Trakmaster Pilbara Extreme: A maiden voyage
Michael Browning puts all his caravanning theory into practice with his brand new Trakky’s maiden voyage.
I have yet to meet a caravanner who didn’t arrive home from a trip without a long ‘to do’ list: things they forgot to take; things that broke and needed to be fixed; things that could have worked better; things they would change in their ‘next’ caravan.
So, after more than a year of planning and obsessively micro-managing its construction, it was slightly unnerving to bring our new Trakmaster Pilbara Extreme home after its maiden Outback run with relatively few notes. What had we missed?
Well, for a start, we missed our planned destination – Cape Leveque in the far north-west Kimberley, WA. A late change of date for our son’s wedding, combined with an immovable property sale, compacted our trip.
"Let’s spend quality time on the less travelled tracks in Central Australia instead," my wife Wendy suggested. So we did.
The revised plan took us across country from Melbourne to Hawker in the central Flinders Ranges, via several spectacular gorges to Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, over the Strzelecki Track to Maree and then north-west to Alice Springs.
Instead of peeling off the Oodnadatta Track at William Creek for Coober Pedy, or later at Oodnadatta for Marla, we kept going north up the Old Ghan Railway Road, did a side trip to Chambers Pillar and then entered Alice Springs from the south.
After some R&R in Alice, we then spent time exploring the often-overlooked area south-west of Alice that is bordered by the Mereenie Loop and Ernest Giles Road, including truly beautiful Palm Valley. After that, we headed home – again, cross country – via Finke Gorge National Park (NP), Mount Remarkable NP and Clare. It was a 7000km round trip, with around 35 per cent of it off the bitumen.
THE TOW VEHICLE
Our current model Toyota LandCruiser 200 Series GXL diesel, with an unladen vehicle weight of 2800kg, was a good match for our 2442kg Tare Trakmaster.
Laden, the gap widened slightly in favour of the Toyota as, due to the lack of exterior storage in our purpose-built 15ft 6in Pilbara Extreme, we called on the Cruiser to carry our recovery gear, a toolbox, a 45L Engel fridge, a Briggs & Stratton P2000 series inverter generator, an ARB 12V compressor, Piranha tyre-changing equipment, a shovel, our Victa 40V cordless chainsaw and our Weber Baby Q.
By comparison, the Extreme got off lightly, as we travelled economically in terms of clothing and we were never more than a week away from supplies.
The van’s front boot was still full with hoses, a 25m power lead, hatchet, mallet, small gas cylinder and single-burner cooktop, while the large ground-mat and jockey wheel lived securely on the A-frame’s stone tray, behind our two lightweight composite 7.5kg Sprint Gas gas cylinders.
We also ran most of the trip with both fresh water tanks full to their combined 182L capacity, draining the rear 100L tank first to maintain ball weight for stability, while also carrying up to 40L of grey water at a time in its own centre-slung (80L capacity) tank.
The net result of all this was a ball weight of around 250kg – close to 10 per cent of the Extreme’s laden weight – which was absolutely perfect behind the Cruiser.
A COMPACT RIDE
One of the questions we asked ourselves before setting off was whether we would be able to co-exist comfortably in the compact caravan.
We had designed our Extreme based on northern Australian touring, where we spend much of our time living, cooking and eating outdoors. But Central Australia had taken a real bath the week before we set off, turning the Alice’s Todd River into a torrent and scaring its citizens with golf ball-sized hailstones.
While we were there, Alice recorded its two coldest nights of the year, with the thermometer dropping to nearly minus 4 degrees. There wasn’t a day when we didn’t sing the praises of the Truma E2400 gas heater we optioned, which gave us instant, quiet and impressively economical gas-fired heat.
To our surprise, despite squeezing a full ensuite with separate shower and toilet across the van’s windowless bow, a large double bed across the cut-away rump and placing a fully-equipped kitchen on one side and a three-seater L-shaped lounge on the other side, we never felt crowded.
A lot of this is due to experience; some from the décor we chose.
I understand Australian vanners’ love of the café dinette. Sitting above the wheelboxes in most caravans, it’s a comfortable place to sit and eat but it’s also space-wasteful, as it can only seat two due to the wheel arches. Our L-shaped lounge, on the other hand, sits along the wall between the door and double bed, so its return section doesn’t protrude far into the van’s living area. All Pilbara Extreme models have a lounge like this, together with an oblong table with an eccentric swivel that allows easy entry and also moves out of the way when not needed.
The full ensuite, which actually came from the layout of a larger 19ft Pilbara, also proved to be a real winner, thanks to Trakmaster’s attention to detail.
The first thing Trakky’s operations manager Richard Metcalfe said when I proposed it was "only if it works". He was not referring to shower and shaving space, but to the bathroom’s impact on the stability and tow-ability of the van.
In our case, the decision came down to a few millimetres, as the size of the ensuite, combined with the extreme rear cut-away, limited the all-important location of the caravan’s tandem axle set.
In practice, the ensuite worked a treat. Not only is there enough elbow space around the toilet, but there is also room to fully dry yourself out of the shower without having to open the solid sliding door that separates the ensuite from the rest of the caravan. If you think that’s a given, I can assure you that there is less usable space inside the ensuites of many much larger caravans I have reviewed! It’s worth noting, however, that we don’t have a washing machine, which often eats into ensuite space. Although we added an extra towel rail, we decided we should have included a retractable clothesline in the shower for drying smalls and, perhaps, a clothesline to go between the awning posts for overnight drying (although some caravan parks frown upon these).
Also on our ‘to do’ list was a secondary way of securing the top-hung sliding ensuite door which jammed on its track after a particularly rocky offroad section. Trakmaster had installed a short bungy strap to avoid it pivoting on its single floor latch.
Even with the ensuite taking up all the space to the left of our entry door, there is still so much living space in our Extreme that everyone who enters it comments on its spaciousness.
As well as the layout, a lot of credit here goes to the décor. Chosen by my wife Wendy, it consists of champagne full gloss cabinetry to contrast with the satin white walls, light fawn floor and fawn benchtops and faux leather upholstery. Four large Dometic SP7 double-glazed windows, plus the window of the Camec door and two smaller windows in the ensuite, provide a lot of light, despite our Extreme having no front or rear windows.
Another item on our wish list was an additional 150W roof-mounted solar panel. The Extreme’s standard 2x150W flexible roof-mounted solar panels kept its standard Enerdrive 200Ah lithium battery topped up when stationary, but even though we selected the optional (and slightly heavier) full-depth glass panels, we felt they would be marginal if we were to excise the full power of our Enerdrive 1600W Combi inverter charger. The issue is that one of the two panels is on the angled front roof of the Extreme, which means that it may not get its fair share of light, depending on how we park.
So we had Trakmaster fit a third full-depth 150W Enerdrive solar panel before our trip – this time in line with the other one on the flat roof. It was a good call, as we really gave that 1600W inverter a solid workout. For a start, we reheated a couple of casseroles in the microwave while free-camping. Then I made the mistake of seeing whether our electric blanket would work overnight without draining the lithium battery. To my surprise, it did! But it was not on my side of the bed, of course...
We then tried a few experiments and found that, unplugged after a full day’s travelling, the electric blanket, a couple of pod coffees and a single shot of the microwave would draw the battery down to around 60 per cent overnight. But as long as we were travelling the next day, the charge from the LandCruiser through our Anderson plug connector would bring it up to ‘float’ (100 per cent) by the next lunchtime or early afternoon. However, if we weren’t travelling the next day, both the microwave and electric blanket (but not the coffee) were luxuries we did without, reverting to our Weber Baby Q and hot water bottles.
Had we been further north in never-ending sunshine, the situation might have been different, but with a low winter sun and cool temperatures, over-use of the inverter could have pushed the charge level of the lithium battery beyond the point of recovery. As a backup, without knowing how long everything would last, we carried a spare 160W Enerdrive portable solar panel – just in case.
Another feature of the Pilbara Extreme that worked beyond our expectation was its standard Trakair Trailing Arm Airbag Suspension. Rather than use proprietary airbag components like most other off-road caravan builders, Trakmaster has developed its own over many years, so that the system can be tuned specifically to the weight and size of each different van.
A key feature of the system is its soft and compliant ride and we were able to take full advantage of this by running relatively low pressures on and off road in our 265/75-16 General Grabber tyres. After a little experimentation, we found cold pressures of about 32-33psi for bitumen travel and 23psi (cold) for off-road worked very well, after monitoring them carefully via our Tyre Dog tyre pressure monitoring system.
Dropping and reinstating the pressures for the different road surfaces was left in the capable hands of the ARB E-Z Deflator and front boot-mounted ARB onboard high output air compressor – both of which are standard equipment on Pilbara Extreme models.
The best testament to the soft ride that everything inside our Extreme enjoyed is that only once did one of our towels fall off its rail when travelling, while without special packing, we did not suffer one spill or breakage of anything in a cupboard or drawer, despite some badly corrugated and rocky roads.
The other great things about the Trakair is that the van’s suspension can be lowered all round when you stop for the night – or each side raised or lowered – so we left our plastic levelling wedges behind and were able to get the van level on most sites we stayed on
Once underway, the Trakair rises automatically to its normal height and then its self-levelling feature keeps the van stable, automatically supplying more air to the appropriate side of the van on winding roads. Expensive? – yes; worth it – yes!!
Another feature we were particularly pleased with is our Extreme’s stone protection – without a single square centimetre of the dreaded checker-plate!
With a large truck-mesh stone shield on the A-frame and no fewer than five separate mud-flaps ahead of the wheels (two below the stone shield, two in front of both front drop-jacks and another ahead of the van’s aluminium folding entry step), plus stone-absorbing Tebbs Tuff heavy duty vinyl cladding high on the van’s front panel, we have suffered no discernable stone strikes in more than 9,000km of travel. More remarkable is that the stripes of mud that your tow car’s rear wheels normally leave up the front of your caravan on a muddy, unsealed road, are totally absorbed by the truck mesh.
Two other items fitted on the Pilbara Extreme’s rump cannot escape without commendation.
First of all, those lime green MaxTrax mounted on the back wall might look like they are there for decoration, but they got us out of trouble on the muddy goat track that was marked as a road near the Northern Territory border, south of Finke.
All was going well as we successfully by-passed a series of bog-holes until we came to one final 40-metre stretch of waterlogged wheel trenches with no ‘chicken track’ onto dryer ground. Despite employing everything in the Land-Cruiser’s impressive off-road arsenal – low tyre pressures, centre differential locked and low range – we bellied out just two metres from dry ground and stuck fast.
Lots of digging and stones from the surrounding area in front of and behind the Toyota’s predominantly highway pattern tyres all failed. It was then that we put the MaxTrax ahead of the LandCruiser’s rear tyres and – after rocking the vehicle backwards and forwards to get a little momentum – drove out after about 10 minutes’ hard work.
The bad news? The water was so muddy and deep that we could only find one of the MaxTrax after 15 minutes of shovel-prodding. Some lucky explorer will own the one we left behind when the track dries out!
On the positive side, we experienced no dust ingress at all on our Extreme when the weather dried up – something we were cautious about when speccing it with the optional ‘Ultraglaze’ gloss interior cabinetry over traditional timber, thanks to Trakmaster’s obsessive attention to dust-sealing and their standard roof-mounted scupper hatch that pressurises the interior when travelling.
The other standard item of equipment on the Extreme that we really appreciated was its drop-down rear wood rack. With the combination of cool temperatures and National Parks where wood gathering is forbidden, we gave our Lithium-battery-powered Victa 40V chainsaw a real workout on the dead timber and old fence-posts we gathered along the way.
And it was in these National Parks that we were really pleased that we added an 80-litre grey water tank to our Extreme’s specs. If you are planning to explore this vast land of ours in the future, tightening regulations make it a ‘must have’.
In summary, we have never returned from any major caravanning trip with so few ‘to do’ items in our notebook. Maybe that proves that experience counts in the ‘Real World’.