I'M sure it was the last thing they expected to see.
Drinkers were catching the last rays of warming sun on the verandah of the North Blinman Hotel at the northernmost tip of the Flinders Ranges when a dozen battered and dusty 1970s-era Toyota Corollas pulled up in the main street of the former mining village.
Was this an episode of TV's Time Tunnel or an aberration not unlike the Bermuda Triangle? No. These were the participants in the 2020 Corolla Caper, a week-long event run every year since 2002 by the Rotary Club of Regency Park (SA).
After the last couple of squeaky, rattly stragglers delivered their dusty crews, the drivers and passengers (referred to as "Caperites") began to congregate in the street, swapping tales of their exploits.
These included such adventures as being towed out of a sandy creek bed after an audacious dash across a dry watercourse or tearing hell-for-leather up a rocky escarpment only to find a gear missing just when most needed. One over-optimistic driver thought a mud wallow might make a challenging diversion, only to find he was quickly bogged to the axles in sodden red clay.
But it's all in good fun. And no one loses an eye.
The Corolla Caper has grown from a casual bash for old cars and even older men, to a smoothly organised event with the admirable objective of raising funds for worthy causes such as Cows for Cambodia, Isolated Children's Parents Association, Polio+, and disaster aid for Bhutan.
Organising committee head and retired school principal Ron Rogers puts it well: "It's always been a great way to enjoy the fabulous Aussie outback, while injecting funds into rural communities and raising money for worthwhile charities."
In 18 years, the Corolla Capers have raised about $60,000 for Rotary Club Charities as well as other recognised community projects and causes while drivers have fun and test their driving and mechanical limits on roads and tracks as far afield as Oodnadatta, Ceduna and Broken Hill.
The 2020 event, delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions, was a 2000-kilometre route north from Gepps Cross to Marree via Hawker, the Flinders Ranges and Parachilna.
The route took in many lonely miles of seldom-used station tracks and disused stock routes that still form the thoroughfares within Wilpoorina, Murnpeowie, Mount Freeling and Mundowndna stations.
These lands are some of the driest in the world, with rainfall averaging less than 200mm a year - when there is rain. The crews and the supporting entourage spent time with the Litchfield family at their property near Marree, witnessing first-hand the tribulations of life on the land.
Ad hoc campsites are created en route, either in the grounds of a remote station or in the few rooms or cabins offered by a country pub, like the car park at Cradock. Tents and Corollas spread out under trees, in the open or around a central fire pit. A big LandCruiser tows a fully-outfitted trailer with fridge, folding benches, storage and its own power. Another trailer with trestle tables, gas barbecues, a spare gearbox and sundry kit follows, so the caravan of classics is well supported.
The oldest driver is 87-year-old "Uncle" Ken Adams, whose 1300cc 1978 Corolla Coupe, dubbed Matilda, has finished almost every one of the 18 events.
"She sits around all year in the backyard," says Ken with a wry smile, "and every year we tighten the bolts, pump up the tyres and change the oil - and every year she brings us home. They are tough old cars these Corollas."
Tough old blokes too.
The caper has been hugely popular, with the last few events at capacity, but enquiries are always welcome, especially from sponsors. Email Ron Rogers at email@example.com
The 2021 event will take place in July.