Australasian Safari The first time my enthusiasm for off-road racing became evident was at the quite accidental viewing of my Dad’s mate’s highly modified Holden Ute, circa 1984. I recall it clearly to this day, resplendent in bright yellow, twin shocks extending through the ute tray to custom made mounts, V8, big tyres, snorkel, jacked up, bull bar and stickers adorning every quarter panel! It was an impressive piece of machinery sitting there in the workshop and as a 15 year old my mind only dared to imagine the type of event such a weapon would be raced in. This was obviously no ordinary race; the build of the vehicle showing it was destined for multi-day punishment across a harsh and varied landscape of open terrain, creek beds and dunes whilst dodging cattle, kangaroos and emus. I remember at the time thinking “but what race can offer this?” After pouring over the magazines and newspapers at the newsagent after school the answer materialised – the Australian Safari! Since this revelation many years ago it had been my dream to witness this amazing spectacle of man, machine, money, hopes, dreams and competitive spirit. In my mind it offered up the ultimate challenge to competitors and was more than just a race - it would be an adventure for everyone involved! Life, work and other sporting interests got in the way I’m sad to say, until many years later in 2007 when I again stumbled across this icon of an event. Whilst driving home from the country after a weekend in Southern Cross, the bike competitors flashed passed me one by one, Safari stickers emblazoned on their fairings and the day-glow orange of the KTMs shining in the sun. Again the excitement I felt as a school kid arose within, but this time I had the focus, will and means to follow my desires and become involved. As I was no stranger to off-road bikes I immediately went out a bought a new DRZ, figuring what better way to meet competitors than to go riding with them! Research on the internet lead me to the ADVRider forum and from there it wasn’t long until I had met and organised to be the spanner man for a privateer competitor entered in the 2008 event. So started my involvement that continues to this day! Renamed in 2008, the now “Australasian Safari” is still Australia’s ultimate off-road adventure for competitors on 4wds, bikes and quads and showcases approximately 3000km of Western Australia’s gruelling outback terrain over 7 days. This year it took in some spectacular coastal stages instead of the dust and rocks of the Western Australian Goldfields where it has traversed in years past. The Australasian Safari is Australia’s longest running off-road Rally and in 2012 celebrated its 27th Anniversary. Run in late September this year, the event attracts many international competitors and participants as well as locals. It offers both a competitive component as well as a non-competitive Adventure Tour which takes in many of the special stages and is touted as a prelude for would be competitors. Since the 2008 event I’ve ridden the Moto Adventure Tour in 2009, toured independently by bike following the event in 2010, been a mechanic for Team Husaberg in 2011 and this year again toured independently by bike whilst officially registered as a media person. Once you inflame the passion, it’s hard to extinguish it! The event kicked off with the Ceremonial Start at the Hillarys Boat Harbour on Friday evening, a great opportunity for the public of Perth to come down and meet the riders and drivers as well as view their exotic machines. The strong winds and rain Perth was experiencing at the time didn’t seem to dent the enthusiasm of the participants to get out there and meet the public and it was a great opportunity for the Safari family to reacquaint themselves with each other. It’s funny how many of the same faces seem to appear every year – more evidence of how the Safari experience draws you in. Ceremonial Start Myself with Manuel Luchese (Italian Moto Competitor and 2013 Dakar finisher) The Smith Brothers - Jake and Todd Manuel at the press conference Moto Tour riders line up at the ceremonial start The Grid Girls rugged up this year - too cold for Lycra! The official start and finish for the racing was in Geraldton, which necessitated the show travelling the 4 hours north to this regional city the next morning and marked the start of my tour on my KTM 990 to follow the action. The Prologue to seed the competitor’s starting positions was held on the Saturday afternoon in preparation for the beginning of racing at 6.00am Sunday morning – church goers beware! Typically the bivouac each night is situated on whatever large grassed area the hosting town has available. On this night we camped on the Geraldton Senior College oval with the school Phys Ed building pressed into service as the media centre. The various race teams camped in one location coupled with the bright colours of the banners adorning the team’s compounds, the sounds of rattle guns rattling and the excited chatter of riders, drivers and navigators discussing tactics provides a spectacle to behold and makes any onlooker (like me) feel like they are part of the action! Bivouac Bert of the Moto Tour – a real Aussie larrikin! Moto Tour riders enjoying a cleansing ale My camp for the night I was struck this year with just how slick and well organised the whole operation was and what a command Justin Hunt, the organiser, has over proceedings. The level of documentation given to the competitors, service crew and officials gets better every year and I’ve heard the competitive road book was very good, a welcome improvement as there was some criticism of it last year. Justin Hunt – event Director Justin is very ably assisted of course by his close-knit team and the many volunteers that give their time willingly in support, taking on tasks such as merchandise sales, marshalling, time keeping, first aid and even scoping out the route for the course. Crawford’s, the caterers, do an awesome job of serving up substantial and delicious meals to over 350 people every day and “Kenny” follows the route with portable (hot) showers and toilets so there is no shortage of facilities! The organisers also employ the essential services of a helicopter and pilot and there is a sophisticated communications and location system provided to ensure each competitor can be tracked and can communicate with race control to ensure maximum response in emergencies. The organisers take safety of competitors, officials and spectators very seriously and it shows. Accidents do happen however, it is motor racing after all, but these emergencies are dealt with efficiently and effectively. There’s a core group of ‘grey nomads’ that give their time every year, whom like all of us are adventurers in their own right, evident by the fully decked out rigs they travel in! I’ve been privileged over the years to camp out on some of the Safari stages with them whilst they attend to their duties then wait for the competitors to arrive the next morning. The people who give their time willingly to join the adventure that is Safari are what make this event special. Volunteer Time Keepers Racing kicked off on the Sunday with the first competitor leaving the bivouac just after day break, which meant an early start for the teams too! Often the service crews need to get on the road before their competitors to ensure they are on time to the refuel spot. Hopefully none of them this year did as I in 2008 and locked the keys to the support rig in it when en-route! I admit there was a moment of panic until I noticed a dry cleaning shop operating opposite the car park. Where else would you get a wire coat hanger to jemmy the door lock at 7am in Kalgoorlie?! New to Safari this year was the ‘Dakar Challenge’, where the highest place Moto competitor who registered for it would receive free entry to the famous Dakar Rally held in South America in January. There were a few keen past and prospective Dakar competitors here this year and this would add another dimension to the competition ensuring the racing would be hotly contested. Many riders in fact use the Australasian Safari as a practice event for Dakar as it gains in prominence globally with its reputation for a tough course and close racing. The route this year followed the course north to Kalbarri, where we would bivouac for night two, then to Carnarvon for two nights, east to Gascoyne Junction for two nights and south back to Kalbarri for one for night and finish where it started in Geraldton. The riding was a great combination of open coastal sand tracks, technical rocky sections, river beds and the occasional high speed fence line and had high praise from the competitors I spoke to. A spectacular feature of the course this year would be the coastal stages, with the racing being conducted all the way down to the pristine blue water’s edge. One thing all petrol heads know is that salt water doesn’t mix well with engines. The sea got a little too close for one of the leading competitors when his bike was swamped by a wave! I don’t envy the mechanic whose job it was to clean the sand out and get the bike running again - he would have been working late in to the night, as often these guys do - true heroes. Bikes and the water don’t mix I caught up with the Adventure Tour riders in Kalbarri, many of them making a return to the Safari fold once more after enjoying the Tour last year. Much fun was had by these guys bench racing in the evening, as the beers flowed freely from the communal ice chest! Characters like Bert from Albany in the South of WA, were joined by guys such as Antal who had travelled with his mate all the way from Holland with their bikes. It was great to see riders from all sorts of backgrounds getting drawn together with their common interest in dirt biking and having an awesome time. After leaving Kalbarri the course went North East out to Coolcalalaya Station, better known as “Murchison Offroad Adventures”. Here the family owners operate a 4wd and camping park, set in natural bushland along the banks of a 20km section of the Murchison River. It offers secluded private camping spots, a campground, a fantastic converted woolshed bar and grill and some of the best four wheel driving that WA has to offer! Murchison Offroad Adventure's converted wool shed watering hole The owners and friends at Murchison Offroad Adventures Beth and son Dan, whom I spoke to, were really pleased to be able to host this leg of the Safari and - here’s a hint for next year - are looking forward to seeing it again. I was really impressed with their set up and hospitality and am keen to get back and share a beer in the woolshed with them, perhaps next time with the family in tow. My boys would love it out here swimming in the waterhole and hacking around on their peewee 50! En-route to Carnarvon on day 3 I met a fellow bike rider also touring and spectating. He was on a BMW and it was not surprising when I learnt his name was Ewen, Ewen McGregor! Not THE Ewan McGregor of ‘Long Way Round’ fame, but his namesake nonetheless who was only ever destined to ride a BMW quite obviously. Ewen was a top bloke and had caught the Safari bug just like me, thoroughly enjoying the riding and the action. We rode together for a day and camped out at Quobba Station north of Carnarvon, as I had the low down on the spectator spots and knew the field would be bursting over the dune behind the camp early the next morning - providing an excellent photo opportunity. Over a couple of bevvies that evening he mentioned a guy I knew and we put two and two together and were surprised when we figured out we had actually met about 10 years before. Small World! Ewen and myself at Quobba Station Ewen had to get back home for work but not before I led him further north to Gnaraloo Station for a look. I’ve spent some time here before wave sailing and knew the area well. It’s one of the best windsurfing spots on the planet known for its awesome left hander and near perfect side shore wind conditions. I had a yarn with Paul, the eccentric lease holder of the station, whilst he pumped some fuel for me up at the homestead which is situated high on the cliff top overlooking the breakers. He certainly welcomed the Safari and was enthusiastic about it coming through his property, eagerly chatting to me about the event and my own adventures on the bike. Action in the dunes The next night I was back in Carnarvon at the bivouac to catch up on the day’s action. Carnarvon is a reasonably large town and is known for its fresh produce (especially bananas) being situated on a plentiful supply of fresh water courtesy of the mighty Gascoyne River. It’s also fringed by cattle stations and the T-Bones at the Carnarvon Hotel that evening were fan-bloody-tastic I can tell you after surviving on tasteless packet meals for the past 3 days! There was the inevitable carnage amongst the competitors starting to appear, as we were now 4 days into the race with 3 days still to go. Some were out with mechanical failures and others with injuries. It was interesting to note that in general, the less competitive privateer riders on bikes were fairing pretty well. Most were enjoying the adventure of the event rather than pushing so hard as to make mistakes and get injured crashing. It seems the Safari is certainly doable if you’re an average rider who is prepared to pace yourself. Gascoyne Junction was the destination for the next day, and the town had worked hard for more than a year to resurrect itself in time for the Safari after a one in one hundred year flood had decimated it in 2010. The pub where many a weary traveller would stop was washed away, along with the servo, but it was heartening to see that these are about to be reconstructed, sensibly some way from the high water mark! I met CEO Dirk Sellenger when he filled my bike with fuel at the council depot, another great bloke enthusiastic about having the Safari visit his neck of the woods and going out of his way to ensure it all ran smoothly. My camp at Gascoyne Junction School Oval Teams worked long into the night to fix broken bikes and cars The factory teams looking as resplendent as ever Murph the mechanic Action from the Desert Stages Another local I met whilst in Gascoyne Junction was Paul Kelly, the Event Director of the Gascoyne Dash. The Gassy Dash (as its affectionately known) is another annual off-road race situated in this area and culminates in the famous run down the dry Gascoyne River to Carnarvon. He was keen to take me out to show me the starting area situated on Bidgemia Station and we dropped in to the homestead to wash the race wear of two of the competitors - the Strange brothers from Kalgoorlie, WA. Not sure what that was all about, but perhaps it gives them a psychological edge over their competitors looking fresh at the start each day! Paul Kelly and his son at the Gassy Dash Start The owners of Bidgemia Station, Lachlan and Jane, whom I got to know over a cold beer on their verandah as the sun was setting, are also nice people and enthusiastic advocates for off-road riding. You wouldn’t know now but their property was also devastated by the 2010 floods and it’s great to see that they have the farm stay accommodation business back up and running again. The course went through Bidgemia the next day which provided a stark contrast to the earlier coastal stages, with the white sand of the beach being swapped for the red dirt of the desert. I met up with another riding buddy from Perth, Jon and his brother Tim at Gascoyne Junction and enjoyed their company riding out to visit the stages on Day 5. We rode a back road out from town and onto another property, Weedarrah Station, covering a couple of hundred kilometres including one challenging very wide and very soft sandy dry river crossing before arriving at the spectator point. We hung around for a couple of hours taking in the action, but unfortunately from here we would be heading via the dirt for home, as I had commitments in Perth starting before the Safari finished in Geraldton on Saturday. The author on course spectating and his trusty steed in the background Rod Fagotter had a good run Competitors dodged plenty of these The oldest bike in the race – a classic beamer franken-bike With two days to ride home we relaxed as we cruised on the wide dirt roads down through Murchison, choosing to camp in a dry creek bed not far south to escape the wild wind and light rain that still persisted. It was good to catch up with Jon again after our ride to Rudall River last year together, and to meet his brother Tim, whom Jon was indoctrinating into the fold as an Adventure Rider on a borrowed bike. Incidentally, Tim is now as hooked on two wheel touring as Jon and I are! Our campfire in the creek bed I followed the progress of the Safari on my iPhone as it moved south once more, through Kalbarri and then to Geraldton from whence it came earlier in the week. There were further surprises with some of the top placed competitors bombing out on the final days due to mechanical issues. Just goes to show that consistency over the distance of both man and machine is vitally important to record a finish, let alone a place! Congratulations go to Jake Smith (GHR Honda) from NSW for the outright Bike win, John Hederics and Kees Weel (PWR Holden) for the 4WD win, and Paul Smith for a win on the Quad. A notable finisher was Dave Winterburn, a privateer riding a tiny 250cc Yamaha WR250R proving the Safari is certainly accessible to the average rider. Dave was pleased with his performance ending up 22nd out of 27 finishers (funnily enough beating pre-race favourite Todd Smith!) and had a ball. Moto Winners Dave Winterburn What are you doing in September 2013?