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DRIVING TIPS FOR THE WESTERN DESERTS

    OK, it’s pretty simple, road conditions in the western deserts are not real flash, many of the Beadell Tracks do not get any maintenance at all. So that means corrugations, washouts and soft sand or gravel washed into the roadway. Even the ones that do get the odd scrape with a grader quickly corrugate again because in many areas the "dirt" that the road is made of does not compact, it stays soft and so easily corrugates within weeks or even days of being graded. The condition of a graded road will depend on rainfall & how much traffic uses it. In the proverbial nutshell, the more traffic the worse the road will be. Then there are the roads that these days because of Aboriginal Native Title are getting fewer & fewer vehicles, these are going the other way & the scrub is taking over. These tracks are now more "scratchy" than corrugated. The only time you get a win in the western deserts is if a grader is working as you come along or some mining exploration has occurred and they have given some remote track a scrape to make it easier for themselves. This last thing happens occasionally and many times over the years Connie & I have said a quiet thankyou to the mining explorers for the trouble they have gone to. It is appreciated.......

    So here are the things we have found make life a little easier on your vehicle (and that means you by default) while in the western deserts.

 

Tyre Pressures

    Put some bulge in your tyres! That is really all that needs to be said but I suppose I had better explain exactly what that means for the newcomers & even some of the old-timers.......I’ll make it really simple.

Tyres are made of rubber......OK, we all know that. Rubber is a very flexible material that doesn’t care if it gets flexed and pushed out of shape all day long. Tyres are designed to do that. BUT, your vehicle is made of steel. Now as we all know, steel does not like getting bent backwards & forwards, a tiny amount is OK, anything more and things will crack or break. So, if you keep that simple philosophy in mind then why not let your tyres down a little? Surely it makes more sense to let the rubber tyres do most of the flexing and leave the steel chassis & suspension bits to do less work. Makes sense to me, from several aspects;

 

  1. Comfort - corrugations & endless washouts make life in a 4WD not very pleasant. If you want your wife to keep going on trips with you, let a bit of air out of the tyres, you’ll both be a bit happier at the end of the day. If your vehicle could talk it would say the same to you. Oh, and if you think the ride is comfortable while on corrugations without doing anything to your tyres then that means your suspension is very soft. This will translate into suspension components doing all of the work.......might pay to read the rest of this article.
  2. Cost - If you break something like a set of shock absorbers or a suspension bit or crack a chassis while in the middle of the Anne Beadell or Gunbarrel Highways how much will this cost you? However, I’m not talking about $$, I’m talking about stress. You wouldn’t believe how much pressure something like this puts people under. Normally it will ruin a trip or at least alter your plans greatly. Think about it.
  3. Vehicle longevity - most folks will do one big trip a year and to be honest most of the distance will be covered on bitumen normally. From my own experience, I can say that bitumen travel doesn’t wear vehicles out much at all, BUT remote dirt roads do. The road surface is rougher, the gravel sprays from the tyres and peppers everything under the car, dust invades just about everything, including your engine. (That brings up a good point, snorkels don’t stop dust. If they did then air filters in snorkelled vehicles would have no dust in them! As a bloke who cleans many air filters from many makes & models I can categorically say that nothing stops dust). The best way to make it easier on your whiz-bang 4WD and make it last longer is to let your tyres down a bit & slow down. You’ll save a lot of time, effort & money if you do these two simple things.

 

Use 4WD instead of 2WD

    Oh boy, the amount of folks who say to us "oh we did it all in 2WD and had no trouble". We wonder if they bothered to ask their vehicle what it thought about using 2WD on rough outback roads.

    Once again here it is in simple terms. If the roads are rough, gravelly, slippery or corrugated then why would you let half of the vehicle drive train take all the load when you are heavily loaded on your outback trip. It makes much more sense to let the strain be shared by both the rear & front wheels, instead of just the rear. If you want to go everywhere in 2WD then buy a car......The manufacturer put High Range 4WD in your vehicle for a reason. Read the drivers manual, you may be surprised by what it says regarding the use of High Range 4WD.

   The main reason we hear for using 2WD in the outback is fuel consumption. "4WD uses more fuel" they will say. Having operated 4 constant 4WD vehicles over more than 20 years covering a million kilometres and having the fuel figures to back me up, I can honestly say that is rubbish. Very often when in the deserts with our current vehicle loaded to the maximum we will get fuel consumptions of less than 11Lts/100kms, sometimes if the road surface is hard we can break 10Lts/100kms. Folks normally confuse High & Low Range 4WD fuel consumptions. Low Range will appear to use more fuel because your rate of travel is much slower, so it takes all day to do 20-30kms and the fuel you used when worked out in Lts/100kms looks shocking. (If they bothered to work it out in hrs they would be much more surprised, but I’ll leave that for another article).

   Using High Range 4WD is safer on the outback roads and makes your vehicle last longer because you are sharing the load between the front & rear wheels.

 

Shock Absorber heat

    Heat build-up in your shock absorbers is pretty much directly related to tyre pressure. Think about it, if the tyre is up at bitumen pressure with little or no bulge then every tiny bump in the road will be something the shock absorber has to move up & down for. Now if you think about those tiny bumps as corrugations on the Anne Beadell Highway then your whiz-bang 4WD shocks are doing some serious work in a real hurry. Movement of oil & gas under pressure creates heat, the longer the length of movement and the higher movements per minute the more heat will have to be produced to the point where the seals in the shocks melt and the gas & oil escapes.........We have lost count of the number of "busted/blown" shock absorbers we have seen on the sides of outback roads in the western deserts. Let alone the stories told to us by travellers who have had "bad luck" on rough roads.

   The easiest way to monitor shock absorber temperature is really simple. When you pull up for whatever reason, very very carefully try & put your hand on the bottom part of the shock absorber (the top part is often only a cover or shroud). If you can hold your hand on there for 5-10 seconds then things should be fine. If it burns you straight away I would suggest letting some air out of your tyres. Let the tyres do the work, lessen the workload for the other gear, particularly your shock absorbers.

 

Speed by Planning

    The speed you travel at while on remote desert roads depends on many things; your tyre pressures, how heavy you are loaded, what sort of suspension your vehicle has, how much time you have allowed for your trip, the list goes on & on. The speed you travel at on remote desert roads also has a major impact on what happens to the vehicle, tyres, suspension components & the people sitting in the vehicle.

    Let’s have a look at the time issue, it is the overriding reason for many decisions both good & bad during long range desert trips. When you are sitting at home planning your outback adventure no doubt you will be looking at the latest glossy magazine article or some website with brilliant pictures of sunsets & Desert Oaks. Take a moment to ask yourself how many kilometres a day did the author/expert do during that trip?

   In the western deserts on the Beadell tracks Connie & I plan on an average of about 120kms per day. We used to run trips with an average of 150kms per day but over the years we have slowly reduced the kilometres we do in a day. Now read carefully, these are averages for the trip, so some days we’ll do more than 200kms & other days we may only do 60kms. We spend quite a bit of time showing folks what there is to see along the roads so that accounts for our relatively slow rate of travel, but here is the good part. We don’t have vehicle problems, virtually none. You can check for yourselves, our vehicle "trouble" reports are all on this website, read them ( Vehicle Reports). See if you can find a shock absorber problem or anything directly related to pushing hard over bad roads. We barely get a loose roof-rack.

   So back to planning your own trip, work out the distance on the bad roads and then divide by 150 (150kms/day), the answer is how many days you will need to travel that section comfortably for both you & your heavily loaded bus. Stop and "smell the roses" a bit during your trip, your vehicle will thank you in the long run.

 

Weight

    The elephant in the room with long range touring is weight. Just about everyone thinks about it, but very few do anything about it in real terms. The temptation to jam a bit more gear in that empty space is very powerful. "I might just need that" is often the excuse and then when you get home you unpack it and think to yourself, "I didn’t use that again".

    Now remember there is an entire 4WD industry out there just waiting to sell you gear & stuff that you "must have" when touring in the bush. Every magazine & almost every web article is a push for this or that piece of equipment that will make your time in the bush so much more enjoyable, blah blah blah........

   Here are two little sayings we use in regard to camping gear;

   No doubt you have heard of the KISS principle, "keep it simple stupid". Well that old saying particularly applies to long range touring. The more gear you have the more work you are making for yourself every day. Think about it, every day when you camp you have to set-up and the next morning you have to pack it all back in the bus. Everything is a choice, so if you choose to make more work for yourself by having all the whiz-bang "must have" stuff then don’t blame anyone else when you get sick of dealing with it all at every camp site twice a day.

   In our paper-work we send to our tag-a-long customers we ask them to pack their bus, then un-pack, set up their camp gear then pack it up a few times while still at home. Doing this should indicate how much work is involved with their camp and also if things need to be better arranged in the bus for easier access. We doubt anyone actually does this, because we have lost count of the number of folks who at the end of the trip remark that they will be changing this or that to make camping less work next time they go bush. Most newcomers will also have a reorganise of their gear a few days into a trip. It’s to be expected and is perfectly normal.

   Usually for most folks, camping for long periods with minimal gear comes with experience gained from previous camping. If you are new to this sort of thing then organise a few "shake-down" trips of a few days, then a week, then maybe a fortnight. Get used to living outside in the bush before you rush off to the camping & 4WD store to load up with all the shiny things you must have.......Start with a cheap small tent and see how things go. Keep the weight down, your wallet & your 4WD will thank you.

 

 

Safe travels,
Mick Hutton
Copyright : November 2017

 

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