One of the best ways to see and travel a country is no doubt, by campervan. It’s hard to beat the amount of freedom you have this way. You can go where you want, when you want, and you don’t have to stick to anyone else’s schedule. Sometimes you end up going on detours you never considered taking, and get to see places that the people taking the east coast tour bus can only dream of. Sometimes you can be in bliss isolation, alone, sleeping in a hidden forest campsite. Or you may feel like part of a travelling campervan community, rocking up to a campsite to find about 20 people in campers of all shapes and sizes, taking the same journey. If you have the time to spare, and the money to get yourself going, then for me there’s no other way to travel a country like Australia.
I spent 2 years freedom camping my way around New Zealand and now I plan to do the same in Australia. But when you first arrive in a country, and one as expensive as Australia, buying a campervan as a backpacker can be a bit of a daunting experience. A couple of months ago I bought a 1999 Ford Econovan. Here’s a few tips I learnt from the experience:
1) Australian campervans are not cheap!
When I started looking into campervans and saw how expensive these old things were I was a bit shocked and even considered thinking about other travelling options. From the research I did, mainly looking on Gumtree, used campervans seem to start at $4,000,but were on average around $7,000-$11,000. I couldn’t believe that old knackered vans made in the 80s and 90s could fetch so much. But stick a bed in the back of an old van, maybe a sink and cupboard, and it gives sellers the right to target backpackers and add a few grand to the price.
2) Don’t Rush
Don’t rush into buying off the first backpacker you find on gumtree because you think the graphics on their campervan are really really cool and awesome! There’s lots of different people you can buy campervans off. Gumtree is one option, but there’s also auctions, dealerships, and rental companies who are selling off their ex-rental campers. The best thing to do is to do lots of research and find out exactly what your buying options are within the state you’re looking.
In my case, when I was looking for a campervan I was in Adeliade, SA. I’d been trawling gumtree and also looked into a few ex-rental companies but the prices seemed quite high. Eventually I came across a company called The Campervan Man in central Adelaide. When I arrived I was greated by the owner, a friendly, well travelled, mechanic called Luke who has a love for campervans. His business is buying old vans, usually used by tradies, and then converts them into simple campers for backpackers. He sticks to buying reliable models like Toyota and other popular brands like Ford and Mazda, so that spare parts are easy to get if ever needed. What I liked most about Luke was he wasn’t ripping backpackers off. A lot of his vans were the same make and model as many others I’d seen on gumtree, yet he was asking for slightly lower prices. It also gave me a piece of mind that he, as a mechanic, had checked over all his vans and done any required maintenance. Rather than having a backpacker tell you, “We’ve had this van for 8 months and no problems!” For $4,750 I got my 1999 Ford Econovan along with chairs, cutlery, pots, pans, a cool box and a gas cooker. He also gave me lots of helpful maintenance and travel tips free of charge.
3) Has the vehicle been maintained?
Don’t just accept some backpacker telling you they’ve had no problems. You need to try and find out what’s been done to keep the camper running well while the previous owner has had it. Find out when the last oil change was done and check the oil level yourself. What condition are the wheels in, is there an oil leak? Ask when the cam belt was last changed. I never used to know what this was but apparently it’s very important. It’s basically responsible for managing engine timing so that valves and pistons don’t collide with each other. If it were to break, there could be a lot of internal engine damage and could even wreck the engine altogether, a very expensive problem to get fixed! So this belt needs to be changed about every 70,000- 95,000kms depending on the model of the vehicle.
One thing to note about Australia is the extremely hot summers. During this summer I’ve experienced at least 3 or 4 heat waves where temperatures have gone up as high as 45 degrees for a week at a time. As the engine heats up high, all old campervans are going to struggle with this, so it’s important that yours is in the best shape possible to begin with.
5) Don’t forget about all the legal stuff! And budget for that too…
After you’ve found the perfect campervan, you’ll then need to transfer the registration from the seller to yourself. You have 14 days to fill out the disposal notice section on the current registration form and lodge it at the state or territory motor registry. Both the seller and buyer need to fill out a part and sign it. Also bear in mind that you as the buyer needs to have a current address. This can be a pain in the ass as you need to show a bank statement or power bill etc as proof of address, which not all backpackers can easily do! In my case I had to go to a hostel, pay them the price of a night, so they could print me out an invoice to supposedly prove this is my address… ridiculous… but it worked.
In South Australia the transfer of registration costs $22. You then also need to pay stamp duty, which is calculated on the value of the purchase of the vehicle, and in my case was $132 (van cost $4750). But the biggest cost which should not be forgotten about is the cost of motor vehicle tax. The amount will change depending on the state you’re registered in, but for me it cost an annual fee of $779. You can register for shorter terms but you’ll pay even more overall.
Buying a campervan can feel like a bit of a risk, you’re putting quite a bit of money into a vehicle that’s been around the block a few times. But once you’re on the road and camping out by the coast or in a beautiful forest, you know you’ve made the right decision.