Overlanding has become a thing in America. Before the coronavirus pandemic tapped the brakes, people all over the country were jumping into their 4x4s and taking the road less traveled, turning away from the interstates and the neon-lit desolation of cheap hotels and fast food joints, journeying instead along the quiet back roads and trails that still crisscross the country. Overlanding has made the voyage as important as the destination. Where I grew up, it always was.
Australia is about the same size as the lower 48 states but has just 7 percent of the population, most of which lives within 100 miles of the eastern and southern coasts. What in the U.S. is called the Heartland is in Australia called the Outback. No prairies and cornfields and red-painted barns here, though: Most of inland Australia is arid and sparsely populated. The town of Alice Springs, close to the geographic center of the country, has a population of just 27,000 souls. It is the largest human habitation for almost 1,000 miles in any direction.
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In 1955, two years after Dinah Shore urged Americans to hit the highway and see the USA in their Chevrolet, my parents drove their 1937 Dodge Coupe to Alice Springs from my hometown of Adelaide, on Australia’s southern coast. It was the mileage equivalent of traveling from, say, New Orleans to Omaha, Nebraska. But it was no Dinah Shore singalong drive.
The old Dodge was all my parents could afford. Dad, a mechanic, had carefully stripped and rebuilt the car in preparation for what he knew would be a rugged trip, having done it two years earlier in an open-top 1927 Chevy while heading to Darwin in Australia’s tropical far north to hunt crocodiles. Modifications included fitting half-inch wider tires, lug pattern treads on the rear, bolting a spotlight to the roof, and replacing the rumble seat with a 19-gallon fuel tank to bring the total fuel capacity to almost 34 gallons—vital for a journey where the longest stretch between gas stations would be 425 miles.
Back then the tarmac ended 200 miles out of Adelaide, and rare rains had left the dirt road sodden and soggy. As Mum recorded in her journal, they made it a further 113 miles in seven-and-a-half hours of hard driving, at times plowing through 250-yard stretches with water over the running boards, before the Dodge slithered to a halt in a gooey mass of red clay. “For two solid hours we dug, jacked, and heaved stones under the diff and the front axle,” she wrote, “and when we felt it was solid enough, tried to get the old girl out. But she wouldn’t budge.”
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Eventually towed out by a couple of truckers, they holed up for a day and waited for the country to dry out a little. Back on the road, they met up with fellow travelers heading north and traveled in a convoy, helping one another out when someone got stuck. Later, closer to Alice Springs, when the mud gave way to soft red sand, Dad would rev the side-valve-six hard in second gear, drifting the Dodge through the turns to keep up momentum.
It took eight days to cover the 1,020 miles from Adelaide to Alice Springs. And this was on the main road—indeed, the only road—directly connecting the country’s north and south coasts.
The stretch of the Stuart Highway that in 1955 had so challenged that tough old Dodge remained a rough go for decades after. On a 1973 family holiday, our Series II Land Rover struggled for two days to traverse a mere 77 miles. The main road was finally fully sealed in 1987.
Roads through the Outback still are few and far between—which is why for most Aussies a road trip and overlanding are essentially the same thing. It’s also why the two best-selling vehicles in the country are Toyota’s Hilux and Ford’s Ranger crew-cab 4×4 pickups. Mum and Dad eventually put 15,000 miles on the Dodge in a trip that circumnavigated the entire eastern half of the continent. Overlanding? It’s in my blood.
More from Angus MacKenzie:
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