Campervan Around Australia with Erwin

Jan 13, 2016

Erwin carried Jen and I through Australia with determination and quiet grace. He kept us out of the rain, gave us a few laughs and occasionally pissed me off quite a bit but, Erwin never let us down. Erwin was our van.

We bought Erwin from the website Gumtree, which is Austrlia’s version of Craigslist. He was advertised as a dependable little van at a bargain price and after looking at a few other vans of the same make/model, but at significantly higher prices, I decided to take a look. Erwin wasn’t the easiest van for me to check out because I had to take a 6 hour bus ride just to see it and then spend the night in town and either take the bus back or buy the van and drive it back.

Mechanically, Erwin seemed ok though. No funky sounds, smells, colored smokes or signs of impending doom. Tires looked good, breaks worked well enough for my needs and the steering and suspension were not at all sloppy. Erwin also ran on both Gasoline (Petrol) an LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) offering flexibility, cost savings and two tanks to run on during long drives. After talking the price down about 10% I picked up Erwin for $3500 Austrlian Dollars or roughly $2000 US. At first sight, I was unimpressed with Erwin. The engine had a slight tick from a worn hydraulic lifter and the van was in need of some serious TLC. The owner had it as his little bachelor van that he drove occasionally to take short road trips but he wasn’t really living out of it. For him it was just a cheap place to crash over the weekend. As such, it had some very basic things like a small sink, a few rollout drawers with various cooking items, a bed, a gas stove, and oddly, a really nice little stereo system up front and a DVD Player/TV in the back. Given that the van wasn’t really all that clean and didn’t have a way for storing food or even a decent set of plates, cups or bowls I had to wonder what possessed the guy to upgrade from no radio to a high end one that plays movies front and back but hey, to each their own.

IMG_1948.jpgAfter registering Erwin in my name and transferring ownership (pretty easy to do for a foreigner in OZ), I started driving Erwin back to the place Jen and I were staying for the next few weeks. Almost immediately I ran into some odd little issues that had me wondering if I had made a terrible mistake. The first of which was a really strange phenomenon where Erwin would run fine until I hit a few bumps then run like complete crap and belch a little smoke. It was as if one cylinder wasn’t firing at all. Immediately I figured it had to be ignition related but to what extent? Was there a plug misfiring? Did the fuel pump not supply enough fuel? Perhaps the wires were grounding out somewhere? Needless to say, I was not happy when these issues started and instead of trying to fix it without any tools whatsoever, I just kept on going lumbering along at a measly 80km per hour. Not even close to the speed limit. The ride took me about 8 hours but I made it back before midnight with a sinking feeling that this van might need more work than I initially thought.

A little dejected, I checked Erwin the next day and couldn’t solve the issue so I decided to drive to the nearest town and buy a small set of tools and a few parts for the van which would allow me to do a full tune-up. My younger brother is one heck of a mechanic and gave me some ideas on things to do and I followed his instructions to the letter. After a little elbow grease Erwin was running strong. The problem I mentioned earlier was in fact an ignition issue, the spark plugs had never been changed in almost 180,000 miles, nor had the wires, cap or rotor. For about $70 I changed them all, and for another $30 I changed the oil adding Lucas Oil (a good additive for old engines) and the air filter. I also picked up some carb/choke cleaner to clean up the carburetor a bit and clean the PCV valve out as well as some other random bits. Lastly, I greased the suspension using some stuff I found at the Yoga Jungle Retreat we were working at. By the time we left, Erwin was running like a top, making no frightening noises and could keep up with traffic. Not bad for a 23 year old underpowered van that has been abused as a courier van for 200k miles.

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In addition to the mechanical work, we also upgraded the interior with some new kitchen items, an awning (great for resale), a cheap power inverter and a new food cooler. Gradually, Jen and I made little upgrades along the way to the interior. We added lighting using cheap battery operated Christmas lights and covered the old ceiling panels with cheap fabric we purchased at a hobby store. We upgraded the sliders the drawers were on and added little plastic storage bins to the interior for food organization and to the roof to free up room inside the van. We also made mosquito nets to cover all the openings for improved airflow and spent some time just cleaning Erwin inside and out so he didn’t look so rough. By the time we were done, Erwin was one heck of a van. Other people with the same model and similar year, 1993 – 2003, were pretty envious. They couldn’t believe the price we paid and how nice Erwin was in comparison to their van. We were both very proud.

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Jen at the helm Cooking a little dinner after a long day of driving

Erwin served us well. He took us around Australia comfortably and with minimal hassle. We drove Erwin from Mission Beach to Adelaide and everywhere in between, including some of the outback areas where we just drove and drove for days. We were genuinely a little sad when we sold Erwin but he gave us some of the best memories from our trip so far and saved us a heap of cash on renting. We got just about all our money back from Erwin when we sold him and we calculated that the cost of running Erwin was around $12 USD per day per person including fuel, cost of repairs, registration, etc. $24 per day for the two of us to have transportation and accommodation is a great deal no matter where you are. 

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Driving through the scorching hot outback Outback sunsets are the best

Would I buy a van again if I were to spend three months in Australia? Maybe. It really depends on what you’re doing. If you plan to visit lots of places and want to get off the beaten path a bit with the freedom to pick up and go anywhere at anytime, then yeah buying a van makes sense. But I wouldn’t recommend it if you aren’t willing to put in some effort or can’t perform some basic repairs. It just might not be worth it and renting might be a better option with fewer hassels.

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Erwin looking pretty darn good Driving into the night

You could pay more for a better van and pay people to do any work it needs but that’s not really cost effective, especially when it comes time to sell as you might be stuck taking a lot less than you paid just to get rid of the van before your visa expires. It's a common story we heard from others looking to off-load a van they overpaid for.

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Making some coffee on a cool morning Taking in the views of the Great Ocean Road

On the other hand, if you know what cap/rotor, ignition wires, spark plugs and hydraulic lifters are and can perform work on them and other parts with a basic K-Mart set of tools and don't mind getting a little dirty, then I say go for it. You can save some dough and probably find a good deal on a van you'll really enjoy. The little projects and repairs can actualy be a bit of a fun challenge too. I mean breaking down somewhere isn't fun but making improvements and fixing little problems was actually quite rewarding. Either way you go, the only way to see Australia in my opinion is with your own set of wheels. 

Our last photo with Erwin on the day we sold him. We missed our little van immediately.

In case you're curious, here's the video we made when we were selling the van. It shows the interior and features a little better and in case you're reading this and trying to do the same, this video is what sold our van. We had tons of interest and were the only ones with a van listed that had photos and a video to go with it.

Category: Activities

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