Kangaroos and water passages: day one of The Isuzu Challenge
Following months of preparations The Isuzu Challenge teams arrive in Australia for the first day of the event. Some teams have been in the air for 40 hours before landing Down Under.
On our first day we face rain and strong winds that threaten to blow away our tents. We survive the night and wake to a clear, calm and mellow morning.
We pack away the tents and look over the vehicles that we are using on the voyage across Australia. Parked neatly in a semicircle, it wasn't long before we are on our long convoy north, to the heart of the Flinders Ranges. The road greets us with magical groves and a variety of weird eucalyptus trees. (Did you know that there are more than 600 species of eucalyptus tress in Australia?).
Complementing the scenery are kangaroos that skip around us - we are strange beasts indeed and they are inquisitive. Above us colorful parrots circle.
Inside the Flinders Ranges National Park we drive on "The Geographic Road", it's 20Km long and offers impressive rock folds and awe inspiring geological forms sculptured by nature millions of years ago. There's a tremendous diversity of animals and insects such as the wallaby, ostriches and giant spiders.
We leave the park behind and turn towards the tiny village of Blinman which has just 21 inhabitants - all join us for lunch. The situation is amusing: we photograph the locals and they take pictures of our yellow convoy.
We bid farewell and continue on our way. At the Elder Ridge we head for the dry riverbed for real field driving. But it's not easy. The land is so rough that covering just a few kilometers takes three long hours.
The roads are difficult, the driving is technically intricate and there are water passes. But at the end there is also ample applause as we congratulate ourselves on completing the first day's driving. This is where the second night of camping awaits us.
Wall Murals and Washed Away Paths - Day #2
Photographer: Gerry Abramovich
"I've never slept with such a breeze," said Arik Baraz with a smile as we met on the second morning of the Isuzu Challenge expedition.
Although Baraz, the man behind the complex expedition, has slept in many places around the world, he too was surprised at how strong the winds are at night - so strong that they blow tents and people all over the place.
The locals and news broadcasters say the weather conditions in Australia right now are the most extreme within the last 100 years - and we are the 'lucky ones' to experience it!
We wake up in the morning to discover that the path we were to follow has been washed away during the night. This is a situation where improvising at a moment's notice to direct the drivers on how to move and where to turn is essential. We need to quickly decide on a new route so the tiger-printed convoy can continue on its way.
We continue toward the Chamber Canyon, leave the vehicles and continue on foot to look at Aboriginal wall murals. If only the painters of these magical murals on the canyon wall knew that 15,000 years after they died people from around the globe would come to see their drawings.
Driving through Australia is an experience in itself. Every once in a while another 4x4 vehicle comes into view and the occupants always wave hello. This contact is an important and exciting part of every meeting between the Challenge participants and local residents.
We continue north into incomprehensible vast spaces. For example, after driving for 200km, we see a sign that warns us that the next gas station is 409km away.
A few kilometers back we passed a sign that said we are entering "remote areas" - a clue of what to expect in the upcoming hours: endless spaces continuing to the horizon, with nothing in between. Everything is big, wide and truly gigantic.
The long distances mean we drive into the night and so hold a safety training session that includes warnings against cows and kangaroos crossing the roads and jumping in front of the vehicles.
To help keep us awake Eti, our guide, tells an exciting story on the walkie-talkie. After 15 minutes of silence she realizes she had been transmitting into the wrong frequency. Next time we'll try harder.
How we crossed the desert without a map - Isuzu Challenge days 3 –4
This year's Isuzu Challenge is different than those in the past: the emphasis this year is on cross-country driving -- the ability to cover as many kilometers as possible in a short period of time. By September 9, the teams will have crossed Australia from south to north - a distance of 3,500Km.
One of the challenges of this journey is the country's wide-open space.
It's been three days since we left the last town and it will be another two days before we see the next one. Each day we cover an average of 400km and the weather changes from one extreme to another: From hot to cold or from rain and strong winds to perfect sunshine.
Our campsite is on the edge of the Simpson Desert and we arrive after a long day of driving.
In just a few days members of the Isuzu Challenge have bonded - it is as though we have always known each other.
On the fourth day we face an additional challenge: navigation. We separated into groups of three vehicles to cross the Simpson Desert: Over 300km of isolated expanse.
But because there are no signposts or key features in the desert we rely on the Meridian Gold satellite navigation device (GPS) from Magellan. The GPS units were programmed beforehand with the routes we are taking.
As we go our separate ways we look forward to meeting up again at the end of the day without losing any vehicle on the way.
Sharon Horowitz, 30, is a civil engineer by profession. "I made my first field trip two years ago in Ethiopia," Sharon tells us while we are navigating our way in the desert. "I took part in a voyage called "Queen of the Desert" with female participants only. For nine days we crossed southern Ethiopia and this is actually how I was infected with the traveling bug. Following the voyage in Ethiopia I decided to join the Isuzu Challenge and here I am. So, you can trust me when it comes to field driving."
The most amazing part of navigating the Simpson Desert is the dunes: indeed these are not very high but they stretch along the whole desert, from north to south, some of them are 300km long. It's an amazing sight indeed.
The Isuzu vehicles cross the dunes easily but for the administration teams who follow the teams carrying food and water in two Isuzu NPR trucks - it is not a simple matter.
This time they stay behind. And with them are our water, food, refrigerators, a gigantic kitchen tent, generator, tables and chairs. In short, everything needed to prepare hearty meals at the end of a hard day's driving. So for us there's a lot less pampering tonight: no hot water, no electricity and we will cook dinner ourselves. But there is good news. At the end of the day - having traveled 300km - everyone arrives safe and sound at our meeting point.
Day # 5 : Crossing the Big Red Dune
Photos by : Gerry Abramovich
"It is amazing how much the look of these sand dunes has changed since the last time I was here a few weeks ago," said Eti, the guide from Geographical Tours.
I have no idea how huge dunes such as the Big Red in the Simpson Desert can change but one thing is clear - - it is tall, wide and made of the finest sand. Crossing it presents a real challenge for the vehicles and their drivers.
In addition to the 2.5 ton weight of each vehicle some of them are loaded down with hundreds of kilograms of equipment. But the expedition, as hard and tough as it is, must continue.
The bright yellow vehicles are lined up and ready to roll after a little air has been let out of the tires to make them softer and cope better on the dune. But crossing this area will be mostly down to holding onto the steering wheel and hoping for the best.
Each driver is on their own to make the crossing a success, but there is help. Itzik Mini has taken part in every Isuzu Challenge to date and is in charge of all the technical and 4x4 aspects of this expedition. He is as an expert 4x4 driver and has, in previous treks, overcome many of the problems we now face. We want to believe him when he says, in a cool calm voice, "we can all make it across the dune".
Between us we have fun bets on whom will make the best job of driving across the dune: the men or the women.
Standing at the edge of the dune, Itzik directs each driver - one by one - on the best route across. The lucky ones, who get stuck along the way, enjoy being rescued with the WARN winches that make easy work of a tough job. But as each car makes the crossing it is difficult to hear Itzik's advice over the loud applause and cheering.
"For me, the real issue is not if the vehicles are able to cross the sand dune," says Itzik, "what impresses me every time is the way people work together as a team to complete this difficult task. Every person who has completed it will never in their life forget the experience."
A few minutes later when the vehicles have all crossed Itzik not only receives more loud applause from all the participants, but is thrown over one of their shoulders and paraded around like hero.
We continue toward Birdswill - a small town on the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert that has a population of 120 people. However, after four days in the lonely desert, these people are seen as civilization.
And finally - a gas station. For the past four days we have been pouring petrol into our tanks from containers stored on the roofs of our vehicles, but today we see a proper gas station finally. So no need for our containers . Well, not today anyway.
Please Do Not Run Over the Kangaroo - Isuzu Challenge - Days 6-7
In the upcoming two days we have a new challenge as the tiger-print convoy heads from Cairns in Central Queensland - a drive of 1,500km.
The difficulties anticipated with this type of driving are different than those in the earlier part of the expedition: this section means drivers need to stay behind the wheel longer than normal so regular breaks are needed. It's a journey that needs lots of concentration, so drivers swap shifts often for rest periods.
An additional challenge is that the vehicles' gas tanks will require topping up along the way and since gas stations are few and far between on this route, we carry all the gasoline we need on our roofs.
Our already heavy vehicles are now at their maximum load capacity. We worry so much about running out of fuel that even people in the last vehicle of the convoy hear the sighs of relief coming from the first one as a gas station in the town of Winton comes into view. We made it.
This long journey also brought with it constantly changing scenery. One of the more amazing things was Mastering -: the gathering up of cattle from thousands of acres into one group. Mastering is done by cowboys riding horses, motorcycles, tractors and flying in helicopters and airplanes while more than 1,500 cattle pass between the Isuzu vehicles. As far as I am concerned, the wild, Wild West is right here and now.
After the first day we have successfully covered 750 km. And go to sleep well after midnight. The next morning, many new sights await us: the desert is replaced with thick eucalyptus forests. Our main challenge here is not to run over any kangaroos on the way! They jump around us from all directions and we are constantly warned over the walkie-talkies to keep a look out for them. At a quick rest stop we discover that the men's restroom has a sign on the door: "bulls" and the women's, "cows". I guess this is fitting considering that the main source of income for this area is from cattle.
A huge black mass in the road makes us all stop suddenly - we discover a huge snake, 2 meters long. A few minutes later, when we sit to have lunch surrounded by termite nests, I ask myself if it is wise to sit on the ground in this spot - but hunger takes over and I continue eating, sitting where I am while Eti the guide explains the important ecological role of termites in breaking down dead vegetation. We are surprised to learn that the queen termite lays more than 20,000 eggs in one day. Imagine, 20,000 babies!
Just before dusk it begins to rain and we stop to see the 150 meter high Blanco Falls. They are impressive. The rain adds to the feeling of power that the waterfall gives as it flows down. At the campsite everything is in place. We have covered 1,500 km in just two days.
Wet and wild Isuzu Challenge - Days 8-9
On the eighth day we leave our vehicles behind to go white water rafting on the Tully River in northeastern Australia. Six people and one guide sit tightly in a raft and set off on a 10-kilometer route.
Our guide, Daniel, is 24 years old, and when he wants us to paddle faster he yells, "Come on you bastards!". We are not sure who is more frightening Daniel and his yelling or the chilly and ferocious level 4-5 current (the highest level for amateurs).
One thing is certain the view is amazing and despite the fact that waterfalls keep filling our raft with water, nothing will deter us from enjoying this adventure. Not even when a craft capsizes spilling the people into the fast flowing water.
Among its passengers is Avihu Ben-Nun chairman of Universal Motors Israel and Mosh Savir, president of the Geographical Tours Company (initiators of the Isuzu Challenge project). After a quick swim the they are pulled back in by their guide (someone almost as strong and frightening as Daniel's).
At the end of the run everybody is charged with excitement from this special day that included a lot of good laughs and encouragement. The change in scenery, in the atmosphere, and mostly the break from tireless driving, have all had an impact and we are feeling especially refreshed. We say goodbye to our rafting guides but not before adorning them in the official Isuzu Challenge Expedition Wear.
Three hours on the road brings us to Cairns. At the Radisson Hotel they are surprised to receive a group covered in dust but seem glad to see us just the same. The truth is that after eight nights of sleeping in a tent we are quite happy to be here too. Tonight we will enjoy proper showers, clean laundry and finally, a clean soft bed.
The thought of sailing a yacht around the Great Barrier Reef, on the eastern coast of Australia, encourages us to get up early next morning.
After a short two-hour drive we are in paradise: water and coral reef all around and a small island of sand in front of us. We quickly forget about the last eight days of mud and dust as we dive and snorkel in crystal clear waters and relax on the golden beaches.
Even me who prefers to be on solid ground, quickly ends up wearing flippers and flapping through the water. I am amazed at this magical and beautiful underwater world. The Great Barrier Reef, the only living structure that can also be seen from the Moon, is within hand's reach.
This is our last night in Cairns. The tiger-print convoy that we left two days ago is waiting for patiently for us. Tomorrow morning, washed, clean.
Rainforests, mud and an abandoned town - Days 10-11
This morning we left the luxuries of the hotel and continued north on the coast of Queensland State. Driving challenges include winding, slippery ascents and descents, water passes and a lot of mud. The width of the first river we crossed was more than 30 meters and the convoy crosses it easily.
Itzik Mini offered a short training session with the emphasis as always on safety: "If you are unsure - check again, if you didn¹t make it through - try again carefully. There is no room for carelessness."
It's not an easy drive, it requires concentration. No one is certain if we will finish the route today or set up camp and sleep part way along, but Arik Braz calms us down. "We have enough food for two days," he reassures us.
On our way we meet C.J., an Aborigine who lives in the area leading a traditional Aboriginal life. We spend time together, take part in a traditional dance and receive his blessings for our onward journey. As it turns out we need them.
The next river, Bloomfield River, is much wider and treacherous than the last one. Thankfully all vehicles are equipped with TJM snorkels that prevent water from entering the engines and allow us to cross the river. In addition we seal the doors shut with tape. The danger in front of us is real as the current threatens to overwhelm vehicle that stops in the river.
Two more hours of driving and we are at our campsite. In the morning, after a hot shower in front of the sunrise I feel ready for anything. After driving on a very dusty route for two hours the colors of the tiger print convoy can¹t be seen as they are covered with dust. Suddenly, in front of us, appears a beautiful valley with a lake in the middle. The reflection of the blue sky and the huge eucalyptus trees on the water is amazing.
There will be no showers tonight, so a dip in the lake seems like a good idea. But this idea is quickly vetoed when we realize the lake is full of crocodiles - so we continue on to pan for gold at a deserted town called Maytown.
In the 1800s this area was full of people panning for gold hoping to get rich. Today the area is totally abandoned. Maytown, once a major mining area during the gold rush, is now a ghost town. When the gold ran out, so did the people.
All that's left is a few buildings and a road sign marking the city limits. Evidence that proves that there were once people living here include old mining equipment, it lays abandoned on the side of the roads like huge memorials for the long dead residence.
A couple more hours of driving and we will be closer to our final destination and just three days from completing our trek.
Even in the desert you need an anchor - Isuzu Challenge Day 12
Photographer: Gerry Abramovich
We were awoken by the sound of the catering team shooing away a Dingo ( a wild Australian dog) that was running around between our tents. If I remember correctly, this is the first morning that I've woken up after the sunrise. We say goodbye to the ghost town of Maytown and head out on a rocky path when tragedy strikes. The most important vehicle in the convoy, the catering truck, won't move. Our mechanic is quick to respond and finds the problem is its transmission is in neutral. He quickly shows the red-faced driver how to put the vehicle in gear. But we are happy that the "malfunction" isn't serious.
At the next rocky step, I find myself behind Itzik Mini, the 4x4-driving expert's, vehicle. He makes the cross easily and I try hard to follow his lead. It isn't long before I find myself being towed across with the help of a WARN winch. My bruised ego is cured when, once on top, my vehicle acts as an anchor for towing the remaining vehicles that couldn't make the climb either.
We continue driving, each vehicle at its own pace, on a path of trees and gigantic termite nests. It is a unique and personal experience: 4x4 driving, the Beatles playing in the background and my vehicle crew and I enjoying deep discussions on life.
We reach a river to find the catering team welcoming us with a barbecue lunch. The steaks and hot dogs are a change from the usual squashed sandwiches we've been eating.
We continue driving and are given a quiz on the salt-water crocodiles that we will meet tomorrow as part of our Green Goal ecological donation. And once again, the sunset. This time we see it over the town of Laura - it has a population 3,000, half of whom are Aborigines. The town is enveloped in an amazing red hue as the tiger-print convoy drive through.
After three days in the dust, there is a good chance that we may have showers at tonight's campsite.
We track down a croc and meet our ecological goal - Isuzu Challenge Days 13-14
This morning we are on our way to the Lakefield National Park to meet Dr. Mark Read. He is going to help us catch a crocodile. No, the teams are not breaking hunting laws and we are not trying to hunt down our diner. We are donating a satellite tracking system for the research of the salt-water crocodile. The gadget was developed especially for the Isuzu Challenge as part of its annual donation to help global ecological causes.
The estuarine crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, is a reptile that inhabits reef coastal and inland waterways in much of Queensland, Australia.
Over the years the crocodiles here were hunted and their numbers are now severely depleted – they became protected in 1974.
Since the early 1980s, staff from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) has conducted hundreds of surveys to determine the population of estuarine crocodiles. Unfortunately, given the scope and logistical constraints of their research and monitoring program, there has been a limited ability to study the life of the crocodiles.
To date, QPWS has virtually no information on the crocodile's movement patterns, or whether movements are contained within a defined geographical area (a ‘home range’).
In addition, QPWS has no data on whether movements change with the size of the animal, its sex or reproductive status, or with changes of the season. Detailed knowledge about where they go is critical for the long-term management of the species in Queensland.
Charting the movements of any wild animal is difficult, but when the creature is also shy, semi-aquatic and potentially dangerous, it becomes particularly difficult. The most suitable method to log adult-sized estuarine crocodiles is to use satellite telemetry.
Its advantage is that location data is recorded via satellites, without the observer needing to be nearby.
This technique has been used to study the movement of birds, camels, elephant seals and several species of turtle.
The overall aims of this project are to attach a GPS transmitter to an adult crocodile residing within Lakefield National Park and track it for 10 to 12 months. Data will be shared on a web page.
Mosh Savir, president of the Geographical Tours Company, presented the satellite tracking systems to researchers and said: “Every year we choose a green goal linked to global issues and make a donation to projects at a local level. In addition to this specific donation, the exposure that we have brought to the endangered crocodiles is also important."
After the donation ceremony, we say goodbye to the nature reserve rangers, to Dr. Mark Read, and to the crocodile, and head toward our final destination of the northernmost point of Australia – Cape York. One more day and we’ll be there.
An Interview with Arik Baraz - Manager of Geotours and the producer of the Isuzu Challenge Expedition.
The Isuzu Challenge is synonymous with Arik Baraz. The man who has been producing the Isuzu Challenge for six years, leading 4x4 expeditions to the remotest and most challenging places in the world. As manager of Geotours, the 4x4 and adventure tourism department of the Geographical Tours Company, this is his job - to create the challenge.
"We began in 1998 in Namibia and Botswana," says Baraz. "Even then we believed that such a well publicized journey, that draws attention from the world's media, should use its power to provide real support to the destination it takes place in.
"In Namibia we focused on the prevention of illegal hunting and ever since we have continued in this tradition - to find an ecological goal on each expedition in which to contribute to."
Q: After six expeditions, is there one experience that stands out from all the rest?
A: Actually, each expedition is different from the next - each having its own unique qualities be it the dense jungles of Guatemala or the snow covered mountains of the Indian Himalayas. However in this specific expedition to Australia we have the unique challenge of the huge wide-open spaces that we travel across. I believe that this feeling of never-ending space is something that can be felt only in Australia.
Q: What is the most difficult part of putting together this type of expedition?
A: There are three difficult parts involved in this kind of production: The first is choosing the destination - this is where we make the most difficult decisions. The second is the organizational process of the expedition, planning the route, coordinating all of the relevant organizations involved, and tying up all the loose ends by the departure date. This process takes months of round-the-clock work.
However, the hardest part is probably during the actual expedition when I have to organise each day so that it flows perfectly with a minimum amount of mishaps. Each day is a complete challenge that needs to be organized in the best way possible.
Q: Is extensive knowledge of 4x4 driving required to participate in the Isuzu Challenge?
Yes and no. The Isuzu Challenge is not a challenge expedition but an expedition in nature that incorporates challenges within it. Some people taking part are very experienced in 4x4 driving and the others, we train. For parts that involve particularly tricky driving, the combination between the experienced drivers and the ones who are less experienced is down to making a winning combination - drawing on existing skills and helping less experienced drivers develop. The participants face the challenges together because it is first and foremost a team expedition and, even during the more difficult missions, you can always find people who will lead the group to the finish.
Q: What is the most enjoyable part of this type of expedition?
A: The experience begins by going into a new country - getting to know its geography, culture and its special qualities. Then the atmosphere generated by 60 people experiencing different challenges and adventures. Most participants are not professional rally drivers but everyday people looking for an unusual experience. This is where the challenging journey and personal experiences combine because beyond the driving and the views, people leave these expeditions as friends for life. After a journey such as this, people's outlook on life is changed. It is simply an experience that has an impact on a person's life. People leave these journeys different than how they began them.
Q: How do you see the continuation of Isuzu Challenge and where are you headed next year?
A: The feedback we receive is what causes us to constantly search for more and more special destinations. Regarding next year's expedition we are still undecided on where it will be. One option is one of the African states or Asia where two prior expeditions were held. The good part is that the world is big and offers many more challenges.
People Profiles - Isuzu Challenge
Razi Sharir: “The phase of battles with sand dunes, I left at home,” said Razi Sharir one of the Isuzu Challenge 2003 participants that is taking place this year in the Australian Outback. “It was clear to me from the beginning that this expedition was not to be one of outrageous extreme sport and that the 4x4 driving and its challenges were not the goal but only part of the experience – otherwise I wouldn’t have come.”
40-year-old Razi, married and father of three is the VP of a computer company specializing in programming. 4x4 driving in 4x4 vehicles and on motorbikes is nothing new to him. “At home we usually go on 4x4 trips in groups of 2-3 vehicles. Here on the Isuzu Challenge, there is a combination of real 4x4 driving, physical challenges, teamwork and personal experiences. This is also nearly the only way to really get to know the Australian Outback, a place considered very difficult to travel independently,” said Razi.
Razi says he is enjoying the trip very much, even more than he expected. “The views are much more intense than what I had imagined. I knew Australia was a big country but until you see it with your own eyes, you don’t understand the significance. It is something that cannot be conveyed through pictures or video.” He is also very happy with the group of people on the expedition. “Naturally, in a group of 50 people, I did not have the opportunity to get close to everyone. However I have made a few especially close friendships and the general climate among the group is really nice.”
He misses his wife and children very much and each impressive place he visits he thinks to himself – too bad they aren’t with me. “We are planning to take a break at some point for a few months and travel as a family to Australia. We’ve been talking about it for a year now. But now, after I’ve been here, I am sure it will happen soon,” says Razi.
Sharon Horovitz: a 30-year-old engineer, wanted a change from her daily work routine. “I am not the type for typical organized tours,” said Sharon, “But the Isuzu challenge is different. Here everyone contributes his or her small piece to the expedition group. We are not just being dragged along by a tour guide who explains what year a certain building was built or the name of a certain bird. We are doing things hands-on. Everyone pitches in.” Regarding the social interaction of the delegation members she has this to say: “There is a wide range of people here - all different ages, from different places and various professional backgrounds and it is fascinating. This varied group has to get along for three weeks in an environment where as it turns out, age does not really matter. I have really connected to Dorit, who is 20 years older than me. We decided she with fill in as ‘mom’ during the expedition and I will fill in as her ‘daughter’ and it is working out just great!”