“STOP!” My arms wave furiously in the dark, but it’s too late.
There’s a loud pop, a crack, then the ear-splitting sound of wood scraping on aluminium composite. It takes a few seconds for my husband, Haydn, to register that we’ve side-swiped the caravan on a low-hanging branch. To make matters worse, the van is now hard up against the tree, and the only way out of this mess is to shunt her back the way she came.
We hold our collective breath, grimacing and cursing as we gingerly reverse, the caravan protesting with a mournful shriek as we twist the knife in her wounds.
If our troubles ended there, a stiff drink might have salved our frayed newbie-caravanner nerves. But they don’t. After positioning the van on our campsite and easing her up onto the levelling ramps, we promptly forget everything we know about unhitching safely. We start lifting the caravan off the tow ball, not realising we’ve forgotten to chock the wheels until the van lurches forward, digging the jockey wheel’s base plate into the ground at a grotesque angle. In the back of my mind, I can hear Chris, our Tow-Ed course instructor from two weeks previous, tut-tutting and wagging his finger at our pitiful incompetence.
WHERE IT STARTED
Rewind five hours and we were merrily basking on the beach at Memory Cove in South Australia’s Lincoln National Park — that was our first mistake. We arrived too late and lingered too long. The upshot was we didn’t return to Port Lincoln to hitch up the caravan until late in the afternoon, subsequently arriving at our next destination — Yangie Bay Campground in Coffin Bay National Park — after dark.
Mistake number two: not thoroughly inspecting the campsite. It was late, the kids were hungry, and we just wanted to get set up, get them fed and in bed. So we took a costly shortcut. We got out of the car, gave the site a once over and discussed how to angle the van, but we didn’t step out the entry route, which involved negotiating a 180-degree bend around a clutch of trees. One of those trees had a low branch with a knobbly elbow protruding about two metres above the ground. This we would have discovered with a quick flash of the torch. Instead, the first we knew of the branch was when it shattered the kitchen window of our eight-months-off-the-showroom floor Franklin Razor 220.
Mistake number three: not using the UHF radio to park the van. We normally use our mobile phones to direct one another when parking the van. When there’s no reception, which is often, we opt for the UHF radio instead. This fateful night, however, we resorted to yelling voice commands through an open window. This was a particularly poor decision because it delayed our reaction time. Between the engine roaring in the front and the kids chortling in the back, it took Haydn a few seconds to realise what was happening. In that time the branch sheared off our rangehood vent cover and scraped a fetching sports stripe along the driver’s side of the caravan.
Every day is a learning experience. After almost four months on the road travelling Australia, we have learnt a great deal about towing, parking, setting up camp, and everyday realities of life on the road. Here are some of our key takeaways.
SAND IS THE ENEMY
You have an offroad or semi-offroad caravan, you can take it anywhere, right? Sometimes you need to drag a three-tonne box through heavy sand to realise that caravans aren’t as nimble as you think. We learnt this the hard way after a sublime four days camping at South Lefroy Bay on the Ningaloo Coast. Our site was idyllic. Set back behind the dunes on a vast, private patch of sand, it was close enough to the water to be wet within a few paces, but far enough to be protected from the prevailing westerly winds. Our days were magic, but when it was time to leave, we became horrendously bogged. When your draw bar is resting on the ground and the 4WD is buried almost to the axle and spitting sand, you know you’ve made a ghastly error of judgement.
Our mistake was not thinking ahead. Too wrapped up in the excitement of angling the caravan for the best beach views, we paid scant regard to how we were actually going to get her out. Consequently, the van was nuzzled too close to a large sand island on the driver’s side. While it was a drive-through site, manoeuvring the caravan out required negotiating a right-hand bend that was quite sharp relative to a rig with a combined length of almost 15 metres. We couldn’t make the turn in one go, nor get the momentum needed to drag her through the sand. It took three pairs of recovery boards, much shovelling and multiple unhitching to finally get the caravan moving.
TYRE PRESSURE MATTERS
The first time I, personally, towed the caravan was on the final three-hour leg into Port Augusta. It was terrifying. I gripped the steering wheel like it was a life raft on the Titanic — clenched fists, white knuckles, sweaty brow. Every passing truck felt like it might suck us into its undercarriage, and when I overtook the slow ones (it was dual carriageway), I felt like I was on the cusp of losing control as I merged back into the left-hand lane. It was such an unnerving experience; I was reluctant to get behind the wheel again.
With Haydn’s counsel, I realised that every adjustment of the steering wheel must be gentle and gradual. I learnt to give myself plenty of time, and other motorists ample warning, before easing into another lane. Thus, rounding bends and changing lanes felt much more controlled. We also discovered that the tyres on the caravan were a little under inflated, affecting the van’s stability. Adding an extra 10 PSI made all the difference. It was a timely reminder that these are the sorts of things we should be checking regularly as part of our routine safety checks.
KERBS AREN’T CUSHIONED
One of the other nuances of towing is having to adapt to the caravan’s wide turning arc. I forgot this when I was driving through Streaky Bay and inadvertently mounted the kerb when making a left-hand turn. Fortunately, there were no signposts present to scrape a matching stripe along the passenger side of the caravan.
I have learnt to take corners wide, turning when the vehicle’s rear tyre is level with the kerb, as we were taught in our towing course. I also need to remind myself to break early and slowly. Six tonnes of metal on wheels take a long time to come to a complete stop, safely.
GOOGLE MAPS LIES
I’ve lost count of how many times Google Maps has told us a journey will take four hours, only to lob into our campsite, five, six or even seven hours later. It’s not rocket science, Google assumes we are travelling at the speed limit, and this is something we rarely do on the open road. We have found 95km/h is the sweet spot for us, both from a safety and a fuel economy perspective. However, we also constantly underestimate how long ‘quick stopovers’ will take. So many times we have arrived in a town to grab fuel, use the dump point and fill up the water tanks, thinking it will take an hour, tops. Two hours later we’re pulling back out onto the road wondering where the time went.
Add a few other errands — like grocery shopping, picking up a replacement part or, heaven forbid, buying the kids some travel essentials — and the hours fritter away.
It’s no revelation, the faster you drive, the more fuel you burn. We have calculated that by sitting at 95km/h instead of 100km/h we will save about $900 in diesel by the end of our four-month trip. That’s enough to fund our three kids swimming with whale sharks.
Incidentally, we’ve also learnt that it’s crucial to plan your journey, know where the fuel stations are located and have ample fuel to get there. On our very first day, we were driving through backroads of Western Victoria when we almost ran out of fuel. It was a rookie error — we followed a Google Maps route that bypassed many of the major centres. Consequently, we limped into a little one-horse town with zero kilometres on the distance-to-empty gauge and were lucky to find a 24-hour self-service diesel bowser. Lesson learned, we now fill up regularly, plan our fuel stops and always have diesel reserves in our two jerry cans.
SOLAR PANELS NEED SUN
Yes, it’s an obvious point to make, but we were surprised with how quickly our batteries depleted in non-optimal conditions. Up until the Northern Territory, we had been blessed with blistering sunshine and clear skies whenever we were off-grid. However, when we were in Kakadu we had the trifecta of solar power woes. We were on an unpowered site, it was shady, and the skies were overcast. This was an inopportune time to discover that our grey Anderson plug wasn’t working. This meant that on subsequent drives to other campsites within the national park, the caravan battery wasn’t receiving any charge from the car. We don’t run much on 12V — fans, lights, water pump and phone chargers (we have a portable battery pack for larger devices) — but we were surprised by how quickly our power, which had never been a problem previously, ebbed away.
FILL AT WILL
Travelling during a pandemic has thrown us our fair share of curve balls. Between snap lockdowns and border closures, we have had to become quite agile on the road, and this has sometimes meant shelving our plans at a moment’s notice. What we have learnt is that it’s crucial in COVID times to be prepared for plans to change. For us, that means never missing an opportunity to fill our water tanks, stock the caravan cupboards and dump the toilet cassette.
We were only an hour out of Perth when a snap lockdown was announced and found ourselves hightailing it to a low-cost, off-the-grid campsite a few hours north of the city. Fortunately, our water tanks were full, and we had enough supplies to ride out a few days until our next big shop. The exact same scenario played out when we were two hours north of Alice Springs and the city went into lockdown. Luckily, we were able to ‘pivot’ and head to a free camp in the West MacDonnell Ranges. In other dramas, we narrowly missed the Darwin lockdown, and re-entered South Australia 36 hours after the state reopened its borders to the Northern Territory.
If there’s one thing COVID has taught us, it’s to always expect the unexpected.