In praise of the small caravan

small caravan at Barkly Homestead Roadhouse, NT

It’s hard to estimate just how many kilometres we’ve clocked up touring around in this little Jayco pop-top caravan, but it’s a lot. Probably close to 100,000. We bought the van back in late 2011, after an exhaustive search for a small, older caravan. We decided that as we did not know if we’d enjoy caravanning or not, it seemed wisest to spend as little money as possible.

Eventually we bought ‘The Tardis’ from a retired aeronautical engineer, a Mr Fussy who’d looked after the 1984 caravan meticulously, kept it under cover and added luxury extras like electric brakes and LED lights, as well as small truck tyres to give extra clearance. There was an awning too, stored away under the beds (more on that later).

Done all the dumb things

Caravanners would probably agree, but you never stop learning. You never, ever stop doing dumb things (like not putting the chocks back in the van; instead driving them into the turf as you leave). One of our neighbours at Castle Rock campground at Girraween confessed he had once driven out of a camp site with stabilisers still down. This is not recommended. The same could be said for not properly clipping down the front window, not locking the van door and forgetting to undo the safety chains before you drive the car away! (Guilty as charged, on all counts. Ed)

Most of the National Park campers we encountered recently were in relatively modest rigs – a few A-vans, a couple of camper trailers and one caravan even older than ours. There were also a lot of tents, a lot of kids and not an IPad to be seen anywhere.

Not a small caravan

You don’t often see rigs like the one above in national parks. The access defeats them and there’s usually not enough room to park a beast like this (the sides push out, making for a large living room). I believe this one also had a washing machine and dryer. For $100,000 or more (including vehicle), you could have one too.

We saw many rigs like this (and larger) on our three month, round-Australia trip in 2014. There was a rig we saw in Alice that also had a trailer on the back towing a small Suzuki 4WD. On the back of the 4WD was a bike rack and two bikes!

Meanwhile we have learned how to eat, sleep, make love and play scrabble in a 12ft caravan. There have been occasions when we coveted more space, a toilet and shower even, but they are few in number.

Our caravan is simplicity itself. We arrive, pick a spot, reverse in (easy), put the jockey wheel on, detach the car, get the van level and push the roof up. Job done.

We should have kept a log book. The top photo was snapped at the Barkly Roadhouse in the Northern Territory. I was taken by the contrast between our humble rig and the ‘B-Triple’ cattle train.

Our most recent van trip between Christmas and New Year and beyond was to Girraween National Park via Brisbane, Warwick and Yangan. Our sister-in-law had a houseful prior to and including Christmas, so we parked the van next to her house on the bayside and did some ‘home camping’.

Onwards to Girraween where we found a quiet spot near some other campers, who appeared to be camping as an extended family.

This was the trip where, apart from the super moon and the blessed silence after 9pm, we made two amazing discoveries about our caravan. One, I found out how to light the grill! The van has a full-sized oven and cook top that runs off gas. To light the grill and make toast, I finally discovered, you open the oven door, turn on the grill and stick a match underneath. Not what you’d call rocket science, but we had tried various ways of lighting the grill in the past, but nothing worked.

The second thing, given we were going to be staying a few nights, was to put up the awning (left) − an old-style canvas sheet which has to be threaded into a channel along the roof of the caravan, then pegged out with poles and ropes. Believe it or not, this was a first. Now, with a bit of wax for the sail track and a few extra tent pegs, we can achieve this every time we stay more than one night. #feelingsmug

It’s been around, this little van. And, I’d need to add that we have seen smaller ones – 10 footers with a door at the rear. A six-footer with a home-made tilt-top and a few slide-on vans that sit on the backs of utes. There are also bubble vans so small you could probably tow one with a motorcycle.

Ours has been hither and yon – the first big trip in 2012 to the Man from Snowy River festival at Cooma, the National Folk Festival in Canberra and home again. We did a big northern trip in 2013, to Cairns and Karumba, across country to the Territory and back in a loop that took in Budjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park and home, via western Queensland. Then the big trip in 2014, road-testing our near-new Ford Territory (which had only 9,000 kms on the clock). On reflection, we should have gone for six months, as Western Australia is far too large to whiz through in a month.

We’ve also taken this rig to the Blue Mountains for the music festival and that was when we discovered the leaks we’d fixed were, er, not fixed.

So I went to K Mart and bought a really big tarpaulin for $30 and we threw it over the entire van. Try doing that in a fifth wheeler.

Caravans – a money drain or a hobby for DIY types

We have spent some money on the van, it’s true. The first time was when heavy local rain seeped in and destroyed the kitchen bench top, which we then had replaced with marine ply (after fixing the leaks). Then when our local mechanic checked the tyres, he concluded they were so old they didn’t even have identifier numbers on them. So $400 later we were back in business and feeling safe. We’ve had lots of spot jobs done on the road (the insides of our three-way fridge fell to pieces after being taken on the Lawn Hill road) but a smart young guy in Mt Isa fixed it for $130. Another chap in Mt Isa stayed back on a Friday night to fashion new aluminium hinges to repair the van door which had come adrift. An artful fellow with a van repair business near Sunshine Coast Airport recently fixed everything on the van that didn’t work properly and replaced worn wheel bearings.

Not a small caravan No 2 (is that a quad bike on the back?)

Some people, we found, are permanently on the road, hence the need for impressive rigs like this (left). Others make do nicely with vans as small as the one below.

Very small caravan

I fondly remember on one of our first forays north stumbling upon a former work colleague, retired from newspaper life, travelling with his wife in an old 10ft van with single beds. “It’s all we need,” said Roy, getting his fiddle out for a few campfire tunes.

As an old fella we met in the NT, towing a 30-year-old van with an aged Kingswood* said, when a fifth-wheeler rig roared past: “Aw, he’s just showin’ orf.”

*Holden Kingswood, the classic car for everyman, produced from 1968-1984.

More reading : an outback travelogue from 2014

 

Prickly Pear makes a comeback

prickly-pear-comeback
Photo of Prickly Pear near Roma by Bob Wilson

You don’t have to travel far inland in Queensland to see that Prickly Pear, the invasive scourge of farmland in the early 1900s, is making a comeback. ‘The Pear’ as it is sometimes known by farmers, has started to re-appear, growing and spreading after the floods of 2011 and 2012.

The Opuntia species (a member of the Cactaceae family) was introduced to Australia (by white settlers) in the late 1880s to form hedges and provide fodder for times of drought.

Prickly Pear, a cactus plant from the Americas, thrived in the Australian outback. The combination of cacti and rabbits, another introduced species, took a heavy toll on Australian farmland at the turn of the century. By the 1920s, Prickly Pear was a major problem. After some years of experimentation, authorities introduced a biological control in the form of the Latin American Cactoblastis Moth. The moth lays eggs on the prickly pear and its larvae eat the cactus. This was hailed as one of the world’s most successful examples of biological control (the moth eggs were distributed manually). Within six years all varieties of the prickly pear cactus had disappeared.

Not so circa 2017, with varieties of Prickly Pear re-emerging along roadsides and in paddocks around western Queensland and the southern Downs. When we travel I notice things like this and habitually make notes (usually when I’m a passenger).

In some areas (Goondwindi to Inglewood is particularly bad); the cactus has spread into farmland back from the road. Some plants look unwell, though whether through poisoning or biological controls we don’t know.

At this point it should be noted that the variety known as Tree Pear (photos) has some resistance to Cactoblastis, though it can succumb to a cochineal insect. The Southern Downs Regional Council recommends the application of herbicides.

In the interests of moistening a dry subject, let me digress and mention two folk bands that enshrined the Prickly Pear legend into folklore.

Toowoomba musicians John and Sandy Whybird formed Cactoblastis Bush Band when John, then a high school teacher at Chinchilla, saw what Prickly Pear could do to the land. He taught students about the pest and the late 1920s solution to the invasive species.

The band, which recently recorded a CD, performed at the Chinchilla Museum last September to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the introduction of Cactoblastis to the area.

A Brisbane folk duo (Jan Davis and the late Tony Miles), adopted the clever stage name Prickly Pair. They played together for eight years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My research led me to the Urban Dictionary, which defines Prickly Pair as slang for the stubble growing back on a man’s testicles after shaving (for an operation or whatever).

Anyway, the Common Pest Pear is back and local farmers ought to know that notification of infestation is required under the Biosecurity Act 2014. No-one expects a problem of the scale which caused farmers to walk off their land after ‘The Pear’ and rabbits finished off what floods and drought had missed. There’s a plaque alongside the Moonie River at Nindigully that commemorates the success of the Cactoblastis moth, when the use of poisons and cochineal insects proved to be ineffective.

Early settlers, in their wisdom, decided to set up a cochineal industry to provide dye for clothing. The cochineal is a scale insect from which the natural dye is extracted. The insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti then brushed off and dried.

The Pear is commonly spread by birds and animals eating the fruit and excreting seeds. However, the new spread of Prickly Pear has been accelerated by floods moving broken cacti pads from one location to another.

The State Government’s Business Queensland website describes the Pear as “vigorous in hot, dry conditions, causing other plants to lose vigour or die. It competes and invades pastures and impedes stock movement and mustering.”

Authorities took the rampaging cacti seriously and began investigating biological control agents in 1912. More than 150 insect species were studied, with 18 insects and one mite released in Queensland.

Today, eight insects, including Cactoblastis cactorum remain established in Queensland. An article by Leonie Seabrook and Clive McAlpine in the Queensland Historical Atlas describes Prickly Pear in Queensland as a generic term for five different Opuntia cacti.  Three are low-growing shrubs up to 1.5 metres high and two are tree pears, growing up to three metres. The article observes that at the height of the infestation in 1925, prickly pear had spread across 24 million hectares in Queensland and New South Wales.

While the (imported) Cactoblastis Moth was hailed as a biological saviour, early settlers must shoulder the blame for importing invasive species and pests into Australia. Apart from prickly pear and many other weed species, settlers also introduced cane toads, rabbits and feral goats, pigs, cats, brumbies, foxes and camels.

Prickly Pear observations aside, we had four lovely days hiking in Carnarvon Gorge where the weather was balmy. It did rain on the last day but I went for a walk anyway. It’s only rain, as they say in NZ.

As you’ll have gathered, we just spent 10 days towing our little caravan out to Carnarvon Gorge via Rolleston and back via Injune, Roma, St George, Nindigully, Goondiwindi and Warwick. Today we headed home, via Toowoomba and Esk.

Other on-road observations included a lot of road kill, a feral cat, a lone kangaroo out in the middle of the day, a couple of pelicans in a dam, two emus foraging in the long grass, an abandoned car that had been pillaged for parts and a bloke on a recumbent bicycle (the rider lying down and pedalling in a reclining position). We saw two vans smaller than our 12-footer and a massive RV being towed by a 4×4 (with a small car being towed behind that).

We had the usual (and unusual) mishaps common to most caravan expeditions. Like trying to move the car when it was still shackled to the caravan by metal chains (good one, Bob). I bought one of those stainless steel coffee percolators you brew on the stove. First cup I poured tasted a little soapy. As I sipped further down the cup it transpired someone had left a spoonful of congealed dishwashing liquid in the bottom of the cup. (Guess who usually does the dishes? Ed.)

A highlight of the trip was the free camp at Nindigully, where about 50 caravanners were camped beside the Moonie River. A goodly number of them gathered in the pub to watch the State of Origin decider. Many people left at half-time (we assume they were NSW supporters or maybe they were just cold). The ones who remained were in good spirits, taking their crushing defeat like good sports. As we headed back to the van in the dark we heard a chorus of cheering and the war cry ‘Queenslander!’ from the pub.

How do you reckon NSW will go next year?” I asked She Who Spilt A Pot of Pepper In the Van But Didn’t Want It Mentioned.

“I reckon they’re cactus,” she said, chortling quietly under her maroon beanie.

Online subscribers might have noticed we did not file a FOMM last week. That’s because we were out bush and offline. I did post a 2014 column to email subscribers. You can read it here:

https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/approval/v2?auto=false&response=code%3D4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s&approvalCode=4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s