“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – if you didn’t sing that line in your head, go back and do it again.
No, I’m not talking about Christmas, although that is almost upon us as well – it’s Best Aussie Vans time! It’s the time when some of Australia’s best vans descend on one location in what is, without a doubt, Australia’s biggest caravan test. Over the course of a week they are photographed, videoed and gone over with several fine-tooth combs by our judges in a bid to be named Caravan World’s Best Aussie Van!
This year, we welcomed AL-KO as our event partner and were pleased to have them join us and the participating vans for the week.
We like to choose iconic Australian locations to host Best Aussie Vans, which is how we ended up on Victoria’s beautiful Great Ocean Road (GOR). Avid readers might remember we visited the GOR for BAV 2014 which took place in Anglesea. However, this time, we looked further afield and found ourselves in Wye River.
Located between Lorne and Apollo Bay on the GOR, about 2.5 hours from Melbourne, our base for the week was the gorgeous BIG4 Wye River Holiday Park (see page 110).
With acres of lush green campsites, the peaceful babbling river trickling through the park, and a location literally on the doorstep of the Great Ocean Road and the Otway Ranges, BIG4 Wye River was the perfect base camp.
However, just weeks before our arrival in Wye River, the region was hit by heavy rainfall, resulting in flooding and some major landslides along the Great Ocean Road in very close proximity to Wye River. Sections of the Great Ocean Road were closed, cutting off Wye River from the east (Melbourne), meaning visitors had to travel the much longer inland route, via Apollo Bay, to reach Wye River and nearby townships.
For a region whose last summer tourist season was decimated by horrific bushfires which burned for weeks throughout December and January, this was another blow the region could hardly afford. When official advice warned against travelling on local roads due to the risk of further landslides, things looked bleak and, with 11 caravans, up to 20 vehicles and a couple of dozen people to manage across a week, the safety of those attending Best Aussie Vans was paramount.
However, some hard work by local authorities and VicRoads saw the Great Ocean Road stabilised, the risks managed and the road reopened less than 24 hours before our arrival in Wye River. While most attendees were pleased they could take the quicker coastal route from Melbourne, the overwhelming feeling was gratefulness that our attendance would help lift this hard-hit community at a time it really needed it.
There’s no escaping the damage the recent bushfire did to the region. The blackened trees on both sides of the Great Ocean Road – right up to the water’s edge in some spots – are impossible to miss; the sight of partially destroyed houses high up on the hill are a constant reminder. But in amongst all of that, you notice the undergrowth starting to regenerate – it seems almost a lurid green against the black of the burnt bush around it; and the construction of new houses where burnt-out shells once stood. It’s a welcome reminder that the community, which relies largely on self-drive tourism, is regrowing and rebuilding and we felt grateful to be able to contribute in a small way.
This year, we welcomed 11 vans across four categories to AL-KO Best Aussie Vans. Getting the mix of categories right is something we look at, and take reader feedback on, every year. In the past, we’ve had a pop-top specific group, budget vans under $50,000 and a top-end price category spanning almost $60,000 in range.
This year, we’ve moved away from the budget and pop-top groups, and tightened up the ranges on the higher-end categories. After all, there’s a pretty big difference between an $80,000 van and a $130,000 van! That left us with vans competing in $50K-$65K; $65K-$80K, $80K-$100K, and $100K-plus categories.
This structure sees onroad and offroad competing in the same categories, as well as pop-tops and full-heights, and slide-out and non-slide-out models. “You can’t compare apples and oranges”, you might say, but that’s where our experienced judges and 10-point scoring system come into play (see page 37).
In this issue of CW, we’re bringing you all the action, reviews and winners from the first two groups – $50K-$65K and $65K-$80K – while the final two groups will feature in next month’s magazine (on sale January 5, 2017).
The New Age Manta Ray, Kokoda Veteran XLi and Jurgens Lunagazer J2405 are competing in the $50K-$60K group, with the Trakmaster Pilbara Explorer, Sunseeker Desert Storm and the On The Move Vortex battling it out in the second group.
Putting on Australia’s biggest caravan test takes many, many hands, both before and during the event, to ensure everything runs smoothly. Coordinating the judging, photography, videography and towing of each van, plus teams of videographers, photographers, judges, manufacturer representatives and support staff is a massive operation.
This year, we had some familiar faces – and some new ones – along for the ride. Our regular BAV judges, Peter, Mal and Phil were back for another year, joined this year by returning 2013 and 2014 BAV judge and now CW editor Laura. Editor-at-large Max took his turn in front of the camera as video host for videographers Anna and BAV newbies JP and Alex. Manning the stills cameras were BAV stalwarts Ellen and Nathan who, between them, have probably photographed almost every caravan in Australia by now! Our event manager Rhonda put in hours of work behind the scenes and, while some might describe the role as ‘like herding cats’, during event week, she ensured everyone was looked after at all times – she was the purveyor of cheese and wine at happy hour, and the provider of firepits upon request – two vitally important roles, you might agree!
The week started with the six vans competing across the first two categories arriving in Wye River. The wild weather that caused the damaging landslides was still lurking and, during our week in Wye River, we experienced the best of Victoria’s changeable weather. Grey skies and heavy rain dominated the first couple of days, punctuated by brief, welcome bursts of sunshine but also random outbursts of crazy weather, with some unexpected gale-force gusts taking out a couple of caravan awnings.
The miserable weather continued into Wednesday, when the third and fourth groups of vans joined us in Apollo Bay for a public showcase. But the worst weather was yet to come and, that day, the rain did not stop. The vans with internal space heaters were popular hang-outs but, bravely, everyone soldiered on with smiles on their faces, no doubt brought on by the thought of the warm shower and the
hot dinner that was awaiting them at the caravan park. Members of the public, too, braved the grey old day to visit Apollo Bay, see the vans and meet the people behind them.
As we farewelled our first six vans on Wednesday, we welcomed the new arrivees to the BIG4 Wye River and got back to work with five new vans to put under the microscope.
Throughout the week, we tried to spread our custom across the community, with a couple of dinners at the delectable Wye General Store and a couple at the spectacularly-located Wye River Hotel. On our final night, we ate in, with a local caterer cooking us up a beautiful seafood barbecue at the caravan park, followed by singing, guitar and yarns around the campfires outside. It was a fitting end to another wonderful event.