Driving a Ford Falcon Ute through Australia's backyard on the Stuart Highway 'Travelling in Australia is all about vast distances, but you soon get into a rhythm' August 31, 2007 Norm Maclean leans forward on his bar stool, rolls a cigarette and says: "We know we don't usually travel at more than 130kmh, Clare, but who the hell are you to tell us that we can't?" It's late, after 11pm, and if we aren't in the middle of nowhere right now, then we must be close. The crickets outside are loud and constant, and the road is quiet. Norm is in charge here at Dunmarra Station, some 400 miles south of Darwin in the Northern Territory. I am three quarters of the way through a 1,864 mile journey from Adelaide to Darwin, straight up the centre of Australia from south to north along the Stuart Highway, and this is the last overnight stop before the final day. So, we're starting in the middle, but this is a story that was always going to start in the middle. The middle is what it's all about. The Northern Territory is the desert state, where the sand is as red as the evening sky, and the Milky Way shines so brightly at night it almost hurts your eyes. Norm, a big-hearted, sharp-speaking, true-blue Ocker who traces his roots back to Stornaway, has lived in the Territory for many years - his ciggy now burning brightly, his eyes alive over a full goatee beard and a chin that could break bricks, MacLean warms to his theme: "The people who live in the Territory are aware of the dangers. We drive to suit the conditions, so that means 130kmh is about as fast as we want to go, even in broad daylight. But turning us into criminals for going faster than that isn't right. The opposition party has made the speed limit an election issue, saying they'll abolish it again if they get into power, so it might be goodbye Clare." 'Our satnav read 34 hours, 36 mins and 3,024km to Darwin. Drives don't get more epic than this' 'Clare' is the Right Honourable Clare Martin, Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Government. It was her decision to slap a blanket speed limit of 110-130kmh on the Stuart Highway, the first out-of-town speed limit in the Territory's 96-year history, and it's a decision that hasn't gone down well with Territorians. It smacks of revenue-raising and do-gooder political idiocy, the need to be seen to be doing something, while more expensive and complicated issues - driver training, driver awareness, driver fatigue, vehicle roadworthiness - are buried. The same sort of thinking has turned the rest of Australia into a police state, with robotic draconian cops targeted to write as many speeding tickets as they can. No concrete figures have been produced to prove the benefit of stricter speed limits in this country and it's likely they never will be, and while the debate rages on websites like no-speedlimit.com, Norm's take on it is clear enough. "Territorians are easy-going people," he says. "But force them into a corner and they'll bite." The new Stuart Highway speed limit came into force on 1 January 2007 and it's been big news in Australia. Big enough for Holden, the country's arm of GM, to refuse to lend Top Gear a car for this journey. Holden, it would seem, saw it as 'one last run' for a couple of foreigners who would probably break the speed limit and crash. Despite my assurances that it was nothing of the sort, and despite stressing that photographer Bramley and I are Australian and understand the issues, Holden wouldn't budge. So, the slightly more switched-on people at Ford stepped up to the plate with an FPV F6 Tornado, a four-litre straight six, turbocharged, 360bhp Falcon ute, tweaked and tuned by the boffins at Ford Performance Vehicles. Should get us there alright. Ripper, etcetera. When we set off from Glenelg in Adelaide on the Southern Ocean coast, our satnav read 34 hours 36 minutes and 3,024km to run to Darwin. No worries. The aim was Coober Pedy by the end of this first day, Alice Springs by the end of day two, via Uluru, a day of shooting in Alice and a bit of a rest, Dunmarra the next night, then a plane out of Darwin the day after, once we'd gazed out over the Timor Sea. Drives don't get more epic than this. Look closely and you'll notice a very thin aerial stuck to the top of the Tornado's roof. This two-way radio is a key part of this story, and if you're thinking of driving the Stuart Highway, you should spend a few quid on a basic radio like this. It allows you to talk to Road Train drivers, and despite what you might think, these blokes want you to talk to them. Not because they're lonely, but because any sort of mishap involving a car holds them up. They, more than anyone, want people to understand how to drive this road properly and not get into trouble. "Copy southbound," said Bramley into the handset once we'd cleared the Adelaide area and got into open country. A big Road Train had just blown past in the opposite direction, the blast from its passing knocking the car sideways. The trucker was straight back to us. "G'day mate," he said. "Anything happening up north?" "Nah mate, nothing, just a few head of stray cattle a couple of clicks north of Glendambo. You go over a ridge then down through a couple of corners and they're near the second corner." We chatted to him while he stayed in range, and he was like every trucker we spoke to over the next few days: friendly, well-spoken, bright and helpful. Every piece of advice we received was useful, sightings of cattle were accurate and the truckers were mildly surprised to be speaking to someone in a car. Travelling in Australia is all about vast distances, of course, but you soon get into a rhythm. Adelaide to Coober Pedy is 520 miles, so it's London to Glasgow plus a hundred. Cooper Pedy is a beautiful old opal mining town with a classic Aussie main street. The outskirts are packed with clapped-out old 'To watch Uluru at sunset on a clear evening is one of the most moving experiences imaginable' The first highway patrol copper we met was the only female one in South Australia. Constable Denise Case, a beautiful name for a police officer, pulled me over because she thought I had a radar detector, which are illegal in this state. No, I explained, I had braked from 145kmh to 110kmh because I'd seen her early and didn't want her to lock her radar on. We ended up talking for half-an-hour, mostly about cars, and especially hers, a Commodore with a six-litre V8 engine. These are due to be replaced soon with V6-engined cars, and she wasn't happy about it. When we asked her to do a burnout for us in this, the last of the V8 interceptors, she said that she'd love to. But, er, it'd be more than her job's worth. I've never seen a copper more keen to do something unlawful. The South Australian leg of the trip passed without incident - though it's an epic journey in itself, it isn't until you reach the Northern Territory that you start to see the red dust and get a proper flavour of the Outback. Best to let Mark Bramley's photographs tell the story of this magnificent country - my piffling scribbles can't hope to do them justice. The old indigenous bloke on the first page was on his way to a settlement about 500 miles away from Uluru. We destroyed an alloy wheel doing the high speed dirt road shots with the helicopter, but boy, was it worth it. And then there was Uluru. Majestic Uluru, the red heart of Australia. We timed our arrival perfectly at sunset, and just stood and watched in awe as the sky darkened and the rock changed colour. If the 24-hour flight is putting you off visiting Oz, get a grip, cobber. Buy some sleeping tablets, set a date - and be sure to visit this magical place. To stand and watch Uluru at sunset on a clear evening is one of the most moving experiences imaginable, particularly so for me, because, despite being an Aussie, I'd never seen it. Typical that the peace of the moment was wrecked by a couple of tourist helicopters, but that's progress. Uluru was called Ayers Rock until recently, named after a chubby South Australian politician with a bad beard. Now it's part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and is run by the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara landowners, commonly known as the Anangu. They urge you not to climb it, though it's not against the law. "Climbing is not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything," say the Anangu. In a scant hour here, I learned what the real Australia is all about. I will never call it Ayers Rock again. That night, we slept in the open desert a hundred miles from Uluru and looked at the sky. No light pollution out here, of course, and when your eyes adjust, the stars are utterly jaw-dropping. It was a new moon, too, which made the Milky Way even more spectacular. A tip: look at the moon phases and make sure you get a darker sky. As Bramley set up his six-hour exposure shot of the stars, I looked at the ute-shape silhouette of the F6. There's something charming about the way cars wait to do your bidding. There it was, ready to go again, get us back to civilization. It is a fantastic car, like a big coupe, Aussie-style. Ford worldwide should fit this engine to more of its cars. The Tornado was smooth, quiet, quick, and never missed a beat, averaging 29mpg to boot. And when the car rolled into Dunmarra Station at night, its headlights sprayed with a multi-coloured vomit of bugs that looked like an abstract work of art, Victorian plates on full display, Norm MacLean wasn't impressed. He didn't seem too impressed when he first saw us, and he told us later that he wasn't impressed. But at least we were staying - he cooked us a couple of superb steaks, then we got talking and found out more about the real Stuart Highway and how to approach it. 'I talked to one trucker who said he'd hit a roo that was big enough to make his truck shudder' The thing is, he hates seeing people arrive at Dunmarra after nightfall, because he's worried about the risks they face out on the road. The cattle are bad, but the roos are the biggest menace - there are literally millions of them, all migrating in the cooler night-time atmosphere. To give myself even a slight chance of missing any high-speed roo that might enter the picture from stage left or right, I didn't dare travel at more than 40 to 50mph. "Territorians very rarely drive after dark. If you see a car at night, nearly always it won't have Territory plates on it. It'll be New South Wales, Victorian or Queensland plates, out-of-state people who don't know what they're doing. The trucks are different - roos bounce off them." When he mentioned that, I remembered talking to one trucker who said he'd hit a roo that was big enough to make his truck shudder. A 50-metre long, 12-tonne vehicle actually shuddered. What that would have done to a normal car doesn't bear thinking about. "Two young couples stopped in here the other night, late, about 11pm," says Norm. "They were in an old Toyota Tarago van. No bullbar, no spotlights. I asked them how much water they had on board, and they held up a couple of 500ml bottles. Incredible." Just as he finishes this sentence, a car pulls up to the petrol pumps - a Holden rental. We can see from inside the station that the plates are from NSW, and Norm gives me a knowing look before walking to the tills. It's a family, two adults and two young children, travelling in the depths of night without a care in the world. The bloke's wearing shorts and sandals and he smacks at a mosquito on his leg as he fills the tank. Norm has a quiet word with him, trying to convince him to stay, but no, the fool carries on. We didn't hear any word of a prang from the truckers the next morning, so by blind luck, they made it through unhurt. Norm and I talk about the road for a while longer - about Falconio, the Overland Telegraph Line and The Ghan Railway, which shadows the Stuart Highway for most of its length. MacLean knows about the history of this place and tells a great story. Most of all, he hopes his message gets through: be safe. Sure, it'd be better without the speed limit, but even at 130kmh, the Stuart Highway is still the greatest road on earth. Treat it with care.