It was a pleasure to meet Terry Ryan, the owner of Bushmaster Offroad Caravans while doing this review. Terry has been in the caravan game for more than 30 years and started Bushmaster in 1994. Terry is in his 70s and very much has a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye when he talks about caravans. He told me passionately his philosophy has three key principles; 1) take the time to construct a limited number of caravans to the highest standard; 2) use the very best components he can access, utilising Australian made wherever he can; 3) include every feature possible to create a unique caravanning experience.
Having a good look over the Ironbark reveals Terry goes to great lengths to put his philosophy into practice. As we work our way through the sections of the article, we will see just how many features the Ironbark has incorporated into it.
This particular example of the Ironbark had a 150mm steel chassis with 100mm risers manufactured by G&S Chassis. This is a classic style seen on many Australian-made caravans with a proven track record. What I found more interesting is the chassis that unfortunately I didn’t see. Terry tells me the Ironbark can be optioned with an aluminium chassis and gave me a little run down. A 120kg weight saving over an equivalent steel chassis is significant. It will cost you an extra $7000, but it was interesting to hear about 80 per cent of Bushmaster customers go for the aluminium. Bushmaster has been using aluminium chassis for more than 10 years and has had good results with them.
G&S provides the chassis in rolling format which means that it comes with the coupling, suspension, brakes and wheels fitted as a package. Control Rider is a trailing arm, independent offroad suspension manufactured by G&S. Upfront is an offroad coupling supplied by sister company AL-KO. According to AL-KO, it has extreme articulation (vertically and horizontally) for extreme offroad touring while still being used with a standard 50mm towball. Another sister company, Dexter, supplies 30cm (12in) offroad electric brakes.
G&S branded 40cm (16in) alloy rims are fitted with General, Grabber AT3 all-terrain tyres made in the USA. They are described as having a combination of exceptional offroad capabilities and confident on-road manners. The running gear is all heavy-duty stuff designed to eat up thousands of kilometres of corrugated roads. Terry tells me many of his customers have tackled tough tracks such as the Gibb River Road and headed to iconic destinations like Cape York with the product taking it all in its stride.
We don’t scientifically compare ground clearance on vans, but we do crawl under them to have a look and take photos. It would be fair to say that some of the smaller, extreme offroad hybrids have noticeably more ground clearance. But here’s the thing. Terry promised me a great location for our photo shoot, and he didn’t disappoint. We had to negotiate plenty of mud and traverse some huge 1.5m deep culverts and we got through with no signs of dragging on the ground. And there’s an upside to not being unnecessarily high which we will cover under the towing section.
The Bushmaster includes weight distribution hitches in the price. Terry supplies them with every van, and he is a great believer in the benefits of transferring some of the weight back onto the front wheels of the tow vehicle which is lost when a van is attached to the rear of the car. The objective is to improve steering and braking by increasing the car's front tyres' contact with the road.
A final point to note is the spare wheel is underslung forward of the front axle, rather than hanging off the rear of the van. The process for accessing the spare wheel is to use a winder to lower it to the ground, detach the cable and then reverse a little until you can get to the spare wheel. This process means you don’t need the strength to lower and lift a heavy spare wheel, but you do need to be agile enough to get down on your hands and knees to operate the winder and detach the cable.
The body looks quite unique with the walls comprising predominantly aluminium checkerplate top to bottom. A smooth, narrow aluminium section in the middle, sporting a decal stripe of Australiana imagery breaks up the checkerplate. Behind the wall is an aluminium frame which has the benefit that it can’t rot like a timber frame in the event of a leak. I have come across a few caravan manufacturers with aluminium frames now – some weld the frame and others rivet it. Terry uses nylon joiners with a square male profile that insert into the square hollow sections of the aluminium frame. This is strategically reinforced with screws and bolts. The roof is built with slight slopes front to back and side to side to encourage water run-off reducing the chance of leaks.
The layout is quite conventional with a forward bed, mid kitchen/dining area and a rear ensuite. The sleeping quarter has plenty of storage with a bedside a drawer/cupboard and robe on each side. The mirrors on the robe doors are welcome. Overhead lockers are abundant above the bed and the kitchen dining area. Seating is spacious and the diagonal stitched leather in the lumbar support is a nice touch. The seating has some comfy footrests for leisurely reclining and useful drawers underneath.
The kitchen area is well thought out too, again with plenty of storage. Meal preparation area can be easily extended with a clever little slide-out work surface. The Thetford 274L compressor fridge and Swift four-burner cooktop and rangehood are all quality appliances. The Whirlpool crisp and grill microwave is a bit fancier than what is usually supplied in most vans. The promotional sticker spruiked you get “Browned outside, juicy inside with oven-baked finish.” I liked the different kitchen tap so much I have gone into plenty of detail about it further below.
The bathroom with separate shower and toilet feels spacious and still has room for multiple overhead cupboards, drawers and a Fresca 3.2kg front loader washing machine. A nifty cupboard beside the vanity/behind the shower gives you even more storage.
Bushmaster does a few more things differently to make inside living a more pleasant experience, making its own “dust stopper.” It’s basically a fan that pressurises the cabin preventing dust ingress when travelling dirt roads.
You don’t see the heating system every day either. There is a heat exchange with a fan mounted under the bed. It is plumbed to the hot water service and the circulating hot water does the job. Vents in the bed base allow for air to be drawn in and blown out. This same principle of using hot water is how a car interior is heated. Terry says it is slower to heat than a diesel heater, but you don’t have to worry about filling a diesel tank. An alternate source of heating is at your disposal with a Houghton Belaire 3.2kW reverse cycle air conditioner and of course, it blows cold air too.
While you are enjoying heating or cooling to your desired temperature, you can surf the internet with the aid of a gizmo known as RV WI-FI. It is a stand-alone mobile data device requiring its own SIM card that delivers superior internet reception and routing performance than just using a mobile phone.
External storage is plentiful including a substantial wood tray on the rear. When you open the various external storage compartments you find they carry a number of goodies included in the price. The front tunnel boot revealed two nice folding chairs and a barbecue. The rear compartment included a Honda generator.
OFF GRID ABUNDANCE
Terry has thrown everything at the Ironbark including a special kitchen sink with two taps. There is the main kitchen tap connected to the primary freshwater supply fed by three 95L tanks. There is also a second kitchen tap connected to a separate ‘special’ freshwater supply fed by another 50L tank. The idea is the special water supply is dedicated to drinking and cooking and is filled with the best water source available. Of course, the primary water supply can be filled with the same water source but splitting the caravan water supply gives you more options. For example, the main water supply could be filled with bore water (or possibly river water if you determine it is good enough) and used for washing the dishes and showering.
The plumbing is more sophisticated as a result. There are two water fill points on the exterior of the van. The special water supply is a conventional fill point with a cap that can be fed by poking a hose in. The primary water supply accepts water by connecting a standard hose ‘click’ fitting. The inlet system has a three-way manifold controlling which tank the water is routed to. Each primary water tank is plumbed up to the pump separately meaning if you happened to damage one tank you won’t lose water from the other tanks. The pump inlet also has a three-way manifold controlling which tank the water is drawn from. You just have to remember that if you appear to ‘run out of water’ to open another valve to access another tank. There is a fifth tank (60L greywater). You will need to keep an eye on your grey water tank fill rate as it can only catch 18 per cent of your full freshwater capacity.
The special water supply has to have its own pump to feed the second tap and keep the water supplies discrete. An advantage of two pumps is if one failed, you could physically swap them around to where it is most needed and make do until a repair is done.
Having all this water at hand is fantastic for off grid excursions but there is a price to pay. If you choose to fill all your tanks that’s a whopping 335kg on board. Fortunately, the Ironbark has a payload of 830kg leaving 495kg to play with.
The Ironbark sports four 110Ah deep cycle ACDELCO continuous use batteries. They are configured with a bank of two batteries on each side of the van protected by 50A circuit breakers. Battery charging is via five solar panels totalling an impressive 970W.
The Ironbark does not have an inverter fitted but the Honda 2.2kVA generator supplied gives you 240V power off grid. Combined with two 9kg gas bottles you have plenty of power on board.
We drove through the twisty roads around Kinglake West about 70km northeast of Melbourne. Terry was behind the wheel of his Mercedes ML350 V6 diesel. Terry knows the car and these roads well and his driving was ‘spirited.’ The combination felt very planted to the road. I suspect not overdoing the height of the van contributed to this.
The weight stats for matching up a suitable tow vehicle are 3500kg ATM and towball weight at tare of 261kg.
Towing safety is enhanced with a simple but effective idea. The Bushmaster has two banks of stop, tail, and indicator lights. One bank is at regular height and another bank right up high. The high bank of lights can be seen more often by vehicles behind you, and it also provides a contingency if one or the other lights fail.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I haven’t got round to mentioning the warranty, Terry’s exact words to me were “Every Bushmaster has a five-year warranty that covers everything in the caravan, no matter where they go.” That’s a man with conviction in his product.
I may have got a bit carried away with covering the unique water supply set up so I will keep the summary short and sweet. The Bushmaster is loaded with features to improve the caravan experience and has all the hardware you will need for long-distance outback, off-grid touring.
HITS AND MISSES
- Massive amount of features included as standard
- Two banks of stop, tail and indicator lights provide extra safety
- An abundant water supply with a dedicated drinking water tap/tank
- Grey water tank capacity only represents 18 per cent of freshwater tank capacity
Bushmaster Ironbark Ratings
Value for Money : 8
“Incredible amount of features and “extras” included for $105,000”
Towability : 8.5
“Felt very stable behind the Mercedes on windy roads”
Suitability for Intended Touring : 8.5
“All the right features for outback touring”
Build Quality :9
“Bushmaster are niche builders with an emphasis on quality”
Liveability : 8.5
“A well-thought-out van with plenty to offer”
“Packed with solar and freshwater. The trade-off is limited grey water capacity”
Customer Care : 8.5
“Five-year warranty is the current high benchmark”
Innovation : 8.5
“Bushmaster does things differently and it works.”
X-Factor : 8.5
“Feature packed is the recurring theme”
Bushmaster Ironbark Specs
Weights and Measures
|Body length||5.95m (19ft 10in)|
|Overall length||Overall length|
|Width||2.5m (8ft 2in)|
|Ball weight at tare||261kg|
|Suspension||G&S Control Rider trailing arm, independent offroad|
|Coupling||AL-KO offroad ball|
|Brakes||Dexter 30cm (12in) offroad electric|
|Wheels||40cm (16in) alloy with General Grabber 265/75R16 All Terrain Tyres|
|Water||3x 95L primary water, 1x 50L special water and 1x 60L grey water|
|Battery||4x 110Ah deep cycle ACDELCO continuous use|
|Solar||5x solar panels totalling 970W|
|Air-conditioner||Houghton Belaire 3.2kW|
|Sway control||AL-KO ESC|
|Cooking||Swift 4 burner cooktop, 3 gas, 1 electric|
|Microwave||Whirlpool crisp and grill|
|Fridge||Thetford 274L compressor|
|Bathroom||Separate shower and toilet|
|Hot water||Swift stainless steel 28L|
Bushmaster Ironbark priced from $105,000
Bushmaster Ironbark price as shown $105,000
Supplied by Bushmaster Caravans
THE NEXT STEP
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