Mazda BT-50 survives journey to the top of Big Red
DROP the pressure in the chunky tyres. Engage four-wheel drive low. Hit the diff lock switch. Get a good run up, keep the throttle constant, thumbs flat on the wheel - and head for the sand dune towering ahead.
Keep the steering steady as the ruts and bumps challenge the suspension. Aim for the worn-down gap at the crest of the dune, squeeze the right foot a little - and that is how, give or take several attempts, you get to the top of Big Red, the largest and easternmost of more than 1100 Simpson Desert dunes.
Reaching this mecca for 4WD enthusiasts takes no small effort. Drive 30km from Birdsville, itself 1600km from the nearest Big Smoke; cross the Simpson from Mt Dare, 550km to the west; or ply the fabled Birdsville Track, as we do for 500km-odd from Marree, SA, in a convoy of Mazda BT-50s.
We're in the top-spec GT, with a dune-busting 470Nm from the five-cylinder diesel. Sports and bull bars, lighting rig, dual batteries and sundry gear to tackle the Track take the $53,790 unadorned price tag to a tick under $61K. We forgo the black alloys at $322. Each.
Mazda is also trumpeting the GT's trick standard satnav showing overhead and 3D views on the 7.8-inch touchscreen, a collaboration with electronics outfit Alpine.
Given the featureless, junction-less terrain, voice directions would suffice: "After 500km, turn right. You have reached your destination.”
Apart from our date with the 40-metre-high dune, we're also en route to the annual Birdsville Cup race meeting, which turns the banks of the Diamantina River and adjacent spots into a sprawling camp ground.
The town's welcoming placard lists the population as 115. Plus or minus 7000. Virtually all of the extras come in utes, 4WDs, SUVs, camper vans and trailers - for the less hardy, a couple of tent settlements pop up, bringing a taste of glamping.
There are astonishing variations on the bring-it-with-you theme, starting with swags under the awning, rising to roof-topper tents, spreading to camper trailers (a few evidently home-fettled, others top-end), little hamlets of mates' wagons and the somewhat incongruous RVs, known to some as mobile chicanes.
In an idle moment, you can play "spot the sedan” and come up scoreless. In a more reflective mood, you might relish the sight of 4WDs being used for the original purpose, as opposed to the school run.
Last weekend's bumper crowd might be a sign of pent-up demand, because last year's Birdsville Cup meeting was rained-in, as opposed to rained-out.
Downpours just before the scheduled two-day event cut roads in all directions, isolating the track and early-bird punters, turning the card into a Super Sunday - and scuttling Mazda's planned expedition.
When we reconvene, the prospect of rain is rated at nil. The Track for northbound pilgrims is in good nick, possibly graded in anticipation of the 4WD procession.
It still pays to keep a couple of hundred metres from your travelling mates ahead, such is the dust the utes kick up. This also enables drivers and lookouts to scan for emus and cattle - the roos must get bowled over at dawn and dusk, and it's roadkill central on the southern stretches.
Our Mazdas generally run about 35psi on bitumen but the pressure is lowered to 28 for the stony, corrugated route - unladen, we run sure-footed at highway speeds, slowing gently for the visibly rougher stuff and patches of pulverised sand.
Peak torque in the 3.2-litre is on tap from 1750rpm and, with no hard-charging required, we make good progress at 2000-2500rpm.
When it comes to the obligatory tilt at Big Red, the set-up takes some finessing. Tyres go down to 15-18psi, diff lock works for some but not for others and the adept drivers almost make it up in four-high.
Mazda claims average fuel consumption of 9.2L/100km from the six-speed auto. Most commonly we return 14.4L on the Track - and nudge 30L at that last surge on the dune.