The highway to Hell (and beyond)

Up until this point I had been lead to believe that the worst driving conditions we would encounter would be on the Cape. Boy was I wrong!

We left Adels Grove with the intention of eventually getting to Katherine in the Northern Territory. We looked at the distances and decided to head to Borroloola, just over the NT border, for the night then push on to Katherine the next day. We went north through Lawn Hill Station and then on the Savannah Way to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse, where we stopped for lunch, fuel and water. On the way to Hell’s Gate, Brandon and I commented to each other that we wondered if the Hell that was being referred to was the road in to the roadhouse or the road beyond the roadhouse. We hoped it was the road in, because it was a pretty bouncy, unattractive dirt road. Turns out, we were wrong there too.

The road from Hell’s Gate to Borroloola was atrocious!! And to make it worse, we had bugs and dirt smeared all over the window, corrugations from hell (literally as it turned out), and as we were heading west, we had the sun directly in our sight for almost the entire afternoon. It was really bad. And we were on the road in total for that day for 9 hours. Never again. Our nerves were frayed and all three of us were in one hell of a bad mood when we got to Borroloola. We arrived just on dark and decided to get a cabin for the night because we wanted to head off again in the morning and after the emotionally draining, exhausting day we’d just had, we needed a rest.

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We’ve been on the road for 3 weeks and have just crossed our first state border!
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Never drive west into the setting sun on badly corrugated roads with poor visibility out your window 😦
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In our tired state, from a distance these donkeys looked like people blocking the road in front of us. Gave us a bit of a fright then amusement when we realised what they were 🙂

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Thankfully Borroloola has a nice place to eat so we grabbed a meal, had a hot shower and caught up on some sleep. The road to Katherine from Borroloola was all bitumen so we hoped the next day would be an easier day for us.

For the most part, it was easier. The driving conditions were certainly an improvement, although most bitumen roads in these parts are one lane and every time a car comes in the opposite direction you need to take one side of your car/camper off the road in order to pass oncoming vehicles. This can be a little difficult at times and cars with lesser quality tyres can find that quite dangerous given the large ridge between the bitumen and the dirt next to it. But Brandon managed these diversions with minimum fuss and the car, camper and inhabitants made it unscathed to Katherine. We stopped to make lunch at Daly Waters outside the pub – quite a well-known place and certainly full of character!

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At one point we even saw a bushfire on the road – it might be winter, but the dry 32 degree days make for great fire weather – gulp!

It was another long day – 6 hours on the road and we set up in the dark. [Note to self: setting up in the dark is hard enough; doing it with a camper trailer makes it harder; doing it without causing world war three between married partners is even harder; add to that 15 hours of driving out of the past 32 hours and it’s a wonder B and I are still married!].

While mulling over a beer later that night Brandon and I agreed no more long days. We need to slow down and take our time. We are about a week ahead of schedule so we clearly have time up our sleeve and need to enjoy our days more. That means doing more bush camps on the side of the road to break up the long days of driving (if only the roads were pretty enough to encourage us to sleep next to them!). Our next big leg is across the Gibb River Road, so we have promised to slow down, travel less each day and smell the roses, as it were.

One thing we were doing in Katherine was picking up some Clearview mirrors we had ordered earlier in our trip. They were waiting for us at AutoPro Katherine (can’t rate these guys highly enough – they ordered these mirrors for us on nothing but a promise we’d be in town some time in the next 10 days or so, and didn’t ask for a deposit or anything. That’s a $650 gamble they took and we were very grateful!

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Our new Clearview towing mirrors

In total we will have spent 6 nights in Katherine by the time we leave. It’s not that there’s huge amounts to see and do here but we really just needed a nice long break to recharge.

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The giant fig tree at the Big 4 Katherine caravan park is decorated and has a restaurant under it – just lovely 🙂

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Katherine Hot Springs – luke warm water but nice all the same

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Celebrating being back in civilisation by getting our nails done 😉

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Northern Rosellas at the campground – lovely!

We have also had the lovely surprise of meeting up with some people we know while here! Well, sort of know. Christine and Andrew and their children Ines and Linc are on the road for 6 months and set out about 3 months ahead of us. They started out travelling over to WA and were making their way east so we hoped we’d meet up at some point and we were even planning to slightly alter our itinerary to try to find them. Brandon went to school with Christine but hadn’t seen much of her since other than on Facebook. Reading Chris’s posts, I felt we had a lot in common so I was looking forward to meeting her and Andrew. We have been following their progress on their Facebook blog – 20,000-km’s in a shitbox camper trailer. It was a great joy to see them setting up in the same caravan park we were staying in two days ago 🙂

We spent the day together yesterday doing a day trip to Katherine Gorge, then up to Edith Falls for a swim. We planned to eat lunch at the Gorge but the only grassy, shady patch of land out there was home to hundreds of fruit bats! It was smelly and unattractive so we decided to have lunch at Edith Falls instead.

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Fruit bat city
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The gorge lookout
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An impressive view at the top
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The climb up to the lookout at Katherine Gorge was pretty steep but worth it!
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The climb up to the lookout at Katherine Gorge was pretty steep but worth it!

Unfortunately we didn’t get to eat lunch at Edith Falls. We had our first mechanical problem on the road between the Gorge and the falls that saw us laid up on the side of the road for an hour or so while Brandon fixed the problem. Thankfully because we were following Christine and Andrew, we had company and the kids were able to keep each other amused while they ate and waited for the car to be fixed. The fan belts had all come off and the alternator was being held on by a thread. Brandon had brought replacement belts with him thankfully and he and Andrew were able to replace them all and tighten up the alternator and we were good to go. Such handy folks! But we think this was probably caused by the thousands of kilometres of corrugations we have travelled on these past few weeks.

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Not a sight you really want to see while travelling 😦
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Linc and Ines kept Charlotte company in the shade as they waited patiently for the car to be fixed.
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Brandon trying to poke his tongue out at me while snorkeling at Edith Falls – he needed that swim after the car repairs!
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Charlotte and Brandon’s first snorkeling adventure on this trip – Edith Falls was great for that. Fish nibble your feet if you stand still long enough!

We leave Katherine tomorrow nicely refreshed and ready for our next adventure. Charlotte has had some good play time with some children her own age, we have had some nice conversation with likeminded people and we are ready to cross the border to Western Australia and start our next adventure – the Kimberley!

Nights on the road so far: 26.

 

This little piggy went to… the beach!

We decided to buy a Wild Boar camper trailer for a number of reasons, one of which was we had a good ‘feeling’ about the owners of the company. The people who sold us the camper were intimately familiar with the build of the camper and did much of the work themselves. It is a family-owned company and they seemed to have a great attitude and promised good after-sales service. We have stayed in touch with Paul, Nicole, Meghan and the crew since we drove out of their yard and we were thrilled to hear the news they were voted runner up in the Camper Trailer of the Year competition. We were even more delighted to receive an invitation to attend their inaugural Wild Boar Beach Bash to help them celebrate their runner up status. And what fun it was!

Wild Boar owners came from all directions – at a guess there were 35 camper trailers and as many tow vehicles. All of the Wild Boar staff their families were there as well. It was an early start – our first meeting place was a service station half way to the Sunshine Coast, at 6am. From there it was on towards Tewantin North Shore ferry service for our beach convoy along Teewah Beach. The Wild Boar crew paid for everyone’s return ferry journey.  That was a slow process – approximately 4 cars and trailers could fit on each trip so it required a lot of patience. Travelling with a 6 year old in the back seat made the wait seem even longer!

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Waiting to board the ferry (photo credit: SM)
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There certainly were lots of us!
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Ferry adventures

Once across, we lined up on the beach ready for the trip north. Wild Boar had a film crew there to make a publicity video so it was a constant start-stop process for the first hour or so, driving up and past cameras, with a drone flying overhead. This was the first time we’d taken the camper onto the beach but thankfully Brandon has heaps of beach driving experience so I knew we were in safe hands 🙂IMG_4723

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A beautiful day for a beach drive

We finally reached our camp site around 11am and then it was like a game of tetris to fit all of us in to the camp site they had selected and started setting up a few days earlier. But fit we all did and once parked we all got out and started to assemble our camp site. The Wild Boar crew walked amongst everyone, helping them set up their campers and giving pointers on how to do things. For one or two families, they had only taken ownership of the camper a few days earlier so they were very keen for the help. I certainly remember our first time! Others had owned their camper for a few years so they were seasoned hands and happy to help others. It was a very jovial, collegial atmostphere, with lots of people walking around introducing themselves to others and checking out each other’s set up.

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It was hard to set up – the wind was rather fierce. We elected to put our two short annex sides up but leave the main front annex open. That worked quite well – we could bring the OzPig up nice and close to the annex but still have the chimney outside the annex. In the evening the wind died down a bit and we were actually quite cozy, even in short sleeves at one point! I don’t presume to think it will be like that once we reach the second half of our big trip but all these practice runs are giving us plenty of opportunities to work out the various ways we can set things up to suit various conditions.

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“Mr Bubble Head’ the alien was a gift from the Wild Boar gang – it came in the goody bags given to the kids

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At the end of the first day we all went up to the communal area where our hosts had a big tent and fire set up. They gave us all raffle tickets for the next night’s festivities, and handed out some goody bags full of free products and a special goody bag for the kids! Charlotte walked away with a new fishing rod with her own kid-sized Alvey reel, fish measuring ruler and a selection of toys. Needless to say, she was quite chuffed 😉

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Dobinsons sponsored the trip and provided our ‘recovery vehicle’ – they gave us some goodies
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Charlotte was very pleased with the kids bags

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Brandon managed a spot of fishing while we were away and caught himself a nice stargazer.

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Some of the local wildlife (bluebottle jelly fish)
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The new ensuite tent

Charlotte immersed herself in the sand, on multiple occasions, and managed to bring half the beach back to our campsite. But we were able to wash her off in our new Joolca ensuite tent 🙂 Yes, we did away with the space-like old ensuite tent (see our Easter post to read of our adventures with that little gem). We are really struggling with our hot water system at the moment. The Companion system that came with the camper is quite temperamental and tends to waste a lot of water while getting to temperature. So we are considering purchasing a new Joolca hot water system for our trip. It’s expensive but if we can limit water wastage, it will be worth it. Our current system also requires two of us to operate it smoothly, whereas the Joolca system is a much easier set up.

 

IMG_4762On the second night, the Wild Boar team hosted us all for a spit roast dinner, with raffle prizes, “special stars” (aka fireworks) and a huge bonfire. We were lucky and won two raffle prizes – some deep dish 4WD rubber floor mats and some Hulk 4×4 recovery tracks. We were planning to buy a set of recovery tracks and these ones sell for $190 so we were pretty happy with that win 🙂

We made quite a few new friends during the weekend, including one family who live about 1km away from us and have a young son and a daughter close in age to Charlotte. We look forward to spending more time with them after we get back and perhaps doing some weekend camping trips together. They took their Wild Boar to the Kimberley last year so they had lots of advice and some great photos to share. We also met another person who works at C&K and knows some of the staff from Charlotte’s old childcare centre; a man who knows of Brandon’s dad from when they both worked for the same fire door company and another man who know’s of Brandon’s dad from his work as a Lowrance rep for BCF – it’s a small world! It was great to meet other Wild Boar owners, to have a relaxing camping weekend and have another opportunity to fine tune our camp.

Two things we came to realise during this trip are (a) we are saggy in the rear end (!) and (b) we need to lighten our load. When completely full, including the 60 litre water bladder behind the rear seat, the car is pretty heavy and sags a bit in the rear end. Brandon put new 350kg springs in the car a few months ago but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be working too well.

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Just a bit of a saggy bottom!

So we have started to investigate methods for improving this problem. Initially we thought we’d get new springs but the next size up is quite large and would be too large for ordinary, every day driving. So instead we are now leaning towards airbags which we can just deflate when we are doing unloaded driving. Brandon can install these himself, cutting the cost further (love having a handy husband!) The second thing we realised was that in order to reduce some of the weight we need to move some stuff out of the car and in to the camper – or on to it, in fact. We have sourced a second hand boat loader from another Wild Boar owner (thanks again to the people we met over the weekend!) and once we install that onto the camper and weld some mesh on to it, that will allow us to move some of the weight from the car over to the camper, behind the axle. That should even things out a little bit 😉

This was our last weekend away with the camper before we leave. Yikes! Other than possibly looking into getting a new mattress, preparation now moves to getting US ready rather than the camper. That means mostly buying suitable clothes and bags to pack them all in. We need to finalise how we plan to carry and pack everything in the car – another tetris puzzle to be worked on in the coming weeks.

47 days until we start long service leave, 50 days until we head off!

 

On the road again…

It was my sister-in-law’s 50th birthday recently so when we received the invitation to her party in Sydney we thought this would be a great opportunity to take the new camper for a longer drive than just down to a Gold Coast caravan park. It also turned out to be a good long-range test of the new engine. All things considered, it was a light-weight trip because we only needed our clothes and the camper, plus a bit of food to cover us during our driving. The truck was pretty empty which was just as well because we were collecting Brandon’s father, John, in Laurieton on the way down and wanted to make sure there was room for another passenger! I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that once we start our big trip. *gulp*

We were up at 3am on the Friday and hit the road by 4.30am. Charlotte was beside herself with the double excitement of a trip to Sydney and a few nights in the camper. We’re blessed that she’s a great traveller – we have years of horrid commutes up and down the Bruce Highway to thank for that! This is the 3rd time she’s done this trip to Sydney and we typically do it all in a day and just get it over with. As with other trips, we didn’t hear a peep of complaint out of her the entire way. She occupied herself with her drawing, watching movies, playing games on the iPod, sleeping (but only for about an hour) and chit-chatted to us in between bouts of activity. Once grandad got in the backseat with her, her day had been made as she had instant ‘just add tickles’ 😉

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Down the driveway and on our way!
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Beautiful sunrise as we make our way south

The trip also gave us the chance to test out some new gadgets. Brandon has bought a RAM mount to hold the iPad while we’re on our trip. He has attached it to my passenger seat so it sits nicely to the left of the gear stick and is great for navigation.

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The RAM-mounted iPad in action

We have the HEMA maps loaded on to the iPad and will use that plus Memory Map to help us find our way around. These apps have so many other built-in features, like speedometers, latitude and longitude GPS coordinates, distance travelled, etc. They also cover all the off-road non-gazetted road destinations we intend to traverse so once we add in the satellite phone for emergency contact, we really should have everything covered 🙂

The drive was mostly uneventful (thankfully) but it gave Brandon the opportunity to see what the new engine was capable of. I think he was pleasantly surprised to see the power the new engine had as she pulled the 4 of us plus the camper up those hills leading in to Sydney. Alas, I also think he was unpleasantly surprised at how easy it was for the EGT monitor to start beeping. The monitor is set to alarm at 500 degrees and it turns out it doesn’t take much to get your exhaust gas to that temperature when you’re towing a 1.5 tonne camper trailer and a payload of passengers. Thankfully it also doesn’t take long for the temperature to fall again, and for the most part all that Brandon had to do was ease back on the throttle, down shift a gear and stop pushing the engine. But frustratingly, this meant we weren’t actually getting to use the power of of the turbo all that much. The car had more power to give us on those hills but we couldn’t risk pushing it for fear the exhaust gases would get too hot. Somewhat begrudgingly we are realising that in order to really get to make the most out of the power of the turbo on these sorts of hills we are going to have to install an intercooler. That’s not a cheap exercise – the parts alone are close to $1300. Brandon thinks he might be able to install is himself and he’ll get a sexy bonnet scoop in the process. But it’s an expense we hadn’t counted on. That seems to be the theme of things to date…

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A big family needs a big dinner table!

So we arrived safely in Sydney around dinner time on Friday and it was great to see the family and catch up with everyone before the madness of the party on Saturday. Shayne and her family are always very welcoming and leave their guests wanting for nothing so we were well looked after (and fed! Shayne’s husband is Italian and cooks these amazing dinners that appeal to my pizza- and pasta-loving pallet enormously! They have a lovely big front-yard that nicely accommodated our Mud Bug and camper (Miss Piggy?) but was out of the way of party traffic.

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The camper stayed hitched to the car for the duration but Brandon and I both woke up with a headache the first morning and Charlotte fell out of bed! We soon realised that while we had stabilised the camper from side to side (as much as we could when still attached to the car) we had failed to stabilise the camper from front to back. Alas there wasn’t too much we could do about that and stay hitched to the car (for ease and security) so we had to turn ourselves around and put our head ‘uphill’ the second night (and keep Charlotte away from the edge!). All learning opportunities for us. There will be times when we set up on the side of the road for a quick night while we’re on our way from A to B so it’s worth remembering we might be a bit uneven!

The theme of Shayne’s party was “Housos versus Authority“. We’ve never seen the film so we were a little clueless at first as to what this meant but we have since learned that in Queensland-speak this is essentially ‘bogans vs the cops’. Brandon’s niece works for NSW Police so we had a bit of help with some of the decorations for the yard. The boys also thought it was great to be able to go to the supermarket and borrow a few shopping trolleys for the occasion. I think the decorations worked a treat!

We helped set up the outdoor space ready for everyone to arrive while Charlotte made friends with a feathered member of the Clementi family. Then she enjoyed a little visit from Nicole in her work car 😉

Being the boring old farts we are, we didn’t last anywhere near as long as everyone else did. After Charlotte went to bed (admittedly later than usual), we moved some chairs to be around the camper and sat with some friends and chatted for a few hours. We even had a cup of camper tea! It was great to catch up with you, Michelle and Kath 🙂

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Party guests getting into the theme
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Brandon doing his best ‘houso’ impersonation
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Just a bit tired from the long drive the day before
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Me and the birthday girl
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Brother and sister 🙂
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Charlotte was in heaven – the lounge was full of helium balloons! Here our sentimental family toy ‘Mooey’ is having an ‘Up’ moment…
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Michelle, Kath, Nicole and some random person trying to look cool with Nicole’s fake gun (where was her truncheon when we needed it?! Lol)

The next morning we packed up the camper and headed north again. This time we were just going as far as Gloucester (well, Stratford, just near there) to spend a night with Brandon’s brother, Mark. He lives on a property with horses, cows, chickens, and lots of open blue skies and rolling green hills. And lots of quiet. Oodles of quiet. You couldn’t find a more disparate experience to the activities of the past 24 hours and we welcomed the peace as we prepared for our big trip back to Brisbane the following day.

The camper got her first taste of mud on this trip – recent rains had made the ground a bit slushy and the trip up Mark’s driveway introduced Miss Piggy to some of what she can expect when we take off in July. I did a good job of hiding my distaste at the sight of Miss Piggy with mud all over her stone deflector and tyres!

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So here we were minding our own business in the kitchen when one of Mark’s horses walked past the front door. “Dinner time” says Mark, and off he takes Charlotte to help him feed the horses. I really wish I’d been able to photograph her face (or mine) when we saw the horse at the front door!

I’m actually quite proud of the fact that we stayed in the camper at Mark’s. We could have stayed inside in the house as he has plenty of room. But for various reasons (explained in another post) we had to open the camper anyway so we decided we might as well get the practice in at opening and closing the camper and went ahead and set her up. We also then had practice at traipsing mud through the camper and I immediately starting making lists of all the things we’ll need to do differently on our big trip to avoid said mud traipsing in the future!

[I’m keeping another list of the little things I need to make or create to help with life on the road in the camper – for example, we don’t have much storage in the camper for small stuff like mobile phones or glasses, wallets etc but there is a lot of marine carpet inside the camper and lots of poles, so I plan to sew some hanging pockets and use velcro to attach them to the marine carpet or tabs to attach them to poles. We can then take these down when we pack up and lay them on the bed. But essentially they’ll give us little spaces to keep things in when we’re set up.]

All in all, our trip was a success. We found out what our new engine is capable of (and not capable of), we had substantial practice opening and closing the camper (perhaps more than we would have like, as discussed here), and we caught up with family and friends we hadn’t seen in a while.

95 days until departure and counting…

 

… and then suddenly…

So Brandon was driving along the other day coming back from helping a mate, as you do. When suddenly he hears a metallic clunking noise coming from the engine and the oil pressure gauge flat-lined. He and the car limped home that day but there was a look of dread and fear on Brandon’s face when he talked to me about the various things that could be causing the problem. We booked the Cruiser in to visit our trusty mechanic, Cameron, and crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. I was determined to believe that it was fixable – after all, Brandon was able to drive the car to the mechanic, so how bad can it be? Surely you can’t be driving along one minute and the next minute your engine is close to blowing up?

Turns out, yes. Yes, that can happen.

After an anxious wait, Cameron delivered the worst news possible today. When Brandon described the news on Facebook, his comment was “[The] bottom end [of the engine is] about to get blown out the side of the block”. I don’t speak Engine language so I can’t really interpret that for you but from what I have been able to piece together, there’s some important stuff in the lower sections of Brandon’s engine, possibly the words ‘big end’ and ‘crank’ may have been thrown around, but I could just be pulling those terms out my butt… anyway, lots of important parts that do important things now aren’t working and if we keep driving the car the engine will most likely fly out of the car, and Brandon will be left resembling Fred Flintstone (or perhaps he’s more Barney Rubble?).

This. Cannot. Be. Happening. As Charlotte said on the way home today, “Today is a very bad day. I wish it was a dream”. [She was talking about not being allowed to play in the playground at after school care for a suitable length of time, but I think the same really applies to our situation, don’t you?]

Of all the crappy, #firstworldproblem things to have happen to us, just after we spent so much time and money fixing up this car (note the royal use of the word ‘we’ here)… devastated is an understatement.

So, where does this leave us?

Well, you can’t keep a good Cruiser down, that’s for sure. Can’t keep a good Hazelwood down either. The Hazelwood problem-solving team whipped themselves into action and Brandon spent a good part of today on the phones and online looking for a replacement engine and doing homework about costs for replacement versus buying a new (second hand) car etc. Meanwhile, I jumped in the car and went and met with our faithful loan officer who helped us come up with a plan to pay for whatever outcome we decided on. This was no longer a matter of ‘do we cancel’ – this was beyond that. This was now ‘we need to get Brandon’s car on the road again’, regardless of whether we go on the trip or not. It is just adding insult to injury that we have a brand new camper in our garage that we can’t actually tow anywhere at the moment. While I love my Rav, she’s not up to that task and never will be.

End result? I’ll let Brandon tell you…

We have certainly had more than one person say to us today “Thank god you weren’t in the middle of your trip when this happened” (very true) and then there’s been the odd “Will you cancel the trip?” At this point, the trip is still on. We are waiting for the bank to give us the go-ahead and obviously that really dictates everything at this point. But assuming they do say yes, we are beginning to see the silver lining. The engine we are hoping to put in the car is better and more fuel efficient. So while we certainly didn’t want this to happen, there will be savings to be made when we’re actually out on the road. Yes, we will have more debt than we wanted but we have already identified where we can trim some fat and I think, fingers crossed, we’ll get through OK. Well, obviously we will – we have so much to be thankful and grateful for. But in the short term, we have to be a little more unsettled than we might like.

Stay tuned for updates when we get them…