2016 Mazda BT-50 Review :: Coober Pedy Off-Road Adventure

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Our chartered flight from Adelaide to Coober Pedy cuts out a boring day in the saddle, which would have been a long, straight slog of tarmac. We don’t mind, though. We’ve done plenty of on-road testing in the new 2016 Mazda BT-50, both at launch and for our recent dual-cab ute mega test. For this particular review, we’re heading north of Adelaide to spend as much time as possible off-road, away from civilisation. In fact, across three days and nearly 800km off road we pass only three vehicles, one road train and two SUVs. Coober Pedy sits some 847km north of the South Australian capital Adelaide. It’s a drive that will take you more than nine hours with a few rest stops factored in. Cooper Pedy is famous for its opals and one other thing – everything being underground. Hotels, restaurants, houses, you name it, the easiest way to stay cool is in a converted abandoned mining shaft. It’s not an environment for the faint-hearted or the claustrophobic either. Even so, being underground is more comfortable than the alternative in the heart of summer. Scan another 194km north on the map, and you’ll find the exotically named Oodnadatta which is the hottest town in the driest state in Australia. The locals are proud of that little fact too. In the centre of town, there’s a sign proclaiming that you’ve reached ‘Australia’s hottest and driest town in the driest state on the driest continent’. Welcome to Oodnadatta… ‘Oodna’ as the locals call it is a pretty uninhabited place, with it’s population sitting at around 250. There’s not a lot out here and for good reason: most things wouldn’t survive in the surrounds of Oodnadatta even if they wanted to. Yet it’s this hot, dusty, arid and desolate environment that Mazda has pitched it’s new BT-50 into, with CarAdvice at the wheel. Between Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta, there’s the awe-inspiring Painted Desert and the hard to comprehend Arkaringa station. The former provides some of the most stunning sunrises and sunsets you’ll ever see, while the latter will be our accommodation for our night in the desert. Carved out of the barren landscape 80 million years ago, the Painted Desert is an ancient inland sea bed, created by the twin powers of rainfall and the resulting erosion. Such is the dryness of the land, it’s hard to fathom rain ever falling out here. But it must have once upon a time, as the coloured shale on the faces of the many slopes around the seabed create the mystifying painted landscape. It’s stunning at any time of the day, but the view is best appreciated in the cool air of sunrise. Sunset is a highlight too, but the stillness of the desert in the early morning is truly amazing. Everything out here is super-sized. You have to reset your city-tuned radar the minute you head out of town, as Arkaringa Station manager Paul tells me that locals don’t measure properties out here in acres but in square miles. My blank stare must give Paul the hint. “It’s around half a million acres mate, give or take,” he offers with a smile. Half a million acres – think about that for a minute. I can’t even get my head around the scope of a property that size. Arkaringa usually houses 2500 head of cattle, but the numbers have been cut back to 1400 this season. There’s bore water to be had, but the harsh drought has meant the station owners have had to be a little more conservative than usual. The desolate environment is remote, and you suspect a little lonely. It’s certainly not the fertile cattle country you would expect to see if you’ve visited farms in NSW or Victoria. Despite this, the cattle thrive at Arkaringa. Arkaringa isn’t just a working farm either. It’s also a popular stop for tourists slicing their way up the centre of Australia on the dirt – especially European backpackers. It certainly wouldn’t be an environment most European tourists would be used to, though. Rudimentary accommodation comes in the form of demountable buildings, and there are shearer’s shower facilities too, but we’ll be getting a more authentic experience by camping under the stars. You can imagine overseas visitors being blown away by this stark Australian desert landscape. “We haven’t had rainfall worth mentioning for about six years,” Paul says. “We got a bit of a dusting a while back, but that was gone almost before it hit the ground.” So, this part of Australia is dry, dusty and remote. In other words, this terrain is quintessentially Australian, the deep red colours that turn multi-coloured in the fading light a reminder of what our country is all about. It’s a bloody long way from anywhere, but it’s an area all Australians should aim to visit, such is the vast incomparable beauty. In fact, the star show at night is worth the price of admission alone. We sit around the campfire late into the night enjoying the quiet and solitude. The lack of flies is a relief too, as they disappear after the sun sets and magically reappear not long after sunrise the next morning. Take a fly net with you to fit over your Akubra if you’re spending much time out in the open during the day. You’ll need it. Back to the reason we’re here though. Our driving section of the journey starts in Coober Pedy and it’s going to be a proper evaluation test for the BT-50’s off-road chops. The small matter of 15km of sealed tarmac points us in the direction of Oodnadatta Road, where the dirt starts. We won’t see bitumen proper again for two days before we bomb back into Coober Pedy for our flights home. There’s a section of tarmac in Oodnadatta, but it runs for only a few hundred metres so that really doesn’t count. The lack of rain in the area means the dust is choking once you build up some speed. Sections of bull dust appear out of nowhere and the fine powder can make the going tougher than it otherwise might be. Driving in convoy, we need to leave a big gap to the vehicle in front to get a clear view ahead. If the wind is scarce, the dust kicked up at speed will hang in the air for ages. We peg the BT-50 between 100-110km/h and it skips over the corrugations with ease. The corrugations aren’t huge in isolation but they are a constant, low frequency presence. It’s here in this environment that poor suspension tune would be most obviously found but thankfully for the drivers, the BT-50 is well matched to the tiring road surface. The road had been graded sometime over the past few months, but nonetheless the corrugations are apparent and would certainly be bouncing an older dual-cab ute all over the place. Not so with the BT-50, which remains stable, predictable and rock solid at speed. Its ability to iron out the corrugations is impressive, considering there’s no load in the tray and I’m driving solo with only my backpack on board. It’s hardly weighted down to assist with bump absorption. There’s no such thing as a perfect, unladen dual-cab ute on the market, but the BT-50’s suspension tune is well sorted. The cabin comfort, which we appreciated on-road during our mega ute test, is immediately impressive out in this harsh environment. The general ergonomic sense within the cabin is that of an SUV, not a work truck. In fact, if you were to blindfold someone and sit them in the driver’s seat before removing the mask, we reckon they would struggle to pick the BT-50 as a dual cab. It’s not just the layout of the controls either, but the feel and look of the surfacing, the plastics and the seating position that all work together to create such a comfortable environment. It’s just as well too, because we’ve got more than 700km ahead of us. We switch between rear-wheel drive and high-range four-wheel drive to get a feel for the grip and drive delivery on slippery dirt. The smattering of rocks and pebbles across the surface means it can be slippery underfoot, but the BT-50 doesn’t put a wheel out of place once. We see the stability control light flicker here and there, but it only cuts in noticeably if you try to induce a slide. Even with such driver behaviour, the BT-50 regains composure rapidly. We pass through the Painted Desert and Arkaringa Station en route to the famous Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta. Our lunch stop isn’t a long one, but it’s long enough to ram home how remote and relatively uninhabited it is out here. Oodnadatta is basically a stop for the Ghan as it winds its way between Adelaide and Darwin, but it’s also a critical fuel and sustenance stop for intrepid overland explorers. We’re also in Oodnadatta to head a few kilometres out of town to a basin that features numerous powdery dunes. I haven’t driven the BT-50 in heavy sand and I’m keen to assess its abilities in one of the nastiest off-road environments you can experience. Sand is tough on engines, gearboxes and driveline no matter how gentle you are with the throttle. Sand driving is heavy, hard work to plough through. In the Mazda, the easier sections are dispatched quite easily in high-range 4WD, but we switch to low-range 4WD for the steep inclines that require a decent run up momentum, and anticipation. Low-range also keeps stability control out of the equation too, crucial when you don’t want to get bogged down. Most people never point their dual-cab in the direction of properly heavy sand, but it’s impressive to experience how effortless the BT-50 can be when the going gets particularly difficult. It’s the age-old pub debate concept brought to life. You might never use your ute for this kind of driving, but it’s nice to know it can tackle it. As the sun starts to dip further in the west, we head for some more serious off-roading, but this time it’s severely rutted dirt and sharp creek beds. The BT-50’s low range gearing, ramp over clearance, and low stress diesel engine combine to make short work of what is pretty aggressive off-road fare. You can read all about the turbo diesel’s power and torque characteristics in our other tests listed above. Sharp descents and the following climb back out of the washout are both tackled easily by the Mazda and it’s as tough in this environment as any other ute on the market, barring maybe the Isuzu D-Max. On the way back to our night camp at Arkaringa Station we stop in at a viewing area to catch a spectacular sunset over the painted desert. The heat of the day is dying off, and a hard day’s driving is forgotten, as we take in the beauty of the desert in the fading light. A campfire dinner and overnight camp at Arkaringa is another experience worth the effort to get out here. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a meal out in the open under a never-ending sky. Paul’s stories about life on the station are both enlightening and entertaining. If you’ve ever had to bush camp, a hot shower at the end of the day is a genuine luxury and we appreciate the shower facilities at Arkaringa after a long hot day in the dust. We’re up early the next morning in the still of the pre-sunrise dark so we can get to the best vantage point for the sunrise. It’s a little difficult dragging yourself out of bed before the sun shows its face, but the wildlife will start to stir as the sun rises anyway so a sleep in might not be an option even if you wanted to. Like the sunset, the sunrise is worth the effort, and in my opinion, it’s even more spectacular. After breakfast, our plan is to take the long way back to Coober Pedy, where our off-road trip will end with a meal at the most renowned underground restaurant in town. Day two is an opportunity to knock over some photography and video footage and once again appreciate the BT-50’s assurance over high-speed corrugations. Two factors become apparent toward the end of day two. Firstly, the BT-50’s cabin insulation is genuinely impressive, considering that ironing out the corrugations is only part of the equation as well. The maelstrom outside never interrupts the general insulation and comfort inside the cabin. Long periods of time behind the wheel tick by easily and the BT-50 is never a chore to drive. Secondly, the BT-50’s cabin remains impressively dust free after two days of hammering around in the dirt. We’ve been running the air conditioner on recirculation with the windows up obviously, but even so it’s difficult to keep bull dust out of the interior of any vehicle. A little dust has crept in, but not a whole lot and way less than we expected in this environment. Lunch in Coober Pedy wraps up our sensational two-day drive. We’ve been lucky to experience such a beautiful part of Australia, and the BT-50 has given a solid account of itself too. Few places in the world are more arid or harsh than the Australian outback and the BT-50 can explore that vast landscape in safety. Now we just need another excuse to get back out there… Read our full 2016 Mazda BT-50 pricing and specifications story here. And read our eight-way dual-cab mega ute test here.