The Great Over­land Ad­ven­ture heads Down Un­der


The vast­ness of the Aus­tralian Outback in the GLA

IT’S BEEN AGES SINCE I LAST CAME TO AUS­TRALIA, prob­a­bly over a decade, but I still re­mem­ber my first time Down Un­der. I was barely six months into my very first job, so you can imag­ine the delight with which I packed a suit­case for Can­berra, to re­port on our In­dian MRF team’s maiden shot at the Asia Pa­cific rally championship (which they’d go on to win many, many times – they’re prob­a­bly the win­ningest team in the championship, got to check on that). Any­way, it was a blast. Aussies are an in­cred­i­bly out­doorsy bunch; they love their cars, sport, bar­be­ques and beer. The sun is al­ways out, the weather, at least dur­ing the ral­lies, was al­ways nice, and every im­por­tant city glis­tens against the oceans – ex­cept Can­berra whose plan­ners were so en­thu­si­as­tic about parks that they even threw a lawn on top of the par­lia­ment house (the cap­i­tal is also such a bor­ing place that one of their Prime Min­is­ters re­fused to stay there, pre­fer­ring to com­mute from Syd­ney!). Most of all the Aussies are fun loving guys and it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be en­ter­tained by a lot whose stan­dard re­sponse to any­thing is ‘no wor­ries’.

“Can I have my steak medium rare?”

“No wor­ries.”

“You mean to say the room doesn’t have an at­tached bath­room?”

“No wor­ries mate, it’s just down the hall.”

“Was that a wasp that just stung me?”

“No wor­ries mate, just ask for some ice at the bar.” “How many kan­ga­roos did you say you hit?”

“Two mate, but no wor­ries the hop­per stop­per took it. Your cars … umm … don’t seem to have one.”


Drift­ing like Mad Max

We’ll get to the kan­ga­roos later. Our jour­ney starts where I left off all those years ago – with some mo­tor­sport ac­tion. Des­ti­na­tion on day one in Bris­bane on the east coast of Aus­tralia is the Queens­land Mo­tor­sport Park for a spot of drift­ing with the On Track Drift school. Turns out Eu­gene Arend­sen, a drift­ing cham­pion who runs the school, was the stunt driver on Mad Max, Fury Road. And the cars we’d be drift­ing were rear-wheel drive R33 Sky­lines.

Our train­ing starts with how to use the hand­brake, feel the tail slid­ing, and us­ing the foot brake to come to a stop be­fore hit­ting any cones. Les­son two, park like Jackie Chan. Ac­cel­er­ate, dip clutch, big ’ol yank on the hand­brake, slide the rear and just be­fore the bol­lard, turn the steer­ing (gen­tly) to get the tail to slide and brake to a halt when you’re at a right an­gle. Easy-peasy. It’s fol­lowed by the J-turn – re­verse at full clip, as fast as the car will go and look­ing only in the mir­rors, dip clutch, slip into neu­tral, swing the steer­ing, watch how the nose turns around, slip into first and go. The trick here is speed – go as fast as the car will in sec­ond gear and turn the steer­ing as vi­o­lently as you can. Also, once the nose has come around, the steer­ing will be point­ing straight ahead so you just have to gas it to carry on.

And fi­nally the donuts. The turbo-charged RB26 en­gine has so much grunt, you gas it and the tail comes out. The



trick is to catch the slide with­out over-cor­rect­ing and then mod­u­late the throt­tle to keep the tail slid­ing and over­steer­ing around the cone with an arm­ful of op­po­site lock. Not as easy as it sounds and in the short time we were there I just couldn’t get it right, so much for all my rally driv­ing.

Then Eu­gene shows us how the big boys do it by drift­ing in tan­dem – first round the cone and then round the GLA. It’s in­cred­i­ble, the kind of car con­trol you need to be able to drift mil­lime­tres away from the door of the car in front. It’s so much fun that I’m se­ri­ously think­ing of get­ting (or build­ing) my­self a rear-wheel drive car to get the hang of this lark. Or maybe Mercedes will loan me an AMG to shag the rear tyres.

Cute and cud­dly

Ear­lier in the day at Bris­bane we drove out to the Lone Pine sanc­tu­ary, the world’s largest re­serve for the koala. The koala is that lit­tle teddy-bear like an­i­mal that, along with the kan­ga­roo and emu, are unique to Aus­tralia – and like the

kan­ga­roo, it is a mar­su­pial in that the young are nursed in the belly pouch till they are ready to step out into the big bad world and… sleep for 20 hours every day. The koalas feed only on eu­ca­lyp­tus leaves and that has such a low calorific value that they have to con­serve en­ergy by sleep­ing. For 20 hours! It’s why the park rangers only al­low the an­i­mals to be held for a max­i­mum of 20 min­utes every day (and they have a weekly off!) – which is a good thing as they don’t re­ally seem to en­joy be­ing hugged by an as­sort­ment of ex­citable vis­i­tors, some with ques­tion­able per­sonal hy­giene. And in any case they’re cutest when perched on a branch, eyes shut tight, obliv­i­ous to the world rush­ing past.

Surfer’s par­adise

Half an hour out of Bris­bane on the M1 high­way, be­gin the se­ries of towns that to­gether form the Gold Coast. It’s im­pos­si­ble to miss it, glitzy tow­ers shim­mer­ing against the beau­ti­ful waters of the Pa­cific, all with a de­cid­edly Mi­ami beach vibe to it. Our plan was to head to Coffs Har­bour where the pro­duc­ers had fixed up for Sid­dharth and I to kiss a dol­phin (cud­dle a koala, kiss a dol­phin, we were get­ting a bit wor­ried) but the lure of the beach was too much to re­sist. What was sup­posed to be a quick break­fast dragged on for hours as we got our feet wet, strolled down the prom­e­nade buzzing with jog­gers and got dis­tracted by ladies in yoga pants do­ing their stretches.

And here’s some­thing I learnt – Surfer’s Par­adise was once called El­ston. Imag­ine go­ing half way across the world to the beaches of… El­ston, which is why the city fathers re­named the town af­ter a groovy ho­tel on the shore. Surfer’s Par­adise picked up in the fifties, fol­lowed by a con­struc­tion boom in the seven­ties, and then the ar­rival of un­savoury el­e­ments of all sorts. There are now, al­legedly, so many mob­sters around that you don’t want to get into a fen­der ben­der of any sort here.

Syd­ney v Mel­bourne

“In Mel­bourne all views are equally de­press­ing, so there’s no point in hav­ing one … No one in Syd­ney ever wastes time de­bat­ing the mean­ing of life – it’s get­ting your­self a wa­ter frontage. Peo­ple de­vote a life­time to the quest.”

David Wil­liamson, one of Aus­tralia’s best known drama­tists is right – Syd­ney is all about the wa­ter. The view of the Opera House. The grand old Har­bour Bridge. The be­witch­ing blue waters that lap on to Dar­ling Har­bour. The seal that lazes on the steps near the Opera House. It is a spec­tac­u­larly grand and op­u­lent sight, and ev­ery­thing looks even bet­ter when you take a boat out into the har­bour.

What­ever has to be said about the Opera House has al­ready been said, so I won’t go into it ex­cept reit­er­at­ing that it re­ally is as dra­matic as every travel mag­a­zine and blog has made it out to be. For me though the Har­bour Bridge

is an even more mag­nif­i­cent sight, a hulk­ing great iron struc­ture that looks like the heav­i­est thing on earth. The arch alone weighs 30,000 tonnes. Four great stone pil­lars sup­port the bridge on ei­ther end. The me­tal plates and gird­ers are held to­gether by six mil­lion riv­ets, each nearly the size of a foot­ball. And you can walk the en­tire arch. It’s an un­shak­able sym­bol of might – of en­gi­neer­ing prow­ess and in­dus­trial strength. You don’t go to war with peo­ple ca­pa­ble of build­ing such ed­i­fices.

Yet for ev­ery­thing that Syd­ney has to of­fer I pre­fer Mel­bourne. It’s the same Delhi ver­sus Mum­bai de­bate we have back at home, and it all boils down to per­sonal pref­er­ence. Mel­bourne has a less hec­tic pace of life, all the ran­dom art in­stal­la­tions dot­ted around the city make it more in­ter­est­ing, there’s a more cul­tural vibe to it, the bars we went to in the evening were more friendly and – I’m told – things are a fair bit cheaper too.

Mel­bourne Cricket Ground

My world doesn’t come to a stop when a man hurls a ball at great speed while an­other man with mat­tresses strapped to his feet tries to club it out of the way of ten jaun­tily uni­formed guys. But I have to say there’s his­tory in the game, and it’s all captured beau­ti­fully at the Mel­bourne Cricket Ground. The MCG is as old as the found­ing of the city (the Brits re­ally liked their cricket!) and the pic­tures and paint­ings in the great halls cap­ture the evo­lu­tion of Aus­tralia’s two favourite games (cricket and Aussie Rules Foot­ball), com­mem­o­rate the iconic bat­ting and bowl­ing per­for­mances at the grounds (only test cricket counts) and pay homage to the masters. They’re par­tic­u­larly proud of a pic­ture of Don Brad­man and Sachin Ten­dulkar shot on the for­mer’s 90th birth­day, of which there are only four copies in ex­is­tence, and in front of which every In­dian goes men­tal with his cam­era phone. The MCG has be­come a ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tion for us

In­di­ans and you don’t have to be a fan of the game to take in the mag­nif­i­cence of the mem­ber’s lounge, peek into the com­men­tary boxes and marvel at the views the journos get, poke about the chang­ing rooms, wan­der through the stands and whis­tle at the majesty of the ground it­self.

In an­other first for me, I in­ter­viewed John Hast­ings, the Aussie fast bowler who played Twenty20 cricket for KKR be­fore in­jur­ing his an­kle. I can’t vouch for how good a player he is but I’d be very wor­ried if all six and a half feet of Aussie brawn came charg­ing at me with a bright red ball in his hand. What I can tell you is that he’s a very nice bloke, very friendly, with none of the ar­ro­gance our lot seems to have in plenty. Sid­dharth poses a few in­ter­est­ing ques­tions and then it's my turn and I em­bar­rass our cricket-wor­ship­ping na­tion by draw­ing some painfully ob­tuse rac­ing-re­lated par­al­lels. “Like rac­ing drivers tend to go faster on their home tracks, do you have a home ad­van­tage while play­ing at the MCG?”

Food, food, food

There’s no such thing as Aus­tralian cui­sine, yet their food is great, and a lot of it has to do with MasterChef. Ever since the se­ries took off, restau­rants all over the coun­try have been pay­ing more at­ten­tion to qual­ity, pre­sen­ta­tion, and the small lit­tle things that el­e­vate a good meal to great­ness. MasterChef Aus­tralia is one of the coun­try’s big­gest ex­ports and, in fact, the sec­ond largest view­er­ship for the se­ries comes from In­dia. We couldn’t go to the sets of the show but we did visit Ge­orge Calom­baris’ Greek restau­rant Gazi in the heart of Mel­bourne, and since we landed at prep time, head chef Guil­laume threw us an apron and showed us how to make two of Gazi’s ac­claimed dishes. The sig­na­ture fries are re­ally easy-peasy – first fry the fries, then throw in a gen­er­ous amount of gar­lic oil, sprin­kle oregano salt, add more gar­lic oil, top it with feta cheese and you have ridicu­lously de­li­cious fries. Even bet­ter were the crabs – soft shell crabs dipped in Aleppo flour (how do they get that out of war torn Syria?), seared in olive oil and folded into a naan-kind of bread that’s sea­soned with Ja­panese mayo and herbs. My mouth is wa­ter­ing just typ­ing this out!

Over the two weeks in Aus­tralia I put on nearly five ki­los and don’t need a belt to hold up my jeans any­more. Gazi was the rel­a­tively healthy food, the ma­jor part of our road trip con­sisted of a late break­fast of ba­con and eggs, no lunch as we in­vari­ably were run­ning late for some­thing, and a medium rare hunk of steak for din­ner. I loved it. And now my wife has me on a salad and roast chicken diet.

Great driv­ing road

I’ll be bru­tally hon­est here, driv­ing in Aus­tralia is bor­ing as hell. The max­i­mum you can do on the mo­tor­way is 110kmph, most places it is be­tween 80 and 90kmph. Out of Bris­bane, the M1 is be­ing widened (in fact there’s a ma­jor fo­cus on infrastructure through­out the coun­try to re­vive the econ­omy) and that means plenty of di­ver­sions and an even slower av­er­age speed. The roads, even the di­ver­sions, are bril­liantly smooth, amaz­ingly well marked (among the best in the world I have to say) and not a speed breaker or pot­hole in sight, but it’s bor­ing. Re­ally, re­ally bor­ing.


And then on day three we headed out of Syd­ney into the Blue Moun­tains and for the first time I turned the steer­ing wheel. This is the old Cox’s road, built by thirty con­victs who won their free­dom by cut­ting a path through the rugged and treach­er­ous moun­tains in six months. The road passes through quaint vil­lages and some awe­some sights like the Three Sis­ters, sort of like the look-outs in Ma­ha­balesh­war and Pan­chagni but on a much grander scale and with no Lays wrap­pers and Coke bot­tles lit­tered all over the place.

But if there’s only one drive you can do, it has to be the Great Ocean road. I’ve read so much about it, seen so many pic­tures, but still the first time you hit the Pa­cific coast, three hours out of Mel­bourne on the way to Ade­laide, your mind is blown. For the next three hours the road hugs the moun­tain­side, snaking sin­u­ously past awe­some look­out points, waves crash­ing against the cliffs on your left, camper vans laz­ing by the back waters on the right. It’s prop­erly awe­some and gets even more oth­er­worldly at the Twelve Apos­tles.

All those Great Ocean road pic­tures have the Apos­tles, es­sen­tially lime­stone pil­lars, stick­ing out of the ocean, get­ting plas­tered silly by the waves, erod­ing at the rate of 30cm every year. Some even let out a big old sigh and crum­bled into the ocean in what I can only as­sume to be a spec­tac­u­lar event. To­day, eight Apos­tles make up one of the world’s great sights, and a few kilo­me­tres fur­ther on is the so-called Lon­don Bridge, ex­cept Lon­don Bridge too came crash­ing down some years ago, ma­roon­ing two tourists on the other side. You ex­pect these to be rather wor­ri­some events, but not to the Aussies. “No wor­ries mate, we sent a chop­per to pick them up.”

The moun­tain

It’s called the Blue Hell – a track as dan­ger­ous as the Green Hell (the Nur­bur­gring) and perched across the Blue Moun­tains, hence blue. If you’re a PlayS­ta­tion reg­u­lar you’ll be fa­mil­iar with the Mount Panorama cir­cuit, at Bathurst, def­i­nitely one of the world’s great street cir­cuits along­side Monaco, Spa, Le Mans and Ma­cau. And it’s a proper pub­lic road; within the loop of the 6.2km cir­cuit are vine­yards and a home­s­tay that urged us to buy some of their home made jams. It’s only closed on race days and so we set off in our Mercs, fully-laden with all our lug­gage and equip­ment, for a few laps.

Cor­ner one is called Hell Cor­ner, in the old days there used to be tree stump at the apex and if a biker hit it, well … you were go­ing to be in hellish agony. The fol­low­ing straight has two crests and back in the good old days, be­fore proper aero­dy­nam­ics, cars used to take off on the sec­ond one. From there the track climbs up 570 feet with mas­sive camp grounds on the right, hous­ing ma­ni­a­cal spec­ta­tors who camp out there for a full week for the Bathurst 1000km races for V8 su­per­cars – one of Aus­tralia’s big­gest mo­tor­sport events. To­wards the top the track nar­rows, gets so tight that if you spin you’ll block the en­tire track, and there’s ab­so­lutely no run-off. And then the down­hill part is in­cred­i­bly scary: tight, zero run-off (just walls, and if you fly over that you’re down into the val­ley) and as­ton­ish­ingly quick. A track like this will never be made in the mod­ern era, that much I can tell you. And like Aus­tralia, it’s quirky – the hair­pin left be­fore the main straight is called For­rest’s El­bow af­ter Jack For­rest lost his el­bow af­ter crash­ing on his bike. And the straight is called Con­rod Straight af­ter a bike blew its con-rod in a race in the thir­ties. This straight is also un­be­liev­ably long – 1.9km! – and to slow things down there’s now a chi­cane in it, ex­cept it’s de­signed in such a way that the en­try to the chi­cane is now the fastest cor­ner in tin­top rac­ing, cars entering at nearly 295kmph! Bikes, as you can imag­ine, are now banned from rac­ing here – it’s just too freak­ing dan­ger­ous.

Com­modore v Fal­con

Bathurst also has a lovely mu­seum ded­i­cated to Aus­tralia’s great drivers and rid­ers – of which there have been plenty – and their bikes and cars. But most of all it’s a shrine to the Holden ver­sus Ford bat­tles that are the cor­ner­stone of the V8 Tour­ing Car se­ries. Holden is a GM sub­sidiary that makes the Com­modore while Ford has its own big four-door sa­loon called Fal­con. Both these are Aus­tralia-only cars and they have a unique spin-off – the ute. Half car, half pick-up these rear-drive things are as pop­u­lar as pick-ups in the U.S. and Holden even has an SS vari­ant with the Corvette’s LS3 V8 lump in it!

An­other thing that you find a lot of in Aus­tralia are Ja­panese cars – it’s like the last ex­port bas­tion of the Jap car in­dus­try. Nowhere in the world have I seen the new Mit­subishi Out­lander SUV but in Aus­tralia they’re ev­ery­where. There are tons of Subaru Im­prezas (and


con­versely very few Mit­subishi Evos), plenty of Nis­san 370Zs (and not one GT-R that I saw), Swifts, old Swifts (our Es­teem and Baleno but in hatch­back form) and of course, Cam­rys and Ac­cords. But Aussies don’t like it when the for­eign cars barge into their lo­cal rac­ing – like when the Japs came and de­mol­ished ev­ery­thing in tour­ing car races, first with the turbo-charged Dat­sun and then the GT-R. When Audi came with the A4 quat­tro, the Aussies had enough and Holden and Ford went and formed their own se­ries for their own cars. V8 Tour­ing Cars now has a huge, and I mean in­cred­i­bly huge fol­low­ing in Aus­tralia, and its drivers are legends.

Sadly though, this will be the last year of that ri­valry. Holden will stop mak­ing the Com­modore in Aus­tralia next year and so will race some­thing with the Chevro­let bow-tie on the nose while Ford will also dis­con­tinue build­ing the Fal­con and will in­stead race the Mus­tang. And thus ends car man­u­fac­tur­ing in Aus­tralia.

Barossa Val­ley

What goes with great food? Great wine! And Sid­dharth be­ing a huge fine food and wine en­thu­si­ast in­sisted we visit the Barossa Val­ley close to Ade­laide. What fol­lowed was a great day at Ja­cob’s Creek, a vine­yard that started way back in 1847 by a Ger­man im­mi­grant Jo­hann Gramp who sold his wines un­der the Or­lando name. It was only in the seven­ties that the vines took the name of the creek run­ning through the prop­erty and to­day they are one of the more pop­u­lar Aus­tralian wines, fa­mil­iar even back home in In­dia.

A tast­ing ses­sion with Ja­cob’s Creek’s wine am­bas­sadors re­vealed some full-bod­ied reds, light and fresh whites, and a re­ally lovely sparkling rosé that all of us had to take back home. I’m not a wine con­nois­seur to be hon­est but the great thing about Ja­cob’s Creek is the un­pre­ten­tious­ness of the whole thing. Aus­tralia is your ar­che­typal no-bull­shit coun­try and their wines are in the same mould – to be en­joyed with­out re­quir­ing you to stick your nose in the glass, gar­gle the wine and know a Shi­raz from a Muscat (they are grapes, by the way).

The big­ger treat was an­other cook­ing ses­sion with head chef Nick Tucker, in the style of all those new cook­ery shows on the tele. Out in the sunshine the coals had warmed up on a big bar­beque and as soon as we got there bowls were thrust into our hands and we went pick­ing in the gardens for roots and leaves. Farm fresh takes a whole new mean­ing when you de­cide on what you’re go­ing to cook based on what’s ready in the gar­den – and even for a hard­core meat eater there’s great joy to be had in cook­ing, and eat­ing, what you’ve just picked by hand.

In the pan went Jerusalem ar­ti­chokes along with all the salad leaves and in an­other pan car­rots were sautéed and then tossed around with yo­ghurt. On the meat side we had chicken sea­soned only with salt (Nick’s tip – when you think you’ve put enough salt, add some more) and then placed on the bar­beque. You’d think just salt on chicken, how will that taste, but the coals and the slow-cook­ing re­ally works a treat and the meal ended up be­ing out­ra­geously de­li­cious, washed down with a lovely Chardon­nay. I say washed down but it was only one glass, af­ter which we spent a few hours wan­der­ing through the Ja­cob’s Creek vine­yards be­fore head­ing back on to the road and on to Port Au­gusta.

Stay on this road for the next 450km

That’s the Google Maps lady giv­ing us di­rec­tions. There’s one road and that’s that. Hit cruise con­trol, crank up the tunes and keep eyes peeled for the kan­ga­roos. Out here there are (many) more SUVs than cars and all have sturdy off-road bumpers with im­mense bull­bars on them called Hop­per Stop­pers – for when a kan­ga­roo comes bound­ing in front of the car. Ev­ery­body, and I mean every sin­gle per­son who heard we were driv­ing in Aus­tralia, warned us to be care­ful of the kan­ga­roos; the cops that stopped us to check our In­dian num­ber plates had just hit two on the road we were about to head out on, and the nice old lady at the mo­tel in Port Au­gusta hap­pily re­counted gory de­tails of pa­trons com­ing into her drive­way with chunks hang­ing off their cars. You then start to no­tice all the car­casses by the side of the road. And then you re­alise why you passed so many cars with miss­ing head­lamps and dented bon­nets. High beams on, speed dropped right down, max­i­mum alert­ness. This is where our ad­ven­ture into the outback be­gins. Next month we head to Uluru on one of the loneli­est roads in the world, back down to Port Au­gusta and then west all the way to Perth.

Left: Cute and cud­dly koalas. Right: Eu­gene Arend­sen and Cameron Am­bridge, in­struc­tors at the On Track Drift school with Sid Patankar and Sirish

Top: The Aussie crew, L-R: Magesh, Sirish, Gau­rav, Sid­dharth, Shinu and Tanushree. Above: Sights like these abound on the Gold Coast

Right: Syd­ney’s ma­jes­tic Har­bour Bridge. Be­low: The equally mag­nif­i­cent Mel­bourne Cricket Ground

Above: Rental Grand Vi­taras smashed win­dow, lost pass­port and po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Oth­er­wise, Costa Rica is a phe­nom­e­nal place

Above: Cook­ing with head chef Guil­laume at MasterChef host, Ge­orge Calom­baris’ Greek restau­rant Gazi in Mel­bourne. Above right: Sam­pling some great wines at Ja­cob’s Creek in the Barossa Val­ley.

Above: Tak­ing a breather at Mount Panorama cir­cuit, Bathurst. Left: More cook­ing, this time at Ja­cob’s Creek win­ery with head chef Nick Tucker. Right: Iconic V8 Tour­ing Cars at the Bathurst mu­seum, Al­lan Mof­fat’s ‘77 Ford Fal­con (top) and Peter Brock’s ‘84 Holden Com­modore (be­low)

Top: Road Trains in the Outback pull three trail­ers at 100kmph — a sight to be­hold! Above: Utes are unique to Aus­tralia, a pickup on a car chassis. That mas­sive bull­bar is a Hop­per Stop­per, to pro­tect the car from kan­ga­roos that tend to jump on to the road

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