CAMPER TRAILER TORTURE TEST
Six camper trailers tested
In the early morning gloom I could just make out a face at the Kimberley Kamper Platinum’s mesh window: not a pretty face, but Murray’s rugby-battered visage, streaked with rain.
“I’m going to make a pit stop at the dunny (more info than I needed) and then check out the creek,” he mumbled and then splashed off along the puddle-filled track to the ‘loo.
Checking out the creek was an excellent idea, because the rain had bucketed down all night and the soft splashing of water trickling over rocks that we’d heard at bedtime was now a muffled roar.
As I slipped into my clothes I reflected on what had been an interesting night in the West Macdonnell Ranges, not far from Alice Springs.
We’d camped at Redbank Gorge, looking forward to the next day’s foray up the sandy, stony river bottom at Roma Gorge, where we expected to check out the Mitsubishis and trailers in demanding off- road conditions. The night had been balmy when we hit the sack and we were reassured by a black sky full of stars. However, it was warmer than it should be for this time of year... and humid.
Heavy cloud snuck up on us while we slept and around midnight the heavens opened.
The deluge started as just a few tell-tale taps on the Kimberley’s tropical roof and I hoped it was just a wandering shower, but it wasn’t. The tent roof hummed all night in the storm and a morning inspection of Pete’s improvised rain gauge – an empty wine glass - revealed that we copped around 30mm during the night.
Murray and I drove down to the creek that we’d crossed without wetting the wheel nuts only a few hours before. It was now a chest-deep raging stream, carrying debris that danced along in the brown foam. Crossing it was out of the question and the level was rising around our feet as we stood on the edge.
“Bloody rain - could be a quiet day in camp,” I said, as we headed back for breakfast.
Rain, Rain and More Rain
The Camper Trailer Torture Test had been on the road for 10 days and we’d enjoyed the Outback’s typical mild, dry winter weather for only the first three days. Unseasonal, torrential rain and freezing temperatures had dogged our progress for the past week and had already forced changes to our well-planned itinerary.
Just how unseasonal came to light when we found out that as at July 2010 Alice Springs had recorded almost eight times the rainfall it normally has and July 7 was the coldest day the town had ever experienced. In one two-day period The Alice was drenched with more rain than it had received in all of 2009!
We started organising the OTA Camper Trailer Torture Test almost a year before and we chose a variety of off-road camper trailers for the final six: Challenge, Cub, Heaslip, Kimberley, T Van and Trak Shak. This meant a mix of hard-floor campers (Cub, Kimberley and T Van) and soft-floors (Challenge, Heaslip and Trak Shak). We towed with two Pajeros (a VRX and an Exceed), two Challengers (an LS and an XLS) and two Tritons (both GLXRs, but one with a hard tonneau and the other a soft one).
The convoy of six Mitsubishis and six camper trailers had formed progressively from three East Coast starting points and we’d joined forces in the crowded camping area at Cunnamulla. Even what our video man Stan called “’Scuse me; ‘scuse me camping” couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for this comprehensive vehicle and camper test. Everyone was keen to get into the red dirt and spend time evaluating the towing vehicles and trailers, both as mobile machines and as homes away from home.
Next day, we headed towards the little town of Windorah and settled for a bush camp just east of the town, to avoid another night of cramped camping. I chose a dry channel, not far from the road, that offered flattish ground for the soft-floor campers. As we sat around the campfire we joked about how tricky it would be to get out of this black soil campsite if we had heavy rain.
“Shouldn’t be much in the high cloud over there,” we forecast and so it proved, in the short term, with only an occasional drop hitting the tent roofs during the night.
In the morning we topped up fuel in the tanks and jerry cans and headed north-west from Windorah across channel country. This is one of the most beautiful drives in Western Queensland and we were looking forward to some great still photos and video footage. Our target for the night was Boulia – an easy drive, we thought.
The sky was leaden and the air was warmer than it should be, but we expected only the odd passing shower. Hmmm.
Heavy rain and a cold wind struck when we were about a half-hour from Windorah and brown water soon puddled in the gravel road wheel tracks.
Over the radio I suggested that those who hadn’t already selected full-time 4WD mode do so. I was quietly pleased that all our Mitsubishi towing vehicles had Super Select drivelines, traction control and active stability control.
The rain intensified into a hose-like blast and the road surface became a sheet of water, with the numerous channels full of water and flowing, up to a half-metre deep. Bull dust holes turned into soapy bogs that grabbed at the tyres and kept the drivers focussed. I suggested that the crew lock their centre differentials.
I played with the stability control function and found that the system knew best, despite cutting engine power when I felt that it should have given me more grunt. Speed out of some of the channels was slower than I liked, but the Pajero and trailer kept dead straight most of the time and there was never an instance of potential power jack knife.
What should have been a scenic drive became an ordeal for our test crews and the radios crackled with reports of slips and slides, but the team slogged on. We couldn’t have turned around, because the road edges were under water and the silty channel country was a total swamp. Our goal was the bitumen stretch that leads into the hamlet of Bedourie.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the road was closed about two hours after we left Windorah and would remain so for several days.
The heavy going ruined our fuel consumption calculations, so some of the vehicles had to pull up and refuel from the jerries mounted on the trailers. Handling slippery jerry cans in the teeth of a freezing, teeming gale wasn’t much fun for anyone.
It seemed like an eternity until we reached the bitumen, where we pulled up alongside a surveying crew in a Patrol ute that had left Windorah just ahead of us.
“We didn’t expect to see your lot get through,” said the ute driver. “We had our hands full just keeping a solo vehicle on the road – we had one frightening spin – and we didn’t think your trailers would get through at all.”
We’ve been though Bedourie many times, but we’ve never seen the place with so much water around it. Because all the roads into the hamlet were now shut we had no trouble getting rooms at the roadhouse. The motel section at Bedourie is split into several buildings, spread across a sandy yard and walking to the roadhouse is normally a somewhat dusty trek. Not this time. We nearly bogged several vehicles getting close to the dongers and commuting to the roadhouse meant sloshing through foot-deep muddy water.
We all enjoyed a restaurant meal and dry lodgings, while the incessant rain beat on the tin roof. Our desert trek was turning into a mudfest.
Miraculously, we awoke to clear blue skies, but the channels were still running, so all roads in and out of Bedourie remained shut that day – even the blacktop to Boulia. Everyone amused themselves walking around the town, chatting with other stranded travellers and catching up on emails. Great hospitality at Bedourie cheered us, despite the gloomy prospects.
Change of Plans
The weather remained good overnight, so next day saw us packed up and off to Boulia. Although this road is bitumen all the way the channels were full, restricting use to ‘4x4 only’ traffic.
We hoped the Plenty-Donohue Highway to Alice Springs would be open, so that we could keep our expedition on track, but the news at Boulia wasn’t good. The Plenty was shut and would remain that way for several days at least. The channel sections of the track were blocked by stranded trucks and a couple of idiots, towing heavy off-road caravans, who had defied the ‘road closed’ signs. It was time for a rethink of the Camper Trailer Torture Test route.
After several phone calls, including one to our mate, John Stafford at Tourism NT, we opted to detour up the blacktop to Alice Springs. This run was uneventful, so two days later we drove past the Alice Springs monument, expecting to find this favourite town of ours as we’d last seen it: glowing red under a brilliant blue sky. Not so.
A damp, ground-hugging fog greeted us at the hilltop and we descended into a cold, eerie gloom we’ve never experienced before in the Red Centre. Vehicles with headlights dimly aglow picked their way through the murk and the familiar landscape appeared alien. John Stafford had organised comfy digs for us at Lasseter’s, where we parked the trailers while we restocked the larders, did some minor repair work and planned our next test leg. Kittles fixed a loose turbo control suction hose on one of the Tritons while we waited – great service.
We decided to stay with our plan to head west and give the vehicles and trailers a good off-road workout at Roma Gorge, before braving the Gary Junction Road to WA.
So that’s how we came to be camped in the pouring rain at Redbank Gorge and why Murray and I were standing looking at rushing waters that would strand us for yet another day. Suddenly, Western Australia seemed a long way away.
When the water level dropped to a safe point, 24 hours later, we headed for Roma Gorge, where we intended to test the vehicles and trailers along this rocky, eroded river bed.
The beauty of river bed driving is that no damage is done to the environment.
The gorge was still running with flood water, so we checked out conditions in the solo vehicles first, leaving the trailers at the gorge entrance. Our foray showed that we should be able to dodge the deep water and haul the trailers through the stony stuff and so it proved when we recoupled them.
All the off-road trailers handled this stony ground with ease, obediently following the towing vehicles. We were also impressed by the ability of the Mitsubishis to cope with extreme traction control and wheel travel needs. Naturally, the ones fitted with optional rear axle diff locks had a definite edge and would be our spec’ pick for any towing Mitsubishi.
Armed with the knowledge that our convoy was extremely off-road capable, we were ready to challenge the across-desert trek to WA, but road condition news on the satphone was disheartening: all the NT desert tracks were shut until further notice. Worse, when they did re-open there would be precious little of the dust and corrugations we needed for our comprehensive OTA camper trailer torture test. What to do?
We headed around the edge of the West Macdonnells, to reach Hermannsburg, where we knew we could get internet access (and the best hot chips we’ve ever tasted).
While I confirmed the road conditions with the very friendly local police, Graham and Les, our computer boffins, clicked onto the Bureau of Meteorology site and pored over the weather maps. The indications were for more rain coming in from the north-west, threatening to saturate the inland, including the Oodnadatta Track, which we intended to use when heading home.
Clearly, there would be no long stretches of dust and corrugations for weeks to come. We needed a new test strategy.
We camped at the north end of the Owen Springs Track – closed further to the south by flood waters – and had a meeting that night to discuss our options. The only place where we could guarantee there’d be plenty of bulldust and rough road conditions was the Gulf.
That meant retracing our steps up the blacktop to the Barkly Roadhouse and heading north to Cape Crawford, but the crew didn’t mind. The thought of warmer weather, away from the freezing damp of the inland, more than made up for the extra kilometres we’d have to cover and the disappointment of not seeing the Pilbara and the West Coast. In celebration of warming prospects, Geoffrey ran an impromptu ‘streak’ around his Triton ute and Heaslip camper.
Next morning, we said goodbye to the rain and headed north.
As we rolled into the Outback Van Park in Tennant Creek the crew’s mood was buoyant, despite the a fact that we’d had to change our route radically to escape the present and future risk of a flooded stranding in the middle of what should have been dry desert at this time of year.
Tennant Creek was basking in bright sunshine, in contrast to the foggy gloom we’d left behind in Alice Springs and the temperature was in the mid-20s: around twice that of The Alice.
It gave us a chance to dry off the camper trailer tents and do some shopping and minor repairs to trailer plugs.
Next day saw brisk progress up the blacktop, to a bush camp in a gravel pit on the Tablelands Highway, en route to Cape Crawford.
We spent two nights in the grassy, shaded campground at Cape Crawford and took the opportunity to check out the ‘extras’ provided with all the camper trailers.
Many people camp for a few days in their trailers and we needed to go through the routine of assembling the canvas and mesh awnings, panels and poles that help turn these compact trailers into homes away from home.
We had a day off from towing and drove the solo vehicles up the Savannah Way to Limmen National Park, where we walked around the fantastic, eroded formations of the Southern Lost City. We also had a day off cooking and treated ourselves to Barra and chips dinner at the campground restaurant. Bliss.
We departed Cape Crawford and rolled along the bitumen strip to Borroloola, where we checked out road conditions ahead and fuelled up. The sun rays continued to pour down and we soaked them up during a lunch stop on the banks of the McArthur River. Croc traps were out for a couple of whoppers that had been making a nuisance of themselves, so we didn’t stray too near the water.
Dust at last
Our aim was to test the Mitsubishis and trailers on corrugated, dusty roads and the Savannah Way east of Borroloola didn’t disappoint. We were soon running along in a spread-out convoy, keeping behind the dust clouds in front, while the Cooper tyres danced over the expected corrugations: just what we needed.
Camp that night was beside a billabong on a narrow bush track, just beyond the Garawa Aboriginal Land. The track was nothing more than a pair of obscure wheel tracks through tall grass, but the Hema Navigator showed it quite clearly, while the other nav units in the convoy did not.
We’d spoken to some caravanners in Borroloola and knew that the Calvert River crossing was the deepest and rockiest on the road, and had turned quite a few travellers around. The water was clear enough to see that we’d be able to cross it, but the bottom consisted of large rocks, rolled into confusion by recent heavy rains. This was a slow, careful crossing.
The Mitsubishis tip-toed over the stones at crawling pace in low range and the trailers bobbed along behind. We didn’t pick up water in any of the Challengers or Tritons, or in any of the trailers, but the Pajeros scored slightly damp carpet near the door sills. We put it down to small air-bleed holes in the hollow door seals that are probably there to make shutting the doors easier on the ears, so we resolved to dab the holes with silicone if we came across another 700mm-deep river.
After the Calvert crossing we passed the now-closed roadhouse at Wollogorang and stayed at Hell’s Gate for the night. This roadhouse doesn’t have supplies, but offers unleaded and diesel in exchange for cash and has shaded campsites and good camping facilities. Because we were able to fuel at Hell’s Gate we could swing south and drive on bush tracks to Lawn Hill National Park, rather than take the easier route via Doomadgee or Burketown. This rougher track suited our test program ideally, giving us plenty of bulldust and sandy and rocky sections for vehicle and trailer testing.
Bulldust we got – in spades. On a test like this you can always tell when there’s been enough of one type of road condition, because the photographers and video crew tire of shooting it.
And so it was with the bulldust: we had more of it than the scene-recorders needed, but we can categorically say that dust entry wasn’t an issue with the Mitsubishis or the campers.
We found it best to run the vehicle aircon systems on ‘fresh’ to pressurise the interiors and that proved very effective in keeping the talc-like stuff on the outsides.
All the trailers had good dust sealing, with only a couple having a few gaps that let in small amounts of dust. Even then, dust entry was confined to storage areas and none had dust in their critical sleeping areas.
As we expected the Tritons sucked a fair amount of dust into their cargo trays and the cause wasn’t the tonneaus – one hard shell and one vinyl – but the tailgate gaps. They’d be easily plugged with an optional sealing kit.
Kingfisher Camp is an oasis on this dusty route and is well worth an overnight stay. Our schedule restricted us to a lunch stop under the shady trees in the camping area and the girls found time to buy some jars of home-made jams and pickles. Tomato and passionfruit in a jam jar blends an odd combination, but is a taste sensation!
Post-Wet road repairs meant that the tracks down to Lawn Hill also gave us some rough stony sections to bounce over, but the most testing area was a section of the Nicholson Channels, where the sandy, silty river bottom had dried into dry-bog consistency that caught out one of our crew.
The rear diff of one Triton snagged a rock that had rolled up out of the sand, so we did a quick, low-stress recovery using a long tow rope run through both recovery eyes of the Kimberley Kamper to both front recovery points on the Triton.
The operation was done with few revs and the stuck machine came out easily. Normally, we wouldn’t tow anything via a trailer, but this case was a low-effort, flat-ground job that needed little oomph.
The dust gave way to flooding among the melaleucas at Lawn Hill Creek, just short of the camping area at Adels Grove. The permanent waterhole on Lawn Hill Creek was greatly expanded by late season rains and gave us our last water crossing of the trip.
Adels Grove is a victim of its own popularity, so camping was somewhat squeezy, but well worth it for the pleasure of walking the steep, rocky tracks at Lawn Hill National Park next day.
Our first flat
From Lawn Hill we headed out to Gregory Downs and the wide gravel road to Burketown. At this stage in the trip – over some 7000km of bush roads – we hadn’t had a single puncture among the Cooper tyres on the Mitsubishis and camper trailers and I was pleased that the 18-inch ATRs on one of the Pajeros had stood up so well. However, just as I was thinking we’d manage the whole trip without a tyre incident the SensaTyre alarm went off in Murray’s vehicle and the convoy pulled up around him.
The dashboard monitor indicated a slow leak in the left rear tyre, so we took it off and checked for damage. We found a small stone cut in the centre of the tread and plugged it. That tyre was still holding air perfectly four days later when we finished dirt-road driving.
If we hadn’t had tyre pressure monitoring I know from experience what would have happened: the tyre would have lost more air and heated up as it flexed excessively; then blown out when it overheated.
With the tyre fixed temporarily, we tootled into Normanton and then Karumba, where camping at the Gulf Caravan Park was tight, because of the influx of travellers forced north by the wet weather down south. Karumba’s beachfront became the official finishing point for the OTA Camper Trailer Torture Test, because from there south were nothing more than transit driving conditions.
The Test Vehicles and Campers
We'd started organising the OTA Camper Trailer Torture Test almost a year before and we chose a variety of off-road camper trailers for the final six: Challenge, Cub, Heaslip, Kimberley, T Van and Trak Shak.
This meant a mix of hard-floor campers (Cub, Kimberley and T Van) and soft-floors (Challenge, Heaslip and Trak Shak).
Within those broad categories there were additional differences: Cub’s Brumby was a lightweight that had winch-controlled opening and closing; Kimberley’s Kamper Platinum was a top-shelf unit with luxury touches and the T Van offered hard-roof and well as hard-floor convenience.
Among the soft-floor trio there were also vocational differences: the Challenge was a compact fast-erect unit with no fridge space; the Heaslip unit was modular and could fit on a cab/chassis or a trailer; and the Trak Shak had a vast interior that suited families or groups.
All the hard-floor models had independent suspension, as did the Trak Shak, but the Heaslip and Challenge trailers ran on beam axles with leaf springs.
While the trailer selection process was going on we approached Mitsubishi to see if they’d like to provide a range of towing vehicles.
We chose Mitsubishi because of the recent introduction of the Challenger and the revised specifications for the Triton range that include stability and traction control, as well as an optional rear diff lock.
These traction aids were ideal additions to any towing vehicle specification.
We finished up with two Pajeros (a VRX and an Exceed), two Challengers (an LS and an XLS) and two Tritons (both GLXRs, but one with a hard tonneau and the other a soft one).
Safety through reliable Outback communications is our first consideration, so we packed our Iridium satellite phones and were given additional backup from Landwide Satellite Solutions, in the form of a Solara satellite tracking device
Navigation was an easy choice: Hema’s Road and 4WD Atlas, plus detailed desert mapping on tear-proof, waterproof Great Desert Map sheets and the latest version of the company’s Navigator satnav unit.
All vehicles and trailers had Cooper tyres fitted and SensaTyre pressure monitoring displays on their dashboards.
In more than 10,000km of camper trailer towing, including 7000km of outback roads and tracks, the six Mitsubishis performed very well. The only dramas we had were a loose variable geometry turbo actuator hose that dropped power in one of the Tritons - fixed in a few minutes by Kittles in Alice Springs - and a trailer jack-knife in the mud between Windorah and Bedourie that slightly damaged a Challenger rear quarter panel and mudguard flare.
The Tritons and Challengers were powered by 131kW/350Nm 2.5-litre engines that coupled to the company’s auto boxes and while the drivers appreciated the ease of towing provided by the autos they all expressed a desire for the missing 50Nm that the manual transmission models scored.
The 147kW/441Nm, 3.2-litre Pajeros easily outperformed the 2.5-litre machines – no surprises there – but didn’t use any more fuel in the process. In fact, the Pajero/Challenge Camper combination turned in the best fuel consumption of all six vehicles, with an overall average of 12.4L/100km. The Pajero/Kimberley – the second heaviest combination with the heaviest ball load – returned 14L/100km.
The Challengers and Tritons returned a collective average of 14L/100km, with the Triton/Heaslip combination at 13L/100km and the Triton/T Van combination at 15L/100km.
The safety benefits of traction and stability control were obvious in the mud, rock-hopping and bulldust sections of our test and we doubt we’d have managed the mud run into Bedourie without these aids.
All six trailers proved capable of following their towing vehicles over tough off-road terrain and were also easy to haul on bitumen and gravel roads.
In the slippery muddy sections we encountered on the flooded Windorah to Bedourie Road the long drawbar units – Kimberley and T Van – towed straighter than the shorter-bar trailers.
However, their heavier ball loads compressed the rear suspensions of the towing vehicles more, reducing ground clearance in off-road conditions and also detracting from ride quality.
After-market suspensions on these towing vehicles would be necessary for ball loads above around 110kg, we felt.
Erecting and packing the camper trailer tents was tricky for the first week or so, but after that everyone knew the procedure and overnight camping became a pleasure. However, when it came to fitting the additional awnings and tent extensions you’d need for extended stays or family camping the trailers were a mixed bag.
The hard-floor campers – Cub, Kimberley and T Van – proved ideal for camping on surfaces where it wasn’t possible to drive in the tent pegs that the soft-floor campers needed. The down side was the necessary step up and down when entering and leaving the camper. All these camper trailers required a small step ladder when connecting awnings.
The camper trailer test reports are on this website.
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