Toyota Arkana Safari Bus – The Wilderness Observer
Back in early 1990 an opportunity arose to purchase an Arkana Safari Bus for Gippsland High Country Tours which seemed like a good idea at the time. That decision set the business up with a capable and comfortable 4WD vehicle that suited both the mountainous terrain of the Victorian Alps and was equally at home on outback tours.
What is an Arkana?
“The Wilderness Observer” was one of many Arkanas produced in WA by Arkana Body Builders where over 2,300 modified vehicles were made between about 1964 and 1991 supplying mainly the mining and tourism industries. “Since 1964 Western Australian based company Arkana have been building specialised stretched all-wheel drive vehicles, based on Japanese Models” (Peter Thoeming, Overlander, January 1990)
This Arkana, like others of its era, started its life in Japan as a standard Toyota Landcruiser HJ75 cab-chassis with a compliance plate showing it was licenced to seat 3. It was shipped to Western Australia and the Arkana factory in Balcatta, Perth where a team of specialist skilled tradesman extended the chassis (by 500mm), upgraded or strengthened other critical areas (like replacing the standard Toyota 4.11 differentials with lower ratio 5.29 ones), then added a custom built bus body and fitting it out inside with forward-facing bus sears. An Australian built bus body on an imported Toyota chassis, made for Australian conditions.
Scans from a letter to Department of Transport & Works (NT) August 1986 including engineers calculations and confirmation that these Arkanas met requirements for registration in NT.
By the time it rolled off the assembly line this Arkana was licenced to seat 12 (driver and one passenger in the front and 10 passengers in the rear). It had a Tare weight of 2600 and was purchase new by Tenderfoot Tours to operate Centralian outback safari tours as Unit 7, The Wilderness Observer. (They also had Unit 6 Wilderness Adventurer)
The Arkana known as Wilderness Observer (Unit 7) featuring in an article in Overlander 4WD Touring Guide c1987
A new chapter at Gippsland High Country Tours
After we purchased it in 1990, it initially operated a range of charter tours for Austour and Travel Company for a few years, mainly their Kimberley to Kakadu Tour during the cooler months. (Photos in gallery below) Then in 1991 it returned home full time for Jenny to focus on developing her range of ecotours and walks in the High Country and East Gippsland area.
(Photos above taken by Jenny Lawrence, B Randell, D Cross, M Curson & J Heywood)
However The Wilderness Observer was destined to get its wheels into the outback bulldust again, when Jenny was convinced by Jim Reside of Wildlife Unlimited, to offer a couple of natural history tours to experience Lake Eyre in flood in the year 2000. These were a great hit, so other outback natural history trips followed and it seemed logical to look for another Arkana to make these tours more viable.
The Arkana "Wilderness Observer" on an Innamincka & Cooper Creek outback tour in 2004 with Ecotrek's GM Suburban.
Then there were two Arkanas at Gippsland High Country Tours
In 2006, a newer (1992 HZJ75) Arkana was found in Darwin so Jenny, with mechanic friend Hans, flew to Darwin, assessed the vehicle, made the purchase and drove it home. I understand that this one had been purchased new by Safari Treks, then purchased by Coo-ee Tours who used this Arkana running day tours in Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks and after that business was sold the owners kept the Arkana as they were fond of it, so it had been garaged for some time. The “new” Arkana (later named “Aunty Ruby” by driver and guide Wayne) was never quite as good as the old one, despite a range of “improvements” on the older model and it never found its way into Jenny’s heart. So in 2013 when Jenny decided outback tours requiring 4WDs were not going to be part of the future tour program, the newer Arkana “Aunty Ruby”, was sold – ironically back to Western Australia where it was made.
Above: The "new" Arkana (Aunty Ruby) featuring on Coo-ee Tours brochure and with Gippsland High Country Tours on a Strzelecki Track outback tour in 2009.
Where is the Arkana now?
The old Arkana, The Wilderness Observer, has retired now, but remained shedded and holds many memories of amazing adventures. Jenny is often asked if its for sale – well they say everything is for sale if the price is right, but this one is a bit of a favourite, so someone would have to be offering it a pretty special new home!
These vehicles were the backbone of the Australian outback 4WD touring industry for the best part of a couple of decades and deserve to be recognised. There are a few still operating tours around the country. Pemberton Discovery Tours are very fond of theirs too, but it is a later model (2000) built in Melbourne. I’m sure many have gone to scrap, some have been converted to campers and no doubt, like The Wilderness Observer – a few are still sitting in sheds because their owners just have a soft spot for them.
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Gallery of Arkana (Wilderness Observer) photos
After we purchase it, there were some outback tours for Austour & Travel Company, mosly the Kimberley to Kakadu Safari (photos: B Edwards and clients)
Left: Kimberley to Kadadu Safari Right: Ord River
Left: Tanami Desert Right: Oops - mechanical failure on rough outback roads
This next group of images show 3 Arkanas working together for an Austour Central Australian trip for Melbourne Girls Grammar School in 1990.
L-R: Gerry Tilker's 6WD Arkana (6WD Ox Trek Tours), The Wilderness Observer (GHCT) and Unit 6 Wilderness Adventurer (Austour) Photo B Edwards
Road into the Bungle Bungles, Wilderness Observer and Gerry's 6WD
Gippsland and the High Country
The poor Arkana must have felt the cold on its first few Alpine tours!
Left: Tom (David Gardiner) with Guiseppe hat in the snow. Right: hot cuppa at camp before a bushwalk (Photo D Cross)
Left: Jenny with Roy and Noonie at Bruthen in warmer weather Right: Sunshine in the alps (Photo D Randell)