Remote Control

The Canning Stock Route is one of the remotest roads on the planet and you want a safe 4x4 to make the journey. Is a showroom-stock Hilux up to the challenge?

WORDS TOBY HAGON PHOTOS MARK BEAN

UNBREAKABLE.

IT’S a big call, but one Toyota resolutely sticks to – even more so with the eighthgeneration of its wanted to test on the Hilux. It’s a claim we wanted to test on the toughest tracks in Australia and they don’t get much tougher than the Canning Stock Route (CSR) in Western Australia. The CSR is almost 2000km of the most remote roads in the country, crossing four deserts and taking in a huge variety of terrain.

Even getting to the start line from Perth is a near-1000km adventure to Wiluna, a remote town that for travellers like us is more about supplies than tourism. The pub doesn’t serve lunch and the demountable “cafe” hasn’t frothed cappuccinos for months.

Our blue SR5 diesel was the support ute for a bigger outback test coming soon to 4X4 Australia, so the Hilux started with more kilos than any of the other cars in the convoy. As well as being the designated car to carry tools, excess camp gear, firewood and more, it was also carrying a brimming 400-litre self-contained diesel pump, as well as a quartet of jerry cans.

There was well over 600kg in the tray, which is still well below its 925kg payload.

Most people arrange a fuel drop on the CSR, but our 480 litres of fuel meant we were able to push on without the need for hand pumps and 44-gallon drums.

From the start the Hilux asserted itself nicely.

Unladen the ride was firm, sometimes too much so, but with some weight on board it settled nicely. It’s clear the engineers have ensured those robust leaf springs are well up to the task of a heavy load.

It turns out the windscreen isn’t unbreakable, though. A road train heading the other way – they use the Great Northern Highway because it is certified for the big triple trailers, unlike the coast road – flicked a rock into the corner of the screen. It was a small chip, but one that grew into a long crack.

Toyota’s 2.8-litre diesel engine isn’t overloaded with power; there’s just 130kW to play with. But there’s a hearty 450Nm splash of low-rev torque, something that helps build pace easily and, importantly, maintain it – it’s a decent engine for shifting all that weight.

The six-speed auto was thoughtful enough to hold fourth or fifth on high speed uphill grades, before dropping into top for the flatter

The Hilux is ultimately unfussed, its suspension rumbles over small corrugations confidently

straights, of which there were many.

But it was the dirt we were most interested in.

The CSR starts off by briefly tempting you with fast, wide gravel expanses that are more outback freeway than meandering track. But a sharp right-hand turn off the main road slows things down. Recent rain meant our sojourn wouldn’t be as easy as it could be. Not that we were ever expecting the CSR to be a doddle, but the first travellers we ran in to heading south towards us gave an insight into what lay ahead.

“It’s pretty wet up ahead,” said one. “Two Unimogs have been bogged on a clay pan for about five days.”

Early on, though, rocks, bigger rocks and creek crossings characterised the slow going. The Hilux’s sharp 31-degree approach angle made light work of the occasional deep dip, while the tail never looked like dragging on the way out.

While cleverly positioned (mostly) out of the way, we removed the tow tongue to reduce the chance of it snagging, although it never looked like becoming an issue.

The SR5 deflected the occasional underbody scrape adeptly, its sump guard barely flinching.

But it was the traction control that quickly asserted itself as a handy tool in this country.

Clambering out of a particularly challenging creek crossing there were some brief flares of wheelspin, but the electronics soon sorted things out, diverting drive to the wheels that were still gripping on the sharp, loose rocks.

More impressive was how well the Hilux coped with the load out back. It was largely unfussed, maintaining its composure – and, importantly, its stature – to easily traverse the trickier sections that characterise the lower section of the CSR.

In true Toyota fashion, despite 30-plus degree outside temps the air-conditioning kept things icy inside. Not that everything was hot and dry.

Slushy mud was also a reminder of just how much unseasonal water this part of Australia had seen. A few weeks earlier we may not have made it through, at least without making some big diversions and relying on the occasional tow.

As it was, we often took short side roads to steer around mud holes. While we were testing the Hilux, we were also not taking any chances, especially when we were that far away from civilisation. The traction control again helped out, plus we had the rear differential lock for that final pinch of traction.

After days of mud and rocks we realised we never spotted the stuck Unimogs, but a chopped-up clay pan that had been hastily roped off appeared to be the scene of the crime. While we’re all for adventure – and testing the Hilux’s 700mm wading depth – we decided to add a couple of kays to the journey and avoid the really gooey stuff.

While the CSR is enduring, the scenery can change radically. That’s its nature. Not only is the terrain regularly tough and punishing, but it’s enduring. Reliability is everything in this part of the world, so it’s pretty satisfying to know that the CSR was one of the tracks Toyota used to test out the Hilux.

As we learnt, different conditions can sculpt the CSR within days. What may have been a clean, smooth track weeks earlier could now be a chopped-up, sun-baked cluster of hardened mud. It was slow-going picking our way around

what must have been the occasional snatch to extricate a bogged car.

One thing that didn’t seem to change much – at least going on the stories and travellers’ tales – were the corrugations. We hit some vicious ones early, but fortunately they were in short bursts. There are longer trails of smaller, softer corrugations, but we quickly learned to treat them like a regular road. The Hilux is ultimately unfussed, its suspension rumbles over them confidently.

But it was the corrugations around the Aboriginal community of Kunawarritji that provided the biggest test for the shock absorbers. For the first batch the Hilux was lighter in the tail, but once we filled up with $3.40 per litre fuel (gulp!) at the community it was back to almost full weight in the tray.

And the 40km stretch north was laced with unrelenting corrugations. Many people choose to take them at 10km/h, but we didn’t have four hours to spare. So it was a steady pace of between 50 and 80km/h for our truck.

There was plenty of shaking and shimmying, especially in the cabin, but once the track reverted to smaller corrugations it was back to normal. The biggest punishment the car copped was inside, where some of the interior door trim was worse for wear having had luggage shaking against it persistently. We blame that on our hasty packing. Another minor casualty was one of the optional tie-down points, one of which worked its way loose. Fortunately, the bolt was still in the tray, so it was a two-minute fix to re-attach it.

From there it was into hundreds of parallel sand dunes. The dirt is redder there and the vegetation markedly different from the barren lower part of the track. It was also easier to get a flow going and enjoy the spectacular scenery, which was punctuated by the occasional camel and dingo.

But there was never really time to relax.

Unlike the Simpson Desert – where sand rules and the terrain is generally predictable – the CSR can change in an instant, with jagged rocks punching through the soft sand. It’s then you realise how isolated you are. For much of the track you’re hundreds of kilometres from help.

For many that’s the appeal. The idea you could be the only humans within 100km makes a place like this pretty special, and the fact it is so inaccessible ensures it’s not overrun with traffic. You could drive for a whole day without seeing anyone else.

Side trips are all part of the adventure, too, just in case the 2000km journey wasn’t enough.

There are gorges, escarpments, caves and Aboriginal art that ensure there’s plenty to do along the way. We only touched the surface, although with all that fuel on board we could have done plenty more.

Approaching the end of the tough part of the CSR – Billiluna, on the Tanami Track – the roads became straighter, flatter and faster. It was a welcome relief given the punishment we endured (we being the car and the crew).

Still, though, there were people dealing with mechanical issues; the CSR has that ability to genuinely test a car, but at least these people have experienced trouble early, comparatively close to assistance.

Rolling into Halls Creek at the south-eastern edge of the Kimberley was like rolling into a capital city after so long away from hotels and houses. But we’ve still got another 700km to Broome, then another few thousand across the Gibb River Road into Darwin.

Considering where we’ve been, though, the Gibb is like a freeway. We’ll take it.

Many people take the unrelenting corrugations at 10km/h, but we didn’t have four hours to spare. So it was a steady pace of between 50 and 80km/h for our truck