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Member Article: The Shitbox Rally!

Words and pictures by Daniel.

You’re doing what? Driving a car worth less than $1000 thousands of kilometres through the outback, all in the name of charity. Welcome to the Shitbox Rally. In ten years, it’s raised more than $23 million for cancer research and seen thousands of people do things they never thought they would.

I first heard about the rally from other Motafrenz members, Alistair Riddell and Matt Gough who participated in one of the earlier rallies. I followed the rally for a few years, but actually doing it seemed like a lot of hard work, especially getting a car so cheap and getting it ready.

In 2016, I watched the video for the first NZ rally. The scenery was so spectacular that I registered for the 2017 NZ and Australian rallies on the spot. I got accepted into the NZ rally and spent a week I will remember for the rest of my life.

2019 saw the first ever Spring rally, going Melbourne to Townsville via Birdsville. With a local start line, I applied, and put the call out to friends to see who was interested. My friend Fiona was the first response. Fiona was my first boss in Local Government, and we’d become good friends particularly during her own battle with breast cancer in 2012. In the end she was the perfect teammate. We had loads of fun doing the fundraising and getting ready for the rally.

Going in the rally is a lot of hard work. We had to raise at least $5000 and find a car and get it registered and prepared, all within that $1000 budget. Luck came our way with Mike Frith being told of a friend of a friend who was giving away an old blue Ford hatchback. It wasn’t driven enough, and its owner Muriel wanted it gone as conveniently as possible.

It turned out to be a 2005 one owner Ford Focus that was pretty good. The boot and rear tailgate were the only straight panels on it, the power steering was noisy, the remote central locking didn’t work, nor did the CD player. We used its trade-in value of $700 as the cost, and it needed $140 worth of parts and a generous friend for labour for the roadworthy. The $700 estimate to fix the air conditioning would have taken us over the $1000 limit, so we left it unfixed. We regretted not fixing it every single day on the rally. Every single day.

Most teams decorate their cars. We went with a Mondrian theme of coloured boxes. It was easy to do, using house paint and rollers and as long as you didn’t look too closely it looked great. The lady at the Bunnings paint counter didn’t believe that we were painting a real car with what we were buying.

We set ourselves the ambitious goal of raising $7500. In the end, we raised $10,500 with a bit over half coming from donations from friends, about $3500 coming from selling our unwanted stuff and things our friends gave us at six garage sales, on ebay and Facebook, and the rest from a few events we ran. We got a lot of support from our friends helping us run things.

The rally takes you completely out of your comfort zone. You spend a week with people you don’t know and driving through places you’ve probably never been before.

Friday Night Briefing

The day before the rally started, everyone met at Crown Conference Hall for the rally briefing.
Normally on the rally, 50% of teams are returning, and 50% are new. On this rally, 70% of all teams were new, and quite a few of the other 30% were like us; one had done the rally before and the other one was new. 

It was also where we met our buddy group, heard about their cars and why they were doing the rally. One of the other teams didn’t have a car yet but were going to look that night.

Each group has a mechanic or someone who’s got pretty good mechanical skills and a first aider. Our mechanic was David who did some sensational repairs along the way. He was doing the rally with his father who celebrated his 74th birthday on the rally.

At home, some last-minute application of left-over paint to a black t-shirt created a costume to match the car. And a coat of paint on the tyres. Because we could.

The Start line

We had to be at Manheim Auctions in Altona at 7:30am for start-line at 7:30. It was sensational with all the cars decorated, as well as many of the participants. It was the first time since 2012 that the rally had left Melbourne, so there was a lot of interest from family and friends and past ralliers. Jutta and Hans (the go-between between Mike and the car owner) came along to see the car and everyone off.

Quite a few teams had some late changes to their shitbox, including team Dead Bull, who were taking the only Citroen along in the rally. Sadly it did its clutch on the way down to Melbourne and they had to madly find another car in rural NSW on their trip, eventually finding a Ford Falcon cheap enough. The Falcon made it to the end faultlessly.

Day 1 – Melbourne to Wentworth

The first day was just getting to know our buddy group and seeing all the other cars. Being familiar with Melbourne we took the lead out and stopped for a toilet and coffee break in Marong near Bendigo where quite a few of our Bendigo friends had come out see all the cars come through.

One of the regular rally teams sets up a tracking system for any other teams that donate to their fundraising. It meant people back home could follow where we were throughout the day. We arrived in at Wentworth pretty early, a bit after 5 with plenty of time to set up our tents at the Wentworth Showgrounds before dinner.

Sadly, though we lost one participant on the rally. Many of the rally participants are going through their own cancer battles, as was the case for one of the Hippy Chicks. She’d timed her chemotherapy around the rally but during day 1, it became obvious to her that she would be unable to complete the rally.

Day 2 – Wentworth to White Cliffs

Each rally has a couple of dress-up days. Today was Gilligan’s Island. There were quite a few Mary-Anne’s (think of a straight version of Mary Christmas), along with a lot of Gilligan’s and even some palm trees. In the interests of packing light, we went with disposable Bunnings painting overalls painted to look like Gilligan. Great in theory, not in practice.

Day 2 saw our first day on the dirt. We went middle of the pack of our buddy group, with our mechanic at the tail end so that if any cars broke down, they’d be behind them. It was a relatively trouble-free day until about 10 minutes before White Cliffs when we hit a patch of bull-dust and went for a dive. The dust flew up above the car, but we did well not to get bogged, and got through it. When we got into camp, the car was covered in dust, and making a strange squealing noise.

Opening the bonnet revealed dust everywhere, even under the engine cover. The squealing sound was dust in the belts. There was also some oil splatter around the bottom of the engine and suspension. It also was a bit of a reality check as it was the first time that it hit me the car might not actually make it. And this was only day 2.

The general attitude towards anything like this is ‘let it develop’. That is let it develop into something that stops the car, then the mechanics on the rally or support crew make the car go again. The goal is to get the car to the finish line, in any state.

The cars that do need fixing go into triage. Triage is the repair area where mechanics get to do things they’d never normally do to a customer’s car. Everyone works together (mechanics participating in the rally, and the support mechanics) to get as many cars mended as possible and back on the road.

We arrived into White Cliffs around 6:00 and were camping at the White Cliffs Oval. There was no showers (drought), and the oval was just red rocks, pebbles and dust. We set up camp in the daylight, and got a look at the state of many of the other cars. There was a Honda Legend with an innovative solution for extra storage.

The dinner was superb, a roast with everything cooked perfectly. I have no idea how they managed to do that, but there was one thing that was really consistent throughout the rally. We got three meals a day, and every one of them was great. Only one was cooked by a business, with all the rest cooked entirely by volunteers. They did a sensational job.

About 5 cars came in on trailers on day 2 and a few others limped in. That night all were repaired in triage for the next day. In the most challenging repair, some support crews were up until 3am changing over an engine. Working until 3am changing an engine over is not unusual for rally support. But doing that to one of their own support 4WD’s was highly unusual.

Day 3 – White Cliffs to Noccundra

No dress-up day here. There was meant to be 481km of unsealed road, and 5km of sealed road, but about 40km had recently been sealed. On the dirt our buddy group suffered their first mechanical issue. A flat tyre on our car.

We did really well to pack so lightly. One spare tyre was in the tyre well (under the boot), and the other was on the bottom of the boot with things packed inside the wheel. It was like Tetris, but it meant almost everything in the boot had to come out to get the tyre out. Then packed back again after.

This was probably one of the quickest tyre changes I’ve seen outside of racing. The trolley jack went under, and cordless drill and socket was used to undo the tyre, new wheel went on and we were done. The filthy flat was put on another car’s roof rack and our gear thrown back into the boot.

Later we had our second flat tyre. This change was even quicker than the first, although unpacking was harder as everything had to come out. And this filthy tyre had to go back. Roof racks for spare tyres and jerry cans are definitely a bonus.

Noccundra has a population of three with a pub that also sells petrol and an attached house. We arrived in at about 6:20 and joined the fuel queue. We got to the front at 9:00. 

At the time we both just wanted to get to camp and set up our tents. But waiting 2.5 hours for fuel turned out to be a highlight of the rally. As the sun went down, the temperature dropped below 30. Teams were playing cricket, and we both got to socialise with other people on the rally. We met other Victorian teams, and got some great photos of the cars.

Three cars had been declared dead overnight. A Mercedes and a Volvo that had been trailered into camp all three nights and a Lancer. TipTop (a 1998-1991 Holden Commodore) had come in each night on a trailer, but was back on the road for another day.

This was our longest day, initially 602km skirting through the corner of South Australia, but due to impassable roads we’d be taking a 58km detour staying in QLD. Now 660km, and no towns along the way, no general stores, no fuel stops and one single toilet the whole day. Being male was definitely an advantage.

The first 50km was on sealed roads, then we turned onto unsealed roads and everything changed. Stress levels climbed. The road was horrid with massive ruts and huge rocks. We were crawling along rarely getting above 50. We passed many groups, pulled over with flat tyres. Over the first couple of hours on the dirt there were countless calls to support for cars needing trailers. Support were encouraging any teams that could to continue on, or where possible use another car and a tow rope to tow the car (but at much much lower speed), as trailers were going to be at a premium. It felt like it was going to be a long day.

Our buddy group had a couple of flat tyres, and a couple of things that needed to be checked, but handled it pretty well. When we finally got to the Birdsville Development Road we thought we were on the home stretch. But in hindsight we were only just over half way (although now on a much better road). This was definitely going to be a very long day.

The temperature was in the high 30’s and got up to 41.5 degrees. We were both really struggling with the lack of air conditioning, and drinking lots of water. The air was completely still, so the dust was just not clearing. Visibility was shocking, and we were both exhausted. 

We were staying at the Birdsville Caravan Park. Where there were showers. Glorious wet much needed showers. We’d gone 4 days without showers and without air condition in 41.5 degree heat. We loved the showers. 

As we headed for dinner at 10:30 support 4WD’s were heading out. All the trailers came in full, and there were still broken down cars beside the road needing picking up. One team were waiting much longer than anticipated after the support 4WD sent out to collect them ran out of fuel. The last car arrived at 1:30am.

Day 5 – Birdsville to Jundah

Feeling fresh after our showers and good night sleep we went back to the Birdsville Hotel for breakfast. The meals at Birdsville were the only ones prepared by a business. While we couldn’t fault them, the volunteers at every other town outdid them.

At the briefing five cars were pronounced dead, taking the total to eight. Support had done a brilliant job of keeping all the other cars on the road.

Each morning we take a rally photo of everyone at the briefing. The photography crew had us do a rain dance, the video of which has been shared far and wide, including on ABC Landline after rains drenched many of the towns we visited the week after the rally. The rains are fantastic for the drought stricken area.

The first two hundred km or so was back on the road we came in on, heading west towards Windorah. The fuel line at Windorah stretched for five and a half town blocks, or three hours when we joined. We probably didn’t need fuel (a 4 cylinder car with no roof rack and light packing helped) but waited with the rest of our buddy group. We also used the fuel line to decide to check into a hotel for the night. We were both really struggling without air con.

One of the highlights of the day was the discussion on the radio about an eagle hanging around one of the buddy groups. We didn’t think it was worth the excitement at the time, but after seeing the photos later, it was spectacular.

It was just as hot as the day before, but we were doing much better. Whenever there was a breakdown, one of us would sit in one of the other air conditioned cars, and we were drinking about 7 litres of water a day (the downside being a lot more toilet stops), and were putting wet towels around our neck and on our head.

One of the teams had decorated their van as the dog car from the movie Dumb and Dumber. It had large flaps over the rear sections (and over the wheels). The flap on the left lifted up like a dog leg, and out shot a jet of water. Fantastic for everyone waiting in the heat. We were surprised they kept that a secret until day 5.

We got another great meal at the camp, and headed back to the motel for a great night sleep.

Day 6 – Jundah to Hughenden

Air support had run out of certain sized tyres, so there’d need to be a lot more sharing of spare wheels. We’d had a flat yesterday that couldn’t be repaired, so were down to one spare.

A relatively uneventful day, aside from the fact that everything worked exactly as it should. Our buddy group were well and truly working as well, but others were starting to struggle with the heat as well, or maybe just their air conditioners were starting to struggle.

The electric windows were playing up, and our front window wouldn’t really go up anymore. We needed the breeze and we really didn’t care about the dust by that stage so it stayed down.
We stopped off at Winton for petrol, shops and a coffee.

It was a sight to see, all the cars coming in and parking in the main street. There were three huge pubs, all of which got a lot of extra patronage that day. We took a buddy group photo in front of the Winton sign, and headed for Hughenden.

The drive into Hughenden (our last overnight stop) was all on sealed roads, and a nice easy drive. Most teams were pretty relaxed, and a few were pretty jovial. One buddy group had a couple of cars that were struggling, so they’d space out so that other cars could overtake. They provided a running commentary on each of the cars overtaking, “that’s not a shitbox”, “there’s an $8000 Falcon going past there”, “Well done, now that’s what a Shitbox is supposed to be”, it was fun, and the type of banter that makes the rally.

Dinner was provided at the entertainment centre in town, and actually managed to eclipse the other food on the rally. There was a huge choice of restaurant quality food. The fact that each town provided such wonderful meals, and didn’t run out of food (except for the Birsville pub running out of one dish) was testament to the community spirit and organisation of the small communities we visited, and the information the rally provided to them. We also got metal cutlery at Hughenden, that was a big deal to us at the time.

In triage a Barina had a punctured sump. With no hoists, the car was rolled over onto its side for repair. Everyone was in high spirits for the last night of the rally, but with a little disappointment it was going to be over.

Day 7 – Hughenden to Townsville – Finish Line

The final day way a nice easy one, 396km all on the seal. Things were pretty relaxed for the final day, particularly departure times and order. At briefing we found out quite a few cars had used all their spares. We had one left. The advice was if you get a puncture and don’t have a spare, put the call out over the radio, and support each-other with parts as needed.

One further car was declared dead from yesterday. Tip Top had been trailered in most nights and each night band-aid repaired to get it back on the road. It broke down for one final time about half an hour out of Jundah the previous morning. Support knew they couldn’t fix it this time, and it was returned to Jundah.

But one of the best things to happen was buddy group 8. The Mothership (a van decorated like the school bus from The Simpsons) was declared dead in Birdsville after the day of carnage. The rest of Buddy Group 8 spent a fair bit of time on the phones when we had coverage over the next two days to find a car, and then all chipped in to buy it so that the team could drive over the finish line on the final day. A week ago they were complete strangers, now they were buying two guys they’d just met a car to drive over the finish line. That’s kind of what the rally is all about.

The trip was relatively uneventful for us, but lots of other buddy groups were nursing cars in, struggling to get anywhere near highway speed, and there were quite a few callouts for spare tyres. Sometimes it was a case of if it fits, put it on regardless of size.

The local news was at the finish line, and we were joined by Fiona’s parents and Muriel, who’d given us the car. Muriel had flown to the finish line to see her old car come in. It felt like a month had passed since we left Melbourne, and we were both pretty exhausted by running on adrenaline.

At the start of the rally I’d planned on buying the car back, and driving it home along the coast visiting Byron Bay and Sydney on the way home. The lack of air conditioning was more of an issue than either of us imagined, and the drive was long. We both did a good job of looking out for each other on the rally, but I wouldn’t have that coming home. Fiona had to fly home in a couple of days for work.

Even though the car was running better at the end than it was in the middle, and the weather along the coast would be cooler, the last thing I wanted to do after driving 3782km was turn around and do it again. Our sweat was also combining with the dust to create mud, and to be honest, neither of us wanted to have to clean the inside of the car, so I decided to put the car through the auction with proceeds going to the Cancer Council, and fly back.

Our hotel was 4 star, with crispy white bedding, unlike us and all our stuff. We both basked in luxurious showers before meeting Muriel and Fiona’s parents for dinner. It was great being able to tell stories of the rally while it was still fresh in our minds. It was also great to use proper cutlery that didn’t bend as soon as we tried to push it into food.

We were so happy Muriel could make it to Townsville. It was such a strange turn of events, a forth hand story of someone wanting to get rid of an old blue Ford. She just wanted to get rid of it without any hassle and I was worried she’d be upset we were going to destroy her car. She ended up so excited the car was going to a good cause and she told anyone that would listen to her about the Shitbox Rally. Like so many others, she’s lost family members to cancer and got to find out all about this amazing event she’d never heard of.

Day 8 – The Auction

At the end of the rally, teams can choose to buy their cars back, or put them up through the auction. The funds raised from the sale of cars raise even more for the Cancer Council. At the start of the rally about 3/4 of teams intended on keeping their cars (including ourselves). By the auction, most had had a change of heart like us, with around 3/4 of cars going through the auction.

At the auction I saw even more cars that I hadn’t noticed on the rally. There was a wrecker that had a standing bid of $150 for every car, so in effect that was the reserve for them all. Most were selling for $200, and despite my high hopes of the Focus selling for $400, it sold for $200. But still, that’s $200 more to the Cancer Council that it wouldn’t have otherwise had, and hours and hours of my life back from not having to clean the thing.

Highlights of the rally were the stretched limo (a mid 1980’s stretched Fairlane) that had done many rallies, but was completely worn out, bought by Manheim for $1000, a late 1970’s Corolla in pretty good shape bought by one of our buddy group for $750, and the 1987 VL Holden Commodore with over 675,000km bought for $1750. While there were quite a few cars at the start of the rally that seemed too good, almost all of these were auctioned off, raising even more for cancer research.

Would I go again?

Definitely. Even the fundraising was fun. I won’t do every rally, but when a route I’m interested in comes up, I’ll definitely go again. I’ve had quite a few people interested in joining me, so I’ll have no trouble doing it myself.

If you’re thinking of doing it, I’d definitely say yes. It can get expensive with buying the car, petrol, participation fees (about $1600 a team including campsites and 3 meals a day), not to mention accommodation at the start and finish, and getting yourself and your car to the start line. We also had little extra costs along the way for fundraising, like advertisements for garage sales and raffle ticket books. Between the two of us, it was probably about $5000 all up, but well worth it for a spectacular week.

Definitely choose a team-mate that won’t let you down on the fundraising, and you can bear to spend 8-12 hours a day stuck in a car with for a week.

Sadly Covid has killed both 2020 rallies, it was too risky taking 600 people into remote areas with limited healthcare facilities, so the 2020 rallies have both been carried over to 2021.

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You can find all my photos from the rally here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/12181390@N06/albums

The official photos for the Spring Rally are here (Spring 2019 was our rally): https://www.flickr.com/photos/shitboxrally/sets

You can also see the 8 minute production video of the rally here: https://vimeo.com/375533933

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