Seems that in every disaster there’s a silver lining, and TV presenter, publisher and four-wheel drive legend Pat Callinan absolutely embodies this. Recently I spoke to him … about his career, his love of adventure, when it started and where it’s lead him.
Pat Callinan grew up in the back blocks of Young in South Western NSW. He was studying Arts/Law at the University of New England in Armidale (NSW) when he took a big trip in his first four-wheel drive, a 1972 Series IIA Land Rover. It was here, heading out to Fraser Island, that the tide turned for him, literally. He tells me his story.
Where did your love of adventure and four-wheel driving come from?
I didn’t really come from a super outdoorsy family. We had a little farm growing up, so I was familiar with 4WDs and my girlfriend at the time had a Suzuki Sierra, so I bought myself a 1972 Land Rover and we went to do one big trip to Fraser Island. Things didn’t go so well. I didn’t even get onto Fraser Island.
We were up at the beach at Mudlo Rocks, near Rainbow Beach where, at certain times of the year, rocks are exposed. I plotted my way through, put it in low range and started driving through the rocks. I got hung up on the rocks and I thought “that’s okay, I’ll be fine, because I’ve got a snatch strap and some shackles”. But no one wanted to pull me out. That night there was a King tide …
I stayed in the car till the waves were washing in through the car windows and the car was rocking side to side. And I was thinking, “I should probably get out now”. That night the body was ripped off the chassis and the car was smashed up against the rocks. I completely wrote off my first ever car.
I wrote a story about it for 4×4 Australia magazine, which was published and, to my surprise, Kerry Packer’s ACP Magazines sent me a cheque for $300. It switched something in my brain … “getting paid to do something I loved”. I did a bit of work experience with another magazine in Sydney called Bushdriver and was offered a job at the end of it. So, the only jobs I’ve ever had were in the four-wheel drive media.
So that was the first article you’d ever written. What was it called?
It was a bit of a baptism of fire, but it’s set me on a path that I don’t regret. It’s so typical of autobiographies, that the worst things that can happen in your life sometimes turn into some of the best things. I was devastated, I owed money to my mum for the car and I had to call Karen’s dad who came up with the box trailer … yes Karen’s now my wife. It didn’t scare her off, amazingly.
Do you travel a lot with her and your family now?
Yeah. We’ve been right into it for a long time. At the start of the TV show the whole family would come along on trips so we enrolled our kids in the Sydney School of Distance Education for a season. The kids were doing school on the Canning Stock Route, in Tassie and right around the countryside, crossing the Simpson Desert. They’re fairly grown up now … Bill is 18 and he’s working in the business in our edit suite, so he films and edits. I have one (Angus) doing HSC and a 15-year-old Charlotte so depending on their schedules they love to come along.
You’ve come a long way from Destination Disaster and writing your first travel story. Now you’re known as Mr 4×4. Where did that come from?
There was a bit of a tag I was given back in the magazine days from my colleagues. After I did work experience with Bushdriver Magazine and worked with them for a year or so, I got poached by Express Publications who launched the 4WD Monthly and 4WD Action brands. They offered me a Deputy Editors’ position for a national four-wheel drive mag, and I said to them “that’s fine, so long as you consider me as Editor material in two years’ time”. I was only 21 at the time. I was there for three months when they made me editor. I think I’m the youngest editor of a four-wheel drive magazine in the country at 21.
I’ve had a passion for it but also had a passion for the media as well. It’s not hard when you’re a four-wheel drive enthusiast to try and think of what other people might like to read about, talk about. It’s been a fun ride.
You’ve developed a whole brand now with your magazines and your TV show but there’s many others out there in the travel industry doing similar things. What do you think differentiates your brand?
It varies depending on the brand you’re talking about because we try and make each of our brands a little bit different. For e.g. The “Pat Brand” we like to be the real deal, authentic and practice what we preach. It’s authentic to people who want to tour the country, give them solid information and lots of tips along the way.
That’s what differentiates my brand. On my TV show I try and spend a lot of time on giving people good tips, giving them a downloadable packing list for their own journey and telling them how to use a winch and drive down a steep hill or get out of a bog. With this brand I’m focused on the fact that it’s not about me, it’s about the viewers. We only go to places where other four-wheel drivers can go.
Do you have a favourite spot in Australia?
I’ve got a couple of different spots for different reasons. I love Tassie. There’re not many people on the tracks and even if you go there off-season it’s just as glorious, you feel like you’ve got the whole place to yourself. And it’s wild and amazing, it’s got the wild west coast that’s rugged, crazy and awesome with the quicksand and everything but then you’ve got the east coast with the calm waters, beautiful scarred scenery. I’m a big fan of Tassie.
I also love the Ningaloo Coast of Western Australia, that’s special. The fact that you can literally pull your four wheel drive up on the beach, jump out, throw your swimmers on and literally take five steps and you’re swimming in one of the longest fringing coral reefs in the world … you can pull your vehicle up and camp with an ocean view in front of you. That to me is glorious, swimming with whale sharks.
The water colour, the ochre red dirt through to the turquoise waters should be the colours of the Australian flag, it embodies the country.
What would be your best basic tip on four-wheel driving?
Probably the most basic one leads into a whole lot of other tips and that’s to do a four wheel drive driver training course, because when you do that in a safe environment it just opens up what that car can actually do for you … I’d really recommend that people just get out there and go for it, do a course with their other half … it’s nice to have someone holding your hand when you’re freaking out.
Speaking of those moments, can you think of a particularly challenging or hairy one on your travels?
I’ve had a few and probably in more recent times. I was stuck down in a valley out the back of Port Macquarie, it’s steep clay hills and it’d been raining so we decided to winch out of this valley. We were winching for at least two hours ‘cos the cars just could not drive. So, we pulled the car up with the winch and then we’d have to tie off to a tree because the car’s brakes wouldn’t hold, and it’d just slide straight back down the hill. I had a Nissan Patrol with a Trailer on the back. I’d been sitting in the car operating the winch, it had been raining and I was getting in and out, getting muddy and doing this for hours … I managed to drive a bit then I ran out of traction again. Then I thought, I’ll jump out and operate the winch, connect it to a tree.
I jumped out of the car and as I had the door wrapped around me, on a super steep incline, the car inched back by half a centimetre and I thought “that’s weird, if this car goes it might pull me down the hill, so I’m just gonna step back from the car”. I stepped back, shut the door and the car and the trailer slid forty metres back down the hill, jack knifed and then speared off a cliff. The only thing that stopped it was a 40cm round Tallowood Tree.
So, I wrote that vehicle off. It was a worry because my crew thought that I was in the car when it went over the cliff and they were screaming. They just saw the lights sail off the side of the cliff.
That’s probably my worst thing. But would you believe, it has a silver lining … this car was actually a car we were giving away and I was taking it on one episode to show people how cool it was, it only had 2000kms on the clock. It was a $55K Nissan Patrol with $50, 000 worth of accessories on it so it was fully kitted out. I then had to go and rebuild the whole car, a $100,000 car that I had insured for $50,000. So, I was a bit out of pocket!
I got talking to an insurance mate of mine and we ended up started up an insurance company called Club 4×4. So, I’m now part owner in that.
I read once you said you’re “as happy as a Brolga in Birdsville”. How do you define happiness?
I think my definition of happiness is just having the freedom to wander and explore. I still love staring at maps and going to new places and I get an absolute kick out of that. Once you’ve been to a couple of places that have blown you away you get that wanderlust so I’m certainly not unique in that way. I’m lucky ‘cos I can probably indulge in it a little more than most ‘cos I have to for my job.
So that’s happiness for me. It doesn’t finish with the four-wheel drives. Last year while overseas I was driving up the second glacier with my son Angus in a big arctic truck and we just got back from Norway. I’d love to sail around the world in a catamaran too, that’s one of my longer-term goals. That freedom is happiness. We’re so lucky in Australia, it’s safe and awesome isn’t it?
Yes, it is, I agree.
Sailing is a bit of a mystery cos I’m not from a sailing family at all, I have no background in it whatsoever. I just love the idea of that sort of exploration. I just love learning new things full stop. I even got a kick out of doing a chainsaw course!
What are three things you’d never leave home without?
Communications gear, if I’m going remote my sat nav phone, my fridge and a shovel to get me out of trouble.
And the most inspiring person you’ve met on the road?
I was lucky to travel though the Kimberley’s with the Bush Tucker Man, Les Hiddens. He’s awesome and his knowledge of bush tucker in the top end is second to none. There’s so many characters that we meet on the road.
What’s your advice to someone setting off around Australia?
Don’t rigidly stick to an itinerary or even a route. If you’ve got the freedom of time and you can zig zag all over the place, it allows you to see more interesting places and probably meet more interesting people.
Do a whole lot of research but don’t have a rigid itinerary and a rigid route to follow because you just might miss out on a lot of stuff. Inevitably on trips that we do, we have an A to B, but we speak to people along the way and they’ll often say, ‘have you been here’. Sometimes we’ve never heard of it, and we go there because sometimes only the locals know about it cos no-one’s bothered to put it on a guidebook or in website.
Yep, plan to be flexible but also be open to the opportunities that present themselves.
So, where’s the next destination? And how do you decide where you’re going to go?
We were just planning actually with the production crew … we got the maps of Australia out. We’ve filmed 12 seasons and covered most of the big-ticket items in terms of tracks around Australia … for e.g. We’ve done the whole Perth to Broome, up the coastline and up to Dirk Hartog Island and this season we’re going back there but I wanna spice it up for myself so we’ll also go to some of the stations that I haven’t been to.
Just a fresh patch of dirt to explore, a new beach, a new patch of reef or whatever it is. We try to think primarily where our viewers would like to go.
After that we try and show them something they may not even have considered. We try and make destinations accessible, like Melbourne’s best tracks, Brisbane’s best tracks and Sydney’s best tracks, as well as places like the Flinders and outback NSW. Whereas the next season we’ll do Townsville, the Gulf, Kimberley and around Shark Bay and then come back and hopefully, if we get a dump of snow, we’ll be in the High Country too. The full gamut. Hopefully if it’s interesting for us it’s interesting for our viewers too. And we’re just in the process of loading all of our episodes up onto YouTube, which we haven’t done before.
We speak about his ultimate four-wheel drive vehicle, the Amarok V6, which he clearly had a world of fun customising. It’s hard not to be in awe at the vehicle which includes the suspension lift, delta 4×4 wheels, the chassis extension, lift and canopy, not to mention the diesel heater and coffee machine. But it’s the beer keg that’s truly mind blowing. He tells me how “initially it was a bit of a gag. It’s quite practical. You just wash the cup out and you’re creating no waste whatsoever.
The keg is recyclable, the CO2 gas is refillable. So quite a practical system and hey, you don’t mind shouting someone a beer, cos you’ve 288 or so in there!” Pat even has a Redarc App on his phone which tells him how much beer he has left!
From beer to camp tucker, we chat about his favourite meals on the road, which includes Thai green chicken curry as well as Mexican tucker. He tends to cook most meals himself.
We speak about his transition from editor and publisher to TV presenter and having his own show.
The early years were a bit of a struggle, Pat tells me. When he became Editor, the magazine was selling just 5,500 copies per month, the poorest selling 4×4 mag in the country. However, eight years on when Pat left the magazine it was selling 38,000 copies per month, more than doubling the competitor’s sales and becoming the number one four-wheel drive magazine in the country. Pat had achieved his aim and looked ahead to a different form of media: television.
“I’d done a few videos and DVDs and I’d started thinking. There were all these fishing magazines and fishing shows yet no four-wheel drive shows. I put it to my boss, and he said no, so I quit. I decided I’d try and start my own show. I’d done what I wanted to on the four-wheel drive magazine scene.”
“It was a hairy few months” he tells me. “I rocked up at Channel Ten and they asked why I thought I could do a TV show. I had no experience in television. I’d resigned from my job and had hardly any freelance work and I hadn’t heard back from Channel 10. I thought we’d have to sell up. But I got lucky. We’d just put our house on the market when we heard back from Channel 10. They were prepared to give me a go.”
Pat managed to get some sponsors on board and the rest, as they say, is history.
Pat Callinan’s 4×4 Adventures is Australia’s first nationally broadcast and longest running 4×4 TV adventure series and today, as they plan their 13th season Pat and his crew continue to inspire others to travel the length and breadth of our vast country. His 4×4 adventures magazine is known as the “essence” of 4×4 adventure. From short weekend getaways to remote treks there’s something in there for everyone.
Pat still gets a buzz from sharing his stories and I get the impression he’ll be doing it for a while yet … a man forging his own path, enjoying the country and living proof that a disaster can lead you to your destiny.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
All photos courtesy of Pat Callinan and 4×4 Adventures.