The Finke Desert Race & Lamberts COA

Blog #15 – The Finke Desert Race & Lamberts COA – Days 83 to 87 of 180

One of Greg’s images of a big banger

Whilst in Finke we chatted to some motorbike riders who had also come in to watch the race as we were total newbies and had no idea where or what a good campsite would be.  I also had not realized, until I re-checked the map, that we were on the edge of the Simpson Desert and we were now in sand dune country.  They had been to three of these races and suggested we camp around 10 klms out along the track on the eastern side as the prevailing winds generally blow east to west at this time of year.

So away we went along the track looking for a nice open camp spot.  We found one 8 klm out of town in the shadow of a large dune which would cut down any strong winds that would be blowing.  We were between two corners so I had some good opportunities for photography.  Due to the stuff up of me not downloading the programme I was blessing our good fortune that we were the only people camped along this 500 metre stretch of track.  Duh!!!  We were a day early but by Saturday there was a constant stream of traffic on the road of people looking for campsites which continued on into the night.  I also thought the road would be closed as well but this never happened either at least near us.

Our views were fantastic and the camp was setup with an ample supply of firewood at hand.  With safety in mind, I had no plans to do any photography closer than 25 metres to the track because if anything went astray it would be hard to outrun an out-of-control vehicle.  When using long lens such as a 200-400mm or a 100-400mm there was no need to be any closer.  Now all I needed was not to have the spectators camped up closer to the corner getting too close to the track and blocking my photographic angle.

A couple of times I turned on our small hand-held radios and scanned the airwaves to see if we could pick up some details on the event.  We were in luck and found that the modified cars and dune buggies would start at the Alice Springs end at around 7.15am on the Sunday morning.  Given that the race was in two legs of 243 klm each way we calculated that the first one would reach us around 9.30am. 

After a pleasant day relaxing and having a few beers we were settling in for the night when a late camper came over to see us.  He had just driven up from Coober Pedy that day which is no mean feat given the distance.  He wanted to know what side of the track he should camp – old hands we were by now as we had been here two days – and told him to camp on our side of the track so his vehicle would not be coated in dust from the racetrack.

Next morning, we were up bright and early ready for the race.  As the sun was very bright, I opted to sit under the awning and setup tripod with the big lens whilst I was comfortably ensconced in a deck chair.  Very lazy way to take photographs but very efficient as it was going to be a very long day.

A big banger in action
Bring the noise
Love the sound
Going going gone

The time was here!!!  We could hear the roar of a V8 racing engine in the distance.  I was pre-focused on the bend some 250 metres away when the first machine came roaring around the corner in a spray of dust and pebbles.  He was absolutely flying (we found out later many of them were achieving a speed around 160 klm on this dirt track on the straightaways) – even firing at 14 frames a second, he was gone in a flash.  We didn’t know what time separation were between each vehicle but the noise they made on approach gave us adequate warning.  The breeze was quite strong this morning and helped blow the dust off the track which not only helped the drivers but also the photographers.  I also recognized that there was a gap in the high sand dune behind us and about a further two kilometers away that the vehicles came over so recognized the dust plumes as soon as they reached that crest.  This helped me get setup for the next shots with plenty of time.

Getting there
Last one

It was non-stop action for the next two and half hours with two crashes within 100 metres of us but behind us so no photographic evidence of the vehicle carnage.  We heard it however so ran over to help when no-one climbed out of the overturned wreck.  By the time Greg & I and some other spectators arrived the two occupants were out of the vehicle and were OK.  They asked if we could turn the vehicle the right side up to minimize any engine damage and let the oil flow back down to the sump.  I could see that this thing would not be going anywhere in a hurry as the rear axle had snapped and a wheel had come off.  Various other bits and pieces were strewn along the track that they had left as they cartwheeled off the track.  We helped pick up all the bits and pieces we could find and returned them to the driver.  Not sure what racing team they were but the driver had Glorified Bus Driver on his T-shirt.  One of the support vehicles showed up so we returned to our camp.  Luckily there was a fair gap between the crash and the next competitor coming through.

Unbelievable, the next vehicle coming through barrel rolled off the track in exactly the same place but on the opposite side of the track.  Luckily for them they landed wheels up.  They hopped out and assessed the damage, which must have been minor, as we heard the engine start and the drove down and across and parked beside the other wreck.  I thought there day was done as well until, 20 minutes later we heard the engine fire up again and astonishingly they bounced back onto the track and disappeared towards Finke.  They build these vehicles very rugged and tough.

By midday all the cars and dune buggies had gone through and there was a hiatus as the vehicle sweepers cleared the track of debris and broken-down vehicles to get ready for the 2- & 4-wheel bikes.  Whilst fast and spectacular they are not quite the same as hearing the big bangers roaring down the track with 700 horsepower engines powered by Ethanol fuel screaming by your location.  They started at 1pm and continued all afternoon but fortunately no-one came off or broke down near us.

Excitement over it was time to recharge batteries and copy the images off the cards and onto hard drives for future processing.  All up Greg and I took nearly 8,500 shots that first day many which will end up in the digital scrapheap but there will be some gems in there.  I will post a few within this blog.

Time to settle back, light the fire and have a few ales talking about the day.  One of the reasons we had camped so far out of town was that we were warned that if you were close to the town, you would not get a good night’s sleep as the mechanics started tuning vehicles around 3am for the next morning’s 7.15am start. 

This day I decided I would try getting some drone footage as I needed the practice.  The new drone had not had much usage on this trip as most days we experienced so higher than usual wind speeds plus the law forbidding the flying of drones in national parks which limits its use.  One thing I soon learned on day 2 as the cars roared past is that you cannot fly a drone and take photos too which was very frustrating for me.

In the end I stuck with the drone but the results left a lot to be desired plus the DJI Mini 2 did not record sound on the videos I was shooting – more things for me to learn on how to operate this machine properly.

Once all the cars and dune buggies went through and the sweeper vehicle did a pass we sat back and waited, and waited, for the bikes to start.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, and there was nothing be heard on the radios, there had been a fatality where a spectator had been out by an out-of-control racing buggy some 30 klms short of Alice Springs.  Later we learned that he was an avid amateur photographer who was standing within 2 metres of the track taking photos.

The race was cancelled at that time.  After another hour the decision was made to allow the bikes to return to Alice Springs in groups of 25 or so.  At this stage we still did not what had happened until a rider had a spectacular crash right in front of us.  I immediately took my camping chair over to the trackside as I felt he would be more comfortable sitting in that than lying on the side of the racetrack.  His mates had picked his bike up and parked it on the other side of the track but he was in no fit state to do anymore riding that day.  I told his mates I would stay with him until the sweepers and the first aid truck would show up as they were in the second last group.  From him and his mates we learned what had happened and why they were not racing.

After another hour the St John’s medics turned up.  Apparently, they had taken their Toyota Troopie up the racetrack which was very loose sand and managed to get themselves bogged.  Very embarrassing for them as they then needed to snatch strapped out by the Police.  So, Greg & I helped the sweeper truck load his motorbike up onto a tray trailer whilst the rider was assessed for injuries.  He had lost some skin up his right arm and had very badly bruised his right leg when he hit the ground after his wheel caught in a rut on the churned-up track.

Given that he could not lie down they made a decision to load him into a race marshal’s car with the magic green whistle (pain killer) along with one of the medics and keep heading for Alice Springs.

Excitement over Greg & I returned to camp but first sent the OK message from our Spot3 EPIRB to let the family know that we were both OK if they saw that a 60’s plus male had been killed during the race and thought it was us.  It was a sad way to end what had been a fantastic event for Greg & I to witness.  I had seen many videos of previous Finke desert races on YouTube and had always wanted to be at the event.  Another thing crossed off the bucket list.

The rest of the afternoon we spent relaxing and packing away all the non-essentials so we could leave relatively early the next day.  The exodus by campers started soon after and continued all night which meant a less than ideal sleep that night.

Next morning, we finished packing and headed back to Finke.  A brief moment of excitement for me when Greg told me to veer off the road onto the racetrack as he was having difficulties on the road as it was so cut up by the volume of traffic.  The racetrack was deep sand and soon I was struggling as well but managed to get through the last 500 metres into Finke but on the other side of town from Greg.  Straight on the radio to find out where he was only to find out I had another casualty on the vehicle – this time my GME aerial had snapped from the constant whiplash of the last section of track.  Luckily, I had installed a second dual channel ORICOM radio for this trip so soon was back in contact with Greg.  It does make a big difference using inbuilt radios in cars as the handheld 5Ghz units do not have a great range and many times I lost touch with Greg if I was more than a kilometre away.

Next stop was to be Lambert’s Geodetic Centre of Australia which I originally planned to be at on my birthday on the 19th June.  However, this was only the 15th and we were not going to camp out there for four days as I needed my vehicle repaired.

The Lamberts COA was only 12 klms from Finke then 11 klms up a goat track off the main road.  There are actually in and out tracks but in many cases the in track had been washed out and you were forced onto the out track.  This was alright until you struck a convoy of five vehicles coming out like I did.  I had to back up into the scrub so they could get past which was very untidy to say the least.  No often my trailer gets to be a bulldozer to back my way off the track.  Luckily no serious damage or scratches happened.

Greg & I can now say that we have both visited this site and our names are in the visitors’ book for remembrance.  A shot of single malt each and a passing traveler to take a photo commemorating the event before getting back on the road again heading for the Kulgera Roadhouse.

Finally arrived at Kulgera late in the afternoon.  This roadhouse is very rundown and the facilities are old and decrepit.  However, the price was right for what we wanted – 2 unpowered sites at $10 for the night.  This was to be a one-night stop so we left the trailer and van hooked up to the vehicles. Time to venture into the pub which I had heard was quite famous for its roof ornaments.  I will let you be the judge of the roof decorations – what can I say but ‘Only in Australia’.

A beer in hand it was time to ring Toyota in Alice Springs to find out when I could get booked in to get my repairs and service done.  I was shocked that I could not get in any earlier than 10 days.  Given that I would need to unpack the vehicle plus remove the ARB cage from the rear plus all that gear I would need to book a cabin at a caravan park to store everything out of site.  I did not want to give a free hand to an opportunistic thief to all my camera gear and spare parts just sitting it beside my camper trailer.  Next task was to find accommodation with a cabin plus a powered site for Greg for at least a week.  On our second try we were in luck and managed to get booked into the Alice Springs Tourist Park in the centre of town.

Dinner was had in the pub as we discussed how to fill the next eight days as we needed to be in Alice by the 23rd June.  Greg showed no interest in going to Uluru and as I had already been there, we decided to headed up into the West MacDonnell Ranges via the Mereenie Loop as the next part of our adventure.

My water tanks had been filled at Kathleen Creek over ten days before and it was very high in dust particles – you could see it in the water I was boiling for my tea.  We decided to dump all that water from our tanks (Greg had filled his tanks as well there) and fill up with water supplied at Kulgera.  A bit cheeky I know but there was no water to be had were we going so it was a necessity.  We also topped off our fuel before heading on the next leg of the adventure into the West MacDonnell Ranges and a place where I spent my 3rd & 4th birthdays.

Airing up at Kulgera