Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Spot the photographer

Big Red

In the middle of nowhere (ie most of Australia), you need water, food... and wheels. For the first three months working here I had the use of a Ford Courier ute to use during my breaks. It was noisy, hot (aircon was broke) and leaned to the right, but it was wheels and it worked! Eventually, though, GeoSols needed it for someone else, and I was left, in Tieri, vehicle-less. I worked through the first break, to clear a backlog of work and gain experience in the computer programs we use, but the thought of staying permanently in an isolated mining town focussed the decision-making process hugely!

After discarding the ridiculous - Jeep Wrangler (too gay), LandRover Discovery or Defender (too unreliable and expensive to fix), I looked at the new Toyota Hiluxes. Great on road, but not very capable offroad. Oaky Creek have one, so I tried it for a day instead of the usual Landcruiser... and bellied it quite thoroughly. So not a Hilux, then. The 'cruisers, meanwhile, are brilliant offroaders, but not very comfortable long distance. A ute would have been perfect for work and travel, but they're far more expensive than wagon-type 4WDs - a 1999 Hilux ute I looked at in Mackay, for example, was $29,990. Why a 4WD at all? Because a lot of Aussie roads are still unsealed, and although many are labelled as being suitable for cars, they'd take a pounding. And the bullbar? Antisocial in towns I know, but I've already hit one 'roo in the Ford (and their corpses litter the roadsides). Without bars, you'd stand to lose lights, radiator, transmission cooler...

A good compromise - off-road ability, onroad comfort, reliable and with heaps of spares - was a Toyota 4Runner or Surf. They're essentialy Hiluxes in sensible clothes. I rode in a workmate's 4Runner and it seemed fine. So, I flew down to Brisbane to go car-shopping.

One of my workmates, Aldo, put me up for the duration, as well as driving to and from the train station several times, and his wife Betty cooked some absolutely wonderful meals, washed my clothes, saved the cars section of the newspaper, and picked us up from the airport. A million thankyous wouldn't be enough!

As with many towns, car yards tend to cluster. I wandered up and down Ipswich Rd in Moorooka, a suburb south of the Brisbane CBD. Marching up and down caryard mile in 30 degree heat without a hat (idiot) or sunblock (bigger idiot) is one way to go shopping. Fortunately the last few months have produced an adequate tan, so I was mostly just hot and thirsty, just a little red on top.

I'd shortlisted several 4Runners to try. One dealer had two, with 200,000 and 300,000km. I tried the 200,000km one, and, frankly, it was a dog. The V6 engine was harsh, vibrating and needing a good thrash to move at all. The interior was worn, the driver's seat was uncomfortable, and spare wires hung below the dash. All this for $12,000! I didn't even try the other one. In NZ they'd be $4000 cars not long out of the scrapyard. So I kept walking. Another yard had a 2.8 diesel Surf. It wasn't any better than the 4Runners - tired and still $8,000.Lots of yards had Discoveries, but the low prices compared to other makes told a story. I went as far as sitting in one, but knew I'd never trust it to get me home. A Nissan Terrano would've fitted the bill, except they didn't sell them new in Oz. Pajeros? Big, heavy and more of a 7-seater people mover than simple 4WD. One yard had a couple of Mitsubishi Challengers, though, and the more I looked, the better they seemed.

I had three memories of Challengers. The first time I saw one, it overtook my Triumph at the foot of the hill road to Akaroa... and then held me up on the climb, until I got past again on a passing lane. The second one I saw was upside down in the Lewis River after it had skidded on ice. The mother and her children were OK (well built... the Mitsi that is), but wading into the ice-rimmed river to rescue toys and luggage as they floated away made an impression. The one I knew of was bought by a friend, Ron Brooking, and Ron isn't one to buy cheap, slow rubbish. I had a 4WD used buyer's guide, so pulled it out and started reading. Not too bad offroad, it said, reliable and under-rated in the bush.

So I took one for a test drive. It handled well, had enough grunt, was extremely quiet and, although seven years and 128,000km old, seemed brand new. No towbar or evidence of beach driving, so it had evidently lived in the suburbs. Dark red metallic, with a grey and oyster interior. No bullbar, but the dealer agreed to fit one free. Not cheap for him, as it turned out to have to be custom-made.

The result is sitting here in Tieri, after a 2-day, 1244km drive home (overnighted in Agnes Water). We averaged 11.4L/100km, a lot at 110-115km/h, with the aircon set to 'Arctic'. So not an economy run, more a true-life test. The only negative thing I found is a bit of play in the steering, and a chattering felt through the wheel over rough surfaces. It's probably either a worn balljoint or bushes, easy to fix.

So here it is - a 3L V6 Mitsubishi Challenger, automatic, one previous owner, full service history, with four cup holders! Meet 'Big Red'.

PS Special thanks to Roger Thomas, who helped hugely in advising on what to buy and what to walk away from. Rog, when you come over, the keys are yours!