INDEPENDENCE IS THE KEY
Rob isn’t about to let anything get in the way of his love of travelling around Australia
WORDS BY ROB WYNNE, PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROB WYNNE AND DANIEL REBER
In the years before I turned 33, my passion was working and travelling through all the remote parts of this country. On my dirt bike, I had traversed all 7 deserts of Australia and many of the tracks forged by early explorers. As soon as I finished one trip, I’d be looking forward to the next. That all ended in May, 1999, when I was out on an organised “endure” ride with a few friends. I’d done 2 loops of the track and we all geared up again for our third loop. I was out front of our group, with adrenaline pumping, while tailing another rider that wouldn’t pull over to let me through.
He then slowed and pulled off to the left. I thought he had finally decided to let me past, but all too quickly I realised why he had pulled over. There was a log across the track, which I’d been over twice before but had forgotten all about on this lap. The log was about 18 inches high and I knew I was going too fast to stop, so I made the split-second decision to try to jump the bike over it. I did a wheel stand just as I got the front wheel over, and I hoped the back suspension would soak up the sudden impact.
Well, it didn’t. Instead, the suspension bottomed out completely and, because I was standing, the seat came up and punched me into the air. At this point everything turned to slow motion and while I flew through the air like Superman, I was thinking: “this is gonna hurt!” I had no idea that this was the instant my spinal cord broke.
I must have blacked out for a moment, because the next thing I remember was lying flat on my back looking up at the sky. I wasn’t in any pain and tried to sit up but was unable to because I’d lost the use of my stomach muscles. It was then that I realised I’d broken my back.
I spent the next 4 months in the Spinal ward. At the time I was thinking my world had come crashing down, but then a young fellow rolled in beside my bed and made me realise how lucky I was. You see, he was a quadriplegic who didn’t even have full use of his hands, whereas I did, and that gave me more incentive to get back out there and continue the travelling that I love.
So there I was, looking at the ceiling and figuring how to get back riding again. I was working out in my head the best way to get a sidecar setup on my bike and when my bike mates came in we’d always talk about it and toss ideas back and forth. I purchased a trike, behind which I towed a teardrop camper, and this was my first step back into my travelling lifestyle. I’d done quite a few trips with it but there was always the problem of finding accessible amenities for overnight stops, so the next step was to look at taking my own amenities with me.
I weighed up the idea of a caravan and tow vehicle but that meant the trike would have to stay home. Instead, I opted for a motorhome setup so I could take along any vehicle or equipment I wanted on the trailer behind. I’d looked at what was available and couldn’t find anything that gave me total independence, so decided I’d have to design my own.
After looking into several options and realising a bus would not allow me the width I was after, I decided to purchase a truck and utilise the maximum width allowable to build the camper on the back. This gave me the space I needed to be able to manoeuvre my wheelchair and turn around inside without bumping into anything. I didn’t even consider a walk though set up as the driver’s seat was well below the floor level of the camper and it would also take away useable space. With all these ideas now in mind, I had to find a builder. None of the caravan manufacturers wanted to deviate from their run-of-the mill designs and mount one on the chassis of the truck. I then approached Dryren Trailers and told them my idea, and they were keen to help me out!
Then came the layout. The main reason for this project was to provide myself with a shower and toilet, so a small WC area was strategically placed towards the front. It had a padded shower seat that sets up over the toilet and a hand-held shower head. With that taken care of, the queen size bed was placed across the back to let me move from my wheelchair straight into bed from the side. Wardrobes were designed so I could reach the hanging rail and the rest of the storage was drawers for ease of access, with the kitchen and lounge area in the middle. The camper basically looks like a normal caravan inside but I had the benches and lounge built a little narrower than normal, which gave me turning space between them. A 900mm wide entry door was sourced to make wheelchair access easier too.
The other consideration was how to get into the driver’s seat and also into my camper. I made enquiries to the usual access lift suppliers but couldn’t get anything that suited my needs, so I grabbed a mate and we put our farming ingenuity to work! The camper lift was a simple platform that folded down to its horizontal position manually and was lifted up and down by a single hydraulic ram. For travel it folded up in front of the entry door to stay within the width confines of the truck.
Getting into the front seat involves another single hydraulic ram operation utilising a mounted plastic seat that moves up and down from the driver’s seat. Initially, after transferring myself onto the seat I would disassemble the wheelchair, and a fiddly process of getting it into the truck would ensue! But after 7 years of doing that, I now have a roof-top wheelchair hoist so all the hard work is done automatically.
The awning is also operated from the wheelchair by using a length of electrical conduit with a . inch bolt poking out the side of it at the very end, allowing me to unlatch and pull out the awning with ease. The trailer is fitted with light fold-down ramps and a remote control winch so I am totally independent and able to winch on and off whichever vehicle I choose to take with me.
Since building the camper truck, I have travelled throughout Queensland, Northern Territory, New South Wales and South Australia, mostly in the remote areas. I’m a frequent patron of the Nindigully Pub in rural Queensland, as shown by the multiple stickers on the truck, as well as all the out-of-the-way places and country events dotted all over this big land. Being able to stop wherever you want and being completely self-sufficient is a huge plus, and towing my trike or ute for getting around gives me that extra freedom.
Independence is the key to everything I have had designed, so I don’t have to rely on other people. I’ve travelled most of the 100,000km solo, enjoying the places I want to see and avoiding being tied to a schedule. I often find friends who want to come along with me in the truck for a trip or meet up somewhere if we are all attending the same events, but apart from that you’ll often find me free camping anywhere the ground is flat, especially if it’s next to a creek or river.
This country is more accessible for wheelchair travel than you think, so if you have the passion to get out there, just do it. No matter what, I’ll keep travelling throughout this great country as long as I’m able to, and I’ll enjoy every minute of it.