July 24, 2006

Oh Canada... Zook Style

What better way to celebrate the birth of a Nation than to get out there in the thick of it and do a bit of 4wheeling for the day? At least, that's how keen Zook-driving Canadians like to celebrate their Canada Day. The July 1 weekend plays host to SuziCan, an offroad event run and hosted by the Ottawa Valley Offroaders club, but attended by a loosely-organised but very tight-knit group of Canadian Zooksters.

The Suzuki offroading scene in southern Ontario seems to be largely organised through www.zookpower.ca, a forum-based website that lets Suzuki owners stay in touch with each other, share knowledge about modifications, and organise outings together. It's not actually run as a club, but rather as a meeting point for like-minded people. Various forum members take the initiative to run trips and those who want to attend just turn up. It's pretty casual, but it seems to work really well. For the past five years, an event called SuziCan has been held at Calabogie, about an hour from Canada's capital city, Ottawa.

I was fortunate to be able to attend this years SuziCan as a guest, and after a few navigational "guesses" coming in on the back road from Cloyne via Griffith, I eventually arrived at the site. I'd negotiated my visit through the Zookpower website, and was made to feel very welcome by Mudlite (aka John), who said I should just turn up and he would try to make sure I had a seat in one of the vehicles for the day. I arrived and found him marshalling cars into teams, and was greeted with a cheery "You must be the Aussie! Welcome!" True to his word, John quickly found me a seat with a nice young bloke called Logan. In fact, Logan owned two Zooks and had brought them both to the weekend, so he introduced me to Todd, a mate of his that was driving his other Zook. And what a beast this other Zook was! Todd expertly drove me around all day in this very extremely capable little car. It started life as a Samurai (Sierra), but had evolved into a collection of barwork and weld that sort of vaguely still resembled a Suzuki. It had a 1600 EFI Sidekick (Vitara) motor hooked up to an auto trans, feeding into two transfer cases - one from the Sidekick, the other from a Samurai. This was all fed into 5.1 Toyota diffs (well, one was a 5.1, the other was 4.something - a victim of a previous weekend of wheeling and not yet fixed properly). The back diff was a CIG locker, the front was a detroit locker and it ran 38 inch Boggers. The whole vehicle was wrapped in buggy style barwork and it had obviously been on its roof more than a few times. But this was a car built for fun... :-)

The day started with a game called Capture the Flag. I'd heard the term "capture the flag" before, but had not seen it played this way... the "flag" was in fact not a flag at all, but a board with a plastic circle on which was printed everyone's vehicle number. Each car was issued with a holepunch attached to a metre of string. The rules were pretty simple... the string had to be tied to the front of the vehicle, and in teams of three cars the goal was to use the holepunch to punch your car number out of the plastic circle, effectively proving you had been to that "flag". Of course, in order to do that, you had to get the nose of your vehicle within at least a metre of the flag in order to be able to reach it with your holepunch, and some of the flags were no so easy to get near! They may have been placed in a deeply wooded area with several large logs or stumps in the way, or on top of a pile of rocks, or halfway up the side of a cliff, or in a swampy boggy area. There were apparently 37 flags in total and points were awarded to the team of three vehicles that got to punch their numbers onto the most number of flags during the day. You could use whatever line or technique you liked to get to the flag, including winching onto it. It was simple game, but interesting, lots of fun and a good way to spend the day.

Of course, there was usually a group of people waiting at each flag point to have their turn, so it was a good opportunity to have a chat, share thoughts about zooking and soak up the warm Canadian day. The course we were following for the day basically followed underneath some powerlines, so it was not an environmentally sensitive area.

The vehicles driven by the canadian guys tended to be a little wilder than the average zook back home in Australia. Of course, there are plenty of examples of Suzukis in Australia that have been fairly radically modified, but the regulations in Canada about what you can and can't do in terms of modifications seem to be a lot more open to interpretation. Although every vehicle has to undergo a safety inspection in order to be road registered, there is not a strict need to have an engineering certificate for modifications, so the mods tend to be a bit more "anything goes". The other factor is that, unlike Australia, an unregistered vehicle can still be driven on the trail... so most people just trailer their zook to the track, drive it all day, and then trailer it home again. There are two implications of this... one is that the modifications can be as extreme as you like since it does not have to pass any tests. The other is that these guys tend to drive their vehicles pretty hard... if it breaks they only have to get it back to the trailer and not all the way home.

Rust is also a major factor for the vehicles in Canada. Due to the salting of the roads in winter, the bodywork on older vehicles tends to be pretty severely rusted out, as you can see in the photo below. Suzuki no longer make Sierras (or Samurais) for the North American market, so whatever cars that exist out there right now is it. Once they are gone, that's it, they're gone. Combined with the fact that the bodies rust out and are virtually impossible to replace with new ones, and that there are very few rules about what you can do to keep them going, a lot of the vehicles seem to get pretty radical body makeovers. The blue vehicle in the picture below is a good example.. it started life as an LJ80, but the only thing still remaining of the original LJ80 is the foot pedal assembly... everything else has been replaced, remade, refabricated. The chassis has been changed, the axles and drivetrain have been replaced, the body has been completely redesigned and rebuilt using tubular framework and checkerplate. The compliance plate still says it's an LJ80. :-)

The final obstacle for the day was a very steep incline up a rockface (the photos below don't really do it justice). Todd was determined that he was going to get up the cliff and, expecting the near-inevitable rollover, made sure he put is helmet and harness on. After a few pretty serious attempts at getting up the hill, he eventually accepted that he was missing the horsepower and the grip to succeed... so instead he went around the hill and tried to drive down it. Of course, gravity eventually won, and the zook flipped nose-over, rolled (very hard!) twice before coming to rest upside down at the base of the hill. Todd emerged unscathed, they flipped the zook back onto its wheels and had a good laugh about it. The two upper control arms on the rear diff snapped in the impact and the whole rear diff had to be strapped into place in order to drive it back to camp. However, within an hour of returning to camp, the control arms had been replaced and the zook was good to go again. No trouble.

While Logan and Todd fixed their zook, I wandered around the site checking out some of the other cars and talking to a few people. There were actually three flags right at the campsite, so I watched for a while as a very funky-looking Vitara (Sidekick) climbed some very serious-looking rocks to add yet another flag to its hit list. I'd promised John a few photos from the day, so I returned to my car, downloaded the photos from my camera into my Mac and burnt them all to DVD for him on the spot.

I contemplated staying overnight and hanging around for another day of zooking, but I'd left Donna and the kids back at a cottage about 150kms away and I was keen to spend the next day with them. Reluctantly I left the SuziCan site, but I'd had a really good day out in the Canadian bush. It was surprisingly similar to a day out 4WDing in Australia... the people were friendly, we shared the same interests and spoke the same language. There is definitely a commonality of the offroad experience regardless of what country you happen to be in, but at the same time it was really great to hook up with the Canadians and see what they get up to, and experience things from a slightly different perspective.

It's all good, eh!

Chris Betcher

October 16, 2005

The Long Slide to Oblivion

As I sit here at the keyboard, waiting for inspiration to strike for this month's trip coordinator's report, I'm experiencing a slight feeling of frustration. You see, this is the second time I've been trip coordinator for the club – the first was in 1989 – and as I was cleaning up my “office space” at home recently I happened to come across the main tools I used to organise trips that year; it was a simple date planner and a map of Sydney and the surrounding regions. On that map I had marked in all the 4WD destinations the club regularly used and that one little map formed the basis of my trip planning for the whole year.

As I sat and looked at the dots on the map which marked out our favourite spots to air down and lock hubs, I was struck by the number of destinations that are no longer available… Heathcote Gorge, Oxford Falls , McDonald Ridge, Bowen Mountain and Yalwal Creek to name just a few. For those who have only recently joined the 4WD scene, these names will mean very little, but to those who remember them, they bring back wonderful memories of interesting and challenging tracks. Those who have been around the club even for the last couple of years will have seen other classic areas such as Porters Road , Cabbage Tree Lane and the Appin Tracks close down with alarming regularity.

There aren't many places on that old map that still exist for our enjoyment. Menai is still there, although access needs to be prearranged and there are a number of restrictions as to where we can and can't go. If you're prepared to drive a few hours to get somewhere, there are still a few places left… Oberon/Jenolan, Watagans, Lithgow, etc, although the types of tracks and the amount of access we have are getting more and more restricting all the time. If you read the forum on the website you may have heard that many of the best tracks through the Watagans were recently graded back to D grade forest roads. It's quite sad.

So for me as the trip coordinator, the frustration arises when I try to put together trips for the next few months. The question is to where? And how do we cater for everyone?

Oh, don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of places to go and things to do – there are more places of natural beauty to see in this country than you could do in a lifetime – but it's not 4WDing Jim, not as we know it. The good ole tracks, where you aired down to 8 psi and took all day to go a mere 3 kms are getting more and more difficult to find.

I know those tracks are still out there, but they are becoming jealously guarded secrets. As more hard tracks close, those who know about the remaining ones are becoming less willing to share their locations for fear of them becoming overused and subsequently closed. It's kind of sad because it creates a situation where the handful of “good tracks” are shared only by those in the know, a kind of “high priesthood” of offroading, while the rest of us never become privy to these spots. But it's a legitimate concern and I understand their logic – there is no doubt that as the pressure on a track increases, it gives the powers-that-be more ammunition to close them down, so why share them and accelerate that process?

So where does the future of 4WDing lie? It's a good question. I'd like to be optimistic and think that managed land access and access-in-return-for-cleanups is the answer. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't… I don't know. I do know that in the almost 20 years I've been observing 4WDing, as a group we've become more political, more environmental, more organised, more obliging to the wishes of governments and the Association, and where has it gotten us? Take a look at my old map and that ought to tell you. For all the great work being done by hardworking, well intentioned people, we have significantly less than what we started with.

Whatever we're doing, it obviously isn't working.

May 16, 2005

Blue Mountains Explorer

It's not often these days that a Suzuki Club trip is comprised of only Suzukis – the zook ambience is usually disrupted with a Nissan or a T'yota or two. And although it's not totally out of the question to have a new member come on a trip, it's unusual for a trip to be attended by only new members. So when I rocked up in Mittagong for the recent Blue Mountains Explorer trip I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had an all-Zook cast and all were new members with the club on their first overnight trip. It was a bit déjà vu for me, as my very first drive with the club was also down the Wombeyan Caves Road and into Limeburners Flat. (Well, it kind of was… long story for another time)

Anyway, Michael (Grand Vitara), Evita (SWB 2.0 Vitara), Steve, Liz, Ethan and Abbey (XL-7), and myself (XL-7) met at Mittagong Information Centre at 9:00am as arranged, and we headed off down the Wombeyan Road. As we stopped at Goodman's Ford to admire the view we were joined by Ron, Andrew and Samuel (XL-7) who were running a bit late and got to Mittagong just after we'd left. And as soon as we continued on to Wombeyan we heard Anthony, Bernadette and Rebecca (V6 Vitara Estate) on the UHF, so by the time we arrived at the caves the whole group had assembled. The Saleme's had just come along for the day and were heading back to Sydney that afternoon, but for the rest of us it was going to be an evening in Limeburners followed by the famous Caves to Caves run the next day.

No one was quite keen enough to do the full cave tour, so instead we just walked down to the grand archway and had a look before getting back on the road towards Limeburners. Since most of the crew was fresh from their driver training, they were eager to get into some proper 4WDing to try out their new skills. Apart from a relatively easy descent down onto the flats, the driving was fairly straightforward, but I promised them they would get a chance on the Sunday when the terrain got a fair bit more interesting. Until then they all seemed quite content to settle into a roaring fire and make the most of their first night camping with the club. I remember one of the best things about learning to camp with the club was the gastronomic delights of cooking around a club campfire. It's embarrassing to admit, but before the club came along I was content to eat very simple food when camping – say, baked beans from a can, or 2 minute noodles. Then I met a guy called Andrew Gordon who used to say that “when camping, one should eat like a king!” Then on a Vic High Country trip one year, we were all amazed when the Victorian guys were cooking up roast dinners and desserts. I thought all our newbies did a remarkably good job of their meals that night and I didn't see anyone eating from a can, so well done guys! (Although I still enjoyed my honey and soy chicken wings on a bed of steaming hot rice with fresh corn… yummy!)

It was cold that night and the squally wind gusts didn't make it any warmer. The fire was a corker and I think everyone enjoyed the campfire atmosphere that night, including the mandatory marshmallow roasting, and a bit of stargazing through Andrew's telescope into the crystal clear Southern Highlands sky.

Next morning we broke camp by about 9:30 and started our journey for the day. The fun and games soon started with the first crossing of Limeburners Creek. The exit from the creek was not difficult but contained an excellent “learning rut”. The terrain had some great opportunities for learning about the importance of wheel placement, line picking, and using the car's gearing to drive smoothly and with control. Sometimes the best line through an obstacle is not the obvious one, and that single big hole in the track seemed to be a penny-dropping experience for some of the crew. Moving on to the first of the day's steep hills, we had further learning opportunities. Michael's standard tyres were not helping his progress uphill, and the very loose surface caused him a few headaches. After several unsuccessful attempts to climb the hill he reluctantly agreed to me attaching a snatch strap and giving him a hand to get up it. Don't worry about it Michael! Everyone needs a bit of help at some stage, and it just shows you why they say never go 4WDing on your own.

The rest of the team followed up the hill, with Evita and Ron in particular taking some great lines and making it look too easy. Some more uphill and downhill terrain and we eventually got to the Oberon Stock Route Road. Turning right would have taken us to Yerranderrie, but we decided to save that for another time, and instead turned left towards Dingo Dell. The road to Dingo Dell passed through the edge of the National Park, then through some State Forestry pine plantations, until we eventually reached the descent into the camping area. We stopped to admire the views of Morong Falls coming down the nearby ridge, and then crawled down the hill into the Dingo Dell camping area for a lunch stop.

Lunch was had and we carried on to the crossing of the Kowmung. Some of the group had heard all sorts of scary stories about crossing the Kowmung River but there was nothing to worry about this time, as the water level was quite low and the crossing has had quite a bit of work done to it by National Parks, so it's nothing like the crossing it used to be back in the good old days.

Coming up the hill from the Kowmung, past Tuglow Caves , we decided to take a short cut along the Morong Creek Firetrail to get to Kanangra. I'd never used this trail before, so was unaware of the roughness of the entry into the creek crossing on Morong Creek. Some more careful line picking was needed, but by this stage the crew was getting pretty confident and were happy to give it a go. Michael offered to walk the creek first, (thanks mate!) and we discovered the crossing itself was pretty straightforward, it was just the actual entry that was a bit tricky… lots of big rocks, a huge hole in just the wrong spot, and an angled rock shelf to throw you offline. I got my XL across first without too much trouble, and then used the portable UHF to help talk the others across. Apart from a few interesting three wheel moments, (probably the highest wheel lift I've yet to see on an XL-7, thanks Steve!) the whole crew got across with a few scraping sounds but no real dramas. You could see their driving skill and confidence improve throughout the day with every obstacle they came to.

Back on the Kanangra Walls Road we got out to the Walls in time to see them catching the full force of the westerly sun, and had our final group photo shoot from the lookout.

We walked back to the carpark, then it was just a quick trip along the 30k of dirt, back to the tar of the Oberon-Jenolan Road where we stopped to air up and say our goodbyes.

Thanks to all who came along on the weekend. The weather was perfect, the 4WDing was interesting and the company was excellent. Everyone got on really well, and I thought the kids on the trip – Sam, Ethan and Abbey – were the best behaved kids I've met in ages. A credit to their mums and dads! I thoroughly enjoyed myself on the weekend and was pleased to hear that most of the attendees had a good time too. A few have even booked in for their next trip already, so they must be telling the truth!

See you on the next one.

Chris Betcher
May 2005

April 19, 2005

A Jamboree Poem

(inspired by James from Tamworth , and to be read with a bush drawl and a silly hat)

Each time I visit Bathurst I like to drive around the track
Cause I'm never really certain just how often I'll be back.
I scoot around Hell Corner, through the Esses, all those bits…
And imagine that I'm Brockie heading down into the pits.
But that's not the only motorsport that Bathurst has now is it?
Cause at Easter time I went there for a different kind of visit
No, speed was not the purpose for my journey up the hill
This time it was a slower and more dusty kind of thrill.

The four wheel drivers gathered at the campground at the top.
And for four whole days the action with their trucks just didn't stop!
There was lots of tough events to test their mettle to survive,
At this giant extravaganza known quite simply as J5.
And those that made it happen always knew it would occur,
It was two years in the planning, It was bigger than Ben Hur!
For the team that made it happen there were endless things to do,
And at times they felt they'd bitten off way more than they could chew!

So, what exactly is it, this thing called Jamboree?
And what's supposed to happen? And what's it meant to be?
If you've never ever been to one, you don't know what you're missin',
That's regardless of your choice of truck; Toyota , Zook or Nissan.
It doesn't really matter what you've chosen as your car,
What you do is meet with others who have come from near and far
To share the four-wheel driving life, the sorrows and the glories,
And to bullshit round the campfire with exaggerated stories.

And of course there's lots of things to do on each and every day
Whether kid, adult, (or bit of both) there were lots of ways to play.
You could drive the Rocky Horror, over rocks and slippery logs,
Or get teamed up in the Mud Run to go paddling through the bogs.
The Hill Climb too, had wombat holes to test out your suspension
And the mystery of the classing, it just helped to build the tension.
It was meant to work you harder with your spring lifts and your lockers
And to level out the playing field for those that just drove stockers.

If competing in the logs and mud was not your cup of tea,
There were lots of other things to try, things to do and see.
If slightly more light-hearted fun is your offroad Nirvana,
Then you'd probably have a ball as you raced round in the Funkhana.
Or maybe you'd prefer a more cerebral sort of bash?
Then fire up the GPS and find a Geocache
I hope you get the point that there was plenty to keep you busy
If you tried to do it all you'd end up dazed, confused and dizzy!

In the afternoons you'd form your teams and then get cracking
To toss an egg, or cram a Zook or prove your talent was lacking
You could get on stage and be a goose or just act like a zombie,
But those that did it helped their club to visit Binacrombi
And speaking of the cram, it was a highlight of the contest
Though the Zook club and Blue Mountains squeezed in more than all the rest
Of the seventeen folk that crammed, some were strangers to begin
But they knew each other better coming out than going in!

Three day trips left the site each day to please the eager trippers,
And though I never got to go, I'm sure that they were rippers.
Cause 4WDing in the Bathurst region's always grand,
But sometimes there was work to do, and gates that should be manned.
We chose to go for catered meals back at the time we booked,
It was really good to know each day that all your meals were cooked.
Just roll up to the smorgasbord and start to fill your plate
I wish we could have that at home, that'd be bloody great!

And on the final night we had the prizes and the speeches,
Where we recapped on the whole event, the highlights and the features.
And when that bit was over then we partied with the Horn Stars
Though if Sheena really showed her tits they could have passed for Porn Stars.
So if you never got there cause you had to take a dive,
Well that's about as much as I can tell you of J5
If you're into 4 wheel driving it was pretty close to heaven.
And maybe in just two more years we'll see you at J7!

Chris Betcher

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

August 14, 2003

Packing It All In

Hands up if you used to watch Doctor Who in your youth. If you happen to remember that old TV show you may also recall the good Doctor’s primary form of travel – the Tardis. Used for time and space travel, the Tardis was an interesting way to get around… shaped like a regular telephone booth on the outside, the Tardis was deceptively large and spacious on the inside with room for the Doctor, his fellow adventurers and lots of funky 1960s technology. It was always amusing to see all the people and gear disappearing into this phone booth that looked like it should only fit a single occupant.

Those of us who drive Suzukis are well acquainted with that feeling, especially when packing for a weekend or longer. There always seems to be so much stuff that needs to be taken, it’s often difficult to imagine how it can all fit in, yet somehow we seem to manage it. In this article, I’d like to look at some of the tips and tricks you can use to fit more gear into your beloved Japanese Tardis.

When Donna and I first joined the club with our SWB Sierra, we did a lot of trips, long and short, and we had the packing down to a fine art. Provided you only have two people, Sierras make fine vehicles for both short and long trips. With the back seats removed, you can fit an awful lot of gear in if you pack carefully, but then of course you’re usually only packing gear for two people.

When we rejoined the club with kids we decided that we were more interested in the longer touring style trips, and that a Vitara would make an excellent vehicle for these sorts of outings. In the last year we’ve done trips to the High Country, Swans Crossing, Corner Country, Fraser Island, and have some other big trips planned too.

There are lots of good reasons to go 4WD touring in a Zook… They are capable, reliable and economical. I personally prefer to drive smaller cars – I like the performance you get from the good power-to-weight ratio. I like the light, nimble agility, both on the road and in the bush. They are cheaper to buy, register and insure and are generally easier on fuel, tyres and most other consumables. But most of all they are just a lot of fun to drive… there’s just something about Zooks that I like. With all these positives about Zook-based touring the only real downside is the space issue. For me, I’m not interested in solving the space issue by getting a bigger car; I’m interested in solving the space issue through clever packing, creative thinking and well designed gear, so we can fit in all the stuff we need without losing all those other great Zook advantages.

Let’s start with the obvious. The first thing to do is to look at the sorts of strategies used by other Zooksters. How will you pack it all into the vehicle? Will you use some form of extra storage like a roof basket or roof pod? Will you tow a trailer? This is one of the great advantages of belonging to the Club – you get to check out what other people do and see how these various strategies could work for you. How suitable each of these options are will depend on what you drive, where you plan to go, and your own personal preference.

The second thing to do is to make a realistic appraisal of the sorts of trips you plan to do and the amount of gear you will need to take… things like tents and sleeping gear, chairs, tables and cooking gear. Whenever you shop for this stuff don’t just be concerned with the assembled product but also with how it packs down. You’d be amazed at the variation in size with these articles, especially tents.

Space, the final frontier

I asked a few club members for their advice in packing and got a lot of great suggestions, but they could probably be summarised in one sentence - ‘Look for every bit of unused space in your car and fill it creatively’. There are actually lots of little nooks and crannies around the inside of your Zook and unless you actively look for them, you can easily miss them. On top of that, think about the extra space that can be gained by placing some things outside the car, on the roof under the bonnet or even on external barwork.

David Rossiter sent me a couple of photos of his car fully packed before he and Liz headed off on a High Country trip, and it’s a good example of using all the available space. As well as filling the inside of the car, the customised swingout tyre-carrier at the back enabled extra fuel, water and tools to be carried. Under-bonnet space was utilised for the air compressor. They were also carrying a fridge full of food, clothes, cooking gear, navigation and mapping gear, cameras, Drizabones – and of course David and Liz had to fit in there somewhere as well.

On the Rossiter’s most recent jaunt to the High Country they also added a length of plumber’s pipe to the roof to carry poles, pegs and ropes so they could take a large awning tarp.

Hemmi Voges offers some excellent advice for utilising every bit of space. “Remember to use the space under the seats - Det & I store all sorts of things under there! When going away we use the back of the front seats too - I made up a series of pockets for maps, torches & writing bits for kids etc. It worked a treat on the big trips. Det also made up a storage shelf above for the radio and other handy gear,” she says.

“Utilizing the space between the bullbar and the car body for that fishing rod in a fixed tube is a handy idea. The shovel attached to the spare wheel is always good too. Zip-up plastic bags are great and squash up to nothing and they're see-thru! I also use cloth bags made out of stretchy material with drawstrings… great for storing those bits and pieces that may rattle too, labelling them with texta saves forgetting what's in them.”

Buzz Walker adds his thoughts to the space issue. “Further to Hemmi’s comment about the underseat space, this is a good spot to put the air and watertight plastic container with the First Aid kit, so it's always easily accessible. A big torch is also handy, plus the jumper leads (just in case) and maybe a cloth bag with a snatch strap and two shackles.” Buzz points out that if you leave all this equipment in the car all the time, then you’ll never forget it!

False Positives

Another very useful modification is the simple addition of a rear tray or false floor, or if you really want to get serious, you can build a complete shelving unit into the back section of the car.

John Kemp describes how, in planning for a recent Fraser island trip, he removed the back seats and made up a barrier which attached to the roll cage just in front of the seats. “This gave me a lot more room to comfortably fit a couple of milk crates (1 with recovery gear, spares, tools, and the other with stove, pots, plates, cups, etc).This left plenty of room between the back door for esky, folding table and chairs, with the tent, airbeds, etc sitting nicely lengthways between the crates and wheel arches.
Adding a false floor can make a huge difference to the way you pack the back of your Zook. If you combine this with some suitably sized plastic crates which slide neatly under the false floor, it makes packing, unpacking and accessing gear during quick stops far easier. Of course, most of these false floor solutions tend to be custom built, as everyone will have a slightly different idea of how the jigsaw puzzle in the back of the car needs to be put together. The height of the false floor needs to take account of the size boxes you wish to slide under it, and don’t forget to allow for the height of the rear wheel arches.

Marcus Wilson’s Vitara has a very useful two drawer storage system in the back, which forms the basis of an extended false floor system. It also houses part of his new doof-doof stereo system, and these wooden enclosures can also make excellent bass boxes if you have that type of sound system. The extra rear floor space also fits a BBQ quite well apparently!

My old Sierra had an asymmetrical false floor which could fit a set of packed plastic crates under it, but it also extended across the top of the passenger side wheel arch to give a much wider flat area on top. The driver’s side didn’t extend out, enabling tall equipment like a foldup table to stand upright, making it easy to grab for a quick lunch stop. It also provided a great acoustic chamber for my subwoofers, which were mounted along the front panel.

There are also some nice commercially available false floors with beautifully designed roll-out drawers. Burnie Morgan has one in the back of his GV and swears by it, although he points out they are not cheap to buy. However, they do come fully carpeted and finished, with heavy duty rollers, lock points, etc.

Grant Vella uses a similar system in his work vehicles. “I have a set of commercially built roll out draws in my work ute. We have 3 vehicles in the fleet fitted out the same. They are in constant use all day (our guys visit 8-12 customers per day) and have not missed a beat. Yes, they did cost $1400 each, but are a dream to work with.” says Grant.

Shelf Life

The logical extension of the false floor concept is to create a complete shelving system, customised to fit not only the car, but the particular way you pack. Because these can be built from scratch they can be designed to suit your fridge, your tent, your boxes, so packing truly does become like a well designed jigsaw puzzle. The most impressive one I saw was built by Tim Steele to fit into the back of his Vitara wagon. A marvel of engineering, it was created using Capral Aluminium’s Qubelock System. Qubelock is a collection of high impact plastic corner pieces in a variety of shapes which are designed to work with standard lengths of square aluminium piping – just cut to length and join together with the corner pieces to form whatever shapes you like.

Tim and Leah’s shelving system was designed to fit into their Vitara without the back seat installed, and has storage space for water, recovery gear, camping and cooking gear, as well as rollout drawers for food and fridge. Says Tim, “With that storage system Leah & I were able to pack a whole bunch of other stuff in the back of the Vitara. More than we needed sometimes... I remember Chris's comment on the Victorian High Country Trip – ‘What else have you got in there?!’ That storage system was the best thing since sliced bread. Took me bloody ages to build, but made camping life a whole lot easier.”

With the arrival of little Holly, they sold the unit to James and Amy who now use it in the back of their LWB Vitara. James says, “The storage system is second to none. Load safety has improved 100%. I would suggest a storage system to anyone that goes camping or 4WDing as much as we do.”

For the sort of trips we like to do, fitting as much gear as we need for two adults and two kids raises some interesting challenges. It requires putting more gear in, while having less space to do it with. With the inspiration of Mr Steele’s aluminium masterpiece, I decided to see what could be made to fit the back of our Vitara while still leaving the back seat in place. First step was to measure all the non-negotiable equipment such as the fridge and other camping gear. Our fridge, a 35 litre Waeco, was too long to fit lengthways into the back of the car, which is the normal way fridges are installed. With a bit of creative thinking, the plan was to create a rollout tray that held the fridge sideways instead.

After a couple of quick design sketches, it was off to Capral to buy the bits. I borrowed a dropsaw from a good mate so the cuts would be neat and clean and in a couple of hours had a finished product.

The good things about it are the snug fit and three tiered shelves. The back and sides of a Vitara body slope inwards slightly so you need to account for these subtle shape changes in the design by varying the size of the shelves. Slab sided 4WDs like Sierra’s won’t have this problem. It becomes an important consideration in being able to fit and remove the unit from the car… the back door is actually smaller than the inside space, so you need to be a bit clever in the way it’s designed or you can end up wasting space rather than saving it.

A good storage unit will hold everything in place and won’t rattle. We also have a cargo barrier installed to keep us safe from flying gas bottles and axes, so whenever we use the storage unit we just cable tie it to the mesh of the cargo barrier. The barrier doesn’t support any of the storage unit’s weight, but cable tying it into place stops it from moving or rattling.

Rattle and Hum

Speaking of rattling, a well packed Zook should experience very little of it. If you pack well and think about what items are likely to be resting up against other items, you can try to avoid obvious rattles and shakes. Cooking pots and billys are a good example; to save space try to buy pots that fit neatly inside each other, but to avoid rattles try laying a teatowel between them when you pack.

I was amazed at just how quiet the storage unit keep things. Even on rough corrugated roads at high speeds, there is almost zero rattle coming from the back of the car. If you are anything like me, that is a very important feature! I’ve been known to pull over and repack the car because of a minor rattle in the back. I really hate them. Apparently I’m not alone. Says Tim Steele, “We’ve found when packing plates, billys, camp ovens etc, (things that rattle), it's a good idea to place pieces of paper towel in between, or teatowels. Stops the rattles. Leah hates rattles.”

Buzz has more tips for keeping things quiet in the back of the car…”Don't forget packaging! It’s very important to prevent things rubbing together and wearing holes in themselves. If the Corn Flakes box is hard up against a billy handle it will rub through very quickly, and the flakes will go everywhere. The same goes for plastic bottles of oil or tomato sauce. Glass should always be wrapped to prevent breakages. Use pillows, blankets and other soft items to pack between bins and boxes to prevent rubbing of hard surfaces.”

Similarly, there will always be a certain amount of soft stuff you take with you – pillows, bags, parkas, etc – and these make useful padding which can be stuffed into all those hard to reach places, providing not only storage for the soft stuff but also helping to support and protect some of the other gear. Soft stuff is useful to pack against the windows too, as it can’t scratch the glass, or worse yet, the window tinting film. Constant vibrations on Outback roads can do quite some damage if you have things resting up against the glass.

Beware of flying objects

With the car fully loaded, it can be quite dangerous if you are involved in an accident or the unthinkable should happen and you roll the vehicle. Everything in the back becomes a missile, and if Murphy’s Law holds true, these missiles will be stopped by your cranium. That can hurt.

I’ve already mentioned cargo barriers, and although I think they seem quite expensive for what is essentially a piece of metal mesh on a frame, I highly recommend them. Not only are they much safer, but they really do assist in helping pack more in, as you can pack all the way to the roof.

As an alternative, Buzz again has a suggestion. “I added ratchet strap anchor points to my old Vitara. One set on the wheel arch near the rear door and the other set on the downward curve of the wheel arch below the seat height. These were simply D-handles bolted through the metal skin of the vehicle with spring washers and nylock nuts to retain them. Cost me about $10 plus $30 for two inexpensive straps. This is partly why I didn't get brained when I rolled last Christmas. Only a few things shifted.” Good advice Buzz.

Lighten Up

Roof racks and/or a roof carry basket can be helpful for carrying a whole lot of extra stuff, especially the light, yet bulky stuff like sleeping mats and bags, clothes and even tents.

In our roof basket we fit the tent ( a big one) 4 sleeping bags, 4 sleeping mats, 2 tables, 3 or 4 clothes bags, foldup chairs and other assorted stuff. To keep it dry we use a Bushranger Rack Sack which is quite water and dust proof. We moved the Rola roof racks back as far as they go so the basket can be packed by standing on the rear tailgate or rear wheels.

Having the load on top seems to make almost no difference to the balance of the car. It drives just as well with the load on or off, but I still try to keep the weight on the roof to a minimum, mainly to reduce the stress on the actual roof structure. By the time you add road vibration and wind resistance, you can be adding more stress than just the weight of the load.

Roof bars also provide a useful way to carry long items like tent poles, or even tents. Some tents fold down into long packages and are ideally carried on the roof.

Shop Around

When you buy camping gear, think about how it works in with your back-of-car jigsaw puzzle. Look at the spaces you have available and shop accordingly. There are lots of very cool items on the market which fold down to some amazingly small sizes if you consciously go looking for them. The trick is to buy items which fit your packing plan and not just whatever brand or style the particular shop sells. Be choosy!

It’s also worth looking in the bushwalking sections of the camping stores too, because in many ways we have similar sorts of space and weight restrictions, and you can often find good ideas from products designed for bushwalkers.

Finally, speaking of weight restrictions, if you do a lot of serious camping and touring you will probably be quite loaded up. I used to pull into the weighbridge at Marulan every now and then on trips just to see how much the Sierra weighed fully laden and it was always surprising! The Sierra has a tare weight of about 800kg, so the weighbridge guys were always amused when it weighed in at well over 1500kg. Obviously, all that extra weight can stress the suspension components fairly heavily so if you plan to do a bit of touring then upgrading the suspension with stronger and more robust components is a good idea. The extra weight can also make your Zook handle differently too, so just be aware of it as you throw it into unsuspecting corners.

When it comes to packing it all in, there are tons of good space-saving ideas out there if you keep your eyes open and use your imagination. Many of the best ideas will be gleaned from seeing how others do it, and that’s one of the great advantages of being in a club. Many of the ideas in this article were gathered from other club members, and in fact there are a few more I couldn’t fit in but are worth knowing, so you might like to browse over to the website forum and take a peek. To those who contributed, thank you.

There is so much expertise and experience in this club that if you simply ask for ideas you’ll get more than you know what to do with.

Chris Betcher
August 2003
CB2801 And DBZ00K