by Joshua Dowling

 

Jet skis aren’t designed to cover big distances on the ocean, but that doesn’t stop a group of people taking part in the annual Yamaha Variety Jet Trek to raise money for disadvantaged kids.

Seems simple enough: 850km over five days on the ocean on a jet ski off the coast of Queensland.

This year, the annual Yamaha Variety Jet Trek went from from Bundaberg to Hamilton Island, the last stretch of Queensland coastline the event was yet to cover during the previous 20 years.

For the 21st running, organisers finally found a way to get 100 jet ski riders and the 200-plus support crew to Stanage Bay, a remote crocodile-infested tip of coastline between Yepoon And Mackay.

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This was the hurdle that had stopped the event passing through here before. But where there’s a will, there’s a way and that’s how a town of 83 people swelled to quadruple its size for one night.

The overall route went from Bundaberg to 1770 (Agnes Water) to Yeppoon and then on to Stanage Bay, Mackay and Airline Beach before the finish on Hamilton Island.

However, this story starts in the middle of Jet Trek because getting to and from Stanage were the hardest legs – and the event has never had two 190km days in a row before. 

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It was a logistics nightmare but somehow against all odds, the tireless event organisers made it happen. 

The town of Stanage is so remote it is at the end of a 96km stretch of dirt road off the main highway between Rockhampton and Mackay. 

Add rain and you get a lot of mud – and slow-going for the support vehicles and the equipment towed behind them. It looked like a Variety Bash not a Jet Trek.

Stanage has limited electricity supply; turn on the air-conditioning in one house and the lights go out in the house next door. 

There is one shop that doubles as the pub, petrol station and post office, which is presumably why, on top of the inflated prices, it gets away with charging 55 cents per transaction if you use an EFTPOS card. Where else are you going to get your supplies?

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In addition to extra showers and water being trucked in, extra fuel was needed to refuel 100 jet skis. But even then there were rations.

Only the jet skis were allowed to be filled (each with a 60 or 70-litre tank) and none of the support cars could get a top-up. Each support crew vehicle had to have enough fuel to get into Stanage and out again.

Most jet ski riders needed to carry an extra 60 litres on the back of their skis (in addition to the 60 or 70-litre tank built into their jet ski) just to make the 190km run from Yepoon to Stanage. 

Every jet ski also needed an extra 60 or 70 litres of fuel on the back to make the 190km run from Stanage to Mackay – and that extra fuel had to be brought in by support crews otherwise Stanage Bay would have run out of unleaded.

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When you’re in the middle of the ocean covering big distances in jet skis with (relatively) small tanks, you tend to talk about fuel a lot.

Learning to refuel on water (where allowed) via a jiggle hose without getting motion sick and without getting sea water in your petrol tank is also a skill you need to develop.

The rewards outweigh the effort, though, both in terms of spectacular scenery few people ever get to see and the serenity of the open water with just you and a few mates.

The fleet of 100 riders is spilt into groups of about 10 riders each, with a lead and sweep, both of whom are veterans of the sport.

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Even then it can be hard to keep track of everyone, especially when there’s a decent swell. It only takes 50 metres or so and a decent wave to lose sight of another rider or the entire pack, which is why everyone keeps a close eye on each other.

As with previous Jet Treks (this is only my third event, though the leaders in my group have done all 21 of them, an epic effort) you end up experiencing the best jet ski riding of your life and some of the worst.

As sporting commentators like to say, each day was a “day of two halves”. Inevitably we either started in appalling conditions before hitting flat water or we had calm before a storm.

In calm water or even medium chop you can keep a cracking pace and it’s generally kinder to your body. 

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But once you hit decent swell the ocean starts to look like a washing machine and the rate of progress is halved and the punishment on the body is 10 times worse.

Unfortunately you don’t get to see photos or videos of the bad conditions because they’re too difficult to capture on camera while operating a jet ski. Even the support boats soldier through the worst of it so they can base their media crews in calmer waters.

Which is why the photos and video you see here really only capture half the story. The tougher, more brutal side is really only shared by those who’ve been through it.

Some days genuinely feel like an achievement just getting to the end of a leg.

Most participants are nursing sore wrists, arms, legs. Chafing is also a problem even though you’re standing and most riders are wearing 3mm thick wetsuit pants or some other kind of protection for their legs.

No matter what precautions are taken it ends up being a test of endurance as well as ability.

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That said, riders of all levels of experience take part. Each group can only travel at the pace of the slowest rider. It’s not a race, but everyone’s keen to get off the water by the end of each day.

The true highlight of the trip, though, is seeing where the money goes to help disabled and disadvantaged kids.

This year’s fundraising total of $404,708 – after costs – was the highest ever recorded from a Jet Trek, topping $380,000 in 2018 and $270,000 in 2017.

The money goes towards computers, school buses equipped with wheelchair access, special technology to help kids read or hear, and waterproof wheelchairs that can be used on a beach or at a swimming pool. Plus other equipment that helps disadvantaged kids get a better go at life. 

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There’s no doubt the Yamaha Variety Jet Trek is character building for all concerned: participants and recipients.

It’s an event like no other. If you like jet skis, want to improve your riding skills, and want to help people less fortunate than yourself then this could be for you.

Just be sure to do plenty of training and ocean rides ahead of the event so you can better enjoy the experience.

If you want to take part, there’s a second “Spring” Jet Trek aimed at first-timers that repeat this “Autumn” run from Bundaberg to the Whitsundays on 14 to 19 October 2019.

Next year’s “Autumn” event will run from Coffs Harbour to the Sunshine Coast from 16 to 21 March 2020.

And of course, although it’s called the Yamaha Variety Jet Trek – and Yamaha has just extended its sponsorship and increased its funding for the next three years – all brands of jet ski are eligible as long as they’re less than 10 years old and the sit-down type.

That said, four out of every five jet skis on Jet Trek are Yamahas. For this type of riding, Yamaha seems to be the preferred jet ski but due to fuel range and the suitability of the hull in choppy conditions there are plenty of Seadoos and Kawasakis in the mix and they also made the distance. And the smiles on riders faces were just as big.

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Support vehicle

The Jet Trek convoy is full of heavy-duty four-wheel-drives, utes and US pick-ups hauling single, double and even quadruple trailers. 

We took a Toyota Hilux Rogue for this year’s journey for several reasons.

Aside from getting reacquainted with Australia’s top selling car, the Rogue comes with handy features for such a journey.

The tall hard lid (compared to other utes with roller shutters or lower hard lids) made it easier to carry jerry cans standing up, providing we placed them strategically away from some of the hard lid’s skeleton.

The Rogue’s heavy duty sports bar that can handle loads up to 200kg was also a good tie-down point for six full 20-litre jerry cans.

Finally, the marine-grade carpet that comes with the locally fitted-out Rogue also helped keep luggage in position – and is easier on your knees when crawling in the back to get gear in and out.

We also figured out how to make the hard lid shut perfectly: press down gently on each back corner until you hear each latch click into place. This ensured we had complete protection from dust and water every time, something that can’t always be said for other hard lids

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There is no mechanical difference between a Toyota HiLux SR5 and the Rogue flagship; power from the 2.8-litre turbo diesel and the suspension and brakes remain unchanged.

But the extra weight of the hard lid and marine carpeting, plus about 300kg of extra cargo in the tub – and towing approximately 600kg worth of trailer and jet ski – helped iron out the bumps.

A lot of motoring writers criticise the HiLux’s firm-ish ride when unladen (for the record, Toyota tweaked the HiLux suspension in early 2017 and it has been better ever since) but the reality is few owners drive their HiLuxes empty. 

With a bit of weight in the back the HiLux is a smooth as a Ford Ranger over bumps, and better when fully loaded. 

Even though the HiLux is not the most powerful in its class, I prefer its throttle response, particularly at low speeds. Simply taking your foot off the brake pedal – and not touching the throttle – is often enough to gently manoeuvre the HiLux into position, such as when reversing to hitch a trailer.

Once on the move, prior tow testing has shown the HiLux is no slouch with a load on board and holds its own at highway speeds, including up hills.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the fuel economy, averaging between 10 and 11 litres per 100km for the entire journey with everything on board and not being gentle with the throttle.

This could be a matter of personal taste but I’m also impressed by the HiLux brake pedal feel and stopping power.

The HiLux is unique in the class with four-piston front brake calipers, large discs, and pads with an impressive swept area.

By comparison, the brakes on most other utes feel spongy and underdone. It’s especially reassuring when braking downhill with a trailer in tow.

The LED low beams turn night into day without dazzling oncoming traffic; the high beam is a bit yellow because it’s halogen but at least it too has a decent spread of light further and wider down the road.

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Off-road the HiLux comes into its own, not that we tested wheel articulation on this trip. But overall it felt unstoppable and stable.

We were also lucky enough to find a high pressure hose to get most of the mud off the undercarriage after 180km of dirt road driving. It ensured the wheels didn’t go out of balance with any build-up and we had the underneath looking almost like new again.

As with any vehicle, the HiLux is not perfect though. I wish it had a digital speedo and a volume dial (faster than pressing buttons on the steering wheel or the touchscreen). Apple Car Play would be a bonus but it’s not a deal-breaker.

I also popped into Supercheap to buy a pair of heavy duty rubber floor mats with a lip so I didn’t spill dirt, mud and water onto the carpet mats that come standard. If I were to buy a Rogue I would option the genuine Toyota rubber floor mats.

Covering a fair amount of ground in far north Queensland, it became apparent why the HiLux has been the top-selling vehicle there for the past 12 years in a row.

Aside from its reputation for reliability and durability, the air-conditioning is enough to make you cold even when humidity is beyond 90 per cent outside. 

The handy air-conditioned pocket above the glovebox made water bottles so cold they produced condensation when I took them outside.

You get attached to cars when you spend this much time in them, and get to know their idiosyncrasies. 

I will genuinely miss the Rogue, and not just because it was an air-conditioned oasis at the end of long, hard days on the water. 

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This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling