Meet Eleanor, or Nona, as we call her – my favourite aunt on my dad’s side. She has been such an inspiration to me, from camping trips when we were kids, to 4WDing and just getting out there and discovering what Australia has to offer. Unfortunately, Nona lost her husband Peter to cancer in November last year. They had a wonderful life together, travelling and working around Australia in a yacht, a motorhome and, later a caravan and 4WD.
With the passing of her husband, Nona is back on the road travelling solo, but not before selling up the house, the caravan and 4WD, and replacing it all with a Jayco Conquest motorhome on a Fiat chassis.
I asked her about the challenges of travelling solo, and this is what she had to say.
Nona, tell us a little about yourself.
I’m 70 years old and a widow. I’ve travelled around Australia twice; it’s an amazing country! I think I’m a bit of a gypsy at heart, as Mum used to say to me, “You’ve got such a nice house, why leave it?” I said, “Mum, when I’m old and I can’t travel anymore, that’s when I’ll enjoy a home”.
How did you learn to drive a big rig?
I learned to drive a 28ft Winnebago (the Winnie), when my husband was sick with gout. At the start, I would get really worried when a truck was coming towards me, especially a long truck or road train as they tend to suck you into their draught, which can be very frightening.
My son was a truckie, so I asked him for advice. His advice was not to slow down, as it’s annoying as the truckie needs to row through all the gears. Just keep going and, when you find a safe spot, put your blinker on and pull over and let them pass. They’ll thank you for it by blowing their horn or flashing their blinkers.
I feel safest driving at 90-95km/h. If I go faster, I have to concentrate more and I’d rather enjoy the drive.
What about going down steep hills, do you get afraid?
Oh yes. I remember one particularly steep hill at the Five Rivers Lookout, just out of Wyndham, WA. It wasn’t until we were halfway up the hill that there was a sign that said, ‘no caravans past this point’. Well, we were committed by then and there was nowhere safe to spin the Winnie around. You should have seen the stares we got from other travellers when we got up top!
Coming down was even more frightening. Fortunately, we had exhaust brakes so we crawled down in first gear, safely arriving at the bottom but with a queue of other travellers behind.
What was the first trip you took by yourself?
It was earlier this year – a 3000km journey to Queensland in my new motorhome to see my son. I had a few little hiccups along the way, but I made it unscathed. Now I have the confidence to camp almost anywhere, including free camps and national parks, not just caravan parks.
What is the biggest thing you have learned about yourself while travelling solo?
I’ve learned to be more confident and to trust my own abilities. Just like when Peter had gout and I had to take over the driving. You do feel out of your depth at times but you need to keep your chin up and focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t. Driving the new motorhome in the city traffic and out of the showroom were recent examples where I had to really focus.
What is your advice to solo travellers who have just bought their first motorhome?
Pack the motorhome as you want it, then ask a friend to drive it around the block while you listen for rattles, like the glass plate in the microwave, or the grill, and other things. Use towels for padding where required and line your cupboards with non-slip matting.
Remember the golden rule – everything must have two uses.
A few important things to add are a decent toolkit with screwdrivers, pliers and sockets; a shovel; two power cords, one 10A and the other 15A; a water hose with adapters for small and large tap spouts; and a water tank funnel. Avoid the Tupperware and use zip lock bags instead.
Lastly, don’t travel when it’s windy, as your fuel consumption will skyrocket.
How did you learn about the 12V electrics in your motorhome?
Mostly from experience! Read the manual and seek further information, as required. Make sure the batteries are fully-charged before you camp away from mains power. I recently purchased a solar panel for fixing to the roof to help feed the batteries.
What tips can you share for keeping costs down while on the road?
Fuel is the biggest cost, but I find that groceries are less than when you’re living at home. The hardest part is learning to cook just for one.
Plan ahead and get seniors or pensioner rates and make sure you ask for single tariffs at caravan parks.
What’s the weirdest thing that has happened in all your years of travelling?
One time on the Eyre Peninsula, SA, it was very windy and too dangerous to drive, so we pulled over and set up camp. Late that evening, night turned to day when massive lights beamed across our camp, heading straight for us. For a moment we thought we were being invaded by aliens! Then, suddenly, the lights swung around on a new bearing. A peek out the curtains revealed they were harvesting machines! I look back now and laugh, but at the time it was the scariest thing.
What is one place you have been that was completely different to what you expected it would be?
Sawpit Camp, 15km east of Portland, Vic. Thick eucalypt forest surrounds Mount Clay in the hinterland behind Portland Bay. It was an old sawmill site and is a beautiful spot, with glorious ocean views. There’s an easy track to Whalers Lookout with the chance of spotting whales and dolphins.
Where would you like to go for your next adventure?
I’d like to do some farm stays or stay with farmers on stations and help the ladies out so they can enjoy some time to themselves.
Lastly, for those planning or considering their first trip alone, what advice do you have for them?
Don’t overthink it, just get out there and enjoy it! A short trip is always good to start with and you can work up from there. Make sure you spend time just taking it all in and not just driving from A to B.