Thursday, November 19, 2015

Adelaide or bust...

February 2015

There have been some serious gaps in my postings lately with most of my words and energy having been going into Vintage Caravan Magazine. I had originally written this story to go in issue 24, but I opted not to tell such a sad tale of woe and so I left it out.  But let me fill in some gaps by explaining what happened on my last Australian road trip and why you haven't seen me out and about for a while. 

I had it all planned perfectly. I’d spent the previous month planning my big Aussie road trip: Five events in five weeks across four states.  I’d booked where I was staying and when, how many kilometres I would be driving on each of the days. I made arrangements to stop in and meet VCM readers along the way and planned to stay at places I’d been to before where I had I wanted to spend some more time. The van was packed, the car was loaded with magazines and I was excited to be back in Australia and back on the road again. Ah the best made plans…

The Cresta had spent the previous few weeks at the mechanics getting a new alternator, new leads and points and a full service and tune up and as we set off from Maleny she ran like a dream and I was loving life. Cruising down the highway in a classic car with my pink little portable abode bobbing along behind me, it just doesn’t get any better than that!
I’d decided to take the more direct inland route heading down to Adelaide, South Australia and the first drive was a relatively short one to Leyburn; home of the Historic Leyburn Sprints, about three and a half hours away.  Whenever I do a long road trip, I generally break my trip up into alternating short and long drive days so as not to wear myself out.  The next day was going to be a big drive day, so I set off again past Goondwindi with the intention of making it to Gilgandra, New South wales about six hundred kilometres away. With rest stops I figured it would take me around eight hours to get there and I had booked myself a spot at the Gilgandra Caravan Park.

It was hot and sunny and the skies were clear and blue and then the colours changed as the sun began to set and I marveled at the glorious hues that I only ever see in country Australia. Life was good. About forty kilometres out of Narrabri, there was an almighty “BANG” and then the wobble, wobble, wobble in the steering as my front driver’s side tyre exploded. As I removed all my outdoor setting and pink flamingos from the boot of the car, I suddenly realized that I had emptied the boot of the Cresta of everything when my spare fuel tank had leaked last time I had taken her out to let the fuel dry and had forgotten to put the jack back in. D’oh! Luckily, a call to RACQ roadside assistance had me sorted and Luke from NRMA put my spare on and kindly offered to take the busted wheel into the tyre shop to get fixed saying I could pick it up in the morning. It was too late to check into a caravan park by then, so I stayed that night in a park by the river in Narrabri. I was feeling quite content in my cute little pink gypsy abode.  I set about rearranging my itinerary in order to make up for lost time so that I could still make it to the South Australian Caravan and Camping Show.

The next morning I set off the pick up my new tyre, but missed the turnoff, so I pulled over to call Luke to find out where I was supposed to go. I turned the key off but something was terribly wrong. The Cresta was making a horrendous whirring sound from under the bonnet and no matter what I did with the key it wouldn’t stop. Smoke started billowing out from the engine and I panicked. I frantically called Luke again and a nice guy with a truck stopped and disconnected the battery for me.

By the time Luke arrived the starter motor was fried. He towed me to the mechanics and then towed the caravan back to Narrabri Big Sky Caravan Park so I could have somewhere to chill and catch up on work while I waited.  Later that afternoon, I got the call that the car was fixed. Still determined to make it in time, I hooked up and set off again, stopping in at Repco to pick up a new jack and wheel brace, just in case! But to soon became apparent that something was seriously wrong with the Cresta. She was struggling…. big time! I could barely get over sixty kilometres an hour and the further we went down the road, the worse it seemed to get. All of a sudden, the long flat road started to feel like one very long gradual uphill crawl. It took me over three hours to get only one hundred and twenty kilometres down the road to the astronomy capitol of Australia: Coonabarrabran.

Concerned about setting off into the impending darkness and out of civilization again, I pulled over and it was at that moment that she decided to completely give up and die. I couldn’t get her to start again. Disheartened beyond belief, I called RACQ again and they sent a tow truck out. “This motor’s stuffed”, the tow truck driver said. I told him what had happened and he gave me a look like only a true blue country bloke can when he comes across a woman traveling solo in a pink car and caravan from the 1960s. “Well whadidya keep driving it for then?” he scowled.
“I’m supposed to be in Adelaide tomorrow for a big caravan show…” I replied defiantly.

At that stage I knew I was doomed. There was no way I was going to make it to the show now. Because the driver determined that the repairs would take more than twenty-four hours, RACQ said they would arrange for it and the van to be towed back to Queensland.  They would also pay for my accommodation and transport back.  If you take nothing else from this story, let it be this: No matter where in the world you live, if you want to go on caravan adventures, make sure you have top level roadside assistance cover and make sure you tell them you want extra cover for your caravan or trailer! What I would have done without them I have no idea…

A very kind VCM’er from somewhere near Sydney, on hearing my plight kindly offered me his Landcruiser so that I could continue on my journey and so I set off once again. We managed to get the Cresta started and going and he offered to drive her very gently back to his place and assess the damage and possibly get her fixed. I would be heading back via Sydney after Adelaide and Phillip Island anyway, so that sounded like a good plan. Off into the land of no mobile phone reception I drove towards Dubbo with the intention of pushing through to Mildura that night and on to Adelaide the next day. I was still hopeful that I could make it; albeit a day or so late.  At the very least I would make it to the next event; the vintage caravan display at the Clipsal 500 V8 Supercars race and was looking forward to a week on the beach at the Adelaide Shores Caravan Park in the meantime.

As I arrived in Dubbo, the texts came in. Cresta had only made it about thirty kilometres down the road before she had let out an almighty bang and last groan and was now officially and completely 100% dead. I had no choice - I had to turn back. I called RACQ again and stopped in at the NRMA office to fax the recovery forms off. On the way back to the car, I bumped into an avid VCM fan named Kris who had spotted Betty parked on the main street and had left me a note on the windscreen. “I just have to tell you, you and your magazine have been such an inspiration to us!” she told me, and I burst into tears and hugged her hard.  What a blessing it was to hear such words of encouragement while I was having such a hard time of it!
Admitting defeat, I back tracked to Coonabarrabran, gave Mitchell back his car, said a sad goodbye to the Cresta and went back to Queensland, feeling sad and deflated.

After a couple of days recovering, a new resolve dawned on me and I asked my son if I could borrow the black Commodore that I had given him for his 18th birthday and try it one more time.  I felt like I’d let so many people down who said how much they had hoped to see me at the Caravan show but I still had time to make it to the next event; the Clipsal 500, also in Adelaide. Even though it had been less than ideal, I had loved being back out on the road again and I wanted to be back out there. I hooked up the van again and set off once again. I was back on the road, I now had air conditioning and a pumping stereo system and I felt awesome! Life was good!

About fifty kilometres before Narrabri and the car’s temperature suddenly hit the roof and alarms went off, I pulled over, let her cool off and checked the radiator. It seemed to have water in it and the fans were working OK, but I topped the water up just a little anyway and set off again. All was going well and I watched the temperature gauge anxiously.  It was fine, it was fine, it was fine… and then it was not! The engine made an almighty BANG followed by a clunk, clunk, clunk clunk and I pulled over again. I opened the bonnet and smoke was billowing out from the engine. This was not good. I was forty kilometres outside of Narrabri; the exact same spot where the Cresta tyre had exploded. What are the odds?

I called RACQ and my old mate Luke came to the rescue once more. I rolled back into the Narrabri Big Sky Caravan Park with the Commodore on the flat bed and Betty bobbing along behind and they could not believe their eyes, or my bad luck.  By then, neither could I.  For whatever reason I may never understand, I was slowly coming to the realization that this trip just wasn’t meant to be. I shed some tears, but I accepted my fate and felt thankful for small mercies. I was safe, I had good people around me to help, and road trips are what road trips are; unpredictable snippets of time where things quite often don’t go as planned, but the unplanned detours along the way and the amazing characters you meet as a consequence are usually what makes the whole adventure so worthwhile. 

Having told my tale of woe to Bob Taylor (aka: Mr Olympic) who was down in Adelaide keeping me filled in on all that I was missing, he put me in touch with Narrabri locals Allan and Gabbie Pym who came by to visit me at the caravan park in their classic Monaro. We went back to their place to check out their car collection that included and old PA Vauxhall and 1964 Sunliner like my "Betty". Allan was working on his EH Holden and the caravan had been painted to match – very cool! We then went back to the caravan park ordered a pizza delivery and had a few drinks and chats outside my caravan. It turns out that the Burns who own the fabulous green Sunliner and Zephyr that were on the cover of issue 22 had also broken down in Narrabri some months before and met up with the Pyms too, so I sent them a text to let them know where I was. Small world. I crawled into the van and slept soundly with the saying: “It matters not how far you travel in life, but those you meet along the way” in my mind. I was thankful for my wonderful vintage caravanning family. I had made some new friends and I still had my beautiful portable home Betty.  Things could be worse...

The next day Luke the NRMA guy hooked Betty on to the back of the tow truck that had the Commodore on it and drove me all the way back to Queensland. By the time we got back, the inside of my van looked like a cyclone had hit, she’d been bumped around so much.
The Commodore got a new water pump but I was nervous about what else could possibly go wrong.  At close to 200,000 km on the clock, I was told that the next things to go would be the radiator, alternator and fuel pump. Not willing to risk another breakdown, I opted to preemptively replace them all.  By now I had missed both of the Adelaide shows, but I had still had time to get to Phillip Island, Victoria, for the Phillip Island Classics and complete the rest of my trip.
So I bravely decided to give it a third shot, hooked up the van and set off yet again.

I stopped at the post office on my way out and when I walked back to the car I noticed that the van seemed to be sitting up unusually high in the front end, even with the weight distribution bars on. Something was not right… I took a closer look and noticed that the bolts that hold the caravan onto the chassis had pulled clear through the floor and there was nothing holding her on to the chassis at all in the front half. The badly made chassis that had only been put on two years ago was only made out of 2mm thick steel and now had a 50mm bend in the middle of it and resembled a banana!.Had I driven a few more hundred kilometres down the road, the results could have been catastrophic. I thanked the caravan angels profusely for drawing my attention to this potential horror before it was too late and turned back once again.

Betty was lifted off her old chassis and a brand new 4mm thick steel one was fitted. This process took about a week. While I was waiting for the caravan to be fixed, my daughter called and asked if I wanted to go to the Gold Coast with her so we could chill on the beach. After all I had been through, that seemed like a great idea. So I picked her up and we headed to the coast. Being the weekend traffic was a nightmare and it was stop, start all the way from Southport. Just as we approached the Southport bridge, the car in front of me stopped suddenly. I hit the brakes and managed to pull up just in time, but the car behind me did not. BANG! We were slammed into from behind, which then pushed us into the car in front. Ouch!
The car that hit us was completely smashed in and was a total write off but, because of my tow bar, we appeared to have made it without barely a scratch. A lucky break, or at least that’s what I thought…
The tow truck driver said that even though the Commodore appeared uninjured, the fact that the back door made a funny “clunk” sound when I close it and now had a gap at the top and sat tight at the bottom meant that my chassis was bent and that the car would be written off. When the insurance company assessed it they agreed that at $11,000 to repair the damage and the fact that the car would be permanently recorded as having been involved in a major collision, they had no choice but to write it off as well.
They towed it away and it was then that I finally admitted defeat. Three strikes, I was out.
I now had no functioning car and my gypsy dreams of that big Aussie Road Trip were well and truly shattered.
One day I hope to be able to afford to rebuild the Cresta engine and in hindsight I should have bought the Commodore off the insurance company and pulled out that newly fixed up supercharged V6 engine to put it in the Cresta as I had always dreamed of doing one day… but by then I was so defeated and exhausted and broken that I just knew I had to do some letting go…

Besides, in a few weeks I would be off to New Zealand for Beach Hop, then back to America for my next big adventure – a ten thousand kilometre across-America road trip in a 1953 Hudson Hornet with the Vintage Caravan Magazine subscriber prize giveaway caravan on the back, taking in all of Route 66 with my fellow Sisters on the Fly.
I am pleased to say that trip was a bit more successful. Life is still good…
You can read all about that adventure in issue 26 of Vintage Caravan Magazine!