How to travel a big decision
At last, freedom! Time and a healthy enough nest egg to be able to hit the Australian road. And track. Free-and- easy adventures into the great unknown, here we come. But with such opportunity come other great unknowns — such as, what will we drive and sleep in? It’s an anything but free or easy question to answer, due to myriad variables. But I think a key question is: should I buy a towed vehicle, such as a caravan, camper trailer or fifth wheeler, or an all-in-one campervan or motorhome?
Another is: if I decide to go with a caravan, camper trailer or fifth- wheeler, what vehicle should I choose to tow it?
Further: do I want to stay on the tarmac, do some soft off-roading or go right off the beaten track?
But, before getting to these nuts-and-bolts matters, I suggest Grey Nomads who are green when it comes to overland travel desist from buying anything.
That’s because the buying decisions depend on having an accurate picture of where you intend to go, for how long you are going and how often you will travel. If you overestimate the scope of your adventures, the consequences can be expensive. A common mistake is to rush out and buy a 4WD, which then spends its time as a suburban runabout.
For such duties alone, it’s too pricey, uncomfortable, thirsty, and environmentally unsound. A rarely used motorhome could become an even bigger white elephant. Caravans, too, also can sit about, wasting space.
The reasons costly holiday vehicles gather dust are understandable. A cashed-up, starry-eyed retiree dashes out to buy a 4WD and off-road camper trailer yet then finds serious off-roading to be beyond their skills or comfort zone. A buyer of a caravan might discover park life is not adventurous enough. A motorhome owner might regret not having gone for a caravan, whose towing vehicle offered so much more exploration scope. Then there are those who find living in intimate quarters with their dear one 24/7 is not the retirement idyll they’d imagined.
The comforts of home — garden, grandkids, friends, book club, birthdays, hobbies, luxury ensuite — might seem a happier blend.
So, what to do about this?
Firstly, please don’t extinguish the fire in your belly about Australia’s open road. Instead, try hiring holiday vehicles before you buy. Just try not to wince too much after being told the daily rates. Try to think of such vehicles as good investments — educational tools to help you make astute buying (or even non-buying) decisions. Once you’ve decided on your vehicle choice, still don’t rush out to spend your readies.
First, chew off the ear of your nearest expert, such as those on the Handy Contacts list. Sometimes, by considering a camper trailer or a small caravan instead of a big caravan, you’ll find an existing vehicle could do the towing adequately. That would save you heaps. Or, if you didn’t own a viable tow vehicle, you might find that buying a properly set-up small or mid-sized 4WD would do the job, without needing to buy a biggie. The pay-offs also would include cheaper, easier motoring when using the car back in the burbs. Of course, if you’re the ridgy-didge adventuring type, you wouldn’t want to skimp on off-road vehicle integrity.
Being starry-eyed about exploring Australia is perfectly sane but so is trying before you buy.
TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
If you already have a 4WD, do an off-roading skills course.
Get experience by doing a tag-along 4WD tour. You’ll get a feel for life off the beaten track but under the tutelage of experts. There’s more on this on page 14.
If you don’t have a 4WD, use a hire vehicle though inform the hirer of your plans.
Join a 4WD, caravan, fifth- wheeler or motorhome club so that your initial trips are done with people who have know-how about the best places to go and how to go about it. Hire various camper trailers, even 4WD versions if you have developed the confidence and skills to go off-road. Due to the lightness of the trailers, your existing vehicle might be sufficient to tow them.
Hire various-size caravans and even the vehicles to tow them, if necessary, to get a taste for the life.
Hire a complete fifth-wheeler rig, including the dual-cab ute if you don’t own one, and go holidaying. Drive and plan carefully, as some of the rigs are very big, and some parks do not have sites big enough.
Hire various sizes of campervans and motorhomes, from light and versatile to Meet the Fokkers over-the-top, if unsure of what suits you best.
Hire larger 4WDs and try living with them as your daily suburban vehicle.
Ask an off-road accessories specialist, such as ARB or Robson Brothers, to advise on vehicle needs for your plans. They might be able to accessorise a quite nimble, economical suburban 4WD to double as your breakaway transport. Critically, they’ll ensure the towing set-ups can do the job properly.
WHY BUY A CARAVAN?
Caravans provide a comfortable home base, often with an annex, that is set up and ready to live in, while the unhitched tow vehicle is great for exploration, especially if it’s a 4WD. Vans with ensuite bathrooms or ensuite caravan bays take things up a notch. There is a wide variety of price, size, weight, comfort and mod cons available, some even providing off-road capability.
WHY BUY A CAMPER TRAILER?
Though less convenient to set up on arrival and less luxurious than a caravan, their lightness means they are easy to tow and manoeuvre. Also, the tow vehicle can be smaller, cheaper and a better fit for urban use. The brilliantly versatile off-road versions allow the track less travelled to be taken. The unhitched vehicle can be light, flexible and economical to run, whether exploring the outback or on light duties in the suburbs.
WHY BUY A FIFTH-WHEELER?
This has similar advantages to a caravan but is typically connected to a dual-cab ute via a hitch similar to that used by semi-trailer trucks. Often luxurious and very big, these become huge when the sides are extended.
WHY BUY A CAMPERVAN?
No towing issues and a vehicle that’s pretty much all set up wherever and whenever you stop, even for a cuppa in a truck bay. Being small, it’s cheap to buy and run while nimble enough for plenty of sightseeing.
WHY BUY A MOTORHOME?
All the campervan pluses as well as, for some people, it’s the ultimate mode of travel. The comforts of home are self-contained under the main roof while independent power sources, in some models, allow you to camp out anywhere that’s legal. Exploration limitations at the destination can be alleviated by stowing bicycles/ motorcycles or even towing a car or 4WD.
Once you’ve decided on your vehicle choice, still don’t rush out to spend your readies.
TIPS ON TOW VEHICLES
•Small and mid-size SUVs are easy to live with around town, so can be great all-rounder options — especially with diesel engines — for the camper-trailer or small caravan. However, run your choice of tow vehicle via a 4WD specialist before buying.
•Don’t discount the true blue and usually discounted Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon, whose rear-wheel-drive characteristic is rare these days and ideal for lugging on tarmac or good gravel.
•Having emerged from prehistoric refinement and safety, the otherwise wonderfully practical dual-cab ute has suddenly joined contemporary life. Go for a diesel with five-star safety, such as a Mazda BT-5, Ford Ranger, Volkswagen Amarok, Holden Colorado or Toyota HiLux.
•Family SUVs are getting softer but, if looking for something with reasonable pricing, multi-seats and tough off-roading cred, consider the Holden Colorado 7 or Isuzu MU-X.
•If you’re a hard-edged off-roader — go with vehicles that will get you out of scrapes, such as LandCruiser, Prado, Discovery, Defender and Patrol. And well-priced is the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
ARB 4x4: 4WD accessories and advice, 9244 3553.
Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia: Advice and lobbying for RV owners, cmca.net.au.
Caravan Clubs WA: Link to clubs, caravanclubswa.asn.au.
Global Gypsies: 4WD tag-along tours and training, 9341 6727.
RAC Driving Centre: 4WD training, 1300 136 701
Robson Brothers: 4WD accessories and advice, 9358 1242.
WA 4WD Association: Link to clubs, wa4wda.com.au/clubs.
© The West Australian
More Motoring news and information: westwheels.caradvice.com.au