User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active
 

Australian adventure Coming from the UK I should have been to used to driving in the rain. Still, I was more than a little dismayed when I pulled away from Lismore a small town south of Brisbane in NSW' I was setting off on the start of a 6 week tour of Cape York (that's the pointy bit on the top of Australia) and the Outback. It was coming down in sheets, the sort of rain that instantly soaks you through and leaves you in no doubt that you should have stayed at home. I was heading eventually for a small place called Karumba in the North of Queensland. To add to my amusement, I was in a strange vehicle, a massive Australian Holden 4 x 4 with a 4.5 litre engine, and towing an equally massive twin axle caravan, which was connected to the now greasy road by tyres designed for dirt and dust. It was said best to get a twin axle then if you had a puncture you always had a spare!!! OMG how naive was I

I crawled along towards the coast, a steady stream of frustrated commuters in my wake. (They all love caravaner's in what ever country you are in) Not long before dark I pulled into a caravan park for the night. Lightning split the sky, and I spent nearly an hour with a fellow camper, in my van, but both of us totally amazed that so much rain could fall out of the sky.

 

We talked about what we were doing, where we had been, that sort of thing. When the rain ended he went back to his tent, and I was so glad that I had my caravan.

 

I was heading north up the Pacific Highway, sometimes a multi lane freeway, sometimes just two lanes through endless fields of sugar cane stretched out under scorching blue skies. The rain of the first 24 hours had passed and for a while I worried that I would be too hot as I got nearer Cape York. Now and again I'd pull off the main road and followed some of the minor roads through to the coast, or maybe inland through forest to the mountains, always conscious of the van on the back, before heading back to Highway one.

 

I got used to the massive 4 x 4 Holden and caravan combination, worked out how to set up without suffering heat exhaustion or cardiac seizure. (that came many years later)

 

Everywhere people were interested in what I was doing, where I was going, and before long I realised that being on my own for 6 weeks or so wasn't just about where I went and what I saw, but about the people I met along the way. Not a day went by when I didn't meet someone to sit and blather with. Somehow being with a caravan turns you from being just another tourist to someone worth spending the time of day with. And then doing it on your own too, "Christ, this guys gotta be crazy ain't ya?"

 

 

At Airlie Beach (about 1350 km from Brisbane), I found a nice caravan park and decided to stop over for a while. I sailed for three days through the Whitsunday Islands on a charter yacht, a break from the caravan and my own cooking. I met this crazy German guy Frank on the boat; he had just ridden on a motorbike from Perth to Cairns in 12 days, 5000 Kilometres straight across Australia, the mad crazy fool.

 

I nearly passed out laughing when he pulled out his mask and snorkel on the boat. Yep, he'd brought that across the desert as well. We swapped stories and I began to wonder what the hell I'd let myself in for.

 

The kilometres passed and I reached the end of the real bitumen road, at Cape Tribulation. (Another 700 klicks) I was deep in rain forest now; cicadas screeched through the night like an airborne Mexican wave, skinks and geckos rustled through the undergrowth outside my tent.

 

I went out for a natural break and bumped into a possum pillaging in my caravan before scooting under the Holden and freezing in my torch beam. He darted behind a tree then scratched his way up the trunk out of sight. In the morning I bumped down on to the dirt and said goodbye to real tarmac for the next thousand kilometres. Although I'd been caravaning for over ten years, I hadn't done much off road with a caravan on the back. The best thing to do was to forget the van, with the premise that if the Holden could get through...so could the van.

 

Even the roads in Africa didn't seem as rough as these Aussie ones.

 

This was new to me and I couldn't wait. It was rough, corrugations in places violently shook the caravan and I thought that it was going to fall apart. Steep climbs were followed by steeper descents through dust and loose rocks, and I was forced back in the seat as I wound down to bottom gear and all four wheels in drive. The caravan was fitted with electrical breaking system and that saved the Holden many times from slipping down the slopes. This was a mistake I thought the maps showed a road when I planned the route everyone said there was a good road A good road in Australia has a different definition to that of the UK.

 

Breaks in the forest canopy gave views of the Coral Sea and at the bottom of each valley clear water creeks tumbled out of the forest across the trail. After narrowly avoiding an early bath at the first one, I managed quite well at the second, with wheels all out of control, but climbing up the far bank. I took the rest steady, checking the route first for potholes and slimy boulders. By the time I reached the James Cook memorial in Cooktown I was buzzing.

 

Refuelled, I pointed the Holden west and out along the Battle Camp Road, nearly 300 km through the stunning Lakefield National Park. It was just a classic dirt road but better than the previous section. Out of the forest, termite mounds stretched as far as I could see, and in the distance the Iron Range Mountains caught the late sun. Towards dusk I pulled off the road for a waterhole for the night, kangaroos eyeing me cautiously as I set up the van for the night. Now everyone tells you to watch out for crocs in this part of Australia, although frankly, once you've been told once you don't really need telling again. Estuarine crocodiles are masters of disguise, so I knew I'd only get to see one was if it was hanging on the end of my leg, a scenario I was keen to avoid.

 

The problem was I needed water, and that's where they live. In a flash of ingenuity I tied a length of chain I found in the bush to a waterproof bag, and for good measure added a boot-lace to the chain. Ignoring the sign announcing the presence of crocks in waterholes on the Cape York Peninsula, I slithered down the bank and swung my device out into the water, the chain and boot-lace allowing me to stand a modest but hopefully safe distance from the waters edge and crocodile entree.

 

So you can imagine my delight on retrieval, when the chain and boot-lace parted and the bag settled slowly into the lilies. By this time I was convinced that the previously uninhabited waterhole was now choked with starving crocks, and I ran up the bank to think. I really needed the bag back, and I realised it meant getting wet.

 

On the twenty-second day after leaving Cooktown, I crested a hill and finally saw what I'd come all this way for Sesia Wharf. In the distance the Torres Straights stretched into the horizon, to the west the Gulf of Carpentaria glistened in the early sun. Cape York and the very top of Australia lay just out of sight to the north, and Papua New Guinea sat just over the horizon, only 120 kilometres away. I cruised onto Sesia Wharf in time to see a local black-fella land a 6 foot shovel nosed shark with his fishing spear, grouper and mackerel flashing under the pier in the commotion. We started chatting and he asked me if I'd come all the way up with the van. He was impressed when I told him I had, and my mind went back to the last couple of days on the Old Telegraph Road, the endless deep sand, swimming in crystal waterfalls, kangaroos and emus running alongside the Holden before darting in front and scaring the pants off me.

 

The night before, I'd literally fallen into a campsite by the Jardine River, completely and utterly rooted after 11 hours driving. All I had to eat was a tin of fish, some rice and an onion. I sat in the shower for 20 minutes until I could smile again, and returned to find a cold can of beer left by my caravan in the dark. It was my birthday and I went to bed with my faith in human kindness restored. That evening the wharf filled up with more locals and travellers, and we all trailed our fishing lines into the fast moving straight. Queen-fish, Giant Trevally, small sharks and mackerel got hoisted onto the dock, and children who had seen the caravan in the village earlier chatted to me excitedly when they found out it was mine. "You really live in that?" they asked, before running off. These kids had never seen a school in there life and were the most natural and well spoken I had ever met...

 

If you do something crazy, you're sure to meet crazy people, and the northernmost point of Australia has more than most. Going down to the local store one morning, you still need food when I noticed a large motorbike and then its rider, Frank, the German mad biker from Perth, who I had met earlier in the trip. Just like me, he was on a mission. Only his was a slightly more elaborate affair that involved riding round Oz, on dirt and predominantly sideways. Pleasantries exchanged, we decided to meet up in Somerset, the small but beautiful beach near the cape and site of some interesting ruins and local history.

 

Near to Somerset the road becomes single-track through the rain-forest again but now I knew how to cope with it.

 

I spent four days exploring the Cape and could easily have spent more had I had the time. I still had the Outback to get though and I realised I was only half way through my trip. After the tropical north, the scenery as I headed west couldn't have been more different. I motored comfortably over the cool, lush Great Dividing Range, with its waterfalls and pastures, before heading downhill to the Gulf Savannah and Karumba on the Gulf coast.

 

Distances here were immense - 200km was down the road, 100 was just round the corner. I began to think in terms of hours when measuring distance. I drove nearly 300km just to get to a bitumen road, well, half a road really, a single strip of tarmac that you shared with oncoming traffic, one of you pulling on to the dirt at the side as you passed. It didn't happen often. The temperature rose steadily into the 40's as people thinned out, and some afternoons I just sat in the shade or swam in a fresh water creek, while kangaroos nibbled and sniffed around the camp. Now and again outback flies tickled and sucked on my skin, but they left at sunset, when the western sky turned yellow, then orange, then purple, until the following darkness was a mass of tiny white pinpricks, 100% star cover from north to south, east to west.

 

I had two rules in the bush, firstly never get onto the reserve tank, and secondly, avoid tourist destinations like the plague. I broke them both in the end (rolling into a petrol station in the middle of nowhere and the engine spluttering to a halt is something I would recommend to anyone after a trouser stiffening experience) but not before I'd got to see places and meet people who'd hardly ever seen tourists. And you know what, it was just fabulous. Every night new people, interesting people who wanted to tell you as much about their lives as they wanted to hear about yours. Guys out fossicking for gold, enjoying a beer or two, a couple chasing wild pigs in their Ute (I thought a gun might have been easier but didn't like to say). As ever, a loner in a caravan opened the door to new friends and even the odd beer or two.

 

I didn't always camp in the bush, occasionally I stayed in an outback hotel, more out of curiosity than for comfort. For $15 dollars one room boasted a lino-covered floor, rust stained sink and a collection of broken and mismatched furniture. The door, complete with broken lock, featured a 1970's style air con unit that was wired directly into the light switch and was so loud it kept me awake. I'll not mention the bathroom, with the exception of the large cockroaches that rolled around in the shower. I cooked my dinner on the bedroom floor before going downstairs to the bar. I was delighted. The main decoration featured a large stuffed pig, complete with tusks and sporting a flopping sombrero. There was a selection of cold beers. In short it was the best 15 bucks I have ever spent, and like the rest of the trip, I shall remember it forever.

 

I returned the Holden back to its owners after travelling 5,920 km in 5 weeks and 3 days. I replaced a total of six tyres on the trip two on the caravan - because they were knackered - and four on the truck (these were to say thank you to my friends for their truck)

 

Australia is a wonderfull place and I made one other trip with the caravan there but that is another story... for another time...

Maurice Haynes

Top News Writers

  • Maurice and Mary Haynes

    Maurice Haynes

    Long standing member

  • Jean AKA Dolly

    Jean Vines (AKA Dolly)

    Rally Organiser


    Sonja Fusher

    Co-Founder

    Follow on twitter