Preparing for a trip in northern Australia

By: Michael Browning


Looking to cover distances on our secondary roads up north with a van in tow? Michael Browning explains how.

Trakmaster -Pilbara

PREPARATION

Sounds obvious, but get your tow vehicle and caravan serviced before you leave. As well as making sure your brakes are right, suspension bolts are tight and wheel bearings are repacked, another set of experienced eyes with a torch and a hoist can find things you might easily miss.

Sunseeker -caravan -towing -through -the -river -crossing

Then, with your travel route in mind, get their recommendation on service agents along the way, as you could be travelling beyond the recommended service interval, or have a problem that needs expert attention.

In particular, check hoses and their connections as these are items that can perish over the years – even while sitting in a shed.

TYRES

Fit the newest tyres you can to your tow vehicle and van. Fresh rubber is more flexible than sun-hardened tyres and a full tread depth will protect your tyre carcass better from sharp stones.

Wheel -bearings

It’s important to adjust tyre pressures to the conditions. This can be a pain sometimes, but it's far easier than changing a flat tyre! If you can’t be bothered lowering or raising them between sealed and unsealed sections, then reduce your speed relative to the lower pressure setting and watch your tyre temperature gauge like a hawk!

Pack a high output portable tyre compressor (ours is conveniently incorporated into our van's air suspension), plus a hose and gun with pressure gauge long enough to reach each tyre.

Finally, carry spare tyre carcasses for your entire rig in addition to your already-mounted spares – and good quality tyre levers. If you run out of mounted spares, you will at least have a get-home option and if you’re lucky, someone will stop to give you a hand.

STONE PROTECTION

You'll encounter many stones on your travels, some will hit your rig, often thrown up by vehicles travelling in the opposite direction. Good mudflaps on your tow car are the best starting point, followed by a large mesh stone-shield on your A-frame to catch what gets past.

Caravan -stone -protection

Our Trakmaster came with five separate rubber stone flaps, two hanging off the lower edge of the stone shield, two more hanging off the van's leading edge and another ahead of the aluminium folding step. Our A-frame has taken a bit of a peppering, but not the caravan, despite around 30,000km of travel in two years, more than one third of that on unsealed roads.

The South Australian and made Stone Stomper works well by all reports, but I didn’t want to have to engage and disengage a device like this every day.

Checkerplate on the side and the rear of caravans may look effective, but the reality is that the only stone strikes you get here are the rare ones from other vehicles, not from your tow car. I personally think Raptor coating does a better job and is easy to touch up after your trip.

We only have unprotected fibreglass side and rear panels and have no side or rear stone damage.

ANIMALS

Caravans and fauna don’t mix well. Travelling early and arriving late is appealing when you want to cover large distances, but your chances of an animal strike multiply significantly at either end of the day.

Road -Hazard -Ahead -road -sign

Many creatures feed in the cooler night hours, or are attracted to the plant growth beside the road created by water run-off. In colder climes, some animals even sleep on the bitumen because it holds its heat better.

Even travelling after dawn can be tricky because the birds that feed off road-kill are notoriously bad at estimating the speed of oncoming vehicles.

And don’t think you’re safe in the late afternoon, either. We were once struck by a flock of wild budgerigars while driving into Alice Springs late one afternoon.

The only universal advice here is to minimise your exposure to wildlife by travelling when numbers are low. This usually means during the warmest time of the day when you have air-conditioning and they are sleeping – because they don’t!

HIGH-SPEED TRUCKS

Truck drivers have tight schedules to meet and often, you’re in their way. My basic rule is respect size, so don’t put yourself at risk.

Truck -on -the -road

On-coming trucks – particularly the huge road trains with their stock crate trailers that ply unsealed roads, usually arrive in a cloud of dust and a spray of stones, so slow down and pull over to the left as far as possible without endangering yourself and your rig.

If you find yourself catching a large truck on an unsealed road, ask yourself why, as in most cases they will be travelling at the fastest safe speed. If you must pass, get as far as you can onto the other side of the road out of their immediate dust and stone cloud with your lights on. Ideally, call them up on Channel 40 on your CB radio which you should always carry when travelling in remote areas.

FUEL

Man -getting -fuel -at -a -petrol -station

Do your homework in advance of your trip, know your towing fuel range and plan conservatively. Then double-check with fellow travellers at overnight stops to confirm that the mapped fuel outlets are still operating and have supply.

Finally, carry a couple of empty jerry cans on your caravan or tow car where it's safe so you can top up in advance of days that might test your fuel range. Don’t scrimp on quality here (good plastic is okay) and pack a funnel. Twenty litres of fuel is hard hold above waist level.

Fuel -tanks -at -the -back -of -a -caravan

If you are carrying your fuel on a roof rack, make sure you can access it. Telescopic ladders cost less than $100 and take up little room when stored.

WATER

Always carry enough drinking water. A 20L plastic container weighs nothing, but could save your life if filled before you venture remote. If you have a caravan with tanks, fill them at every opportunity – even with bore water.

Carry a packet of water purifying tablets.

BEARINGS

Wheel -bearings

I learnt something (at my cost) during a recent trip up the Kalumburu Road to the Mitchell Plateau, but it applies to all outback roads: drive slowly through water, however shallow.

On my return home I had my caravan serviced and found out that my 18-month-old wheel bearings had corrosion and needed replacement.

The issue is that when hot, the seals expand letting water in mid-crossing before closing as they cool, trapping moisture.

Ideally, let your bearings to cool before crossing water or slow down to a crawl where it's not practical.

SPARES

With the volume of tourist traffic these days, you don’t need to go overboard with spares, but there are a few things you should carry.

Spare globes and fuses, for example; various hose connections to allow you to fill your water tanks; a funnel; a set of wheel bearings; a spare airbag if you have air suspension; a spare telescopic shock absorber if you have independent trailing arm suspension and perhaps a spare coil or leaf spring.

STAYING CONNECTED

A satellite phone is a good idea for regions outside the Australian mobile network, but on our most recent trip we carried two other devices.

Woman -talking -on -a -satellite -phone

One was our Black Knight satellite vehicle tracker sold by AL-KO that's fitted in the van and tracked via a mobile phone App. We sent the kids our trip outline with instructions for the App, so if we lingered unexpectedly in a remote area they would know.

Other similar competitor vehicle trackers function on an annual subscription.

Spot -3-GPS

We also carried a Spot Gen3 personal tracker away from the caravan, which has valuable features like an App to alert friends and family to where you via a satellite and phone App, plus a message service you can tailor to specific recipients. There is also an S.O.S. button for accessing emergency services.

CLEANING UP

Take pride in the red oxide stains on your caravan and the stone chips on its suspension and A-frame – they show that it has lived a life!

Karcher -high -pressure -washer -cleaning -a -car

However, you can remove ugly signs post-trip with some pre-preparation and after-trip care.

A good protective polish will stop grit clinging to fibreglass panels, protect them from UV damage and yellowing and make it easier to clean afterwards.

High-pressure cleaning can remove mud and dust underneath, but don’t go overboard with the gun or harsh chemicals on its upper body panels, or you may peel the decals off the sides and the remaining paint off the suspensions.

Karcher -high -pressure -washer -cleaning -a -car -2

And go easy on your plastic window. Clean them with plenty of water, but no harsh chemicals or scrubbing. There are specific products for cleaning plastic for a reason.

A wire brush and a can of spray-on cold galvanising zinc paint can rejuvenate your travel-stained and shot-peened a-frame. Finally, get out there! Life is not a rehearsal.

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #573. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!