Adelaide is little more than a town. Less than 1.5 million people live within its grid-like suburbs, but it has an undeniable spirit. By night, it throbs to the beat of a hundred bars and restaurants, as the locals and tourists meet to celebrate what is an enviable lifestyle. From the centre of town, it’s just a few kilometres and a tram ride to Australia’s southern coastline, where surf bums can practice their art.
For a penal colony, it has huge appeal. Tomorrow, I will begin the long journey from Adelaide to Sydney. Stick to the highway and this is a drive of around 1,600km, but to do so would mean missing some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. Given the Australian predilection for speed limits, it would also be a monumentally boring and frustrating drive, especially if your chosen chariot is a Jaguar XK. The Jag is waiting by the roadside, bathing in the soft light of an Australian morning.
Like me, it is 8,000 miles from home, but it looks more at ease here than I ever could. While I lack tan, tone and attitude, the Jag looks svelte, cool and appealing. It even looks contemporary, and when was the last time you thought that of a Jaguar? Before leaving Adelaide, I can’t resist seeking out the tricky street circuit that, until 1995, was home to the Australian Grand Prix. It still hosts the hugely popular Aussie V8 series and it’s easy to trace its outline on the roadway. There’s something strangely emotive about kerb hopping at 20mph on a Sunday morning. After leaving Adelaide, we’re given a first taste of the extraordinary scale of this country. This is high season in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, but we can still drive for miles without seeing another person. We flash by the gentle, rolling countryside in search of the tiny port of Robe. An anonymous and somewhat undistinguished town, Robe is famous for one thing – lobster. Caught fresh on a daily basis, the crayfish here are said to be the best in the world and after a hearty dinner, washed down with local Chardonnay, it’s difficult to disagree.
We ditch the coastline next morning and plot a route to the Grampians National Park, which separates the coastal region from the Australian Outback. The drive reminds me of the US. Wide open, quiet highways link non-descript low-rise towns. If you were uncharitable, you could call them hick towns. Our home for the night is an Aquila Eco Lodge. Part of Australia’s burgeoning ecotourism industry, it’s owned and run by the genial Barb Bjerking. The lodges are powered by bio-diesel produced from the cooking oil used by local restaurants. Water is collected from the rooftops and the waste is processed by worms. “The only line into Aquila is the telephone line,” she says with justifiable pride. Cruising back from an evening meal, we have our first contact with one of Australia’s most famous inhabitants.
There are signs dotted along the roads, warning of kangaroos, but nothing quite prepares you for the sight of them in the wild. They are such unlikely, comic creatures. The first time you see one ‘boing’ for real, I challenge you not to laugh. From the Grampians, we return to the coast and join the Great Ocean Road, which links the towns of Warrnambool and Torquay. The road attracts 7 million tourists each year and most of them seem to be here today. The Jaguar was made for a trip like this. It follows the classic GT recipe, with a large capacity V8, a 2+2 cabin and a sensible boot. There is so much to enjoy about this car.
The 300bhp engine sounds terrific and it drives well. It’s not as overtly sporting as a Porsche 911, but it’s more engaging than a Mercedes SL and more comfortable than a BMW 6-series. It is, in other words, well judged. The focal point of the Great Ocean Road are the Twelve Apostles. These dramatic rock stacks have been left stranded by the eroding coastline. Today, the name seems something of a misnomer, because only six of the Apostles are visible from the viewing platform. They are a magnificent sight ruined only by the plague of flies that engulf the coastline. They’re such an annoyance that I’m tempted to buy a Crocodile Dundee hat, complete with corks.
Back to the Jaguar and on towards Torquay, the seaside town that has nothing in common with its British namesake, made famous by the hapless Basil Fawlty. The weather in Australia seems to fluctuate like a politician’s viewpoint, and today it’s decided to be outrageously hot. The XK’s thermometer suggests its 44 degrees Celsius. This is also a coastline prone to shark attacks. Just three weeks ago, a boy lost a leg in an attack close to Torquay. All of this is a concern, given that I’ve just booked a surf lesson. If the heat doesn’t get me, Jaws might. According to my impossibly-healthy-looking instructor, Luke Slater, the surf conditions are “not ideal for beginners” and, at 6ft 4in, I’m “a bit too tall.” Not surprisingly, I take to surfing like a duck to an arid desert. I’d like to tell you what it’s like to stand up and ride the waves, but I can’t, because I can’t. But it is good fun. From Torquay, we pick up the main highway to Melbourne, which proves to be a surreal experience.
Australia was one of the first countries to introduce speed cameras and the authorities have a fascist-like zeal for speed enforcement. Even if you’re only 3 or 4km/h over the limit, you will most likely be nicked. It is a policy with some bizarre consequences. Differences in speed are determined largely by speedo accuracy. Instead of powering past large trucks, cars creep past, exposing their passengers to greater danger. Australia has a huge problem with drivers falling asleep at the wheel, but it’s not surprising. A hundred km/h on a clear, three-lane highway feels ridiculously slow. Drivers simply apply their cruise control and switch off. I witness one chap with his feet on the dashboard.
The policy might make more sense if it was consistent. In South Australia, the speed limit is 110km/h, but in Victoria it’s 100km/h. Surely,104km/h is either lethal or it’s not. Melbourne is a terrific city. More than twice the size of Adelaide, it’s also much more cosmopolitan. There is an arty, almost hedonistic feel to some of the neighbourhoods, especially those by the beach. Melbourne is also home to the hit soap opera, Neighbours, and tours of the street on which it’s filmed run daily. My tour is filled with 30-something Brits, all of whom take pleasure in something so gloriously naff. Every time I return to the XK, I follow the same routine. I admire the styling, grin at the raspy exhaust note and frown at the interior. It’s comfortable and spacious (for two people) but it just doesn’t feel special enough. Too many of the plastics feel like they were chosen for their cost, not their quality. There is no sense of occasion. The radio aerial is also an aberration.
Every time you switch on the stereo, an aerial emerges from the right rear wing, just like it used to when Elvis was a lad. Jaguar argues that it’s needed to ensure proper reception in the US, but when was the last time you saw one on a Merc or Beemer? Every time I catch sight of it in the rear-view mirror, I cringe. Jaguar is apparently working on a solution and it’s also to be hoped that the electrical gremlins that blighted the ‘Infotainment’ system on our pre-production test car have been cured. From Melbourne, we take another journey inland to the old gold mining town of Walhalla.
The road that climbs up the mountain offers a terrific challenge. The XK is undoubtedly at its best on wide, sweeping highways, but it’s happy to roll up its sleeves when needs must. And I suspect that it would feel even better on this road if our car had been fitted with the optional electronic damping. Not far from our destination, I’m surprised to be met by trucks full of blackened faces travelling in the opposite direction. “The bush fire is only 5km away,” says Michael Leaney, the owner of the Walhalla Star Hotel. “They are ‘back burning’ –deliberately clearing areas of woodland to try to protect the town.” Leaney shows us a map of the area, which displays the extent of the fire. Over 900,000 hectares of bush have been lost, an area equivalent to a quarter of Switzerland.
Part of the town’s historic railway has already been destroyed and it will cost $250,000AUS to replace. To make matters worse, the tourists are staying away. It is sobering stuff. We leave Walhalla mid-morning and return to the coast road, stopping at the Paperbark Camp. Guests stay in huge safari tents, imported from Africa, and dine with possums in a restaurant on stilts. Populated by tourists and stressed-out Sydney types, this is ‘posh-camping’ at its very best. From the Paperbark, we take the coast road once more towards Sydney. This is my final day with the Jag and it’s time for some reflections. The XK really captures the imagination. I’d been engaged in conversation about the car on almost a daily basis, and the reaction was almost wholly positive. This is the best car that Jaguar has made in at least a generation. Only the cabin trim and that stupid aerial let it down. Finally, after more than a week on the road, the city of Sydney fills the view beyond the bonnet.
We make for McMahon’s Point, which offers a unique view across Sydney Harbour to the famous bridge and opera house. It is a fitting place in which to end what has been a fascinating journey. The drive we have just completed is easy to accomplish. Anyone flying to Sydney or Adelaide could rent a car and make a similar trip. But just because it’s easy doesn’t make it less interesting. This part of Australia is a land of immense natural beauty and surprising contrasts. If you have a couple of weeks to spare and can stomach the 24-flight, I commend it to you