In the fading evening light, one might be forgiven for mistaking him for something out of a Mad Max movie. It's an impression reinforced by the barren settings of the under-renovation Oman Automobile Association (OAA) grounds, which could pass for the desolate Australian outback environs of the cult post-apocalyptic trilogy.
But, despite the .50 calibre bullet casings featuring prominently on his frame, 'Victor' the 'Strange Rover' is more eco-travel champion than road warrior. Covered with stickers and badges from all over the world, Victor makes for quite a sight, attracting much more attention than his passengers, veteran Australian overlanders Christopher and Elayne Clash.
Not that the Clashes mind very much. After nearly six years of being overshadowed by Victor in the 123-odd countries he has taken them to, blending into the background has become a routine.
Their story, however, is anything but that. From mid-2007, this unassuming, easy-to-like fifty-something couple from Melbourne has been circumnavigating the world overland - only using other modes of travel to bridge continental divides -and picking up along the way an amazing collection of stories to recount back home.
So what prompted the 'Crazy Travellers', as they have christened themselves, to trade in the quiet life for, amongst other things, bear attacks in Siberia, Afghanistan's minefields and being swept underwater by an Icelandic glacial river (oh, and being shot at a few times)?
“Actually, what most people are horrified by is the fact that we don't have air-conditioning or a heater,” Chris chuckled. “It's really about helping paint a cultural picture through our journey that will highlight the places we have been to and the people we have met. It's all intended to be part of an information link for progressive (as opposed to casual) tourists like us".
“We have driven on the toughest roads in the world, the road of bones in East Russia and Inner Mongolia, crossed the Amazon and the dunes of the Western Sahara desert. Even sampled a little bit of the Empty Quarter en route to Muscat from Salalah,” Chris said. “Through the years, we have weathered extreme temperatures, from -28°C in Siberia to 52°C in Mongolia, and fluctuating climates.”
In addition to that pioneering spirit, there's a touch of altruism as well. The 'greatest road trip ever' also doubles as a mission to raise awareness and funds in Australia for epilepsy and cancer in children around the world. That's the reason the Clashes refer to their journey as an “endeavour”. They are hoping to raise around US$520,000, entirely from Australian donations.
But it isn't as though they are going around the world looking for charity. Hardly. Victor has racked up 280,000km over the course of their journeys. “That might well be a world record. We think it is the farthest a non-production line - that's non-commercial - car has ever travelled,” Chris said. “We are looking to have secured that record by the time we finish up. We'll take that back to Australia and put it to work.”
Here, Chris seems particularly anxious - animated even - to draw a line in the sand between Victor's achievements as a “home-made buggy” and those of the big car companies. He has reason too. Victor is his baby. Chris, an automotive design engineer, and his brother David built Victor from “bare bones up”. From welding together recycled bull bars to form the chassis, to sourcing the entirely second-hand parts to coming up with the roof-top, self-levelling, fold-away canvas tent in which Chris and Elayne have spent “around 1,500 days”, the six months it took to build Victor was a labour of love.
“I know the pitfalls of the modern commercial car and the windfalls they reap. I set out to prove that I, and by extension the ordinary fella could build a better car than the big car companies can,” Chris said. “It's built entirely from things that were discarded. There was no pre-design concept specification. It's actually been designed in reverse. It's truly a product of its pieces. A sum of its parts.” “And,” Elayne, the official ‘cooking engineer’, added, “It's the most comfortable car I've been in.” That's really all the vindication Chris needed.
Victor has powered a 32 year old 3lt Mazda engine - that has been modified to run on diesel and bio-fuels such as fish and canola oil - and a 42 year old gearbox, but gets 8.3km per litre when off-roading. And it only weighs about 1,110kg. “You'll be lucky to get 4km for a litre off-road in a giant 4,000kg SUV,” Chris said, adding, “This car is a simple camel. It is a low-impact 2WD that can go anywhere a 4WD can and then some. If the onboard computer of a modern vehicle crashes in Mongolia, that car is stuck. It's not going anywhere.”
The coup d'grace: It took just RO1,300 to build Victor! It is precisely the bare-bones concept of the car that appeals to Haitham al Saqri, project leader of Team Oryx, a 25-strong squad of students from the Caledonian College of Engineering who are building their own race car to participate in a Formula Student race in the UK this July. His team was practicing at OAA's go-karting facilities when they spotted Victor.
“Once they told us that there was a guy here who was roaming around the world in a car built from scratch with his own hands, I really wanted to meet him and invite him to our college to see how we can benefit from each other - in terms of technical expertise, but also first-hand experience,” Haitham said. “All of us in Team Oryx had the same dream. We wanted to do something extraordinary. Something no one's done before. Out-of-the-box. We started from scratch.
“I really want to sit with Chris and talk and show him that we are really into what you are doing. Knowledge is meant for sharing. The kind of communication that dialogue makes is hard to describe. It's also an opportunity to talk about our cultures as well. I'm a proud Omani. He's Australian. We're together talking, brainstorming. Different ideas are bound to come up,” he added, before joining his mates in ogling Victor.
“The kids, I think, were drawn to the car because it has been founded on the basics of engineering,” Chris said. “Ever since we landed in Oman (on a dhow from Somaliland) three weeks ago, people have been swarming around the car and have been so enthusiastic. We cannot even park here without someone inviting us to their homes for tea. But we just couldn't turn down the students' offer to come see their car.
“That spirit and the wonderful hospitality of the Omani people we'll take back with us to Australia.”