1968 London-Sydney Marathon remembered
- 1st December 2008, 1:23pm
There have been many Marathons since that time but none have generated the incredible excitement of that first event. In every country and on every continent through which the rally passed, millions of people turned out to watch the cavalcade of cars on that epic journey, all hell-bent on reaching Australia for a chance to win the coveted Â£10,000 prize that was on offer for the first car over the line.
Exactly 40 years later to the day, 18 crews left Wangaratta in North Eastern Victoria with the aim of covering as much of the original route to the finish at Sydneyâ€™s Warwick Farm Racecourse as was possible. Although much of the route has changed considerably, most of that final 850 kilometres was trafficable, albeit vastly different than it was 40 years ago.
The 18-vehicle party, led by RallySport Magazineâ€™s Jeff and Peter Whitten, left on the first leg of the 3-day experience, making a stop at Edi in the King Valley, the scene of a chaotic checkpoint 40 years earlier when 7000 people gathered to see the cars through. Present on this yearâ€™s 40th Anniversary Rerun were two of the leading competitors from that first event, Barry Ferguson and Dave Johnson, who drove one of three specially prepared Holden Monaros and finished 12th in 1968. Ferguson and Johnson had not driven the stages since that time and were anxious to revisit parts of the route that were little more than a fleeting memory as they raced towards the finish in pursuit of the eventual winners, Andrew Cowan, Colin Malkin and Brian Coyle, in a Hillman Hunter.
Day 1 â€“ Edi to Omeo
The first leg passed through undulating country before climbing into the pines at Bread and Butter Gap and descending to Buffalo River Dam. Leaving the dam behind, Rerun participants tackled the awesome climb to 1700 metres on the back of Mt Buffalo, using the infamous Goldies Spur track, a heart-stopping narrow electricity transmission line track that the 1968 survivors crossed in the wee small hours of the morning. While the ascent was a stirring drive, the descent to the control point at Brookside was just as steep, and a test of not only brakes and tyres, but nerve as well.
Continuing along the original route, participants drove through Bright, over the Tawonga Gap to Mt Beauty, and then up the slopes of Mt Bogong to Falls Creek, using bitumen roads that would have been unsealed corrugated tracks 40 years previously. The route led on via Rocky Valley Dam and the snow covered Bogong High Plains Road, which eventual second placegetter, Paddy Hopkirk, described as a nightmare drive that defied being covered in the time set by the organizers.
The final 30 kilometres to the overnight stop at Omeo was equally as tortuous, consisting of endlessly turning bends that must have been hugely demanding, thanks to a combination of mountain fog and thick dust when originally used.
Despite the luxury of modern vehicles and better roads in 2008 that made the trip much easier, Rerun participants were nevertheless pleased to see the Omeo Hotel where the 1968 crews had their cars refilled and checked in the hotel carpark in the hours before dawn four decades earlier.
Over dinner that night, Ferguson and Johnson regailed the Rerun participants with tales of their experiences in 1968 and how they came to be included in the Monaro team. The evening was highlighted by their talk and the screening of footage of the route from London to Tehran.
DAY 2 - Omeo to Cooma
The following morning dawned bright and clear as Rerun crews headed south along the Tambo River, however there was to be a deviation from the original 1968 route which firstly led to Bruthen, east to Buchan and north to Wulgulmerang. This was the section where British ace, Roger Clark, suffered differential failure while holding top spot. The roads in this area have improved dramatically since 1968 and today would be classed as â€˜transportâ€™ sections, so the Rerun crews turned northeast at Bindii to tackle the infamous Nunniong Road stage that winds its way incessantly through real Alpine country, emerging near Benambra 70 kilometres later. Thirty kilometers into the stage, Rerun crews came across their first obstacle â€“ a collapsed bridge which had sunk away into the creek bed.
Equipped with detailed maps, a reconnaissance party was sent out to find an alternative way around, and despite having to remove several forest giants (trees) that blocked the track, no suitable alternative was found. With precious time ticking away, the decision to find another way to reach the overnight halt at Cooma was made.
Retracing our steps to Omeo, the revised route took participants to Benambra and over the mountains to Wulgulmerang, high in the Great Dividing Range. With three hours lost due to the collapsed bridge, there was little time for sightseeing, a problem similarly faced by those who had made it this far in 1968.
The 1968 route was rejoined at Wulgulmerang and participants immediately began to appreciate the incredible conditions that the original crews had to face. One simple mistake could easily have had competitors crashing to their death as they descended into Suggan Buggan via the treacherous road over Ballantyne Gap, the road barely wide enough for one slowly driven car, much less a speeding rally car.
The 110 kilometre drive to control at Ingebyra demanded total concentration, the climb from the junction of the Snowy River and Jacobs River equally as demanding and dangerous. Fortunately we covered the drive in daylight, unlike the weary crews who had been driving non-stop from Perth, who tackled the road just before dawn. At Ingebyra the group were met by the actual control official who handled the paperwork at the actual control location all those years previously, and who had much pleasure in â€œbookingâ€ us all into control.
With time quickly ticking away, thanks to our blocked route earlier in the day, it was a quick drive through Jindabyne and Berriedale to our overnight stop at Cooma, and a quick spruce up before we arrived at the Ex-Services Club for a much-anticipated meal.
Again, Barry Ferguson and Dave Johnson enthralled us with their tales of the 1968 Marathon after the screening of the final part of the DVD which began the night before, and with time marching on, the questions had to be curtailed so that we could get some sleep ahead of another busy day ahead. By this stage everyone had London â€“ Sydney Marathon blood pumping through their veins, not just the men, but the ladies who accompanied them as well. Admiration for those hardy 1968 souls was beginning to be appreciated.
DAY 3 - Cooma to Nowra
The final day of our 850 kilometre journey began with everyone anxious to breathe in some more LSM fever. The run from Cooma was held without the attention of the police, who hounded competitors through town 40 years prior, waiting for weary crews to transgress. Soon we were at Numeralla, the scene of the control in both the 1968 and 1993 Marathons, and eagerly looking forward to tackling the infamous Big Badja stage from the 1993 LSM. We discovered that the Hindmarsh Station stage was unable to be located accurately due to the passage of time, and had to settle for the Big Badja section used in 1993.
We tackled the stage up Slap Up F orest Road with trepidation, worried that the 4km link track at the top might not be trafficable any longer, but our fears soon turned to delight when we were able to find our way through the track with its series of jump-ups. The 30 km. stage continued down Jinden Ridge Fire Trail, crossing a deep creek near the end, but it was only the driver of the Mini in our party that had any reservations about its depth. Soon the stage finish arrived and we noted that Roger Clark was the fastest over the stage in 1993.
We continued on to exit the forest at Jinden on the 1968 route, making our way to Braidwood where our contingent enjoyed a quick lunch and a refuel for our vehicles. With the end of our Rerun approaching quickly, all interest was on trying to locate the spot where the man who should have been the winner, Lucien Bianchi, together with navigator Jean-Claude Ogier, crashed head-on into a spectatorâ€™s Mini. We stopped briefly at Nerriga for major roadworks, then drove on to Sassafrass, noting numerous tiny sections of old road that had since been realigned since the time of the Marathon, making it difficult to find the precise spot. Finally, with the help of a GPS and Dave Johnsonâ€™s maps of the 1968 event, we pinpointed the crash site to within a few metres, and mocked up a crash scene with a Mini and a Citroen identical to the two cars involved originally.
All that was left was a short drive to Nowra Junction, the spot where the final control was located 40 years earlier, and from where the remaining LSM crews transported to the finish at Warwick Farm Racecourse, just 67 hours after leaving Perth on the long section from Perth to Sydney.
There was not a person in our group who was now unable to appreciate what an epic journey that had been, and all came away with a much better understanding of what, to this day, still remains the best-remembered, best-publicised and most challenging journey half way around the world.
Our Rerun had been a great success. The country that we covered, the driving sections we did and the friends that we made, made it an unforgettable experience. This was our chance to celebrate this magnificent event 40 years to the day since it left London. The 1968 London to Sydney Marathon made history â€“ and so did we.
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