Planning a trip across the Simpson? Are you prepared for the good, the bad and the ugly? Here’s everything you need to know when planning your remote area travel.
Words and images by Mark Allen: Let’s reminisce about one particular time I became stuck well beyond the city limits, no one around for many hundreds of kays, no one to help, and I mean no one! How we survived, how we didn’t succumb to being plastered all over the front page of the national news as “Unprepared couple perish…”
Way back in 1992, my partner and I left Longreach, heading for Birdsville via Stonehenge, Windorah and Betoota. The sun was blasting its usual savage rays onto our gutless 2.4-litre diesel HiLux, which was towing our well-loaded camper-come-home-on-wheels for our two-year trip around the block when we noticed the skies darkening. Big trouble around that area for sure. If she buckets down out there, the Diamantina and its millions of blood-vessel-like tributaries swell to become impassable.
The sky soon morphed into a full-on deadly black mass, complete with bolts of lightning and deafening raindrops that threatened to dent my poor HiLux’s roof and bonnet. In hindsight, I wish that was all we suffered.
Having ploughed through hundreds of metres of water that had seemingly instantly appeared on the tracks, I hit something submerged that sent not just the HiLux and trailer skywards, but my head into the HiLux’s roof. Yes, we had our seat belts on, but that didn’t prevent the savage leaf-sprung-HiLux beating our bodies took.
After having stared at each other for what seemed like an age, I fumbled a few words out to ask if she was okay, followed by “oh damn, I wonder what we’ve broken on the truck“, or words to that effect.
My mind immediately started searching for tell-tale signs of what may have happened to our touring rig. Was our trusty HiLux leaning to one side, was the rear end dragging itself along like a lame dog, or was the steering wheel still turning the road wheels? Was the trailer even hitched up, the boat on the rack, the heavy toolboxes in place, the fridge still working, the radio and antennae still transmitting? Did we have enough food and water to last by ourselves should something severe happen, had I double-checked the contents of the first aid kit lately? The questions that ran through my mind didn’t stop, and I hadn’t even got out of the door yet.
Having planned to be on the road full-time for about two years (give or take a year or three), I was pretty confident about getting through most incidents. I’d done a basic diesel mechanics course, worked as a remote area and city surveyor for many years, grew up and lived in the scrub for yonks and had watched my old man repair all manner of breakages with nothing more than a pair of pliers, wire, hammer and sheer ingenuity. But I must admit I was more than a little worried about the damage I might find under the ‘unbreakable’ HiLux.
After spending over an hour in the middle of the muddy waterway that was once a dusty dirt track, lying in the mud inspecting everything from the bull bar to rear of the trailer, I couldn’t find anything wrong or any reason not to keep ploughing our way to Birdsville. I was happy and very relieved, but time would tell if I’d missed anything.
Some hours later, the sun had returned, and our nerves rekindled when the trailer seemed to take on a mind of its own and was on the wrong side of the track trying to overtake its prime mover. Then it was out in the field on the other side, followed by another savage jerk to which the mighty gutless HiLux was pinned back with a one-tonne anchor that was my broken trailer. That huge hit we took a couple of hundred kilometres back had seemingly damaged the trailer’s stub axle, with the later smaller potholes and corrugations sealing its fate and shearing it and the brakes clean off the trailer.
A huge snaking furrow ploughed up the track ending at the busted trailer with its axle pointing ninety degrees to where it should have been, only one wheel in place, brake lines dangling in the dirt and a few bent panels on the trailer – bugger.
Now, this is where we get back to talking about being prepared and what tools and spares you should take on an outback trip. No, I didn’t carry a spare trailer axle or leaf springs. Although I’ve seen others that do, I think that’s just too much weight to be burdened with. What I did have though, were replacement bearings, tools to do the job and the food and water to camp on the side of the road for at least a week if needed. What I didn’t have was the means to weld the stub axle back on. So, should I have carried welding equipment? There’s no right or wrong answer, but jeez it would have been great to have it out there at the time.
Always knowing where you are is pretty important in my books. We knew we had a couple of hundred kilometres to Birdsville, I knew there was a mechanic there that could (at worst) temporarily fix the axle and I knew I had the means and ability to disassemble and refit the whole show by myself.
Safety to all concerned was and always should be the first consideration at all times. Although faced with a long and challenging job, I took my time; I thought about the whole process and made sure I wouldn’t become a casualty during the repair. I was fully aware my four non-OH&S piles of rocks may tumble (there was nothing else to rest my trailer on), I was mindful at how dangerous a Hi-Lift jack can be, so took as many precautions as I could to ensure not just my safety, but the safe return of both myself and my partner.
After having removed the axle, tied it to the bull bar, transferred as much gear as possible from the trailer to the HiLux and stuck a ‘DO NOT SHOOT’ sign on the trailer, we drove the few hundred kilometres in and out of Birdsville for the welding job. We then camped on the side of the road for two nights and spent the best part of a day on the tools replacing the axle, springs and brakes on the trailer, so we were able to continue our relaxing trip.
In hindsight, do I think I was adequately prepared?
Well yes, and no. Yes because I survived the whole ordeal with the peace of mind to stay calm, had tools, food and water and had the mechanical know-how to complete the job. But, no, because if only I had the gear to weld by the side of the road. That would have saved me about a day in the dirt, but then again, you can never be totally prepared.
Be prepared for anything…
Carrying a well-kitted toolbox is paramount for remote travel. Not just spanners and a hammer, but tyre-changing equipment, bull-nose and needle-nose pliers, screwdrivers, shiftas, sockets, Allen keys, knives, spare nuts, bolts and washers, fencing and bailing wire, various tapes, oils and glues, ‘goup’ to make liquid metal, blocks of timber, WD40, rope, rags, shovel, axe, work gloves, plus any specialty tool that may be required for your model of 4X4.
One ripper tool that I made as a special project in metal work at high school in the mid-1980s is a wire clamp tool (you can buy them commercially, but I made my own after seeing one on my uncle’s farm). I’ve used it to mend camp chairs, radiator hoses, hammer handles, tent poles, shovel handles, plus clamped many vehicle parts together. I don’t leave home without it.
While any list should be altered to suit, here’s my ‘must-haves’ for setting up a 4X4 for touring our great brown land.
- A comprehensive first aid kit catering for the number of people and the remoteness of your trip, plus the know-how to use it all.
- A comprehensive first-aid kit for the vehicle; commonly needed spare parts, plus the tools and at least basic knowledge on how to use them, plus fire extinguisher, extra engine oil and relevant liquids, spare radiator hoses and fan belts.
- Recovery gear: The contents of your recovery gear may well vary, but the minimums include a long-handle shovel, correctly rated straps and shackles, plus some means of helping to move your vehicle forward or rearward – recovery boards or winch (electric or manual).
- There are gazillions of fancy accessories for your 4X4 these days that you don’t need, but a bull bar is always one of the first accessories I like to have fitted to my 4X4. While it’s not a ticket to slam anything, it does provide a great deal of safety from animal strike, minor brushes with terra firma and it’s a beaut place to lean on while you’re pouring over the maps you’ve got spread over the bonnet.
- Driving lights: While many will advocate you shouldn’t drive at night, that’s not realistic all the time.
- Communication: While you shouldn’t discount utilising your mobile phone in an outback emergency, always keep in mind their shortcomings when out of coverage. Technology is our friend these days with the availability of UHF radios, satphones, EPIRBS and the never-ending number of GPS positioning and tracking devices.
- Food and plenty of it in case things go wrong. Take more water than you think you need.
- Fridge and alternate power source: generators and solar panels are the two main ways of keeping the battery topped up.
- Tell-tales: Many conform to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” theory. I’d rather know what’s going on with my 4X4’s vital organs so I can pre-empt any problems that may occur. I’ve got aftermarket gauges to monitor both battery voltage and capacity, engine and gearbox temperatures as well as turbo boost and exhaust gas temperatures.
- Take your time and take care.
While there is no simple answer of what to take, much of it will depend on the type of vehicle you drive and where you are travelling. Driving a common 4X4 (read: Toyota, Nissan, etc.) will see parts easily purchased in most towns or scrounged from the local wrecking yards. Drive a more exotic specimen, and you may not be as lucky with over-the-counter-success at the local spare parts joint or the wreckers.
Top tips for remote area travel
It’s easy for most people to think they are prepared for their outback travels; it would be wildly misleading to suggest they all actually are though. What do you really need to be prepared for anyway?
- Food and water if the worst happens and your 4X4 breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Sure, but how much should you carry? How many days’ worth do you cater for?
- Tools to fix anything that breaks. Sure, but do you know how to use them and have the mechanical aptitude to pull everything apart on your 4X4 and put it back together?
- Spare parts to help in the breakdown as mentioned above; yep, you do need to take spares, but realistically, which ones? Fan belts and hoses are light and easy, but do we need to carry spare leaf spring packs and shock absorbers? They’re pretty damn heavy, remember, and don’t exactly pack away into a tiny space.
- How about maps, real paper ones, GPS or tracking devices; are they needed? I reckon so, but what type is most suitable for the area you’re travelling?
- Spare wheels (rim and tyre); it seems every second 4X4 vehicle carts two spare wheels around all day every day while in town, a lot of weight for no real reason, but do you really need them while out bush or can you save weight and simply carry an extra spare tyre along with tools to change and make puncture repairs?
- First aid; most folk are pretty well-versed at whacking a couple of band-aids on, but can you treat a busted leg, snake bite or dehydration?
- Can you safely travel alone, or is part of your plan to always go with others to help if you-know-what hits the fan?
Being totally prepared is not as simple as ticking off a gear checklist and tossing it all into an overloaded vehicle. What one person or vehicle brand needs in one situation can be vastly different to the next, so, unfortunately, there is no one answer as to what you should take, what you need to learn and what is best left at home.
I’ve often found ‘simplicity’ to be the key to survival; plus, of course, carting all the appropriate ‘tools for the job’ and ensuring those tools actually fit your vehicle. While there are only small differences between metric and imperial spanners, the difference is huge.
While we always advocate never travelling alone, I’ve done it, hundreds of others have done it, and all survived to tell fantastic tales. Some people are scared out of their wits to be alone, others thrive, and a lot boils down to life skills and experiences as to how you handle it … or not. Keeping a sound mind and being aware of your environment at all times goes a long way to staying safe and alive. I used to get sent out for weeks at a time to plot remote area gold mining leases west of Tennant Creek while surveying in the Northern Territory; “see ya when ya get back” was always my boss’s parting words. He knew we were ‘bush wise’ and that we could get ourselves out of trouble … and yep, we got into it more than once.
The more remote we 4WDers travel, the better the backup plan should be for when something does go sour. Our problem thereon in is, the more precautions we take, the more spares and tools we carry, which is all added weight, which in itself causes more problems. The more weight we lug about, the more overloaded our 4X4s become and the more likely that we’ll need those spare parts we are carrying …Catch 22 if ever there was one. No, that doesn’t mean we should stray off into the bush with no tools, no spares and no way of getting ourselves mobile – that’s plain ol’ stupid.
So, at what stage do we say enough is enough with the heavy tools, spare parts and recovery gear? No definitive answer from me I’m afraid, that’s dependent on your type of vehicle, its condition, where you’re travelling and your ability to do makeshift repairs from minimal equipment – not everyone can wrangle a piece of fencing wire to hold an engine mount together or whittle a gum tree branch to help support a suspension component … but it sure helps to be creative and resourceful with what is at hand in trying conditions.
Have I ever been caught out miles away from anyone? Yep, you bet I have. Regardless of how much I may have preached to others about being prepared and how much I’ve tried to do the right thing – too much preparation (at times) is never enough. Plus, always keep in mind there’s a ton of fantastic events that will happen on your outback journeys, so make sure you’re prepared for memories that will never leave you.
Oh, one last tip; you don’t have to have the perfect big-buck 4X4 or camping set-up to get out there and make those memories. The tips just keep coming; if you’re not getting dirty, you’re not having fun, so be prepared for plenty of washing…and don’t wear white.
This article first appeared in Pat Callinan’s 4X4 Adventures Issue 40.