Think there’s no adventure left? Think again. This ragtag bunch of misfits set themselves a challenge: to build wind-powered billy karts from scrap and salvage in two days, and then race them 10km across the dry bed of Lake George. And so the Junkyard Wind Racer Derby was born.

In a recent Sidetracked article with the legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the interviewer questioned whether the opportunities for real exploration had dried up, if exploration is defined by record-breaking achievements. At this point in history, with the technology available to us, it seems that the occasions for iconic feats of human endeavour are dwindling – every mountain has been climbed, continents have been crossed, oceans circumnavigated. What hope, then, does a weekend adventurer living in the centre of Australia’s biggest metropolis have? Unwilling to admit defeat, we resolved to do something unique with the recent long weekend. Something that not only hadn’t been attempted before, but hadn’t even been thought of before. By anyone. Not even us.

The Junkyard Wind Racer Derby Joel Johnsson

‘You’re not fit like most adventurers…’ my inner voice observed.

‘They seem to be hardened masochists with steely endurance, and we both know how you feel about cardio…’  He raised valid points. Passive forms of locomotion it is. ‘Furthermore,’ my inner voice continued (I’m going to call him Harold), ‘you have no discernible technical skill set,’ (I was beginning to dislike him). ‘More power tools than sense, I’d say…’

Well, what about building something? I postured. Cars were mechanically challenging (Harold may have had a point). Boats seemed dicey, I’ve seen Deadliest Catch and a watery death seemed a real possibility – but the idea of sailing seemed suitably majestic and exhilarating. A boat on land then? A land yacht? ‘Since when did you become an aerodynamics expert, Captain Cook?’ Harold scoffs. I summarily ignored him, and the idea of the Junkyard Wind Racer Derby was born. The concept was simple – each person has two days to build a wind-powered vehicle out of scrap and salvage, and then on the third day… we race them across the dry salt pan of Lake George. Simple.

The Junkyard Wind Racer Derby Joel Johnsson

And now, we build

I assembled the aforementioned misfits and we hit the junkyards. Running prams, mini-bikes and golf buggies were surveyed for structural integrity. I had the good fortune to find a windsurfing sail and had grand plans for a lovely morgue gurney (which was later relegated to a workbench, and a surprisingly comfortable daybed). Turbo, a veteran of Junkyard Wars, went straight for the patio umbrellas, while Dave managed to find the carcass of a fibreglass catamaran.

James and Crystal were keen on the cliche of a tandem-bike setup but, like most married couples, had no real appreciation of commitment and bailed early (Ha-ha! Seriously, super happy for you newly-weds.) We received word from Danielle that she had already located a functioning go-kart body complete with a steering column and handbrake, and was sourcing a kite-surfing kite to power it.

The next day and a half was a blur of dropsaws and angle grinders. Ingenuity and creativity were high, often brought crashing back to earth by cold mechanical realities – “Success! Oh wait… no, wait… Failure. Abject failure”. Dave best embodied our state of preparedness with 12 hours to go before the race, working late into the night under the light of an LED lantern, fixing perfectly-spaced hardwood decking to the base of his racer, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that he didn’t have wheels at that point. Or a mast.

The Junkyard Wind Racer Derby Joel Johnsson

The day of the junkyard racer

The day of the race dawned bright and early. The participants of the race dawned somewhat later and more reluctantly, but soon the dulcet tones of power tools broke the morning stillness. Dave had miraculously located a set of wheels, I’d located a stand of black bamboo and cut a mast, and it was all hands on deck (pun intended) for finishing touches. With some ropework that would make a dominatrix weak at the knees, we loaded the results of our labour onto the 4WDs and made it to the Lake for high noon.

Of the 5 pilots that embarked upon the journey with us, 3 made it to the start line with Wind Racers in various states of (dis)repair. I captained the Lady MacDeath, an unholy hybrid of a drag racer and a dog-sled, complete with foot-pedal steering, a land-anchor, hydraulic suspension, and outriggers that served no other purpose than to provide stability to the lateral stubbie-holders. Turbo piloted the Desperado, a lean, stripped-out buggy that was a downwind speed-demon, thanks to nine square metres of cantilevered umbrella sail. Dave had made a Lazarus-like recovery with the surprisingly-complete HMAS Kitchen Sink (aka The-tragic-end-to-schoolies-revelry) – the heaviest by far on account of the oiled teak deck, a capital investment which no doubt greatly improved the resale value.

Anticipation was palpable – I was quietly confident, though Harold had his doubts. No one was more surprised than us when early testing showed those death-traps actually moved under wind power – and none of us had considered brakes. A group of friends had gathered at the Lake and the party was in full swing – drawn, I’d like to think, by the opportunity to wish us well and speak some fond words before our untimely demise (more likely for the BBQ and the excuse to dress up in the ‘post-apocalyptic chic’ attire appropriate for a mad-cap desert rally, which was somewhere between Burning Man and Mad Max).  As the start drew nearer, however, the windspeed seemed to move in a direction inversely proportional to the level of excitement.

The Junkyard Wind Racer Derby Joel Johnsson

The hour drew nigh. Bonded together by the creative process – of sharing tools and advice, small successes and crushing defeats, and fair to moderate amounts of beer – we three stood in front of our Wind Racers, arm-in-arm on the empty pan of Lake George, as we awaited the Le Mans-style start… before immediately attempting to bootstrap each other as some guy in a Guy Fawkes mask and a technicolour sombrero sounded the starting horn.

Perhaps adventure was the real winner

The winner of the inaugural Junkyard Wind Racer Derby will be the subject of many raucous pub debates to come. Regardless to say that none of us made it across the Lake to the finish line under wind power alone. Light and fickle winds hampered our efforts, though most of us experienced the heady satisfaction of unassisted land sailing on an intermittent basis. That taste of the raw power of Mother Nature didn’t stop us, however, from lashing a towrope from the Hilux to Lady MacDeath (the only kart with steering), dropping the clutch and pretending we were on the dustbowl version of the Nurburgring.

It may be true that there is little left, at least terrestrially, in terms of world-first, never-been-done exploring. Those opportunities are now vanishingly rare. But to argue that point disregards the role of creativity in the art of adventuring*. For me, the act of climbing a mountain that no-one has climbed holds little appeal – plenty of people have climbed mountains before; maybe not that one, but it’s fundamentally the same process. Far more interesting is to find something that pushes the limits of convention, that draws on a half-remembered idea and twists it and warps it and combines it with a memory of a place or a dream into something unique and novel and pure. Capture others with this flight of fancy and you’ll see that it has a vitality all of its own.

You know the feel of adventure when you stumble across it – it tugs at our strings like a distant kite dancing on the breeze… or a ragged old windsurfing sail catching the wind one last time. So throw out any preconceptions of normal, cast off the weight of expectation and routine, and let the wind carry you off the pages of the guidebook.

There’s adventure to be had for those who go looking.

*To credit Sir Ranulph, he does make the distinction between exploration and adventure – the topic of another blog post.

The Junkyard Wind Racer Derby Joel Johnsson


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