Electric campervans for Australian conditions

We were tent campers on our Cooktown trip, as we usually are, but saw plenty of campervans and have happy memories of our campervan trip around Tasmania late last year. I have also been following the EV-versus-ICE (internal combustion engine) debate for some time so I was well primed to notice a Facebook post about a very advanced solar-powered Dutch campervan when it appeared in my news feed soon after we got home.

dutch campervan
The Facebook post

The story linked to the post gives the main specs and some more photos. It’s an impressive vehicle: only two seats and two berths but very fully equipped. My first response, though, was, “If they can do it in rainy cloudy Holland, we can certainly do it here – better and cheaper, too.

Still in holiday mode, I then spent some time looking into whether, and how, we might do something similar here with off-the-shelf components.

Here are my results. They might look tidy on the page but they are really back-of-an-envelope calculations so don’t trust them too far. Like the Dutch team, “[My] main goal is to really inspire people and the market and society to accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable future. What [I’m] trying to do is to show people … what’s already possible.”

Starting points

We will need a vehicle body, an electric battery and drive train, a campervan fit-out and some solar panels. As far as I know it’s not yet possible to buy this combination ready-made but we can play mix and match.

Camper van bodies are normally delivery vans, with the Toyota Hi-Ace and Hyundai i-Load being common bases for smaller campers.

New electric delivery vans are hitting the market overseas (e.g. in the UK) but seem to be a year or two away for Australia (e.g. Ford Transit, Ace). On the other hand, enterprising Aussies are already retrofitting ICE vehicles as EVs. I haven’t seen any advertisements specifically offering the service for vans but I assume that it’s possible and not much different in price – if people are brave enough to convert a De Lorean, a Hi-Ace should be easy.

Campervan fit-outs of existing vehicles are also offered. A quick internet search brings up lots of results but not many prices; the few I’ve seen suggest that $15,000 is in the ball-park for a smallish camper (bunks, kitchen and dining but no bathroom or toilet). A super-cheap DIY job might come in under $2,000; a big luxury job might be $50,000 plus, but anyone in that market might also consider getting their whole vehicle imported or custom built.

Options

Using best-guess prices after an hour or two wandering around the internet:

  1. New EV van + campervan fit-out = $55K + $15K = $70K
  2. New ICE van + EV conversion + campervan fit-out = $55K + $15K + $15K = $85K
  3. Secondhand ICE van + EV conversion + campervan fit-out $30K + $15K + $15K = $65K
  4. Secondhand ICE campervan + EV conversion $40K + $15K = $55K

Option 1 looks good except that you have to wait until 2022 or 2023 because the vans aren’t here just yet. Option 2 is just silly. Why buy a new van and throw out the motor and gearbox straight away?

That leaves 3 and 4. A bit of online shopping reveals quite a few ex-rental campervans on the market, not very old but with lots of kilometres on their clocks and prices to match. They appear to be good value compared to secondhand vans of similar age.

Option 3 may still have advantages, however. For one thing, the best/cheapest EV conversion may place the battery under a false floor, in which case any existing fit-out would have to be extensively altered. For another, the EV battery is so powerful that the existing secondary battery, and perhaps the gas stove, will be totally redundant and once again the fit-out would need to be altered.

Solar roof panels

The Dutch project is, in principle at least, totally independent of the grid. That’s a good thing, particularly in this land of range anxiety. We could go some way towards achieving it here by mounting a few solar panels to the camper roof (it might be best to avoid a pop-up roof).

The Eindhoven team managed to fit 8.8 square metres of panels on their roof and it gave them an extra 130 km range ‘on a sunny day’, i.e. one day’s generation gave them that much distance. We wouldn’t have that much roof space but might manage half as much.

We could double it, as the Dutch did, by having a pull-out second set of panels for when the vehicle is in camping mode. If that’s too hard, a trip to any camping shop will get you as many auxiliary panels as you like for $1.50 – $3.00 per watt and you can spread them around your camp site as you like.

This part of the project is quite cheap – $1000 should cover it.

The bottom line

The Dutch project built on Eindhoven’s years of experience in developing solar-powered vehicles, and twenty people still took six months to complete their showpiece. It’s lovely but I don’t think it would be cheap.

Anyone starting with an empty parking spot should at least consider options 3 and 4. If not in a hurry, waiting a year or so and adopting option 1 wouldn’t add much to the cost and should be better value, given that everything about the project would be optimised.

Anyone starting with a good van or campervan with a tired ICE engine or blown gearbox (or able to source one) could go electric quite easily and cheaply right now, as an early adopter. The result would be a practical, economical camper for Australian conditions.

Neither of these would be completely self-sufficient for power but they might come close, and their savings on fuel costs and CO2 emissions would make them well worth while.

And they will never run out of fuel: if they produce 60 – 100 kilometres-worth of power per day, we might get hungry if we were stuck in the desert with a flat battery but we could drive home eventually.

Am I tempted?

Not yet, because at this stage I’m only an occasional short-trip camper. If I were thinking of travelling often enough to warrant owning a campervan, however, it would be a different story.

Granite Gorge

Granite Gorge Nature Park is a privately run camping ground and wilderness area, half an hour west of Mareeba. It takes its name from the small but dramatic gorge formed by Granite Creek: the domes of the lookout near the entrance give way to huge tumbled boulders downstream. At this time of year the creek finds its way through them quietly enough but high water levels recorded on the rocks are a reminder that it would be different in the Wet.

The park has a network of walking tracks with steps and hand-rails at useful points but the whole Gorge isn’t very long, perhaps only a kilometre from end to end, so it could be fully explored in a day. The area is nice enough, however that a longer stay is worthwhile.

Mareeba Rock Wallaby

The camping ground is very pleasant and facilities are good, but the wallabies are what make it special. They are Mareeba Rock Wallabies, Petrogale mareeba, only recently (1992) identified as a species distinct from their near relations. (Townsville’s local species is one of these; see wikipedia for more on the science.)

Mareeba Rock Wallabies
Mareeba Rock Wallabies sunning themselves in the early morning

The park’s information sheet calls their population ‘semi-wild’ and they roam freely around the property, often begging for food and tolerating petting in return.

We had an entertaining encounter with one which wanted to hop into the rear of our vehicle in search of food. It was like dealing with a kitten, trying to be gentle but firm about what was allowed and what wasn’t, and we did eventually get the message across.

Wild birds are abundant and bird enthusiasts may also appreciate the collection of caged exotic parrots in the reception area.

Mareeba Rock Wallaby
Mareeba Rock Wallaby enjoying a fig leaf

The road to Cooktown

The distance from Mareeba to Cooktown via the best route is 264 km and Google Maps thinks the travel time is just under three hours. Having just done it – both ways, in fact – I’m not going to disagree but will suggest a few stops which may make it more interesting and enjoyable although slower.

The good road is the Mulligan Highway through Mount Molloy and Lakeland, and it really is a good road: two-lane bitumen all the way.

The alternative is the coast road via Mossman, Cape Trib and Bloomfield; it’s more scenic but a big chunk of it is 4WD-only and another big section is narrow, winding (and therefore slow) bitumen. I haven’t done it but here’s the warning sign at the Cape Trib end of the 4WD section.

bloomfield track warning sign

The Mulligan swings westerly just beyond Mt Molloy to run through dry tropical savannah before turning NE over the hills to Cooktown. The highway skirts the western face of the Great Dividing Range most of the way so the road and the horizons are not as endlessly horizontal as they would be further west.

We travelled it in mid October, well into the Dry season, so the country was nearly as dry as it ever gets. The best time to visit is winter, when it’s still green and not so hot. Most people say the worst is the Wet season, when heat and humidity make it very uncomfortable and torrential rain and flash floods can make travel impossible. It could be fun, though, and I would love to see the Wet at its peak, so sometime perhaps…

Mareeba
Mareeba park lake
The lake in Mareeba’s Rotary Park

Mareeba, on the northern edge of the Atherton Tablelands, is the natural gateway to Cape York and the Gulf for anyone coming from Cairns, Townsville or anywhere south of them. It’s a substantial country town, with a population around 11 000 making it by far the biggest place between itself and the tip of Cape York, heading north, and beyond the NT border heading west. If you need to stock up on anything fancier than fuel, beer and basic food, Mareeba is where to do it.

Rifle Creek
Rifle Creek camping ground

We discovered a free camping ground beside the highway where it crosses Rifle Creek just outside Mt Molloy. Facilities are basic (picnic tables, toilets and cold showers) and there’s a fair bit of passing traffic but the location is otherwise excellent. There’s even a choice of more-than-adequate eateries in town.

Bob’s Lookout
view from lookout
The view south and east from Bob’s Lookout

Bob’s lookout offers good views back towards Mt Carbine (and that, I’m afraid, is the nicest thing I can say about Mt Carbine). The lookout itself is just a widening of the road and is best entered while heading south to avoid crossing the road with limited visibility in both directions.

Palmer River Roadhouse
Palmer River bridge
The dry-season form of the mighty Palmer River, well below the roadhouse

The Palmer was the centre of a big gold-rush in the 1870s and I guess there has been some sort of roadhouse at this crossing ever since. The present establishment reminded me of Belyando Crossing, which is not a bad thing, but endeared itself to me forever by having great collection of classic sixties and seventies SF in its book exchange. That’s me, though; most folk will value it for the beer, food, gardens, etc.

Byerstown Range lookout
View from the lookout
View from the lookout

This bigger lookout (access road, carpark, tourist signs and even a toilet) looks north to Lakeland.

Lakeland
lakeland visitor centre
The new visitor centre

Lakeland is the hub of an unexpected irrigation area. The township itself is screened from the highway but the visitor centre (so new it was still being developed when we saw it), roadhouse and pub are easy to find.

The irrigation area is small but well established, about 70 years old, and there is a proposal to extend it significantly through the construction of a dam on the Palmer River. Projects like this (Ord River, Hell’s Gate) have a very mixed success rate so we can only wait and see.

Lion’s Den Hotel

Just off the Mulligan Highway, a few kilometres down the Bloomfield road, the Lion’s Den is another gold-rush period watering hole. Its determinedly ramshackle construction and quirky humour may be a bit over the top but its equally quirky, ramshackle ‘museum’ contains unexpected treasures and a culture shock or two.

Lions Den museum
One wall of the two-room museum

 

hedge-trimmer
A better look at the hedge trimmer. Yes, the blade is a sawfish bill.
Trinity Times newspaper, 1906
A reminder of the radical politics of early Queensland (1906)
…and we’re nearly there

Black Mountain and Keating’s Lagoon are on the Mulligan, too, but they are so close to Cooktown that I will leave them for another post.

Cooktown and Cape Trib

Once again there has been a gap in posting because of an extended camping trip – this time, as the title suggests, to the north. In the last two weeks we have been to Chillagoe, Port Douglas,  Cooktown, Cape Tribulation and the Daintree, spending two or three days at each. In passing we visited Mossman Gorge, the Reef, Granite Gorge near Mareeba, and a few other places of interest.

Most of these will get their own posts in coming days or weeks. I will link to them from this page which will become a hub for the series, like this page for a similar trip to Cobbold Gorge and Undara last year.

Follow these links for posts about …

Granite Gorge near Mareeba

The road to Cooktown – Rifle Creek, Lakeland, the Palmer River Roadhouse and the historic Lion’s Den pub via the Mulligan Highway.

Mount Louisa walking track

The relatively new Mount Louisa walking track is a worthwhile addition to Townsville’s outdoor recreational spaces. The council’s announcement of its opening (October 2020) is quite clear about its intentions – taking some of the pressure off Castle Hill walking tracks was a priority.

Mayor Jenny Hill said the trail – which extends from the end of Bayswater Road to the landmark’s new lookout – has been highly anticipated by the community. … “Unlocking Mount Louisa’s potential has been a priority for Council and will help keep our city active and reduce pedestrian traffic on Castle Hill during peak hours.”

The track was quite busy when we walked it this morning. When we started about 8.00 we met lots of younger adults, alone or in pairs, coming down the track after a pre-work workout. By the time we finished around 10.00 (we didn’t hurry!), most of the other walkers were family groups.

Mt Louisa track
Near the beginning of the track

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