Most regular readers would be familiar with the photographs produced by Offroad Images. Over the years you’d have seen plenty of them gracing the pages of this magazine, and you’d also have seen them on brochures, banners, walls, windows and websites. The images range in size from tiny postage stamps to massive 10-metre signs adorning buildings.
The subject matter is usually 4WD related, whether it is an action shot of a competition vehicle scrambling up an impossibly steep rock, a convoy of tourers kicking up a cloud of red dust in the outback, or even a product shot of a new suspension component. There are also the shots made possible by simply being in remote locations: spectacular landscapes, amazing weather events, exotic wildlife or even detailed portraits of characters in the outback.
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Michael Ellem, the man behind Offroad Images, lives and breathes 4WDing – as do most of his clients. So when it comes to capturing the best off-road shots, he needs a vehicle that’s up to the task. He needs a rig capable of hauling all the tools of his trade (and there are a lot of them) and reliably getting him into and out of some extremely hard-to-access places.
Unlikely as it may seem, that vehicle is a Mazda BT-50 GT Dual Cab. “I liked the Ford Ranger,” Michael explains. “Originally I was seeking out the Ford Ranger XLT. I’d driven one for about 26,000km to remote locations around Australia, but I had trouble getting access to one from a dealer. One of the few dealers who showed any interest wanted to sell me a manual Ranger XLS, which I wasn’t interested in because I knew the auto gearbox was sublime.”
“I needed a vehicle for a particular trip with Creek to Coast, where we were heading through Broken Hill, Cameron Corner, Innamincka, the Simpson Desert and then right up into Winton in Central Queensland. But I was being messed around by three different Ford dealers; I wasn’t even given a price on a Ranger. On my way to one dealer to find out why he hadn’t he returned my calls, my wife asked me: ‘Why don’t you just drop into the Mazda dealer and talk to them?’ I said: ‘I don’t want a BT-50 because it’s got a big smile on its face!’”
“I had photographed a BT-50 up in the Flinders ranges and I just didn’t like it,” Michael continues. “Every angle that I picked up, it wasn’t the right look for me; it just kept smiling at me. So, when it came to a BT-50, why would I buy that? That’s going to be a car I’m not going to enjoy looking at.”
But Michael took his wife Gabrielle’s advice and dropped in to West End Mazda. “At the end of the day, the Mazda dealer offered me this really good price and a 200,000km warranty, and I thought: ‘Why would I buy the Ford?’ This is the GT model with full electric seats, leather and sat-nav – which you can’t get on the Ford XLT.”
And thankfully for Michael this BT-50 has had the smile well and truly wiped off its face thanks to the fitment of a colour-coded ARB Sahara Bar, Intensity LED driving lights and a strategically positioned control box for the Warn Magnum 10,000kg winch.
With its potent 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbodiesel engine, mated to the six-speed auto transmission, the BT-50 offers strong performance both on and off the road, despite the overall weight of the vehicle, when fully laden, which hits the scales at around 2900kg. Some of that weight comes from the accessories fitted to the vehicle, but a lot of it comes from all of the photography and computer gear Michael lugs around with him while on assignment.
“The right-hand drawer takes five light stands and three tripods,” Michael says. “Pelican cases hold all the various photography products including video and stills lighting kits, time-lapse rigs, panoramic heads, Go-Pro kits, remote camera modules, video rigs, chargers etc., to make sure they don’t get knocked around. The boxes all fit either full width or two to a width, and they sit in there like Lego.”
The 60-litre ARB fridge sits on an MSA drop slide, which is in turn mounted to an ARB Outback Solutions dual drawer system. The fridge is covered by an MSA fridge barrier, which allows gear to be packed up right against it, maximising load space yet ensuring there’s enough free space around the fridge for it to operate efficiently.
Before owning the BT-50, Michael had a number of Toyota wagons including a 100 Series Land Cruiser and a Prado, but it’s been many years since he ran a ute. The last being a HiLux Extra Cab many vehicles ago, so the purchase of a dual cab is a little surprising.
“Probably the number one reason for going with a dual cab with a canopy is the size of the enclosure for taking all the gear. I just can’t fit the tripods, stands, lighting gear, Pelican cases and so forth in a wagon. But normally when I work with a dual cab, I would never put camera gear in the back because every time you drive down a track, it sucks in dust, which ends up all over my gear, so I’d have space cases sitting on the back seat of the cab with all my gear in them.”
The solution to Michael’s dust woes came in the form of ARB’s canopy air vent. “I would never have gone for a ute until I had used a dual cab and canopy combination with air vents,” Michael says. “When ARB released the canopy vent, I gave it a go, thinking that it’s probably not going to work, but I ended up with no dust at all in the cargo area, on really dusty tracks that I was driving for about three days. I couldn’t believe it. That air vent is the single reason why I made a decision to buy a dual cab.”
Not content with one air vent, Michael asked the blokes at ARB to fit two of them up the front of the canopy where they work best to pressurise the cargo area. “It’s probably overkill, but why not?” he says.
Sitting up on top of the canopy is an ARB trade roof rack which holds a number of items that don’t have to be accessed as often, such as four MAXTRAX recovery tracks, a Kaymar shovel and a Hi-Lift Jack roof rack holder customised to hold a long-handle shovel and camera tracking system, two 15-litre RotoPax diesel fuel cells and an ARB awning. There’s also a 40-inch Wurton spot/spread roof light mounted to the front of the rack and a couple of work lights at the rear.
When travelling in difficult off-road conditions in remote areas, having a reliable vehicle with good off-road capability is of paramount importance, especially when your business depends on it. “I’ve got to make sure that when I’m on a shoot if anything’s going to fail it’s going to be the client’s car, not mine,” Michael says. “I can’t be the reason for a delay in what we’re trying to achieve.
“Therefore, everything that I do, I’ve got redundancy involved. As in with all of my computer equipment, I’ll have two of everything: two chargers, two lots of cables, two lots of card readers, so everything’s backed-up. When it comes to a vehicle, you can’t have two of everything, so what you need to do is make sure that everything you’ve got on the truck is really well set up. For example there are no crimp connectors just whacked on to a cable, every bit of wire is soldered and every bit of wire is fused. There’s a fuse box in the front and one at the back. So if something does wear through, or something has a problem, I don’t want it to take out other areas.”
There’s a hell of a lot of wiring in this vehicle and, having recently travelled with Michael in the Northern Territory’s Red Centre, 4X4 Australia can attest that it’s all put to good use. Despite what you may think, being a photographer involves much more than simply taking shots; at the end of each day Michael needs a workstation where he can download and process images, and recharge the batteries for cameras, lights, computers and more. And that workstation is the BT-50’s tailgate, which is lit up by a custom LED lighting system.
“What the guys at ARB have done for me is place four USB ports at the back of the car,” Michael explains. “They figured that people, either me or those I’m working with, will need to charge things, and so much can be charged on USB rather than turning an inverter on. They’ve put four USB ports in the front, too.
“Forward of the set of drawers there’s a bit of vacant space, where the drawer stops and doesn’t continue through to the back wall of the ute area, so that space provides adequate room for jumper leads and various spares that you don’t need to see or get access to in a hurry. For example, there’s a 1000W inverter in there; it’s connected back through to the rear of the left-hand side of the drawers, so there’s a dual power point there. There’s also a remote switching arrangement which gives me full monitoring of the battery system; how much power’s being used, how much power’s needed by that inverter. At the back I’ve got two 240V plugs that I can turn on remotely, and it has another five points on the inside of the cabin, so if we’re doing a trip and I need to charge up things like my studio lighting or camera batteries while I’m driving, I can hook that in and keep that charging. That’s drawing the power from the battery in the rear, which is being charged by a 40amp Redarc charger.
“Everything that’s been put in the vehicle has been over-engineered,” Michael says. “Everything that has been added, I want to make sure that it’s the best performing platform for what it is that I do. Lockers, for example, I don’t really want to be stuck on a track somewhere if there’s an obstacle, I want to get through and then I can get the camera out and film my client doing whatever he wants to do to get through that obstacle. I don’t want to be the one having a drama.
“I’ve got a lot of 4WD experience but, at the end of the day, if you’ve got the right tools, it certainly allows you to get through obstacles a whole lot easier and, in doing it easier, there’s going to be less wear and tear on the original mechanicals.”
This is one of the reasons Michael opted for the auto transmission in his BT-50. “I definitely wanted the auto, for so many reasons. Say for crawling up a high country track there’s less wear and tear on the drivetrain and less energy expelled in trying to get up a heavily rutted track. So, I can go really slowly with lockers on, and just ease it up and it’ll have no dramas getting up an obstacle. Also, as you pull up at a set of lights it will gear down, so it manages the reduction of braking effort. It’s a bloody good ’box, so why wouldn’t you go with the auto?”
What goes up must come down, so how does the auto perform on steep descents or when dropping down rock shelves and the like? “Low-range is sensational,” Michael says. “You actually have to accelerate down very steep high-country tracks. If you just let it crawl down a hill in first gear, fully loaded with all of my camera gear, you’ll be going slower than the vehicles behind you.”
Ensuring the BT-50 has plenty of off-road grip is a set of Cooper Discovery ST Maxx 285/70R17 tyres mounted to some smart-looking American Racing Wheels ATX Series Dune rims. Of the tyres Michael says: “I love ’em. I’ve driven STs and STTs on lots of different vehicles. I originally wanted STTs for the vehicle as I figured they’d give me more effective grip in rough terrain. But I decided to go for the ST Maxx for the simple reason that, with the load I’m carrying, I thought it’d be a better tyre when driving on really hot roads, gibber plains and rocky roads where a lot of heat would be generated through the tyres. The ST Maxx has a bigger surface area, more rubber in contact with the surface, so I felt that would assist in dissipating some of the heat, because it is a heavy vehicle.
“I knew the majority of the kays that I do would be off-road kays. I’ve done 43,000km in that car, so the tyres have done about 40,000km. I’m rotating a set of six tyres, the newer tyres are always on the front. I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a Cooper tyre with a puncture.”
We reminded Michael of one Cooper puncture he had definitely seen (he even photographed it) on a trip through the Simpson Desert we completed several years ago. But he was quick to point out that it was an STT, not an ST Maxx, and that was definitely the only one he could remember.
Helping the BT-50 carry all of this gear is an Old Man Emu suspension system with heavy duty 600kg rear springs. This also offers a moderate ride-height lift, which helps the long-wheelbase BT-50 in challenging off-road conditions.
No vehicle is invincible and Michael carries essentials such as a full recovery kit, although he insists that this and the winch are “hopefully” only used for rescuing other vehicles. There are also a couple of fire extinguishers (one in the cabin and one at the rear of the vehicle) and a first-aid kit. For airing up the tyres and operating the front air locker (the rear locker is a factory Mazda item), there’s an ARB dual air compressor and air tank under the deck in the rear.
Communications are taken care of by a GME Headless 80 channel UHF connected to a 6.6dBi gain antenna. Boosting mobile phone reception is a GME dual band 6.1dBi gain phone antenna, which is connected to a Strike Smoothtalker phone cradle. Navigating is a cinch, thanks to a Hema HN7 Navigator mounted on the dash and a cradle-mounted iPad running Hema Explorer mapping software.
“I’ve had some really well set-up vehicles,” Michael says. “The 100 Series, it had 35s, a six-inch lift, lockers, front and rear bars, sidebar protection, roof rack, aerials – it had everything in it. But it couldn’t carry all the gear that I needed, so I’d always be loading the back seat up with all my cameras. As far as a vehicle to work from, the BT-50 is the best 4WD that I’ve ever had.
“The car is awesome as a basic vehicle, that’s without a doubt, but the way ARB has set the thing up based on a brief I gave them, to make it perform for my function (for photography), is way beyond what I expected. Yeah, it’s definitely the best 4WD that I’ve owned… and it’s a Mazda!”
Having driven this BT-50 ourselves, fully laden over a wide variety of terrain types, through the West MacDonnell Ranges, the Mereenie Loop Road, Uluru, Rainbow Valley and Palm Valley, we can see why Michael likes it so much; it’s comfortable, it rides beautifully, it’s very capable and it has loads of space. Covering about 70,000km a year, Michael says he’ll probably get three to four years out of the BT-50. I reckon he’s going to have a hard time saying goodbye to this smiling assassin when its time is up.
This is how Michael Ellem has kitted out his rig:
PROTECTION AND TRACTION
- Colour-coded ARB Sahara Bar
- ARB side steps
- ARB rear bar
- ARB Under Body Vehicle (UVP) protection system
- Safari snorkel
- ARB front air Locker
- Factory rear locker
- ARB Old Man Emu suspension with 600kg rear springs
- ARB recovery point
- Warn Magnum 10,000kg winch
- Bushranger recovery shackle at rear
- Complete recovery kit
- GME 6.6dBi gain UHF antenna
- GME dual band 6.1 dBi gain phone antenna
- GME headless 80channel UHF Radio (mc524)
- Strike Smoothtalker iPhone cradle
- ARB Intensity lights
- ARB fog lights in bar
- Wurton 40-inch spot/spread roof light
- Wurton rear flood work lights
WHEELS AND TYRES
- 17-inch American Racing Wheels ATX Series Dune
- Cooper Discovery ST Maxx 285/70R17
- ARB tyre deflator and inflation
- ARB aluminium trade roof rack
- 4x MAXTRAX recovery tracks with retaining pin system
- Kaymar shovel and high-lift jack roof rack holder customised to hold long-handled shovel and camera tracking system
- 2 x 15-litre RotoPax removable diesel fuel cells with mounting kits
- ARB awning
INSIDE THE ARB SMOOTH CANOPY
- Dual vents for increasing air pressure in the canopy enclosure
- ARB Outback Solutions dual drawer system
- Custom LED lighting systems on each lift-up window and in roof system
- MSA 4X4 dropslide
- MSA 4X4 fridge barrier
- ARB 60L fridge/freezer
- Fire extinguisher in rear canopy area and front of driver’s seat
- 2 x MSA 4X4 utility bags
- First-aid kit
- 4 x Baintech CIG at or above rear of drawer system
- 5 x Internal 240V power
- Complete ARB recovery kit
IN AND AROUND THE OUTBACK STORAGE DRAWER SYSTEMS
- ARB dual air compressor
- ARB air tank
- Redarc 40amp charger
- 105Ah AGM battery
- Cotek (Redarc) 1000W pure sine wave inverter
- Custom fuse module for all rear power
- Cotek remote control module
- 2 x external 240V power
- 4 x Baintech USB outlets
- Baintech battery monitoring module at rear of drawers for quick referencing
UNDER THE BONNET
- Custom Baintech fuse module for all front power
- Distribution for all rear power
- Diesel pre-filter
- 3in Manta exhaust system
IN THE CAB
- Hema HN7 Navigator custom mount on dash with reverse camera
- Custom iPad mount for Hema Explorer mapping
- 4 x Baintech USB outlets
- Baintech battery monitoring module for quick referencing of front battery
- 2 x Baintech CIG at rear centre console
- Redarc brake controller
- Custom light and Air Locker switches in roof replacing sunglasses compartment
- Snatch strap and 2 x shackles under seat for easy access
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