One of the most frequent questions asked by wannabe grey nomads is “Can I do the whole trip on the bitumen?” Of course, the answer is “Yes.” The blacktop can take you to some incredible country and to some incredible places … and more and more of them every year. Nowadays, you can get up to Cooktown without getting your wheels dusty and increasingly longer stretches of the track up to Weipa in Cape York are bitumen. Where will it all end?
But those of you seeking off-road adventure needn’t panic quite yet … there are still plenty of adventurous places left to visit! Most grey nomads travel with some sort of 4WD vehicle and this offers a measure of reassurance that they will be able to cope with some tougher road conditions, even if they are not actively seeking them out.
There is a big difference between a dirt track and a 4WD track. Many of our most glorious national parks can only be accessed by dirt tracks and, in the vast majority of cases, a conventional vehicle towing a caravan will sail down them. Similarly, tracks like the Birdsville Track and Oodnadatta Track can usually be successfully negotiated by steady travellers, even those who don’t have specialist 4WD expertise.
It is the fear of the unknown and the remoteness of the country that can make such tracks seem daunting … and this is both understandable and wise. If you plan to travel down 4wd tracks, always check conditions with local authorities. Roads that were highways one week can be impassable, corrugated nightmares the next. Conditions change quickly, particularly after rain, and tracks where the graders have recently passed are normally fine but may not be so a few weeks later. Listen to what other travellers have to say about road conditions but be aware that things can change and one person’s “highway” is another person’s “ordeal.”
Obviously, when you are travelling on the dirt, it is imperative to check that your vehicle is in good order, and to prepare yourself with spares, tools and an adequate supply of food and water. If you are towing, you need to be especially careful. A few hundred kilometres of corrugations can do an awful lot of damage to a van that isn’t designed to take them on.
Remember that you don’t have to take your van everywhere. Many grey nomads reckon their “old bones” can handle a night or two in a tent and will drop the caravan somewhere while they explore more the rugged areas. It’s a great idea.
While you can still have the time of your lives travelling Australia staying in caravan parks and enjoying happy hour drinks with like-minded travellers, there is so much of Australia that can only be accessed if you are prepared to get your wheels a little muddy. The grey nomad, who is normally blessed with both the time and the equipment to explore these areas, should not fail to do so owing to a lack of skills. The Australian National Four Wheel Drive council has a website which provides more information about four wheel driving as well as contact details to register for four wheel drive training courses (http://www.anfwdc.asn.au). As you travel and as you gain more confidence and experience you will find yourself eager to learn more and to do more. 4WDing is about learning what your vehicle is capable of and, just as importantly, what it’s not capable of.
But most important of all – only do what you are comfortable with. A trip to a waterfall is not worth the effort if you spend the journey there worrying about what damage you may be doing to your vehicle and whether you are going to get stuck. The Big Lap is about relaxing and enjoying yourself … so that’s exactly what you should be doing.