One broken starter motor, two drowned drones, one lost iPhone, one toy plane marooned up a tree, one incinerated lamb roast and countless cremated vegetables – if the number of things that went wrong on CW’s recent testing trip down the west coast of Victoria are indicative of good luck, we should have racked up a handy supply for the future.
The reason for the trip was to test out the prototype 12ft Optimiser caravan from The Little Caravan Company (TLCC).
Based in Campbellfield, Vic, TLCC has, until now, specialised in small offroad vans, from 9ft in size. At 12ft, the Optimiser is the first on-roader, and largest van, for TLCC.
This is a huge deviation from the current trend in the Australian caravan industry, which is seeing vans become bigger and heavier every season. Vans with a Tare of nearly 3t are now the norm, not the exception, and those which can be towed by the 2500kg-capable ‘Prado-brigade’ are almost a novelty.
TLCC is doing its part to reverse this trend by proving that you can have ample living space in a much smaller package. Enter: the Optimiser. The 12ft van has a rear bedroom slide-out, which adds 3ft to the living space. And at just 1520kg Tare and 1970kg ATM (a decent 450kg load capacity), the Optimiser is perfect for small tow vehicles. In fact, it’s usually towed by TLCC co-owner Archie’s Holden Captiva. So the Prado I turned up in was definitely overkill, as was the Pajero I had planned to use. And there’s a story there somewhere…
Our trusty but ageing Paj, which has done 250,000-odd kilometres without any major failures, decided to raise the white flag as I filled up with petrol on my way to pick up the Optimiser. Starter motor gone, that little situation necessitated a 200km round-trip to pick up CW’s Prado instead.
Over three days, I towed the Optimiser through peak-hour Melbourne traffic, at 100km/h along the Princes Freeway, and along the narrow, winding Great Ocean Road (GOR). My husband Ash and I shared the driving, as we always do (good practice for all touring couples). The difference here was that we were both equally comfortable towing the Optimiser as we were without anything on the ball. We quickly realised this van was like no other we had towed before. Its turning circle was impressive, making our photography runs along sections of the GOR much less stressful than normal, when the photographer casually announces over the two-way: “Just find somewhere to turn around and come past again.” Negotiating the GOR’s notorious switchbacks and tight turns against sheer cliffs was far more pleasant with such a small van.
The photography along the GOR led to the second unfortunate incident of the trip when photographer Nick’s drone ditched itself into the ocean and committed suicide by saltwater. And, shortly afterwards, videographer Mick took his eyes off his drone for a second as it hovered over Wye River within BIG4 Wye River Holiday Park – long enough for it to hit a branch and splash unceremoniously into the drink. Before we could say “Not again!”, CW’s content director Travis had ditched his strides and was wading in to rescue it.
After that, our convoy of Prado/Optimiser and LandCruiser/Whittley Marine SL 22 boat set off to make camp at the Cumberland River Holiday Park.
The riverfront sites at the park were designed for much larger vans than the Optimiser and it virtually floated in all the space afforded by our $40/night unpowered site fee (shoulder season; $70 in peak).
We got on with the quick and simple task of setting up the Optimiser for camp; no long or convoluted setups here. Attach the jockey wheel, drop the corner stabilisers and wind them down with the provided handle. Spirit levels mounted on the drawbar ensure you’ll get the perfect height unless, like me, you refuse to believe they work because they don’t seem to move. A second attempt by Ash to level things proved more successful and the spirit levels were happy to cooperate that time! Then wind out the awning, drop the picnic table, slide the Weber Baby Q (or optional slide-out kitchen) from its nearside hatch in the front toolbox, unlock the external shower hatch and you’re ready!
Then hop inside and extend the rear slide-out. It’s not silent (what slide-outs are?) but only takes about 20 seconds to slide into position. Once extended, the van is transformed. There is space to walk around both sides of the bed and it also opens up the internal seating area. This comprises a seat on either wall with an adjustable table in between. Want to sit inside and eat? Simply move the table between the seats and you’ve got a dining table. Want to recline with a book? Swing the table away so it’s not in the way. It’s practical and workable, if not particularly sumptuous or luxurious. When packing up, just remember to raise the table to allow the bed to slide underneath.
One thing we noticed when Ash stepped into the van was the internal height. It doesn’t look low from the outside; indeed, when I walked around TLCC’s factory, I noted how high many of the vans looked. But inside, the Optimiser reaches just 186cm (6ft 1in) – not high enough for my 6ft 3in husband. However, while this exact van might not suit taller folk, TLCC would, no doubt, be able to engineer one with a more suitable height if required. (Confirmed: TLCC will ‘Custom Build’ to add 100mm extra internal height.)
It doesn’t take long to get the Optimiser ready for the night. Cooking facilities are directly opposite the door and comprise a two-burner gas Dometic stove with rangehood above and 85L Engel compressor fridge/freezer below and a slide-out pantry to the right. In a cabinet above the rangehood is the van’s electrical centre with Finch audio system, water level indicator and ProStar 30 solar charge controller with 12V master switch. While all lights and devices are switched separately, this switch allows you to easily cut and restore power to the van with the press of just one button. It was supremely useful every time we left the van.
Across the front of the van is the rest of the kitchen with a 140cm-long kitchen bench with sink, drainer and lots of drawer and cupboard storage below. Between the cooktop and the bench, in the front offside corner of the van, is the Optimiser’s second major surprise (after the slide-out) – a combo bathroom with shower and toilet. It’s fair to say I was stunned when I learned this 12ft van had a bathroom inside – there are much larger vans that still can’t achieve that! And contrary to my expectations, it was a reasonable size – plenty of space in front of the loo and the shower area was large enough not to feel cramped. Head height was again at a premium, though.
With the slide-out retracted, the internal space is small, but it’s still useable, with the kitchen and bathroom facilities accessible at roadside stops without having to deploy the slide-out. Once extended, though, the van becomes genuinely comfortable inside with, in my opinion, enough room for two average-sized people to happily co-exist in the space.
STRIKES FOUR AND FIVE
Once set up, five-year-old Will mucked around by the river with a small, foam airplane he’d bought in nearby Lorne. Not long after, a rogue gust of wind caught the plane and deposited it high in the branches of a beautiful but very tall pine tree.
And, shortly afterwards, as the day wound towards dusk, Nick was again on the receiving end of Lady Bad Luck when he realised his iPhone was missing. There was a brief few moments of hope – and hilarity – when Will (jokingly) announced he’d hidden Nick’s treasured iPhone as penance for Nick getting Will’s plane – his favourite possession – stuck in the tree. This inspired renewed attempts to retrieve young Will’s plane from the tree but, unfortunately, those attempts saw a soccer ball (also belonging to Will), two drink bottles and a thong meet the same fate, ensnared by the pine’s curlicue branches.
As dusk descended, we made use of Cumberland River’s half-44 gallon drum firepits and got a cracker of a fire going, as we tucked into a selection of local beer from the Forrest Brewing Company, red wine from WA and some beautiful cheese and prosciutto. With the Optimiser’s audio system pumping tunes outside via the external speakers, and the van’s external LEDs providing mood lighting, it was camping at its finest!
But the run of bad luck wasn’t over yet. The position of camp cook is one of real responsibility – especially when your fellow campers are three hungry men and a ravenous five-year-old. Eager to test out my new camp oven, I prepared a feast of roast lamb, jacket potatoes, corn on the cob, garlic bread and roasted vegetables.
Distracted by our twilight photo shoot, the search for the iPhone and, if I’m honest, probably the red wine and cheese, the roast somehow got forgotten. We eventually retrieved the oven to find the lamb cremated beyond recognition; and the jacket potatoes not far behind. More feast than famine, we endured, rather than enjoyed, a meal of garlic bread and corn on the cob which, miraculously, survived the inferno.
Having also neglected to do the obligatory ‘marshmallow roasting stick hunt’ before dark, we were left to use our dwindling pile of firewood to roast marshies over the campfire in order to fill the gaps in our stomachs left after ‘dinner’. But with a little more red, some toasty, dripping marshmallows and a roaring fire, suddenly camping was great again.
When the firewood ran out, we retired for the night – and discovered the ceiling wasn’t the only part of the Optimiser that was a little short. At 188cm, or 6ft 2in in the old language, it’s worth noting that the bed was slightly too short for my tall husband to comfortably stretch out. However, as I told him, it’s still longer than you’ll find in many caravans. And it was bloody comfortable!
The next day, our last, dawned bright and crisp before quickly warming up. As we dragged our bags out of the cavernous storage space under the bed and packed up in preparation for, reluctantly, returning the Optimiser to Graham and Archie at TLCC, I found myself wishing I could take off with the van for a few more days – or longer! The Optimiser had grown on me and I can certainly see the appeal of travelling lighter and smaller in a van like this.
If it was mine, I’d option the smooth composite panel exterior that the rest of TLCC’s vans have – I thought this Optimiser’s ribbed aluminium looked a bit dated compared to the rest of the fleet – a slightly higher internal ceiling, a longer bed, and the optional slide-out kitchen.
But I loved and wouldn’t change the stylish bright blue acrylic splashbacks inside the van, the Engel fridge, the spacious bathroom, the shiny mag wheels and the amount of benchtop space. And TLCC plans to build an offroad version of the Optimiser, taking specs from its offroad sibling, the X-Scape, so I wouldn’t mind taking a look at that one, too!
With the hatches battened down and everything in its place, we hitched up (a simple affair with the 50mm AL-KO ball coupling) and made the trek back to TLCC HQ in Melbourne.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s exceedingly rare to find a caravan for less than $50K these days. They’re out there but they’re as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s even rarer to find one with a modern design, a slide-out, and an internal bathroom. It’s fair to say TLCC Optimiser is one of a kind and, if the response it received on CW’s social media pages throughout our test is anything to go by, this little pocket rocket is going to receive a lot of attention in the near future. Not everyone wants, or can afford, a big heavy van.
And, you’ll be pleased to know, that little foam plane was eventually displaced from the tree and returned to young Will – with the help of the Whittley SL 22, a fishing rod and some extendable tent poles. But I won’t tell you how we did it.
- Small tow vehicle friendly
- Ample living space
- Internal shower/toilet
- Internal height
- Bed could be longer
- A slide-out kitchen would be handy
The full test appears in Caravan World #560 2017. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!