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Rod’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 27 Jun 2010

Location: Winnipeg Train Station, Canada

MapWinnebago Dreaming (Part 0ne)

It’s a well kept secret but I have long wanted to do a Winnebago road trip.

Australians, of course, love road trips. “Mad Max” our most successful promotional vehicle for Australian tourism until the effervescent Lara Bingle appeared on millions of mobile phones in her birthday suit, remains in the top 5 greatest Australian movies of all time. It’s been downhill without brakes for Mel since then. Mad Max was really just an extended road trip gone bad – something that occasionally happens in real life too when mum and dad cram recalcitrant, travel sickness prone kids into a mechanically dodgy car and head off unprepared into the wilds of Australia. But not all road trips go wrong. Many a family road trip, launched with choruses of “are we there yet”, fart noises from the boys and increasingly tight-lipped front seat conversations as mum and dad realize that Easter Friday was a bad day to go anywhere in the car let alone the 450 km to Surfers Paradise, has ended triumphantly with the family sedan, full of tanned, sleeping-but-still-smiling kids and happy parents, nosing into the home driveway on the last day of the school holidays.

Good road trips can be life changing. My departure from the family nest began with a 10 day, 5000 km odyssey to Darwin in a beat up Holden Kingswood with a patient older brother as co-driver. It was endless kilometres of heat hazed roads, open skies, road-kills and a growing realization that I was moving a hell of a long way from family, friends and comfort zones. Typically, my first visit back ‘south’ (everywhere is south from Darwin) was another odyssey – some 12 000 km with a last minute decision at Katherine to detour via Broome and Perth and follow the entire Australian coastline back to Sydney. The ever trusty but increasingly scarred Kingswood lasted the distance plus another road trip back to Darwin, ending its days as a kitchen delivery vehicle at the Pine Creek gold mine. I guess it’s the miles unfolding...something new round each corner…its the journey not the destination… that sort of thing - or I just like the smell of petrol.

Americans love road trips too. Regularly featured in B-grade movies, a family Winnebago holiday (generically referred to as an RVee - using a strong retroflex ‘r’ if you want to sound like a local) appears to be something of a rite of passage for Americans. These gas guzzling, road cruising juggernauts represent all that is endearing about the world’s leading superpower - over-sized, over-weight and over-optioned. During the summer, RVs appear like locusts on north Amercian highways - in Alaska they are in plague proportions. They are everywhere, wedged under tree branches in quiet backroad pull overs (oops), nose to tail in the Walmart carpark waiting for the dump station and a parking spot (where else in the world can you holiday in a car park?), and leading stop-start mile long highway processions of increasingly frustrated locals. Under Alaskan road rules you are legally obliged to pull over if you have 5 or more cars behind you and allow them to pass. Curiously no one actually tells you this when you hire an RV. But despite the potential for RV rage, Alaska also embraces the RV holidayer – it’s a major source of income (after cruise ships) in a short summer tourist season. Such is the diversity and abundance of RVs on Alaskan road trips that Winnebago-spotting could become a state sport.

As the blurb says a Winnebago puts you in charge of your own grand adventure into the wilds, you can conquer great distances, view endlessly changing vistas from your oversize windscreen (or catch them later on the nature channel on your inbuilt widescreen and DVD lounge) - and your shirts stay hanging in the same wardrobe the entire trip.

We had the base model. A bare 25 ft long (none of that sissy French metric stuff here), our Winnie lacked a hot tub and billiard room but it was comfortable enough with a fully optioned bathroom, fully optioned kitchen (microwave, gas stove, oven, fridge and freezer, double sink), 6 beds, lounge suite, enough cupboards to hide an entire village of Mexican illegals, surround sound widescreen TV and DVD and your own personalized rocket launcher.

I loved it (I’ve always wanted my own rocket launcher). Ilse didn’t - but she soon succumbed to its charms. Stoically ignoring the attacking squadrons of helicopter-sized mosquitoes, clouds of invisible welt-causing no-see-ums, waves of annoy-the-f_ck-out-of-you midges and flies and non-stop drenching raining, Ilse toughed out a full 5 minutes outside the Winnebago in the Alaskan wilderness on our first overnight stop. We agreed it was just till the rain stopped.

Taking charge of this behemoth was an exhausting process- even more challenging than buying a handgun. It required a credit card; staying awake through a 45 minute video on important recreational vehicle skills like how to empty the toilet and avoid taking out the menu board at the local McDonalds drive thru; and signing away your first born child in the event of an accident (motor vehicle not birth control related). We did consider getting a handgun as well because, it turns out, bears, are quite capable of ripping open Winnebagos (google “bear attacks” and motor vehicle on youtube if you don’t believe me). In lieu of a handgun, we settled for bear repellant. According to Alaskan urban legends, unitiated visitors have mistakenly sprayed themselves with the pepper spray believing it worked like mosquito repellant (which you must also carry and best not confuse with your bear spray canister). Apart from being insanely uncomfortable, this can be dangerous because bears, provided the spray is not injected at high velocity into their mucous membranes, actually like the smell of pepper spray – go figure.

Some hours after the video credits had faded from the screen in our personal orientation booth we had possession of our dream machine. With the smell of the Alaskan open road in our nostrils (a heady mix of glacially chilled air, gasoline, toilet chemicals and bear-induced paranoia) we were off into the wilderness.