Preparation

Why do any preparation ?

We prepare for our trip in the hope that all our preparation will ensure a trouble free and enjoyable trip.

We need to prepare ourselves and our home base for a possibly extended absence. We need to prepare our caravan or camper if we are using one for the trip. We need to prepare our towing vehicle if we are towing. We need to prepare all of the things that we’ll be taking – portable toilet, clothing, fridge / ice box, etc. A critical one is that we need to prepare our finances.

If we manage to get the preparation right, an enjoyable and trouble free trip, whether it be for a weekend trip or a year long “lap” will result.

The camper

Let’s start with the easiest first. Well, it isn’t easy by any means. It is a lot less complicated than your towing vehicle though.

Simple things first. Connect it to the vehicle and test the lights. If they all work as required then good, that’s done. If they don’t then you need to replace bulbs, check connectors, etc. to make sure that they do.

Brakes. Tow it around the block and check the brakes for correct operation whether the be simple override brakes or electric. Do they work properly ? If yes, then good. If no, then either fix them or get them fixed.

Wheel bearings. How many kilometres have they done since they were serviced. If it’s getting a bit up there then now is the time to pull them apart and clean and re-grease them and put them back together properly.

While you’re doing the wheel bearings you can get under the camper to check and grease the suspension. Make good and sure that all of the fixings are tight and that there are no visible issues with the trailing arms, springs and shock absorbers. While you’re are under there you can check connectors, all fasteners, water tank mounts, etc. Check everything.

The tow coupling. We use a poly block hitch so all we need to do in that department is a bit of silicone spray or grease for the top and bottom and the pin and to check the actual block for cracks. There will be a grease nipple or two on the body so a squirt of grease is a good idea too.

Poly block coupling

Check the bolts that hold it onto the trailer. Don’t just look at them. Use a correct sized socket and a breaker bar and make sure that they are tight.

The electrical system. Check all, and I do mean all connectors are clean and tight. Check your batteries and make sure that they are fully charged and that they have good capacity and will hold a charge. The easiest way to do this is to charge the batteries overnight until fully charged. Let them sit with no load and measure the voltage. If it’s still showing 100% state of charge turn on the fridge or a few lights for an hour or so. It should be showing very nearly 100% state of charge. Reliable batteries are essential. They power your water pump and fridge as well as lights, phone chargers, etc. If you charge the batteries from the vehicle while you’re travelling make sure that works as well. Waking to flat batteries with thawed food and no water pump is not pleasant. While you’re at it check for correct operation of the mains 240V system if you have one. If you find it wanting you must have it sorted out by a licensed and registered electrician.

The same goes for your water and gas systems. Check very carefully for correct operation and leaks. If you find water leaks either get them fixed or repair them yourself. Make sure that the water pump still works. While you’re at it use the pump to empty the tank(s) and remove the bung to drain them completely and refill with clean drinking water. If you find any issues with the gas system then you must have a licensed and registered gas fitter rectify the problem.

Remember that if you don’t use a licensed gas fitter or electrician and your camper or caravan has anything untoward happen you may be giving your insurance company an easy way out.

And last but by no means least your wheels and tyres. Wheel nuts done up to the correct torque, tyres have good tread and are at the correct pressure and check the condition of your spare(s).

This is probably not a good spare

The car

First things first. Wash it. Clean the outside and the inside.

You can take the easy way out and get it inspected by a competent mechanic. Tell them what you’re about to do and ask them to make sure that the vehicle is in tip top condition and that they do a full service. It will be expensive but it will repay the expense in peace of mind and reliability.

A full check is beyond the scope of this article as there are many different makes and models, all of which have their own needs and quirks. As a minimum you need to have reasonably new oils – all of them. Engine, gearbox, transfer case (if you have one), differential(s), brake fluid, power steering fluid, coolant, etc. Your wheel bearings, ball joints, drive shafts, CV joints (and boots) all need to be checked and greased or oiled as required. Belts, all filters and all suspension components need a thorough checking.

If you intend to travel along one or more of the iconic tracks (Oodnadatta, Birdsville, Gibb River Road, Tanami, etc.) the suspension and running gear is going to cop a pounding so get it all checked.

Remember that while you’re towing the whole car is put under a lot of stress and strain. Making sure that it’s in tip top condition will enable it to cope and give you peace of mind.

If you’re very familiar with your vehicle and are capable and confident then by all means do it yourself. If you’re not then get a mechanic who knows what they are doing to do it for you. As I said at the outset, it will be expensive but well worth it.

Ourselves

What do I mean by preparing ourselves ?

Before we set off on an extended trip we need to have everything at home sorted out. It’s no use setting off on a long trip having nagging doubts about what’s happening at home. I’m not going to make a list here but my wife has a few that we would be lost without. In the near future I’ll post a spiel about our lists and what’s in them.

What else do we need to do ? Well, for starters we should really be prepared for an extended time together with very little time apart. We’ll be cooped up in the car for a number of hours on most days. When we’re not in the car we’ll probably be in the camper or engaging in some activity together. Be sure that you’re both mentally prepared for that.

Do you need a house sitter ? Have you organised someone to collect the mail and papers ? Can someone water the garden and mow the lawns if required ? What about getting your mail held for you ?

There are lots and lots of things to consider before you leave for an extended trip. If you make a list and tick off everything then you need not be worried about what’s going on at the home front.

A final word

Seeing as a lot of us are getting a bit older there is one more consideration. Medical issues.

Where we go there are few medical facilities. In a lot of places the best you can hope for is a doctor visiting once or twice a week because they don’t have a permanent doctor. They will probably have a list of patients as long as your arm to see on the days that they are there. In small towns there may be no pharmacy either.

So what do you do ? Well, before you leave for you great adventure visit you usual doctor in your home town and get checked over. I’m diabetic (Type II) so I make sure that’s under control and that there are no other pending issues. This usually involves a blood test. I get a letter from the doc. outlining all of my medications and get a prescription that will cover me for the time that I’m going to be away.

When I got to the pharmacy I ask them to dispense more than enought to last me until I get to another major centre where there’s a pharmacy that can dispense more.

We have seen during times of emergency – floods, fires, etc. – people going to a medical centre or smaller hospital demanding that the be seen so that they can get another prescription or medical treatment for a known ailment. It behoves us, as tourists, to do our best to not place a load on an already stretched resource.

Of course there will be emergencies of one sort or another that require immediate attention or worse, evacuation.

Remember that your lack of planning may cause a long time resident of a small, outback town to have to have thier dialysis delayed which may put them in a life threatening situation.

Be a good tourist and don’t use local, limited resources if it’s at all possible. Have enough medications / drugs to last between large centres.

Above all else, don’t be one of those “entitled”, needy types that we all despise.

What to do when Plan A goes to the dogs

The grand plan

It’s probably happened to all of us at some stage. You’ve at last, finally been able to schedule your four weeks annual leave with your employer and you managed to coordinate it with your partners annual leave and as a bonus you’ve managed to get it all together at a time when you, your partner and the kids can go away for the whole four weeks.

You’ve got everything serviced and have packed enough of everything to last for however long it needs to last before you go shopping. You’ve got the camp site, or motel or cottage or whatever booked and confirmed and paid for. The scene is set for a great holiday. Wrong.

The spanner in the works

Well, the planning and packing and stuff is all done and dusted. You’ve pulled out of the driveway and the trip has started. From this point on you can bet that there will be something that doesn’t go to plan. Ninety nine percent of the time this won’t matter a bit. It’ll probably be something that’s not absolutely necessary being forgotten and can be picked up at the first fuel stop – our favourite thing to forget is insect repellent. The rest of your trip may well continue on with no stray spanners finding their way into the works. But then again….

A few years ago Jenny and I decided that we’d do a grand trip from Moe to Marla to Oodnadatta to Marree to Birdsville and back home via central NSW. We got to Oodnadatta just fine and we were having a great time. Our first night in Oodnadatta we went to the Transcontinental Hotel for a couple of quick drinks before we made dinner. Lots of drinks and about seven hours later we staggered back to the caravan park, had a sandwich and went to bed. Sometime during the night we were woken up by rain and we just rolled over and went back to sleep. Next morning we were confronted by this.

That put a bit of a spanner in our works. We were stuck in Oodnadatta until a road opened.

Just before lunch the next day we were told that in about an hour the road will be opened for anyone who wants to leave and then it’ll be closed again. We packed up quickly and waited for the road to open. At this stage we didn’t know which road though. It transpired that it was the road to Marla so off we went.

Getting down and dirty on the Oodnadatta Track

It was a pretty muddy trip but we managed to avoid getting bogged.

Once back in Marla the question was what now ? Out came the map and we decided that we’d head on down towards the Flinders Ranges and have a bit of a poke around there and then head off to Broken Hill and from there meander homewards.

Our second big spanner in the works was this.

Oh dear – that worked out well didn’t it ?

There we were about thirty kilometres from Hawker with no mobile phone coverage and a busted camper. So what to do ? We unhitched and drove to Hawker and organised recovery of the camper whilst hoping it was still there. I had the inevitable screaming match with the insurance company that got me nowhere of course. While the camper was being recovered we organised a motel room for the night. When the camper arrived we found out that the damage wasn’t extensive and it only needed and new brake drum and six wheel studs. We retired to the pub for a very nice meal and the next morning we continued on our way.

 

Plan B or flexibility ?

As you can tell from both of our episodes we had no plan B.

What we did have though was flexibility. This is an attitude thing and not a planning thing. When things go pear shaped as outback travellers we need to be able to just deal with it and make the best of the situation. In both of our cases in spite of the spanners we had a great time.

So. Plan B or flexibility ? I’d go for flexibility every time. Remember that your plan B is still subject to spanners in the works. Flexibility isn’t because you’re, well, flexible. It is what it is is a saying that annoys me but in outback or remote travel it’s worth keeping in mind. With flexibility you can just go along with your circumstances. The important thing is to not panic or get stressed – just go with it.

It’s worth noting that the roads out of Oodnadatta didn’t reopen for over a month after we left. If we didn’t take the chance when it was presented we’d have been there a long time.

Now, I’m a planner. If you know about the MBTI you’ll understand when I say I report ESTJ. But once the planning is done and you’re on your way remember anything can happen and it’s up to you to make the best of it and have fun regardless. Flexibility is the key.

Tips and tricks

On our travels we’ve discovered a few little tips and tricks that have served us well.

Make sure that you take breaks from sitting in the car. An hour or so is long enough to be sitting there before you get out and stretch your legs and straighten you back. Sitting in the car for hours on end without breaks can lead to DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) as Jenny discovered.

Make sure that you drink enough water. Being a little dehydrated is not good and coupled with long periods in the car may cause the dreaded DVT to raise its ugly head. Drink enough so that you need to get out of the car regularly.

We tend to be a bit guilty of not taking enough photos and sometimes wish that we’d taken the time to take a few. Be sure to have more than one camera and be sure to use it. Some things are almost impossible to describe.

Strange sculpture at the south end of The Old Strzelecki Track.

Car snacks. Chips (crisps) can be a mixed blessing. They’re a good snack but they tend to leave crumbs and greasy fingers. They also make you thirsty which makes you drink more water which can be a good thing. I’m diabetic so lollies and chocolate are a bit off the menu but if you’re not concerned by sugar then go for it.

Fuel. If you get to a “servo” with less than half a tank then fill up no matter what the price. It’s insurance. What happens if the next servo is closed and you’re down to the last dregs ? Try and keep a full Jerry Can for emergencies. It’s better to get home with the Jerry untouched than to be caught in the middle of nowhere with no fuel. If you use it make sure to fill it up at the next fuel stop.

Gas bottles. If you have two make sure that as soon as one is empty get a refill. Try and ensure that you’ve got a full one and a “working” one.

Water. That’s a bit like fuel. Never pass up a chance to top up your water tank(s). I’d much rather have too much than not enough.

Storage. We use stackable Sistema plastic boxes. The 27 and 14 litre ones stack on each other nicely. We use them for non refrigerated food, condiments, sauces, etc. as well as other bits and pieces including chargers, batteries, tablets (windows, ipad), keyboards, etc. They fit perfectly in the slides in the cupboards in the camper. We also use the larger, flatter 30 litre boxes for spare bedding, pots and pans and utensils, etc.

Just about everything, except clothing, goes in a box. They stack nicely in both the camper and the back of the car and don’t slide around because they fit perfectly in the available space.

The other big advantage of using the plastic boxes is that we can pack everything properly and check that we have what’s on our list before we trot them out to the car and camper. When we get home it takes but minutes to get the boxes and fridge/freezer baskets into the house where we can unpack at our leisure.

Must have’s

This is a post of things that you simply must remember to take with you when you’re travelling. Car, camper, cooking utensils, etc. are all a given. This is about the eclectic collection of bits and pieces that make life a bit easier and more comfortable while you’re away from the home base where things are taken for granted. Well, let’s get the show on the road.

Nappy wipes or baby wipes or whatever you call them. Two packs of eighty – one for the car and one for the camper/caravan. My wife keeps a packet on the passenger side floor under the seat. Dirty hands from coupling up in the morning ? Nappy wipe. Crumby, greasy hands from eating crisps ? No showers and can’t be bothered getting the hot water service out and connected ? Cleaning bugs off the windshield ? Nappy wipes. There’s a thousand and one uses for them. Keep plenty of them handy.

Cable ties. A packet of a hundred in various sizes. The uses are endless. I’ve used them to hold wiring up out of the way when the originals have broken. They’re good for stopping you from losing the “D” shackles on the camper suspension limit chains. They can also be used to hold plugs and sockets together.

Duct tape. That grey stretchy stuff about five centimetres wide. Again, the uses are almost endless. One great use is taping up doors and vents to stop red dust from getting into your camper / caravan. We forgot once on the Oodnadatta Track when it was dry and it’s safe to say we’ll never forget that again. Use it to tape a bit of 3-ply over your rear window to stop it from getting broken by rocks and stones ricocheting off you camper/caravan. We’ve even used it, and a couple of ring/open end spanners, to splint a broken hoop pole in the camper after it was broken by a severe wind gust at Yalara.

A camera or two or three. We take a Fuji pocket camera, a small Olympus pocket camera and an Olympus SLR camera. Of course we have our phones too. Make sure that you have plenty of memory cards too – you just can’t have too much storage. Seeing as we both take Windows tablets with us we also take a couple of 1TB SSD drives with us so we can put all of our photos on them so we never run out of memory cards.

Chargers for phones and laptops and cameras, etc. I started looking around for 12V chargers for everything and it soon became apparent that it was going to cost a fortune. I ended up getting a 150W pure sine wave inverter and a six socket power board so that we could just use our existing 240V chargers.

Batteries. Check to see what sort of batteries things use. You’ll be surprised at the number of types that you’ll need. We use 9V square, AA, AAA, 21700, 18650, D cells, C cells and probably others. If some of them are rechargeable you’ll need to take chargers too. As above just take your 240V chargers. Cameras, torches, e-cigarettes, alarm clock, whatever, make sure you have them all covered.

Of course you’ll need a few car spares and a set of spanners and sockets. No need to carry an entire spares department or a mechanics toolbox with you. I’d suggest a set of hoses and hose clamps as well as a serpentine belt as a minimum. Most modern engines only have few real show stoppers. A burst hose, broken serpentine belt, a dead electric fuel pump and the crank position sensor. Learn how to change them and you should be right. Check out your local dealership and ask if they can put a hose kit, a fuel pump and a sensor in a box for you and only charge you for what isn’t in pristine condition when it’s returned. Even if you have no mechanical or diagnostic abilities a fellow traveller may be able to assist if you have the required parts.

Some sort of roadside insurance. If you do end up with a show stopper you’ll need to recover the camper/caravan or vehicle to a place of repair. When we lost a camper wheel we needed to get the camper recovered to Hawker (SA) for repairs. Our insurance policy for the camper stated that we had roadside assist and recovery to the nearest place of repair but buried in the fine print there was the ability for the insurance company to wriggle out of it. Check you insurance policy to make sure it actually covers what you think it covers. Ours didn’t and we paid for it.

All of the above should be covered in a checklist that you make up. Put all of it on the list. When you’re packing to go away drag out your trusty list. It goes without saying (almost) that the list is getting updated constantly with things that you didn’t have but needed as well as crossing off things that you took and didn’t need.

And last but far from least. Probably the most important. A healthy attitude. Accept that things won’t go to plan and that there will be breakdowns and other stuff-ups either of your own making or by things that you can’t control. Don’t travel just hoping for the best or fearing the worst. Just accept that, as an old boss of mine used to say, “it is what it is”.  If it all goes decidedly bad then you have a few great stories for family and friends. If it all goes well you’ll have a few good stories for family and friends. Use the trip to add to your life experience and make the most of it.