“Mind that tree!” – a beginners guide to camper-vaning
CCRAAAASHHHHHHHHH, SLAM, Bang bang bang bang… “Oh crap, I think I left one of the draws open”. We stop at the side of the road and the living, eating and sleeping space behind our drivers cabin is full of tshirts, notepads, plactic plates, muesli bars, knickers and an Aussie flag towel.
Never before have I had to be so careful where I put my stuff. Even on a boat, where all loose items have to be secured at all times it’s a lot easier to remember to do so if you’re rocking around 24/7. But being the campervan novices that we were when we hit Australia, we had a month’s worth of learning ahead of us. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes hilarious but always exciting, we soon found out how well thought out this little Rhino camper of ours really is.
With all the things we had never even imagined would be important on a massive 10,000km road trip across an entire continent, we want to share the love and spare a few headaches with our beginner’s guide to camper-vaning (yes, this is a verb. we think.):
1) Seeing stuff
The whole point of going on a road trip is to have a real independent adventure with the wind in your hair and the open road ahead. If you’ve been so caught up in organizing which tie-dye-dream-catcher hippy hat and aviator combo you’re going to wear and turning your bedroom upside down in the search for your driving license, fret not.
The best way to find the hottest secret treasures you can see along the way is by asking people local to the area you’re visiting. Tourist info places are great as it is their job to know about the local attractions and they often have free booklets, maps and discount deals. They can also point you in the direction of National Parks, where you can camp and get to awesome waterfalls, trekking trails and viewpoints way before the crowds arrive. If you’re planning to hit Oz, check out the places we saw on our way from Darwin to Sydney, via Uluru and Cairns.
Take your time when you pick up your van as you want to be able to get used to driving it and get a good tour of all its features by the experts who you’re hiring it off. Said experts (we got our Mighty van from THL) also have a really good idea of places in their area that are off the main tourist radar but just as awesome as (if not even more awesome than) the Lonely Planet highlights. And as camping is so social – you’re pulling up next to someone new every night – sound out what other people have seen, what they thought was worth a visit (and what wasn’t) and be open to changing your plans if a rare opportunity arises. One-in-a-lifetime super-moon rise in the desert, anyone?
Most places with a thriving campervan industry will have loads of places to stay. National Parks have various camping options from wild camping, low-cost, no frills places to fully serviced campsites with electricity and water points where you can connect your van costing between $20 and $50 a night (remember to disconnect your electricity and water supply BEFORE moving your van. #justsayin’).
Most of the land outside the parks is owned by someone, and certain areas inside the parks are off limits (the Uluru area is particularly restrictive, you CAN’T stay overnight close to the rock) so always check that it’s legal for you to stay in the place you’ve found.
If you’re more chilled knowing you have somewhere to stay that night, get yourself a local SIM for mobile phone access (Telstra is the way to go in the outback) and book ahead that night and make sure to over-estimate driving times. No matter what Google says, add another 20%, an hour for lunch and an hour for activities as many campsites in the Red Centre close at 6pm (!), when night falls and driving becomes dangerous ‘cause silly Skippy (i.e. the kangaroo) gets active. Other countries may have other considerations, so ask the hirers for any local quirks so you’re not left stranded at locked gates.
Campers are notoriously exposed to the weather, which is a big part of the fun. Oh, those childhood memories of digging a trench in a thunderstorm around the collapsing tent in Dorset… But the desert has its own set of climate clinches. Yes, it’s friggin hot during the day, but also friggin cold at night, so ask your hirer if they have extra blankets if you’re prone to getting cold. Deserts also flood – check the best time of year for your planned trip, flash floods ain’t fun unless you’re that bearded Noah dude.
Getting away from the city is also a big bonus, but hold your horses until you’ve stocked up on food, as bigger cities have way more variety and much lower prices than that tiny hut owned by that sideburned Emu farmer 5 hours from the nearest neighbour in the middle of the outback. The same goes for petrol – if you have a chance to fill up, DO SO. Some days we re-fuelled 3 times to be able to make the distances we covered. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle of said nowhere where cars pass on average once a week. We’ve all seen Wolf Creek. And if you haven’t – it ain’t pretty.
On the note of food, our kitchen was really awesome – we cooked most of our meals in it, and they were GOOD. Lamb chop on a bed of haricot vertes with mango salsa? Done. Char grilled peppers stuffed with goats cheese and couscous confit? Done. Go as painfully middle class as you like, and pack leftover quinoa and goose liver pate in ziplock bags to save space in the pod-sized fridge.
Our van had nifty draws that you could lock closed with a push of a button, you’ll learn to do that quickly as leaving them open results in the chaos of spilled wild rice and organic muesli bars. Same goes with driving off and leaving windows and doors open. Just don’t do it. If you pick up your van first, you’ll not have to carry food across town, just trolley it to your van, and you’ll know what fits and what doesn’t. Maybe give that giant fresh Tuscan salami a miss.
4) And finally…..Driving
When hiring a campervan, driving is kind of a big deal. You may need an international driving license (we didn’t). You may need to drive on the opposite side of the road than you’re used to. You may mix up indicators with windscreen wipers. You can only take as many people as fit in the front cabin, each on one seat with one seatbelt. No imitating Priscilla, Queen of the Desert then. For better or for worse, thanks to Health & Safety those days are over.
A camper is roughly double the height and length of a car, and whilst we had to look out for trees when parking, we loved the high-seated view and found Rhino surprisingly easy to drive. If you’re not confident, and always want your travel buddy to drive, why not try out driving a van on a safe, quiet road in the middle of nowhere? Best place to try and you’re guaranteed to surprise yourself.
Finally, we can’t stress enough to not underestimate distances (see above). Don’t drive at dusk or night as all the cute fluffy animals you’ve been feeding in the wildlife parks will be on the road and drawn to the headlights of your car like moths to a candle. They really are that suicidal, and we stopped counting the road kill at the side of the Stuart Highway on day 3. Crashing the van into a massive boxing roo or (like one of the couples we met) hitting a rare eagle that was chomping away at a recently squashed Wallaby in the centre line just isn’t worth it.
Exploring a country by camper is fantastic. It’s a real adventure and the possibilities of being in control of your own home, kitchen and transport is incredibly liberating. If you’re planning on Oz, check out our route for inspiration. If not, let us know where you went in the comments, we’d love to hear from you.
Wherever you end up, have fun and drive safe. Oh, and seriously, don’t forget to fuel up!
Alternatively, check out our handy guide in film format!