Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Campervan Living

Australia Map Pine Creek

We are now at Pine Creek south of Darwin and about to turn North East into the Kakadu National Park for a week.

The idea of living in a 4WD campervan for three months and touring this large continent seemed easy when we first discussed it. The reality has been something of a shock and has forced us to rapidly adjust the way we live, manage day-to-day tasks and even how we interact with each other.

The sales blurb for the van provides the following encouraging general view and day and night time usage drawings:

Our home is about 2 metres wide, 2 metres high inside when the roof is put up and about 5 metres long (if you include the cab of the van). It would be incorrect to describe it as compact, it is very compact. We suspect that even an estate agent would have difficulty in choosing words that suggest space, although we are proud to say that after a couple of weeks living in our tiny home, we are coping well.

Opening the spacious rear door with integral fly screen, one ascends a

Fly Screen Entry

short staircase through the foyer into the compact air conditioned (and partially appointed) integral galley kitchen with fridge / freezer,

Fridge  Freezer

living room, and storage area and immediately notices the high level bedroom two metres further down.

Pat demonstrating the bed

the corridor. The compact fold out double bed provides handy additional storage space when not in use or can function as a day rest area.

Day Bed

Handy laundry drying facilities are available close to the bedroom

Internal Facilities

Mood lighting (i,e.dim) adorns one wall. The roof can be raised a further 50

Roof Down

Roof Up

cms in order to accommodate anyone taller than 1.25 metres. Clever use

Underbench storage

has been made of all available areas to provide storage space. Additional storage space for an outside table and two chairs will be found behind the seats in the front cabin as will space under the seats..

Al Fresco Dining

Cooking facilities (and external lighting) encourage an “al fresco” lifestyle (i.e. the twin burner gas cooker is on the outside of the van, as is the sink). On sunny (or rainy) days, the integral sunshade can be unrolled to cover the kitchen.

Handy Canopy

Additional lockable storage space for fuel, water, cooking gas, power cables, and other supplies will be found all around the outside of this mobile dwelling which is equally at home driving (using any of its 20 gears) through rivers up to 1 metre deep as it is up hills with a gradient of 1 in 3 or on unpaved roads. The whole residence has been stabilised against the types of ground subsidence which may be experienced when travelling.

Strong Foundations

In reality, this means:

  • the vehicle is high off the ground so that you can drive through rivers and along rough tracks, hence the steps to climb up into the rear cabin.
  • inside there is a largish and very efficient fridge / freezer (one or the other but not both at the same time) and the top of this forms a useful work surface.
  • adjacent to this is a surface top (which supports the bed when in use) and under which are cupboards.
  • the bed folds out to double in size (as does the mattress) and two people can easily sleep on it  although it has to be unfolded and made-up every night. It also forms a useful day settee.
  • there is a fierce rear cabin air conditioner which rapidly brings down the internal temperature on a hot day
  • the banquette seat can be folded out to form a third bed although we wonder how three people could ever survive in a van this size.
  • the gas burner stove folds down from the outside of the van and there is space in the kitchen surface to fit a plastic bowl as the sink
  • two gas bottles, 40 litres of fresh water and a 40 litres of spare diesel each have their own storage compartment on the outside of the van
  • there are further storage compartments on the outside for emergency water, the power cable for use when at a “powered site”, tins of food (or anything not affected by water)
  • the spare tyre is stored under the van and there is a compartment containing an “exhaust airbag” for use as a jack if you have to change a tyre whilst on sand or rough ground. The theory is you plug the bag onto the exhaust, position it near the flat tyre area and rev the engine – the exhaust gases then inflate the bag raising the vehicle off the ground. We also have a shovel for digging our way out of sand!
  • there are two gear sticks close together where the normal single gear stick would be in a car. iI you are driving off paved roads, using the left gear stick you select high speed four wheel drive, on sand or up hills or through rivers, you select low speed 4WD, and on normal roads you select high speed two wheel drive. Then you choose your driving gears using the right gear stick which operates in the normal way (five forward gears, neutral and reverse). To go into low you have to stop first, the high speed positions can be selected whilst moving. It sounds complicated but is very easy.

You may have noticed that there is no mention washing or toilet facilities – there are none although there is a solar shower for use on hot days. This is a large black bag which you fill with water and hang out in the sun until it is warm enough to shower with – we have not tried this yet. Going to the toilet in the middle of the night means getting dressed (or not depending on the urgency and temperature) and going outside (with torch to spot wildlife) to the camp toilet or the “long drop”  toilet (if camping at a roadside campsite) or into the desert with a shovel. Going outside at night presents it challenges, apart from the ever present frogs and the occasional snake, there usually are kangaroos or wallabies on the path to or in the toilet.

Wallaby at night

The toilet block at one camp site had doors to it in order to keep them out, needless to say that on one trip it was “Paul exeunt toilet left pursued by a wallaby

Storage space is particularly at a premium for us because we have had to bring clothes for two different weather climates, hot in the north and cold and wet in southern Australia when we get there as well as a certain amount of diving gear. It has taken us over a week to ensure that everything has its own space. Day-to-day life requires us to put away everything as soon as it is no longer needed and we have had to accept that in order to get one thing out, you often have to get many other things out first (and then put them away).

Damp is a bit of a problem on cold mornings (deserts are usually very hot during the day and freezing cold at night) because the moisture in our breath condenses on the cold surfaces of the cabin and a first task on waking up is to dry these surfaces to stop condensation dripping onto everything.

The van is capable of supporting life on the side of the road or on the beach as well as at camp sites. If we are staying at a camp site, we try to get a “powered pitch” which means that when we arrive we plug the van into a nearby mains electrical socket. This will then power the cabin air conditioner, our toaster (!) and electric kettle, fan heater (for cold mornings) and also recharge the cabin battery and provide power to recharge / run the numerous electrical items we have. If we are out in the wilds, then a heavy duty rechargeable battery will keep the fridge and lighting running for a day or so before we have to drive (or plug into the mains) to recharge it.

Although the fuel in the main tank plus the spare 40 litres gives us a range of about 1000 kms, we fill up whenever possible because there is no certainty that service stations will have fuel when you get there. The warning on the road we have just driven is blunt:

Now Fuel 1

and when we got to our destination the roadhouse was restricting vehicles to a maximum of 50 litres because of shortages – not a problem to us because of our tank size but it could be to others. This is similar to filling up in London and the next service station being in Newcastle which will sell you enough fuel to almost get to Edinburgh.

If the above does not sound attractive to you and you are thinking that we are mad, we admit we are mad -  but we are really enjoying it.

Our last overnight stop at Daly Waters was interesting but hard in that the toilet and washing facilities were worse than basic – more on camp sites in a later blog. Today we are at Mataranka Homestead about 100K south of Katherine and are heading northwards towards Pine Creek which is an old mining town at the gates to the Kakadu National Park.

The interesting thing about the Homestead is that it contains a replica house as lived in by the early pioneers. There is a famous (to Australians)

book which was written and based here called “We of the Never Never” which details early pioneer life and the homestead was built to feature in

Elsey Never Never Farmstead

Elsey Homestead – actually a film set but said to be accurate

Elsey Farmhouse room 

Homestead living room

Never Never Washhouse

Homestead Washhouse

the film of the book. Over the past few weeks we have gained a greater understanding of the challenges of early exploration and subsequent settler life here and have some feeling of how it has shaped the Australian character. We are less informed about historical and current Aboriginal life but nothing we have seen has made us feel any more comfortable.

Also at Mataranka are the “Hot Springs” – natural springs coming to the

Thermal Pool Mataranka

surface at a temperature of 33C. Along with numerous other travellers, we spent a contented hour or so in them soothing away some of the aches induced by three weeks of travelling and sleeping in a hard bed.

One night we were made “Billy Can Tea” by the Australians on the pitch next to us, we were told that the “Billy Can” is part of folklore (along with the swag and damper bread).

Billy Can Tea

Pine Creek (about 180 Kms further north and the southern gateway to Kakadu) is an old mining town and typical of numerous towns across Australia which have risen and fallen equally rapidly over the past hundred years. It now has been bypassed by everything and is only known for the number of preserved buildings made

 Original Town Store Corrugated Iron Station

out of corrugated iron – said to be invaluable because it can be reused easily.

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