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


Carnarvon open for business

Carnarvon Gorge – The Ampitheatre by Bob Wilson

It doesn’t seem too widely known that the once-notorious black soil road from the Rolleston turn-off to Carnarvon Gorge is now completely sealed. True, there is an unsealed section between Takarakka Resort and the National Park headquarters, but it’s a few hundred metres at best.

In the 1970s, a hired car full of adventurous Kiwis set off for Carnarvon, 720kms west of Brisbane, having heard it was a must-do wilderness experience in Queensland.

“Mind you, it’s four-wheel drive country only,” we were warned. Even with a four-wheel drive vehicle, after heavy rain, the black soil roads to Carnarvon from Injune or Rolleston could become impassable. You either couldn’t get in or couldn’t get out. We naïve Kiwis of course hired a conventional six-cylinder sedan and went close to running out of fuel as the car made slow and slippery progress. We turned back and kind people we met in the pub at Injune offered space in their homes for our tired bodies.

In 2017, the 40 kms of new sealed road from the Rolleston turn-off to Carnarvon completed in June, makes it a dream run. Even last year, when the road between the turnoff and Takarakka Resort was still unsealed, Carnarvon Gorge attracted 65,000 visitors.

The gorge is a spectacular sight after driving across the seemingly endless central Queensland plains. It’s a scenic drive in from the A7 Carnarvon Highway between Rolleston (100 km to the north) and Injune (150km to the south). The only tip for the novice in 2017 is to make sure you have plenty of fuel and to realise that you might need to forego Facebook for a few days.

There was a long period when the remoteness of Carnarvon Gorge and the spirituality of a place held sacred by local Aborigines was the key attraction for hikers keen to soak up the solitude and silence. Friends who recently stayed at Carnarvon Gorge during school holidays were disenchanted with the numbers of people staying there. They have a four-wheel drive vehicle so also visited Mt Moffat, which they said was less spectacular but comparatively devoid of people.

After spending four nights at the gorge (during school holidays), I’m wondering what sort of growth pressures the park will face in coming years. But I’m thinking that Carnarvon Gorge visitor numbers will stay fairly constant. Unless you like a 10-hour driving day, you’ll have to stay overnight at least once between Brisbane and your destination.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2005 management plan for Carnarvon noted there were 27 separate tourism operators allowed to do business within the national park. These include coach and helicopter tour operators but no flying in the park itself – drones, as the sign at the headquarters said, are not allowed either. Accommodation and camping ranges from a camp site at the National Park headquarters (36 sites), which, for some reason, is only available in school holidays. At Takarakka Resort, 4 kms outside the park, one can choose between pitching a tent, hooking a caravan up to power and water or staying in one of the powered safari cottages (canvas roof and walls and timber floors). Alternatively, there’s the Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Resort just down the road where you can enjoy most of the comforts of home.

Unlike some travel articles, which carry coy disclaimers that (writer) was a guest of (airline-travel agency-resort), this blog pays its own way. She Who Organises Things paid in advance for the four nights (powered caravan site at $46 a night). We also signed up for the Sunday night roast dinner ($25 per person).

If I found anything at all less than satisfactory it was the cleaners with leaf blowers.

That minor irritation was offset by the free outdoor movie night (The Castle), which is cornier than I remember but somehow very dinky-di.

Carnarvon Gorge is rugged and remote, and even with its well-marked tracks and the support of local rangers, it would not be hard to get into a spot of bother. One has to rock-hop over the six creek crossings and there are ladders and vertical steps involved with other walks. We walked about 12 kms on our first day and ran out of water by the end of the trip. So you evidently have to carry at least one and probably two litres per person. A reasonable level of fitness is required.

If you are a serious bush-walker with a four-wheel drive vehicle you could spend some weeks exploring this 164,000ha national park and the unsealed roads into nearby Mt Moffat and Ka Ka Mundi national parks.

Carnarvon Gorge was surrounded by pastoral properties, parts of which have since been incorporated into the national park.

In the mid-1880s, white explorers Thomas Mitchell and Ludwig Leichhardt made the public aware of the area’s permanent water. This led to settlers taking up blocks in Central Queensland and sparked off two decades of open aggression between local indigenous groups and the newcomers.

Libby Smith’s historical account of European settlers living on Carnarvon Station (now owned by Bush Heritage), chronicles the hardships suffered by successive owners of the 59,051ha station north-west of Carnarvon Gorge.

They had to battle droughts, floods, bushfires and invasive pests like prickly pear and feral animals. Above all was the remoteness of the property, which sits between Mt Moffat and Ka Ka Mundi.

Even in 2001, the resident managers described Carnarvon Station as more remote than their last posting in Kakadu. Co-manager Steve Heggie said the biggest challenge was the inability to enter or exit the property after the rains. A trip to town involved four hours of hard driving ‘before you even hit the blacktop’.

“We had to plan for adequate supplies of food, fuel and work stores, medical emergencies and for volunteers stranded after rain.”

Smith writes that Carnarvon National Park was extended in the 1960s and 1970s to include pastoral holdings which had been surrendered. They include Salvatore Rosa National Park (1957) and Ka Ka Mundi (1973). The park was also extended west in the 1980s and 1990s. Smith notes there was initially fierce opposition to proposals to expand national parks into pastoral leases.

“There was a fear of any change in land use and ‘locking up country.’

Smith’s story deals only with pastoral history, but considering that Aboriginal history in Carnarvon long preceded European settlement, the reaction by pastoralists to the conservation ‘threat’ is quite ironic.

In 2001, Bush Heritage purchased Carnarvon Station for conservation. It has since been found to contain 25 regional ecosystems, including seven that were endangered.

Feedback from last week

The Prickly Pear column, also inspired by this trip, engendered a lot of feedback. One reader wrote to say her grand-father had to walk off the land near Roma as a result of prickly pear infestation and became a land valuer instead. Some readers were keen to say the pear has been maligned and that many people grew up used to eating the fruit, which is tasty and nutritious. Another emailed to correct us, saying the river at Nindigully is the Moonie, not the Balonne.

Perplexed Pensioner of Reeseville once again took issue with my claim that white settlers introduced cats. A topic for another Friday, perhaps.

Ah well, Queensland still won!

Further reading:




Private interests and national parks

Obi Obi Gorge
Obi Obi Gorge – photo by Bob Wilson

Let’s just imagine going for a bush walk in a national park, say five or ten years from now. As you set off on foot with your smart phone, selfie stick and water bottle, a tribe of kids and adults whiz past on mountain bikes. In the distance, you can hear the throaty buzz of trail bikes traversing the circuit reserved for them on the other side of the mountain. A kilometre or so down the track a herd of cattle cross the path to continue grazing along the stock route reserved for times of drought. Down in the gorge there’s a family of prospectors, panning for gold, while above, zip line riders scoot from tree to tree on overhead wires. There are kids swimming in the rock pool; they yell and wave to the 12 people riding horses while their guide (who once had a gig at the Sistine Chapel), holds a gaudy umbrella aloft so his charges do not stray. As you climb back up, a gondola glides silently overhead, taking punters on a cable car ride to a pricey restaurant and lookout at the summit. Back at the picnic ground, a dozen people are being given archery lessons while others queue for the hot air balloon tour.
Some of that sounds OK. Fun, even. But in a national park?

State governments are increasingly looking at new ways of increasing visitor numbers to the national parks and reserves under their control. In the pursuit of this goal they have embraced “ecotourism” which in its purest sense means: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.
People who frequently visit national parks to walk in the forest, birdwatch and just enjoy the peaceful seclusion had concerns about the Queensland Government’s decision to call for expressions of interest (EOI) for commercial projects in national parks.

In Queensland, then Environment Minister Kate Jones raised the idea in 2008 and it was further advanced by the Newman government, which made changes to the Nature Conservation Act.
It is clear the current Labor government is continuing along this path, although it has promised a review of the legislative changes to the Act made by the Newman government.
National Parks Association of Queensland executive director Paul Donatiu says the key to the review is to ensure the cardinal principle for managing national parks is maintained. This means to provide, to the greatest possible extent, for the permanent preservation of the area’s natural condition and the protection of the area’s cultural resources and values (natural condition meaning protection from human interference).

A spokesman for Queensland’s Parks and Wildlife Service said the previous government expanded management principles to include reference to education and recreation activities and ecotourism.
“The cardinal principle itself remains unchanged and is still the primary principle to be considered in the management of a national park.”
We understand that 12 expressions of interest remain on the table, from more than 40 submitted, although only three are under active investigation. The spokesman confirmed that a zipline in the Obi Obi Gorge at Kondalilla National Park (pictured above) in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, was one of the projects identified by the government. The other is Green Mountains campground in Lamington National Park. The latter includes a campground, a three-bedroom house and a barracks building. The government is continuing to work with the proponent on this proposal.
Details of other EOI proposals are “commercial-in-confidence” because they were initiated by the proponents.

Paul Donatiu says the NPAQ is concerned about the precedent that would arise from allowing private use of public land. The NPAQ does not support commercial activities and says all of these proposals have the capacity to alter how we perceive national parks. Donatiu is particularly anxious about the zipline proposal because of the potential for interference with the forest canopy.
Zipline Australia says its proposal minimises physical contact within the national park. Tour participants would enter the park on a suspension bridge from land outside the park then use cables and tree platforms to complete the journey. The tour infrastructure would be based in Montville, with participants bussed to the starting point.

The Sunshine Coast Environment Council (SCEC) says it is “inappropriate and unnecessary” to locate a commercial, adrenaline- based development within a national park. SCEC spokesperson Narelle McCarthy said the group was concerned because of the high conservation and scenic values of the Kondalilla National Park.
The Parks and Wildlife Services spokesman said the government is committed to partnering with the tourism industry to develop best-practice ecotourism experiences on national parks.
“The proposal for the Obi Obi zipline does raise concerns for government, specifically whether ziplines are appropriate in national parks. The government is considering this proposal in light of these concerns.”

There is nothing wrong with thrill-based tours like ziplines, rock-climbing, canyoning, abseiling or underground caving. These activities already occur in forest park environments all over the world. Not all tourists have the time or physical energy to take on a day hike to exotic locations, so they are happy to pay a premium to be transported, be it by tour coach (pick your destination), four-wheel drive (Fraser Island) helicopter (Fox Glacier, Grand Canyon) or cableway (Kuranda, Queenstown).
Not everyone wants to visit a national park just to walk four kilometres, admire the view then walk back again. Many want another reason and that is what the ecotourism push is all about.

In New South Wales, a task force was set up in 2008 to examine what kinds of things people wanted out of national parks. The good news is the report rebuffed large scale developments such as major resorts and hotels, theme parks, cinemas and golf courses. It also believed a total ban on all accommodation options was ‘‘too absolute’’, but supported conservation values:
“The national park ‘brand’ has marketing value for the tourism industry, but the essence of that ‘brand’ is naturalness and beauty and therefore it will only have currency if the conservation values of parks and reserves are secured and enhanced.”
Or as Joni Mitchell put it: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

The NSW Taskforce said competitors in other states and overseas had developed high quality nature tourism facilities and experiences in outstanding locations, many of which are in national parks and have multi-day walking activities with accommodation facilities.
The Tasmanian government, for one, wants tourism operators to take advantage of development opportunities inside national parks and World Heritage Areas. In December 2014, 37 proposals were lodged, including one to build permanent, hut-style accommodation along the South Coast Track bushwalking route.
The ABC’s 7.30 Report said the proponent believes numbers walking the track can be increased by up to 1,500 per year.

An article in The Conversation a while ago put up an argument that national parks need visitors to survive. It quoted data from Australia, Canada, the US and Japan to show that national park visitor numbers were declining on a per capita basis. As Susan Moore and others wrote, if you are passionate about biodiversity and conservation, you need to convince more people to become advocates for national parks and conservation – to become frequent visitors.
If you don’t, the interests that support utilitarian activities such as grazing, hunting and logging, may just get the upper hand.