A visit to the Flinders Ranges in outback South Australia is one of my favourite camping trips; an opportunity to enjoy the solitude of Australia’s haunting and ageless landscape, distinct flora and fauna, bushwalks, ancient rock art and more. One visit is not enough, as the Ranges cover a vast area, stretching over 400 kilometres.
On the way from home near Melbourne, I stay at campsites on the banks of the Murray River, at quaint and quiet country towns, or in some of South Australia’s prime wine regions like the Barossa Valley and Clare Valley. Tasting wines before camping in the desert has a certain piquancy.
The tranquility of the Murray River is occasionally broken by a flotilla of pelicans gliding by the campsite, or a passing houseboat.
Burra is an appealing South Australian country town close to the Ranges. Typically, it has grand buildings, a characterful pub, and fine streetscapes, a testament to a more prosperous past; in its case, copper mining.
Another classic country pub at Peterborough.
Bush camping at Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges. The billy is boiling on the open fire while the solar panel charges the battery to power the portable refrigerator and lights.
Emus wander through the camp, at home in an arid environment.
Red gums line the creek beds waiting for infrequent rains to flood the watercourse.
A walk or a drive provides these views.
Ruined stone houses are common around the Flinders Ranges. European settlers established farms in the nineteenth century and misunderstood the Outback climate, believing that a good season or two was typical. Ultimately, the usual drought-like weather conditions prevailed and within a generation, most small settlers were ruined. A tragedy for them, but worse for the Aboriginal people who were displaced by the settlers, after living in the area for tens of thousands of years.
In the north west of Australia’s state of Victoria, the Wimmera region ranges from highly productive sheep and grain growing farmland to desert. It is on the edge. Horizons seem endless, solitude is close.
Mechanisation of farming over the last century has displaced the large rural workforce that was once essential for agriculture. Then, teams worked on the wheat harvest and bagged the grain in hessian bags capable of being handled by one person. Now a huge truck with a lone driver carts away many tonnes at a time for delivery to the silo. Machines, not people, now dominate. Currently pressed bales of straw and grass are so large and heavy (at around 600 kilograms) that they can no longer be moved by hand, as was formerly the case, but require a powerful tractor with forks.
[This image of traditional wheat harvesting has been reproduced with the kind permission of the State Library of Victoria]
Large bales of wheat straw, baled after the grain has been harvested. Near Beulah.
Grain silos are numerous and the largest constructed form in the area, dwarfing the frequently ornate local pubs, commercial buildings, and austere churches. A few silos have been painted, with others on the way. There is already a designated driving circuit to enjoy this art form. Guido van Helten painted the Brim silos, surely a masterpiece:
Small towns in the Wimmera are generally in sharp decline as people drift to larger towns for shopping, housing, amenities and work. Those small towns slumber amongst closed shops and businesses, with houses increasingly unoccupied and neglected. In a country with some of the world’s highest house prices and rental costs, as well as homelessness, it’s a pity that this housing is going to waste.
The main street in Beulah:
Another stark reminder of the depopulation of many small Wimmera towns is the war memorial listing residents killed in the two World Wars. A town that may struggle to sustain a small store and a hotel amongst its streets of closed shops usually has a memorial listing a shocking number of the district’s young men who died in Europe and Turkey in the 1914-18 World War. Hopetoun, with a population of 555 in 2011, lists 91 or 92. The Rainbow War Memorial (pictured below) lists 41 names under the heading ‘They sleep well’. The town’s population in 2011 was 525.
As a contrast to the rather forlorn sight of numerous empty shops, most small towns have well maintained sporting infrastructure; tennis courts, a swimming pool, a football and cricket oval (which sometimes doubles as a venue for the annual agricultural show), and sometimes, a lawn bowling club.
For wanderers, the region has camping grounds and pubs offering accommodation. Camping fees are moderate compared with the rates at more popular destinations; $10-$20 per night for a powered site is usual in the town’s caravan and camping park, generally located beside a river (Jeparit – the Wimmera River) or lake (Brim, Beulah and Hopetoun).
This year’s good rainfall has replenished the region’s watercourses and lakes, which were suffering from a long drought, and local spirits. A farmer of around 60 years old, chatting in Jeparit’s Hindmarsh Hotel, intimated that this year’s grain crop is the best he’s ever seen. By staying and mingling, perceptions alter. As a result of his recommendation we drove to Brim to see the painted silos, and also included Warracknabeal, Beulah, Hopetoun, Rainbow and Jeparit; a nice driving circuit.
The image of New Zealand is of a small country, yet the sign at Bluff, close to the southern point of the South Island, indicates that Cape Reinga, near the northern tip of the North Island, is 1401 kilometres away.
At Cape Reinga, the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea collide in boiling currents, a fitting place for the spirit of a Maori to take their last journey by leaping off an 800 year old pohutukawa tree into the ocean, on the way to returning to their ancestral home, Hawaiki.
When in Bluff, Antarctica feels close. Eating Bluff oysters for lunch while gazing south towards the pole is recommended.
In between New Zealand’s extremities awaits a country of great scenic beauty, quirky towns, a vibrant culture, and friendly people. I keep coming back for a couple of weeks each year to rent a campervan/motorhome and enjoy a meander. It’s easy to find an isolated beach or country spot for a picnic, and often, to free camp as well. Those locations are a perfect place to sample one of New Zealand’s great wines along with some local produce.
Each time I visit, I find more appealing towns to add to my list of favourites. On my recent visit to the South Island, Oamaru and Akaroa joined the list. Away from towns, the hauntingly beautiful Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island keeps returning to my thoughts.
As an Australian, another joy about visiting New Zealand is that it’s the only country in the world where I am allowed to stay for as long as I want. No visas required
Campervans can be a great way to enjoy holiday travel. Most campervans are a delivery van fitted out to provide self-contained accommodation and cooking facilities. The smaller ones in Australia and New Zealand are usually Toyota Hi Aces, while the larger ones are generally a Mercedes Sprinter or VW Crafter.
Small campervans are quite basic, offering a bed that is converted at night from a table and seats, a few cupboards, a gas 2 burner cooktop, and a fridge. Larger campervans, often called motorhomes, usually have the same configuration, but with more generous dimensions, and have a combined shower/toilet, more storage and internal space, a TV, and a heater. The best equipped one that I’ve hired also had a very handy external fold out barbeque and table.
Campervan hire is like booking a flight with a budget airline. The bargain airfare quickly turns into a bloated deal by the time extras are added: checked luggage, a meal, an allocated seat, credit card surcharges, and the like. With campervan hire, the extras can often more than double the initial appealing quote, and many can be avoided or reduced with planning.
Careful preliminary reading of the documentation allows you to avoid paying for unnecessary extras. It’s unwise to arrive at the hire company’s office tired after a long flight or journey without having properly appreciated in advance all the tricky elements of the deal and their cheaper alternatives.
A few months ago, I hired a campervan in Queensland for 28 days. I saved about $1,000, paying around $57 per day instead of $90 per day, mainly by taking out my own insurance cover for damage or an accident, rather than following the hire company’s preferred procedure. Incidentally, if I had used the hire company’s cover I would have still been liable for an additional excess of $250 instead of nil with my own insurance.
The information below is quite detailed because hiring arrangements are made complex by the dense nature of the contracts used by hire companies. Ultimately that detail will only be of interest to someone seriously thinking of adopting some gypsy freedom. If you’re not so inclined, Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon may convert you.
The next photo is of the virtually brand new camper I hired in May 2014 in New Zealand. The daily hire rate was AU$30.33 per day. There were extras, but as outlined below, there are ways to reduce them.
Another picnic spot by the sea in New Zealand
Our small campervan (a Toyota Hi Ace) on the ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island in north Queensland
Seaside camping at beautiful Cape Hillsborough National Park, near Mackay, North Queensland.
The photo below shows the beach a few metres in front of the camp site at Cape Hillsborough.
Details of Main Savings and Issues
1. Know the contract terms
Each hire company uses its own detailed contract. While there is no standard form, most share common features that often parallel car rental contracts. When a booking is made in advance, the hire company supplies a summary of contract to be signed on collection of the vehicle. I treat this document as an important and lucrative (or loss-making) issue. The one finally presented usually adds some additional onerous terms.
The hire contract will contain many restrictions. For example, most campervan contracts prohibit the hirer from driving on unsealed roads (or off-road), unless it’s a short defined distance on a well maintained road to a recognised camping ground. I hire a 4wd camper if I want to explore on dirt roads or go off road.
2. When to hire
Prices are highest at peak holiday times, particularly around Christmas, Easter, school holidays, and at seasonal times when demand is likely to be high. In Australia, winter holiday-makers flock north (to northern New South Wales and Queensland, northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory) to escape the cold or cooler weather further south. The reverse migration pattern applies in summer.
Camper hire companies cut hire rates drastically out of season. For example:
(a) In New Zealand and Tasmania, May to September rates are relatively cheap.
Factor in the weather if choosing to hire within these dates. My own experience is that the North Island in NZ is fine to visit in May (as is Tasmania) with sunny days, little or no wind, days that are around the high teens to low 20s (celsius) in temperature, and cool nights. Nice for camping. Higher altitudes will be colder, of course. A larger campervan should have a gas or diesel heater for warmth if required. (Check the contract).
Hire companies regularly offer specials. For example, Britz in November 2015 offered a 25% discount on hire charges for Tasmania over March and April.
(b) Relocating a camper can be very cheap, sometimes for nil to $1 a day.
A relocation may also include reimbursement of fuel costs, and if relevant, a sea crossing (in New Zealand between the North and South Islands, and in Australia, the Bass Straight crossing between Melbourne and Tasmania).
There could be major savings involved. I recently read a quote of AU$750 for a return crossing of Bass Strait – Melbourne to Tasmania – for a 7 metre long motorhome. As a reference, a Mercedes Sprinter motorhome is about 7.6 metres long.
However, watch the insurance issue as noted below. It also applies to a relocation.
The main negative of a relocation is that the hirer is only given a limited time to complete the journey.
3. Liability and Insurance
Essentially, the hire contract provides that the hirer (renter) is responsible for any damage to the vehicle or its fittings (usually including tyres and windscreen) or for damage to another vehicle or other property. The liability is regardless of fault.
Here, major savings can be made.
(a) Use an appropriate credit card to pay for your campervan hire, one that includes travel insurance cover, specifically covering your hire vehicle accident liability. Read your credit card contract carefully, as the terms differ from issuer to issuer. Examples of some differences and issues:
Some cards only cover passenger vehicles.
All have limits on the maximum accident liability cover. The ones I’ve checked have an upper limit of $5,000. Some hire companies impose a higher sum for liability, for example, $7,500 for a Britz motorhome and some of Apollo’s larger motorhomes.
Some cards, like my ANZ Visa Platinum Frequent Flyer card, apply to passenger vehicles only in Australia, but also apply to passenger vehicles and campervans overseas.
If you rely on your credit card for cover, ensure that you have activated the cover. For example, the credit card contract may require a minimum amount to be spent on travel costs using the card before the cover applies.
If you do rely on your credit card for cover, hire companies generally require a payment of the full amount of your accident liability under the hire contract. With my last hire, I was required to pay $5,000 (the accident liability amount) to the hire company (Apollo) – only by credit card – for the amount to be refunded within 28 working days of the completion of the hire. Plus their 2% surcharge. In fact, the refund was made after about 3 weeks.
This practice seems to be designed to strongly discourage people from opting out of the hire company’s insurance scheme. If you have a lazy $5,000 of credit with your card, you will incur fees – cash advance interest – before receiving a refund.
If it’s an international transaction, an overseas visitor hiring a vehicle in New Zealand for example, then the credit card payment to the hire company attracts currency conversion fees from the hirer’s bank, and the hire company’s bank initially, then the same again when the refund is made.
(b) Take out your own insurance cover. If you have travel insurance, it may cover you. On my recent 28 day campervan hire, I paid $125.80 for my own insurance cover that simply covered hire vehicle excess liability instead of paying $1,232 to the hire company.
I used RACV, one of Australia’s motorists’ organisations. See:
Apollo is representative of hire companies in only accepting payment by credit card. It charges a non-refundable fee of 2% on Visa and Mastercard and 4.5% for American Express or Diners Club.
This means that you cannot take advantage of saving by paying by direct deposit or in cash.
4. Other extras and issues to watch out for
It’s convenient to hire various extras along with the vehicle to make your holiday more comfortable. On the other hand, some can be easily obtained elsewhere at better prices.
GPS – Hire companies charge around $10 per day (usually with a maximum of $100). Bring your own if possible. Most smart phones now have a GPS, although you may need an app or map if visiting a foreign country. Paper maps still work.
Outdoor table and chairs. Rather than pay the hire fee of $17 per chair and $24 for the table (total $58), I buy them from a shop like KMart or Bunnings for around $7 per chair and $19 per table (total $33). Donate them to a charity (Opp Shop) or give them away at the end of the holiday.
Don’t assume that the daily hire rate is cheaper the longer the hire period. This is true up to a point, but with my most recent hire the daily rate increased after 28 days.
5. Cooking for yourself
Buying meals constantly can be both expensive and unattractive, depending on your food preferences. Travelling provides opportunities to buy fresh produce at markets and farmers’ outlets, and seafood along the coast.
I prefer a picnic or meal in the open air with fresh local ingredients, together with a cheeky local wine, rather than a deep fried generic meal in a pub or cafe that offers nothing notable about its taste, location or origin.
Of course, eating out is important when it’s notable for the food, view, ambiance, or cultural experience, laziness….
As one whose culinary skills are most advanced in the fields of kitchen hand and washing up, I am acutely aware of the importance of observing the views of the chief cook on the issue of eating in or out.
6. Check the state of the vehicle at the time of hire, and at the end
Make sure that the vehicle report you sign when collecting the vehicle accurately states any pre-exisiting damage. I’ve found Britz and Apollo good on this issue of vehicle condition, but have experienced the opposite elsewhere. Take similar care on the vehicle’s return.
7. Where to camp – expensive, cheap or free?
Camping fees can be a major part of holiday costs.
In Australia, the nightly fee for a campervan with on-site power at a commercial camping ground/caravan park/holiday park will generally be about $35 to $45 for 2 persons. Extra fees are charged for additional guests.
As an illustration, my daughter recently paid $66 nightly for a powered beach front camping site at Tathra on NSW’s south coast for 2 adults and 2 children.
Higher fees are usually charged for peak periods, popular locations, and where there are more facilities (swimming pools, water slides, entertainment centres and so on). My experience of New Zealand is that the fees are at least as high.
Cheaper paid camping is available, although not necessarily in the most popular or well known destinations. National parks, and campgrounds in less frequented locations generally offer lower fees or none, usually for fewer facilities, or none.
Most hire campervans and motorhomes have a dual battery system that allows camping using 12 volt power from the auxiliary battery for lighting, while the cook top and refrigerator use gas. Therefore, it’s feasible to camp away from mains elecricity for a few days.
One potentially relevant issue is whether your campervan has an onboard toilet, as many municipalities require free camper vehicles to be self-contained in terms of toilet and waste water facilities. On the other hand, experienced Australian campers know that in the bush, a short walk with a shovel can solve those issues.
New Zealand is generally more accommodating than Australia towards free camping, and doing so at beautiful coastal locations is much easier than on Australia’s east coast. On the other hand, Australia has great free camping opportunities away from the coast. One of my favourites is to camp on the Murray River, our longest river, where there are numerous free camp sites stretching over hundreds of kilometres where you can enjoy Australia’s unique timelessness, most often without anyone else around.
7. The exchange rate
If you are visiting from another country, the exchange rate is an important cost factor.
Only a couple of years ago, the Australian dollar was above parity with the US dollar. Now (December 2015), US$.73 = AU$1, so an American who wants to holiday in Australia and hire a campervan is getting a 30%+ discount from the Aussie dollar’s recent high point. The Euro exchange rate is also better for a visitor to Australia than several years ago.
8. High season hire costs with no savings
In early November 2015, an Apollo Euro Tourer just like the one in the first photo above – a 2 berth motorhome with shower and toilet – would cost $226 per day to hire for 2 weeks over the Christmas period (15-28 December) from Melbourne + extras:
$44 per day to reduce the accident liability to $250 ($616)