Of all of the topics which seem to interest people, "The Van" is the most popular. How big is i? What facilities does it have? How do you cook? and many more questions are constantly asked.
So for the information of those who are asking and as a reminder to us in future years, there follows a detailed account of The Van.
The Apollo 4WD Adventure Camper
The van is constructed out of a Toyota Hilux 3 litre 4WD flatbed truck cab and chassis with a purpose made Talvor camper body attached to it. The Hilux element is standard 4WD with 5 normal gears and there are two sets of low range gears so we can drive fast or slow in 4WD or 2WD.
The normal speeds we try to observe are not more than 60kph on sandy roads, 80 kph on normal track roads and not more than 110 kph on main tarmac roads
The van weighs about 2.5 tonnes when fully loaded - a figure which is important because when road access is restricted, it is usually to 3 tonnes and over.
The cab has a radio (not much use because we have no idea what is on and often we are out of range of all radio stations) and an audio jack to which we can connect our iPod - very useful for listening to stories (we have with us: Woman in White, North and South, Nicholas Nickleby) when we are driving. It also has somewhere to connect our SatNav - very useful for finding destinations and keeping in touch with distances when on the road.
We also recharge most of our portable electronic equipment (phones, camera batteries, iPod and iPad) through the use of a three way adaptor connected to the cigarette lighter socket. They charge slowly but at least they charge and this is essential when we often have no mains power for a few days.
We get about 8 kms per litre when driving at normal long distance speeds of 100 kph and cruise control makes this very easy.
The main tank hold 72 litres and we have two 20 litre jerry cans of spare fuel this giving us a range of about 1000 kms when fully loaded.
Setting up the van
Whenever we arrive somewhere, the first thing we have to do is to convert the rear cab into a camper van.
This involves undoing four latches around the roof and pushing the roof upwards. It then expands upwards like a bellows giving an additional 50 cms of headroom inside.
Last time we hired one, it took us about a month to realise that this is much easier if the door is open to enable air to come in to fill the enlarged inner compartment. This is a trick that not even Apollo were aware of.
If power is available, then connecting up is as simple as plugging one end of a long cable into the van and the other end into a power pole.
We have a two gas burner LPG stove fixed to the outside of the van.
We have two 1.25 kg gas bottles which seem to last about one week each if we are careful with gas. Refills are fairly easy to get and the price can vary so enormously that it is not worth quoting an example.
When in use, the gas bottle hangs from a hook underneath the stove
On the outside shelf holding the cooker, there is also a chopping board. This is fairly useless because it gets covered with Red Dust (as does everything else) and therefore we have a separate chopping board which is kept inside.
There is an awning which we can unfurl to cover the cooker area if it rains although there is a warning sign attached to the side of the van telling us not to use the awning in the rain,
or to provide some shade if the sun is in the wrong direction.
Our rather constrained ability to cook means that meals are either simple or need no cooking or can incorporate whatever we can cook on the famous Australian Gas Powered Campsite Barbecue or a camp fire.
Omelette and Green Beans
There are numerous two burner rv camper recipes on the web and a reasonable recipe book here but even with this help, cooking on two rings and not having a repetitious diet is a challenge.
Before we left, I was concerned about the hygiene implications of cooking on a public barbecue plate. It turns out that one can buy (for around $10 AUD) something called a "Hot Plate Liner”. This is a flexible PTFE covered glass fibre sheet which you lay on top of the barbecue plate and then cook directly upon it and It is washable and reusable.
The cooking equipment supplied with the van comprises the following:
- Electric Kettle
- Electric Toaster
- Whistling Kettle
- Cutting Board
- Frying Pan
- Sauce Pans (2)
- Sharp Knives (2)
- Potato Masher
- Potato Peeler
- Tin Opener
- Salad Bowl
Teaspoons (2 of each)
- Bowls (2)
- Dinner Plates (2)
- Side Plates (2)
- Cups (2)
We have brought with us: a very sharp knife, a grater, barbecue tongs and a barbecue plate scraper because we know from our last trip that their idea of a sharp knife is a bit blunt.
To keep some food fresh, inside we have an Engel Fridge.
This is a small chest freezer which runs on either mains power or battery power and switches automatically to battery power when there is no mains power.
Obviously the colder it is, the more it runs down our battery so we keep it full and set to 6 Centigrade which is not really as cold as we would like but seems to keep things reasonably cold. The priorities for its content are Beer; Coke; Flora; Cheese; Salad Veggies; Milk; Chutney; Medicines which have to be kept cold.
We have an inside sink which is connected by an electric pump to a 40 litre container of cold water - this is useful to use when we are beset by flies outside.
Waste water goes out underneath the van onto the ground. If you want hot water, you have to heat it with a kettle. This water is often bore water or river water and hence we treat it with sterilising tablets and use it only for cooking or washing.
Unless we are certain about the origins of our internal water, drinking water comes from two 20 litre jerry cans accessed from the outside of the van.
The container is refilled either by carrying it outside to a tap or preferably, running the hose (kept in the back of the van but always covered with red dust) from a tap to the container.
Inside the van we have two electrical sockets which only work when we are connected to Mains Power. These are intended for the kettle and toaster but we also connect things which need recharging to them.
Our phones, camera batteries, iPod, iPad and SatNav can also be recharged in the cab because we have a three way adaptor which plugs into the mains socket and something is always being recharged there. We made this ourselves before we left the UK using a bit of cable with an Australian 3 pin plug on it which we found the last time we were here.
The van has two batteries - one which powers the vehicle and another which provides some power when we are not connected to the mains. The two are not connected so it is impossible to get a flat vehicle battery because of what you have done in the van.
There are two lights inside and one outside above the stove. When we are wild camping, we try to use as little power as possible in order to conserve the house battery.
We have AirCon in the cab and a separate system in the van which also doubles up as a heater. This only works when we have mains power, it is noisy and a bit over powerful but very useful.
Adjacent to the AirCon vents are four switches which control electrical power in the van and also a Battery Condition Meter which tells us how much power we have left in the house battery.
Ventilation in the van comes from four mesh and zipped flaps around the roof. The mesh keeps most of the bugs out but some can get through the mesh holes - we have fly spray handy for when this happens.
or just using the fly screen door instead of the closed solid door.
Every night we have to construct the bed, a bit of a nuisance but fairly easy.
During the day, the bed doubles up as a storage area.
Going to bed involves clearing the storage area,
pulling a large wooden base board out from under the mattress into the van,
unfolding the mattress,
then making the bed with a sheet, two pillows and a doona (Australian for a Duvet). We have used sleeping bags in the past when it has been very cold and only sheets when it has been very hot.
One disadvantage of the sleeping arrangement is that when you are in the colder areas of Australia (generally anything below 10C at night), you get significant internal condensation on the walls from your breath. Often we had to dry the walls during the night with a tea towel to keep the condensation under control.
We always find that we sleep remarkably well and easily get off to sleep, even when we have to get up in the night to go to the toilet (which is of course somewhere outside).
During the day, the bed space can double up as a sitting area.
Provided you get some back support, it is remarkably comfortable.
Our other seating areas are adjacent to the Fridge and above the AirConditioner.
We have an internal table which we can take apart and store behind the fridge
and a fold down table and two collapsible chairs for use outside.
The secret to surviving in this van is relentless organisation and soft suitcases which we keep behind our seats in the cab.
Of all of the tricks we have learnt about living in the van, storing our empty cases in the cab has been the most important because prior to discovering this, we had to keep them in the van and there they were in the way. With careful arrangement, we can keep our two chairs and table there as well.
We carry numerous small items with us (batteries, cables, medicines, binoculars … the list is enormous) and we have found that having some large plastic containers to keep them in is very useful. These are then stored under the benches along with books, shoes and everything else.
Clothes are in the main, kept sorted is small cases.
Most of our food and cleaning equipment is kept under the sink or next to it.
There are three cupboards with pushbutton locks,
we have a system for what goes where but inevitably, the cupboards are packed and things move around as we drive along rough roads.
There are four external storage spaces accessed from the outside of the van. In one we keep our walking boots and the shower,
another has tins, another has firewood and a hose we use to top up our water tank, and one is used to store our two LPG cylinders and rubbish. These spaces get very dirty because when we are off road, Red Dust gets everywhere and sometimes aluminium drinks cans burst due to the rough roads.
So far we have had about 10 cans burst whilst we have been driving and hence this space smells rather.
One adjustment we have made to the van is to affix a heavy weight clothes hook to the rear curtain rail. We use this to hang our coats, macs so they are both out of the way and convenient to grab when we leave the van.
One small item which has made a big difference to managing the many small things you need to bring with you has been “The Tidy”. This is a hanging set of pockets which we bought from somewhere on the web. Into each pocket you can put something and there are lots of pockets. We leave this permanently hanging because it is so useful - it is almost as well traveled as we are!
We have also contracted an internal clothes line by stringing a rope between the two handles used to push up and pull down the roof. During the day whilst we are travelling or out walking, we can leave our towels and anything damp hanging there. The inside of the van can get very hot and so anything hung there is likely to dry very quickly.
Toilet and Shower
There is no toilet. That is the end of that explanation. There is a shovel but we make as much use as possible of Public Toilets (unlike the UK, Australia has them in all towns and they are well maintained and un-vandelised), long drops and short drops which are very variable in quality, campsite toilets and whatever and wherever else we can find relief.
There is no shower in the conventional sense of the word. We have a black plastic sack with a hose at one end and string at the other. The sack is filled with water, left out in the sun to warm up and then the rope is thrown over a handy tree branch.
We have not used this yet and when (and if) we do in the Kimberley, photographs will follow.
What happens if something goes seriously wrong?
When we left Perth we registered an EPIRB - Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon to ourselves. This is a satellite beacon which we are allowed to used only in cases of dire emergency - essentially, a real and imminent risk of death or serious injury.
This gadget is about the size of a small paperback and if we set it off, will indicate the fact that we have done so and our location to the central authorities via a satellite system.
Set it off and someone will eventually turn up, maybe by helicopter, maybe by van or whatever. The means is not important, the fact is - some one will come to see what is wrong.
We cannot get it to say what is wrong, merely that something is wrong. We are told that severe penalties are imposed in the case of misuse or use for a reason which is not judged serious enough. Breakdown or running out of fuel would count as misuse and would only be regarded as valid if we had been stranded for sometime, were now running out of water and were in danger of dying. We keep it in the van cab and transfer it to our backpacks when we go out walking (snakebites would be an acceptable reason for use).
How do we keep in touch?
We have a variety of mobile phones connected to a variety of networks. The most reliable and widespread network in Australia is Telstra and for $2 we got a Sim Card with an Australian number and then topped this up with a $30 voucher which gave us more Australian minutes than we could ever use, a $200 credit for overseas calls and 1.2Gb of Internet access. The hardest thing to do with the Sim card was to register it. Last time we just bought the card, put it in, switched on and then made calls. Now you have to prove your identity on-line and answer numerous questions including giving an Australian address (we used the camp site we were at). Proving our identity required using our passport details and entering exactly the names and data we had used when we applied for a visa just under two years ago.
We also had a UK mobile and Sim from the Three Network because they had a deal whereby we could call numbers in the UK for 3p per minute which is much cheaper than the standard rate of anything up to £2 per minute on all other networks. Three’s partners in Australia are Vodafone, Opus and Telstra (although we could not connect to the latter) and hence a Three sim should give you good and cheap links back to the UK.
For our laptops, it was either tethering to the Telstra Sim on our mobile or free WIFI where it existed or paid for wifi. There was absolutely no guarantee that a mobile signal would be where we were and in fact although the network has improved considerably in coverage since we were last on the road in Australia, we were out of contact for over 50% of the time.
Is it easy?
No is the simple answer. The amount of space inside the van is the same as our bathroom at home, only one person can do anything at one time, if two try then one of them is in the way. Trying to remain organised is essential although it is very difficult to do. Red Dust gets everywhere and by “everywhere" I mean "absolutely everywhere" including inside cupboards within the van, the cab of the van and inside your clothes. We feel permanently dusty and often dirty.
Despite all of these issues, we find it very enjoyable and love life on the road and the freedom it gives us and the opportunity to have time together uninterrupted by the busy lives we live in the UK.