TAKE A half-dozen off-road buggies (think: rock crawlers and Ultra 4s) add an equal number of Touring Class 4WDs and combine them with 30-odd Challenge Class winch trucks. The mix varies from recognisable profiles of the 4WDs we see travelling day-today, to something that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Mad Max.
Assemble these rigs on a rough and 47,000-acre property in the boondocks somewhere north-west of Cobar, NSW, and ask them to some near impossible terrain as fast as they possibly can … for a week!
Sounds like fun? Or maybe more like hard yakka?
The recipe worked and, amid the bleakness and dust of the worst drought in recent memory, competitors raced and sweated through 20 special stages, day and night, vying for glory. The stages have names like Run for the Hills, Rock Garden, Lost, and Where Goats Dare, hinting at the varied terrain.
Contrary to common beliefs it ain’t flat north-west of Cobar, with rough, rocky ridges separating red soil valleys and soft, sandy creek beds. Plus, there are rocks the size of cars, and the sand here is often more treacherous than that of coastal beaches.
With a central camp and civilised facilities, “Cliffy”, as it is affectionately known, is a family affair. A catering crew serves egg and bacon rolls for breakfast, sandwich packs for lunch and hot meals in the evening. The ever-present daytime breeze kept the camp mainly clear of the dust of drought, but the calm of late evening and early morning saw a rising crimson haze. Mars must look something like this.
“RALLYSAFE is the world’s most advanced rally management system. Using the latest technology, RallySafe is an all-in-one advanced safety, timing and tracking package and one of the most robust, feature-heavy technology platforms to ever be used in motorsport. The system comprises a unit for each vehicle, a cloud-based management portal, mobile apps, and timing/management accessories, all of which together provide advanced vehicleto-vehicle/race control safety warnings, global tracking coverage and automated timing features,” - from RallySafe website.
The local cockies came for a squiz; they are ever optimistic, smiling and imagining the time when it will rain again. The area hasn’t seen any substantial rainfall since the spring of 2017, and while water for stock isn’t a problem (bores take care of that) feed is a different matter. Most is trucked in, and much of the cockies’ time is spent cutting the leafy lower branches from mulga bush to give the cattle something green to eat. Mulga seems to survive, while 100-year-old gums are dying of thirst. The owners of the 47,000-acre property and a neighbour seemed embarrassed, but grateful, for the donation of hay from attendees. Small amounts from a number of people added to a healthy load of small and large bales; probably not enough to put a big dent in the cost of feeding stock, but plenty enough to show that many ordinary Aussies are aware of the plight of graziers affected by drought.
Competition days started at 8am with crew and marshal briefings and regularly ended (for some) in the small hours, with recovery crews often struggling to retrieve broken cars from impossible terrain. On GPS navigation stages, whether they were point-to-point or random collection, the location of all competing vehicles, moving or stopped, was tracked and known in real time through RallySafe (see breakout on p126).
Safety was paramount. Strict protocols were in place at refuelling stops, and crews wore protective race suits. St John Ambulance Service was in attendance with two ambulances and crews.
As expected in this form of competition, the attrition rate was high. The terrain and pace are brutal on both vehicle and crew, and weary support teams at camp worked relentlessly to get their vehicle competition-ready for following stages. Those without support crews were heroic.
At the end of the week, followers of the sport cheered the victory of a well-known team, Coops and Hummer (Neil Cooper and Chris Hummer). They have won the Outback Challenge three times - a similar but arguably tougher event than Cliffhanger - and at their first attempt this year, a 15th outright placing at King Of The Hammers, the prestigious Californian off-road event combining desert racing and rock crawling.
Now running biennially, Cliffhanger has trebled in size this time around, and thanks to sponsors and the army of volunteers in marshalling and other duties, is destined to become even bigger.