Hammer Time

THE 2013 AUSTRALASIAN SAFARI WAS A TYPICALLY BRUTAL, CHASSIS CRASHING, RIG-BASHING AFFAIR. ISUZU TRIUMPHED YET AGAIN, WITH FIVE ISUZUS IN THE TOP 10

Words: Connor Stephenson

Photos: Mario Ravaccia at Fuoristradaweb.com

YOU MIGHT THINK THE TRUCKS THAT TAKE ON THE AUSTRALASIAN SAFARI—A SEVEN-DAY TORTURE TEST OVER 3200KM OF MURDEROUS, MORDOR-LIKE TERRAIN IN WA— COP A BELTING, BUT AT LEAST THEY'RE BUILT FOR IT. SPARE A THOUGHT FOR THE SOFT, UNSPRUNG HUMAN BODIES INSIDE BEING BELTED, RATTLED AND CHOKED WITH DUST FOR A WEEK.

It's the sort of sport enjoyed, or endured, only by the brain damaged, as Aussie rough-road legend and Isuzu D-MAX driver Bruce Garland freely admits. "This sport has broken my brain and broken my wallet, and I've got a heap of holes in my body now from various operations," he chuckles. "But you know, you're dead a long time." Garland led a team of four D-MAXs that entered the brutal mega rally this year. It's a race in which typically only half of the people who enter actually finish. Incredibly, not only did all four make the distance, they all featured in the overall top 10. Perhaps even more impressive, when the event finished on the edge of the Indian Ocean at Geraldton, 424km north of Perth where it had begun, the crews that came fifth and seventh did so in 2007 model D-MAXs—further proof of their durability. The Isuzu crews managed to finish first in the T2 class, in which cars run very close to showroom spec, and also won the modified production class. "There were five Isuzus in the top 10 [four D-MAXs and one VehiCROSS]," says Garland. "There were three class wins, and one that was first diesel home and third outright.

Garland (grinning) and Harry Suzuki (blue steel) prepare for a stage

No 14-man F1 pit crew out here. Garland gets on the tools

Sadly, it wasn't us this time around, but we are very happy with our result." Garland, who has won the event five times with his co-driver Harry Suzuki, finished ninth overall, in a virtually stock D-MAX. He says it was even more punishing on his 55-year-old body than usual, but he's seen worse, of course. In the Dakar Rally in 2011, Garland, racing in an Isuzu, misread a sand dune, landed hard enough to crack his engine's block and broke his back.

His engineers later estimated the vehicle, and Garland, were pulling about 40gs at impact. "There was a big crack, like an electric shock went up my back, and I couldn't breathe for 10 or 15 minutes. It was a pain like I've never felt and I've hurt myself quite a bit," Garland recalls. "I took some Panadol and Voltaren. The car was still drivable, but it was unhealthy, so I drove it the next 30km and went and had a shower because I thought that might fix it. "I was hoping I'd just bruised my kidneys or something. I didn't want to see the doctors because they'd tell me I couldn't race the next day, but they said my back was broken. If I'd taken another hit, I would have been paralysed. So that was lucky. While he was recovering, Garland developed a heart problem—a real shock for someone with so much ticker—and had five bypasses.

Pegging the ears back on the beach in Geraldton. Probably not the best day for casual sunbathing

This year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he had "chopped out" just eight weeks before the start of the safari in Perth. Did his doctors advise him not to enter this year? "Doctors worry too much," is all he'll say.

Garland says the Australasian Safari is a bit of a training run for the forthcoming Dakar, in which he races an extremely modified D-MAX, but this year some of the days were "just as violent". "You're getting twisted and shaken and corkscrewed, it's hardly ever running straight, and you keep yourself in the seat with your shoulder blades, your back and your butt muscles. It does knock you around a bit," he says. It was the first time in 20 years that Garland had competed in a stock production-class car, and he enjoyed it more than he was expecting to. "It's a big test for a showroom car and I babied it a bit to start with. I wasn't sure how much it could take, but then I got used to it and really started to push it. We were second fastest overall on the last stage, which is pretty amazing," he says. "There's a lot of standard Isuzu parts on the Dakar car, so I know how much punishment they can take. But we didn't even have to fix our cars up at night, just adjust the brakes and check the filters. They were running like a dream. "They were just so strong and so reliable. In a tough race that lots of people don't finish, four of us started and four of us finished. It's an incredible result." Garland's broken wallet is about to get battered again, as he attempts to scrounge up the $100,000 entry fee for the 2015 Dakar event. But before that, he'll be back in the West next year for another Australasian Safari, whether his body likes it or not. You know, you're dead a long time.

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