Two-stroke fuel wafted across the red sand dunes as the wind blew fumes back into the cabin of the LJ50 Suzuki, giving its occupants an oily pungent smell that stuck to their clothing and any exposed skin. The little Suzi had valiantly conquered yet another sand dune under grey skies and rain. Its 500cc engine was working mightily hard. With tyre pressures dropped to about 8psi, this cute little 4X4 bounced and rumbled its way across wet sand dunes with a sense of purpose … that purpose being to cross the Simpson!
For the full Unsealed experience with images, CLICK HERE.
The iconic Simpson Desert is a place of wonder, it’s a place with a big history and it’s a place where 4X4s sometimes fear to tread. It’s also a place that presents challenges to the off-road fraternity, which can often be disastrous! One such challenge undertaken this year, which nearly ended in disaster, was for three generations of the Raeburn family to cross the Simpson Desert. Heading the family was David Raeburn (72), a local legend down the east coast of Victoria with Suzi blood running through his veins. His son, Steve Raeburn (44), who was in fact the original owner of the LJ50, joined the team – and no-one knows whether this was to help his Dad or to entertain the group with his guitar and gravelly voice. Finally, David’s grandson Jack Wickfeldt (15) added his youthful exuberance and sensibility to the trio although I am sure his Pop brought him along to help as his personal butler … and Jack was too nice to decline. Maybe because he was on the trip of a lifetime, and loved it!
These three country blokes made a great team backing up the Aussie Outback Solar Challenge and brought some fun and laughs along the way with their stories, music and a great sense of humour! We covered this back in Issue 15 of Unsealed 4X4: Click here to read!
Getting the Zook to Mt Dare and the official start of the crossing was a big effort in itself. Steve hauled the lightweight LJ on a trailer from Bairnsdale with the rest of the family squished in with him in the cabin of his dual-cab Nissan Patrol. The only reason David didn’t drive the Suzi from Bairnsdale was its top speed of just 80kph. The distance from Bairnsdale to Mt Dare was about 2,600 kilometres, which meant it would have taken the boys a month of Sundays and goodness knows how much two-stroke oil to get there. Fair enough, we reckon. Travelling together meant the three of them could listen to their favourite music and chat about their favourite 4X4s, which of course were Suzuki LJ models; and one thing you can say about the Raeburn lineage is that they really hate a chat. Yeah right, says all of us!
This team of three also know how to have fun. On the second night out, Steve was belting out some tunes when Anthony Kilner pulled out his Doumbek – which is an Egyptian drum or ‘goblet’ drum. Anthony and Steve had never played together before; however the two of them blew the group away with their rocking sounds in the desert. The fun really began when David asked them to play his favourite tune, Duelling Banjos. You know the one;
Da da, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang on guitar.
Da da, dang, dang, dang,dang, dang, dang, dang on banjo.
No self-respecting duellist wouldn’t know the music from Deliverance, along with references to ‘squeal like a pig, boy’! Enough said really.
Well Anthony took on the banjo role and the boys took it to town – and eventually Birdsville! There was even some boot scooting going on in the background. Yee-hah!
I can hear several readers coughing and choking, so back to the yarn. David took passengers in the Suzi and everyone loved the raw experience of this fully rebuilt pint-sized 4X4. The 1973 LJ50 is a three-cylinder two-stroke with a massive 500cc capacity. The four-speed gearbox is coupled to a two-speed transfer case with live axles front and back, and there’s even a rag top for fun in the sun. It’s pretty basic inside, yet surprisingly comfortable. It took some time to get the tyre pressures right as the Federal Couragia M/T tyres stood tall and the lightweight Suzi simply didn’t weigh enough to cause them to bag and give proper traction. Once the tyre pressures were sorted however, the little ring-dinger managed pretty much every sand dune in one run. And when you consider how rough the dunes were, it did an amazing job.
David is an ex-mechanic and of course every mechanic knows you never stop being one. Dave and the boys are Suzuki fanatics and helped get the two-stroke ready. It’s almost a sad fact that Jack has been so corrupted, he’s already got a Zook at home. How many of you are shaking your heads in sympathy right now?
I have to admit that after spending a day in the Suzi with Steve, freezing and being fumed out, I felt something change in me. My heart started beating faster, my fingers itched to get behind the wheel and the engine noise daaaang, daaaang, daaaaang, daaaaang started to match my heartbeat. As my eyes glazed over I began to understand how folks can get overwhelmed and fall in love with these amazing little 4WDs. I got so enamoured of the little Zook, I was trying to work out how to change my name to LJ! At that point I slapped myself across the face, got out and said thanks to Steve and jumped into a Patrol to get my head back in the right 4X4 space. Sorry Steve, it wasn’t your driving!
Between dunes the little powerhouse 500cc Suzi just roared along the track and while David was fully prepared for any breakdown, including an engine rebuild (which he swears could be done in-car in a few hours), the biggest mechanical issue he had was a float in the carby bending due to the rough roads. With some playing around, Steve sorted this problem out and off the crew went again. It’s fun having a Patrol as a back-up and tow vehicle; except when you get to Big Red and all you can smell is the clutch on the Nissan as it threatens to disintegrate. Not a good thing when this was all the boys had to tow the Suzuki back from Birdsville to Bairnsdale. Disaster was looming.
The tension was set as the first car got up Big Red. Dave pushed the little Zook hard … however it bogged down and came to a screaming halt. After reversing down, Steve tried in the Patrol – but his clutch protested mightily and left the air smelling of burnt clutch plate. I don’t know about you, but I love the smell of burnt clutch in the morning! Dave kicked his passenger out and had another go; only to stop dead again. The tension kept building as all the other 4X4s managed to claw their way to the top of Big Red.
Steve, in an effort to save his clutch, took the far right-hand track (which is less beaten than the others) and got up. All the other 4X4s were just about up when Dave failed yet another attempt. While we were at the top trying to will the little Suzi up, the last car was just getting bogged. Dave eventually snuck up the right-hand track, following Steve, and within minutes all the vehicles were parked in the Big Red Bowl.
David drove his baby into Birdsville a proud man, driving around town and talking to anybody who commented on his LJ. That evening the crew and visitors to the Birdsville Hotel were treated to an impromptu concert on the veranda of the pub, which included some warm-up songs and another boot scooting rendition of Duelling Banjos with a guitar and a drum!
It was a sad team that packed up, loaded the LJ behind the limping Patrol and headed back to Bairnsdale. But there are three generations of Raeburns who have an amazing story that will last their lifetimes and continue to grow in the telling – as all good yarns should!
Words by Brett Miller, pics by David Raeburn and Ant E Fiction.