21 weeks in WA and the Top End - Reflections and Thoughts

Wednesday, Oct 23, 2013 at 15:35

Member-Heather MG NSW

We have arrived home and its time to review the big trip we undertook during the cooler months this year. It’s a summary of performance of both caravan and the Pajero, as well as personal thoughts and feelings related to our trip, and a work in progress as I keep returning, editing and adding to it
We travelled for 21 weeks, from April to September, and this was our first long trip in the new van, so we have given it a thorough warranty test. The van is a Jayco Starcraft Outback 20.62.2 model to which we added around $9,000 worth of extras, and our tow vehicle was a 2011 ATD Mitsubishi Pajero, on top of which was a 4.5 metre car-topper tinnie. (The combined weight of boat loader and tinnie was just under 100 kgs, the limit legally able to be carried on the roof). The distance travelled was approximately 20,000 kms with the van in tow, and over 21,000 kms in total.
Since arriving home at the beginning of September we have had the van bearings axles and brakes serviced. Despite doing close to a couple of thousands of kilometres of dirt road, and many water crossings apparently there were no unusual findings and all was ok, although it was noted that the tyres showed signs of underinflation. The further north in WA that we travelled, the rougher we found the gravel roads, especially in the Kimberley, but we always deflated both van and Pajero tyres and adjusted the speed of our journey dependant on the conditions. In some places this meant crawling along at a snails pace and feeling each corrugation, and in others we were able to sit above 60 kms per hour and avoid the worst of them. Every now and then on the dirt roads, we pulled over and did a visual inspection of the tyres and underbody of van and car.

In Esperance we bought a new set of Cooper A/T 3 tyres (for the Paj) and although they looked a bit soft in the walls, they did a great job of taking us over all kinds of roads without incident, in places where other travellers had three flats on exactly the same roads. Because the Pajero had 18 inch tyres, there was not all that much to choose from in A/T tyres, and our first preference would have been BF Goodrich had they been available. We realize that had we had to replace tyres, in somewhere well away from the major centres, we would have been held up for a considerable time but we were just lucky, I guess. We did not have the space to carry a second spare for either vehicle.

Lowering the pressure and having tyres which have plenty of tread are important factors when venturing onto the unsealed surfaces in our experience. John usually kept both car and van tyres on around 40 psi and reduced them to anywhere from 28 to 24psi when on gravel. We noticed that there was little movement of anything inside the van when we did this and sometimes had bits and pieces bounce out of place when on the major highways when we travelled around 90 kms per hour.. The compressor was a well-used piece of equipment, and was kept in an accessible place.
On our return, a number of items on the van needed repairs or replacement under warranty. I will list these first. (We also had to seek repairs under warranty twice while away, mainly for water leaks which was more than a tad inconvenient).

The front left hand gas burner on the cooktop annoyingly switched itself off after a couple of minutes. Apparently a part was faulty and needed replacing and it’s just been fitted. The same burner needed repairs when we were in Esperance as at that time it wouldn’t stay lit and I think the solonoid was replaced, so we hope there are no further issues and the unit isn’t a lemon!. (It now works and was used to cook a stirfry without turning off the other night so the problem seems repaired.)

The top curved shower track in the ensuite developed cracks as a result of movement when travelling, probably on dirt roads, and had to be replaced. Despite my locking it in place each time before we set out, we discovered there is a small amount of movement and we intend buying a couple of small rubber chocks to keep it firmly in place before we travel again. This tip was given to me by a fellow Starcraft owner.

The Setec Drifter digital control panel has been replaced as it did not accurately read the level of the water tanks from the day we took delivery of the van. We had this looked at at locally before we set out and then again in Esperance and Perth WA. We are yet to find out whether the new one is any more useful but we consider it important as we rely on it often when travelling, and ran out of water twice while we were away.
The mains water connection started leaking inside the cupboard and onto the floor and has had to be replaced. This happened the last weekend before we arrived home so we just turned off the mains water and used the 12v pump instead, and because of the timing, was not of great concern but would have been annoying had it happened somewhere else.
When we last filled both the tanks it showed the water level rising in 1/4 increments in both tanks so looks like the new panel is working but we have not yet had the chance to free camp to find out for sure.

Our local RV man is also an authorised Jayco repairer/warranty person so it is much more convenient for us to have any work done there, rather than having to tow it to Nowra, almost an hours drive to the north of us. We know also that he does an excellent job and will go out of his way to ensure that work is completed. (He is also a former student of both John and I and lives in the same small village and just a day or two after he last repaired the van, he saw us walking and pulled over to tell us something he had forgotten to report when we picked it up).

While on the trip, we experienced other issues, related to water mostly: leaks along the awning where it is fitted to the van, above the door and in other places which still persist in heavy sustained rain; a leak in the bathroom window which had to be repaired twice (in Esperance and then again in Perth). It was discovered that water was entering through a rivet in the window surround above/behind the toilet and appeared as a large pool of water on the floor around the base of the toilet. The last time we experienced heavy rain, in Exmouth, it appeared to be watertight.

On the positive side, we found the length of the van, 20 ft inside, was perfect even for 21 weeks, and I loved the layout with its long kitchen bench which made meal preparation so easy. The large rear ensuite was also wonderful, with plenty of space in the circular shower for even John who is a tall man, to shower in comfort. Each time he used it, he remarked on how glad he was that we had upgraded the van.

We used the toilet fully for the first time on this trip, and it gave us so much freedom when bush camped in places with no toilet facilities when there were other campers. (I never did feel wholly comfortable when taking the shovel and trying to find a hiding place when there were other people around.)
I found using ‘Happy Bowl’ liners essential and thoroughly recommend them. They are available in RV centres and online and worth every bit of the cost ($15 for pack of 50) as they eliminate almost any cleaning of the bowl! We have tried numerous types of toilet treatments and in our experience the only one which works well in any type of climate is the Blue Thetford in either liquid or small sachets. We would rather pay the price and have it work! We had no problems emptying the cassette in caravan or public dump points and on the couple of occasions when it was necessary to dump it somewhere else, we ensured we were well away from towns, the road and any waterways, and dug a deep hole which we then covered afterwards.

Our cafe style dinette table was roomy enough for both of us to sit at, sometimes with a laptop each, and the additional 12 volt point I had installed there was so useful for me when staying anywhere without 240 v power, as I spent hours uploading photos from the camera and then editing and organising them. It gave me something quiet to do for a couple of hours between 5 and 7 am when John slept as I only need 6 to 7 hours sleep.

When travelling in the far north, for the first time we used the generator (a Honda 2kva) to run our Ibis low profile air conditioner on an almost daily basis in some places, when we retreated indoors to escape the afternoon heat. While I do not like to use a generator…for us it was the only way to be able to stay with any degree of comfort in some places as neither of us like hot weather. The eco setting powered the aircon with no problems and ran for around 6 hours on a full tank. It also easily powered my single (Eco heat) induction cooktop which I found was an efficient, fast and method of preparing evening meals in the heat.

I guess we were lucky in that the nights cooled enough to sleep comfortably if we left the windows wide open and the 12 volt fan, a caframo sirocco, whirring away for most of the night, fanning the bed. It was quiet and draws little power so I'm strongly tempted to buy a second one and have it wired in and positioned to cool the dining area, or perhaps just get it fitted with a 12v plug so it can be portable.

We have just traded our Pajero and replaced it in early October with an auto Mazda BT 50 4X4 dual cab ute with a ECG canopy and strengthened bars to carry the tinny and Rhino side boat loader (limit 150kgs). It also has a snorkel, colour coded steel bull bar, lightforce driving lights, a towing kit, reversing camera, and a number of other extras we had fitted as part of the deal. It’s also been fitted with the trailer brakes, breakaway monitor, CB radio and antenna and an Anderson plug to power the fridge. (The fridge now keeps consistently as cold as when running on 240v or gas, while we are travelling and we tested it in temperatures of close to 40 degrees just a few days ago when we travelled for over 6 hours. At lunch time while we stopped for half an hour or so, we turned it to gas as is usual and then back to 12v when we set out again. It just never felt cold enough when being powered through the 12 pin plug,especially in the heat.)
With a ball weight max of 350 kgs and towing limit of 3.5 tonne the BT 50 had no problems pulling the van. (I have bought tow ball weight scales for John for Christmas so we will have no excuses to exceed the maximum ball weight either from now on.)

We had absolutely no issues with the Pajero mechanically and it pulled the van (almost 2.6 tonnes tare weight) economically and with ease but it proved impractical for other reasons.
Firstly, we could not open the rear door because of the position of the spare wheel, despite having the lift kit, when the van was hitched up, so whenever we needed something, we had to unhitch it. On more than a few occasions we went without a campfire and meal because the camp oven and was packed under the motor and it was too much trouble to get it out!
Secondly, we had barely enough room for the boat gear…motor, fuel tank, paddles and safety stuff and had to carry the fuel for it and the generator, as well as our additional diesel in the vehicle with us, which is not a safe practice, and one we were uncomfortable with! We also had to contend with the smell of stinky bait which hid itself somewhere in the fishing gear, and it stayed with us for weeks, being particularly noticeable each morning as we started out! In the dual cab, we can chuck the fishing gear and associated smelly stuff, as well as the fuel, in the rear compartment!

On one occasion out on a remote dirt track, alone, we had a tiny stone caught in the front brake on one wheel and to get to the jack and other tools so he could take the wheel off, John had to unload the rear of the pajero, because we had packed them under the boat motor and other heavy gear! There were more than a few expletives uttered when it started to rain during this procedure!

Added to this, the ball weight limit when towing over 2.5 tonnes is limited to 180 kgs on the Pajero, and our empty ball weight on the van is 190 kgs so we knew we were overloaded when carrying full water tanks (a frequent occurrence). We didn‘t feel comfortable with this. When we ordered the van with all the extra options, we had no idea that they would increase the ball weight by around 50kgs and it was a bit of a shock the day we took delivery! The similar ones we looked out in different dealers yards all weighed in from 130 to 150 kgs.

We discovered that the cost of the Stone Stomper (approximately $600) was well and truly worth the money and both the Pajero and the van were well protected from stone damage when on dirt roads. We didn’t need to cover the rear window of the Pajero either. This is another wonderful product which I highly recommend for anyone who likes to get off the bitumen.

And now on to other general thoughts.

We set out with another couple, John’s sister and brother in law, and arrived home separately as we discovered we like to see different places, spend our days doing different things largely, and travel at different speeds. Whilst we parted company amicably, in future we will be happy to meet up with them and others but will decline invitations to travel together.

We were very impressed with Western Australia’s National park campgrounds. Their system of having volunteer Hosts is excellent, ensuring fees are paid and toilet facilities are kept clean and, amazingly for long drops, almost odour free. We paid for the annual pass ($50 for pensioners) and then only had to pay a small fee for camping, and we used many of the parks because of their location and their access to great walks, birds and wonderful scenery. I wish all states, but particularly NSW would adopt the same practices.

Our stays were in varied kinds of places; caravan parks, National parks, free roadside camps and bush camps which we found by ourselves and which had no facilities. We carried a few collapsible 20 litre water containers made from drinking quality plastic and it increased our water storage considerably. When drinking quality water wasn’t available, we filled one of them with whatever water was and used it to wash up or for washing down the tinny and motor. I placed them inside flexible plastic tubs and sat them on the floor of the caravan over the axles when we travelled. When not in use they took up minimal storage space and were very lightweight. We had expected to use a couple to collect grey water in some camps but never stayed anywhere which required us to be self contained.

When staying in van parks we used the laundries, filled water tanks and topped up the batteries. Because the majority of these were in towns, we also restocked the food and filled up with fuel.

The further north we reached, the more necessary it was to book ahead especially if we wanted a powered site, but in most cases this was only a day or two ahead.

I frequently emailed or phoned ahead to Information centres and was given information as to obtaining drinking water, where to shop and for road conditions in WA and found the staff very helpful. In particular, the Carnarvon Shire was very friendly and we just loved our time spent around there and in the Upper Gascoyne. The extensive network of gravel roads in that region were some of the best of the trip, despite us travelling after heavy, unseasonal rain, and the people of Gascoyne Junction were wonderful, allowing us to stay overnight free and use the bathroom facilities attached to the pavilion. With a new facility incorporating a caravan park, roadhouse and lots more due to open soon, travellers will have a choice of accommodation in town.

Some highlights include:
The Kennedy Range National Park and Mt Augustus National Park. Wonderful walks and scenery, lovely camps, and a lot of lonely dirt road. Just fabulous!
The Horizontal waterfalls day trip which we did from Derby. Not cheap but worth every cent.
Tunnel Creek National Park. Towing the van through there over rough road was worth it to do the walk through the mountain and paddle in cool water.
The wonderful Pilbara landscape, Millstream Chichester National Park and those dirt roads..
The Bungles day trip…fly in, 4WD bus and two walks in the park, plus a rough bus trip back to the rustic caravan park. Morning tea, lunch and dinner were included in the tariff. Also not cheap but worth the money.
The catamaran cruise on Lake Argyle. Both this and the Bungle trip were booked through Bungle Bungle caravan park and we loved their laid back, laconic guides and relaxed experiences.
El Questro station…we lucked out with a beautiful shaded camp on the water in the very busy campground. Enjoyed some great walks and a drive east along the Gibb River Road, but started to feel the heat there.
The less than 7 bush camps where we were totally alone overnight.
The stunning scenery in the Kimberley, even from the roads, especially around Wyndham and the drive from Kununurra through to Katherine.
Kakadu for its wet lands and birds, the crocs and the aboriginal art sites which are spectacular. We did not enjoy the heat however! (Currently finding the series screening on ABC TV very interesting and so beautiful in the comfort of our lounge room.)
The Territory Wildlife Park south of Darwin…where we took advantage of the ‘hop on hop off train’ to view the exhibits, and managed to get close to so many unique birds and animals of the top end.

Since returning home I have bought John a Flat out drinking hose and reel and electrical cord reel and apparently I can now be trusted to roll up the electrical cord when we pack up at a site and not leave an almighty tangle for the other half to tackle! I would also like to get him a Flat out sullage hose and reel to complete the package. We will see how the others work first though, as any updates I make to our equipment are for convenience.

I have also recently purchased an insulated vent cover which adheres to the roof hatch in the shower cubicle. We think that the clear cover allows a lot of heat to be pumped into the van so if it is covered during the heat of the day, it should help to keep temperatures more bearable when in hot climates. We also used a windscreen sunshield to cut two pieces which fit neatly inside the two roof hatches in the main body of the van. We will have an opportunity to try them out when we take the van away for a week shortly but initial testing at home indicates that they will help keep the van a little cooler.

I also bought a box fan which can be powered by 12v or 240v and has a rechargeable battery so it can be used when either plugged in our disconnected and is a versatile piece of equipment. Two fan speeds, just over 2 kgs in weight and seems quite effective, it’s already been tried out on a warm day inside the van which is sitting in the front yard. Obviously it can be moved around unlike the other fan we have wired into the 12v system. If you are interested in purchasing one, it’s a ‘Companion’ brand, not cheap at over $100 but if it works I am happy to pay that. We will use it to cool us in the dining area. It takes 12 hours initially to fully charge and will supposedly run for 3 ½ hours on the low fan setting. Also has a LED light.

Added February 6th 2014.
Early in January 2014 I finally sent off a final draft of an email to Jayco Customer service.I had been writing this since early in 2013 after we started travelling in and experiencing the annoying mostly minor problems which are mentioned earlier in my blog. I also mentioned the Authorised repairers who I have found helpful as well as wrote about the things we were happy with about our StarCraft, such as the layout and practical design. As well, I mentioned my 'honest' Exploroz Blogs and my involvement in the 'Caravanner's Forum' and the numbers of other caravanners who read what I and others write.

A few days later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply from Peter Manning, Customer Service Manager which I have copied and pasted below.

"Hi Heather,

Thank you for your email and advice.

I will be forwarding a copy of this through to our quality department and sales department to review your experiences. They implement changes with in the line based on feed back given by owners.

Jayco doesn’t just give up on owners after the 12 months warranty runs out. For original owners only. Jayco will continue to back up the product with warranty for any manufacturing faults. The only thing Jayco requires is that the vans are used and maintained as per the Jayco owner’s manual. When out of warranty. Jayco requires an assessment by a Jayco dealer or Jayco repair agent with a quote and pictures of any manufacturing fault to help decide on cover or not.

I am sorry for the troubles you have experience.

I hope this email give you some confidence in Jayco."

I hope that other Jayco owners will take the time to write and tell the Company of their experiences rather than just talking to others.
We will be packing up and taking off on some new adventures in a while but have a daughter's wedding coming up at the end of February before we can set out.

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. John Muir
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