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Most of us can relate to the fun we had canoeing at summer camp when we were young. But that was nothing compared to the experience of whitewater kayaking that came next for me. I have always loved canoeing, though it always seemed difficult to participate. It has only been in the last decade that the development of inflatable canoes has made a big difference. You can more easily access rivers, you can store a canoe in your car, you can even take them on a plane. They are very light, very cheap, with little loss of functionality. Perfect for weekends away or campervan holidays. Social networking was the other big change. You can now use Facebook, etc to join canoeing adventures in your local region or abroad.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Campervan Trip - Darwin to Sydney (4500km)

I recently had to fly back to Sydney from the Philippines. Rather than do a straight flight for $US850 return, I decided to fly with Tiger Airlines, a discount Singapore & Melbourne-based airline. I booked online for $A260 - one way, but strict conditions apply. But since there were alot of vacant seats I first booked a campervan to travel from Darwin to Sydney. Britz-Maui operate a 'returns service' in Australia and NZ - see www.standbycars.com.au - which allows you to rent a camper for attractive concessional rates.
I paid $5/day, a $15 booking fee, a refundable $50 holding deposit, and a $1000 bond on my credit card to cover any damage. You can pay an insurance premium to lower your excess in case of damage. You have a limited selection of van types available. I wanted a small 2-man hi-top type, but was instead stuck with a larger 2man Sprint with toilet/shower. There are several things I didn't like:
1. There was no map in the vehicle - small issue
2. They want to charge you $19 for checking the gas in the cooker tank. Even if you dont use it - they want to charge you. I told them to use a 'security sticker' like they use for airport luggage. So they can see if people have opened the gas compartment. Simple solution.
3. You are responsible for any windshield glass breakage - which you have very little control over
4. The contract is poorly structured for users - not giving you a clear picture where you stand
5. You dont know what to expect to a large degree - though it is a cheap offer if all goes well. In my case I had 8 days to go 4000km, and they give me an extra 500km excess, above which I would pay a $0.5/km excess.

Having taken just a few diversions (Edith Falls, Daly River pub, misdirection at the NSW border, I finished my trip with about 150km to spare. The big loss was not having enough kms to visit Kakadu National Park and not stopping at Katherine Gorge, though there will be a next time. I went:
a. Day 1: Darwin - Edith Falls - Katherine - Mataranka Thermal Springs (camped in the free Day Parking area). Darwin has some nice places to go out. Beer is pricey at $5-6 a bottle. Patty O'Shea's Irish Pub had great live band. I originally intended to stay in Katherine but the aboriginal AFL team beat the local 'white fellas' so were out drinking. They threw a can at my parked van so decided to move on. Decided instead to stay at the thermal pools so I could have a morning swim instead. Edith Falls wasn't special, but the areas was scenic. I passed up the chance of going to Katherine Gorge. That was a mistake, and I would recommend that instead of Edith Falls, even though its a longer drive in.
b. Day 2: Mataranka Thermal Springs - Daly River - Tennant Creek - Threeways. The highlight of this section was the Daly River pub. They were having a rodeo that day. Although I would have liked to stay, I got there at 10AM, and there was alot of ground to cover. It would be an understatement to say it has style, as the walls are covered in bras and other 'accessories'. I went to the Sports Club in Tennant Creek, which was a good opportunity to experience aborigines and country folk socialising. They seemed to get along great, but apparently the abos become very aggressive when the alcohol kicks in, so there will be fights later. I decided to stay at a small town (Threeways instead) after a lovely dinner at the Sports Club. After having things thrown at my car I found it difficult to sleep.
c. Day 3: Threeways - Barkley Homestead - Mt Isa: Get as much petrol as you can in the NT at Threeways ($1.45/L) because it will be $1.76/litre at Barkley Homestead, and the next stop. Same for food...stock up in Katherine or Tennant Creek. I enjoyed the drive for the first few hundred kms, but it got a little monotonous. Basically you are dropping into the Georgina Basin, then you enter the Barkley Ranges of the Mt Isa district. Mt Isa is a lovely town. People are friendly, the aborigines well behaved (as have jobs), and it has good facilities. The mountains is this areas are very scenic and the low sun makes the area even more alluring. I took a shower in the local public swimming pool and ate Chinese takeaway.
d. Day 4: Mt Isa - Cloncurry - McKinley - Longreach - Barcaldine - Blackall. I did alot of driving today. It was pretty flat, boring country. The highlights were some nice towns - particularly Longreach (the home of Qantas) and Barcaldine (5 pubs, home of the Australian Labor Party). So good for a history lesson. Blackall was a nice town as well. The most southerly pub at Barcaldine gave a good roast beef, and they let me charge my GPS batteries. I ended up campervanning for free in a backstreet in the next town. No pubs, no drunk aborigines, no problem.
e. Day 5: Barcaldine - Augatella - St George. This was another boring day of driving. the last section from Mitchell to St George was a short-cut on a narrow sealed road with woodland on both sides. The implication was that driving required alot of concentration to avoid hitting kangaroos in the late afternoon since there was 250kms of woodland. I had a great meal in the riverside Commercial Hotel, and talked to a local over beer before driving to the edge of town and sleeping in the campervan.
f. Day 6: St George - Goondiwindi - Texas - Inverell - Bundarra - Armidale. I travelled early so again had to watch closly for kangaroos. Came close to hitting 2 of them. One I didnt see because it jumped out in front of me, the other reversed direction to join its mate. Goondiwindi was an ok town. Stopped at the public library to use the internet. From this point you have several options as far as direction - east (Stanthorpe), SE (Texas) or SSW (Moree). I heard Moree was a nice town but I really wanted to see rivers and rangelands. So I followed the Dumareq River up to Texas, then travelled south to Bonshaw, and then Inverell. Inverell was surprisingly prosperous to me. Wealthy cattle and cotton farmers in this area. It was then on to Armidale. I decided to go there via Bundarra since I'd never been out this far west in the New England area. It was very green and attractive country. I would happily live in this area from the border to Walcha. I wanted to visit a friend in Armidale, but couldn't reach him. Drank with some locals instead. Ate a Weds night special at the pub - roast chicken breast and vege for $7 or 2 for $12. Good value. I just parked in the main street opposite a construction site and slept with no disturbance. Maybe because it was cold.
g. Day 7: Armidale - Uralla - Walcha - Novendoc - Gloucester. Went to the library to check my internet. My friend was out in the field so decided to move on. I wanted to visit Walcha and travel down the Thunderbolts Way. This is a more direct alternative route to Sydney which drops down the range rather than going down the Hunter Valley. It is more rugged and an inferior road for the most part, but its more scenic. Stopped at the Bretti Reserve. This is one of my favourite camp spots, but I didnt stay. Its located at the junction of Little Bowman River and the Little Manning River I think, so I think it would make a good canoe entry point in higher water. I stayed the night in Gloucester. Parked next to the public toilets. The swimming pool was closed for renovation (and maybe for winter season still) so I was unable to find a shower, but who cares....I wanted a beer. It was an easy walk to the van, and I just slept in the van.
h. Day 8: Gloucester - Stroud - Raymonds Terrace - Gosford - Sydney - Mascot. I was awoken early by workmen. So after some fruit I got started. About 90minutes later I was in Gosford, emptied the car and was off to Mascot. Before I left I stopped in at a RV-caravan store at Gosford and looked at a camprvan for $94K. It was well furnished but too fully equipped for me. Having checked the location of Britz at Mascot it wasnt too hard to find. I was not aware of the changes on the North Shore Harbour Tunnell however, so I ended up having to go into the city...annoying.

Interestingly I wasnt the only person to have problems with aborigines. A woman travelling with her son was apparently assaulted by an aboriginal guy in the Kempsey (North NSW coastal town) area after he threw a rock at her vehicle. She got out to query him ('Why did you do that?), and she ended up being hit. I suspect the reason might be the presence of a prison in this area, and the aborigines in this town too have a reputation for violence. Its a very boring town - as no facilities...and that might well be because of the violence problem driving away business. If I can give people any insights its the following:
1. Buy your food in grocery stores - cereal & small packets of long life milk, cereal-fruit bars as snacks and fruit each day fresh.
2. The separate (2nd) deep cycle battery will last just 2 days using the fridge, so use the fridge from 12midnight to noon only. You will need to recharge or just buy food fresh.
3. There are no Woolworths or Coles in the outback - except at Katherine, Tennant Creek and Mt Isa...until you get to Tenterfield? This means you will have limited range of items at IGA and Foodworks stores or paying more at independents.
4. Avoid campervanning in towns with aborigines and pubs - the two of them dont mix. Camp in industrial estates, residential areas, not on main roads. Be discrete! Contrary to perception I suspect quiet, dark areas are better for avoiding attention.
5. Petrol is cheapest in Qld - but avoid small towns where you will feel the cost of monopoly advantages, ie. Crossing the border. NSW is more expensive, so buy in Warwick.
6. If your camper does not have shover/toilet facilities there are plenty on the road. Take some toilet paper or tissues in case. You can use public swimming pool facilities in towns, or other sporting clubs, though they seem less frequent outside NSW. I found in public pools in Mt Isa, Goondiwindi, Armidale, Gloucester (under renovation). But there are more if you look.
7. Watch out for kangaroos. You will loose your $1000-1500 excess (bond) if you hit one. Avoid driving in the evenings or morning. They have a habit of darting out from bushes. If one crosses rest assured others will follow, so watch the group. You need to understand how they think...which is pretty poorly!
8. If you are thinking about buying a campervan - this is a pretty good way of selecting the features you need or like.
9. I was disappointed to find that there were very few wifi hotspots in rural Australia - or at least public access ones. All wifi sites I detected were private ADSL connections...and there doesnt seem to be much depend for them. Never saw any people with laptops. I hid mine so I wouldnt attract any attention.
10. I think its best to prepare your own breakfast and lunch and eat dinner out. In rural areas (away from the coast) pub and RSL (returned military serviceman's clubs) offer good value meals, and you can always get cheap Chinese takeout meals for $12-15. For breakfast I was having cereal with long life milk. Lunch was nutella on bread with fruit and carrot sticks, as well a tetra-pack juice and museli bars.
11. I have some thoughts on buying a campervan, but I will post a separate item on that issue.

1 comment:

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