22.04.2011 - 25.06.2011 20 °C
On Good Friday we made the decision to purchase “Cliff” a 1992 Toyota Town Ace with some characteristic dents, bumps, and scrapes. Using the handy GPS that came with Cliff, we found our way out of Sydney heading south to begin our journey. We decided to head to Cape Jervis, an amazing beach and national park, to camp for the night. Well this place was bubbling with people due to the long weekend and everything was booked up. So we continued on, heading to a free camp in Meroo National Park after chatting with a park ranger.
The road in was unsealed and unreal! It was raining of course, and the clay roads were slick, the puddles were huge, and the ruts were deep. Cliff managed to get us to the camping area and luckily there was one campsite open. We pulled in and parked – sort-of. The van slid forward ever so slowly gently resting against a tree. Good thing our van came with a solid kangaroo bar across the front. This is when we discovered our van was rear wheel drive and we were stuck.
We decided to leave the van against the tree and throw together a quick meal as it continued to rain. By this point both Nate and I had had enough. We were grumpy, annoyed, and upset with all the “challenges” that had been thrown at us over the last four days. It seemed that we just weren't getting any breaks. We went to bed in the van, which was on a serious lean, discovering that we would need to purchase a new mattress. This one was shit.
Over the next few days we made our way to Wilsons Promontory National Park. As we travelled with our new van we kept smelling exhaust. The engine in this van is located underneath the passenger's seat and many things started going through our head. Was there a hole in the exhaust system? Or was the seal under the seat broken? We tried multiple methods of trying to eliminate the exhaust smell but nothing seemed to work. We decided we just had to leave the windows down all the time, despite the cold weather as we headed south.
Well Wilsons Promontory NP was gorgeous despite the bloated looking roadkill along the highway. One of which was a wombat with an extra ripe smell. As we travelled to Melbourne to visit Nate's cousin Shannon we kept getting whiffs of an awful odour. Somewhere along the way we must have ploughed through a rotting carcass and the smell stuck for days. We were concerned what the Grove family would think when we rolled into their driveway with this awful stench.
While in Melbourne we took the van in to get a tune-up and service prior to heading into the remote outback. Apparently Cliff was in dire need of some attention and about $800 later he was ready to pack on thousands more kilometres.
We made our way to the Grampians National Park and our van held up. Well, not entirely, it didn't hold up to Nate's weight on the roof. When fastening our solar shower to the roof he created a few good indentations. So we crawled inside the van and using our feet pushed the indentations back out. Good as new!
Onwards to Flinders Ranges National Park and some unsealed roads. This was a new experience for Cliff and we found out that he really likes to suck in the dust. We parked the van when we arrived to our first hike, opened up the back hatch and discovered a layer of dirt over the back counter, the rear curtain, the bed - just about everything. Had we not just done a whole bunch of laundry, including the sheets, it wouldn't have been so bad!
The back-hatch never worked properly from the start. In order to open it from the outside you had to close it very gently. No big deal we thought. Well it was no big deal until we travelled down these unsealed roads. So Nate purchased some weather stripping which we applied around the back hatch to try to seal it up better and we started to close the door as tightly as possible even though it was a pain to have to crawl into the van to unlatch the back hatch. Unfortunately, despite these efforts we were still getting a layer of dust after travelling on unsealed roads.
Another one of Cliff's irritations was the noise made from the wind whistling through the gap in between the driver side door and the van. We could barely hear our tunes and each other so this had to be fixed. Nate applied more weather stripping along the door and with a bit of force bent the door inwards for a tighter fit to the van. This seemed to reduce the noise significantly.
After Flinders Ranges National Park we stopped in Quorn at the library. I pulled the latch on the glove box to pull out my glasses and the handle broke. I couldn't get into the glove box and there were a few essential items being stored in there. Thank goodness Nate had some brilliant ideas and told me he'd deal with it, while I went and did some interneting. By the time I was finished he had the handle re-jigged using a hook and some twist-ties which he found in the van! Hahaha. A temporary fix, he said, as the glue on the handle was drying for a few days.
From Quorn we drove to Port Augusta, the last big town before getting into the remote outback. As we drove into town, I noticed the side mirror bouncing around. I quickly rolled down the window to grab the mirror but it fell to the roadside before I could grab it! Unbelievable! We laugh hysterically at the situation and continued driving. Who needs a side mirror anyways, Nate has me to stick my head out the window.
When we initially looked at purchasing Cliff the side mirror was cracked. The owners said they would replace it. They sure did replace it, with the cheapest mirror you could possibly find. It wiggled so much that you couldn't use it anyways despite Nate trying to tighten it up. We never expected it to rattle right off but after miles on corrugated roads on Kangaroo Island it was bound to happen. Lesson learned.
As we continued on our journey we were now heading through the outback. We did a lot of great camping at some amazing places and Nate had some time to fiddle with things in the afternoons. He managed to fix the back-latch by using a small stick and gluing it into place. Amazing! We were so happy that we could now close the hatch securely and then open it without having to crawl into the van. Another temporary fix, but that was alright by us.
The outback was amazing – an ecosystem we have never experienced before. And with this amazing ecosystem came other first-time experiences such as catching 2 mice in 1 mouse trap multiple times in a row; having a mice run across your pillow; baiting 3 traps only to find them all empty about 30 minutes later and no dead mice. Yup you guessed it – there was a plague of mice. The wet season resulted in huge food sources for the mice and the mouse population sky-rocketed. We had mice in our van multiple times, and we were up all night multiple times emptying our traps. They got into Nate's bag of coffee and some other staple foods spurring us on to deal with the problem. All of our food had to be packed into containers, including inside pots, to keep the mice from nibbling on the packaging. I guess mice are better than snakes! Glad we won't be around when the snake population begins to sky-rocket resulting from the huge numbers of mice.
We headed to Alice Springs, the largest city in the outback, and decided that it was our only chance to pick up anything needed for the van before heading North. The next town of similar size is 1200 km North. So we pulled into an auto-wreckers looking for a side mirror. Instead of finding a mirror we found some great advice to keep out the dust which worked like a charm. By keeping the windows up and the vents on sucking in fresh air, the dust and exhaust wasn't being drawn into the van's rear hatch. Perfect!
Onwards from Alice Springs we stopped at Devils Marbles for the night. The next day we explored the amazing rocks which balance on each other like magic. We took a drive to a nearby short walking trail for a quick walk before another day of driving North. Our quick stop turned out to be longer than expected as we locked the keys in, including our spare set! Luckily there were other people in the parking lot, however there was no cell phone reception here. One older couple was heading North and said they'd stop in Tennant Creek (the next town about 1 hr away) and send AAA (CAA's cousin) out to help us. I accepted the fact that it would be a minimum of likely 3-4 hours before getting back into the van and started to thoroughly read the information signs about Devils Marbles. Nate, on the other hand, was determined to get into the van. He broke off a few pieces of wire from the roof rack and pried it into the van through the gap between the door and the van which we had recently made smaller. After multiple tries, and me giving him directions on which way to move the wire we had the lock flicked open and were in the van. What a relief! The older couple hadn't left the parking lot yet, so they cheered as they saw our victory. Thank goodness we never completely sealed that gap between the door and the van – looks like this might be here for a purpose!
We were in the outback for about one solid month and our van made it through safely. We were loving it, despite the interior lights which only occasionally work. While in Darwin it was the perfect chance for us to fix up a few other things that were bugging us. Nate levelled out the back counter, by picking up some scrap wood and a tree bow saw at the tip (landfill). Darwin was also the first town since Melbourne that had a BCF store. And we needed a new LPG (like propane) hose for our stove. So Nate tried to unscrew the hose but it was on so tight that we ended up busting the stove. Well, the BCF store also sells stoves! So we ended up buying another stove, one step down from the one we broke. Cliff was nickel and diming us, and we couldn't afford to replace our stove with its equivalent (which included a flashy toaster grill).
The area around Darwin was no longer dry outback but a very lush, humid and moist environment, one which involved driving through deep and deeper creek crossings. While in Kakadu National Park, we followed the road to the campground through a creek crossing. As we moved through the creek a spout of water came up through the floor nearly hitting Nate in the face. This was when we noticed a screw in the floor was missing and could see through the perfect little hole to the ground under the van. If the water is deep enough it is forced through the hole like a water fountain. From here on, when crossing streams the passenger's job is to plug the hole with their finger.
Kakadu National Park not only had water crossings but also some pretty wild and rough unsealed roads, one of which led to waterfalls and a plunge pool. The weather was hot and sticky while we were here and we loved the idea of taking a swim in the only croc-free area of the park. So we started down the road but ended up turning around and bailing on our swimming side-trip due to poor road conditions. As soon as we hit bituman again (that's the australian term for pavement) we knew we had a flat. We pulled off the road and pulled out the jack and full-sized spare. Well little did we know the jack wasn't the proper jack for our vehicle! We managed to change the mangled tyre – yes tyre not tire – and we were relieved. But it wasn't that easy. We had forgot to turn the lights off during this procedure and now we had a flat battery! Haha. By this point in our trip we just cracked up. Bring it on – we are ready to deal with anything that is going to be thrown our way, no problem!
Even though all these “challenges” kept popping up, they seemed to always happen in the best of ways. We were lucky to have our flat battery on the side of the main road heading through Kakadu National Park, as it was a busy road and a vehicle drove by every 3 minutes or so. A lovely Aussy couple from Adelaide that had every tool to fix any problem in the outback helped us out and we were on our way again.
From here we headed South to the Barkley Highway and then East towards Mount Isa. While in Mount Isa Nate completed his first oil change on a vehicle. We did this in the parking lot between an automobile store and a mechanics. After some failed attempts at unscrewing the old filter we decided that an oil filter wrench was required. So we purchased the wrench at the auto store and had to figure out how to use it. After trying 3 different sized oil filter wrenches, we finally got the right size. Nate could hardly loosen it because it was put on so tight and was incredibly awkward to get at. After a good struggle, some anger and a lot of determination, Nate had the oil filter replaced. By this time the oil had drained into an old container and the engine was ready for fresh oil. We were back on the road after refilling and returning the wrench to the store. Now I just have to talk Nate into doing it at home on our car.
We were now travelling North to Lawn Hill and then Karumba. This remote part of Queensland had some interesting road designs. These roads consisted of two paved lanes on corners and steep hills, but other than that they turned into one single paved lane with wide gravel shoulders. When a vehicle was approaching both vehicle were to move 2 wheels onto the gravel and share the paved road. However, if you saw a road-train approaching the best thing was to get off the paved road completely and stop. Road-trains are transport trucks with multiple trailers and a length of 50 m! These trucks are unreal and toss all kinds of stones around as they bomb by – stones leading to stone chips in the windsheild. You guessed it, poor Cliff couldn't stand up against these speeding bullets and took a hit on the drivers side.
While driving through Australia not only do you have to contend with stones against the windshield but you are bound to hit the odd bird unfortunately. Cliff seemed to be a bird magnet. I can't mention how many birds we dinged on the Stewart Highway, but there was one instance that sticks in my mind. A fairly large sized crow ended its life when it met face to face with the kangaroo bar beneath our windshield. Likely an instant death I hoped. A few hours later we stopped to grab some groceries and as we headed back to the van we noticed some legs sticking out from the front of our van. That poor crow was entangled and hanging off the front of our van. No wonder people were looking at us funny as we entered town.
A few days later while stopped in Atherton, Qld to let the family know we were still alive via internet, the back hatch would no longer latch. Using some straps we closed it up and headed to the nearest mechanics. They gave us some lube and Nate worked it in but it still wouldn't latch. We stopped at the Toyota dealership (surprised that there was one in this small town) and auto-wreckers to find a fix. As expected it wasn't easy finding a replacement back hatch latch for a 1992 Toyota. We had to either wait weeks for one to be ordered or to check other auto-wreckers. Nate called a whole bunch of auto-wreckers with no luck. So the only thing we could do was to keep the hatch down using straps.
Oddly enough the next day the back hatch latch decided that it was going to start working again! Looks like the lube we applied did the trick. Thank goodness - a free fix – this had been unheard of to this point!
Off we went travelling to Mareeba, Qld in good spirits. Here we noticed Beauprires Tyres, so we pulled in to let them know that we had a slow leak in the tyre we purchased 12 days prior in Katherine, NT. They jacked the van and popped off the tyre finding an embedded screw. Unreal! A screw in the one brand new tyre that we just purchased. So after paying for the repair, off we went, again.
Things aren't all bad with Cliff of course as Nate and I have both encountered great learning experiences. I've learned how to drive a standard and Nate has learned how to do an oil change. We have also learned that when we kill the battery, if we are conveniently on a hill, we can start it without being jumped by a rolling start in second gear. Cliff has a flash stereo and a nice “tickle me elmo” sticker with a big “thumb” on the outside. We also have heat which was amazing while travelling in the colder parts of south Australia (we didn't have heat in The Hobbit while in NZ).
There are a few perks depending on where you are travelling in Australia. While travelling through Queensland there are free car washes! Certain areas require you to pull off the side of the road and head through a wash station to remove seeds and soil. This prevents the spread of certain invasive species and diseases into the area. If you are lucky you can leave these wash stations with your vehicle cleaner than it was entering the station, it just depends on the state of the wash water.
Currently Cliff is doing well. We are now on the East Coast and might get some luck finding a side mirror at an auto-wreckers. But we just noticed that we are still driving around with ciggy butts from the previous owner in the ashtray.