ARB’s Off Road Icons was earmarked to be a memorable trip, incorporating a west to east crossing of the Simpson Desert, that fast became one of the most unforgettable adventures of ARB’s history. With four of Australia’s most iconic vehicles from the past four decades, 15 crew in total and four modern support vehicles, all trekking across 2,500km for 11 days, the potential for things to go wrong was vast. To add a bit of spice to this recipe, we decided to add a catering trailer to the mix…
“Are you mad? You’re taking a trailer across the Simpson?”. Not only did I hear many people say that to me before the trip, but I’ve also preached it for years myself. The Simpson is a long way from anywhere, and when something breaks, if you can’t fix it yourself, help is a long way away and can be very expensive when it gets there.
Why take a trailer? Well to complement this 4WD adventure, into one of Australia’s harshest environments, we were also set to offer this large cast of travellers an iconic Outback culinary experience. Our trailer was our commercial kitchen on wheels.
To prepare these delights we had Vicki Lennox from Canilta Catering, and previously Tri State Safari fame. We’ve tested Vicki’s reputation for preparing mouth watering menus in the most remote locations on many occasions, and with the help of Dave Cox (owner of the Mt. Dare Hotel) piloting the tow vehicle, we knew the trailer was in the most experienced hands.
Now, I’ve seen dozens of trailers broken and abandoned in my travels across the country, and the vast majority were garden variety box trailers, left to die as the result of a broken spring pack, bearing failure or a cracked chassis. Most well designed off road trailers have upgrades to these components and our catering trailer was no exception. Purpose built for catering to large groups, this trailer was a veteran of many Outback adventures reaching as far north as the Kimberley.
Although extremely capable with its heavy duty suspension, Treg coupling, high ground clearance and great departure angle, it had experienced its share of mishaps on previous trips, including no less than three suspension failures and complete replacements. You might be thinking why would we want to take a trailer that has already failed? Well, these types of failures are common and with the right equipment and spares, can be serviced or repaired in the field.
Most trailers (and also vehicles) fail in the Outback simply from being overloaded and pushed beyond the limits of their capabilities. So from the outset we decided not to load the trailer to anywhere near its capacity, carrying most of the heavy items, like water, throughout other vehicles. Trailers also tend to be overlooked when it comes to regular maintenance. Think about all the trailers you see on holiday weekends sitting on the side of the road with a wheel missing, either as a result of a bearing failure or flat tyre. So our trailer came to us trip prepared and ready to roll.
Prepared for the inevitable, we carried most of the tools and equipment required for bush repairs. History and experience had shown that chances were something was going to fail, not only on the trailer but also our ageing Icons, and fail they did.
On arriving in Alice with the trailer, Dave Cox went about checking it over for the second time. Noting that the brake cable was a little slack, close inspection of the park brake handle showed a crack that needed a small weld repair. With the help of the ARB workshop in Alice Springs, Dave had the repair completed quickly and the trailer was then packed and made ready for its run down the Old South Road to Chambers Pillar, then on to Dave’s home of 13 years, Mt. Dare.
Heading into Mt. Dare, we came across the result of recent rains that had closed the Birdsville Track, which (fingers crossed) would be open by the time we got to Birdsville for our run south. In their wisdom, the builders of Mt. Dare Hotel placed it smack bang in the middle of Abminga Creek and the hotel was now surrounded by water. Traversing flooded tracks through hundreds of meters of water, slush and mud, Mt. Dare’s workshop offered cover from the elements and our first chance to get under the trailer for a thorough check after two days of off road travel.
Dave had heard a rattle from under the trailer and a quick check revealed the brake cable had caught on something and snapped, allowing the brake callipers to open and a pad to fall out somewhere along the track. With no spare brake pads (something you wouldn’t think to carry especially with them being replaced recently) the decision was made to remove the brake system completely. Only four bolts hold the callipers in place, so they were removed quickly along with the remnants of the cable. The wheel bearings were slightly loose, so we set about adjusting them before leaving the relative safety of Mt. Dare’s five foot levee banks for more soaked tracks.
After a relaxing afternoon at Dalhousie, soaking off the mud in the springs and relaxing with a few ales, the following morning’s run east toward the French Line was fairly easy. Undulating terrain with gravel tracks and a few creek crossings make for picturesque touring…. broken only by a call on the UHF to bring the 79 Series up, the convoy and the trailer was again in need of help.
The GQ Patrol Icon, driven by Matt Glass, had been following the trailer and could smell something burning. Having thought something was wrong with their vehicle, Matt had stopped a few times and popped the hood, but it was now evident that the smell was coming from the trailer as it sat in the middle of the track with the axle loose and the right hand tyre jammed hard against the inner guard. Dave quickly had the trailer jacked and supported to reveal the centre pin had broken on the right hand spring, causing two leaves to exit the pack and allowing the axle to shift rearward on loose shackles. With the help of the hand tools we packed and an 18V battery powered angle grinder, the damaged parts were removed, and from the front compartment of the trailer emerged a new spring pack, shackles and nuts. A coffee break later and with the help of a few hands, the trailer was back on its wheels and heading east again.
The constant cresting and dipping between sand dunes of the Simpson Desert puts a lot of stress on suspension systems for both vehicles and trailers. However, our next failure was something we least expected. Again, a call for the 79 Series to move to the front of our ‘desert caravan’ to assist the trailer was heard over the airwaves.
I was driving the 79 Series and as I was approaching the front of the column, I could see deep gouges in the centre of the track, and upon reaching the trailer, I found the 5mm plate the Treg coupling bolts to had been torn from the trailer A-frame. Dave was already hard at work removing components as I surveyed the damage and the heavens opened. It was a race against the setting sun and a battle with the torrential rain. With the help of all, we set up camp and a shelter over the trailer and prepared our desert engineering workshop. Sparks flew into the darkness as Dave wielded the grinder and battery powered Mig welder (as well as a big hammer). The result being, a fully functional trailer once again and probably stronger than before.
One very handy piece of equipment in our kit was the portable Mig welder. Running on 12, 24 or 36 volts depending on the thickness of the material you are welding, we hooked it up to two 12v batteries donated by the Icon GQ Patrol and 40 Series LandCruiser. Using simple Anderson plug connectors, the unit is up and running in minutes and with flux core wire, there is no need for welding gas (there is an included adaptor to run gas if required).
The 5th failure of the trip wasn’t a failure as such, but it was certainly bad enough to reduce our slow pace east through the mud and slush of salt lakes as we approached Poepple Corner. It was the realisation that the trailer axle had been bent significantly when it dropped into an all consuming bog hole in the middle of the K1 salt lake. Traversing the salt lakes after rain is fraught with the danger of getting bogged, however, keeping constant momentum whilst staying to the most worn track usually is the most successful method as the worn tracks, although deeper, have broken through the lake’s salty crust and mud beneath, revealing a firm gravel bottom.
The aforementioned bog hole consumed the BT-50 and its trailer in tow and the quick fall to the bottom brought the trailer’s full weight down harshly, bottoming the spring packs against the chassis. With no more travel, the weight of the trailer bent the outer sections of the axle, resulting in more camber than a lowered VW Beetle. After a slow, 20km/h march to Birdsville and with the help of Sam Barnes from Birdsville Roadhouse, the axle was straightened and bearings were replaced, having been running with the additional load of the negative camber of the wheels.
Our final failure really has two parts, and after the previous failure that morning, really tested our patience. Still travelling through the desert and early in the evening, we now were not only towing a trailer slowly toward Birdsville but also the Icon 40 Series LandCruiser which had a gremlin in the ignition system (another story for another time).
So I was slowly following and watching the waddling trailer, as well as pulling the old 40 with the 36 year-newer 79 Series, I then called Dave on the radio, “I think you have a flat mate!” As soon as he came to a halt, the tyre relieved itself of the remainder of its air (it had stopped in just the right spot to open a gash sustained sometime earlier). Due to the amount of mud attached to both the tyre and undercarriage, we chose to change the tyre and repair it later. We were already travelling at 20km/ph in darkness and with Birdsville still a few hours away, we didn’t want to waste any more time than we had to. So, away we went, cleaning the back of the rim from the debris to ensure it seated properly, the wheel was then replaced, the nuts were tightened and we were back on track.
Some hours later (after recovering the 79 & 40 from a deep bog) and having only travelled a few kilometres, Dave, half way up a large dune only a few kilometres from Big Red exclaims on the radio “I think something just happened!”. It was 10:30pm on a very eventful day. “You’re kidding me”, I muttered under my breath. Flicking on the powerful beam of the Intensity lights it was obvious the trailer was now missing the entire wheel that had only recently been changed. We were only an hour from our destination – this was going to be a ‘wit trying’ repair.
As we dug the axle out from its sand tomb, we were relieved to find the wheel studs were still attached, although heavily covered in alloy from the exiting rim. Whilst I set about cleaning the studs with a thread file and wire brush, Dave hunted out the spare studs and nuts from the trailer’s front compartment.
Unfortunately though, as a result of a previous axle and hub upgrade, the new wheel nuts were a smaller thread than we required. So, our only way out of this mess was to head back and search for the nuts that had fallen. Although it might not have felt like it during the trip, luck was now finally on our side. We found three of the fallen nuts and they were still serviceable! We then borrowed another nut from the opposite hub and we continued on, at 20km/h, reaching our destination at a mere 3am that morning.
Travelling remote desert areas with a trailer is not recommended and should only be done as a necessity if you are prepared both mentally and with the right equipment to carry out a repair. For the Icons trip, we were excited for the warm desert sun, the dry tracks and easy travelling during the time of year that we chose. This was, however, not the case as we were met with heavy rainfall and arduous track conditions. With a mechanically minded crew and vehicles packed for the inevitable, we were lucky enough to safely complete our journey.
Travelling the Simpson Desert is no exception and towing a trailer is generally not recommended. Owner of Mt. Dare Hotel, Dave Cox, says although it is not recommended, every year many make the crossing and just as many return on the back of a truck, often his.
“Towing a trailer across the Simpson has always been frowned upon and I try to discourage people from doing it. If you really feel the need to tow a trailer there are a few things you must do:
– Have a well set up trailer that has off road rated suspension
– Have a well set up 4WD that has adequate power with good suspension. If it bottoms out it will cause damage
– Let your tyres down further than you normally would for the conditions. For this trip we ran 14psi front and 18psi rear with 18psi in the trailer. This gave us plenty of traction and ensured we didn’t damage the tracks. Keep in mind this a guideline and would vary based on tyre size and load.
– Travel with another 4WD that isn’t towing to help you out if required. Don’t rely on someone else coming along.
– Carry spares and tools to carry out any repairs if required
Lastly, take your time and enjoy the Simpson, don’t let the trailer make it the ‘trip from hell’.”
Owner of Mt. Dare Hotel.
For more tales from the Off Road Icons adventure, check out icons.arb.com.au. Or stay tuned for edition 2 of 4×4 CULTURED and edition 47 of 4×4 Culture magazine.