Condobolin isn’t just famous for Shannon Noll, it’s also long been the home of the Condo 750 — an off-road 750km rally that’s small enough to allow amateurs to test their nerve against the professionals.
Held over the Saturday and Sunday of the Easter long weekend, it is somewhere between a bush bash and a meticulously organised leg of the World Rally Championship (WRC), and a good introduction for any novice.
Organiser John Todd said since the hike in insurance premiums a couple of years ago, it’s also now the only off-road rally outside the WRC left in the lead up to the Australian Safari, to be held in September this year.
If you didn’t already know, Condo is close to the geographic centre of NSW, about 470km west of Sydney. I happened to be visiting friends on their farm near Condobolin and the rally was passing by on an old stock route at the bottom of one of their paddocks.
We knew they were coming when we sighted a plume of dust rising in the distance. About a minute later, we heard a roaring beast rumbling towards us before the vehicle finally hove into view, dodging between trees. It was actually pretty scary, and at first most onlookers unconsciously edged away from the fence separating them from the track.
The four-wheeled entrants were a motley assortment of just 14 vehicles, but they covered the full range of skill and resources, from a 1970s Mitsubishi Gallant to a quarter of a million dollars worth of fully worked, cackling Nissan Patrol, which came second in the 2003 Australian Safari. It was no surprise when this vehicle screamed past us in the lead, sounding nothing like a 4WD.
Over a period of about two hours on the Saturday and Sunday, we cheered the helmeted racers as they careered along the track, leaving us momentarily choked with talcum-like red dust, which stained everything and dimmed visibility to that of a severe bushfire. It looked like hard work — and good fun.
The turnout was a disappointment to organisers this year, but not surprising. In 2002 the whole event, along with many others across Australia, had to be cancelled due to huge hikes in insurance premiums. Many of the cars that would have been entered this year still haven’t had the full safety harnesses, which are now a prerequisite, installed.
However, the trail bikes didn’t have the same equipment requirements, and there were more than 50 roaring by — well up on previous years.
Predictably, the Nissan Patrol, driven by John Hederics with co-driver John Williams, won the event. Second was another Australian Safari finalist — a Mitubishi Pajero driven by Stephen Riley. There were a couple of two-wheel drives, including a bright yellow VW Beetle — famed as good rally cars ever since Herbie — but the event was dominated by variously modified 4WDs.
Doug Manwaring and Bruce Patton were the top-placed locals, in eighth place in their short wheelbase Toyota Landcruiser. In the leg I saw, Manwaring was driving like a maniac to keep close on the heels of the Patrol.
The evening before, his navigator, Patton, showed me some of the interesting modifications to what on the surface looked like an ordinary, if slightly battered Cruiser.
A Holden 5 litre V8 had been squeezed under the bonnet. The differential and axle casings had been reinforced and the inside was stripped bare and included a roll cage and two devices to measure distance and time elapsed — an old analogue box and a new digital one. But I suspect it was Manwaring’s break-neck driving rather than these modifications that were chiefly responsible for them reaching second place.
KTMs were the steed of choice for most of the motorcyclists. Obviously more manoeuvrable than the four-wheelers, they zipped down the track at around 90-100km/h (attested to by a local farmer on the other side of the stock route who was struggling to keep up on a straight track).
Many of the bikes had automatically scrolling map readers attached as they didn’t have the option of a navigator to scrutinise the metre-by-metre instruction booklet given out the night before the rally.
Jamie Cunningham was the overall winner among the motorbikes on the day with a time of 5 hours, 20 minutes and 24 seconds.