Reflections on outback touring

Reflections -on -outback -touring -960x 350

Two long-term travellers share what they’ve learned during a decade on the road.

Words by John and Jean Mack

The Kimberley weather was its perfect best, 32°C with a gentle easterly breeze, as we hooked up the new caravan and left the farm for the last time. We drove the short distance to the Great Northern Highway and then paused briefly to toss a coin to see if we should turn left or right. That has been about the extent of our planning ever since.

That was back in June 2005 and, over the past 10 years, we have travelled many thousands of kilometres, wandering the more remote regions this country has to offer. It is a magic lifestyle – no timeframes, no itinerary, just pottering at our own pace, following the sun and staying for as little or long as we like. It’s certainly the pinnacle of a zero-stress lifestyle.

After retirement, we made the decision to travel for as long as we could, just exploring the wide extent of this beautiful country. In particular, we planned on travelling to the real outback regions and so began the search for the right sort of rig to accompany us.

THE PLANNING STAGE

At our age, we need a few comforts in our life, so tent camping was quickly crossed off the list of possible travel accommodation. Camper trailers soon followed – too much packing and unpacking. Most motorhomes with the level of home comforts we required were not suited to off-bitumen travel. An offroad caravan was certain to be the best bet, however, the problem was that we had little knowledge of caravans or the caravanning lifestyle. That made us nervous about spending a big lump of capital on something we knew little about.

For the next 18 months, we carried out a thorough search for information about caravans and the lifestyle. We felt the rig would need to be seriously well-built, self-contained with the ability to stay away from the facilities of civilisation for extended periods, and able to handle the sort of country we intended visiting.

During that time, we haunted caravan parks and free camping sites, and crawled under and inside dozens of makes and models. We talked to many experienced owners about where they had travelled and what their experiences were. We discussed what worked and what did not, and what they would change if starting again. Plus we did a huge amount of reading and research. We felt this was a better-rounded and much more in-depth research methodology than just talking to dealers and visiting caravan shows.

At the time, we were living in Kununurra, WA, at the eastern end of the Gibb River Road, so we were able to talk to caravanners who had spent time out there living with the dust and corrugations. While this is not the extreme caravanning country it was 25 years ago, it is still a better testing ground than the blacktop.

This process eventually led us to look seriously at Bushtracker Caravans. After flying across the country from the west coast to visit the Bushtracker factory at Kunda Park near Maroochydore, Qld, we eventually placed an order for a 5.79m (19ft) custom-built model.

Now, after 10 years of travel, our original research continues to pay dividends. At the time of purchase I thought the van was beautifully built but a bit expensive. We now think it was one of the smartest decisions we have ever made. We have had no issues other than routine maintenance, which is remarkable considering where we have travelled. If you are considering travelling for an extended period of time, years in our case, it makes good sense to go for a top-quality rig, one that is ‘fit for purpose’ and has a sound track record and excellent resale value.

SELECTING THE RIGHT RIG

So, what sort of rig do you need to enjoy this wonderful, carefree lifestyle? There are a few basics that will go a long way towards making full-time travel more comfortable.

If you plan on spending most of your travels following the bitumen, most good quality caravans will meet your needs.

Do not limit your selection based on just what your current vehicle can tow, as this may place limits on what sized rig you purchase and being too cramped because of it may be a daily irritant for years to come.

Buy a rig that is genuinely ‘fit for purpose’. Do not get distracted by a glitzy finish or layouts and, if you intend travelling off-bitumen, do not be swayed by lots of checkerplate cladding and an ‘offroad’ sticker prominently displayed on the exterior – it’s what you can’t see that is the important stuff in the manufacture of any caravan.

TRAVELLING OFF THE BITUMEN?

For those of you that plan on travelling extensively off the bitumen, you need to consider buying a van that is more robustly built than the standard on-road van.

Ideally, it should have an excellent, full-length chassis, really good suspension and a bit more ground clearance than normal. The internal fittings and fixtures also need to be well-engineered to counteract the impact of corrugated roads. Good construction will exclude dust ingress so this should be an important aspect of your research.

Your driving style is probably the most critical issue that will affect reliability and longevity when driving corrugated roads. Dropping your tyre pressures and speed, and driving carefully to the prevailing conditions is essential, even in the best custom-built offroad rigs.

Having an effective communication system is, in my opinion, essential when travelling out of mobile range, particularly in less populated regions. A breakdown or sudden illness could become a life-threatening event without an effective communication system. This usually means hiring or buying either a satellite phone or an HF radio – expensive but what price do you put on your safety and wellbeing?

HOME COMFORTS

An onboard shower and toilet is just about standard in most caravans these days and it makes life more comfortable and civilised, especially when bush camping. To this end, having more than a single water tank is a definite advantage, so you are not continually looking for water sources to top your tank up.

Diesel or gas-powered caravan heaters are the go nowadays and make an immeasurable difference to your levels of comfort during the winter months. Consider having an additional hot air line extension into the ensuite – when it’s zero degrees outside, this allows you to heat the bathroom to your desired temperature and it’s just bliss!

A small microwave is a very useful appliance for quickly cooking veggies, reheating food or drinks and defrosting frozen goods fast. Their use will require a suitably sized inverter if you’re running off battery power. Don’t plan on cooking casseroles in them, as they have a high power demand, but short-term use is okay.

If you plan on free camping a fair bit, then you need to give some serious consideration to power generation. Solar power is, by far, the best long-term solution and, fortunately, costs are continuing to come down. In some cases, you may need a generator as a back-up for inclement weather but this would not be my choice for the main source of power. A good rule of thumb that will power most systems is to have double the wattage in solar panel capacity than the amount of amp-hours of battery capacity required to meet your typical demand. You can’t have too much solar!

ENJOY YOUR TRAVELS

Caravanning, whether just for holidays or as a full-time lifestyle, should be about one thing – enjoyment. For us, this is heading out to the remote and less-populated regions, as we love the solitude and the wildlife.

We have travelled some magic country over the years. In Western Australia, heading east across the centre from Carnegie Station in the Little Sandy Desert to the Northern Territory border and beyond on the infamous Gunbarrel Highway was a special trip. We followed in the footsteps of the famous surveyor and explorer Len Beadell and we felt a real spiritual connection out there.

We have visited McGowan’s Island on the north Kimberly coast beyond Kalumburu and taken the van out to Mitchell Falls. We’ve explored the desert and arid regions of WA, the Territory and Queensland, and recently have come down from an extended trip to Cape York. We are now about halfway around our ‘big lap’. In-between times, we have looked after 1.8 million acres of ex-pastoral country out in Western Australia’s Little Sandy Desert, mustered cattle north-east of Wiluna, WA, and looked after a 27,000-acre sheep and cattle property in Queensland.

We have loved every minute of our travels and you could not wish for a more laidback and stress-free lifestyle if you tried.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

  • Take your time, travel at a relaxed pace and enjoy the journey
  • Carry good quality topographical maps
  • Stay off the main highways, plan your progress to follow the quieter country routes – less traffic and much better scenery
  • Only park-up at the sort of places you really enjoy staying at. For us, this is farm stays, quiet country retreats and bush camping
  • Follow the sun
  • Take time out to enjoy your hobbies and other pursuits
  • Eat well, stay fit and just enjoy life