2020 Sunraysia Safari

4 months ago | Words: Peter Whitaker | Photos: Max Sullivan, Troy Bennett, Donat O'Kelly

First staged in 2017 to fill the void of the discontinued Australasian Safari, the Sunraysia Safari Cross-Country Rally is now the largest and longest cross-country rally in Australia, and it has just been confirmed that the 2020 event will be held on September 9-12. Based at the Wentworth Showgrounds, the rally is run on private properties in the Wentworth, Pooncarie, Euston and Greater Darling Anabranch regions, with the competitive distance anticipated to be over 1200km over the 2020 event’s four days.
Australia’s doyen of two-wheeled desert racing, Peter Whitaker, sat down with the bloke behind for the Sunraysia Safari, Troy Bennett, to get more of an insight into the 2020 adventure-based competitive navigational rally…

Reviving marathon cross-country rallying in Australia has been a monumental achievement. You must be relieved the authorities have given the 2020 ‘Local Legends Sunraysia Safari’ the green light for September.
Travel restrictions caused more than the usual number of challenges to organising our fourth Sunraysia, and we’re grateful to governments, local shires, and our sanctioning bodies for their support. Though we may need to look at the ways that we interact in large groups, our projections are we’ll run the rally as scheduled on September 9-12.

What was your motivation to put your livelihood on the line to get the inaugural Sunraysia up and running in 2017?
Bob Carpenter [perennial Event Director of the Australian Safari] suggested it would be easier if I just rolled around in the dust a bit and sent him all my money, as the end result would be the same [laughs]. The reality is that I’ve been a rally fan all my life, and I met Bob when he took me on as his ‘apprentice’ back in 1996. As we know, that ‘chapter’ of the Australian Safari story ended in 2004, and while the West Australians tried hard to continue the tradition, the event ultimately died. So we were left with a lot of enthusiasts looking for somewhere to compete, and I realised that cross-country rallying may never be revived in Australia. In 2017, we finally got into a position to organise the inaugural Sunraysia Safari and full credit for that goes to my partner, Anne, who supported me throughout the entire process. It was a huge financial risk, but I believed in the concept and in what I’d learnt from Bob and others who preceded me. Those lessons were, critically, about what not to do as much as what to do, so we’re now in the fourth year of a five-year plan and tracking well in terms of where we hoped to be.

Strange that, in an affluent nation with so much space and variety of terrain, cross-country rallying hasn’t really progressed since the Wynn’s Sydney to Darwin marathons. Is it the cost or the fact that competitors want their motorsport packaged over a single week?
Our terrain, political and physical security, and our amazing rural communities make a compelling argument that Australia is an ideal location for cross-country rallying. However, it’s important to recognise that it’s been 35 years since the first Wynn’s Safari, and the world has changed. These days, there’s so much pressure on everyone, it’s simply not practical to spend two weeks away, or come up with the required budget. We specifically set out to develop a rally that provides a four-day adventure with over 1200km of competition, all in the space of a single working week. The format of returning to the same bivouac each night also reduces the cost and effort of moving entire teams hundreds of kilometres each day. The original Wynn’s Safaris were built on the spirit of adventure and camaraderie. That’s what we’ve worked so hard to capture with the ‘Local Legends Sunraysia Safari’. Without doubt, it’s the best motorsport adventure in Australia.

You’re no doubt aware Australia’s first cross-country event, the 1971 BP 250 Desert Rally, was held in the Sunraysia district. Is that just a coincidence?
Entirely coincidence! Though it might be the Light Car Club set up their event for the same reasons that we did; primarily the central location to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, and the spectacular variety of terrain available in proximity to the overnight bivouac. As an added bonus, the local communities, property owners and volunteers are the nicest people you would ever be lucky enough to meet. It is such a privilege to be invited to use people’s farms to run our rally on, and to experience the warmth and enthusiasm they have for ‘their’ rally is something I will never take for granted. One point I’d really like to make that sets the Wentworth Shire apart is that they also considered the social and psychological boost to the region that the rally provides, and how it benefits all the various communities we work with around the region. It’s not just about an economical return on investment.

It’s widely acknowledged that accurate navigation is the key to achieving a competitive time in a rally stage. Electronic map rollers have made reading the route instructions much easier. What other improvements have been made?
Electronic map rollers are a big improvement on the original ‘lunch box’ manual units but the principle is the same, whether you’re a Dakar veteran such as Rod Faggotter, Jake Smith or Dave Schwartz, or a rookie. Stay on the notes, ride to the conditions, and you’ll surprise yourself at the end or the event. I’ve always said that it’s not the fastest bike that will ever win the Sunraysia Safari; it’s the smartest rider. Navigation is far more critical than speed, and many riders come unstuck through making simple navigational errors. We spend a massive amount of time setting a new course each year and we are almost fanatical about getting the route instructions absolutely right before having them, and the entire course, independently checked. I also spend the two weeks prior to the event removing hazards, setting up signs and making sure it’s as good to run as it can be. Then, on the morning of the event, we send through experienced course checkers to make sure nothing’s changed in the few days since set-up.

With upwards of 100 competitors at full gas over several hundred square kilometres of remote terrain, what safety measures are in place, should a rider come to grief?
Safety is one aspect of cross-country rallying that has leapt forwards in the past few years. And when I think about how basic it was all those years ago, it makes me shudder. Of course, we didn’t know better back then. Nor did we have the technology available. The overall safety system is now on par with world’s best practice. The medivac chopper, paramedics and rescue teams are all controlled back from Rally HQ using the Rallysafe tracking system, which is literally the best technology available. Every competitor has a Rallysafe unit attached, which transmits via satellite at all times. So at Event HQ, we can see where every single competitor is at any given time, how fast they’re traveling and, more critically, if they stop, we can message them to see if they require assistance. The units also have a G-force meter, so if they come to a sudden stop, the system instantly alerts Rally HQ. We’re very proud of our safety record. In the first three years, we’ve had a total of eight incidents, none serious, and our response times from the incident to having a medical team on the spot have been between five and nine minutes. When you consider that, at times, competitors are in the desert over 200km from Rally HQ, that’s pretty impressive. And it’s reassuring to everyone.

How do you keep the faster autos from overrunning the slower bikes?
One of the other amazing features available on Rallysafe is “Push to Pass”. If you get within 200 metres of a competitor, you can alert them to your presence on their Rallysafe screen. That has made passing, particularly in dust, so much safer. And many of the slower riders have said how appreciative they are of the system. It allows competitors to overtake safely, and lets everyone get on with their own rally.

Could a rider with moderate off-road riding experience complete the course?
Absolutely! Our thinking is that everyone has to start somewhere, so the route is such that riders with moderate skill levels can participate. Given that, other than the Condo 750, cross-country rallying was in a bit of a lull before we started the Sunraysia Safari, we’ve catered for quite few first-time competitors. It’s interesting to note that many have done quite well first time out. If you like long-distance riding, with the challenge and adventure that only rallying can provide, you’ve got to give it a go. The cross-country rally community is a fantastic group of people, and they’re only too pleased to lend a hand or offer some advice. But be warned, it’s addictive. Once you’ve experienced your first Sunraysia Safari, you’ll be back every year!

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