October 18, 2004

The 4WD Menace?

There has been a lot of media coverage recently surrounding a report undertaken by the AAMI insurance company which focuses on the use of 4WDs. The report, based on a survey of 1880 drivers, opens with this sentence; “ Half of Australian drivers (48 per cent) believe that four-wheel-drives do not belong in city areas…” Of course, 48% is not really half, but let's face it, if they'd have opened with “More than half of the drivers we surveyed believed 4WDs DO belong in city areas”, the report would have lost some of its sensationalist value – but then, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The report also makes the claim that “The figures show that despite the popularity of four-wheel-drives, not all drivers are convinced they are good for Australian roads”. What an interesting conundrum; to say on the one hand, that a large number of people don't think they are good to have on our roads, while at the same time referring to them as popular. Well, which is it? Are they popular, or are they disliked?

The survey makes a number of claims based on statistics. Let's look at some of them…

• 70% of regular car drivers feel that 4WDs are more dangerous for other road users. 

I'd be interested to know what they define a 4WD as. Sure, there are the real obvious 4WDs like Landcruisers, Patrols, Pajeros, Jackaroos, etc. But there are also a large and growing number of soft 4WDs from manufacturers like Subaru, Kia, Daihatsu and others who build a range of conventional-style vehicles that also just happen to have all-wheel-drive capability, mostly for safety reasons. Are these included in the group of “dangerous 4WDs” that menace the general public? If I drove one of those little Polish Nikis, or something similar, I'd probably feel a big lifted Troop Carrier might be a bit dangerous if it ran into me, but then again, so would almost anything.

Surely it's obvious to any thinking person that if you're in a little light vehicle you get hit by a great big moving object, it's going to hurt no matter what it is! But not every big moving object happens to be a 4WD, and not every 4WD is a great big object. Let's get straight what we mean when we refer to “4WDs”. If the argument is about great big moving objects being dangerous, then fine, lets' have that argument… but then, let's also include people movers like Taragos and Voyagers, etc, which are just as big and heavy as a lot of 4WDs. Why do we have to pick solely on 4WDs as being the problem?
Bottom line, whether another vehicle is dangerous to you or not depends an awful lot on what you're driving at the time.

• In a crash between a 4WD and a regular car, the people in the regular cars accounted for 64% of fatalities, while the occupants of the 4WDs accounted for only 18% of all fatalities. 

Is anybody actually surprised by this? There is a little thing called Newton 's Second Law of Motion, which basically states that the force at which an object hits is governed not only by its own mass, but also but the speed it is travelling. Now, hands up if you'd prefer to be shunted from behind by a 4WD doing 30km/h or a fully-sick Mazda rotary, mate, that slams into you doing 120km/h. I think I'll take my chances with the 4WD thanks very much.

I'm certain that one of the reasons that 4WDs have become more popular is that the statistics firmly support the fact that occupants truly are less likely to be injured. It may be just an unfortunate fact that if a big 4WD hits a smaller lighter vehicle, the smaller lighter vehicle is more likely to come off second best, but surely it will be just as bad if it gets hit by a 2 tonne people mover as a 2 tonne 4WD. As has already been noted in the previous point, your likelihood of getting hurt in a crash has as much to do with what you're driving, as it has with what the other guy is driving. Could it just be possible that the 18% of people who got killed driving 4WDs got hit by something bigger again – how about we start complaining about those vehicles? Again, it has nothing to do with whether the vehicle that hits you is capable of driving its front axle, but rather with how big it is and how hard it hits you.

There are many vehicles that are just as long, as heavy, and as wide as a number of 4WDs. As well as the typical 7-seater people-movers, there are many sedan-style 2WD passenger vehicles that are larger and heavier than many of the 4WDs being sold in Australia . Can you imagine an accident between a Suzuki Sierra softop and a Chrysler Voyager? Bags not driving the Sierra. But seriously, it's all relative and there are many 4WD vehicles that are smaller and lighter than the average road-going sedan or family car. The AAMI report completely overlooks this fact.

However, because there are a number of the larger 4WD vehicles which are big and heavy, it seems that if you want to increase the likelihood of being the less-injured party in a road accident, then based on the statistics above, then driving a 4WD (or any big heavy vehicle) may go a long way towards achieving that goal. Funnily enough, there might just be enough people who want to be the less-injured party that it might account for the growing number of people wanting to drive them. Meanwhile, it seems the more gentle altruistic folk out there are prepared to keep buzzing about in their Toyota Starlets and Mazda 121s so they can feel good about not hurting people too much when they hit them. God bless ‘em.

• 46% of regular car drivers feel that 4WD owners are more arrogant and aggressive on the road. 

Well, what do you say about this? Again, it depends on what you define as “a 4WD”. If people are getting all threatened and scared when a Subaru Forrester changes lanes in front of them, then they probably shouldn't be driving in the first place. Articulating what we actually mean by the term “4WDs” is pretty central to the whole debate. Personally I find 4WDers to be very well mannered on the road, and certainly in the country areas are among the friendliest folk you'll find. In the city, it may be that there are a few rude drivers who use the extra bulk of their big 4WDs to push into traffic or change lanes too abruptly, but I always find this to be the minority. (Ok, I know 46% really is a minority, but I'm humouring AAMI , OK ?) Believe it or not, I've actually seen drivers of cars, yes, regular 2WD cars, driving rudely as well! Why only today, I had one fellow refuse to let me merge, and another one insisted on driving slowly in the overtaking lane. Can you believe that? Regular car drivers acting arrogantly on the road! Perhaps their 4WDs were in being serviced?

I know a number of people who own both a 4WD and a 2WD, and I find it amazing the way they are able to switch from being rude, arrogant and aggressive drivers when they are behind the wheel of their 4WDs, to being nice, polite drivers when they get back into their “real” cars. What's that you say? It's not about the car, it's about the driver? What an interesting concept! I would have thought so too, but I guess those 46% of people don't see it that way.

• 59% of regular car drivers believe that 4WD owners should have a special licensing requirement. 

At first I was a bit unsure about this idea. After pondering it, I think it's an idea with great potential except for a couple of minor things…

Firstly, it' grossly unfair the way it targets a specific group of people who drive a specific type of vehicle which are no more inherently bad than any other type of vehicle. I agree that for anyone unfamiliar with driving a 4WD, especially one of the larger ones, there could be some form of education program to make them aware of the different handling characteristics of a 4WD. But it is probably just as worthwhile to have other education and licensing schemes targeted at very young drivers, very old drivers, timid women drivers, aggressive male drivers, powerful sportscar drivers, slow vintage car drivers, bloody Volvo drivers, truck drivers, motorbike riders, pushbike riders, pedestrians, etc. All of these groups have unique characteristics, but they seem to escape the suggestion of a special licensing requirement. Why only 4WDs? Sure, if you've come out an SS Commodore into a 100 Series Landcruiser, you're probably going to want to adjust your driving style a little to compensate for the added height and weight of the new vehicle. This may require some driver education (or re-education) in the correct ways to handle a 4WD vehicle. But surprisingly enough, that's what 4WD clubs do. 

Secondly, there would be considerable expense and red tape in setting up an additional licensing requirement. It would place an extra burden on an already overworked RTA and in the end wouldn't really prove much anyway. Getting people to become involved with a responsible 4WD club would probably have a far greater impact in getting the message out there about the right ways to handle these vehicles, both onroad and off. Perhaps some form of economic incentive, like a reduction in registration costs for 4WD owners who belong to a recognised and accredited 4WD club, would end up in a win-win situation for all concerned. But don't hold your breath - governments are not known for thinking win-win. 

Finally, it again comes down to what you class as a 4WD. Should Daihatsu Terios owners have to undertake this special licensing arrangement? What about Holden Cruze owners? Or Subaru WRX drivers? What's that you say? They aren't 4WDs? Oh yes they are my friend! I know what you meant to say – they aren't they vehicles you were talking about when you proposed a special licensing arrangement for 4WD owners. So let's get our facts right and clearly identify what it is we are really trying to address in terms of a vehicle's size and weight if these are the real issues. Then, if we still feel the need, we should come up with a licensing arrangement to address the actual problem instead of lumping all 4WDs and their drivers into some bizarre, one-size-fits-all category.

• 59% of 4WDs are registered in metropolitan areas. 

The undertone beneath this comment is always one of “why do people that live in the city need to drive a 4WD?” Apparently, if you aren't carrying a load of hay bales out to feed to milkin' cows, you don't have a legitimate reason to own and drive a 4WD. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 12.7 million of our 20 million Australian residents live in what they call Capital City Statistical Divisions. This represents approximately two thirds of Australia 's population (64%) as living in capital city areas. Are we really that functionally rigid that we should accept the argument that says if you live in a city area you have no need for a 4WD and if you live outside the city area you do? 

I find this extremely presumptuous; to suggest that as a city dweller I should not have the right to drive a 4WD! If I choose to spend my leisure time – my hard earned holidays – exploring parts of Australia that require the safety and capability of a 4WD vehicle, then who are others to judge as to whether this is appropriate or not!? In a perfect world, I might choose to own several vehicles and drive each one of them according to their specific capabilities, or even according to my whims. I might like to own a Mazda MX5 for cruising topless down the coast on those balmy summer afternoons, or perhaps a Toyota Tarago for those times when it would be nice to take my extended family somewhere. Perhaps a Holden Barina would be a sensible, economical choice for commuting to work each day. There are many cars I would love to own. 

But the truth is that few people are in such a position to afford the luxury of a garage full of different cars to drive as they choose. Most of us have to make a choice. We weigh up the alternatives, think about the sorts of things we might like to use a vehicle for, and then make a decision about the right vehicle to suit our needs. Some make that decision based on safety, some on economy, some on performance. Some never think about driving anywhere else but the blacktop, and some dream of going to exotic faraway places. Whatever people finally decide to drive, you can be sure they have probably given it considerable thought and are well aware of the trade-offs and compromises which their final choice inevitably requires. Some choose a 4WD. Some don't. If people choose not to drive a 4WD, that's OK, but how dare they make judgements on those people who make a choice different to theirs. When you pass a 4WD vehicle travelling along Parramatta Road , how do you know how much time it spends on the tar? How do you know it does not carry its occupants to the beautiful beaches of Fraser Island , or the majestic mountains of the Victorian High Country, or the desolate desert regions of Australia 's arid inland? Even if it is only used for such travel once a year, why do the owners of 4WD vehicles need to justify this to anyone else?

The real issue is smaller than you think.

People ask why 25% of 4WD owners have no intention of taking their vehicles offroad. In asking that question, they ignore the fact that 75% do! That's three out of every four 4WD owners that actually get out into the beaches or the forests or the Outback, and make the most of their vehicle's abilities. They represent millions of people each year who use their 4WDs to escape the city rat race and breathe in the freedom of the great outdoors.

If you cut through all the nonsense and twisted statistics, we all know what this report is trying, very badly, to say. The complaints about 4WD vehicles are really aimed at the “shopping trolley 4WDs” - Large 4WDs often driven by people who run around the suburbs doing the shopping or picking up the kids from school. Many of these people are hopelessly underskilled at driving a large 4WD. Sometimes they drive them because they just happen to be the family's second car, or sometimes they might be bought because they are seen as the safest alternative. In some of these cases, these vehicles really are bought for all the wrong reasons, and driven badly by people that would probably drive anything badly.

This AAMI report tries to target this small percentage of 4WDs bought for the wrong reasons and driven the wrong way by poor drivers, but then attempts to extend the premise to include all 4WD owners as part of this very small minority. It fails to adequately identify what it means by the term “4WD”, and because of this hazy definition, it makes sweeping statements and blankets all legitimate 4WDers with a range of unfair and untrue accusations. It neglects to give any credit to the real reasons why many of us own 4WDs.

This AAMI survey is nonsense. They should pick on someone their own size.

Chris Betcher
October 2004

June 27, 2004

Yahoo! It's Uluru

A story of Statistics, Colours and Numbers

Let’s start with the statistics. Whenever you run a trip as big as this one, there are bound to be some interesting numbers which help tell the story. In our case it was a story involving 27 people - 21 adults and 6 kids - in a fairly epic 22 day journey across some 7768 km of the Australian continent. It also involved 10 vehicles and 4 camper trailers carrying God-only-knows how much cargo, with a total of 48 tyres on the road. We clocked up a total moving travel time of just under 100 hours, and had an average moving speed of 76 km/hour.

There are probably lots more numbers that would surprise anyone who might think deserts are flat, boring places with not much to see… but in fact, they are fascinating places, full of contradictions, like being able to be 12 metres below sea level at our lowest point, and yet 1200 metres above sea level at our highest. Like being able to swim in thermal ponds where the water was a nice warm 37°C and yet spending nights where the temperature dropped to -3°C.

But the real story of this trip can’t be told with numbers and facts. Numbers can tell you how far we travelled each day but they can never convey the experiences we had. They can’t begin to describe the unbelievable corrugations of the road between Apatula (Finke) and Bundooma Siding. Or the feeling of standing at the top of Uluru and staring across the vast spinifex plains to Kata-Tjuta over 40 km away. Or the feeling of utter surprise as you drive over a crest on the Oodnadatta Track to see the sparkling blue waters of Lake Eyre stretching off to the horizon, filled with water for the first time in many years. Or swimming in the pre-dawn waters of Dalhousie Springs and seeing the most incredible sunrise, with the red sands of the nearby Simpson Desert reflecting off the clouds and into the gentle ripples of the pond, mixing with the deep purples and blues of the early morning sky.

The intense colours are one of the most stunning facets of the remote arid regions. The sky is so deeply blue, the vegetation is made up of countless shades of green, and the sand is so deeply red… the red oxide of Central Australia makes the rocks and soil such a rich, deep colour. Sunsets and sunrises are unbelievably beautiful; they glow with intense colours that one might scarcely have even realised existed. Even the darkness of the night sky seems to take on a whole new shade of black…or perhaps it’s just the countless number of stars that can be seen in the sky, with the hazy river of light that is the Milky Way, stretching from horizon to horizon. Whatever it is, the Outback seem to exaggerate and amplify your senses. Your senses start to operate more fully. You start to become more acutely aware of your surroundings, and you actually start to feel and experience the landscape, rather than just see it. It’s easy to understand why the aboriginal people had such a bond with the land. It’s a bond that’s hard to escape.

If you’ve never been to the Outback you’d probably be quite surprised at the enormous diversity of the desert experience… one of the comments heard repeatedly almost every day was “I just can’t get over how much the landscape changes”. It is quite amazing the way you can travel through this landscape, seemingly able to see to the edges of the horizon, and yet experience such rapid changes. To be on a flat desert plain one minute, with nothing but gibber rocks and low, scrubby saltbush as far as you can see, and suddenly, without warning, find yourself looking out across waves of parallel red sandhills rolling off into the distance, and then before you realise it, find yourself approaching a collection of sandy, ghostgum-lined dry creek beds to be crossed. The land is constantly changing.

As we were driving home, there was talk over the UHF of which part of the trip we enjoyed the most. Some people spoke of special places we visited, like the magical Dalhousie Springs, the surprising beauty of Chambers Pillar, or the sheer spirituality of Uluru itself. There were so many wonderful places we went. There were special moments too; some were rare and unique, like standing at Lamberts Centre, the geographical centre of Australia, or watching the sun set over the Simpson from atop a sand dune at Bundooma Siding on the old Ghan line. I thought every place we went was special and had its own magic, so choosing one particular place is a difficult task.

The truth is, the part of the trip I enjoyed the most was the doing, the being, and the experiencing. I loved the fact that were doing things and going places that most people never experience. I like the fact that I can say I’ve been there and done that, and most people will never have the faintest clue about what it was really like. I realise it’s not exactly pioneering stuff these days and that the Outback now has more traffic than ever, but it’s still such a tiny minority of people that get out there and experience their own country, but I’m so glad to be a part of that minority.

The other aspect of the trip that really appealed to me was the chill-out factor. It was good to just not have to think about computer networks, or doing the lawns or answering the phone. It was good to just breathe in the vastness of the great Australian Outback and forget about all that other stuff for a while. The world could have come to an end while we were away and we wouldn’t have even known about it, and I really liked that feeling. It makes you realise how unimportant most of the stuff you hear on the news every day really is. Life is what actually happens to you, not what you read about in the papers or see on TV or hear on the radio. It’s too easy to forget that. Yes, life is what happens to you.

Highlights of the trip included…

Wilpena Pound and the Flinders Ranges. We went through here because it was kind of on the way and I thought it would make an interesting detour, but I was totally unprepared for the beauty and majesty of the Flinders. Stunning, with overwhelming scenery and fantastic campsites, it is a must-see place to revisit on a later trip.

The Oodnadatta Track “art gallery”. A curious collection of sculptures in the middle of nowhere; gates made of old combis, an entranceway made of two aircraft stuck together, a sophisticated display of gas torches that would have been amazing to see at night. And no one around… how bizarre.

Lake Eyre South. The sign said 12 metres below sea level, and the GPS confirmed it to the metre. As a catchment area for Australia’s massive river systems like the Cooper, the Diamantina and the Georgina, it was quite an awesome feeling to stand on the edge of this enormous inland lake and see it full of water, something that does not happen very often.

Algebuckina Bridge. The bridge was interesting, but the campsite was really pleasant. A night time cinema for the kids, and an early morning walk at sunrise made this a special camp spot.

Dalhousie Springs. A thermal pond fed by the million year old waters of the Artesian Basin - 37° warm, and so deep I couldn’t touch the bottom. A true desert oasis. We went for a sunrise swim and the colours of the sky and the water were simply mind blowing.

Lamberts Geographical Centre of Australia. If you could balance Australia on a pin, this is where you’d stick it. Lambert is about 30k out of Finke, and has a monument there similar to the roof of Parliament House in Canberra. It was a good feeling to go there.

Old Ghan Line, Finke to Bundooma. Notable as the worst road we travelled on, the corrugations were simply indescribable. The Finke Desert Races had been through a few weeks earlier and chopped the road out completely. It was good to do it for the experience, but once is enough.

Desert Camp, Bundooma Siding. This was one of my favourite campsites… just a sand dune along the track, but we made it our home for the night. Situated right on the edge of the Simpson Desert (according to the map), the sand was unimaginably red. A very beautiful spot.

Chambers Pillar. Not exactly on the tourist route, it takes some effort to get out to Chambers Pillar. The road is rough and rugged and crosses the Charlotte Range, but the drive is well worth it. I wish we had more time here.

Ruby Gap. Only a few of us went here for the day, but it was a wonderful spot. It was 4WD access only and we made the most of it by following the trail all the way through to Glen Annie Gorge. It was a long day and a late return to Alice, but worth it for the stunning scenery and a bit of real 4WDing.

Palm Valley. Great spot, we did the long walk and the short walk through the Valley, and thoroughly enjoyed our time here. The road in was not difficult, but certainly not suitable for 2WDs either.

Kings Canyon. The canyon was amazing, with a reasonably challenging 6 km walk. Stunning views, awesome colours and rock features. The evening entertainment was good too, with something for everyone, including Brian and I showing our ding-a-lings. You had to be there.

Uluru and Kata Tjuta. I hated Yulara, the support township for Uluru-KataTjuta. It was overcommercialised, unfriendly and did not impress me at all. However, The Rock itself is an amazing place, and a truly spiritual experience. There is no denying it has a real presence as you see it rising up 360 metres from the surrounding flat desert and to get up close to it is to be truly in awe. We did the “whitefella stuff” – climbed to the summit and took lots of photos – but it’s easy to see why the local people call it a sacred place. You can’t describe the rock, not even with a picture… you just have to see it for yourself.

Coober Pedy. Despite the desolate landscape, Coober Pedy has a certain charm about it. We did all the touristy stuff, and even slept underground in the town’s only underground camping park.

There were many other highlights, but those were the main ones for me. More than that though, the trip was made special because of the wonderful people we travelled with. There was a great mix of personalities and I thought we all got on really well. As to be expected on a trip this long with so many people, there may have been the occasional moments of frustration, but overall, I think everybody enjoyed themselves and had a great time. I know we did.

As the trip leaders, Donna and I want to express our sincere thanks to everyone who came on the trip… you were all very patient and understanding, even in those moments where I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, and you made the trip very special for Donna, Alex, Kate and I.

Yahoo! Where to next?

Chris Betcher

May 01, 2004

A Cub Experience

Donna has been suggesting for a long time that we tow a trailer on some of our longer trips, but I have been categorically refusing. I am not a big fan of towing, especially into challenging terrain. However, on a trip to the Barrington Landrover Lease last year, we met a couple who were camping quite comfortably, thank you very much, and we got talking to them about their trailer, which just happened to be a Cub. They were extremely positive about it, and started telling us about all the places they had towed it to over the years. Considering they had bought it second hand about 15 years ago, and had since towed it around Australia several times, I was quite amazed at what good condition it was in. They enthusiastically showed us in and around the unit, showed us the standard features as well as all the little extra modifications they had made, and insisted we come back when they were getting ready to go to see how easy it was to pack up.

I must admit it got us thinking a bit. Perhaps a camper trailer might not be such a bad idea, especially given that we were tending to do more of the long distance touring trips these days. Donna and I decided we might try and see if we could pick up a second hand Cub trailer at a reasonable price, so we started to scour the classifieds to see what we could find. We discovered two things. One was that it was incredibly difficult to find a good second hand trailer that was specced the way we wanted it, especially a Cub. They seemed to be as rare as hens' teeth.

The second thing that became pretty obvious was that the ones we did find were not cheap. They seemed to hold their value really well, and buyers were prepared to pay the premium prices for second hand trailers because they were just so hard to find. We looked at the idea of just hiring one when we wanted to use it but, apart from being pretty expensive, it was again very difficult to find one that was set up the way we wanted.

Logic kicked in and said since we would really like one to take on the Uluru trip, and given the excellent resale value and the fact that we had trouble finding a suitable second-hand one, perhaps we should just buy one, use it and then if we find it's what we're after we can keep it and if not, we can sell it for close to what it cost us. That way, we get exactly what we want and the whole deal will probably work out cheaper than hiring one anyway.

So with some typical buyer's nervousness, we went out to Cub last January for a look at what they had. We knew pretty much what we wanted in terms of design and weight, so after looking around at the various campers we were pretty impressed with a model called the Explorer. It is a bit of a hybrid model – classed as an offroad trailer, it was a heavy duty, lifted model suitable for some pretty rugged use, but not quite as kitted out as the full-offroad model (which was heavier than we were willing to tow). After some deliberating, we decided to go ahead with the purchase.

I must say that Cub was very cooperative in their approach and more than willing to make minor changes for us. We asked that the standard 6-stud axles be replaced with the Suzuki 5-stud wheel pattern. We also changed the standard 14” wheels with 15” wheels. (We would have liked to go to 16”, but they wouldn't fit without moving to the full offroad model, and we didn't want the extra weight) 15” wheels were not ideal, but we figured that so long as a trailer wheel could be made to fit onto the car in a pinch, it was a bit more security in an emergency. We asked for a few other minor changes, right down to the colour of the interior curtains and, wherever possible, Cub did their best to meet our requests.

After a long wait – manufacturing time for new trailers is approximately 3 months – we finally picked it up just before Easter. Ross Nichols from Cub took the time to go over the trailer with us, explaining all the bits and pieces, gave us a practice at opening and closing it, and made sure we were comfortable with it.

First excursion with our Cub was to Mount Yengo . It had been a while since I'd towed a trailer so it took me a while to get used to having it sitting behind the car, but we adapted pretty quickly. Towing it into the Yengo Station Valley was straightforward. Having the convenience of the flip-open camper with a built-in, roll-out kitchen made life really easy, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Second trip for the trailer was a visit to the Landrover Lease at Barrington Tops. Each time we use the trailer we learn new things about the best way to open it, the best way to get it level, and the best ways to camp with it. Having the kids' beds on the floor is a pretty easy solution but also uses up a lot of floorspace. We used the add-on awning for the first time and found it greatly expanded the living space around the trailer. Towing it into the Tops was a bit more challenging than Yengo, as the roads are rougher and the hills bigger and steeper, but there were no great dramas. I was really impressed with the way the trailer sits behind the car on the road, with the suspension easily soaking up the rough bits.

These first two trips made obvious a couple of improvements to the drawbar arrangement in order to make access to the tailgate easier. The jerrycan holder and the stoneguard were not really in the ideal position, so with a bit of engineering expertise from Troy Campbell, some modifications were made and the new arrangement proved much more workable.

The big test was of course the Uluru trip. 23 days of touring, the first week having a new overnight camp each evening, was sure to fine tune the process of setup and packup. We learned something new each day, making minor changes to the way or the order in which we did things. We tried different combinations for packing the inside of the trailer, and eventually got the process quite streamlined. Packing for 4 people over 23 days is never going to be a simple task, but the trailer certainly made life easier.

Towing was superb. By the time the trip came around, we had moved to a 2.7 litre XL-7, and the larger vehicle and more powerful motor made a noticeable difference. Indeed, the improved towing ability of the XL-7 was a major factor in deciding to change vehicles. There is no doubt that the XL is a much better tow vehicle than the V6 Vitara it replaced, even though the Vitara was pretty good already. There were plenty of times I had to actually remind myself that I had a trailer behind, such was the easy towability of the trailer and the smooth power of the XL-7.

After towing the Cub through the Flinders Ranges , up the Oodnadatta Track, across the MacDonnell Ranges and around the Mereenie Loop, I have to say it was a really effortless experience. The trailer tracks extremely well behind the car, and the shock absorbers on the suspension do a great job of reducing bounce and sway. It was nice to be able to pull into camp, release the clips and wind the top open to reveal a comfy double bed, ready to sleep in. The kids' beds were simply slid out onto the floor. Roll out the kitchen and we were just about set. It really did make life a lot easier on the road.

One of the throw-away phrases you hear from people with offroad trailers is “you can tow it anywhere the car can go”. I don't necessarily agree with this statement. There are plenty of places I wouldn't want to pull a trailer, but they are generally pretty extreme with lots of low range rockcrawling and the need to manoeuvre the car with lots of forward and reverse work. Forget trailers in these conditions. I also wouldn't like to be towing one in really steep, slippery conditions, or very soft sand for extended distances. Things could get pretty uncomfortable. But for the great majority of moderate 4WD use, over rough terrain, through bumps and dips, across shallow creeks etc, I can't see any great problems. The trailer pretty much follows wherever the car goes, with the Treg hitch coupling giving plenty of articulation for almost any angle. So long as the track wasn't so tight it required lots of reversing and critical line-picking, I'd be pretty happy to tow it over most terrain.

After 8000kms of corrugated roads, we had a few very minor issues – a bit of dust leakage, a cracked kitchen bracket, etc. Cub was quite willing to address these problems and fix them under the terms of the trailer warranty. Generally, I have been very happy with their aftersales service and support, and their willingness to listen to any issues that may have arisen.

So, is a camper trailer for everyone? No, probably not. There are lots of people for whom a trailer is not going to be the right solution. But for us, we find it fits really well with the sorts of things we enjoy doing. We can see ourselves using the trailer not only for 4WD trips where it suits the terrain, but also to take with us on holidays generally. Not everywhere we go requires offroad capability, but it's nice to know that we have a trailer that is just as much at home on road as off, and we can hitch it to the car anytime we like and just head off for a weekend somewhere.

Chris Betcher

March 20, 2004

Creating the Right Image

I was having dinner the other night with three people from Tasmania and in the course of our conversation they asked what I had planned for the weekend. When I mentioned I was going 4WDing they all went conspicuously quiet. The woman to my left then told me that where she lives in Tasmania 4WDers are not very popular, that she often goes walking in a nearby National Park area and on more than one occasion has had to dodge and weave past people driving their 4WDs in a reckless and less than friendly fashion. I quickly added that I was with a 4WD Club, expecting that would convince her that we were different, but she replied that most of the “hoons” she comes across also seem to be part of organized groups as well…

I then mentioned that we would be visiting an area normally closed to vehicles through a negotiated access agreement between the 4WD Association and NSW National Parks, and that we would be assisting National Parks with some tree planting before heading off to enjoy the area. Her whole demeanour changed. Suddenly, this person who was obviously a passionate environmentalist realised that we were not the same kind of hillbillies that she had encountered in her walks back home, but that we also had some greater ongoing commitment to the bush and its wellbeing.

I thought it was an interesting conversation, and it really highlighted to me just how powerful this MOU agreement with National Parks could be in helping to define the image of 4WDing we can portray to the general public. Like it or not, image is reality. In people’s minds, we are whatever they perceive us to be. And as 4WDers, our image is often tarnished by a handful of idiots who do the wrong thing, despite the fact that in reality we do care deeply about the bush and our access to it.

So, with some enthusiasm, we all gathered in the main street of Picton on Saturday morning before heading down to our meeting place at Buxton. Along the way we managed to pick up a couple of members of the South Coast 4WD Club who had also come along to help plant the trees. Arriving at the meeting place at 9:10, we were supposed to meet Dave Brown, the local 4WDNSW liaison person for the Nattai region who was managing our access for the day, along with the ranger and his truck full of seedlings for planting.

Anyway, long story short, there had been some sort of mixup and messages had not been passed on, with the bottom line being that the NPWS ranger had not turned up. We made a series of phone calls to try to address the situation, but after a while it became clear that, on this occasion at least, there would be no tree planting. I think most people were genuinely disappointed at not having any work to do in order to “earn” this trip, but Dave Brown advised us that under the circumstances, it would be ok for us to access the area anyway. He then drew us a mudmap, explained which areas were off limits and which were ok, and shared some of his local knowledge of the area with us.

After letting our tyres down and locking hubs we trundled off down the hill into the valley. Finally meeting the creek, (without much water in it) we followed it along to the parking area at the end before continuing on foot for a look at the Buxton Steps. This was obviously a playground for hardcore 4WDers in the past with some very interesting A Grade rock steps and ledges, but is now off limits to vehicles. Although physically possible to get a vehicle to them, we naturally respected the rule and stayed off them.

Heading up the hill towards the powerlines track, we followed the trail for a while using some GPS tracks provided to me by David Rossiter. After a few kilometres of travelling along the ridge we decided that the area back near the carpark was the prettiest spot anyway, so we turned around and headed back. One of the South Coast Club guys, Don, found a great little A grade pinch on the way back and used his lockers to show just what a capable combination he and his car were. Dave Shapcott had a go as well, but without lockers, found the going a bit rough so decided to back off – probably a wise decision. Along the way back to the creek, we found a couple of other obstacles which were still good fun and gave a lot of the newer club members a chance to play on terrain which many of them found challenging and interesting.

At the creek, we had lunch and a swim, and some just lazed around enjoying the scenery. It’s a nice swimming hole down there, quite deep, and the Ahonen kids discovered the mossy overhanging rock was just perfect as a slippery slide into the water. We hung about the swimming hole for an hour or so before eventually deciding to head back home. Taking another side detour up a challenging little hillclimb, we crisscrossed back along the creek and up the big hill to the main road. Most people said their goodbyes and left from here although a small group of us were curious about Thirlmere Lakes so popped in for a quick look on the way home.

It was a good day trip, and although parts of it require special access, I’m told that most parts of it are open all the time anyway. It was a shame we didn’t get to do the tree planting, but I will make a few phone calls and try to re-arrange it in the future sometime.

In the meantime, keep your eye open for more MOU trips (like the one coming up next weekend to Big Yengo) And if you happen to come on an MOU trip sometime, tell people about it!! Tell your workmates, tell your friends, tell anyone who will listen. Tell them about the deal between the Association and the NPWS. Tell them about the work we do (or at least try to do!) Tell them about the fact that members of 4WD Clubs are trusted in areas where others aren’t.

Not only are these trips a great chance to legally access areas which are normally off-limits, but I really do believe that if enough people get to hear about what we do, they might even change some minds about our public image as 4WDers.

Chris Betcher
March 2004