Following the Big Wet - 2011 Trip – Part 22: Grafton to Canberra and a final adventure.

Friday, Dec 16, 2011 at 20:05


Troopy definitely dislikes going home. We have had several trips where niggling problems have disrupted the last leg of the journey home, and this trip was to be no exception.

After a catch-up with family at Grafton we braced ourselves for the heavy Pacific Highway traffic – a far cry from the quiet outback tracks of a few short weeks ago. We stopped in for a quick refresh of old memories at one of the rapidly growing beachside villages south of Coffs Harbour. We built a cottage there years ago and have many happy memories from the years we spent there while our children were small. We sold the house a few years ago and it has now been replaced by a rather more up-market abode.

We decided to have an easy day and stop over at Diamond Head in the Crowdy Bay NP near Laurieton. There is a good campground there right on the beach, and it’s another place where we have had numerous happy times stretching back over 30 years. There is a looong empty beach and wonderful walks over the big headlands that are covered with wildflowers in spring.

There were only a few campers at this time of year, so there were plenty of grassy spots to choose from. After setting up camp we went for a long walk on the beach, a great place to reflect on the past couple of months and bring our trip full circle somehow.

We had set out on this trip to follow the effects of last seasons big rains on the inland waterways, and we had followed and camped beside some of our country’s iconic rivers (or creeks). Cooper Creek, Eyre Creek and the Diamantina River all end up in Lake Eyre and don’t reach the sea. But others like the Darling River in NSW, and the many rivers we had camped beside across the north and eastern parts of Queensland – the Cloncurry/Flinders, Burdekin and Condamine all eventually flow to the sea, even if by sometimes tenuous and tortuous channels.

So, here we were, back by the sea with all its special drama and mysteries, different colours, constant motion and sound – such a contrast to the outback ochre, the stillness and the silence. We felt very fortunate to be able to travel our country to see and experience even a little of what it has to offer.

We were away early the next morning for the long drive down the highway among increasing numbers of big trucks. At Hexham we turned inland through Cessnock and Singleton although we didn’t escape the heavy traffic until we turned off for Denman and the quiet run through the beautiful Bylong Valley. We have travelled via Bylong numerous times and were surprised to find that the road is now fully sealed.

We had planned to spend our last night at a special camp spot we’ve used a number of times at the southern end of the valley. However we arrived there rather earlier than planned, and hearing an ominous weather forecast for snow, wind and heavy rain, we decided to press on a bit further. To add another note of concern we had noticed today that Troopy’s batteries did not appear to be charging properly. We hoped that everything would just hold together until we arrived home, but for our final night we will head for Sofala.

Past Ilford it started to sprinkle and then we noticed a sharp voltage drop on the cranking battery. There was nothing for it but to stop and check it out. While we had the bonnet up a car pulled up and a young man came over to offer assistance. Imagine our surprise when we recognised a nephew from Grafton! He kindly offered to follow us in to Sofala, but we reckoned that we would be OK and we didn’t want to hold him up as he still had some way to go. Still it was reassuring to see a familiar face when there is that nagging doubt about how your vehicle is performing.

So what was the problem? With only a couple of hundred kilometres to go at the end of an 11,000 km trip, the alternator had died. Troopy is wired so that the house batteries get charged by a dc-dc charger whenever the engine is running. But this didn’t allow for the possibility of the engine running but the alternator not working. The cranking battery was pretty low, having taken over the job of charging the house batteries. Oh what a feeling!

The weather was turning nasty. Late afternoon, the light was fading under heavy cloud cover and it was drizzling. We needed the electrically operated windscreen wipers, should have used the electrically operated lights, needed the electrically operated ignition (Troopy is a petrol vehicle). We urgently needed somewhere more or less horizontal to stop for the night and devise a strategy to get us home.

We kept going on that long winding road with its steep descent down to historic Sofala. We arrived there just as the last of the daylight was fading and the persistent drizzle was setting in to rain. Our Camps book showed a couple of camps east of the village. By the time we found the campsite it was almost dark. There was little wind down in the valley but we could hear it howling over the ridge tops. From the little that we could see of this campsite it was a pretty spot beside the Turon River in an area that we really must explore some more.

But the travel gods were still smiling on us, as there was a big picnic shelter that we could pull right up to and use as living space while the rain settled in and we considered our options. So we heated up a frozen meal that we had cooked over a campfire somewhere near Normanton, and went to bed to plan the final leg of our journey home.

There was a bit to think about. John had ascertained that Troopy’s alternator was kaput-dead. The cranking battery might be able to start Troopy, but certainly wouldn’t see us home. A jump start from one of the very few other campers here might be possible. The house batteries could be connected so as to maintain operation after starting, but the critical need was to start the engine. There was little prospect of any help locally, so at the very least we had to make it to Bathurst.

Next morning was cold and wet, heavily overcast with fog hanging over the ridge tops. John rigged the wiring so that the house batteries and their solar panels would feed into the cranking battery. (Not that there was any sunlight to harvest at that time!) Troopy started enthusiastically, but we realised that it mightn’t happen again if we switched the motor off. We had to get at least to Bathurst without stopping the engine.

We could not use the lights, and the wipers would barely function, but we had to use them because the drizzle and fog persisted until we reached Bathurst. We couldn’t afford the electricity to run the fan, so no fan and no air conditioning to keep the windscreen clear. It was cold and drizzling but we had to keep the windows open to stop the windscreen fogging up!

It was a slow but uneventful trip into Bathurst, and by the time we arrived in town the fog had cleared and there were a few breaks in the clouds. Having successfully reached there we decided to keep going, remembering not to turn the ignition off when we stopped for lunch and comfort stops. Eventually the sun came out, the solar panels took over and the current meters turned positive! We were heading home in a solar powered Troopy! Perhaps to celebrate, the odometer clicked over 400,000km just before we reached home.

The lessons learned? Allow for the unexpected. Nurture optimism. Maintain maximum flexibility in the rig, even to the extent of making allowance for the house batteries to charge the cranking battery and run all the vehicle electrics. And never assume that the alternator is working just because the engine is running! And we confirmed again, the benefits of metering everything important, so you know early when things go wrong.

We made it home well before dark, after 11000 km in 11 weeks, and were rewarded by a big excited welcome from Lucy, our Border Collie. It had been a wonderful trip, but it was good to be home.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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