4WD pioneer's epic northern adventure

Forty-five years ago, a landmark trip to Cape York made for gripping reality tv long before the genre had even been created.

From May to October during the dry season in the tropical north, thousands of 4x4 adventurers can usually be seen grinding their way to the bucket-list destination that is Cape York Peninsula. 

But this year the convoys of 4WDs, tinnies and camper trailers were nowhere to be seen. The Cape was kept in lockdown, even as the rest of the state opened up, in a bid to keep the coronavirus from impacting the region’s indigenous communities.

Today, improvements to the Peninsula Developmental Road, better quality vehicles and the growing number of people who visit the region have taken some risk out of the trip. But for those who crave adventure, there is still plenty on offer via the more challenging CREB and Bloomfield Tracks.

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Australian four-wheel driving pioneer and adventurer Norm Needham has spent a good deal of his life chasing such adventure. In a life of off-road adventuring spanning more than five decades, he has criss-crossed the country on 4WD expeditions to many of Australia’s most iconic remote locations.

But it is a seminal three-month expedition to Cape York in 1975 that remains etched in his memory as the most incredible of them all. 

Norm grew up in the central-west New South Wales town of Orange and remembers his earliest 4WD experience at the wheel of a wrist-wrenching Series 1 Land Rover as a 10 or 11-year-old.

Years later, while living and working in Sydney, he bought his first 4WD and signed on as member number four of the Toyota LandCruiser Club of Australia. 

“I bought my first LandCruiser then, which was my first 4WD really. It must’ve been 1972 because I think it was the first of the four-speeders, an FJ40,” Norm said. 

It marked the beginning of an association with the Japanese 4WD and the eponymous club that bears its name that has endured for almost half a century. 

And, while the club has been at the centre of many lifelong friendships and adventures for Norm and his wife Sandy, none were more important than that first trip to Cape York, with fellow club member Ian Wright. 

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“That was the first big trip and we were away for about three months,” said Norm, adding it was still fairly rare back then for anyone other than locals to go that far north just for the fun of it. 

“Obviously, there have been adventurers since time began – I mean, someone drove a car to Cape York in 1920, an Austin something-or-other – but it was still a pretty rare occurrence.

“There wasn’t a lot of recreational four-wheel driving as such around in the ’70s. The boom didn’t hit until probably the mid-80s.” 

Norm penned the story of their epic journey for the inaugural issue of Overlander 4WD magazine in 1976, but also captured hours of Super 8 film, which sat forgotten for decades, until a media-savvy friend offered to professionally edit and narrate it.

The resultant documentary, which was uploaded to YouTube in 2018 and has since been viewed more than 196,000 times, begins in Sydney with Ian and Norm fashioning floats which they ferry 3500km north on the roofs of their LandCruisers, in order to get their vehicles across the Wenlock and Jardine Rivers. 

In another scene from the gripping hand-held documentary, Norm is seen swimming the swollen Jardine to tether a rope to the far bank in order to float the FJ40s across. 
Norm acknowledges that swimming the Jardine would be foolhardy in today’s crocodile-infested waters but says they were different times.

“We didn’t really think about it,” Norm said. “Crocodiles were nearly shot out of existence up until the very early 1970s, when they were protected, so there weren’t many left up there.”

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In total, Norm reckons he’s done well over a million kilometres of off-road driving, including a five-month, 50,000km trip around Australia in 2010, which included many more kilometres spent exploring bush and beach tracks. 

“I don’t have anything left on the bucket list,” he says. “But, obviously, nobody can see Australia in two or three lifetimes. Not all of it. It’s impossible.” 

Norm remains a passionate advocate for Aussies getting out and experiencing their own big backyard and has some sage advice for younger folk who might want to follow in his wheel tracks. 

“Get out there and do it,” he said. “I get people say to me, ‘Oh gee, I wish I could do what you did, in the 1970s when you did Cape York or the Kimberley, and you were able to go to all these places, and have all that adventure.’  

“I tell them the adventure’s still out there. You can still go places, remote places that you can probably stand there and say, ‘I wonder if anyone has ever stood here before?’”  

This year Norm will be will be featured as part of a Toyota social history project to celebrate the brand’s 60th anniversary, telling the stories of the pioneers, the innovators, the adventurers, the communities and everyday people who built post-war Australia into what it is today.