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Beginner's Guide to the BWSC Route: Part 1

Beginner's Guide to the BWSC Route: Part 1

12 Sep 2019

Beginner's Guide to the BWSC Route: Part 1

At it’s simplest, the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge is a design competition for solar vehicles. But if you stand back just a little bit, it’s so much more than that.

In the late 1800s, a group of men led by John McDouall Stuart rode out into what was then the completely unknown, attempting to traverse the Australian mainland from south to north through the centre of the continent. What they were met with was a vast landscape, inexplicable rock formations, and communities of Aboriginal people whom without they would have surely perished along the way.

The traversing of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide is now a journey nearly 50 teams of students are about to take, but aside from being a purely physical journey, many participants may not know what they are about do is also a deeply spirtural one, too.

In 1982, Hans Tholstrup and Larry Perkins embarked on a quest to drive a home-built solar car across Australia from west to east.

“At first people said, ‘You can’t do it. It’s impossible to cross Australia with just solar power’” said Hans.

After they completed the journey, they encouraged others to attempt a similar feat, and thus the World Solar Challenge was born. The inaugural World Solar Challenge in 1987 saw 23 teams from Europe, the US, Asia and Australia take part in the event.

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Hans' vehicle The Queit Achiver during the 1982-3 transcontinental journey via Happy Hotelier

Chris Selwood AM has made the crossing many times throughout his tenure as Event Director of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. In 1993 he first attended the event, in 1996 took part as a volunteer, and in 1999 undertook his first World Solar Challenge as Event Director. Chris knows better than most the ins and outs of the Route and this is information he is more than willing to share to not only the BWSC teams, but anyone who may not know what the great North to South crossing is like.

In this two-part series, you’re going to hear Chris's perspective of the 3000km BWSC route, giving you a beginner’s guide to this journey that thousands of people have undertaken for over 30 years.

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The whole thing is really a magical route. The teams leave Darwin, and the urban area now extends some 50km south. But it’s a divided highway, so that makes it all interesting.

Then they get into the outer country area, and it’s very windy, and very hilly. In fact, the steepest hill between Darwin and Adelaide is at Hayes Creek.

The first 300km is the windiest, the hilliest, and arguably the busiest. Everybody has to get to Katherine – 323km from the Start Line – on Sunday night, even those that don’t make it have to trailer into Katherine. But that’s alright, because they can carry on the next morning.

South of Katherine, once we get past the famous RAAF Base at Tindal, we get into those beautiful long straights of the old military section of the Stuart Highway. For another 200km it’s very much tropical rainforest; very green, very tall. Trees and blackwood right up to the road. In fact, it’s 600kms before you can see a horizon out across the plains; by 600kms, we will have climbed a gradual climb up onto the central Australian plateau, and we get into the big plains of cattle country.

I think the teams who’ve never been before are never fully prepared for the Route. Yes, they can have looked at films, they can have talked to people who’ve done it before. But until you actually get out there and do it, it’s almost intangible; this great Journey across the centre of Australia.

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Far too few of us Australians do that, and I often say in many ways it’s a spiritual journey as well as a physical one. When you hear people say, ‘there’s nothing out there, it’s boring’, they haven’t paid attention, because everything is different – hour by hour, it’s different. The subtle differences; the ant hills in grey clay turn to red dirt termite mounds. They’re the subtleties.

We get down through Tennant Creek and we go through the Devil’s Marbles – great granite boulders sitting on top of each other. How on Earth did they get there? Geologists can tell us why, but it’s great just to ponder on how on Earth did they get there.

It’s very long, straight roads in the Northern Territory. The Stuart Highway through the Territory between Darwin and Alice Springs is pretty much within a few kilometres of John McDouall Stuart’s original route of exploration, and it’s always fascinating  as you drive down there to think about how men on horseback with a goal of reaching the other side of the country faired. If it wasn’t for their engagement with the Aboriginal population, they would have definitely perished.

The tropical rainforest in the Northern Territory is pretty much protected from the harshness of the winds, because the trees are right up close to the road, but once we get into the open country it can windy and we get whirl winds, and you can see them coming. Whirl winds have picked up solar cars before, examined them, and thrown them down on the side of the road.

There’s all sort of quirky things out there in the Outback, we don’t want people getting mixed up with the aliens…

Wycliffe Well – around 130km South of Tennant Creek – is considered to be the centre of alien activity in Australia, and the self-proclaimed UFO Capital of Australia

Fatigue is a big factor during the Challenge, and does set in, particular for overseas people. Europeans for example; 50 kms without some occupation is a big distance for them, whereas on the Stuart Highway we’re about 200km between roadhouses on average; and road houses are road houses. You never know what you’re going to get really. There are roadhouses about every 200km, which gives food, conventional fuel, motel accommodation…  Nothing more fancy than that.

Alice Springs is absolutely amazing – it’s geographically pretty much halfway between Darwin and Adelaide, it’s 1500kms. When we get to Alice Springs, we’ve still got another 350km of the Northern Territory to do until we cross the border at 26 degrees south, where we cross into South Australia and the clocks change.

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Continue reading Chris's perspective of the BWSC Journey in Part 2 here.

The 2019 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge takes place from Darwin to Adelaide, South Australia from 13-20 October. 

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