H8 Outback Challenge
Two more days and I must return the Haval H8 to Sydney. A routine visit to the local petrol station in Quilpie quickly morphed into a nasty surprise. The premium unleaded petrol pump is locked, not unusual in the outback, so I come in to ask for the key. “Oh we don’t have any premium anymore luv, no one uses it here.” Okay then, I’ll just check another…wait. We are in such an isolated part of Australia that this is the only petrol station in a circle of over 200km. Haval’s directions are strict: no petrol under 95 octane rating must be fed to Damo. A couple of feverish calls to the closest towns give the following results: Eulo (233km south-east) doesn’t have any, but Cunnamulla (302km via Eulo) and Charleville (212km east) both do. Charleville is a detour east that adds 110km to my day and means I will have to drive at twilight again tonight, with the constant danger of kangaroos. But this is the closest town that has the right petrol for me. Quick calculations based on the amount of fuel left in the tank and Damo’s average fuel economy show that I have enough fuel to go roughly 220km. I will need to drive very efficiently then, which thankfully I did and managed to reach Charleville. After slaloming between roos to reach Quilpie the night before, here’s another town I believe no one got more excited to reach than myself.
Now get this: Charleville is the first town of more than 1.000 inhabitants I traverse since Peterborough in South Australia, some 2.594km/1.611 miles ago… It is also the town where I saw the first passenger car – meaning non-SUV or pickup – since Hawker in the Flinders Ranges, 2.450km/1.522 miles ago. It was a Nissan Almera sedan, a model that has now been discontinued in Australia, and it was a real shock: I wondered what the heck that car was doing on the road. One particularity of Charleville is that it now houses a large number of Vietnamese workers on skilled migrant visas working at the local meat works. Far from the stereotype of a racist rural Australia, the locals welcome them with wide open arms: “Mate, it’s keeping the town alive,” ‘Red’ Alexander, a resident, said to the Brisbane Times. In fact, there are leaflets in Vietnamese at the local Commonwealth Bank bureau. The fact is rural people tend to be a lot more welcoming and kind than their city counterparts: the type that runs to me and holds the front door of Damo open so I can discharge my full hands without dropping everything on the ground.
We are now on the Mitchell Highway and the next stop, that we reach a good hour later than if I had managed to fuel up on Premium in Quilpie, is Cunnamulla. The earth gets even redder on the sides of the road and the contrast with the surrounding vegetation is stunning. Along with neighbouring town Eulo, Cunnamulla has a very peculiar claim to fame. I stop at the information centre, and a dynamic young woman catches my gaze and offers a big smile: “How can we help?” I venture: “I heard of lizard races being organised here?” She turns official: “Yes, that’s the International Lizard Races Championship, that we used to co-host with Eulo”, making sure the international part gets particular attention. “Unfortunately, legislation around catching and keeping the lizards had become a little too stringent and we were unable to continue with the Races.” Damn. I would have liked to witness that… A look at the local paper, The Land, shows that local farmers are moving with the times and the current debate focuses on the use of new digital measuring technologies across vast swaths of land in order to better anticipate and manage harvesting of crops.
Another 260km/160mi south and we arrive at Bourke across the state border in New South Wales, now just 800km/500mi north-west of Sydney. 37% of the 2.047-strong Bourke population identifies as Indigenous Australian (to be compared with 3% of the overall Australian population), with 21 different indigenous language groups recognised in Bourke today. In 1962, a local, Percy Hobson, became the first Aboriginal athlete to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal for Australia. Somewhat paradoxically, on this trip Bourke virtually represents the dawn of civilisation: the end of the desert and the start denser population network leading to Sydney. But from an Australian east coast perspective, Bourke is the complete opposite, considered to be the on very edge of settled agricultural districts and the gateway to the Outback. Accordingly, the Australian expression “back o’ Bourke” refers to the Outback: once you pass Bourke, you’re lost.
The striking car landscape characteristic of Bourke is that the majority of cars are equipped with a roo-bar. I detailed how unpredictable and therefore dangerous kangaroos can be on the road in the previous installment of this series, and local residents have had to adapt to that threat by hiding their vehicles behind menacing bars. No type of car escapes the roo-bar treatment: from police vehicles, large sedans such as the Toyota Camry or Holden Commodore to small SUVs such as the Nissan Qashqai or Ford Kuga and vans such as the Hyundai Starex and VW Transporter. In fact, over the 450km/280mi that separates Charleville from Bourke, I somewhat grimly counted one dead roo on the road every two km on average (that’s a total of almost 230 dead roos), and sometimes 3 or 4 in a few hundred metres. The push from locals to cull the roo population in the area now makes a lot more sense.
The roos at twilight were the last hurdle to overcome before arriving at Nyngan, some 550km/340mi north-west of Sydney. But I learned my lesson yesterday: 60km/h-40mph max and a full stop when roos are spotted enable me to snail my way to destination unscathed despite the darkness. The last day is a slow progress through numerous roadworks and traffic jams to arrive back to Sydney, but Damo’s sat nav has the good idea to divert me to smaller countryside roads that are a pleasure to drive on so that it’s not highway all the way. An observation as I cross the Blue Mountains 100km west of Sydney: suddenly a flurry of Subarus appear on the road and it makes me realise I had all but forgotten that brand during my adventure. Contrary to Alaska and the north-western USA, Subarus are not used for their 4WD abilities in Australia, only in cities. Once in Sydney, it’s a race against time to catch a view of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge from the North Sydney Olympic Pool before sunset. The guys at the Oasis Car Wash Cafe nearby welcome Damo with wide open eyes: “Long trip you’ve been on, mate?” Yessir. Less than an hour later, Damo could credibly pretend he’s never heard of the Birdsville Track in his entire life.
The morning after, as Damo is installed on the tow truck and I wave him goodbye, the adrenaline push that has kept me going for the past week suddenly drops. In eight days, I have driven 5.343km or 3.320 miles. 1 in 4 were on dirt tracks for a final fuel economy of 11.5L/100km or 20.4mpg. A total of 638L or 166 gal of Premium Unleaded petrol were needed to complete the trip, costing AUD $958.20 (US$ 727.82, 686.65€). Given the diversity, difficulty and roughness of some of the terrain we traversed, this actually amounts to pretty good fuel economy. But most importantly of all, Damo has never failed under pressure, handling unknown and isolated terrain like an experienced adventurer. The objective of this road trip was to test in the harsh Australian Outback that Haval’s status of No.1 SUV brand in China was backed by actual 4WD ability. It is.
So, can the No.1 SUV brand in China take on the Australian Outback?
The answer is yes.
What Damo is doing great:
- Reliability under duress, four wheel driving ability. The Intelligent AWD system is automatically engaged at the right time and easy to anticipate/manage. All mud obstacles were overcome across 1.400km of dirt tracks. No spinning wheels, adherence was appropriate and the vehicle controllable in extremely slippery conditions.
- Interior quality and equipment, plush materials, intuitive and functional dials. Nothing is too complicated, everything is refined and well-thought out. No user manual required.
- Comfortable ride, strong lower back seat support.
- Some very welcome smarts: automatic warning in case of sudden braking, back window wipers automatically turning on when reversing in rain for example.
- Some fun bonuses like the brand name projected on the floor in red letters from rear view mirrors.
- Powerful and efficient brakes that enabled me to avoid hitting any kangaroos (phew!).
- Interior space: leg space in the rear is huge and lots of storage space in the front.
- Exterior design is aggressive yet timeless, won’t get old too quickly. Originally unveiled in April 2012 at the Beijing Auto Show but officially launched in March 2015, the H8 is therefore already 4 years old design-wise but still looks current, even attractive.
- High speed driving integrity, both on bitumen (160km/h-100mph) and dirt track (130km/h-80mph) where these speeds were attained with no behaviour change.
What Damo could improve on:
- Premium Unleaded petrol mandate adds 20 to 50 AU cents per litre. Accessibility to standard petrol or, even better, a diesel engine would have been much more cost-efficient options.
- 2.0 Turbo engine lacks… turbo when accelerating.
- Two underbody screws got loose after continued exposure to mud wheel ruts over a 1.000km distance. Metallic ones would have held.
- The sat nav vastly overestimates the time required to reach any destination by applying speeds that are a lot lower than the speed limit, and by not incorporating unsealed roads in its route calculations.
- Reverse camera and boot opening are inoperable if the car is muddy.
- Armrest storage opening is cumbersome and prevents easy access.
- There is no memory on Eco or Sport modes: these have to be turned back on each time engine restarts and are easily forgotten because of lack of striking indication on the odo.
- Guiding voice repeatedly asks to put on the parking mode when on reverse gear.
- Two additional 20L jerrycans of petrol were needed to complete the trip safely due to high distances between petrol stations stocking Premium Unleaded. The 75L tank isn’t large enough for long 4WD adventures (it would be with a diesel engine), but it will still get you 640km/400mi ahead.
And with that, it’s time to say good bye to Damo. It’s been a treat.
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