10 things I learned as a tour guide
Vic gives us the good oil on remote travel throughout Australia that he’s picked up over the last few decades
I’ve just been reading a book written by Bill King, who was most likely the first 4WD tour operator in Australia. It is a fascinating read and I can’t believe the things he did and got away with in those early years in the 1960s and ’70s. I have now travelled extensively through many of the locations he has written about and I’m also acutely aware of how quickly things have changed over just a couple of decades. It has prompted me to start to catalogue my own experiences over my 30+ years of four-wheel driving. One day it may even make for an equally interesting read as Mr King’s. In the interim, it’s fair to say I have seen and learned a lot about Outback travel… so here is a short list of some of the things that might just help you with your 4WD travel plans.
It’s rather obvious that when I publicise a 4WD tour that I have actually done some research prior to heading bush. In fact, this planning can start up to 12 months prior to the scheduled trip. This helps me to gain an understanding of the weather conditions that I’m likely to encounter; and what others are experiencing in that area in regard to fuel, track conditions and travel times. The internet and social media have changed the process of trip planning – making it much easier to gather information on where you wish to travel. But remember, it’s not all about the weather and track conditions; collate the history of the area you will be passing through as this helps to put your trip into perspective and gives you a far greater appreciation of what our early pioneers endured when they opened up our great land.
From a tour operator’s point of view, this is the most difficult aspect of leading a trip. Sure we have an advertised itinerary and usually advance bookings – but anything can happen: Closed roads due to rain, vehicle breakdowns and even illness. When you plan your trip you will also be subject to all of these eventualities. Have a backup plan just in case something occurs that prevents you from getting to your preferred location. But almost as important is to realise that despite all your great research, it is highly likely that you will hear of a place whilst travelling – that perfect 4WD track, beach camp, deep gorge or historic hut that you knew nothing about. So be prepared to ad-lib a little. I’ve done this on some of the trips I have led and my clients always reckon the unplanned adventures are often the best; so having the flexibility to do this can make good trips great.
Fall Back Position
When you are out on the frog and toad you won’t always have all your emergency contacts, internet and mobile connectivity readily at hand. So if something does go awry (weather, breakdown, illness) trying to resolve it from the side of the Madigan Line won’t be all that easy.
My fall back plan is simple. I always have someone back home that I can rely on to contact and who can do the chasing around for me and call me back at a designated time. I always carry a satellite phone and a Spot tracking device which acts as my PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). The Spot tracker also allows those at home to track exactly where I am. So if it stops moving, it’s a fair bet that something unplanned has occurred… allowing those at home to start planning for a recovery.
Drive to Survive
When travelling remotely there’s a vast number of things that can go wrong, and yet the majority of them can be avoided by the actions you take. Your 4X4 will be fully loaded, you may be towing a trailer or van; so slow down, don’t drive at excessive speed, allow more time to stop and corner slower than normal. If you are not familiar with unsealed road driving, simply remember you don’t have the same level of grip as on a sealed road… again, slow down.
When approaching another vehicle on an unsealed road, slow down to avoid windscreen damage. These days I virtually stop to allow the other vehicle to pass, especially if I don’t see them back off. Look where you are driving, look for large rocks or potholes on our Outback roads, your tyres will thank you. Speaking of tyres…
Keep the Pressure Down
In the early days of leading tag-along tours we would suffer lots of flat tyres. Then I met the late Adam Plate from The Pink Roadhouse at Oodnadatta and he said, in his laconic way, “You city blokes all run your tyre pressures too high.”
Since that comment we have had very few punctures. The best way to avoid tyre damage in an off-road situation is to drop the psi. It works! Please believe me, I don’t care how much your rig weighs and what you are towing, when on unsealed roads drop your tyres and you too will not feel deflated. What pressure? Well I rarely go above 30 psi on any gravel road, and that is hot pressure. I’ve had one flat tyre in the last 15 years now, and my ’Cruiser weighs 3.8 tonnes, so I guess it works.
Your 4WD was most likely delivered with passenger-style tyres, denoted by a ‘P’ on the markings on the sidewalls. You need something stronger for our Outback roads, which is designated as ‘LT’ or Light Truck. The reason I have so few flats is that I use LT-style tyres with low pressures when off-road.
I See the Light
Camp lights are a must in our inky-black Outback. When I started four-wheel driving we all used gas-powered lanterns… noisy, dangerous and they needed fuel. Today LED lights have transformed our camping experiences. I have two small square LED lights fitted either side of the vehicle to the roof rack; they flood the immediate area with light, they’re my favourite camping accessories. You can get LED strip lights which you can even loop into your tent. Simple and easy to use, and they draw virtually no power.
These little orange beauties have saved my soul on numerous occasions. In the good old days every 4X4 had a high-lift jack mounted on it; these days nearly every one has a pair of recovery ramps strapped to it. They are magic for extracting yourself or a mate from mud or sand, and even for building a bridge over a deep rut. Personally, my pick is the original MaxTrax as they are Aussie-made (as are the Tred units).
That Perfect Spot
When on a trip, one of the most frequent questions I receive is: “How did you find this campsite?” I don’t have a lot of trouble finding the perfect camp – but others apparently do. I’m talking bush camps here, not commercial campgrounds. When driving through the vast Outback the end of the day usually comes in the middle of nowhere. I just look for a line of trees, a sand dune to get behind, or a clearing in behind some mulga. What makes a perfect camp? Shelter from the breeze and passing traffic, a water view if you can find it, level ground, no ants or mozzies, and plenty of nearby firewood.
Respect Others and the Bush
Simple. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Bury your human waste and burn your poo paper. Leave nothing at the campsite. Dig a fire pit and fully extinguish your fire and bury it when you leave. Take only photos and leave only footprints. And don’t drive around in circles trying to find that perfect spot – the less wheel tracks the better. Turn off the music when in camp, listen to the symphony of the bush, and please don’t inflict your generator on others.