Thursday, 26 July 2012

How to prepare for a road trip across one of the most vast and sparse countries of the world - January 2012

Set a budget and stick to it.

Getting your hands on the perfect motor is perhaps one of the most challenging experiences of your road trip before it even begins!!  The first step to buying your motor is set yourself a budget and very important, a realistic budget.  Don’t think that you’re just going to spend a couple hundred dollars and head off into the sunset on a magnificent trouble free journey.  The phrase, ‘you get what you pay for’ comes into mind.  Having said that, you could spend $20,000 on a car for it to breakdown two miles down the road or spend $1,000 and never have any issues, sometimes it’s luck but just be careful.  Have a look around in the papers, on the internet and most importantly talk to the locals who have been brought up with these cars and know the market a lot better than a foreigner.  My friends and I had lengthy talks with a lot of Mike’s regulars in the Civic Hotel and a colleague of mine and finally settled on a budget of $3,000 which was low but seemed to be reasonable for what we were looking for. 

There are other options too.  One is to rent a vehicle to travel across the country but this is out of the question for many as the cost is terrific.  It is, however, a good idea if you are just planning to travel from Melbourne to Cairns over two weeks as you don’t need to worry about selling the vehicle or maintenance etc.  The other option is Relocation Deals from companies such as who offer rental vehicles that need to be transferred to other locations around the country.  The costs can be as low as $1/day and have all the fuel paid for.  We seriously considered this option as it is cheap and we wouldn’t have to worry about selling the car at the end.  After consideration we decided that for our purpose we were going to need our own car.  Owning your own car gives you the freedom that rental vehicles don’t.  Plus we were going to be looking for work and having our own car would help no end.

Type of motor

This step can come either before or after your budget setting.  Normal 3/4/5 door car, station wagon, campervan or van.  Have a look at the pros and cons of each including size, fuel economy, practicality and of course style.  Talk to other backpackers about their experiences as it is highly likely that you are buying a vehicle at one of the points where people either begin or end their trip so will be able to give you good advice.  We decided before what we wanted due to recommendations from previous travellers who had travelled Australia before.  Most people had praised station wagons as they have the size to store all your belongings and are small enough to travel efficiently and through cities too.  Depending on whether you’re claustrophobic or not, you can even transform your vehicle to house a mattress in the back to sleep in.  I personally didn’t want to do that as cars get stuffy far too quickly and I like to stretch out when I sleep.  So we decided on getting some small tents which we would erect beside the car at night. 

Once you have decided on the type of motor you want.  Get more precise about the details.  Make/Model/Transmission/Engine Size.  You’ll find that the most popular choice amongst travellers and locals are Holden or Fords as they are extremely common which means should anything go wrong, parts are easy to come by and anyone will be able to fix them.  Try to avoid Korean/Japanese/European cars as parts won’t be easy to find and repairs could cost you more than you bought it for.  That’s not saying those cars aren’t any good as we know Japanese cars are indestructible, or at least were until the last few batches of cars had severe braking issues!!  It is just a ‘worst case scenario’ risk you have to factor in when buying a car.

Find the car

Now that you have a good understanding of the local car market and your ideal specifications, it’s time to begin the search.  We bought countless copies of the Quakka, which is a free ads paper which comes out every week and highlighted all those vehicles that came in within our budget.  Then we went through and crossed out the ones that did not adhere to our specs.  It’s a lengthy process but it’s worth doing.  Also the internet has some fantastic websites such as and  The other option is to go around the local backpacker hostels and look on their notice boards for cars for sale.  A tip that my work friend Gavin gave me was to completely ignore the ‘extras’ that backpackers list with their car as they want to entice more people and make it seem like an irresistible deal.  Just remember that camping equipment is dead cheap when you split it between a few of you.  Focus on the vehicle and that’s it.  Don’t take peoples word for it, for example, if they tell you the timing belt has just been changed or the head gasket has just been done.

My friend Rory, broke the news to me one day following several weeks sweating over the papers and websites that his Uncle Andy is a car dealer and specialises in cars under $5,000.  Mike and I were excited by the prospect of buying a car off a person whom we kind of knew as it’s more trustworthy.  We turned up to his dealership on an absolutely sweltering day to be greeted by Uncle Andy, an enthusiastic ex pat from Leeds.  He promptly took us around his lot and pointed out the cars he had for us and knocked off a $1,000 from the marked price.  Wow, this isn’t the way it’s done.  Shouldn’t it be us who knock the price down?  Anyway, we looked at the cars he had and picked out the only viable option for us.  That was a Hyundai Lantra Sportswagon.  We took it for a drive and checked out the engine and how it drove.  Of course you cannot check 100% of the engine when you test the car and it may be worthwhile paying for a professional to check it over for you before you buy.  You can do a few things before this though and The AA have a fantastic guide to assist you here.  Take your time and don’t feel pressured into buying until you’re ready.  It’s your right to know what you’re buying before you do so if they don’t like the idea of your mechanic looking at it you know it’s probably a bad deal.  From what we checked, the car was in a very good condition and was driving really smoothly.  One thing that people tend to forget when testing a car is the air conditioning.  For god’s sake, don’t make that mistake in Australia as you will need it at some point!

Hyundai Lantra, AKA WALTER
Mike and I discussed the pros and cons of buying the car for a while.  It wasn’t necessarily what we were ideally looking for in so far that it wasn’t a Ford or Holden but then decided that we trusted Uncle Andy more than we could an average Joe on the street or another dealer.  At least we knew him and he knew that we knew him and if anything happened we’d find him!  We took the plunge and sealed the deal with a couple of beers as we handed the money over to Andy.  In addition to the sale, he signed us up to an Australian wide warranty which would help us out a little if we got stuck.  Of course these warranties are littered with get out clauses but it’s better than nothing!  Within a couple of hours, we had bought a car and were driving back to Inglewood with massive smiles on our faces.  The trip had become real, we had the means to do it!

Knowing you’ve done all you can

It's not a V8 but it will do the job...hopefully
With any journey, you need to reassure yourself that you have done all you possibly can to overcome any potential issues should they arise.  In the case of a vehicle, you must ensure you know as much about the engine condition as possible.  We took it to a mechanic whom Uncle Andy had recommended to get engine oil, transmission oil, coolant flush and change.  In addition to this we wanted him to look over the engine including timing belt to ensure there were no pre-existing problems before we left.  In the meantime, we had also discovered that one of the rear passenger doors didn’t lock with the central locking system and that one wheel nut had been damaged so we could get it off should we need to.  Mike and I fixed the door locking situation with a bit of ‘Heath Robinson’ style by taking the inner door panel off and disconnecting the central locking solenoid actuator which was stuck open meaning the door lock wouldn’t engage.  Now it locks but only manually.

The mechanic unfortunately came back with some rather distressing news that the timing belt did in fact need to be changed.  He gave us an absurd quote which we dismissed and immediately called Uncle Andy for advice.  Andy just told us that he’d deal with it.  That’s what he did, he footed the bill for the work and we soon had a car perfectly fit for the journey ahead.

Which way cobber?
Plan your journey.

Planning your journey is an ongoing process and should, by all means, never be set in stone with no space for variation.  Just to know which way you’re heading is important.  For us it was North or East.  Unfortunately the journey we wanted to do was now impractical as we originally wanted to head North to Darwin and then South through the centre but January is in the middle of wet season.  Driving in wet season can be extremely hazardous with flash floods and roads getting cut off.  So across the Nullabor it is towards Adelaide and Melbourne.  As we needed to do three months regional work to qualify for our second year working holiday visas, we also needed to include this in our plan.  We decided that we were going to head across the Bass Strait to Tasmania where we could pick apples.  Then we’d cross back over and head up the East Coast.


Having bought your vehicle and planned your journey, it is now time to decide what equipment you need to take with you.  We had decided that we were going to camp our way around in tents.  As the Nullabor is one of the driest landscapes of the world and it was the middle of summer, we thought that some cheap tents would do, so we bought three two-man tents from K-Mart to suffice.  To cook, we bought a single Butane gas burner and Billy Can.  My work colleagues bought me a cool box, or as they call it, an Esky.  Survival is also an important consideration and having enough water and fuel is without a doubt things you need to get you across the country as you don’t know where the next running water is, so we bought a Gerry can and also a water butt.  We also bought a power inverter for our car so we could charge our electrical devices as we were on the road.

The week before we left, we decided that it would be a good idea to have a test pack where we would put all our things in the car to see if they would fit and the best way to pack the car.  Thankfully it all fitted.

Set a date

Unfortunately our date of departure kept being put further and further back.  Our original plan was to leave in October, then November, then just after Christmas but with our jobs, friends and desire to save enough money before we left it got pushed further to the end of January. 

Get a Mascot.

Tanwyn and Mike were onto this task with open arms when they visited a local pet shop to buy a mouse for the journey.  They had originally tried to capture one of the many mice that ran around our house but they kept escaping.  So the only way was to buy a domesticated mouse.  Her name was Sergeant Spliff.

With all the above completed, we were ready to hit the road!!