Well that is what we though when we decided to hire a camper-van and try a bit of terrestrial cruising to make up for the missing 2020 cruising Mediterranean season. How different could it be? Ok we are not in the Med but there is a lot to see and do out in western NSW right? Yes borders were still closed so we needed to limit our range at this stage. Our van is a Mercedes Sprinter, fitted out with queen sized bed, galley, shower and toilet so it will be just like a yacht! So how does cruising the backroads compare to cruising the coast? Well there are a lot of similarities of course, but some notable differences.
1. Our vessel - The Mercedes Sprinter
So of course we have all the essential facilities we need on board, but with a twist. For obvious reasons camper vans only come in the mono-hull variety. Like monohull it is important to ensure items are secure when underway. That cutlery draw will soon give you an indication if you are heeling too much around corners! The lounge area converts to your bed but given the energy expended to perform this feat of engineering it did not get converted back to a lounge for the duration of the trip. Instead the drivers' and passengers' seats spin around to provide a compact dining area and we have outdoor table and chairs too.
2. Passage planning
Of course you must plan your route wherever you go. Whilst you are not constrained by the wind direction, the availability of thin strips of bitumen do tend to dictate your direction to the next town or anchorage. In our case a 2WD hire camper must stick to sealed roads, so unfortunately that means missing quite a few national park areas out west where some of the dirt roads are so badly corrugated it reminded us of crossing the gulf of Cadiz. As we also discovered, the weather does still dictate your plans as well. We had some heavy rains during the last week of our trip and that meant a change of plans due to road closures. Fortunately there is an app (WikiCamps) which is like Navily or noforeignland.com which shows all the campsite, van parks, dump stations etc on a map, including reviews and ratings as well as fees and charges. This was a great help to find alternative destinations and much needed powered sites!
3. The cruising community
Just like when you are out on the water, other caravaners, like other boaties, wave to you! Of course you have the opportunity to share knowledge, tips and road stories both online and in person, at caravan park happy hours and laundromats. There are also useful FB pages where fellow caravaners post tips on great campsites and places of interest, as well as comments on the behaviour of fellow campers and their nasty habits, such as emptying grey water and parking too close. Just like cruising FB pages, posts about toilets get the most comments.
4. Onboard systems
The "autopilot" is limited to speed control only. No stepping away from the helm to make a cup of tea or get a beer from the fridge, whilst keeping one eye on watch. We have a house battery but have to spend every second night "hooked up" (to shore power...) as no solar panels. The engine doesn't give much of a charge to the house batteries and doesn't heat the shower water. This limits flexibility and we found ourselves spending more nights "hooked up" than we expected, just in case we needed to free camp the next day. "Releasing the hounds" (ie emptying the holding tanks) is quite easy. You have a little box or cassette that is accessed from outside of the van and you open the spout to empty the contents (like a teapot) at a "dump station" every 2nd day. Works a treat. No water maker of course so tanks must be filled with town water. No big deal as it is usually available at the same dump station... The downside is that there are many country towns out west reliant on bore water and it is a bit of a worry when the locals wont even drink it! Oh well, there is always wine...
5. Overall experience
Overall we enjoyed the experience, but would have to say that it compares more closely to a bareboat charter than living and cruising on your own boat. There is a lot of distance between towns out west of NSW and we certainly did a lot of driving. That said, we saw some amazing sights and some of the country towns are like stepping back in time. Our vessel was pretty squeezie, even with just 2 people, but something bigger would possibly have been more limiting. Three weeks was probably a tad too long for our first trip, we came back a couple of days earlier than anticipated as there was some horrible weather on the horizon. If we were to do this on a more permanent basis we would probably want the flexibility of a 4WD vehicle to take us into those wilder "anchorages" and solar power would be a must to keep us functioning off the grid. Going inland was a novel experience for us, it was really interesting how much we missed seeing the ocean! Whilst we gravitated to riverside campsites, a muddy brown strip of water could not quite replace the Med!
Below are some highlights of our whirlwind tour of "outback" NSW.
What do you do when you are “stuck” in Sydney for winter and your beautiful Helia home (ITIKI) is waiting patiently in Greece?? Well you go and take a sneaky look at the new FP Elba 45 of course!
We really enjoyed following LARRIKIN’s epic journey of just over 90 days from Europe to Australia, the latter part of this tainted somewhat by the prospect of returning to civilisation in a Covid-gripped world. It seems a lifetime away when we caught up with Gordon and Lou in January in Sydney with other FP owners – little did we know what was in store for us!
It was a real treat to step aboard the Elba 45 and take a good look around this beautiful boat, to welcome home Gordon and Louise, as well as catching up with the MHS team - and most importantly to see what all of the Elba hype is about! I was especially keen to see how the Elba compares to our Helia Evo of course, quietly hopeful of convincing myself that we don’t need to upgrade and start all over again…
Part III: The Incredible South Georgia
Well its two full days at sea from Elephant Island heading north to get to South Georgia, a journey of some 1,300 miles. We are following in the "footsteps" of Shackleton and his crew of 5 aboard the 22.5 ft lifeboat The James Caird as they left the camp at Point Wild in search of rescue. They took 16 days to reach the southern coast of South Georgia, and legend has it that they were only able to take 3 sextant readings on the entire passage but still nailed it! What an incredible journey.
Part II: Deception Island and Elephant Island
From the Antarctic Peninsula we cross The Bransfield Straits again and back to the southern end of the South Shetland Islands. It was a fairly calm crossing and we arrive in the early morning at Deception island.
Part I: Antarctic Peninsula
We started our journey from Punta Arenas in southernmost Chile. One of the very special things about our trip is that we actually get to fly over the Drake Passage, missing out on 2 days of what very often is a rough and boring crossing. Given that we have a long cruise back from South Georgia, this is quite a bonus as it gives us 2 extra days of the expedition. But first the preparation...
All of our shore gear (jackets, pants, gloves etc) must be carefully cleaned before we get on the plane. Antarctica is a pristine and protected environment so any dirt, grass seeds or organisms need to be removed. We are provided with some very glamorous gumboots to wear on the expedition as well, and then proceed to the "weigh in"! What?! Here we discover (I guess it must have been in the fine print) a 20kg luggage allowance on the flight! Hmm fortunately we were not too much over... We are required to wear all of our shore gear on the plane as we will be getting straight onto the boat via zodiac on arrival. Needless to say some of our excess baggage was stowed in pockets...
What do you want to H2(kn)O(w)?
One of our lovely guests on ITIKI this year was a dear ‘old’ friend of mine who just happens to be one of Australia’s leading experts on water management, Dr Annette Davison (BSc (hons), M Env Law, PhD, GAICD etc etc). Annette is founder and director of Risk Edge whose mission is to help its clients optimise their businesses through identifying risks and harnessing the opportunities that creates. Annette is a very smart lady, not only has she has chosen me as a friend, as you can see she has lots of letters after her name…
Annette and her husband Steve (a highly regarded steel scheduler – yes it’s a thing!) joined us for a few days in Gocek Bay in southern Turkey and over a glass of water or two (well wine is mostly water isn’t it???) we got to talking about matters of water and waste management on a yacht and decided to take a look at ITIKI’s systems from a water safety and risk management perspective. This is the sort of thing that can happen when a couple of scientists have access to alcohol and too much time on their hands. I have to say though, it has been a very interesting exercise. We had not considered our water management system quite so holistically until now. While it has evolved to its current configuration, rather than being designed that way up front, it seems my own science and public health background, along with Keith’s diligent research and a healthy dose of common sense, have helped us reach a pretty good outcome
We are back in Australia for 6 months to enjoy the summer down under. So where did we leave ITIKI? Well we have left our beloved in the very capable hands of the Karpathakis family at Artemis Leros Boatyard on the northern end of the island of Leros. This small island is part of the Dodecanese group in the eastern Aegean. There is no marina here so all of the boat storage is on the hardstand which is what we wanted this year. It is easier on the boat especially as we are not on board to keep an eye on mooring lines etc. We are also in need of an anti-fouling after a season of heavy growth and hard bottom scrubbing.
Due west of the small island of Symi lies the even smaller island of Nisyros. This gem of an island is not to be missed and as it is on the way to Leros, why not. We have some more northerlies on the way but there is a small weather window and that is enough for a flying visit to this amazing island. Despite its size, it is jam packed with stuff to see! After an early start motoring from Symi we arrive in the middle of the day and have our pick of spots in the near empty Pali harbour. After a spot of lunch we pick up a hire car from Eagles nest, and we are given a laminated card with step by step instructions on what to see and how to get there. We follow this religiously...
Lynda is slowly getting used to the transition from working to not working and racing to cruising.