Crossing the Nullarbor in a 1976 Land Rover

And the joy of doing things the hard way

STORY BY GUY WALKER
PHOTOS BY BROOK JAMES

Every shake, sound and smell of my old car hit the hypervigilant senses that I’d been harbouring that week as I rolled out of my neighbourhood, filled with nervous excitement.

Already visualising the car on the back of a flatbed, my mind wandered and I saw the months of planning, years of dreaming, all shattered by one of my classic rushed oversights. But I caught myself: “that means they would win”. When I say “they” I’m referring to all the people who questioned (rightfully so) why on earth I would want to take a 1976 Series 3 Land Rover halfway across the country. They don’t, and probably won’t ever get it. 

 

The rearview mirror took a brief pause in its rapid vibration and I caught a glimpse of my friend Brook James. Only an hour before had he rolled up to my house in his Land Rover, the same year as mine, as the rain came down in sheets across the Mornington Peninsula. Screaming into the driveway without a roof on his car, it was his raincoat and the huge smile that escaped the confines of his thick beard that assured me he was going to be a great travel buddy. He saw me through the small mirror and we exchanged a thumbs up as we endured a very wet start to the next few weeks. I left any negative head-talk behind and thought, “this trip is going to be awesome.”

I leave any negative head-talk behind and think, this trip is going to be fucking awesome.

The plan was to cross the country in one of the most iconically adventurous cars known to man, a car I have been in love with since I was a kid. I wanted to pick up a Land Rover Series that was mechanically fine but needed a large dose of TLC to be trustworthy on a trip like this one. I also wanted to work on the cosmetic side myself to create a car that was just as aesthetically pleasing. Then I would need to learn how to maintain and look after the car on such a trip, diagnose and resolve any issues or suffer the consequences that are dealt to a stranded idiot on a long lonely rural road. 


My mechanical knowledge was small at best, but what I lacked I made up for with enthusiasm. I found the perfect car in early 2021 from a guy called Mick in Mildura, who put up with two weeks of non-stop questions and video requests before I took the day trip out to bring her –  Sandy the Landy – home with me. 

 

The destination was the Nullarbor, and the journey was a three-week trip following the coastline all the way from Melbourne’s south-east. Any chance to take these cars off-road, talk with new people or camp beneath the stars would be taken, and hopefully all before my annual leave block was over. When I told Brook about the trip he thought I was crazy. 


Hearing of the 4500km journey without too much of a plan, plus owning one of these cars himself, it was obvious Brook questioned my mental state but was also very curious about how the adventure would play out. I don’t know if it was my overly optimistic confidence, or our shared interest in spontaneous adventure, but Brook gave me the green light for the trip only a week before take-off and we wouldn hit the road as a convoy of two.

In the months leading up to the adventure, a lot of people asked me “why”. My refined response which holds most of the truth is simply “because it’s just something really cool that I just want to do.” But there’s a bit more to it. I really wanted to do something the hard way, and earn my reward. It would be too easy to do this trip in my other car (a 2012 Land Rover Defender) with aircon, a fridge and an adequate sound system. I wanted to have to really drive the car, a hot loud vehicle that requires daily love under the bonnet, is a full bicep workout to do a U-turn and screams “oii” if your attention is anywhere but behind the wheel. I once read that nothing truly satisfying comes from what is easy. So this became a big ticket bucket list item and I prepared myself to get what I wished for – hard work.

 

A quick ferry ride over the bay and stage one of the trip led us along the entirety of the Great Ocean Road. Sunshine was intermittent as we arm wrestled the cars around each and every turn the coastal stretch threw at us. Small echoes of crackling backfires bounced through the valleys as the road declined to the sea, while the crisp air was filled with the working hums of the 2.25L engines working their butts off to get us up and around the following bend in the road. Smells of the fresh ocean air leaked in the gapped window seals, temporarily masking the cabin’s stench of hot oil and elbow grease. 


The landscape before us changed from bush to beach before rainforests. As new headlands poked their heads around the horizon, it sunk in that these cars had begun what will be a journey of a lifetime.

 

Onward out of Victoria and into South Australia and our trip changed from business to pleasure. What was meant to be a lunch spot recon mission became the whole 50 kilometres of sand between Beachport and Robe as two boys with their toys were overcome by what would simply be described as pure fun. People were in awe to see two 30-year-olds get out of these 46-year-old cars to let down the tires (or maybe it was our crocs) and they smiled and waved as we took off, tackling every dune in our path.

I prepared myself to get what I wished for, hard work.

The cars were in their element, where they were supposed to be, off-road. Any rattle or groan from the bitumen appeared to be gone and the cars purred their way in 4WD along the sandy ridge-lines of the unworldly landscape. Confidence growing and a thirst for a cold one at the Robe Hotel, we increased our speed along the last beach stretch. Looking in the right place at the right time, I managed to catch a glimpse of Brooks’ only poor judgment call of the day as he and his trusty series became airborne. Courtesy of a naturally formed sand ramp, they both cleared more than a full length of the car. Once both car and Brook (in that order) were deemed unharmed, it was agreed to be the play of the day.

 

As we pulled North-West through Ceduna and out of the back-end of another storm, we had made a distinct transition from a road trip to a safari expedition. The square shape of the cars, their patinaed green bodies thick with dust, both sat on the horizon so perfectly. The earth’s red became more vibrant and the vegetation thinned out, but whilst we became more isolated from civilisation, we grew more in sync with the cars.

Each afternoon Brook and I slowed and aimed the vehicles off the highway, taking one of the many corrugated dirt paths cliff bound. Impatience and longing for camp were always trumped by the harsh terrain, our 50-year-old leaf springs daring us to push them to their limits. These vehicles are hard work on the driver on a good day, but being loaded up with enough crap to get us through the next three weeks, I felt like I was on the inside of a maraca, each bump in the road an un-rhythmic cha cha cha as our belongings lifted and fell. 


As we near camp, I send another thought of thanks to my friend back home Julia, who’s sound-canceling headphones define the word essential. We would pull up, throw ourselves around in some form of bush yoga for a bit then aim to be beside a fire whilst we watched the red sun dip behind the full 180 degrees of deep dark navy skyline. The sound of the ocean crashing in the distance would be all that would interrupt one of Brook and my many detailed discussions on plans for the next day or our future adventures.

 

Riding the Eyre Highway over the Nullarbor, my usual driving habits had shifted into some uncomfortable form of survival driving. My legs ached, my right foot would be pressing hard against the throttle, any revs losses would ruin the momentum I’d worked so hard to build. My left tries to find room to stretch between the clutch and the brake, sweat rolling from behind my knee caps with every extension. Each road train would push our bonnet latches to breaking point (literally) and then lift our wiper blades, returning them with vicious slaps against the glass. 


The cramped cockpit of the Series turns every rest stop into a small oasis, Brook and I laying bent over backwards across the car bonnets to stretch our hunched bodies. We’d get out, scrounge for firewood and then shake our heads and laugh, we can’t believe how well these cars are going, we are absolutely loving this.

Each roadhouse was an adventure in itself. After filling up on whatever unsavoury food had been sitting in the bain-marie for god knows how long, the tools came out and we would check on the cars in our haphazard workshops. The silver-haired nomads would form a line to drop the old “you can do mine next ha ha” or let Brook know he was missing a roof (wow, thanks!). Without losing focus on the car’s needs, it was brilliant chatting to all those who came over. 


For every few retired caravan-toting jokesters who reveled in the chance to ramble on to someone other than their significant other, there was a genuine fellow adventurer. Someone who really loved what we were doing and exchanged similar stories of their journeys, sometimes pulling up in a vehicle that too broke away from the droves of new 4x4s with all the mod-cons. With fellow off-road renegades few and far between, we often spent dusk chatting with the variety of travelers, truckers and fellow misfits that wind up in these desert roadhouses, all on their own voyage across the vast underbelly of the red centre. 

 

Hitting a border village after more than 2200 kilometres, we took a step back and admired the terrific work of our little Landys. They weren’t exactly designed for top speed over-landing, but they did one hell of a job. Once the souvenir stand was raided and we used the truck-stop showers, it seemed our U-turn was imminent. There was a mix of elation and angst as the trip’s mission was now complete, but we were only half way through. We still had to do it all again, making it all the way home with these cars in one piece.

It was like the cars felt a difference on the return too, as once we began our journey back East they decided to fight back. We hopped our way back along the SA coastline, each beach whiter and brighter than the previous night’s camp spot. Each afternoon we listed the additional broken parts and new noises, and tended to what we could. 

 

Needing a professional to give our engine bays a once-over, a Facebook group inquiry to the Land Rover community led us to the Joneses in Port Lincoln. Not only did our newest friend Peter give our handy work the thumbs up for the last leg of the trip, he and his wife Julie also put us up for the night, fed us and then spent the night telling us stories over beer and wine. The night with the Joneses was a highlight of the trip. The couple opened their home and hearts to two complete strangers purely because we liked the same type of car. As Peter and Julie saw us off, I thought there’s room for us all to be more like the Joneses. 

 

Although obviously keen for a serious rest, the Land Rovers climbed through the Victorian bush with ease before our final campsite atop the Grampians. Brook and I shared our last beer of the trip, elbows, beer cans and snacks sitting on the all-too-convenient flat front wings of the cars. The three weeks felt like three days and three months at the same time and we were spent. The combo of the cars, swags and truckstop nutrition had us ready for home but somehow, we still couldn’t resist talking about the next adventure. The hard work paid off as we both felt completely accomplished, reaping the rewards of the hard slog that was our adventure. It took less than two days before we both got back to work on our cars. It looks like the next adventure isn’t too far away.

 

These trips are made special by those who you meet along the way, thanks to Todd Knight, Nick aka The Professor, Oli and Jade, Widget and Hannah, Peter and Julie Jones and my great pal Brook for capturing what was one hell of a ride!

 

Special thanks to Dorian Del Monaco, Richard Hack, “The Peninsula Landies” and especially Chris Rowley for your time and energy given to me and my Land Rover story

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