Paperweights and coat button polishers

In April 1861, the explorers Robert Burke and William Wills — sick, starving and desperate to survive — abandoned their surveying instruments and other ‘non-essential’ items in outback Queensland and continued south on their ill-fated journey.

More than 150 years later, in a discovery being proclaimed as the holy grail for Burke and Wills enthusiasts, a Melbourne academic claims he has found some of their equipment buried in a creek bed hundreds of kilometres inland from Brisbane.

The site, known as the Plant Camp, is integral to the Burke and Wills story because it tells of the increasingly desperate state of mind of the explorers who were unwell, low on supplies, and had to abandon everything but their food after a camel died.

At that stage a party of four, the men struggled on from Plant Camp to Cooper Creek (also known as Cooper’s Creek) in South Australia, only to find their support party had given up on them hours earlier. All but one of the explorers, John King, died.

Melbourne academic Frank Leahy discovered the buried instruments in 2007, after a painstaking search that began more than 20 years earlier. Now Mr Leahy and the Royal Society of Victoria want the Queensland Government to declare the site a heritage area.

Items recovered include rifle and revolver bullets, a spirit bubble used for surveying, buckles from belts or strapping, a canvas and leather sewing kit containing pliers and needles, hinges, latches and a paperweight.

“Reading about Burke and Wills and their paperweight,” writes Paul Oxenham, of Haberfield (in a wry note in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8), “reminded me of the ill-fated expedition led by Franklin to find the north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

“After his ship was trapped in ice, part of the expedition set out across the ice, dragging a whale boat to be used when they reached open water.

“Unfortunately most of the party died before rescuers found them and their boat, which contained, among other necessities of life, coat button polishers.”

As I prepare for my next road trip I’m trying to be careful as usual about what I take on board, but I feel sure I’ll also end up with a few ‘essential’ paperweights and coat button polishers of my own …

A new chapter

2014 marked a milestone or two …

May 1 was the fifth anniversary of my life on the road, a journey that has delivered many highlights and a few major frustrations, and helped me embrace a simpler lifestyle.

On May 8 I turned 70, celebrating a longer journey full of adventure and chaos.

It was also a time for reflection and this Journal of Discovery is going to be the vehicle.

When I first hit the road in 2009 I started a blog, now defunct, that attempted to chronicle my travels. It had its moments, but soon became a nagging millstone as I slowly realised this journey was not one of recording day-to-day miscellany but of discovery, and a time to remember and celebrate a lifetime of adventure around the world.

Hot air balloons prepare for flight as early morning fog begins to liftNikon F3 24mm
Hot air balloons prepare for flight as early morning fog begins to lift at Canowindra, NSW
Nikon F3 24mm

A time to delve into my photographic archives (especially the 90,000 colour slides sitting in filing cabinets at a friend's house in Hobart), and a time to sift through the countless thousands of words written for newspapers, magazines and my books, and find the odd gem worth sharing.

This journal of discovery, and rediscovery, promises to be an eclectic journey. Welcome aboard.

The camera you have with you …

My first carry-everywhere camera was a Fujifilm SP-2000, a compact package that came in useful but was soon discarded as it was just too slow to get going, and had a few quirks in usage. Several other pocket cameras by Nikon and Sony followed, but again did not quite do the job.

Then came the Apple iPhones …

Testing the resolution and colour gamut of the original iPhone 3GS camera.
Testing the resolution and colour gamut of the original iPhone 3GS camera.

The Apple iPhone 3GS was launched in mid-2009 and revolutionised the concept of smartphone cameras forever.

Slim, multi-functional, and with amazing optics for the size, they’ve remained my carry-everywhere cameras.

The iPhone 3GS was not too shabby with action shots either
The iPhone 3GS was not too shabby with action shots either

What’s difficult to believe is that both of these are crops of the originals, shown full-frame below.


Self-sufficiency on the road

Because of her bulbous ‘penthouse’, Madam Plush[1] called for an unusual solar installation, and six years’ later the combination of flat and angled panels has proved a winner.

The combined 420W solar setup keeps the free power surging in, even on the dullest days.

The solar setup

  • 1 x Morningstar PS30M 30A regulator
  • 1 x Sinergex 24volt 1000W [2000W surge] pure-sine wave inverter
  • 1 x Sinergex 24volt 12A 3-outlet battery charger
  • 4 x 12volt 100Ah AGM batteries [wired for 24volt]
  • 2 x Suntech 75W 12volt solar panels
  • 2 x Suntech 135W 12volt solar panels[2]

What Solar Freedom 1 provides:

  • Free electricity[3] to three 240V and six 12V outlets — in the office, kitchen and lounge
  • Free power via the 1000W inverter which is on most of the time, charging computers, phones, radios, torches and cameras
  • Free power for interior lighting, all converted to LEDs, which barely sip power
  • On sunny days I often use the electric kettle and rice cooker
  • On cloudy days I simply try and cut down charging too many bits and pieces
  • After two or more cloudy days in a row, I usually bunker down with the iPad and enjoy its excellent 10-hour battery life

But, even on cloudy and rainy days, the solar panels still gather in enough usable energy to keep things ticking over.

In six years I’ve only run the batteries down to about 50% of capacity 4-5 times, and if it was still daylight they soon bounced back.

The 80-litre Waeco fridge/freezer is connected directly to the 24V battery bank with heavy wiring to minimise current losses. It cycles on about 10–12 minutes each hour [24/7] and is very economical with power use.

What Solar Freedom 2 will provide:

Before the end of 2014 I’m planning to upgrade my AGM batteries and replace them with a bank of LiFeP04 (Lithium Ferrous) cells.

The current 24volt system will be converted to 12volt, so I’ll have 400Ah of lithium power which will be nearly double what I can take out of the system compared to the AGMs. And, there’s the added bonus of the new batteries being able to recharge much quicker.

The longterm shopping list includes:

  • An upgraded inverter, a 12-volt 2000W (4000W surge) pure-sine model
  • 240v 4-star rating upright fridge (I’m tired of finding strangely-coloured textures in the bottom of the chest fridge come defrost time)
  • Induction cooktop

  1. The moniker given my 1985 Toyota Coaster bus with its unusual ‘penthouse’. A full description and history (with photographs) promised soon.  ↩

  2. The price of the solar panels has dropped 65–75% since these were installed.  ↩

  3. The price of household electricity in Hobart alone has increased nearly 30% in two years  ↩

Amazonian headhunters and musical mayhem

Camped at New Norfolk, Tasmania, last summer I was surrounded by backpacking fruit-pickers in their tents and whizbangs (Kombi-type vehicles with very noisy sliding doors). They’d be off early each morning and arrive back exhausted about mid- to late-afternoon.

An hour or two of online activity, a quick meal, and off to bed they’d go. The few I managed to speak to said it was all worth it. On a very good day the hard labour netted them $2-300. Enough to build the nest egg for the next travel adventure.

Among them were Adrien and Veronique, a young couple from Paris who had been following the fruit picking trail for some months.

Adrien had some unusual tattoos with a whimsical and creative literary bent.

Below the oak tree on his left arm was the first chapter of Cul de Sac by Douglas Kennedy which took five hours of inking.

When not travelling Adrien and his cohorts have a rather interesting band — Dinosaurus Volcanosaurus Dawgs — and together they create a bit of online mayhem.

Veronique is a direct descendant of King Behanzin of Benin. The Wikipedia entry is worth reading as the Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) was the last African outpost to fall to colonialism.

It was also home to the Dahomey Amazons or Mino who were a Fon all-female military regiment. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia.

Talking with this softly-spoken traveller it is hard to believe her ancestors were rather fond of beheading opponents.

[Headhunter image courtesy Wikipedia]

The journey so far

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.