There’s an old army saying that goes, 'prior preparation and planning prevents a piss-poor performance'. It’s the rule of the 7Ps and while the military wasn’t thinking about travelling and camping per se, the old saying has a lot of relevance for today’s four-wheel drivers and campers heading bush, whether that’s for a day trip to your favourite fishing spot or for a year’s jaunt around the whole country.
THE FIRST DECISIONS
Most people would think that the first choice to be made would be where to go. I prefer to think otherwise and make a decision on the when and for how long.
The 'when' is important and you should lock a date in and work towards that, especially if it’s a biggish commitment like travelling to the Cape for four to six weeks, or heading off around the block for a year or even longer. I meet so many people who after talking to us about our trips around Australia, say “I want to do that”. My immediate reaction is to say, “set a date!”.
Keep in mind, most of us don’t want to head north in Aus during the wet season, so the middle of the year is the favoured time for travelling the Cape, Kimberley, or Central Australia. Summer is fabulous for heading to the Victorian High Country, the wild coasts of Tassie or the south-west of Western Australia. Sure, you can travel to all of these places out of these peak times, but be prepared for road and track closures, crazy weather affecting your timetable and where you can go, as some facilities will be closed or running on shortened hours.
Then, when you have thought of the 'when', you need to figure out the duration. Most of us are limited to annual holidays, although a few of us can take long service leave for a few months. Others, like yours truly nowadays, are semi-retired and can bugger off for as long as we want. Mind you, we have been lucky enough to be doing this as a profession for over 30 years and our offroad travels have taken us around the world for 10 months or so each year for years on end.
With the when and the duration sorted, work towards that date and time. Get leave locked in and the pets and garden sorted for the time you are away. If you're heading off for a long time, you may want to get a housesitter — you’ll find a number of websites that will provide you with people to look after your place while you are away; just Google ‘Housesitters Australia’. Many come free of charge — all they want is a spot to pull up their van and prop for a month or more.
Or maybe you can rent your place if you are leaving it for a longish period. Short-term rentals can be sourced through Airbnb, just check out their website and make sure you have some form of insurance to cover any damage and a cleaner who can spit and polish your place between clients.
Oh, you have kids? They are a handy source of excuses for not going on a trip, but we’ve found they handle the travelling easier and with less hassle than the adults in most cases. And they get one hell of an education full of experiences and a rich variety that is far better than any school can dish out. Sure, if they are in school, you need to be a bit more organised and sort out some learning for them, but stick to the basic subjects. On the whole, such a trip is a more valuable and enriching experience for them than staying at home.
With the house, garden, pets and kids sorted, you will need to look at your vehicle and camper or van you plan to use on the trip. Have them serviced and inspected by a well-trusted and experienced 4WD shop or the like. I’d stay away from any car manufacturer's service centre as they know bugger all about travelling in the outback and the resultant wear and tear on vehicle components that such a trip exerts on man and machine.
Are you ready for such an adventure away from the facilities and services of a big city? Have you enough experience or been trained in driving a 4WD vehicle in all the conditions you are likely to meet in the outback? Make sure you have the skills to drive safely on a dirt road, something most people today don’t get any experience in until they head outback. Also, are you competent in towing a van or camper in such conditions? Having training helps, just Google, ‘4WD training’ to find a provider in your state, or join a 4WD club. If you are still unsure of your capabilities, join a tag-along trip for your first few adventures; they are a great way to learn and to meet like-minded travellers.
What first aid skills and equipment do you have? Have you done a first aid course and, if you have, is it current? Both the St John Ambulance and Red Cross run courses (check the web for places and dates) and it’s a great idea for all the adults in the party to have that skill set before heading off into the wild blue yonder.
Both previously mentioned groups also sell a wide range of first aid kits or you can check out the ARB 4x4 Accessory website — always go for a ‘Remote Area’ kit as a starting point. Then you can add your own personal requirements and any extras you deem necessary. We’ve added things such as antihistamines, an Epipen, special snake bite bandages with an indicator showing you have applied the correct pressure, SAM splints, and more recently, a defibrillator. My son, with his Moon Tours company, also carries a ‘green whistle’ inhaler for pain relief, which demands not only having been trained in first aid but also a certificate from a medical practitioner. Yep, they are pretty extensive first aid kits, but we spend a lot of time in the scrub.
At this point you may also want to talk about communication requirements, but let’s talk about choosing the destination first.
WHERE TO GO
This is the fun bit! With a time frame and date set, you can really start to think about where you want to go.
Too many people try to cram too much into their time away. Sure, I can understand why, but unless you are some kind of masochist who loves to knock over a 1000km, day in and day out, then confine your travels to something a bit more reasonable.
If you are towing or have a few kids, 500km or so becomes a pretty reasonable day’s travel. Some may think that is even a bit obsessive, so plan your trip and the overnight stops that suit your ability, what you are towing and the fellow passengers in your vehicle or in your extended group of travellers.
If you have two weeks, a trip from Melbourne or Sydney to western New South Wales and even as far as the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, may seem a fair and reasonable destination. If you have longer, you may start to look at Cape York or even the distant Kimberley for your adventure but there’s a lot of blacktop between you and those far flung meccas you are seeking.
Are you up to the task? Most people aren’t used to driving eight to 10 hours a day and fatigue can be a real issue out on the straight and often ‘boring’ roads of outback Australia. Get a good night’s sleep before you set out and during your overnight stops. Take rest breaks every two to three hours and share the drive with your partner. Make allowances for such things when you plan your trip.
When we travelled around the world in places where the road network was pretty good, such as here in Australia or North America, we worked on an average of 200–300km a day. In places such as Africa and Mongolia, we cut that to 150km a day. Of course, some days you don’t do any — you are sitting in camp enjoying the ambience of a river flowing past, or doing chores that have built up over the last few weeks of travels, such as washing clothes and servicing vehicles. Still, it was a handy way to plan a long distance trip covering months and after we had done our initial route planning, we’d look at the distances involved and divide it by the days taken and see if it was within cooee of our daily average. If it wasn’t, we’d rethink our route.
FOOD, WATER AND COOKING
Once you know where you are going, you can start sorting out your food and water requirements and how you are going to carry what you require as well as how you are going to cook for the duration of the trip.
Planning your food needs will vary depending on how often you can get a resupply. A trip through western New South Wales may require you to be sorted for three to four days between resupplies, while a trip along the Canning Stock Route will demand you plan your foodstuff for three weeks or longer. You may want to look at dehydrated food, or some of the prepacked food now available that makes for a fine main course.
Likewise, a desert trip will demand you carry a lot more water than if you are wandering the Victorian High Country or the coast of Eyre Peninsula. Don’t put all your eggs in the one basket and don’t put all your water in the one container, just in case you spring a leak or contaminate the water somehow.
How you are going to cook meals is a prime concern with more and more places either banning wood fires completely or restricting wood fires to designated fireplaces or to some form of off-ground firepit. With such restrictions, cooking becomes a gas-fired thing so make sure you carry a suitable stove and enough LPG for the cooking requirements.
In this world of immediate and pretty sophisticated communications, we have begun to rely on our mobile phones so much that they are an indispensable piece of our everyday life — many people sleep with them! That’s going a bit too far I reckon, but some people can’t bear to be parted from them.
In the outback, it comes as a rude shock to many that they can’t speak or send a message to a friend or chat on TikTok or Facebook.
The best mobile phone coverage in the outback is still Telstra, no doubt, but Optus does have significant coverage and, in some places, the only coverage. So much so, we have recently resurrected one of our old mobile phones with a prepaid Optus card that helps us to keep in touch. Still, you’ll be caught out often without any coverage even in places that you wouldn’t deem remote, such as, we discovered, in East Gippsland recently. It took a walk from my broken down 79 ‘Cruiser up the hill to where I could at least get a text message out.
For any traveller heading into the Australian bush and into even remoter places, a satellite phone offers the best and most reliable coverage. Please note two things though: satellite phones, no matter the make, model or connection plan, get disrupted by cloud cover and tree cover, among other conditions, so don’t expect to get through each and every time. Sometimes you just have to try again later. Second, don’t expect to be uploading pics to your favourite social media site with a satellite phone or similar; they are a voice or text machine only!
For emergencies and without the expense of a satellite phone a PLB (personal locator beacon) is a great option for getting yourself out of trouble in case of an emergency. Some now offer a two-way texting ability which is even better.
Everyone who heads bush should be carrying a UHF radio of some sort. They are great for keeping touch with your friends travelling in your group, talking to a truckie you want to pass, or even in an emergency where you may be able to contact a nearby cattle station or even a shire council via a UHF repeater system.
Finally, prior preparation and planning not only stops any piss-poor performances by those involved, it can also be a considerable amount of fun with a lot of self-satisfaction involved for those planning the trip as well as learning a heap more about the places you are going to visit. Do it! Your trip will be all the better and safer for it!