All Electric Big Lap | Powering through the Pilbara - Caravan World Australia

All Electric Big Lap | Powering through the Pilbara

Written by: Renée McLennan

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After a few weeks experiencing the magic of WA’s Coral Coast, new adventures in the Pilbara outback was calling the McLennan family and their electric vehicle. 

Heading inland away from the seaside towns, charging options become fewer and further apart. Station Stays along the way provide opportunities for a slow top up of the car’s battery during our visits. Bullara Station was our first introduction to the outback station experience and set a high bar for all those to follow. The whole family enjoyed the roaming station horses, sheep and calves we encountered around our campsite and exploring the 110,000-hectare property, but the definite highlights were the lava tree open-air showers, the sumptuous long table dinner in the old woolshed and the brilliance of the Milky Way in the clear Pilbara night sky. Trickle charging at a powered campsite during our two-night visit was more than enough to supply us with a full battery to carry on our journey towards Karijini National Park

Highway handiwork

However, a wind gust from a passing quadruple road train resulted in a change of plans. While travelling along Burkett Road towards Nanutarra, the turbulence from the passing truck caught under one of the camper’s solar panels that must have worked itself loose. The flexible panel was ripped from the roof, landing on the road behind us. In the short time it took us to turn around to retrieve it, the panel had been run over by another road train, damaging it beyond repair, leaving the framing partially exposed. Tim MacGyvered a temporary fix with gaffa tape on the roadside while fending off the multitudes of flies. 

Our options were then to continue on towards Karijini, in the hope that we could undertake adequate repairs in Paraburdoo or change route towards the larger centre of Karratha where we could more readily access tools and supplies. Karratha became our new destination where we were fortunate to find Karratha Batteries Boats and Caravans, the owner of which was incredibly generous in providing advice and support, as well as giving Tim access to his workshop and tools to undertake the repairs himself. It was incredibly disappointing to lose a significant amount of our solar generating capacity and see much of Tim’s original installation work undone and replaced with a more basic installation.

Millstream Chichester National Park

On the positive side, the detour provided the opportunity to explore some of the fantastic destinations in the vicinity of Karratha. Trips to visit the ancient Aboriginal petroglyphs at Murujuga and the stunning Millstream Chichester National Park were facilitated by a 150kW fast charger conveniently located in the Karratha town centre. The corrugated, red gravel road to Python Pool was described to us by locals as a ‘car killer’, but our Kia EV9 tackled it with ease and had its first real initiation of thick, red dust.

Electrifying Karijini

With the solar system still compromised, but as good as it was going to get while far from home, we once again headed towards Karijini. Not unexpectedly, there are no EV fast chargers or powered camp sites in the national park, so we used the free charging station at Tom Price to fill the car battery to capacity before driving the 80km into our campsite. We planned for the possibility of one of us needing to drive the EV back to Tom Price at some stage during our five-day visit, if we needed extra range to be able to visit all of the park’s attractions. However, this wasn’t necessary as the staff at Karijini Eco Retreat took an interest in our electric journey and offered some of their excess power to trickle charge the car overnight. 

Kalamina Gorge walk, Karijini National Park

The retreat is in the process of applying for a grant to replace its existing solar array. Along with new solar systems and battery, an EV charger would be a good addition to the funding ask and would fit with the retreat's environmentally friendly ethos and open up this area to electric travel. Karijini is spectacular with its awe-inspiring gorges, hidden rock pools, cascading waterfalls and stunning sunsets. Hearing the dingoes howling throughout the night and watching the light move across the landscape through the unzipped camper windows were also special experiences. 

Range roulette

The impact of head winds and elevation changes became very apparent travelling away from Karijini. On the stretch north to Port Hedland, without any significant wind and a slow loss of altitude, the car was achieving 3.3km/kWh (~330km maximum range). However, the next leg of the journey to Eighty Mile Beach, with a strong head wind and without the benefit of elevation change, we were getting as little as 2.2km/kWh (~220km maximum range), triggering many manual calculations and slowing of travel speed to reduce energy consumption and extend our range. Factoring in changes in elevation and monitoring wind conditions will be an important part of planning for some of the sections ahead where gaps remain between charging opportunities. 

Hamersley Gorge spa pool, Karijini National Park

To bridge one of these gaps, Horizon Power has recently installed a new charger at Pardoo Roadhouse. Although all of the infrastructure was complete, it was yet to be tested with a vehicle. The capacity of the solar plant to provide the maximum 50kW supplied by the charger was also yet to be demonstrated. We volunteered to visit the site and test the charging infrastructure before it goes live for the general public. This site is unusual in that the solar power plant is owned by the roadhouse and Horizon’s charging infrastructure will provide an opportunity for the owner to sell energy generated from the plant. The backup (slower) AC charger worked from the outset, but the faster DC charger required some remote communication with Horizon to determine what charge rate could be supported. Although not a destination of choice, the time spent ironing out the bugs and testing the new charger provided the opportunity to sit in the air-conditioned roadhouse, enjoy a cold drink and write this update. 

Plug in to our electric adventure:

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The adventure will continue next month as the McLennan family continues exploring some of Australia's best rural areas during their all-electric Big Lap. 

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