On Tour Debrief
13 January 2012
A year sounds like a long time, but now we know it actually isn't! (Stop laughing, all those people who were wise enough to allow several years to do the lap.) We're looking forward to going back to spend more time in places we missed. There were places we'd heard a lot about that we were dying to see, which turned out to be (in our opinion) overhyped. I'm not going to name them, because I don't want to deter others, but I will report that quite a few people said to us "Kakadu? We call it Kakadon't! Don't bother going there." Ditto for Margaret River… "Oh, it's just for yuppies. It's all wine and fancy food." Well, we loved both areas.
WISDOM IN HINDSIGHT
On the way around the block, we learned a thing or two about long trips:
• You're not going to see it all. Be prepared to sacrifice some things in order to see others: come back another time!
• Don't be too rigid with your timetable: you want to be able to linger for longer in places you really like.
• Check weather conditions before setting off, and if there are high winds or storms forecast, consider delaying your departure.
• Don't aim to travel too far in a day. We settled into a pattern of around 300km (or a maximum of four hours travelling time) each day.
• If you're not sure whether you'll like free camping, you can initially opt just for a battery set-up that allows you to go for a night or two without power. If you love it, add solar panels, a generator and so on later.
• Make sure that you have good phone coverage. While Telstra might not have the cheapest plans, they certainly have the best coverage (at the time of writing) for phone and internet.
• Be prepared for medical emergencies. We both got a bad dose of flu in one of the worst spots – crossing the Kimberley! It wasn't fun having to drive hundreds of kilometres to find medical service. If you can, add some antibiotics to your basic first aid kit.
• Build some special treats into the budget – helicopter flights, live shows, dinner cruises, and daytrips on boats. Also allow extra funds to fly home in an emergency.
• Sort out your finances and mail before you go. Update your will(s) and assign power of attorney; arrange regular debits/payments for bills; set up online banking; organise mail collection and forwarding.
• Don't pack too much. Don't pack too much. Don't pack too much!
TOP 10 ACTIVITIES (in no particular order)
• Swimming with Tuna at Port Lincoln
• Reef cruise at Ningaloo
• Fishing at Darwin
• Horizontal Falls (out of Broome/Derby)
• 4WD daytrip to Cape Leveque
• Kayaking at Katherine Gorge
• Dinner cruise at Katherine Gorge
• Bungle Bungles flight
• Nullarbor crossing and golf
• Stargazing at free camps
PEOPLE ARE TOPS!
We've always said that the very best part of caravanning is meeting people. We're often asked, "Did you meet anyone memorable?” The answer? "Yes – dozens of them!"
There are some people we met only once that we clicked with instantly. Others we ran into again… and again… and again! Some of those became firm friends, like Janet and Bucko. Then there were Lois and Ralph Madden, and two solo female travellers, Helen (whom we met at Uluru) and Jan (near the end of our trip, at Mildura). And what about Irene and Pete, who showed us through their gorgeous renovated 30-year-old van at Rollingstone, then let the film crew invade at Warrnambool so C&M readers could see it too? And then there's the 'Mudgee Gang', met on the shakedown trip, who are waiting to welcome us to their caravan club outings! And that's just a tiny sample.
It wasn't only other travellers that made an impression. When visiting local attractions, we became absorbed in the personal stories of people who worked hard to start up a business and keep it going. People like the Bumbaks at Carnarvon, who are at the forefront of water conservation at their plantation. At Margaret River we found Russell McKnight, who planted the hedge for his maze at Amaze'n and then waited 14 years for it to grow. In the same area lived artist Pat Negus and her husband Tim, who made their own bricks for their home and Chapel of the Flowers at Swallows Welcome, the smallest boutique winery at Margaret River. Then there were the legions of volunteers that kept museums functioning Australia-wide!
How can we pick 'standout' people? Australia is full of them! We were lucky enough to share many congenial happy hours with a good number of them.
STICKING TO A BUDGET
When it comes to saving money, you'd be hard put to find anyone cannier than caravanners. They have great ideas to stretch their dollars while they travel: they use leftovers wisely; look for coupons; take advantage of 'Tightwad Tuesday' at local clubs and pubs; and they know to book for six and get the seventh night free, or to free-camp occasionally to save site costs.
Lots of them earn money while they travel, like Rex and Glenys, who intended to visit Ceduna for a few days and ended up staying for several months working in the grain silos. Mike and Zanette had taken their plumbing business on the road, and Bob Black was a man in great demand with his caravan repair service. It's really amazing how much work there is out there!
Free camping (and cheap camping) is becoming more and more popular. Most national park campgrounds are really well maintained and in beautiful, pristine spots. A yearly national park fee can make a daily camping fee very cheap indeed, especially at seniors' rates!
If you're thinking of free camping, consider how you can make your van ready. Do some research on solar panels, quiet generators, LED lights, inverters, solar showers and water storage. Keep an eye out for fellow travellers heading along the same route as you, and arrange to meet up at free camp spots for extra security and companionship.
HOW WE TRAVELLED
We were fortunate to do our big lap in a very well appointed and solidly built Crusader Manhattan caravan. The overall length of the van at 30ft (internal measurement 23ft) and a travelling weight of 2900kg put it firmly into the 'large' category. It performed great – no water leaks, no drawers sticking, and all appliances performed well.
We travelled largely on sealed roads, although we did venture onto well-maintained dirt roads on a few occasions. The van handled all conditions extremely well.
VERDICT: The van is a quality product and well suited to the task of long-distance blacktop touring.
THE TOW VEHICLE
A relative newcomer to the towing scene, the 3L Isuzu DMax turned out to be a reliable performer. The task it had to do firmly put it into the upper range of its towing limits. I was asked often, "How does the Isuzu perform?" and I was happy to report, "Very well!”
The vehicle has a towing limit of three tonnes, and we used all but 100kg of that limit. Fully loaded with fuel, driver, passenger and luggage, the vehicle weighed 2500kg. Speed was easily maintained in the 90–95km/h range. The addition of power module, snorkel and a larger exhaust system certainly helped. Given the load, fuel consumption was good, with an average of 18–18.5L per 100km.
VERDICT: After 40,000km, three-quarters of that towing a 2900kg van, we can report the vehicle performed extremely well. The significant issue was the weight difference of 400kg between the caravan and the car, and as the 120L fuel tank emptied, that difference widened. In hindsight, a preferred combination would be the Isuzu towing a load of up to 2600kg or to have a tow vehicle with a towing capacity of 3500kg.
WHERE TO NOW?
We no longer need our big family-sized home, so we plan to put the house on the market and buy something smaller – with room for a caravan in the yard! After that, we intend to spend roughly half of each year travelling (spaced throughout the year) and the other half back home with friends and family.
WORD BY MARG & ROB MCALISTER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRETT SHEARER & SIMON BAYLISS