Its cool. too Cool for me. In Christian's house in Geelong, near Melbourne. Its raining, wasn't too bad yesterday but more British than Aussie weather. Due to an accidental party last night I'm quite hungover and hungry. Back up in the hot weather further north I'd eat virtually nothing and be quite happy. Here in the cool I've eaten 2 good hot meals and I'm starving. Biology playing silly buggers. No wonder I loose weight in the tropics.
Came down the Great Ocean Road to get here the day before yesterday. It was wet, and miserable. Fortunately
Uh, hu thank you very much...
Arrived in Port Augusta, South Australia. And to celebrate had a beer.
It was a small beer... sigh...
Beer comes in 2 sizes in Australia, some times three. Small glasses are called pots, larger glasses schooners. Some times you can get pints as well. Except in South Australia where the small glasses are pots and the large glasses are pints. But not actually pints, more like schooners. Sometimes pints are real pints. some times pints are schooners and imperial pints are pints. Note for Americans the pint, is a pint and has 20 fluid ounces in it, unless, of course its a schooner, not to be confused with what you yanks call a pint which has 16 fluid ounces in it. This is quite possibly the same as a SA pint, except when its a pint, or a schooner which too small to be even an American pint?
The movie, not my van's dodgy electrics.
What I particularly liked about that movie was the way it was shot, the planet they crashed on was always shown in washed out colours. It made me think, the light from an Alien sun wouldn't be the same spectrum as ours, or pass through the same atmosphere. Great idea. I assumed they used some kind of filter like they do on Top Gear.
They didn't, Pitch Black was shot round here, the sky is light blue the whole landscape takes on that washed out look. Wired doesn't even begin to describe this place. The whole town looks more convincing than most Scifi sets will ever achieve. Most people live in old Opal mines underground. I slept in one last night. Very cool, very pleasant and practical.
Even the middle of town, and yes it is a real town, 1500km's since I last saw one I should know. Is riddled with mines, wrecks spoil heaps and random shafts.
The road into town is real desert scrub, see the Coober Pedy Gallery for pictures. The heat got to me I drove the last hundred km using the air con . Actually had it on for about 150km but its got "issues". As you aproach the desert gets lighter and more alien as the piles of white opal mine output dot the landscape. Trafic is light, you can sit in the middle of the road, or the middle of the railway.
I've actually booked a tour, the half day one got cancelled but the sunset tour is a goer. I could drive out their but after the trip down from Alice about 1500kms of driving I'm looking forward to a proper tour. Matt's kindly found someone who might be interested in me, I'm supposed to be doing a CV. I did actually do some work before going out to see the mining machine demo. Stuck my hand in a 6 cylinder diesel powered vacuum cleaner called a blower. How much fun can one man have? CV's can't compete. The little dog laughed to see such fun and nearly got sucked up too.
Now, even if I kick it right now, I'll have some pretty great things behind me. I had a little list I wrote at boarding school that I wanted to do. A bit teenage, no I won't tell you what they were. But they're all behind me. My bucket list would be relatively short. And for all you bucket list composers out there, heed this advice. The best things happen serendipitously, the journey's as important as the destination. You can go see Ayres Rock, book a flight, a tour and a hotel or you could buy a banger van in Darwin, live in the most fabulous place in Darwin, with excellent people. Yes its not as comfy as an actual hotel. Its a garage. Then drive, ok the fretting over whether your going to make it make it less pleasant than the plane, to the Uluru, and poke around your semi broken engine with the help of a Canadian Hitchhiker while you wait for the sunset.
A beer after a a hard morning's racing down Brighton Sailing Club tastes far better than a can of Stella from your fridge at home, likewise all the fabulous things I've had the pleasure to see, and many of them have been trully extraordinary, wouldn't have been the same without the background, the long sails in rough weather to get there, the people I met along he way.
I was just passing through Coober Pedy, Plan a was have a beer and a steak sarnie look around and head on. Instead this is quite the most amazing place I've ever been, certainly the weirdest. Add it to your bucket lists!
And when you start worrying, reach mid life crisis and start panickally to fullfil said lists, for gods sake don't rush it. Take your time, choose the alternative route to your destination, cos you'll miss the good stuff other wise.
No wonder they shoot scifi films here
And introducing Evan, my latest hitch-hiker. A year abroad student I found near a large rock 440km's from Alice.
I'm Back at the Stewart Highway. Another 500km's since my last Opal Rant. Van now mostly running on proper petrol is still alive. In fact its braved flooded roads (yes in the middle of a Desert) that killed one hire car and scared several Diesel Hire Van's into stopping. I drove straight through it was only a foot deep.
The rains held off long enough to make King's Canyon awesome. I drove to Uluru in the rain, but it cleared for the classic sunset photo. See previous post. Yesterday morning it was cloudy again and we poked around Uluru in the cloud, frankly a blessing from the frying sun.
Kings Canyon too was cloudy, which is not photogenic, but again it was pleasant walking. I'm actually quite glad after a 250km drive through floods, I'm glad if I'd walked it in the 35° heat, or god forbid worse, over rocks for hours for about 10km, I'd be dead right now.
Again, I'm online using my phone as a modem. Last night was beyond the reach of even mobile. So photo galleries to follow when I get cheaper internet!
Again the brave Tarago has helped out the less fortunate and kept running, I seem to have sacrificed my, frankly incredible, starting for a 25% fuel economy increase. Taken a message of a rescue truck sent from Alice (350km's from their broken down car) to the Swiss Couple who didn't make it through the flood. And carried one of them to her other half back at their car. I found her, passenger in a diesel campervan, stopped at another large flood, a flood the Tarago, one of 5 vehicles to stop was the first and, while I was there, the only one to cross. I was too busy shouting YES! and waving my arms to remember take a photo, which I now regret.
This flood had sand bars. Big ones. This is the metalled road, I'm staying off the dirt. Brave I may be but foolish I'm not.
Good News I'm still running! Been to Uluru and King's Canyon.(edit)
Ooh a big Rock
Opal is a Fuel, a type of budget petrol with all the additives removed. Apparently, and I'm not kidding here, its to stop the Aborigines sniffing it.
I mean the petrol stations lock the premium or non opal fuel pumps.
What they don't say is even the pumps that don't say "Opal" often are. Nobody told me "don't use opal in a fuel injected car". And when they did I didn't realise that what I was putting in was opal. Now I know better.
Van was running bloody awful yesterday morning. However despite running rougher and being unhappy its burning 25% less fuel. And I've driven some 500 Km's like that. I do hope it starts cos I'm 300km's from the road to nowhere.
Lets hope it starts, its now on about 30% proper fuel trouble is I've a gerry can of opal as well. And yes its the opal that killed my injector o rings, keeping my in Alice, costing me 400 dollars and causing trouble with the engine. Yesterday morning I finally sorted my high Idle problem. I found the cable from the throttle control box to the engine management system and re connected it.
I'm praying that the 450km's of running with half my engine management computer disconnected (along with the the 3 other pipes and the bolt the garage missed that I found before the trip) that it will be ok today. It did run all yesterday.
The garage had already left off several other bits before even the indecent listed above. Including a hose clamp that emptied my radiator all over the road. I've been told that mechanics in Alice are cowboys, by 2 people now. True, too true. and too late.
All because of opal fuel? Most likely.
Please be ok van.
Time to decide on the future. One be concious pay mechanics etc. or Two drive it till it drops and abandon it?
You've all heard of Uluru, Picture Gallery when I have more bandwidth. To Kings Canyon...
I'm still in Alice, the problem with the van is fixed. Sort of.
The problem was fuel was spraying out one of the injectors. All over the engine. Not good. This is Australia so this is petrol. The injectors are not what people like me would expect. They are electronic. High pressure fuel is supplied to them and then an electric pulse is sent to them by the ECU (engine control unit) to allow just the right amount of fuel at just the right time.
I'm used to boats where this is mechanical. The injector pump is driven off the engine and pumps the fuel direct to the injectors.
My engine which was running even with the fuel leak, now fires up immediately, thanks to the new o rings on the injectors, but wont run. To get at the injectors the throttle, and much of the air intake had to be dismantled. The hoses for the air intake are presumably 20 years old, and rubber (ish) pipes in the sort of heat you get in NT probably weren't as sprightly as I would have liked. And are now split. We think the engine fires, then gets no reading from the air flow sensor in the air intake and does the sums for air/fuel mixture and gives the answer no air = no fuel.
For the scientists amongst you:
let F = C * A
where A is volume of air(l)
F is volume of fuel(l)
an C is a constant.
If Air sensor reads zero CA is zero
So the engine needs no fuel. Doh.
Hopefully this is all it is. The garage is trying to locate one as I wait here. The chief mechanic, presumably, concurs with this diagnosis. He phones up to instruct his staff and diagnose engines by their noise over the phone. He's in prison.
I've pretty much exhausted what I want to do in Alice, and have no idea when or if we'll get a spare. If I can't find one considering sending someone to 11 mile car wreckers in Winnelle near Darwin and getting it sent down!
So as the song goes, I hope I won't spend 24 years, living next door to Alice Springs. With my car being fixed at a breakers yard who's boss in in the slammer for reasons unknown.
The room I'n in the yha has no windows but is other wise very pleasant. The other denizens are, if anything, less tidy than me. A sign no adorns the door reading. "THIS ROOM IS NOT THE TODD RIVER". Nice.
As Monty Python Sung, always look on the bright side of life. I do.
I didn't die in a fireball that consumed me and all my possessions. In fact not only did I not explode, I didn't explode in the middle of Alice Springs, in range of my cheepo roadside assist. The fact that I could have caught on fire and lost everything really does make me feel good.
The moral of this story is, check your vehicle regularly and if something changes check it to see why.
In my case one of the Injectors appears to have gone spraying petrol all over the engine - and I do me a lot of petrol.
I'm so glad I investigated why it was tricky to start. It was whilst doing this I saw the petrol. If I'd just ignored it I'd at best have broken down mid-nowhere or at worst, exploded.
Still it will be repaired, the opening offer of $350 could be worse. I suspect that will rise, when they realise how difficult it is to get at anything on this van. The injectors are buried in the intake manifold.
Stephan who came down from Darwin with me got on The Ghan, that's this week's train to Darwin. The thing was a mile long, has no platform, had 2 loco's and 2 car transporters on the front of it. I think it Arrives at the Darwin in a mere 21 hours.
Since my van was near the "station" I went to see him off took a fab video, which I may upload later. I'll try and get it onto his facebook first. I did tell him to look for the van, outside Tony's Auto Wreckers as he pulled out of the station.
Its not over till the fat lady sings. Unfortunately I'm in the TV room at the YHA, the Aussie PM has just given a passionate eulogy to a dead opera singer, and guess what's happening now. This is even wierder, because the first time my van drove properly, starting under its own battery etc, I was driving Alden around, his exact words were "So you got rid of the body in the back already?". I went look the stereo even works, turned it on, and drove to the marina with the windows down and opera blaring out.
I'm taking the fat lady as a good omen, it was last time.
How to play the game, the (unwritten) rules and the stakes. Its a high stakes game with winners and losers. We'll find out where I come in much later.
A backpacker van is a minimalist camper, the obvious source of inspiration is the VW camper. It consists of a small van (such as a Mitsubishi Express, a Toyota Town/Hiace or tarago, ford Econovan, nissan Urvan or similar) with a bed in the back, often with other comforts such as storage. The principal is to travel around the vast continent of Australia as cheaply as possible.
Many of them have, truly dreadful, custom paint jobs. Presumably the original van was so beat up, so mismatched and dented they thought that a hippie matt and brush B&Q paint job would make it look better. They were wrong.
The basic principals are to buy a vehicle, spend as little money as possible and to sell it on, preferably at a profit. Now as you can see this can't go on for ever, eventually something major is going to go wrong like the Engine, gearbox or hitting something.
Cars are not cheap in Australia, van's are usually, in England certainly, more expensive than cars. Australia is very large, and as I found out in my last trip, best accessed using a vehicle. However driving is cheap. Petrol though now high, has been historically cheap, and "Rego" the equivalent of uk road tax, includes the minimum 3rd party insurance you need to drive.
Your opening bid is what you pay for the vehicle. A late eighties or early nineties van, with gear, will cost you 3 to 6 thousand - yes thousand, dollars. This is an awful lot to pay for a banger that's done at least 300,000km. It sounds insane. It is insane. Well from the outside. The minimum wage in Australia is $18AUD and hour, at the old exchange rate (2:1) that's £9 an hour, now(1.6:1) about 11.25 bloody high! So if you've been picking mangoes at $18 an hour for a few months its not so bad.
Now I, like all sensible people reading this know that the cost of fixing a 20 year old vehicle is prohibitively expensive. In fact a mechanic can be $200AUD an hour. This means these van's are not worth the amount you pay for them. Its a game of pass the parcel. Who ever's holding it when the smoke comes out looses.
There's plenty of people willing to play, there's a dozen vehicles of this type within a hundred meters of this YHA. There's a 1990 Toyota for $6000 (no Km's listed) for sale on the board for $6000!
So here's me playing Roulette with the best of them. My opening stake was $1500 - a bargain. The cost of conversion + some repairs brings my opening bid in the game to more like $2100. But all in all I've less to loose than if I bought the Frenchies Express (1988 360,000km) and he wouldn't take less than $5000.
There are alternatives to buying, there are companies that will hire you van's like this. Wicked! being the most (in)famous. There van's are notorious (Aussie watchdog did a program all about them), they're wrecks. The absolute minimum, with no liability and, like most minimums not actually obtainable is $33 a day. So assuming you manage to stay in the populated bit of NSW/QLD/ VIC, on road only, off season, in they're worst banger, returning to its original destination on a long hire. It will cost you grand a month. So even if I loose every thing, I break even in a month and a half, well a bit more including the 6 months rego I paid In reality less. Like I say a more realistic hire price is probably 20% higher. You want something that will go a month without breaking down and costing you a lot in oil and fuel, much more.
Many backpackers do the same in a car. Station Wagons as they are called over here. Or to us brit's an estate cars with a mattress in the back. Again prices are high, and often, unlike the Japanese vans they have big aussie 4l,5l or even bigger engines in them. I've done 3,000k already, just imagine the fuel cost. These can go for silly money as well.
To really do Oz properly you need a 4wd, don't ask a wreck is 6k and you wanna spend 10k, if, that is, you want to live!
Sell your van for more than you bought it for + spent on it. Bearing in mind backpacker seem to believe a 1980's banger that they've had to blow lots of money on is actually worth more because it blew up, not the other way round. I'm not dumb enough to fall for that one. Many vans are on they're second engine. I too believe that a 80s van with a 90s engine out of a breakers yard is still a banger. Some believe otherwise.
Don't loose it all! I mean If I sold mine for what I bought it for I'd loose $800 odd. That's less than I paid for a couple of weeks hire last time. And this one take less fuel.
There are a number of very spectacular ways to fail. One, buy a van, then find its got problems, spend money on van and then have some major component blow up on you, that's too expensive. to fix (or your just plain too far from anywhere to fix it). No spare parts, let alone, cheap ones for 1000's of km's in this country.
Hit a roo, or god forbid a cow. Does happen, a guy from JJ's in Darwin, bought a van and spent a lot of time and effort, and money, on it, then hit a cow in mid nowhere WA, ended up taping "Free Stuff" to the side of the van and leaving it in the outback. Bummer. Driving at night and its pretty much a matter of time before you hit a roo, a little one won't hurt. But a big one at speed and the whole front and windscreen is gone.
All in all a game, scary enough to make you bite your fingernails off, and that's before you try single track roads with road trains on them..... Stones from them will make a big hole in your windscreen. Unsealed roads are worse still, I'm not going there (much).
Remember don't be holding the van when the roulette wheel, or any other wheel's on said vehicle, stop turning or you'll end up with a whacking great loss. Lets see how I go. I'm not driving at night, taking it easy and not thrashing it. Maybe it will last. I started well by minimising my stake. Lets see if I can get to Sydney on this engine (checks oil and water and drives off into a fabulous outback sunset).
Fill in the the next line you know what it is!
I'm in the YHA in Alice Springs a former theatre. Alice is nice, its pretty red, with some flashes of green. A river runs through it; about once every 30 years. Your thought to be a real local if you've seen the Todd river run three times. Not many people qualify I think.
Australia is big, and was a whole bunch of competing British colonies. Well the edges were. The centre of the continent was unexplored. The optimists of the day thought there was an inland sea here, not a desert at all.
The truth was finally revealed by a bloke called Stewart. Who in 1861* finally succeeded in crossing the continent. The road I've just driven half way down is the Stewart Highway. It was an epic trip. At about this time South Australia NSW, QLD etc. were setting up telegraph networks.
The telegraph network extend all the way from Europe to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). However news sill took months to get to Australia. Bummer.
Essentially the whole centre of Australia was built on one thin piece of wire. In 1872, a cable was laid under the sea to the new colony in Darwin. That just left the minor task of laying 3000kn of wire from Adelaide. A route only Stewart and presumably his party had managed.
Many of the places up the Stewart Highway we stopped at - and there's precious little else, are old relay stations for the Telegraph. Their creation opened up Central Australia. Something the aborigines are probably still regretting. Daly Waters, Tenants Creek, Elliot, Alice, Pine Creek. All these "towns" stated off a repeater stations, nothing more.
Pretty much every thing followed the old telegraph line. The road, people, cattle, all follows it. WWII saw the Japanese bomb Darwin. As the war effort kicked in, the road north got massively developed. As did the air fields, first used by the early pioneers to get across the continent and on too London. As the population, all in the south, headed north for the war.
The reason we stayed on the highway was mostly because there's nothing else.
Some times you don't get a Knight, just a geek in a shining 20 year old Toyota. We pulled over about 20kms south of nowhere. If nowhere is a place then the Desert Hotel in Renner Springs* is it, its 140 km from the "arse end of the world" Tenant Creek. So 120km's from the nearest Garage, we came across a you French Couple in a 20 year old banger broken down by the road side.
Even my Telstra, got me on the internet in Daly Waters, phone couldn't get a signal out there. We decided it was probably their alternator. As it started fine using jump leads off my trusty Van. Ran for 5 minutes and ran out of electrons and stopped. By this time an Ausie couple we knew from Daly Waters turned up to help, just after we'd tried transplanting my spare (but knakered) battery, into their car hoping it would have enough juice to get them to the middle of nowhere where they could get help, of for that mater a phone.
My battery turned out to be too dead. In the end we unhitched the folding caravan from the back of the Ausie's 4WD and he towed them back to the Desert Hotel. We stayed with the Caravan and kept his wife company till he'd dropped them off.
Were camped at the Devils Marbles about 90k south of Tennent Creek. Its fab, runing out of battery. Here's the view from about 9k's back. Full size available in the wallpaper's section
*The Desert Hotel IS Renner Springs
I'm at the most fabulous Outback Pub. Décor is well everything. A whole line of bra's hand above the bar, boxers above the pool table. The bar its self is adorned with ID's drivers licences and goodness knows what else.
For the past x months, since Tahiti at least, I've had the label off a Hinano beer bottle in my hat. How its survived that long I don't know. Its now stapled to the bar in Daly Waters. Come visit it some time. Have a look at the Outback Pubs Gallery, see if you can spot it.
Yesterday we visited the Katherine gorge, then by shear luck spotted a Pub called the Pink Panther where they have a zoo, not a huge one but there's Emu's wandering about. The Décor was, if anything better even than Daly Waters.
The out back is turning out to be everything I'd hoped and more its trully awesome. And huge. One bend every 50km's or so? Is that too much to ask?