Charging through the outback in an EV: 14-27 August 2018
"Electric car through Central Australia? You can’t do it!”
And the one we’ve heard before: “You’ll need an awful long extension cord”.
But when the Tesla Owners Club of Australia (TOCA) announced their AGM would be in Alice Springs, Dick thought it’d be an interesting challenge. So the plan involved:
- one 2015 Tesla Model 85S (ie single engine, rear-wheel drive. 50,000km on clock) aka “Tess”
- the TOCA & Australian Electric Vehicles Association (AEVA) sponsored network of 3-phase charge points being extended from round Australia to being also “up the middle"
- co-driver Anthony Houston, who had only 5 days, intending to fly home to Hobart from Alice
- co-driver & wife Julie flying in to Alice for a Red Centre holiday & the return journey
- and, at the last moment, being joined on the outward legs by Tomas Friedhoff, Netherlands EV advocate, sliding his 6' 7” frame into the rear seat which became his mobile office, having promised his employer he could complete an analysis of the 125+ detailed submissions into the current Federal Enquiry into EVs & Sustainable Transport).
Here’s our Experience of the E-volutionary E-volving Exploration & Extension of the EV network to the Red Centre.
Not much to report! Coming straight from a week at Mount Hotham, where Tess (with chains on rear wheels) drove out from under a metre of snow like a snow plough, there was only two days back in Melbourne before heading to the sun-drenched Centre. Determining charge stops is a cinch on major routes such as Melbourne to Adelaide, but thereafter it requires using the on-screen mapping, battery level, range indicators, and charge rate, which adjusts for current speed & conditions. Tess even provides warnings if range is excessive and/or what speed to slow to to ensure energy consumption is within bounds and your destination is reached. But emergency bedding was packed in case of becoming stranded, not least because Tess has no spare tyre. An inflation kit was packed, and puncture goo was bought along the way.
MELBOURNE - ADELAIDE
Tuesday 14 August: collected Tomas in Melbourne CBD & Anthony (Ant) from Tullamarine & did a few touristy things in Ballarat, supercharging there and through Cobram and Keith en route to Adelaide. Without an Oz licence, co-piloting was left to Ant for his first hands-free experience. In Adelaide we picked up a TOCA loan set of 3-phase connectors for charging at remote locations (they’d just been used in the Flinders Ranges) before partying on near Rundle Street Mall. The central Majestic Roof Garden Hotel (with $35 valet parking/Tesla charging! The valet was useless, however, as they couldn’t work out how to drive it).
ADELAIDE - ALICE
Wednesday 15 August:
Tomas was hot on social media, finding sustainability advocates from the City Council while entering Adelaide. Over breakfast, they took up his offer of a quick Tess-trip, before we lazily toured through the beautiful Adelaide Hills and on to Jacobs Creek Visitor Centre in the Barossa, where Tomas enthused the Manager to keep up with competitors and install a Tesla Destination Charger - expect one there soon! On to the Kegel Club in Tanunda (Australia’s oldest sporting facility!) and a late lunch at Seppeltsfield Winery. Afternoon tea at the Clare Supercharger allowed a diversion to re-visit the Hornsdale Wind Farm and BFB (the world’s biggest battery)! Then it was a fast trip to Port Augusta, where Tess drank at the Standpipe Motel Destination charger.
Look for the wind turbines in background
Thursday 16 August:
Now off the Supercharger network, and allowing time for slow 3-phase charging, we left at 6am for the 176km up the Stuart Highway to Pimba, where we were the first to patronise the new AEVA 3-phase charger, which topped up our range at a rate of 50km/hr (compare Superchargers at <=700km/hr). On the worldwide App PlugShare, we recorded the details and a photograph of Tess charging, so EVers will know that the site exists and it works! Wearing shoes and shirts qualified as suitable attire to enter Spud’s for breakfast.
A well-dressed Tomas celebrates the first charge at Spuds Road House
Glendambo (112 km away) was next, for a leisurely 2-hr lunch. Plugging in gave an extra 100km range, enabling a 255km afternoon cruise to COOBER PEDY. We could have arrived with charge remaining, but the straight open roads invited exploring maximum speed (briefly) but we throttled back to ensure we didn’t burn too much energy, using the on-screen range indicators to arrive with just a few kms of range left. But we planned a full recharge of our batteries overnight at the Desert Cave Underground Motel.
After exploring our cave, and the underground bar, we emerged into the cool evening air for a stroll to the pub, where we met local opal miners and communication technicians who took us on to the Italian Miners Club for “the best tucker in town”. We certainly enjoyed the local flavour, refreshingly informed opinions and interest in our EVolutions, and the refreshments themselves!
Friday 17 August:
The early start to Marla (234 km) was a struggle, knowing we needed a good charge there to eat up the tarmac north. We eventually found the unlabelled charge point, recently installed for the Breast Screening Van, and used by just one EV prior to our visit, and left Tess to enjoy a drink. We took a 2.5-hr lunch break amongst a few trees and some grass reserved for grey nomads, and occasional young families.
Travelling companions “alert” after a night in Coober Pedy
After a 180-km afternoon trip to Kulgera, we intended to use the 3-phase charger used for the workshop hoist, but the main man was out on a job. As the roadhouse had a beer specially brewed for this outpost, it required sampling while we awaited his return. After a while, with dusk approaching (when kangaroos and possibly grazing animals could venture too to the road) we decided to push the limits without a top-up, by cruising at just 80km/h to maximise range, and speed up or slow down as on-screen range monitors advise. 'Twas easily managed, with nothing left on arrival.
ERLDUNDA Roadhouse, right on the turnoff of the Lasseter Highway to Uluru, provided modern amenities with a charge point at our motel door, and a good sleep ahead of the festivities ahead.
Saturday 18 August:
The 200kms from Erldunda to the Finke River and on to ALICE SPRINGS - with a full tank and a 130km speed limit - was quickly accomplished, completing the Melbourne to Alice trip in just over 4 days (including rubber-necking along the way). Arriving at 8.30am we visited a car wash, before joining the EV parade of Teslas (along with a new generation Prius and a hybrid Beemer) as part of HENLEY-ON-TODD-REGATTA.
Ant & AEVA Vice-Pres Clive Attwater lead the parade
Admiring crowds lined the streets, and the local ABC-TV camerawomen perched on my passenger seat and filmed the procession through the sunroof. By 11am the crowds had thronged to the Todd River where, amongst the displays, not least the AEVA/TOCA stand with a Model X on show.
After a quick excursion to collect Julie from Alice Springs airport, we settled in to enjoy the bizarre antics of the local boat races, and the annual skirmish of the Pirates, the Navy and the Vikings.
Explosive activity on the Todd River
Over dinner, crews from Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne & Darwin shared stories of their journeys from different directions. And the NT Minister for Renewable Energy was engaged at the next morning’s market.
Sunday 19 August:
After charging at Crowne Plaza’s Destination Charger overnight, we farewelled Ant at the airport after Tomas had extracted promises from Ant to advance his renewable energy uptake. But he didn’t need much persuasion, and looks forward to an EV future as well. In the afternoon Tomas and Dick attended the TOCA AGM, with 8 members & 2 observers present in a video hook-up with all states (and envy from those who hadn’t been able to get away from their dull, dreary city/suburban lives!
Following the ease of the trip north, advice was sought on attempting the circle route to Uluru, travelling north of the Finke Gorge along the Larapinta & Namatjira Drive anticlockwise from Alice through Tjoritja (the West MacDonnell Ranges) around to Uluru (Ayers Rock) via Watarrka (Kings Canyon). This Involves a corrugated dirt road, in any season it is advised to seek police advice about the road condition.
Ross Middleton, an 81-yr old Sydney S owner, offered to lend me his spare (spending a week around Alice catching up with mates from his rallying days and, without intending to go off-piste until later, he didn’t expect he’d need it) and so before bedding down, he delivered the wheel and we dined together enjoyably, joined with Mark Melocca (a youthful Sydney S owner, who was cruising by). Then to bed but, shock horror, both Tesla chargers were occupied! So we could get fully charged, Richard Smith kindly moved his Model X as we were leaving earlier, and he needed only an hour top-up before departing for Darwin. Such kind cooperation all round!
The seasonal Mereenie Loop link road (shown in yellow)
Monday 20 August:
So our rest day in Alice was sacrificed for another adventure, heading early out to Glen Helen Gorge, but arriving just after breakfast service stopped. We’d found the unlabelled charge point which, as it had not yet been used, was nearly inaccessibly squeezed between a shipping container and a immobile caravan, and topped up while wandering down to the beautiful Gorge’s permanent waterhole. Along the river came the first finishers of the Larapinta Run, a four-day marathon running 40km/day!
The young management team were unwilling to accept cash for the charge power but, being on generators and knowing that refusing recompense is unsustainable, we insisted on paying $20 for our brief top-up of electrons, then added the charge location and details to the PlugShare App for future users. And after providing a little Tesla ride, the manager provided our $6 permit to traverse Aboriginal lands (and at least two language groups).
Dirt corrugations allowed this maximum 95km/hr speed
Speed warnings suit most language groups
It had been dry in recent months and the road had been recently graded, so we breezed along happily traversing the 180kms of corrugations that is the Mereenie Loop road, arriving at Watarrka National Parks (Kings Canyon) dusty but none the worse for wear. Pulling into the tarred apron of our resort motel, we drove up to reception and scraped the nose over a concrete wheel stop, and backing off it hooked on and nearly dislodged the nose cone. People were staggered we’d taken such a low-slung rear-wheel drive luxury vehicle over the Loop (typical comment: “I’ve never dared take my 4-wheel drive there”) but of course the irony was coming unstuck when arriving back in “civilisation”. Taking the spare wheel from the “frunk" (front trunk) and backing over a miniature ramp lifted the nose off the concrete, and a quick wrestle with the front guard saw the screw pop largely back in place - secure enough for the journey back to Melbourne.
The guard, before being popped into place
A more serious problem: reception advised that the two new charge points installed, and on which we were relying, had not yet been wired up; and the electrician was a week away! We had just a few kilometres range left, and headed up to meet the maintenance manager, and to see if we connect to his welder's 3-phase outlet. It was an unusual socket, but I had an adapter in my kit - but the leads wouldn’t reach 10 metres past immoveable machinery, leaving us 1 metre away from a charge. Thinking again, we moved to the adjoining workshop for the Canyon Helicopter Flights, and found a 3-phase point in easy reach! And the ever-helpful manager drove me back to our accommodation, where Julie and Tomas were ready for a refreshment. First some exercise; without time to complete for the 4-hr Kings Canyon Rim Walk, we strolled along under the sheer southern wall to the barrier, closing off an area of particular significance for tribal Aboriginal customs.
Sun setting on the George Gill Range
While awaiting the vibrant colour change on the Range, the thronging crowd was entertained by a dingo trotting in front of the recommended view point. Like clockwork the dingo returned, crossing in front of us (perhaps to find pre-laid road-kill at chosen points for a daily feed and crowd entertainment).
A sentiment to quench the thirst
The Desert Oaks Bistro had a weather report which read: “Today’s Chance of Beer - 100%”. In the desert, it’s wise not to fight the weather! We also enjoyed the best kangaroo steaks I’ve ever had: cooked as requested (rare for Dick) they were most tender and juicy, with a richness which made the best fillet-of-beef seem pedestrian.
Tuesday 21 August:
After such excitement the 275km south on the Luritja Road to the Lasseter Highway and then westward to Uluru, was uneventful - despite the exciting spectre of Mt Conner, as a harbinger of the rocks ahead. After finding Tomas accommodation we bade our farewells, as he was flying back to Melbourne from Uluru the next morning, ahead of an imminent return to the Netherlands. We had no doubt he would have another dozen converts to sustainable energy before he slept that night, and further hundreds of pages of Senate submissions analysed. Tomas’s analytical brain, energy and enthusiasm are all unbounded.
Meanwhile, we tracked down the Ayers Rock Resort Technical Manager who, we were told, should be able to assist with charging. Mark Blain was keen to learn and had previously scouted four locations for intended charging infrastructure: the campground, the Outback Pioneer Lodge, the Desert Gardens Hotel, and the upscale resort Sails-in-the-Desert. His sites were all well-chosen for the future, but Tess needed a charge now! But Mark was on to it, and ushered me to the workshops and a 3-phase outlet, instructing staff to provide a safe sanctuary for Tess overnight. After a spin the next day, Mark totally “gets” EVs, loving the auto-pilot for long stress-free runs to Alice and beyond. I’m sure he'll be a proud EV owner soon - and he’ll power it from the solar installation which provides 40% of the resort’s power now and, with coming technical tweaks and a few more panels, 100% or near sometime soon! This will be like finding Lasseter’s Reef (the fabulously rich gold deposit purportedly discovered by Harold Bell Lasseter in 1929/30, but not yet found).
Tess protected from interference overnight
Meanwhile Julie had pre-booked us into a “tent" and “Ali” awaited to take us there. It all sounded very Bedouin, but our transfer was not by camel, and it was “Alison” (not Ali) who deposited us at our bush resort outside Yulara, where the term “glamping” undersells this experience! All inclusive is the by-word. Each “tent” was a suite with its own facilities and individual Solarhart water heaters; the rooms all faced Uluru, and the free bars were well-stocked.
Call it Bed, Bedoiun tent, or Glamping?
In the gentle hands of a brigade of hosts - many seeming to have the name “Amy” - we were ushered first to see the sun set on Uluru with further drinks. With the Rock in front the panorama extended around to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) - behind which the sun sank. We bussed on to the Field of Light, where 50,000 solar lights spread over 50,000 sq metres, swaying in the evening breeze, changing colours as you meander through this fairytale. Over five weeks in 2015, the installation was achieved with four guys and 15 volunteers, using 380kms of optic fibre to interconnect the lights with 36 portable panels. Expected to last a year, the exhibition has been extended until the end of March 2019. If only these guys had been employed to roll out the NBN - Australia would have saved billions!
Dinner was under the stars on a raised platform, with a laser-guided exploration of the Cosmos, and a soulful rendition of Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country” by our South African-born host-guide. And then a short walk to our tents, where a swag was laid out on the deck beside a pyrolytic fire. By 2am we abandoned the swag, the stars and the freezing temperatures, and retreated inside the doors of our “tent” to our warm King Bed.
Wednesday 22 August:
Sunrise at Kata Tjuta required an early departure. Our guides steeped us in Aboriginal folklore on the bus and during a brisk walk around "The Olgas” - wind conglomerations of rock like peanut brittle, and quite different from the layered starts of rock that is Uluru.
Sunlight appears through Walpa Gorge
The Uluru Cultural Centre afforded opportunities to understand the significance of the rock and surrounds to local tribes and Dick wrote an apology for innocently climbing up the Rock some 45 years earlier in ignorance. Despite signs in multiple languages, many tourists ignore the requests to respect the local culture, and they stream up the precipitious path - before sometime soon, it will be closed for good.
Our Mala Walk and Mutitjulu Meander around the base involved visiting waterholes, sacred caves, ancient rock art and spectacular landscapes: ain’t that overwhelming enough?
Ancient rock art in caves at the base of Uluru
ALICE SPRINGS - MELBOURNE
Thursday 23 August:
After a final visit to Uluru, we left our “glamp” for Erldunda (247 km) to return our spare wheel to Ross Middleton, who had popped down the 200 km from Alice to meet us. He was encouraged when learning the Mereenie Loop was “doable”, and hoped his wife would be persuaded to undertake the Alice-Uluru round trip that way. He soon returned to Alice, before sunset and the risk of roos on the road.
Friday 24 August:
Heading down the Stuart Highway, we by-passed Kulgera and lunched at Marla, recharging our batteries for the haul to COOBER PEDY. Rain and squalls surprised us, but removed some of the obvious red dirt from Tess. We were stopped by some stranded motorists who had run out of fuel, and asked us if we had a jerrycan! These local guys had not ever seen an electric car, and we doubted they believed us when we claimed to have no petrol whatsoever!
Which car used liquid fuels?
Saturday 25 August:
Coober Pedy to Glendambo to Pimba to Port Augusta was a simple reverse of the easier northward traverse, leaving the more “bewdiful” country for the sparse saltbush and salt lakes of this part of the country. That night Julie even tried the “Saltbush Lamb” which, locally sourced from lamb grazed on local saltbush, unsurprisingly was salty and a little dry!
Salt pans flash by while the co-pilotlies back resting her eyes.
Sunday 26 August:
A good plan is always flexible, and instead of going to the Clare Valley, we steamed straight south into Adelaide, supercharged in the CBD and struggled (without pre-planning to find anything agreeable nearby for Sunday lunch. Pressing on, we returned a borrowed 15-amp charging cable in the suburbs, and headed east up the Hills to Hahndorf, and south on bucolic winding roads to Langhorne Creek, crossing the Murray River at Tailem Bend, before continuing along the Coorong past Meningie to Robe. It was Julie’s first visit, and reminded her of Port Fairy (fishing boats, marinas, lighthouses, historic buildings). “The Cally” was recommended by our motelier for dinner and, while it had atmosphere and a warm fire, it was probably the locally-reared pork which used Dick indigestion.
Ferry across the Murray
Monday 27 August:
Julie drove the first leg to Mount Gambier, while Dick nursed a headache and stomach cramps, and slept fitfully refusing to eat. Even the 7degC air temperature while overlooking the Blue Lake didn’t help, and Julie drove on over the border and on to Dunkeld. While charging there, Julie enjoyed a Royal Mail degustation, while all Dick could manage was a sliver of smoked beetroot. After lunch we proceeded to Ballarat, and on to Melbourne.
Grampians: from the Royal Mail
Home was reached without incident in 14 days (13 nights) including considerable sightseeing and frivolity, cultural enrichment, and lobbying and proselytising for EV infrastructure. The EV guru who organised the Alice meet-up, and the first to complete a full EV trip around Australia - Richard McNeall - thought I was being optimistic in allowing just over 4 days to reach Alice, but all went to schedule, despite a few curve balls along the way. But Tess was magnificent, with another 5,000 kms on the clock without so much as pumping up the tyres, and now 56,000 kms on her first set of tyres. The only thing replaced on the car in her 3+ life has been the wiper blade rubbers (apparently they’re usually the first thing to wear out on a Tesla)!
What began as a “Why not have a meeting in Alice” quickly became an enjoyable much more. What’s not to like about the air-conditioned comfort of a fully-adjustable armchair ride hands-free, throttle-free in Autopilot mode, in thee safest production car in the world!? Free fuel on the Supercharger Network and, when being accommodated at motels, rarely (if ever) being charged while your vehicle is being re-fuelled - inexpensive, comfortable and relaxed motoring - and, for EVs getting easier all the time!
The cooperation from roadhouse and outback outpost owners was so appreciated by drivers and co-pilots, and all took “ownership” of the adventure. Can’t wait for the next one!