Continuing our theme of relentless education, we left the Grampians for the big smoke. In our case, Ballarat and the major draw card, Sovereign Hill and the gold rush era. We stopped along the way at Ararat to visit the Gum San Museum. A tribute to the many thousands of Chinese workers who left everything in China for the supposed riches of the goldfields in Victoria. Some made their fortune, but many died either en-route or toiling under unimaginably harsh conditions on the goldfields. Whilst not part of the Eureka Rebellion, they had their own clashes with European workers and police because of the xenophobia of the day and especially when special levies were applied only to the ‘Celestials’ as they were known. Curiously, history may judge it to have elements of a fairness, primarily as they intended to ship almost all their gold back home to China, and in a modern context, one can imagine the taxes and duties applied today if that occurred.

P1080331P1080326The boys enjoyed dressing up in traditional costumes at the Gum San Museum.IMG_3498James amping it up on the ubiquitous Big 4 jumping pillow.

Once in Ballarat we chose a rather posh ‘Big 4′ caravan park within walking distance to Sovereign Hill. This was an advantage given we managed three visits there. Apart from the initial sticker price shock ($293 before a minor discount), we found Sovereign Hill excellent and once inside, you can see where the money goes. Not only do they operate a pair of 104 year old boilers which power the considerable number of steam powered apparatus around the site, but also teams of Clydesdale horses and a plethora of period costumed staff, only some of whom volunteer.

P1080332Feeling the weight of real gold after watching a live gold ingot pour.


IMG_3495P1080337One of the many streets at Sovereign Hill.P1080352James enjoyed the old fashioned nine pin bowls.

Our ticket also included the ‘Blood on the Southern Cross’ night time light and sound show. This was fantastic (K – but freezing!!), and recreates the events leading up to the infamous Eureka Rebellion of 1854. The entire show is a clever mix of carefully timed computer controlled lighting, fires, simulated gunfire and directional sound sources which give the illusion of a much larger stage as the story unfolds. As it is, the event is held in three areas, one of which has been purpose built and is well away from the rest of Sovereign Hill. Just one actor, who plays Eureka activist turned politician, Peter Lalor, brings up the finale to the show. This finishes the show on a more human touch, making you forget the rest of the show is run by a computer!

P1080356No not dressed for the snow, just rugged up to cope with Victoria’s version of a summer’s night – 5 degrees! After planning for a year of “summer” we were forced to wear pretty much every piece of warm clothing we had!

Luckily the stiff ticket price includes two days entry as well as entry into the adjacent gold museum. We used both days to see each and every attraction, including having some fun panning for the gold flecks that they’ve thrown into the artificial stream for the last 43 years (we were told they add 3 gm to the stream each day). Apparently up to 50% of the tourists who visit are from China, which we’re told is a result of the heavy marketing in China, and according to one staff member, perhaps their lust for gold.

P1080357P1080355Striking gold.

The gold museum had replicas of some of the larger nuggets found around the place, as well as an exhibition on the history of cycling. I was amazed to discover for instance, that two young ladies decided on a whim to ride to Queensland for the winter and ended up cycling around Australia for three years in the 1940’s. And I thought I was adventurous riding 270 km to Ulladulla in 1987!

K – As well as Sovereign Hill the boys and I managed to have a walk around central Ballarat and check out their Art Gallery.  James was keen after spotting an abstract painting in one of the tourist brochures and wanted to check out in the flesh.




Old meets new. SA has really embraced renewable energy.


After a lazy 300km of South Australian farmland we faced another border, back into Victoria – our 10th border crossing in 11 months. Surely our adventure was not coming to an end, and yet it feels like that as we leave the outback behind and enter cultivated farm land. Two months to go and only Victoria and the south coast of NSW to travel through (and lets not forget revisiting Uncle Robert’s Farm at Green Acres).


Our tenth border crossing. No (fruit) flies on us!

We turned off 10 km before Mildura to camp right on the bank of the Murray River at Merbein Common. No facilities but the price was right. This would be our base for the next four nights as we explored the Mildura region. Like all good educationally focused families, our first stop on day one was the Mildura library. Conveniently located next to the info centre, but not after noticing that our indefatigable source of free power, our solar panel, had shattered. Inexplicably, the panel was still working, which meant a tarp was needed every time the weather gods threatened rain, which they did, often. We had our first cracking thunderstorms of the trip, and they rolled on and on over several hours and then again the next day as well.


Our free camp on the banks of the Murray. Sun, rain, sun, lightning!

The library, free WiFi and all, was a great opportunity for the boys to catch up on some homework (although Sam would have achieved more if they did not have such an extensive collection of Lego books!). Another job on the list was an out-of-state pink slip. This was easier to sort out closer to the border than it would have been in other parts of Victoria. The old Cruiser was on the hoist for a nerve wracking hour and apart from a dodgy indicator, got a clean bill of health. After several phone calls and emails, the brilliant news was that the solar panel supplier agreed to send us a replacement panel, well out of warranty and everything!


Down but not out. Our shattered solar panel still cranked out 14 volts like this!

Mildura itself is a pretty, very well ordered town, thanks mainly to the efforts of the Californian Chaffey Brothers, who were the driving force behind the massive fruit growing efforts in the late nineteenth century. They are effectively responsible for this area now growing a massive portion of Australia’s fruit, including almost all of our dried fruit. This gives the region the apt name ‘Sunraysia’. We all checked out the locks and weirs of the Murray, the only ones we’ve seen on our trip, which allow all this extensive irrigation to work whilst mitigating the ever present flood risk threat.


Kris and the boys pose for Mildura street art.

Back at our camp, the boys enjoyed playing by the river building a large dam and their own irrigation network, filling it with bucket loads of river water. James was the only one to brave a full swim in the water, though they both had daily “baths” in the river to clean off after so much mud after play.

A few days later, with clearing skies, we visited nearby Wentworth to see the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers. This is just across the Murray in NSW, even closer to home, yikes! We also had a look around the beautifully restored paddle steamer ‘Ruby’ and squeezed in an afternoon at Perry’s Sand hills.


The confluence of the Murray (left) and Darling (right). We couldn’t pick the difference.


The Paddle Steamer ‘Ruby’, lovingly restored to full working order by volunteers.



Perry’s Sand Hills – just outside of Wentworth.

 These weird red dunes, just a few kilometres from the river, cover only 10 hectares. The boys loved it and by the time we left, there were garages, caves and roads carved into the wonderfully mouldable sand. James reminded me to collect a teeny sample for our ongoing collection.

Another benefit of relative ‘civilization’ are the normal prices for fuel, food and gas. The NRMA has long published that fuel transport costs are only 4 c/l anywhere in NSW. With differences of up to $1/l noted during our trip, I wonder if some of the more remote service stations haven’t got that memo yet?


Of course the day we packed up to leave Melrose meant the sun came out in force. Our last day in Melrose had been 22 C and wet, today and tomorrow would be 33 C and cloudless. Whilst visiting the eclectic and rather dust filled toy museum in Wilmington a few days previously, the odd father and son team there had rather enthusiastically suggested we visit the Toy and Model Train Show in Clare. It was only a 130 km detour, so down we drove, closing to within 50 km of our mid February route up the Spencer Gulf. The drive to and from Clare was vastly different to anything we have seen so far, rolling hills of wheat stretch to the horizon, with only a few small vineyards of famed Clare Valley grapes visible close to town.


Whilst the collection of toys, model trains and remote control everythings was impressive, I was quickly reminded of the types of adults that spend their time making and collecting and building bespoke models and radio controlled toys, let’s just say it was a curious assortment. Usually slightly tubby dads in thongs and mismatched clothes followed by equally ill-dressed bored looking kids. The elderly gents who make the ride-on steam trains and tractors are a different lot altogether, very passionate and clearly reliving a steam filled youth. Highlights were Sam getting to drive a miniature steam tractor, seeing a huge submarine in the lake, complete with real life submariner, an obligatory steam train ride for the boys and spotting a rare and very original 1948 FX Holden.


We set up in Peterborough’s only caravan park and were there to visit the town’s main attraction, the Steamtown Heritage Rail Centre. This is where the ungainly policy decisions of late 19th century rail met, with three rail gauges converging at the world’s only remaining triple gauge turntable. In the morning we were shown around the rail museum, which is relatively ‘hands on’, and comprises an excellent collection of yesteryear diesels, steam trains and carriages. Including a gorgeous first class ‘Transcontinental’ carriage from the 20’s, complete with piano. A bygone era when rail conductor resumes included piano playing to various degrees. The day time tours run continuously, meaning the tour guides get progressively duller as the day drags on. At least we got to see the Indian Pacific go past, which the tour guide assured us that in her four years here, “It’s been early once and on time once, but it’s normally late”.



One of the best town entry signs we’ve seen. There are three more.


The working triple gauge turntable – the last of its kind anywhere.


James bashing out Beethoven’s Ninth on the out of tune ivory.


That afternoon, on Kris’s insistence, we drove to Magnetic Hill, an AMAZING phenomenon whereby ‘you put the car in neutral, and the unusual magnetic field pulls it up the hill’. The car does indeed roll, but after a quick check with a spirit level, I confirmed that most things should roll downhill! The intersection of the gently sloping downhill road and the adjacent uphill sloping wheat fields causes an optical illusion. Myth Busted!

Magnetic hill

The middle pic suggests you’d roll forward, you don’t, it’s an optical illusion.

Back at the van park, we had a swim in the pool before dinner. After that it was getting ready for the rail museum’s much anticipated ‘Light and Sound Show’. This expensive add-on to the day time tour was sold in the brochures as ‘spectacular’ and ‘not to be missed’. You sit in an old train carriage on the now stationary turntable and they project a documentary of local rail history onto a roller door. At the start and end of the ‘show’, coloured lights come on around a few of the old engines and carriages, oh and there’s a smoke machine. The sound quality was very poor and we all agreed that whilst the doco was interesting, the ‘show’ was very underwhelming. I hope Wiki Camps or Trip Adviser comments soon sort them out.

Vehicle Modifications


Without having any real preference or brand loyalty, I ended up buying a late 2006 HDJ-100R Turbo diesel manual Toyota Landcruiser GXL. I bought this at a local auction, and whilst I was convinced at the time I wanted a Prado, I was attracted by the excellent condition, presentation and amount of kit on the cruiser, the cool colour and the magnificent 1HD-FTE turbo diesel engine. the best and last of the non-common rail turbo diesels. It came with a Warn XD9000 winch, 2″ ARB lift kit, Toyota tow ball, ARB bull bar, driving lights, fog lights, red polyair rear air bags, side steps, snorkel, GME 40 channel UHF radio and 6.5 dBi antennae, full service history and importantly, new Mickey Thompson STZ Baja tyres. It had 182,000 km on the clock and was a very good price.  The only other items I’ve added are a 2100 x 1200 aluminium Rola roof rack and a set of custom rear drawers with a fridge slide. Both of these I bought on ebay for a few hundred dollars each – bargains. The attraction of the turbo diesel was resale and economy. The turbo diesel typically carries a $10,000 price premium over the six cylinder or V8 models, but uses about 25% less fuel. Therefore, over the 40,000 predicted kilometres of the trip, we’ll save $4,100, therefore I’ll have to rely on resale value, not fuel economy savings. To save the difference in purchase price, we would need to travel more than 97,000 kilometres over the life of the car (this data is based on 31,000 km of real fuel economy data and accurate pricing around Australia – we’ve averaged 18.6 l/100 and fuel is on average $1.53/l, unleaded is invariably 5 c to 10 c/l more expensive in the outback).


In the Landcruiser range, I wanted the GXL model built after 2005 to ensure we got the dual air conditioners (single compressor on the engine, two separate condensers), a must for outback comfort for the boys in the back! I was lucky enough to get a November 2006 build, which was the very last of the 100 series. It has Sahara LED tail lights, more modern dash and Sahara chrome rimmed instruments, etc. The massive downside with the HDJ100R model (4.2 TD) is that it will NOT communicate with OBD or OBD2 (On Board Diagnostics) communications protocols, supposedly standard on all vehicles in Australia since 1998 – instead it uses a proprietary Toyota code. I wanted this to be able to access engine error codes and other useful information, such as accurate engine and oil temperature, oil and fuel pressure, voltage, boost, comprehensive trip computers, etc. Preposterously, only the Sahara has a trip computer in the Landcruiser range, so to understand fuel economy, an OBD scan tool (ScanTool, UltraGauge, etc.) would have been mandatory. Instead I had to rely on a primitive device called a fuel gauge! In some cases, we were more than 500 km between refuelling stops, so distance to empty can be critical. Knowing this also allows you to purchase fuel judiciously, i.e. at the cheapest location (using a crowd sourced iPhone app such as the excellent ‘Fuel Map’), rather than topping up ‘just in case’ at every location. Over the trip, we have found differences of over 20 c per litre in less than 100 km. A considerable cost saving when we typically put 100 to 130 litres in the tanks. The GXL has a 94 l main tank and a 45 l sub tank. I also carry a 20 l jerry, always full, and occasionally cycled through the tanks. This gives us a 900 kilometres range, this changes by ±100 kilometres respectively with either a tail or head wind. I typically ignore the jerry can, saving that for emergencies only.


I bought the car about 14 months before the start of the Big Lap. The reason was to  make sure we knew everything about the car before the trip, and to allow me to fit things I knew I wanted, such as roof racks and a rear drawer system. The Cruiser also came with the factory stereo and speakers, as well as the butchered remains of a Bury GSM phone booster and aerial. The Bury phone system boosts mobile reception by a few dB, but only when there is some… other travellers I’ve spoken too feel they are a waste of money. They also must be connected to the car stereo, which may limit installation choices. I went the far simpler after market install option with Bluetooth. I soon removed the factory 6 stacker CD MP3 player and replaced it with a Sony head unit. Luckily the slot was double DIN, meaning plenty of aftermarket choice.

The following modifications were completed before the trip:

Installation of a boost gauge and EGT Exhaust Gas Temperature) probe. This pyrometer is screwed into the exhaust pipe after the turbo charger, but before the dump pipe. This allows accurate measurement of how hard the engine is working, and allows me to cool the engine down properly before switch off. It typically runs at 350 degrees C towing the van on the flat at about 90 kph (cruise). This corresponds to about 0.5 to 0.7 bar turbo boost pressure. Boost is limited to 0.9 bar in the 1HD-FTE turbo diesel engine. The EGT gauge has seen 616 degrees climbing the Adelaide hills towing the van. This was at full boost in third gear on a 40 degree day. As the probe is installed after the turbo, you would expect exhaust gas to be up to 200 degrees hotter on turbo inlet side. I also had the EGR (Exhaust Gas Return) system cleaned. These are installed to reduce emissions and cause headaches and deteriorating economy if not cleaned after 200,000 km. Mine was actually pretty clean.DSC02681

 I found a custom built rear drawer system on ebay for $400. I had this measured carefully by the seller to ensure it would fit my Waeco CF40 compressor fridge. It did. I then bought and modified a rear safety cage from a Ford BA wagon. After cutting out the bottom cage, and bending the side legs, this fitted perfectly and allows access to the rear AC controls located in the roof.

Copy of P1020358 DSC02205

Next was the stereo. I removed and sold the factory stereo, which sounded okay, but does not support Bluetooth, ipods or much else. After much research, I bought a Sony 612BT 6″ touch screen stereo. It plays DVD’s, connects and displays the iPhones’ display via HDMI, has Bluetooth and supports a reversing camera as well as two other camera (RCA video) inputs, which I used for cameras on the van. I installed some additional tweeters over the factory speakers, which improved their sound immensely.


 The old factory stereo – sold on ebay for $60!



Because the GXL Landcruiser runs the Sahara wiring loom, I took advantage of this and installed door courtesy lights behind the red translucent blinds installed in the doors. Not necessary, but it’s a nice touch.


12 x LED light arrays bought on ebay for $1 each. Glued in place with silicon on a flattened peace of tin can – works perfectly.


A big and very cheap change was to replace the interior dome lights with 48 panel SMD LED’s. These were about $4 each. They produce much more light with almost no heat. I also replaced the rear wagon dome light and map lights. Total cost was about $12. It took about 30 minutes to change every globe with an LED.


A common problem with Landcruisers is that the drain flap in the air filter canister falls out. This is meant to drain water out after very deep crossings, but if missing, works in reverse and can let water in. A piece of aluminium and silicon fixed this.

P1010938Because I have the manual, I wanted to be able to manoeuvre the van in low range without having the centre diff lock engaged. This avoids cork screwing the transfer case or axles. There are a few ways to achieve this. I did the common ‘7 pin mod’. I have a switch under the fuel tank switch which allows the CDL (Centre Diff Lock) to be either OFF, or in AUTO (If left in AUTO, it engages automatically when in Low Range). Access to the pin cluster on the Transmission Relay is under the passenger glove box.



Our Home for 2015 is a 2014 Jayco 14.44-4 Expanda Outback. The van has had fewer modifications than the Cruiser, probably because we only picked it up in August 2014 and have had less time to ‘play’. One thing I did install was a fridge vent fan. This helps eject heat from the fridge upper compartment. This helps fridge performance immensely. I used a 125 mm sealed computer fan which draws 120 mA and is connected via an old computer thermatic controller, meaning it varies fan speed (and current) depending on temperature.


I fitted a 600 VA (non pure sine wave) inverter on the factory Jayco 100 Ah GEL battery. This has its own cooling fan and rarely uses more than 10% of capacity (i.e. 60 watts), but it does work the system pretty hard, so I tend to wait until I have full sun before it gets switched on. The 120 watt factory solar panel more than copes with this.

I also engaged Real Caravan Solutions  ( to install a 4 lpm electric water pump and charcoal taste filter in place of the rubbish factory plunge pump. This has not failed in the 10 months we’ve been on the road. Service, knowledge, professionalism and value are exceptional. Alex can assist with every caravan modification you could possibly want or desire.

Things I wish the van had:  At least two more 12 v outlets around the van as well as a 5 V 2 amp USB charge panel. There is only one 12 v 10 Amp socket located under the TV. This is stupidly inadequate. No USB charging is provided. Everything these days is USB charged. I also wish I had installed LED strip lighting in the cupboards and shelves. The shelves are deep and quite dark. At night a torch is required to find anything. A small LED reading light above the behind the fridge and under the cupboards would be excellent. This would allow the grownups to stay up and work or read whilst the kids fall asleep. To reduce the purchase price, we did not install a radio or TV aerial. Jayco’s prices for these have a whopping markup ($1200 for a DVD capable stereo with 4 cheap speakers and $490 for a TV antennae). I did however elect to get a second 9 kg gas bottle, Alko ESC (Electronic Stability Control), outside fold down table, second 84 litre water tank and level monitor – all mandatory choices for the type of travel we’ve done. If a factory radio is installed, you lose an upper cupboard. However, one could easily be installed in the cavity above the fridge without any space penalty. We watch very little TV, but an MP3 capable radio would be nice (we use a high quality Bluetooth speaker connected to either iPhones or a small FM radio/MP3 player). This is okay but clumsy to set up.


With legs weary from the day’s climb to St Marys Peak, we headed down the road to Quorn for the night – and the closest thing we had seen to a supermarket in weeks. Quorn is a quant little colonialesque styled town centred around the historic train station, built in 1879 to service the shiny new Ghan railway line. It seems to be frozen in the era it was built, with many of the original sandstone buildings still in use. After a quick restock the next morning, we were on our way.


The main street. I was obviously enchanted with the place – this is a stock image.


At least the caravan park was quiet. Just what we needed to recover from the walk.