The urge to hit the road full time had been gestating since the early 1980s. I was finding it difficult to settle down after travelling the length and breadth of Australia to research and photograph three of my books.
The short version: I wish I had launched this adventure at least 15 years ago.
The long version: It would have been a lot harder to do back then considering the need to earn a living and the available technologies.
But let’s not dwell on that. Here’s why it is working for me now, and for many hundreds of other full-time travellers across Australia.
Let’s perversely start with some of the negatives.
The vehicle I live in, a 1985 Toyota Coaster bus, converted in Japan into a mobile bordello (too true and a story for another time) has a second floor — the ‘penthouse’ — which adds another dimension when its popup roof is extended.
After its raucous beginnings it was exported to Australia as a motorhome, but spent most of its time in a paddock as temporary accommodation for visitors.
The long park did no good to the engine or brakes and by the time I took delivery six years ago it was obvious it was going to need some extra tender loving care, which as we know, is not cheap.
The brakes were first to be fixed. The brake casings were virtually rusted through and needed replacement, the pads were equally knackered. About $2300 later I was able to drive safely to the big bus doctor where the engine was given a through going over. Vital fluids, plenty of fresh grease, a full set of belts, filters, spark plugs, etc, were replaced.
As well, the front wheel alignment was corrected and two new tyres replaced the dangerously worn ones.
All up it was another expensive exercise.
But, after that transformation it was a pleasure to drive and not have to fight the steering wheel all the time. Fuel consumption also improved dramatically.
Another boost to fuel economy came with replacing the four back dual tyres which were the original ‘snow’ tyres it was imported with. That action alone gave the bus an extra gear up hills, a higher top speed and a smoother ride generally.
Repair, rip-out or restore?
'Madam Plush' as she soon became known among friends, had a fairly schizophrenic interior when I took delivery.
The original section consists of fine Japanese carpentry used for an elegant lounge, a kitchen bench with a sink and lovely cupboards with wood and brass door knobs, and a toilet cubicle. The wall and door surfaces look enamelled and everything is solid.
And with typical Japanese ingenuity for small spaces they’ve tucked in a surprising amount of storage nooks.
There are some touches that might be a bit overdone for a Western eye, but having travelled through Japan, I appreciate the gestures like tasseled curtains and ornate ceiling lights; they have a way of softening the clean lines of the woodwork.
The lounge is also designed to easily convert into a near king-size bed; a one-minute exercise.
I decided to restore the Japanese look-and-feel as best I could, and everyone who has climbed onboard for a sticky beak has been suitably impressed.
The previous Australian owner had decided to built an onboard kitchen behind the driver’s seat. He had built strange long, open shelving with chipboard, already swelling from spills on its untreated surfaces, which hosted a barely-working 3-way fridge (which desperately needed an external vent to diffuse heat) and a small gas cooker.
Needless to say it is no more. Instead there is now a long waist-high cupboard with 12 large drawers, all designed to match the existing interior.
Opposite I’ve installed an all-electric, 24V 80-litre Waeco combination chest freezer/fridge/dairy. It works superbly and is very economical with its power needs.
Upstairs, in the ‘penthouse’, the walls and floor are carpeted, or should I say ‘padded’? There’s a big popup roof and a small skylight, and if it weren’t for my buggered knees it would have made a fine bedroom.
As it is, it is now used for storage for stuff not in daily use … the trout fishing gear, paper towels and toilet rolls, lightweight camping gear, tinned food, water hoses …
Other facelifts included the floor with its stained shagpile carpet — now an easy-to-clean, heavy-duty vinyl covering that looks like mahogany; LED lights throughout (sadly replacing the red and purple bulbs in the front ceiling fitting) and curtains for the whole front half professionally made from an elegant green bedspread.
From a rather bland interior, the makeover succeeded beyond what I expected, and I must admit the transition was made easier by me not being able to hit the road for nearly a year after I bought Madam Plush, and having tools and other resources near at hand.
The delay, however, created its own problems which I’ll expand on in Part Two of this series.