Caravanning and Motorhoming in the Australian Outback
As we travel we often get asked “where is your favourite place in Australia” – while this is a hard question to answer, our thoughts normally turn to the most remote and isolated places we have travelled to. The vastness of the Australian outback is very difficult to describe to people who have not experienced it. You can stand on a small rise and literally see the horizon in every direction. There are vast areas of nothingness that look completely alien – and there are places where the landscape changes every few minutes – and there is natural beauty everywhere – if you are prepared to open your eyes.
In all our years travelling this great land, I have seen nothing as impressive as a great storm system approaching across the desert as we sit sipping (cask) wine around a camp fire hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town – or watch in wonder as dozens of kangaroos arrive to drink from the pools of fresh water left by that storm.
While outback travel is something that needs to be experienced – it is not to be taken lightly. Along with all that amazing scenery and wildlife there is considerable potential for danger and even disaster. Even the most prepared traveller cannot anticipate all potential hazards – make no mistake, it costs money to really see the outback!
Let’s look at the major hazards you will face…
The roads and tracks
Outback roads are normally not sealed; they are gravel, dirt or worse. This not only makes them very hard on vehicles and their passengers, but also makes them extremely unpredictable. Unsealed outback roads can be like a 6-lane concrete highways one week then like a traveller’s worse nightmare the next week. Even a tiny amount of rain can make dirt roads impassable. Any information you can obtain on road conditions needs to be VERY recent to be of any value. Corrugated roads destroy vehicles and caravans – they break things on the toughest off-road rig and totally destroy rigs and caravans that have not been designed for rough roads. If you ever get the opportunity to travel the Great Central Road, you will see more broken and abandoned vehicles, camper-trailers and caravans that you ever thought possible.
The remoteness and the lack of assistance
Outback roads take you hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres from the nearest town. These places do not have an auto-electrician, a refrigeration tech or even a mechanic. The nearest repair workshop could be 500km or more away. This has the potential to not only be costly, but potentially life threatening. There are no mobile phone towers and no internet hotspots to allow you to call for help.
Now if you are Bill Gates or getting your hands on lots of cash is as simple as asking one of your personal assistants to transfer another few thousand to your petty cash account, none of this is really a big problem. But if like us, you don’t have millions in off-shore accounts, you are going to have to prepare very carefully.
Your options include:
- Satellite phone
- SPOT personal locator
- ANT satellite internet system
- HF radio
We choose to carry all of these except the HF radio. While this might seem like over-kill, it does allow us to be quite sure that we can obtain the right type of assistance if we really need it. Each of these different communication options has its own unique set of advantages (and dis-advantages). See my article Emergency Communications for Remote Travel for more details.
Preparing the vehicle (and caravan).
Tyres are the first thing you should consider. More is better. We normally only carry one spare, on some very remote trips we have carried two spare tyres. We have all the tools and equipment to repair tyres and we have practised using them. Monitoring tyre pressures is almost essential – these electronic pressure monitoring systems have the potential for saving both tyres and of course money. They warn the driver when a tyre is too hot (perhaps a wheel bearing issue), when a tyre is over inflated and when it is under inflated. These systems are not cheap – but I think they are worth the investment if you plan on travelling outback roads and tracks often.
Springs and suspension take a beating on rough and corrugated roads. These need to be as strong as you can make them. We have added air-bags to help with the load in the back of our motorhome and we have fitted heavy duty shocks all round.
I’m not a big fan of Murphy, but his third rule “anything that can break, will do so at the worst possible time, in the most inconvenient place” seems to be right on the mark. I go over every millimetre of our rig many times before we head outback – I look for anything that could possibly break or malfunction. I look for things that might be rubbing – not surprisingly a million corrugations can cause even the toughest of pipes to wear a hole of not properly secured. I also repeat this detailed inspection every few days when we are on rough tracks. Anything that has ever broken or given trouble on Hobohome has been fixed in such a way as to make it stronger or at least far less likely to cause drama again.
You can never have too many tools (well I guess technically you can – but you know what I mean). It is just a great feeling to be able to open a locker and pull out the exact right tool to fix the widget that just broke (it is a slightly better feeling to have a new widget in that locker – but there are just so many types of widgets required). As you can guess, we carry lots of tools. We have a small welder, three socket sets (covering every size from 6mm to 2.5 inch), lots of spanners and hand tools, grinders, drills and even a tap and die set – and if all else fails and we can’t weld it back on – we have a thousand nylon-ties and 5 tie downs to hold it together until we get somewhere where it can be fixed.
Sorry to state the obvious, but applying the correct quantity of money can fix almost any problem – not having at least some emergency fund is a recipe for disaster when travelling remotely. We are always thinking “what if…”.
We have most of our (meagre) worldly possessions in our motorhome – if something went badly wrong and we could not afford to fix it, we could be forced to abandon it – not a nice thought really. To travel outback roads without ready access to enough money to fix or at least recover your vehicle is not bright.
You should also factor the cost of fuel. The further you get from civilisation, the more fuel is going to cost you. As I write this (July 2013) diesel on the east coast is about $1.30/ltr. Diesel at the road house at Warburton is $2.60/ltr. For us, that adds a whopping $260.00 to the cost of a tank of fuel.
Now that you have spent all that time and money preparing your vehicles, buying tools and supplies and communications equipment, take the time to plan the trip well. Choose the right time of the year – consider the weather. Have a backup plan – what if the road is closed or just too rough?
Lastly – take your time. We see so many people trying to set a land-speed record as they tear across the country. They then comment on how incredibly boring it was (and often how massively destructive it was to their vehicle). If you really want to enjoy the outback and you want to do what you can to avoid huge repair costs, you are going to have to drop below the speed of sound and perhaps even stop occasionally. Our average speed on outback roads is probably around 65km/hr and we often stop in one place for 4 or 5 nights. We use our second vehicle (the Moke) to explore the area before moving on. We talk to fellow travellers, we explore side-tracks and we take the time to smell the wild flowers. Our attitude is that we will probably never travel this way again (although we often do return to these remote places.)
The Australian outback is not for everyone – but for the few that dare (and prepare), it is an experience that will stay with you for ever.
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