The Outback holds a special place in the Australian soul. This is the Dead Heart, a vast, eroded wasteland – bathed at night by the naked magnificence of the Milky Way and in the day by the unfiltered death ray of a 35°C sun.
Its sounds are endemic: the saccharine tick of the cooling radiator at a lone gas station; the distant macadamia-nut crunch of a dingo taking your baby; and there, way across the horizon, the fat, creamy throb of an 850hp off-road race car, hammering across a great flat plain at 160kph.
The Gascoyne is a river that is usually not a river, but a sandy, dried-out riverbed. It is 900km north of Perth in Western Australia – the world’s most isolated capital city in a state so massive that, at 2.6 million square kilometres, it’s larger than all but nine countries on Earth. For the Gas Dash, that isolation is a blessing and a curse. It mandates helicopter medivac teams on standby, lest someone on a four-stroke trail bike smashes into a kangaroo, camel or bull at 180kph, way out in the Never Never. But it has its drawcards.
“You know what I love about it? The remoteness, the ‘out there’,” says David Kearney, a 10-time competitor who became the event’s director in 2014. “With this race, you leave in the morning, head off in a direction and have absolutely no idea where you are. For my first five or six events, not even for the faintest moment did I start to get my head around where I was. It’s so isolated.”
Most years, the Gas Dash attracts 60 or so competitors across two- and four-wheel categories. In big years, the numbers top 170. It helps that you need no prior qualifications to compete, licences can be arranged when you enter. The course is signposted, so navigators are a luxury, not a necessity, and the main focus is making it to the end. The race motto is: “Winning is something. Finishing is everything.”
“There is a time-out. We sort of allow 40kph as a minimum speed on the event, but generally we’ll wait for you,” says Kearney. “You could bring a second-hand postman’s bike if you want. Some of these blokes could ride anything.”
Most don’t ride anything. The field is a mix of two- and four-stroke bikes, as well as desert-racing four wheelers. Some buggies, says Kearney, cost up to AU$400,000. But no fancy equipment can make up for caution – or experience.
“The scariest section is a 2km uphill run, and it’s just big, jagged pieces of slate – at the end of that straight, there’s a 90-degree turn and a 60m drop. We’ve had all sorts of broken bones, faces, legs and backs, anything and everything really.”
“But at that moment when you’re flying along across the claypan, with your head down, going as fast as you possibly can, fist pumping the air because the adrenalin is flowing… Mate, it’s just all happening. It makes everyone feel like a hero.”
Beware washouts – huge crevices in the hard, dry, high-speed claypans. “Some, you could park a car sideways in and not see the roof, they’re that deep,” warns Kearney. “Last year, a buggy hit one at full speed and ripped his wheel off. He thought he could get through. Nature told him otherwise.”
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