In the heart of Australia
, not far from the legendary Alice Springs
, is the Finke Desert. For 32 years it's where daredevils like Ben Dark have headed for the roughest, toughest, dirtiest off-road contest in the country Tattersall's Finke Desert Race. It began in 1976 as a "there and back" challenge for a group of local bikers.
Each year on the June Queen's Birthday long weekend, the off-road multi-terrain two-day race is run between Alice Springs and the little Aputula community. It races across desert country and through the Finke River, covering 260 of the toughest kilometres known to man.
Ben joined up with Stewart Pritchard, which wasn't a bad idea as Stuart had 18 years of race experience under his belt. He's crashed and rolled twice but he's still at it.
Sections of the Old Ghan Railway are followed. The winding corrugated track snakes through terrain of red dirt, spinifex, mulga and desert oaks. Despite the track being realigned and rebuilt in the early 1980s, the race continues along the original course.
Finke, as it is known, is one of the Northern Territory's biggest annual sporting events, and is the richest off-road race in the southern hemisphere. It's also one of the most difficult courses in one of the most remote places on the planet.
The challenge is open to people of all walks of life and about 600 of them gather for their annual dose of adventure, meeting up with old pals and sussing out new ones. They reckon it's the most fun you can have with a helmet on.
On Friday night scrutineering is held at Blatherskite Park Showgrounds in Alice Springs. All cars, bikes and gear are inspected to assess their race-worthiness and more than 3000 people turn up to check out the vehicles. Food, drinks and merchandise are on sale.
Saturday sees competitors aiming to complete the 8.3km track in a race against the clock to determine starting positions on race day, with cars doing their time trials in the morning and bikes in the afternoon. The track has long straights, tight corners and sandy creek beds. There are plenty of viewing points for spectators.
On the first race day, the Sunday morning, the cars get going at around 7.30am, followed by the bikes at around 11.30am. On the second day, competitors do exactly as they did the day before, except in reverse order, following the same track.
Cars start to cross the finish line sometime after 9am and the bikes race home at around 1.30pm. Everyone gathers at the Alice Springs Convention Centre that night and winners are announced and rewarded. Stories are told, and there's plenty of celebrating.
Stewart and Ben blew their gearbox and had to limp home in 14th place but there's always next year.