We had pulled up at a wayside stop just west of the now defunct Yalata Roadhouse on the long haul across to Western Australia from the east coast. Not that we were going all the way to Perth or even Norseman, our intention being to head north from west of the Nullarbor Roadhouse through the Nullarbor Regional Reserve to the tiny railway outpost of Cook before turning west to Forrest and beyond. It was a pleasant evening, especially as we pulled well back off the highway, away from the thrum of any passing traffic.
I was out of our van admiring the view of the nothingness stretching away to the horizon when ol’ Joe (I have no idea of his real name and it’s better that way) towing his van decided, quite suddenly it seemed, that he wanted to pull in and rest awhile. Trouble was he had forgotten that a semi was coming up behind him and when he hit the brakes, a vehicle was coming from the other direction. It was a bit tight on the road as the semi driver tried to miss all involved and while he missed the on-coming vehicle, ol’ Joe wasn’t so lucky, with the side of his van opening up like butter being sliced with a hot knife as the bulbar on the semi clipped the van. It was bloody lucky that was all that happened!
While ol’ Joe was shaken, he and his tow vehicle were untouched. Meanwhile, the semi driver was shaken and a little stirred at Joe’s sudden intentions and lack of warning. He was soon on his way though, while I helped ol’ Joe pick up the pieces of the interior of his van, which included everything from cupboards and pillows to baked beans and milk cartons.
It had happened so quickly and without any warning on what was a straight road in good visibility with little traffic. But it goes to show just how suddenly a life changing accident can happen when you are touring Australia. While we are all aware of being safe while on the road, it only takes a moment of inattention, or a sudden change of mind leading to a quick variation in direction or braking, and an accident can occur.
In all my years of travelling Australia from one side to the other, north to south and everywhere in-between, it’s road accidents that account for most of the major concerns we’ve had to deal with. Luckily for us, it has always been somebody else we’ve helped out — let’s hope that continues!
WAY BEFORE YOU GO
It’s not surprising that many people these days living in our cities well away from the outback have little experience at driving on dirt roads. And while many people who buy a 4WD vehicle for that change of lifestyle and for the big trip around Australia go and do a 4WD course, many of those said courses have little instruction on how to drive on dirt roads. So, pick one that does!
Generally, you are not going to die while driving on a sandy beach or crossing a river up on Cape York but do the wrong thing at 80km/h on a dirt road and you’ll be lucky to walk away from it unscathed. Put a van on the back and the chances of you coming to grief, if and when you do the wrong thing, are magnified 10 times over.
So, don’t think you know it all as you’ve driven your passenger car around the city and on the blacktop for the last 40 years — go and do a course. The life you save may be your own, your partner's, or some stranger coming the other way!
BEFORE YOU HIT THE ROAD
I’m assuming you know the weight of your vehicle and the weight of the van when it is loaded before you hit the track.
NO! Don’t guess. Go and have both weighed, each and every time.
You’ll invariably weigh more than you thought, so it may be the time to dump those things such as the extra crockery set from the van, or the additional tyre and rim from the tow vehicle to get the weight down to reasonable levels. And anyway, extra weight means more fuel consumption and improving that is always a good thing.
Have your vehicle and van serviced and made fit for the road. I’m not a great one for taking a vehicle to a metropolitan-based vehicle manufacturer's service centre as they have bugger all knowledge of the trials and tribulations a vehicle is subjected to out in the bush or on the long haul around Australia. Take your rig to a specialty 4WD service centre, such as Outback 4WD in Victoria, and get a pre-trip inspection done plus any work required completed before you head off.
Once you’ve loaded your van and connected it to the tow tug, make sure all the lights work, safety chains are connected and everything is sitting pretty level, the front wheels are on the deck and the headlights not pointing to the sky.
Yeah, I know the marketing brochure for your vehicle says your pride and joy will tow 3.5 tonne, but very few vehicles in standard form will get anywhere near that without showing a droopy backend that will adversely affect steering, braking and general handling. And there are a lot of caveats on that 3.5 tonne or whatever the towing figure is stated in the brochure. Get it sorted!
Then, there are mirrors. If you are doing a lot of towing or heading off on a year’s jaunt around Australia get some decent replacement mirrors and not just floppy add-ons. We’ve got a couple of great makes now available in Australia from either Clearview or MSA 4x4 Accessories. You’ll love the clear, steady and expanded vision you get from either of these units.
Another great option for the caravanner is a tyre monitoring system that can monitor all the tyre pressures on your rig. They’ll pick up a slowly deflating tyre and let you know, thereby saving you some dollars or blowing a tyre and losing control.
There’s a few systems around and I’ve tried at least four different brands but have settled on the TPMS system from ARB. The initial units ARB marketed were a little unreliable and fiddly to set up, but their latest TPMS units work fine and are easy to fit and to get working properly, including the sensors on the trailer or van.
Don’t ever go into the remoter parts of the outback on worn tyres — you are just asking for trouble. They should have at least 70 per cent of the tread and be of Light Truck (LT) construction. Highway orientated (HT) or passenger (P) tyre construction tyres do not last on rocky corrugated dirt roads, let alone on rough tracks. HT or P tyres may also have less load carrying ability and are often subject to lower maximum tyre pressures.
THE ESSENTIAL GEAR FOR A SAFE TRIP
So, the time has come to head off on the dream trip around the country or on the annual jaunt to your favourite destination. The vehicle and van are in tip-top shape and you know how to handle both if something unforeseen happens.
But there are a few handy items you need to stay safe while on the road and far from home. First up you should look at communication gear as it really is essential.
A UHF radio for short range comms between you and your friend travelling behind you can be really handy. Likewise, for calling up a truckie to ask if it’s safe to pass or to give a cattle property a call if you find some wayward stock on the road.
As far as your mobile phone is concerned, the reality is they just don’t work in many areas of Australia. While the coverage is improving every year, in many places it is still non-existent — and that is with the Telstra network. Any other provider is way behind and way worse as far as coverage goes. However, Optus is out there and in a few places that Telstra isn’t, so it may pay to have both, or at least a prepaid card of one or the other.
Satphones cover all of Australia but they are relatively expensive while their monthly access deals can leave a bit to be desired. Still, there are some reasonable packages available so shop around to find what suits as far as access time is concerned and what you are willing to pay. Hiring a satphone may be the cheapest way to go, so check out Oz Satellite Rentals, or Google, ‘Satphone hire’. However, don’t expect to be uploading pics to Facebook or streaming the latest blockbuster on your satphone as they are really just a voice or text messaging device.
One other option to keep you in touch with your loved ones is the personal satellite messenger units such as ‘InReach’ or ‘Spot’. Some are two-way communicators, and all will send a distress signal to the search and rescue organisations in the country or to dedicated loved ones, if and when such a calamity arises.
Somebody in your party should have done a first aid course and the Red Cross and St John Ambulance run excellent courses all over the country — Google, ‘Remote Area first aid courses’.
Backing up that knowledge, you should always carry a comprehensive first aid kit; see ARB’s Family kit as a good starting point, which will include a first aid manual to help you in an emergency. Still we’ve always found, no matter the brand of kit, that there is always something we like to add such as an EpiPen, antihistamine tablets, or a flexible splint and the like.
While being bitten by a snake or something even more deadly is a remote possibility, coming onto a road accident is not so far-fetched. Knowing what to do can save someone's life, maybe even someone very close to you.
ON THE ROAD
Before you go, let someone know of your travel plans and tell them when you will contact them and at what times, and make sure you keep to it.
Don’t rely on Police stations to keep track of you, especially those in the outback, as they are not geared up to keep a check on each and every traveller who is heading up the Birdsville track, into the Simpson Desert, or on similar remote outback roads.
Organise your trip with adequate rest breaks so that you are not driving distances beyond your capability. Fatigue while driving is a real killer, especially for people who aren’t used to long days of four, six or eight hours a day behind the wheel.
A good friend of mine, who has been to more fatal accidents than he cares to remember, is adamant that drivers need to run their vehicle’s air system on ‘fresh’, as stale recycled air leads to drowsiness. Remember, a micro sleep can kill.
Concentrate on the road and what you are doing and what’s happening around you. When you have a van or camper on the back, be doubly vigilant and when you hit a dirt road don’t continue to treat it as an extension of the blacktop. Look, really look, at the road ahead, for sharp rocks, an erosion gutter that cuts across the road, a large pothole that has appeared since the grader was last along there. And keep an eye out for wandering stock or wildlife that often lurk in the shadows of a bush on the side of the road.
And lastly if you do break down in some remote spot, don't ever leave your vehicle. With prior preparation and planning a vehicle will have all the food and water you need, along with protection from the elements, and is a darn sight easier to find than a lone person wandering through the bush.
So stay safe out there, and happy travels!