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Rally a humorous antidote to cancer

Rally a humorous antidote to cancer
Photo: Rally a humorous antidote to cancer
A mad band of fundraisers, variously dressed as drag queens, Star Wars characters and beer wenches, is about to tackle the outback for cancer research.

When cancer crusader James Freeman raises a toast to his beloved mum on Mother's Day he'll be dressed as a drag queen, his eyes fixed on the vast red expanse of the Mundi Mundi plains.

And as he remembers his mum Susan, as well as his dad John, both lost to the disease in the space of a year, he'll have something in the order of 400 other drag queens standing alongside him.

It's the kind of mad sight that's typical of the Shitbox Rally - an epic, annual adventure through some of the most remote locations in Australia in aid of cancer research.
And when Shitboxers ride, they do it in style. This Mother's Day the style will just happen to be the garish fashions immortalised in the iconic Aussie film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The rally, which begins in Canberra on Saturday, was founded by Freeman in 2010 as a lasting tribute to his parents. Since then it's grown to become Australia's largest private fundraiser for the Cancer Council.

This year, the 200 teams of two on the rally are expected to tip $1.2 million into Cancer Council coffers, to aid research into a disease that kills more than 43,000 Australians each year.
The concept is simple, if absurd: Put on dumb costumes, get a shitbox car worth strictly no more than $1000, and see if you can make it across some of the nation's most unforgiving roads to a finish line thousands of kilometres away.

Oh and you need to do it in just seven days.

This year's route, from Canberra up the Birdsville track to Townsville, will cover a mighty 3600 kilometres, taking a ridiculous convoy of teams, dressed variously as Star Wars characters, German beer wenches and who knows what else through one-horse towns along the way.

Freeman is feeling good about the fundraising effort and also the fact that this year teams will pass through outback towns crippled by drought, spending money along the way.
"We drop so much money in each town. Food, drinks, petrol and all the other things teams buy at local stores and petrol stations," he says.

"In those drought-hit communities, often the mental health of residents is suffering and they are under such duress. To bring something in that breaks that monotony, brings something light, it helps. It feels good."

Freeman always had faith that his concept would fly, and years on from the first rally of just 18 cars, he has immense pride in the teams that make it happen through their dogged fundraising efforts in the 12 months leading up to each rally.

"Pride is a thing I struggle with, but I'm immensely proud of the teams," he says.

Lisa Dermody has been doing her bit to drum up cancer research dollars since her first rally in 2011, and in return she's been given some of the grandest adventures of her life.
"Back in 2011, I'd just come back from a holiday with my kids and I was just so flat," she said.

"I actually typed into Google 'the road less travelled' and the rally came up. Everyone's been touched by cancer and I thought that's it, I have to do that," she tells AAP.
She'll be hoping the "vintage" 1985 VK Holden Commodore she'll be driving this year will fare a little better than the 1979 Datsun Sunny she took on the 2013 rally from Adelaide to Fremantle via central Australia.

After taking on some dodgy fuel at Coober Pedy, early in the rally, the little manual coughed, spluttered and proceeded to complete the rest of the journey on just two cylinders and at a top speed of 40 kilometres an hour (downhill).

"It was the best and the worst. We'd get up at dawn and set off before everyone else only to have them overtake us and we'd get in after dark, hours behind everyone else," she says.
"From day one we thought Oh my God, this car is never going to make it. But it did. It was unreal and awesome."

When the sun sets over the NSW outback on Mother's Day, Dermody will be among those standing beside Freeman at the Mundi Mundi lookout just outside Silverton in NSW.
Freeman says Sunday's tribute to his mum and to all the other mums who've lost their lives to the disease will reflect the true spirit of the Shitbox Rally, a serious event founded on humour and light-heartedness.

"That will be difficult but it will also be lovely," he says.

"There we'll be, dressed in drag in the middle of the outback, toasting to mums lost."

- Since the event began in 2010, it's raised more than $5.8 million and counting
- This year's teams have raised $1.1 million so far
- The route varies each year but long stretches of unsealed, potholed and horrendously corrugated roads are guaranteed
- 200 teams of two will take part this year, along with 19 mechanical and medical support crews
- The 2015 route starts in Canberra and will cover 3600km, up the Birdsville Track, to Townsville in seven days
- Teams spend a year raising the minimum $4000 they need to earn a place in the rally; Some teams have raised in excess of $10,000
- Road-weary shitboxes are auctioned off at the end of the rally, with proceeds also flowing to the Cancer Council
- In 2016 the Shitbox Rally will head across the Tasman, with an additional rally through New Zealand before the 2016 Australian rally gets underway
- To register interest or donate go to


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