footloose and fancy free in oz

A bloke, his better half, and a 4WD truck, in the wild blue yonder of the red continent

Prologue

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a wish to embark on an extended adventure of sorts; probably a fairly common item on many people’s bucket list, which is where it ended up, becoming one my favourite topics for day-dreams. It made the daily grind with the endless bullshit more bearable. With hindsight, it became the carrot on the end of a stick.

It did seem ‘around the corner’,  just another few years of working and saving hard, or – should that prove too difficult – it would become reality with the onset of retirement. One of the biggest obstacles was, that there never seemed to be enough money.

Then, a series of life-changing events took place: the job that saw me move from NZ to Brisbane suddenly ceased to exist, and – much more profoundly –  the sudden and cruel passing of my very dear friend, gave me cause to ponder some of life’s big questions.

Suffice to say, it didn’t take very long to realise that there would always be excuses to remain stuck in the ‘rat race’ or attached to some version of ‘golden handcuffs’.  I also figured that it probably just took a good dose of courage (and an equivalent amount of planning) to exit from one’s orderly urban existence.

And since there’s little more focusing than being reminded of one’s mortality, the bucket list item became a concrete plan to embark on an extended tour of Australia, in a home-away-from-home on wheels; one that would allow us to travel independently, on and off the beaten track. We didn’t want a detailed itinerary and route plan – but rather a freestyle approach to experience as much as we possibly can and to remain open to any opportunities along the way that could help fund our tour and/or deepen our experience.

THE RIG – ABOUT CHOICE AND PRIORITISING

Having travelled many years and through many countries in our beloved Kombi in the times BC (before children), and subsequently with roof tents and 4WDs, the bloke and I spent countless hours, days and weeks researching what type of camping rig would now suit us best. We looked at every conceivable configuration – caravans, trailers, motorhomes, bus conversion and everything in between. It was an arduous exercise balancing capital cost, functionality/comfort, degree of independence, aesthetics, ease of resell and resell value, lifecycle costs and much more. We came to the conclusion that unless you have a serious sized budget and can build something from scratch, you’ll have to compromise.

For us that meant prioritising our various objectives. Ultimately we wanted to be highly independent for extended periods (free-camping up to 3 weeks), with some degree of off-road capability, great solar power system, with an interior that ticked all the right boxes (lounge type set-up, good kitchen, wet-cell etc), and preferably a design that was ‘easy on the eye’. And of course, the vehicle should be mechanically sound and of overall great and lasting quality which pretty much ruled out most of the fancy plastic fantastic and otherwise mass produced items we’d looked at closely.

It seemed to take us an inordinate amount of time to get nowhere fast. In fact, at one point I wondered if the universe had other plans for us. We’d looked at so many rigs – each of which had more aspects that didn’t suit us than things that actually suited us – that I actually became weary of looking at yet another.

In the end, our shortlist of vehicles was headed by what we deemed to be a fantastic base unit (Isuzu NPS 300, a 6-ton 4WD truck, with a lift-on-camper), one that we could further modify and upgrade so that it would suit our purposes to a high degree.

The only issue was that this particular vehicle was in Darwin, more than 3400km from us in Brisbane. Having managed this obstacle to the best of our ability with remote pre-purchase checks, untold photographic evidence and extensive investigative phone calls with the seller, we decided to fly to Darwin on October 9 to inspect the vehicle and – provided it was as described – to purchase it for the agreed price and drive it back to Brisbane.

And since the truck requires a Medium-Rigid license, the bloke managed to arrange driving lessons the very next day, sat the test that afternoon and thankfully passed it.

With the huge market of motor homes on Australia’s eastern seaboard – practically our doorstep  – it did occur to us that it was more than just a little hare-brained to be flying all the way to Darwin to buy a motor home in the Northern Territory.  Alas, we packed what we thought we might need for an extended camping trip back, taking off with suitcases filled with crockery, cutlery, blankets, cleaning gear, first-aid kits, linen, our camping chairs, and everything else that we could fit into our flight luggage.

The flight to Darwin was an utter delight – flying over the Gulf of Carpentaria and seeing Arnhem Land and the glorious Kakadu National Park from above was a sight to behold. Utterly magnificent in all its remote wilderness and rugged glory. It looked like a picture perfect scene from a documentary about the untouched world.

In Darwin, the vehicle inspection went well and we felt that the chap who owned the truck seemed fair dinkum. A man of few words, a welder by trade and pragmatic in his approach, he had built the lift-on camper unit for a major trip with his lady. However their relationship dissolved shortly before departure and he ended up doing a 6-month trip on his own. In any case, he had done a pretty good job of building the unit, designing the layout and selecting some great fittings and equipment. Essentially the truck & camper was largely as described so we did the deal and took off the following day.

While we were full of excitement, it also should be noted that we left Darwin with a degree of unspoken anxiety. It was our first time in the Northern Territory, let alone the Outback, and we were still coming to terms with the remoteness and vastness we would encounter, not to mention the various reptilian inhabitants that scare the bejeezus out of me. (By the way, the chap worked on a crocodile farm and had the highest respect for crocs and their creepy mates).

We were aware that driving through the NT remoteness, moreover without mobile coverage (we only had Vodafone which is practically useless beyond the city limits of Darwin) in a vehicle that we didn’t actually know first-hand was … well,  a calculated risk … but a risk nonetheless. We also knew that the tyres were on their last legs, so to speak. As for the spare wheel, it looked like it would need a Hail Mary to get you out of any sticky situation and to the next settlement. All the same, we didn’t want to replace them in Darwin but rather back in Brisbane where we there was more choice and better prices. We were also still toying with the idea of converting to Super Singles.

Suffice to say we were somewhat on edge; we carefully listened to every strange sound, creak and groan that we heard or thought we heard. And boy, there were all manner of new sounds to get used to. After all, it was a proper chugging truck we were driving – light years away from the highly-engineered, eager and responsive German coupe in our garage.

The truck drove well as we headed into the Kakadu National Park. We wanted to take in some of the local sights since we were in the area; we drove into Jabaru  and camped there for the night. The next morning I saw a dog sniffing around our truck marking his territory. I thought it was curious that the dog didn’t wear a collar, especially since this was a National Park. Soon thereafter came another bloody dog. Again he had no collar.

When I shared my astonishment with the bloke, he took a look at the dog, made references to my hair colour and mumbled something about dingos.

I was chagrined that it didn’t occur to me. Mind you, I can spot a crocodile or a snake. Reckon I’ve got my wildlife identification priorities right.

NOT SO COOL IN THE HEAT

There was another surprise waiting for us in the morning. It was the temperature in the fridge which was noticeably warm, producing melted butter and other unpleasant discoveries.

I suspected a serious problem with the solar fed fridge. The bloke disagreed and stated that I simply didn’t have it turned down low enough, to take account of the fact that it was full of food. In an effort to maintain harmonious marital relations I agreed to turn it to maximum cooling.  And indeed, throughout the very hot day, the fridge temperature kept dropping. It put a smile on the bloke’s face.

The following morning the temperature inside the fridge was once again lukewarm. Needless to say, breakfast was had with few smiles and even fewer words. Something was clearly wrong with the fridge.

After another day of this, and by now extremely rancid butter, we drove back to Jabaroo where we had patchy phone reception and phoned a number of service agents to seek a solution. We were told that it sounded like the compressor had failed and we’d have to take the fridge into their workshop so it could be connected to a diagnostic unit. The bad news was the indicative price for a fix (near $1000). The even worse news was that there was no replacement compressor in Darwin, nor anywhere else in the NT for that matter.

The bloke suggested to phone one other repair person. That chap sounded much less gloomy and told us that within an hour of work he’d probably have  the fridge fixed or at least know the exact problem. This repair man was back in Darwin so we back-tracked there. It turned out that the fridge was fine, which was a relief. The problem was with the four house batteries that didn’t hold enough charge to run the fridge. So replacement batteries were on order. Another purchase item we wanted to defer until we had a better idea of what type and size of battery bank we wanted.

Oh well, at least we knew the problem.
While absence of refrigeration is a bit tricky when the ambient temperature is in the high 30s, I figured that we could work around that.

Having purged most of our fridge content, which had become decidedly malodorous, and replenished fruit and veges etc. I pondered what people did ‘back in the day’ when there was no refrigeration. Then the universe ever so kindly supplied me with the memory of my grandmother, who would wrap fruit and vegetables in newspaper to keep fresh. Worth a try, I thought, and proceeded to individually wrap every item in newspaper (Seeing we’re vegetarians, there was a fair amount of fresh produce)

This proved a resounding success. Apples, zucchini, carrots, capsicum etc – they all lasted exceptionally well. I even wrapped an iceberg lettuce which astonished me by keeping fresh and crunchy for an amazing 5 days in the tropical heat! If I hadn’t experienced it myself I’d probably call it bullshit.

After seeing the fridge repair man, we left Darwin once more, this time towards Lichfield National Park where we arrived late in the evening – exhausted, sweaty and hungry.  We pulled up for the night and were looking forward to preparing a nice dinner and having a refreshing shower. But our hearts sank when we got into the camper and found that now neither the lights nor the water pump worked. Then we joined the dots and realised that all the testing had rendered the batteries completely and utterly dead.

This meant that after sunset – once the sun stopped producing a charge – we had no power; no fridge, no light and no water.

Clearly not a terribly comfortable situation, but being incurable optimists, we figured we could work around that too.

The remainder of our 4400km journey was an exercise in restraint. It meant finding a place to stop well before sunset so we could see the food when we were preparing it. There’s also something to be said for seeing what you’re eating …

As we were driving into the immense vastness of the Outback where we sometimes didn’t encounter another vehicle for several hours, it brought a whole new dimension to feeling ‘isolated’ and I rather hoped that everything else would run smoothly. It didn’t bear thinking what it must be like being stranded there in the sizzling heat, in the middle of nowhere, without any help nearby and without any means of communication.

However, as the trip progressed we became increasingly comfortable with the truck and our trust grew as it chugged along nicely and didn’t miss a beat.

We got back to Brisbane pretty much on schedule, without any other incidents and with a good idea of what work we would like to undertake on our new home-on-wheels.

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