It's sunrise on a Saturday as hundreds of purple beanies bob in and out of cars parked along the starting grid for the V8 Supercars on the Gold Coast. The smell of diesel fumes and splitting sounds of sirens aren't unusual for the pit lane, but it is a different kind of speed machine that is ready to hit the road. The 4WDs, modified sedans and trucks are here to rally.
The atmosphere is buzzing as the 150 competitors spread across 31 different teams wait excitedly for their first briefing of the eight-day Great Endeavour Rally, the moment they spent the past 12 months preparing for. Considering the most experience I have had driving off-road is the 2km section of dirt road from my house to the highway, I didn't know what the rally had in store for me, but I was excited to find out.
All I knew was that for the next eight days, the rally would take on some of the roughest and dustiest roads in Australia, with the route taking the long way from the Gold Coast to Yamba via Lightning Ridge to the west and Dubbo to the south, a trek of some 3200km.
All this torque is for a good cause. For the past 31 years the rally has raised money for the Endeavour Foundation that supports more than 4000 people with a disability around Australia in employment, accommodation and learning and lifestyle services.
The energy in the pit lanes goes up a notch once the rally briefing is over and I go to find the first team I will travel with - Car 616, AKA the Dirty Doctors.
Resident Dirty Doctor Peter Brady, a 12-time rally veteran, is waiting for me beside his Ford with an excited grin, while his co-pilot Nigel Lomas finishes up the last bits of preparation, hooking up the IV drips hanging from the back of the car and fastening down the swags and spare tyre on the roof.
"You're going to need these," Peter says, as he tosses me a set of the Dirty Doctor's medical scrubs, a standard issue uniform for anyone riding in their car.
I ditch my gear in their back seat and throw on the scrubs, which are emblazoned with their team logo. Their eagerness for the rally is rubbing off on me. We got in the car, Nigel taking up navigating duties for the first day with Peter in the driver's seat. The two long-time friends chat as we wait to be called to the start line, with the conversation punctuated by Nigel's exuberant laughter.
While the pair are not known for the quality of their medical advice, they've become rally veterans and were a great introduction to the Great Endeavour Rally.
"It started off I came here for the driving and the fun of it, but in the last three or four years it's really changed because I can see the value in the money that we raise and what it can do to change people's lives," Peter says.
Dirty Doctors is one of the more recognisable teams and Peter says the costumes help get the team into the spirit.
"About six years ago I thought, what would be an easy way of being recognisable and to keep clean, and I thought of doctor's scrubs," Peter says.
"You throw them over your normal clothes and then you can take them off and you're nice and clean underneath and they're easy to ID in a crowd. The costumes, kitting out the car with the drips, it all adds to the atmosphere of the rally."
Finally the Dirty Doctors are called to the start line, and with a blaring of their siren we hit the road. For the first hour or so I watch as the traffic lights and congestion of the Gold Coast recede in the rear window and are replaced by swaying canefields and single-lane backroads of Northern NSW, west of Murwillumbah.
The landscape was familiar, but in a way I'd never seen before. I would never have thought to take the roads we were going on, as they wound and snaked through farmland and the rugged backcountry of the hinterland hills.
As we wind further away from the highway, roads become thinner, then cease to be roads at all, just gravel paths, bush fire trails and tire tracks cut through rock faces.
The Dirty Doctors car slides through the corners of the dirt roads, and I can feel the back tyres drift as Peter hits the turns.
We bounce over every pothole and rock on the rally trail, and with a grin almost as wide as the doctor's on the front of his scrubs, Nigel leans around from the front seat.
"Are you ready to rally?"
CAUGHT ON THE HOP
"The rally means the world to me," Nathan says.
The Great Endeavour Rally has some passionate supporters, including their coordinator Nathan Woolhouse. This year's rally is his first in the position, not that anyone would have known from the way he pulled everything together from behind the scenes. A calm operator who always found a solution to any of the rally's constant surprises, he was constantly out and about with the other teams, checking on how teams were holding up and if anything needed to be done.
"When I first started with Endeavour five years ago I saw the event and thought it's something I'd love to be a part of and now I get to be, and try and organise it and keep guys happy along the way and smiles on their faces," he says.
"You can feel the anticipation in the atmosphere at the start line and we take that with us through every town we visit, spending cash in local communities who cater for the rally and give them a boost as well," he says.
It's on a dirt road around the back of Tenterfield when the Sunshine Coast team Canetoad Cruisers of Nigel and Gayle Pattinson hit their first stumbling block, in the shape of a fast-moving kangaroo that darted out from the scrub and into the front of the 60 Series Landcruiser.
I suspect the poor animal still has a headache, as it manages to get back on its feet and hops away into the bush, leaving only a large dent on the side of the truck.
The Canetoad Cruisers raised the most last year - $58,400.
Considering the condition of some of the other vehicles we pass hours later, I consider us lucky.
Day two of the rally is a testing one for a lot of competitors. One team loses a rear axle. We had to help tow one team that managed to get stuck on one of the humps in the road. And after totally rebuilding the car after last year's rally, Team Salubrious loses its gearbox, and has to be towed to Narrabri.
I'm with the Canetoad Cruisers when they get caught up in the heavy toll before the day is done. It's about 4pm as the Landcruiser descends a particularly rocky hump and a large thudding noise rocks through the car. The clunking continues with every gear change, and seems to worsen.
We pull over and Nigel rolls under the car to try to find the source. The team behind us pulls up to help. Nigel says it looks like the rear differential is damaged and there isn't much else we can do but push on. We don't make it much further - just outside Narrabri the Army support crew spend a couple of hours removing the tailshaft, as Gayle searched Facebook for a rear diff so they could continue the rally. We're back on the road, and as we approach the campsite for the night well behind everyone else, Nigel turns to me and says: "You've seen just about everything the rally has to offer today", his face illuminated in the pitch black only by the lights on the dashboard, with the dust on his wide-brim hat still shimmering.
If there's one thing that's evident it's the mateship and camaraderie between the teams is strong.
"You see, if someone is broken down, someone will pull over and make sure they can assist in any way possible," Nathan Woolhouse says.
"They'll lend parts if they have them, they'll lend their time if they've got it and nothing is too hard for these guys."
Thankfully, the Canetoad Cruisers aren't out for long. They manage to find a replacement rear diff in Gunnedah in time to meet up with everyone by the end of day three at Collerrina Hall. Even Salubrious manage to rejoin the rally, with a mechanic in Narrabri donating a gearbox.
"A local mechanic said 'It's yours, take it', and then another mechanic donated some floor space, and that just shows the impact the rally has," Nathan says.
THE FLYING PEANUT
Five years ago, Les Porter decided he had done his last Great Endeavour Rally. For the second time in two years, his car, the Flying Peanut, had to be towed home, with car troubles bringing his rally to a close early. He spent five days waiting for his car to get fixed, and missed the entire rally, and he quit then and there.
He was committed to his decision, until long-time rally supporter Vanessa Jones came to his rescue, promising to fully sponsor his rally, just to keep the iconic peanut on the road.
A Kingaroy icon, the peanut was built by Kingaroy Shire Council from wire mesh and hessian for a float in the Peanut Festival Parade about 30 years ago.
Les thought he could do something with it, so he kept the peanut. In 1999, after his mother died, he decided to get an old car and enter the Great Endeavour Rally. He had the old hessian peanut covered in fibreglass and mounted, and that's where it's been ever since.
"The peanut is just something that keeps going," Les says. "People ask me what I'm going to do with the peanut when I retire. My two grandsons said they'd like to carry on with it, and I hope they do. I hope the peanut doesn't die, because everyone knows the peanut. "
Les has been a part of the Great Endeavour Rally for 20 years, and at 73 he says he has no plans on pulling up the handbrake.
ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME
The Carinda Hotel is just like any other pub in any other small outback town in NSW. With just one exception. In 1983, a certain musician going by the name of David Bowie blew into the dust bowl town and filmed in the pub for the video for one of his biggest hits, "Let's Dance", raising more than a few eyebrows amongst the locals, whose eardrums would be more accustomed to Slim Dusty than Ziggy Stardust.
"I tell people we see a side of Australia that most tourists don't see," Les says.
"We see the real Australia, and that's the great thing about it and you have a lot of fun doing it. You meet a lot of good mates and it's just one hell of a trip."
My time with the crew ends in Dubbo, but I get the chance to have one final dinner with the rally when they arrive in Yamba. Everyone looked dusty and a bit worse for wear, genuinely looking forward to a bed with springs and shower with hot water.
The rally is more than the sum of its parts.
It's a coming together of a group of like-minded people who not only love the challenge of the rally, pushing themselves and their vehicles (and at times their relationships with their co-pilots) but also love the company and their shared passion in motorsports and genuinely helping the Endeavour Foundation. After all, it takes a special mix of crazy and stupid to want to drive for eight-plus hours a day, for eight days straight, on some of the most difficult terrain in the country. This is the challenge that drives everyone, and the exhilarating thrill of knowing that you've conquered it is second to none.
At the final dinner in Yamba, Nathan announces that this year's rally raised more than $330,000 for the Endeavour Foundation.
The applause rocks the room as everyone smiled knowing that while there had been some tough times and rough nights, at the end of the day it was all going to help improve the lives of people with intellectual disability, and that tt was worth an endless amount of dust and dirt.
To learn more about the Great Endeavour Rally visit www.great.endeavour.com.au