Backpacker Van Roulette
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.
What is a back packer van?
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!
How to Win
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.
How to survive
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.
How to loose your shirt.
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).