We all know Australia is a safe country, right? And it is, providing you’re not complacent once you leave the urban centres or major highways.
The sales of offroad caravans and 4WDs continues to boom as more and more people push the boundaries, heading further out to explore new outback experiences. But going remote means a little more thought and preparation needs to happen before you head off. Here, we take you through some of the essentials.
SHE’LL BE RIGHT, MATE!
The popular catchcry says it all. You are well-prepared, have all the necessary gear – shower, toilet, extra water tanks, satellite TV, extra solar panel – and have even installed a winch on the 4WD and a UHF radio. What more do you need?
Unfortunately, this is not what effective preparation is really about.
So what could go wrong? Well, lots of things. Fortunately, most won’t degenerate into a critical safety incident, but the few that do often have hugely expensive or possibly disastrous consequences.
If you think you’re prepared for your next outback trip, well beyond the reach of mobile phone reception and where resources are limited, or even non-existent, then take a look at our preparation checklist (see page 133). Basically, the more times you answer ‘no’, the greater risk you carry when travelling in remote areas.
It’s not just being self-sufficient – effective preparation is the key to staying safe in remote areas and these are all things you should consider well before you leave.
While mobile phones have coverage in most country towns and some major highways, away from these areas the coverage becomes erratic or non-existent. Telstra has the best coverage in country areas and, in marginal areas, a text message will often get through where voice calls have failed. In an emergency situation, if you fail to get through on 000, try 112. This emergency number will be responded to by another carrier that has coverage, if your carrier does not cover that particular area.
When travelling outside of mobile range, there are really only two options to consider for effective two-way communication – a satellite phone or HF radio. There is a variety of other emergency systems available but none have the same instantaneous capability. Furthermore, some systems, such as a personal locator beacon (PLB), should only be activated in a life threatening emergency, as it will likely initiate land and/or air searches.
Satellite phones are relatively compact but expensive units which provide coverage anywhere that has a clear view of the sky. We suggest you carry a comprehensive list of numbers to call, if required. These phones can be hired from communications suppliers to avoid the expense of buying one for just a single trip away. Some satellite phone systems provide access to emergency numbers even if there is no credit left on the phone.
Unlike UHF radio, HF radio operates over long distances. They are expensive but can also be hired and older, good-quality second-hand sets are often reasonably priced. We run an older Barret 930 set bought second-hand over five years ago and it has given us excellent service.
Joining one of the Australia-wide HF radio networks is recommended. There are several choices of networks; one of the most popular is VKS-737. The fees are very reasonable, it includes your licence to operate and the volunteer service is first-class.
UHF radio is excellent for short range communication and is great for calling trucks, other vehicles or nearby properties. However, this limits their worth as an emergency resource in more remote areas. We always run our UHF in the ‘scan’ mode when out bush. This will pick up and display what frequencies other users, like outback properties, are using. This is valuable information should an emergency arise.
CARRY IT WITH YOU
Vehicles and caravans should be ‘fit for purpose’ for off-bitumen travel and in first-class mechanical condition. You should carry tools, appropriate spares and recovery equipment, even if you are not mechanically gifted. Having the right gear may mean another more knowledgeable road user can provide assistance.
Make sure you know how to use your recovery gear safely. A few people die or are severely injured each year using equipment such as snatch straps, jacks and winches without the appropriate skills. Most 4WD clubs or 4WD driving schools run excellent competency-based training courses.
Carry extra fuel onboard and allow a good margin for error as fuel usage can vary significantly due to changing road or weather conditions. Extra water should be carried in separate containers in case of damage or leakage and always check out potential water resupply opportunities when ‘out bush’.
Conscientious daily pre-start checks of your oil, water, belts, hoses and tyres, etc., can identify small, fixable problems before they become expensive major failures or repairs. Do the same on the caravan and complete a thorough ‘walk around’ before any departure. Competency in basic troubleshooting and repairs is recommended as recoveries from remote locations can be extremely expensive and may not be covered by your insurance or roadside assistance program.
Of course, you cannot predict or plan your way out of every eventuality. On a recent trip, we blew a hole in the number three cylinder piston in our LandCruiser. Had this happened out in the Gibson Desert rather than on the Bruce Highway, we would have been thousands out of pocket for the recovery of the vehicle and van even before a replacement engine was fitted. Our advice is that you should have ready access to emergency funding for such situations.
- Have you reviewed your proposed trip and identified potential hazards, including weather and road conditions, fuel and water resupply points, and resources such as mechanical, electrical, and medical support?
- Have you and your travel companions had a recent full medical check-up?
- Do you carry a comprehensive first aid kit in both your car and caravan covering all your essential medications and any extras in case of the unexpected (eg., general purpose antibiotics and pain medication)?
- Is your first aid training up-to-date?
- Do you have an effective communication system that will work reliably when out of mobile phone range? And if so, do you and your companions know how to use it effectively to connect with the appropriate authorities?
- If travelling with others, are they competent to share the driving/towing and can they safely un-hitch or hitch-up single-handed?
- Are you all able to manage basic mechanical or electrical repair tasks? This is important as one of you may be disabled due to accident or illness.
- Do you carry an appropriate toolkit and other safety-related resources including mechanical and electrical spares, good tools and recovery equipment, extra fuel and extra water?
- Have you checked your vehicle and caravan are ‘fit for purpose’ and thoroughly serviced prior to departure?
- If you are new to caravanning and remote offroad travel:
- Are you competent at towing heavier than normal loads? Consider whether you should complete a towing course.
- Do you have the ability to assess and un-bog a stuck trailer or caravan and assess the safety issues of hazards such as water crossings?
- Can you safely use potentially dangerous recovery equipment such as snatch straps, winches and jacks?