We lend a hand spread­ing hay and hap­pi­ness to some drought-stricken re­gions of out­back Queens­land.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TOS MATT WOOD

At a servo in De­niliquin the young lady be­hind the counter passed her du­bi­ous gaze over the two Toy­otas sit­ting at the pumps: one a shiny new Hilux SR 4x4; the other a wellused and abused ’89 4x2 Hilux.

“So where are you headed?” She asked as I paid for the fuel.

“Quilpie in West­ern Queens­land,” I replied. She looked at me wide-eyed: “Quilpie? I once stayed there for three days and just cried the whole time it was so hot!” I nod­ded sym­pa­thet­i­cally. She con­tin­ued: “Do you know they even have to keep choco­late bis­cuits in the fridge out there?”

The drought and sub­se­quent rains re­cently in West­ern Queens­land have been in the news quite a bit of late, as more than 80 per cent of the state has squirmed in the parched grip of a drought that is well into its fourth year.

In fact, some parts of the state have been dry for nearly five years. Many were even call­ing this drought the worst in liv­ing mem­ory.

We thought we’d take the new Toy­ota Hilux 4x4 for a long-haul test drive with tan­dem trailer and a tonne of hay on board to see how the new banger han­dles a load and a long drive. And to make it a lit­tle more in­ter­est­ing we also took my own 25-year-old, 2.4-litre petrol Hilux along to see if that old un­break­able tagline still rings true.

Brian Egan runs the bush char­ity Aussie Helpers and has been work­ing seven days a week to keep as­sis­tance flow­ing out to where the rivers and creeks run dry. The Aussie Helpers team clocked up more than 500,000km and helped more than 1100 peo­ple dur­ing 2015.

We caught up with Brian on a pre-christ­mas ham­per run to some prop­er­ties in the Quilpie and Adavale ar­eas to see the sever­ity of the drought first-hand.

As we headed to­wards the Vic­to­rian bor­der I was again a lit­tle worried that I may have been ask­ing a bit much of the old-banger. A head­wind

saw me stuck in fourth gear at about 80 clicks, while a thun­der­storm saw me back to third as I peered through the un­re­lent­ing rain. With one-tonne of hay on board and nearly a tonne of tan­dem trailer be­hind, the old Hilux was pretty much at max­i­mum le­gal pay­load.

The new SR’S 2.8-litre pow­er­plant was just idling along with the same load. The trend to­wards taller gear­ing in vir­tu­ally all new ve­hi­cles meant the new Hilux rarely spent any time in sixth gear when loaded, but even in fifth the tacho nee­dle was below 2000rpm when cruis­ing at the spped limit.

The mer­cury stayed in the high 30s as we headed through Co­bar and on to Bourke. Steve had his stint be­hind the wheel of the old dual-cab, while I took ad­van­tage of the air-con in the new beast. Road speed was pretty much de­ter­mined by the tem­per­a­ture gauge of the old ute; how­ever, it just plugged away and only needed to stop in the shade to cool off on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions.

The ever-chang­ing land­scape scrolled past our win­dows: scrub and feral goats be­tween Co­bar and Bourke; the star­tling burst of green­ery of the river flood plains at the Queens­land bor­der; the dry open coun­try out to Cun­na­mulla; and the bush sur­round­ing Charleville. But the red rock and scrub that flanks the Dia­mantina De­vel­op­ment Road, as it stretches west to­ward Quilpie and be­yond, high­lighted the harsh re­al­i­ties of farm­ing in the out­back. It’s an un­for­giv­ing land­scape.

We rolled to a stop at the turn-off to the re­mote ham­let of Adavale (pop­u­la­tion 20). Brian was al­ready wait­ing for us in his tin­sel-cov­ered Land­cruiser, ea­ger to get go­ing and de­liver some Christ­mas cheer.

Brian and his wife Nerida started Aussie Helpers more than 13 years ago after Brian – a Navy vet­eran-cum-farmer – was hos­pi­talised with de­pres­sion and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Brian and Nerida lost their own farm on the Dar­ling Downs due to drought. Dur­ing his re­cov­ery, a coun­sel­lor sug­gested Brian should find some­one worse off than him­self and help them and it was this sug­ges­tion that saw the birth of Aussie Helpers. From hum­ble coun­try pub ham­per raf­fles to thrift shops, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has grown to run a mod­est fleet of ve­hi­cles dis­tribut­ing every­thing – from toi­letries and food, to hay – to those in need in the bush.

With Brian lead­ing the way we set off up the 125km dirt road that led to Adavale. It soon had me think­ing that maybe I re­ally was go­ing to kill the old ute. With the ex­cep­tion of a cou­ple of op­ti­mistic stretches of as­phalt, it was like an end­less cat­tle grid that had my teeth jump­ing in my head. I was sure some­thing im­por­tant, like maybe the gear­box, was go­ing to fall out.yet with a bit of care it con­tin­ued to chug along. I quickly be­came coated in a film of red dust while clang­ing along in the old girl.

North of Adavale we popped in to see Deb­bie and Ben Pe­gler at their 769km² prop­erty. The Pe­glers had been weath­er­ing the dry sto­ically, putting out licks and hold­ing on to their 900-head breed­ing herd. This area has the ad­van­tage of arte­sian wa­ter, so Deb­bie keeps the gar­den around the house lush. “It just makes you feel bet­ter to look out the win­dow and see some green,” she said. Son Darcy was help­ing sand floor­boards up­stairs in the ab­sence of any stock­work to do.

This area had about three inches of rain just over six months ago, then quite a bit more over the newyear pe­riod. But with fol­low-up rain, cat­tle can walk them­selves to death try­ing to eat enough of the mod­est green pick that emerges. En­ergy ex­pended ver­sus en­ergy con­sumed.

We dropped some more hay at Leop­ard­wood Park, which is owned by Vin and Jenny Richard­son. Like

many of the sta­tions in this area, Leop­ard­wood Park was his­tor­i­cally a sheep prop­erty, though cat­tle mainly dom­i­nate now when times are good. The 312km² sta­tion is rel­a­tively mod­est in size by lo­cal stan­dards.

Leop­ard­wood is now pretty much de­stocked while the fam­ily con­tracts with the lo­cal shire, car­ry­ing out road main­te­nance with their own heavy ma­chin­ery. This sees the fam­ily away from home quite a bit while earn­ing a crust. Again, sul­phurous sub-arte­sian ground wa­ter keeps the house block cheer­fully green – an un­likely green dot on an oth­er­wise parched redand-brown-patch­work land­scape.

Our last stop was the his­toric Milo sta­tion Es­tab­lished in the 19th cen­tury, Milo was a mas­sive sheep prop­erty well into the 20th cen­tury. The beau­ti­ful home­stead is sur­rounded by out­build­ings buck­ling in the fierce heat.

Nobody was home, so Brian un­loaded his cargo of ham­pers and left them for the fam­ily to find when they re­turn. Steve and I kicked off the last bales of hay and lis­tened to the old Hilux al­most sigh with re­lief as it slowly sprung back up on its sus­pen­sion.

It was a hell of a jour­ney: des­ic­cated road kill bak­ing in the sun; big trucks thun­der­ing out of the heat haze on lonely high­ways; slat-sided, hol­low-eyed cat­tle re­gard­ing our progress with bovine in­dif­fer­ence; and stoic coun­try dwellers re­luc­tant to com­plain too much about their cir­cum­stances, in­stead rid­ing out the storm and search­ing an empty hori­zon for rain clouds.

And maybe I’m just start­ing to get the whole Toy­ota thing. My old farm hack gamely chugged from Mel­bourne to West­ern Queens­land and back to Bris­bane – a 3000km round trip – with­out even a hic­cup. I found my­self get­ting strangely at­tached to the ugly old bucket.

The new Hilux seems a wor­thy suc­ces­sor, though. Some may say it’s gone a lit­tle soft in an ef­fort to com­pete with other of­fer­ings on the mar­ket, but after spend­ing many hours be­hind the wheel of the new jigger, both loaded and un­loaded on a va­ri­ety of road sur­faces, my ini­tial im­pres­sions haven’t changed. It’s quiet and com­fort­able with long high­way legs for a big coun­try, yet it re­tains that uniquely Toy­ota kind of prag­matic charm.

Check­out www.aussiehelpers.org.au to see how you can con­trib­ute to mak­ing life on the land a bit eas­ier dur­ing th­ese dry times.



The Dia­mantina De­vel­op­ment Road is one of the long­est roads in Aus­tralia.

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