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  • Gemma Fottles

Our campervan broke down: Australian road trip

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

It's month 3 of my travel reporting job with the See the World with SPAR campaign. I'm currently sat in a gorgeous beach hostel in Sydney, Australia, glad for a real place to stop after a 10-day road trip on the Great Ocean Road... although, we weren't technically driving the whole way. Our beat-up camper van from Wicked Campers broke down not once, but twice. It resulted in many painful hours in weird places, and many dollars disappearing in front of our eyes. Did breaking down in a camper van on the Great Ocean Road suck as much as you think it would?

Australia road trip: Freedom of the open road

Road trips, just like many aspects of travel, often don’t go entirely to plan. They always start exciting. Everyone has those idealised expectations in their head – from Che Guevara’s pre-revolutionary tales in the Motorcycle Diaries to the iconic portrait of girl power in Thelma and Louise. Hours spent on the road, listening to loud music, seeing an abundance of crazy things, and being absolutely free to go wherever and do whatever you want to do. Perfect. But although road tripping in Australia offers you a huge amount of freedom, it’s easy to forget the constraints that that same vehicle can also impose upon you if it all goes wrong. This is exactly what I experienced on the Great Ocean Road towards Sydney.

It all started as planned. We hired a battered old camper van from the notorious Wicked Campers. Kim Possible (yes, the children's cartoon character) was graffitied on the side, and a highly inappropriate message ironically unsuitable for the children’s eyes it attracted graffitied on the back. The inside was a bit grubby, a bit dingy, and a bit small for the four people it was supposed to house for the next two weeks. But we loved it.

The Great Ocean Road was incredible – made better by the freedom our wrecked little van gave us. We froze our arses off the first and second nights due to being completely unprepared. The camper van was not insulated in the slightest, and there was one – yes, one – sleeping bag between four of us. We accidentally camped in some crazy places, soaked in some amazing Australian views and experienced a side to Australia that I didn’t know existed. Every day I was happy for our crappy little camper van.

How we broke down on the Great Ocean Road

On our way back to Melbourne after a happy few days of Australia road tripping, we started to notice a smell. The fumes in the back of the van got steadily worse, resulting in a near collapse of one of the passengers. It was just as dramatic as it sounds. We stumbled into someone's garden, with the Slovenian warrior princess gasping for air on the ground. The occupants of the house were completely bemused but lovely and helpful. After an hour or so, we got back in the van. We had to. The next camping spot was only an hour's drive away, but without the van, we couldn't get anywhere. We got back in, our wounded passenger with her head firmly out of the window. We accepted that the van was wrecked, and decided to get it swapped for a different one for our 800-kilometre-long trek back up to Sydney.

All went relatively well on our first experience breaking down when travelling in Australia. We dropped the van off at the nearest Wicked HQ in Melbourne and had to wait until the following morning to leave. It was Halloween so face paint was adorned and drinks were to be had in Melbourne.

The next morning we picked up the slightly cooler AC/DC themed van. A steady 7 hours of driving, 3 coffee breaks and one strange parrot lady later, the worst happened. The sun was setting over the tiny town of Bega somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney, and the van started sputtering. Chugging up a hill as the sunset, we all looked at each other. This was it. The van shuddered and ceased to function any longer.

We were lucky, really, that we broke down a 10-minute drive away from a town – even if it was a town that horror movies are made of. It could have been on any of the long winding roads we had been down earlier that very day, where we could have waited several hours to be picked up and sadly towed back to civilisation. We used the last of our credit on the one working phone in our possession and somehow managed to get in touch with an emergency break down company.

An hour later, we were being towed to the town of Bega. We were dropped off in the garage in the dead of the night, with the one hotel of the town - luckily - available. The whole process was a nightmare: no one could fix the van, and Wicked Camper Vans wouldn't send us a new one. We were stuck in Bega for two days. Two days out of only 18 in Australia. That’s a high proportion of our precious Australia time wasted in a town famous only for cheese and the murders of teenagers in the 90s (it’s true. Wikipedia never lies.) We did nothing while we were here. We enjoyed each other's company and ate some mediocre food... but it was a waste of our travel time.

We spent $1000 on coming to this conclusion. And in the end, we had to get a bus the rest of the way to Sydney. Honestly? That sucked. It killed the awesome Australia road trip we were having just a couple of day's before and stole some fo the sights on the Great Ocean Road that we were still planning to see. But breaking down while road tripping on the Great Ocean Road - or on any road trip around the world for that matter - wasn't the end of the world. It can seem like a scary prospect, the idea of getting into some kind of trouble in a foreign country and not knowing how to get help. But as long as you do all the basic things (know who to call in an emergency, have a working phone...), you will be fine. Things always seem harder than they are!
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