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Traverse the scenic Western Australian outback in a campervan

Traversing the scenic Western Australian outback in a campervan is an adventure to remember

In 1987, German tourist Josef Schwab was roaming the Western Australian outback. But he was not there on holiday. His rented fourwheel-drive was loaded with highpowered rifles and ammunition and he was on the hunt - for humans.

In one week, he inexplicably murdered five people, before the Western Australia Police Tactical Response Group killed him in a hail of grenades and gunfire.

Almost exactly 30 years on, in June this year, as local paper The Weekend West carried full-page spreads on the gruesome murders, my buddy Tevin Ong, 42, and I had no such gruesome intentions, as we drove our Mercedes-Benz campervan merrily along a well-paved strip of tar lined with old, gnarled eucalyptus trees. We cut through Western Australian wheatfields stretching as far as the eye could see - something Schwab would have cruised by as he travelled hundreds of kilometres, evading police lockdowns.

At its maximum allowed speed of 110kmh, our big, burly vehicle - the size of a small lorry - was swaying left and right like a bullock cart whenever the wheels went over undulations in the road.

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Not very impressive, I thought, unfairly comparing it with a recent ride on a French TGV train from Cologne in Germany to Paris, when I was sipping coffee at 300kmh.

When I was at the wheel of the campervan, its sensitive power steering not only made it easy to turn - but also made the vehicle somewhat prone to unintended deviations from a straight trajectory, something I found a little unnerving for a big and fast-moving object.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Chan Brothers' Free & Easy (ChanBrothersFreeNEasy.com) eight-day Campervan Convoy includes return flights on Singapore Airlines, an almost 1,200km drive with five nights in the outback and two nights in Perth.

    The next trip, departing on Sept 2, starts at $2,688, excluding taxes, for the first person, with the second person in the same van paying half price. Additional people in the same campervan pay full price. The trip has to be booked at the Travel Revolution fair at Marina Bay Sands ending today.

    TRAVEL TIPS

    • Plan ahead and load up with sufficient food, as shops are few and far in between.

    • To get the most out of the trip, do research and identify places of interest in advance.

    • Drive carefully. Low traffic does not mean you will get away with a high-speed crash.

    • Be extra careful at unguarded rail crossings, where you have to watch out for approaching trains.

All the shaking and the noise - including the clanging crockery and cutlery inside our home on wheels - added to our good spirits, perfect for sharing life stories.

Tevin, who has been working at Chan Brothers for almost 20 years, said he was originally from Kuala Kangsar, the royal town of the Malaysian state of Perak.

I replied excitedly that my dad was from Alor Setar, capital of Kedah, although I am Singaporean.

The fact that we now found ourselves thousands of kilometres away from our homeland reminded me of the exploratory spirit that makes the human race special, even if our voyage was no match for those undertaken by Venetian merchant Marco Polo or the Vikings.

The Australian outback is so big that we talked about distances not in kilometres, but in terms of the number of Singapores, and rarely met the other 20 campervans that were part of the tour group.

Yet, the outback is by no means monotonous.

The rolling shades of brown were occasionally broken by bursts of colour from the roadside, such as a dog cemetery of tombs embellished with flowers in every colour of the rainbow.

We were also greeted by horses made from metal parts of old machinery painted in every imaginable colour - even cuter than the real ones.

Most of them are found along a 15km stretch of Gorge Rock-Lake Grace Road called the Tin Horse Highway.

The horses had started out as a publicity stunt for the annual horse race in the district. According to the Australian government website, new horses are added every year and it is indeed a "laughing matter".

Fascinating things passed us on the road too.

There was a car with a licence plate reading "INTRIGUE" - you can register your own personalised plate of up to nine characters in the state of Western Australia.

Besides the regular sedan, muscular sport utility vehicles and pickups are a staple in this part of the continent.


The Tin Horse Highway features horses made from metal parts of old machinery painted in every imaginable colour. PHOTO: CHAN BROTHERS TRAVEL

One of the guys we met proudly showed us his pickup, packed with 600 horsepower, more powerful than a double-decker bus, which can generate not much more than 300 horsepower.

Then there was the giant tractor on one of the farms, whose owner said just starting the engine cost $20 - but he could not resist giving us a demonstration.

Perhaps most startling were the giant flood-level indicators sticking out of the ground on the roadside, like 2m-tall rulers.

Now left dry and naked, they come into their own during the wet season, near the beginning of the year, when the landscape turns green, waterfalls appear out of nowhere and, if the skies open up too much, roads become impassable and helicopters start delivering fuel and supplies to stranded residents.

Nevertheless, the outback remains connected - on the radio, we caught news coverage of the London Bridge terrorist attack that took place on June 3, the day we began our journey.

And we heard Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announce: "When Britain is attacked by terrorism, we feel we are attacked as well."

Arriving at the campervan park was like reaching home after a hard day's work.

Before the sun had set, a family was already boiling pasta, grilling chicken and tossing salad on the campervan's built-in gas hob and kitchen countertop, son learning culinary skills from mum.

A kampung atmosphere filled the camp, with open doors and an extended family of three generations lounging and chatting on collapsible chairs set up among their three campervans.

Flies occasionally joined the party, but people declared that Australian flies are probably cleaner and laughed it off.

One dad coming into camp realised his daughter had grown up when she got down and guided him as he reversed into his space.

Those who have spent their entire lives in the city need not worry about being left to fend for themselves like true Aborigines, for the camps are endowed with running water, hot showers, mains power and other urban delights.

In fact, right next to one of the campervan parks was a 330,000volt electricity pylon, so highly charged that I was enveloped by a buzzing sound as I ventured under it to admire its polyhedral steel lattice.

But nature is not to be beaten in the engineering department.

At the easternmost point of our travels was Wave Rock, a petrified tsunami 14m high and 110m long.

Local tribes attribute it to the Rainbow Serpent, a deity which created it after consuming a large amount of water.

If you stand in the right spot, your whispers can be heard 100m away, just like the Whispering Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

But there was one sound I yearned for even more.

Late at night, after everyone had gone to bed, I finally heard it under the moon-shadow of Wave Rock - the sound of silence, a sound almost impossible to hear in Singapore.

It was truly just me and the universe.

• The writer was hosted by Australia specialist Chan Brothers Travel on its first campervan convoy.

A family home on wheels


Campervan parks come with amenities, running water, hot showers, mains power and other urban delights. ST PHOTO: LIN YANGCHEN

Drivers who are enthusiasts of the all-in-one concept are likely to enjoy the campervans used on travel specialist Chan Brothers' Free & Easy (ChanBrothersFreeNEasy.com) Campervan Convoy tour of Western Australia.

The Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Toyota vehicles of various sizes can accommodate two to six people, with faux wood panelling and posh-looking LED spotlights.

Wi-Fi is available on board via a router tapping on the telecommunications network and there is no fear of getting lost with the Global Positioning System installed in the driver's cab.

Any real home has a kitchen and so does the campervan, with its kitchen countertop, sink and gas hob with ventilator, complemented by a kettle, a microwave oven and a full set of cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery.

In the evenings, when travellers settle down in the campervan park, the only limits to the sumptuousness of dinner are the imagination and the endless variety of ingredients available at the large supermarket they would have visited at the beginning of the trip.

There is a hot shower and chemical toilet, although most in our campervan convoy opted for the more spacious permanent facilities at each campervan park.

Complete as the amenities are, they will need to be replenished or emptied when the water runs out or the toilet fills up, so it takes one a step away from the trappings of city life, where clean water and sanitation are taken for granted.

If the outdoors proves too much to handle, one can always retire to the comfort of the plush seats of the campervan, fire up the flat-screen DVD player and watch a good movie, although this and other electrical appliances will work only when connected to mains power at the campervan parks.

Despite its size - more than 7m long, 3m high and 2m wide - the campervan is in the same category as normal cars. But drivers will have to take more precautions when reversing and when passing trees with low-hanging branches.

For those making their first foray into campervan travel, Chan Brothers' Free & Easy concept gives travellers the freedom to be adventurous and independent each day, while help is never too far away, with participants driving the same general route and meeting at designated campervan parks every evening.

What to see and do


Local tribes attribute Wave Rock in Western Australia to the Rainbow Serpent, a deity which created it after consuming a large amount of water. ST PHOTO: LIN YANGCHEN

The Chan Brothers campervan circuit in Western Australia takes travellers as far east as Hyden, with its famous Wave Rock about 300km inland.

After that, the drive heads south-west to the coastal sector, which reaches as far as Margaret River, 240km from Perth.

Perhaps the biggest attraction for city-dwelling Singaporeans are the farms in the outback, where visitors can enjoy fresh produce, sheepshearing demonstrations and see friendly livestock up close.

They can even try freshly cooked yabbies, a kind of freshwater crayfish, at a century-old former sheepshearing shed at Cambinata Yabbies (www.cambinatayabbies.com.au), one of the biggest marketers of this indigenous Australian food.


Try freshly cooked yabbies, a kind of freshwater crayfish, at a century-old former sheep-shearing shed at Cambinata Yabbies. ST PHOTO: LIN YANGCHEN

Another tourist hot spot is the coastal city of Mandurah, where you can cruise through a wide canal to admire dolphins leaping out of the water against a backdrop of luxurious waterfront houses with private jetties.

And if you have time, enjoy fresh oysters on a bed of sea salt at the dockside cafe.

Although touristy, the Western Australian region south of Perth holds fascinating historical and cultural trivia.

For example, the well-known port of Fremantle, near Perth, is not only a good place for seafood, but was also one of the stops on Queen Elizabeth II's coronation world tour in 1954.

More recently, it saw action in the search for the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines MH370, as a base for the search vessel MV Fugro Equator. The Fugro Equator left Fremantle for the final search mission for MH370 on Dec 12 last year.

And if you feel like appreciating a bit of Hindu culture and architecture while in Western Australia, you could pop by Sri Bala Murugan Temple in the town of Mandogalup on the road back to Perth, where, according to the temple's website (www.perthmurugan.org.au), visitors can "see all the gods in the same place".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 06, 2017, with the headline 'Outback in a campervan'. Print Edition | Subscribe