Trip Report: Big Caravan Trip Part 1 – Melbourne to Darwin

After months of planning we departed in July on our 11 week, 15,000km “half lap” of Australia. This trip report is basically a collection of the best photos from the first part of our trip from Melbourne to Darwin via Central Australia and Kakadu.

For anyone who is into caravans, we got a Jayco Starcraft Poptop 17.58-3 Outback for the trip. Most caravans seem to be designed for 2 people (grey nomads) and we could only find 2 caravan models suitable for a family of 4 that had some offroad capability that come in under in 2500kg ATM which is the towing limit of our Prado.

Henley Beach in Adelaide

We never planned to go through Adelaide but some last minute exhaust issues meant we spent a few hours enjoying the sights of Adelaide.

Parham beach north of Adelaide
A typical dinner in the caravan when we were down south and the nights were much cooler. Now we are up north it is shorts and thongs all day and night.
Somewhere near Woomera. Oh what a feeling….
The Breakaways near Coober Pedy
We had some friends from Port Lincoln join us for about 5 nights from Coober Pedy to Ayers Rock. We stayed at Riba’s Tourist Park at Coober Pedy in the caravan above ground and our friends (let’s call them the “Woollies”) camped underground in their tent. It is recommended you take some ear plugs.
We did an opal mine tour and a bit of noodling (searching for opals in piles of dirt) which the kids enjoyed.
We had some great nights camping on the side of the Stuart Highway. As the Woollies could drive faster than us (because they weren’t towing a caravan) they could go ahead and find the best camp sites.
It seems that sitting on the roof of your car and watching the sunset at Ayers Rock / Uluru is a very popular thing to do.
Ayers Rock. It’s a big rock.
Sunset with the Olgas / Kata Tjuta in the distance on the left.
Luckily the Woollies had some intel on a sweet bush campsite not far from Ayers Rock. No other people for miles.

This desert track was pretty narrow and resulted in some pinstriping on the new van.
Kings Canyon
Glen Helen Gorge
We really enjoyed our time at Ormiston Gorge but in the end decided not to stay the night.
Ormiston Gorge
Ormiston Gorge
Near Serpentine Gorge
The bird show at Alice Springs Desert Park was very good.
The Daly Waters Pub had a lot of character. The food was pretty good too.
When we got to Mataranka we felt like we had finally reached the top end. The weather was warm, the vegetation green and tropical and the waters infested with snappy things.
So when we got to Bitter Springs we sent the kids in first to make sure it was safe.
The upper pool at Gunlom in Kakadu is sometimes referred to as Nature’s Infinity Pool
The lower pool at Gunlom at Kakadu.
Ubirr at Kakadu. We saw lots of Aboriginal art in this area.
Ubirr (Kakadu).
Burning off / fuel reduction between Ubirr and Jabiru as seen when driving back to our campsite

The trip has gone well so far. We have been on the road for 3 weeks with 8 more weeks to go. This first stage has been a mix of covering lots of highway kilometres to get north with some really special places along the way.

From a power and fuel consumption perspective a petrol Prado is not surprisingly a pretty crap vehicle to tow a caravan with. There is a reason that nearly everyone tows with a big diesel 4WD. Luckily the Prado comes with 180 litre fuel tanks or we would be stopping to fill up several times a day. (When we got the car in  2005 the D4D diesel engine was not yet released and we had no plans to caravan around Australia).

We had a period of 2 days near Coober Pedy where we had to drive into a moderate head wind. We couldn’t hold 5th gear (it is a 6 speed manual) so we had to drive at 80 km/h in 4th gear and just watch the fuel gauge drop……quite annoying. But our fuel economy seems to be improving a bit – possibly as a result of cleaning the MAF Sensor.

Apart from that and few electrical issues trying to run the fridges the car is going well. While we never plan to drive at night we have had a few occasions to do so – on one night for about 4 hours. The new Nitro 140 lights have come in very handy. Luckily no road kill so far although a dingo and cow gave us a scare in Kakadu.

The kids seem to be enjoying themselves – especially when they are swimming. Not so much when they have to do their schoolwork.

We have one more day in Darwin and then we head west for the Kimberley which I am expecting will be a real highlight of the trip. So stay tuned to the world of Bretto for Part 2 when we get to Broome.

Gear Review: Ultra Vision Nitro 140 Maxx LED Driving Lights

Following my initial impressions and unboxing, I wired up the new lights and I have to say these things are phenomenal. If you are contemplating getting your first set of driving lights or upgrading your old halogens I suggest you read on.

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I have done a comparison of 3 different lights and tried to be as objective as possible:

  1. Standard Toyota High Beam lights
  2. Lightforce 240 Blitz halogen driving lights (100 watts each – about 10 years old)
  3. Ultra Vision Nitro 140 Maxx LED driving lights (140 watts each – brand new)
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Toyota High Beam
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Lightforce 240 Blitz
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Ultra Vision Nitro 140 Maxx

And here are some crops of the same photos – note the fence is 150 metres away.

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Toyota High Beam (cropped image)
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Lightforce 240 Blitz (cropped image)
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Ultra Vision Nitro 140 Maxx (cropped image). You can see G-Man by the fence taking the readings with the light meter – wishing he had his sunglasses! At least it didn’t start to rain this time.

Test results

Test 1. Light Meter Reading at 100 metres, directly in front of car

Toyota High Beam Lightforce 240 Blitz Nitro 140 Maxx Widr
2-3 lux 15 lux 87 lux

Test 2. Light Meter Reading at 100 metres, 10 metres to the right

Toyota High Beam Lightforce 240 Blitz Nitro 140 Maxx Widr
1 lux 0-2 lux 16 lux

Test 3. Light Meter Reading at 150 metres, directly in front of car at fence

Toyota High Beam Lightforce 240 Blitz Nitro 140 Maxx Widr
0-1 lux not taken 44 lux

You can see that the Nitro 140’s blow away the halogen lights on the middle of the road, but more importantly the Nitro 140’s provide more light at 10 metres off to the side (16 lux) than the Lightforce’s provide in the middle of the road! (15 lux). Check out the right hand side of the cropped photos above and you will see what I mean. This is the sort of beam pattern perfect for spotting roos on the side of the highway or navigating a winding back road.

Don’t get me wrong – the Lightforce’s have been great lights and served me well on countless trips. The only damage they sustained was a crack at the top of the plastic housing when I hit an owl one night in Tasmania. But LED technology has come a very long way in the last decade and these new Nitro 140’s are just amazing. In fact comparing the Lightforce halogens against the Nitro 140’s is like comparing a shotgun to a rocket launcher.

Things to consider

  • My standard high beams are surprisingly bad. I expect that standard headlights in a new car or 4WD would be significantly brighter than the ones in my 2005 Toyota. I had not realised just how bad they were until I did this test – because I am either driving around the city where there is plenty of light or on the highway/bush with the driving lights on.
  • The Lightforce’s were fitted with the blue plastic covers – one of them being the combo lens supposedly for improved spread. The halogen bulbs are the original ones that came with the lights. Brand new or upgraded bulbs may provide better performance.
  • The Lightforce’s provide a very focused and narrow pencil beam. While you can adjust this (by spinning the light) you end up with more of a “cone shape” that is not as bright and less useful in most circumstances (in my opinion).
  • I don’t have the alignment of the Nitro 140’s perfectly dialled in yet. I will have to wait until I hit the open road with a loaded car to fine tune them.
  • You could cause an accident if you fail to dip the Nitro 140’s for oncoming traffic. They are bloody bright.

How we conducted the testing

Ideally we would have done the testing on a quiet country road somewhere, but since I live in a large city the best I could do was a dodgy dirt road near the local tip. Unfortunately it took about 18 hours to get the stench out of the car afterwards.

We tested the lights on 2 nights about a week apart. The first time with my old Lightforce’s and the next time with the Ultra Visions. I had the engine running at about 1600-1800 rpm (thanks to a telescopic walking pole) but there was no noticeable difference in the brightness from idle.

The testing consisted of 2 parts: taking photos to show the relative brightness and taking lux readings with a light meter. The distances were measured with my Suunto Spartan.

Camera settings

I used a tripod and exactly the same camera settings for all the photos and the images look pretty close to what it really looked like. I didn’t make any corrections or adjustments in Lightroom. For the photography nerds:

Camera body Lumix GM-5
Lens Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II
Zoom 20mm
Flash No
Camera Setting M – Manual
Aperture 1.7
Shutter Speed 1/4 sec
ISO 200
White Balance AWB
Focus 1 Area
Image Size 4:3 16M
Format RAW

Light meter

I got my hands on this light meter. It is about 10 years old and doesn’t have a calibration certificate or anything – but is good enough for a comparison between different lighting options.

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This is the old light meter we used.

 

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This is with the clear plastic covers fitted. I don’t really like the way they clip on but they will do the job. I think these lights have doubled the value of my car.

Fitting and Installation

The Ultra Vision lights came with a complete wiring loom so I removed my old driving light wiring (which was a bit of a mess) and replaced it with the Ultra Vision wiring loom. It was quite easy because everything is already connected and it worked the first time. The only challenging part (for me at least) was getting the high beam pickup (from the back of the headlights) and getting the switch through the firewall. But it wasn’t complicated – just a bit fiddly and took a while to make sure it was all tidy and well secured. The lights come with simple instructions and a wiring diagram – much easier than trying to wire up the relay and fuses etc yourself. And of course you can get an auto electrician to wire them up in half the time if you are not confident doing it yourself.

Toyota bull bar

Unfortunately Toyota’s aluminium Sovereign bull bar is designed to suit driving lights with a very small footprint. And because of the curved and sloping shape of the bull bar it was a little fiddly to get the Nitro 140’s sitting just right. But this isn’t the fault of the Nitro 140’s – the stainless steel bracket is a great design. The lights are mounted rock solid now albeit slightly further forward than I would have liked, and thanks to the anti-theft nuts supplied by Ultra Vision hopefully no prick can steal them. If you have a normal bull bar with a flat plate on top these lights will mount easily – just make sure have sufficient clearance from the top tube as these lights are quite large (although not very deep).

The verdict

Bretto rating: 10/10

I deducted a point because I don’t really like the plastic lens covers, but added a bonus point because these lights are so bloody bright and the beam pattern / spread is excellent. These are not the cheapest lights around, but they exceeded my expectations in terms of build quality and brightness, come with a 5 year warranty and are made right here in Australia.

If you want more details on the Nitro 140’s check out the Ultra Vision website

I am about to head off on my biggest road trip yet – and while I try to avoid driving at night due to the increased risk of road kill, I am sure there will be many occasions where we push on to the next campsite or town after dark. And for those nights I am very pleased to have the Nitro 140’s showing the way.

Special thanks to G-Man for helping with the testing which involved a couple of unpleasant late night trips to the tip.

Disclaimer: Ultra Vision supplied the lights for evaluation purposes.