The shakedown – you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till you use it

Our new baby arrived in the midst of a raging storm. Collecting her from the wharf at Fremantle, the stress levels on the drive home weren’t too dissimilar to that first trip home from the maternity hospital. Glaring at any vehicle that ventured too close; stopping at orange traffic lights; waiting for there not to be another car in sight before crossing an intersection (possibly shades of post traumatic stress there?). It was with a sigh of relief that we finally got our new Quantum Super Camper safely home.

As I sat inside her for the first time, I have to admit that I felt slightly guilty. As I inhaled the smell of new leather and marvelled at the flushing macerator toilet, I questioned if we could ever again say with a straight face that we were going camping – this rig surely fell firmly into the “glamping” category. That said, beneath the very attractive “paint job” was supposed to be a very capable off-road unit. She definitely had the looks, the question that remained however was if she had the guts to get us to all the same sort of places that our beloved Oddy had, otherwise she was going to end up a very expensive granny flat in the back yard. The only way to find out was going to be to get out there and put her through her paces.

My parents, our usual partners in crime, were tied up with harvest. So instead we found ourselves parked up at Elachbutting Rock, north-east of Mukinbudin, with a group of complete strangers who also wanted to know what their Australian Off Road campers were capable of. Simon and Sue were “long term” owners with their previous model Quantum 3. Garry and Liz were copping some flak for the cafe lounge in their Quantum Plus; did you get an espresso machine with that? Brian and Janet were getting to know their Quantum 4, three months older than ours. And Richard and Dru had done away with canvas entirely with their caravan style Matrix.
Our first afternoon together was spent checking out the differences between the campers; what had changed, mods that people had made, how they were packed; followed by an evening around the campfire sharing tales of travels past.

Next morning we hit the road, gravel of course, and began heading towards the Helena Aurora Range. Nothing too challenging to start with: a detour via Southern Cross to fuel up, then northwards towards the Mount Manning Range Nature Reserve. After an overnight camp stop beside the track we were treated to ever changing scenery as we meandered through the Great Western Woodlands. The wildflowers were out in abundance with huge variety from the tiny but brilliantly coloured succulents around the salt lakes to a kaleidoscope of colour beneath sparsely scattered trees that would have done Pro Hart proud. We spent some time exploring the old Mount Jackson homestead before eventually approaching the Helena and Aurora Conservation Park from the western side.

We found the mapped track in off the Bullfinch-Evanston Road blocked off. Polaris Metals are busy digging up the north-west end of this unique banded ironstone range and shipping it overseas as iron ore. They have gated the road, put up lots of authoritative signs to tell you in no uncertain terms that you are not welcome and made a half-arsed effort at a detour track around their new J4 mine.

On the bright side, it gave us our first opportunity to test out the campers on an unformed track. As we wound our way between the trees, following what could only be generously described as wheel tracks over the rocky ground, the benefits of a camper that is no wider or higher than the tow vehicle became apparent. We eventually rejoined the main track which took us in to the base of the Helena Aurora Range.

The map showed a loop track right around the range, so we headed in intending to camp around the lee side for a bit of protection from the wind. The “Ridge Track – high clearance 4WD only beyond this point” sign didn’t cause any concern, the clearance on these campers was equal the tow vehicles. The track was rough, sloping and rutted but all was going fine until our little convoy of five reached the top of the hill and progress was abruptly halted by a “Track Closed” sign. The loop track no longer looped. Turning everyone around was going to be a challenge. A steep track off to the side with a tight turnaround at the top was found, and so began a rather interesting game of follow the leader as each rig tackled the steep slope, then nose to tail looped back to the main track. The photos don’t do justice to the steepness of the slope, and yet another box was ticked off our shakedown list as the campers all faithfully followed the tow vehicles without the need for any roaring of engines or spinning of wheels and then made the tight turn at the top, which would have driven many others to jack-knifing, to get us all safely back retracing our tyre tracks to the flat ground below and our campsite for the night.

After a day spent exploring the Range we headed off towards Pigeon Rocks, which was another picturesque drive over tracks that varied from gravel to sand to rock and back again. After setting up camp at the base, we climbed to the top of the rock to take in the views and the young and young at heart were very excited to discover three bars of Telstra at the peak, as mobile phones went mad after days of having no reception.

Next morning, if not for the Memory Map GPS mapping on the iPad, we would never have found the track into Faye’s Bluff. By the end of the day a few of our party were probably wishing we hadn’t. It started off OK as the wattle swished down the sides of the rigs brushing off the dust, suggesting this was a track that didn’t see a lot of use. Then with a lurch the front end of our Landcruiser suddenly dropped. Stepping out, it was simple to see what the problem was – a two inch long mulga gash to your sidewall will tend to drop the air out of your tyre pretty quickly. But these things happen. The boys all pitched in and they soon had the tyre changed and we were back on our way.

The track gradually became more closed in. The soft wattle gave way to scratchy branches which were bush-pinstriping the rigs to the soundtrack of fingernails scraping on a blackboard. Then it got narrower still and we had to start cutting back branches and clearing fallen trees to allow the vehicles to pass. In the thick scrub turning around wasn’t an option, so we pushed on hoping that things would get better.

They didn’t. Six staked tyres and eight hours later we had covered all of twenty kilometres when we finally made it out to a formed gravel road. The scratches down the sides of the 4WDs and the no longer shiny new campers were enough to bring a tear to your eye. The edges of the shadecloth stone guards were shredded. Gas outlet covers were ripped open. Pop-top latches had to be cable-tied closed. But all of that was really just cosmetic. The campers had not stopped us once. Wherever we pointed the vehicles, they followed.
Around the campfire that evening, after the stress of an extremely challenging and quite expensive tyre-replacement-wise day, it would not have been unreasonable to expect between our group of relative strangers either strained silence or accusatory screeching about whose clever idea it had been to take that particular track. For as you would all know, these types of trips make great telling – but only about six months down the track after the initial shock has faded. However in our case the saying that shared adversity forms strong bonds held true. Everyone was still getting along like a house on fire. Strangers had become firm friends, already planning a reunion dinner and our next trip together.

The consensus was that the campers had passed their first shakedown trip with flying colours. Sure, we still had to pitch them against mud, soft sand and a water crossing or three. No problem: as soon as we’ve finished polishing out the scratches, we’ll get planning for the next trip.

Information Bay
The Helena Aurora Range (Bungalbin) located 100km north of Southern Cross in the Great Western Woodlands. On the more direct route it’s about a six hour drive from Perth; four hours to Southern Cross and then two hours north to the range via Koolyanobbing then on to the Mt Dimer track which will deposit you on the south side of the range. The approach from the west, off the Bullfinch-Evanston Road, is the long way in but well worth the effort if you have the time.

As the Helena Aurora Range is located within a conservation park, it’s not managed for recreational use and there are no facilities. The unofficial campsite is located on the north-west side of the range and is simply a level stretch of ground beneath the trees. You’ll need to be totally self sufficient and remember your camping etiquette, now immortalised in the new must-have Western4WDer sticker – “Don’t be a Tosser – save your rubbish for the bin”.

Pigeon Rocks is just to the west of the Helena Aurora Range and for anyone insane enough to want to try the track to Faye’s Bluff around the Die Hardy Range, at the moment it is cleared to Landcruiser width with complimentary bush pin striping – bring plenty of spare tyres.

 


Amanda Burton