Tomorrow’s Augmented Reality Motorbike Helmet, Today… …Nearly

Imagine being able to see traffic in a 180 degree arc. Behind you.

Imagine being able to check your speed, hear and see navigation directions, call someone, and even choose your music. All without taking your eyes off the road…

…and crucially, without clamping on a Bluetooth Headset, GoPro, or other dangerous (and let’s face it, ugly) accessory to your lid.

That, is the vision of the Skully AR-1. The worlds first fully integrated Augmented Reality* helmet.

Or at least the first one you’ll be able to buy. Apparently.

And I’ll be honest. I want one!!

Despite misgivings about price, weight, having to recharge a battery, suitability for international touring, adventure riding, theft and the fact that Skully have never made a helmet before whereas Shoei, Shark, Arai, AGV, Bell, Nolan, even HJC have been making them for years. Oh, and will it fit me?

What added to those misgivings is the silence. After a year of hype, international roadshows, high profile crowdfunding campaigns, celebrity and “man on the street” endorsements, the last press release was over 6 months ago, in January. Did this vision of tomorrow, today, simply fade into obscurity?

It appears not. In fact, it appears they’ve been working on manufacturing, and the release is now imminent.

And for US$1499 you too can pre-order one. The question is, will you?

 

*Augmented Reality is technology that augments your sensing of the world, usually your vision, with contextually relevant information. Think of the fighter pilot that can see altitude, heading, orientation, speed and other relevant information through a Heads Up Display, without having to look down at their instruments.

Which Start-up Accelerators Are Most Successful in Australia?

Here is some empirical evidence as to the success rate, ie measured as an outcome of a start-up receiving at least another round of investment, of accelerators in the USA.

http://blog.pitchbook.com/pedal-to-the-metal-which-accelerators-are-most-successful/

A couple of points seem relevant:
1) Success begets success – There is a marked difference of results between TechStars, 500Startups, and Y-combinator, and the rest of the pack. No doubt this comes from both the inputs (start-up selection, calibre of mentors, robustness of program) and the outputs (growth of start-up, exits, and affiliated investor ROI).
2) There is a clustering of investors, at least VC investors around accelerators.

In Australia we have a number of incubator and accelerator programs. Corporate led, like Muru-D, Innov-8 etc.; Collaborative like Fishburners, Pollenizer, Blue Chilli; and research led, like NICTA and ATP Innovations.

Would you be interested to see this sort of empirical data about the start-up industry here in Australia?

 

Review: Apple Watch. Is It Ready for the Enterprise?

IMG_8178.JPG

What is the most compelling thing about the Apple watch? Does it herald a new form of technology that will continue to change the way we do things, like the mobile phone? Or is it a fad like the yo-yo? Is it just a toy, or valuable tool?

Can you use it in the enterprise?

Compelling

In my first week, the most compelling thing about the Watch is what I’m going to term “non-disruptive ambient context.”

Many people have asked: “Don’t all of the notifications and buzzes bother you?” and my response has to be “No.” Or at least “hardly, and much less than the phone.” It is true that it takes about 48 hours to get your notification settings right on the watch. To determine the signal to noise ratio that’s good for you. E.g. Email notifications are off, and in fact I haven’t once used the watch to look at email. SMS notifications are definitely on, and I’ve hardly responded to an SMS (or iMessage) on the phone in the week. Twitter is off, Instagram on. IFTTT on. FitBit on. Tripit off.  And so on. Facebook doesn’t yet have an app, and it will certainly stay off!

Notifications are a gentle tap on the wrist that doesn’t detract from whatever you, or others, are doing. Phones, however, are forever buzzing, chirping, and ringing. And taking a phone off the table, or worse, out of a pocket is pretty distracting. Glancing at your watch not so much.

Next time you’re in a meeting take stock of how many people are looking at their phone, and how often. Take stock of yourself too.

Another thing is that it’s easier to ignore a notification. To stay 100% present. At least I find it easier. There’s something about it being on the wrist that triggers a “that must be a response from x” type thought, which leads to “I’ll check and respond after this meeting.” Partly this is because the vibrations on the wrist are generally invisible to others. Partly it’s because different notifications have different types of vibrations, that you attune to very quickly. So it becomes like an unconscious sense.

This unconscious sense is hard to explain, but consider speaking to someone at a party. You’re generally unaware of all of the other sounds you can hear because your attention is on the conversation. Suddenly you hear someone in another conversation with an accent from back home. This doesn’t disrupt your conversation, but you make a mental note to go and have a chat once you’re done. The notifications on the watch become like that. An augmentation of your senses about context.

What changes?

Early in the week I was asked: “”So will it change the world?” (Thanks Julian) Which of course is half genuine, like the questions I ask above; and mostly tongue-in-cheek.

So what behaviours change?

The primary one, in a word, is “voice.” I interact a lot more with my voice. The first area you notice this is with responding to messages. At least half of them you simply respond with the template responses. And it is so quick! Compared to typing on the phone. Insanely quick.

The other half you respond via dictation. And Siri is really, really good. Unlike the bloody auto-correct when typing on the iPhone which is continually frustrating, where I feel like I edit almost 100% of responses. On the watch this is reversed. Every word is spelled correctly. Simply no typos. In a week I can count on one hand the number of messages Siri has misrecognised. And I’ve only had to resort to the phone twice due to misrecognition.

I am astounded at how good the watch is. I’ve dictated messages on trade show floors, at conferences, on a busy street, whilst out-of-puff exercising, boarding an aeroplane.

There’s another thing about responding with voice. Tone. I often find I’m talking to the recipient, rather than typing. As if I were conversing with them. This emotional tone actually changes the language reflected in the message.

The effect is from a work perspective, a remarkable reduction of latency. You’re simply connected quicker, and in a richer manner than messaging with the phone.

As you become used to using voice for interaction, it quickly grows to other aspects of the watch. Setting an alarm, taking notes, researching a query, navigating somewhere, creating a task. I found Siri on the iPhone okay, but cumbersome. On the watch this comes into its own. A tiny example of this is that I now use Apple maps for simple short trips rather than Google maps. It’s so much easier to say “Hey Siri, navigate me to…” than to get the phone out, unlock it, fire up Google maps, type in the search etc. Of course I could have used Siri on the phone, but I’ve had mixed results, and because I have a big screen with keyboard, I tend to use it.

In the office once you combine the access of Apple’s Siri with the insight of IBM’s Watson, this will be a disruptive competitive advantage. One that competitors like Google, Microsoft, and of course HP, need to consider seriously.

So Voice, What Else?

Well, because of the health goals I stand up for calls a lot more now. Smile Which, although hardly an enterprise application, has to be a good thing for all those sedentary employees.

More seriously there are a number of applications that give me contextual information. And by context I mean time and location dependent. Apart from PIM applications, these are mostly consumer apps still: Timetables, currency rates, weather, traffic etc. But the opportunity here for enterprise applications is massive. Why can’t I capture my timesheet and expenses as I incur them? What about getting up-to-date customer and deal information tied to where I am? How hard would it be to give me pricing and inventory information?

One of my contentions about the popularity of the Watch is the sub-vocal communications. Being able to connect to others in rich ways through taps and pictures. Right now, I have one friend with an Apple Watch. So I feel a bit like the first owner of a fax machine. All this cool technology, but I’m hardly going to send my heartbeat to Pieter. (Sorry mate)

Actually I think this has got real potential in a business setting too. Everything from taps to indicate telemetry (think of a call centre manager getting a sense of calls in queue) to multimodal communications (think of supporting someone in a negotiation, or feedback during a training session)

Perfect?

Not by a long shot. Very, very good for sure. I’d argue the best smart watch on the market today. Certainly better than the Android Wear devices I’ve seen. Although to be fair I haven’t lived with one for a week. And I’m yet to review the Pebble Time, which should be imminent.

But despite changing a bunch of my behaviours, streamlining much of my day, and augmenting my context in sometimes intangible, yet significant ways, I do have a couple of bones to pick with the Watch.

Apps mirror the iPhone & stream information via Bluetooth. This means they can be laggy to start up. Essentially you start the app on the watch, which then communicates to the phone, starts the corresponding app on the phone. This then reaches out to the Internet to get the latest information. Then finally streams that back to the watch. Mostly this is a slight imposition, but occasionally it seems easier to just use the phone. Irritatingly this is inconsistent. Some apps have clearly had more thought about start up, caching information, remembering state, and minimising information than others. Usually this is worst when you’re demonstrating your shiny new watch to a skeptic.

Another challenge is the “desktop” interface. The apps are quite small, which without the benefit of titles mean it’s easy to open the wrong app. You can zoom in with the digital crown, but you have to centre the icon first.

As initially with the iPad, developers are as yet inconsistent with gesture usage. So in some apps you Force Touch to add information, in others you do this to edit information. Small niggle perhaps, but as the number of applications on the watch increase, just remembering gestures becomes harder.

The watch charger, whilst very cool, doesn’t lay flat on the table. I’m simply going to have to buy or make a charging stand. Sigh.

None of these issues are show stoppers. In fact I suspect that now developers have actual watches, and get used to developing for the platform, much of these issues will be resolved. Also, as Moore’s Law drives the hardware, we’ll soon have a watch that doesn’t need tethering to a phone.

What Else?

There are some functions I haven’t tested yet, e.g. syncing playlists for listening to music without the phone. Mostly this is because when I’m out I listen to podcasts (commuting) and Audible books (exercising) and when I do listen to music, I stream via Spotify. Given none of those apps are available on the watch, it seems I’ll be taking my phone with me for the foreseeable future.

There are plenty of applications I haven’t had a chance to use yet: Evernote, TripView, Qantas, Skype, Domain and on. Some of this is because I simply haven’t got my head shifted to these as watch apps yet. My context for Evernote is in writing, or research, or meeting notes, so I usually use it on the iPad, and only occasionally on the phone (mostly in looking up information). My current approach to the watch is for applications that give me dynamic contextual information.

I also haven’t used the camera remote function yet, but am looking forward to using that at the Grand Canyon on the week-end.

One app you must get though is the IFTTT “Do” Button. This allows you to “Do” a task that triggers an IFTTT rule. E.g. I have a “Do” button that triggers a rule to turn my bedside lamp on or off. But anything you can program with IFTTT you can create a button for. That’s pretty cool.

Battery and Durability?

I’m sure by now you’ve noticed I haven’t led this review with the commentary that everyone else comments on. Battery life, waterproofness, size and fit, durability etc. And that’s for good reason. A short search will highlight dozens of YouTube reviews on how durable the watch is, how long the battery lasts, and that you can indeed shower whilst wearing the watch. (and as it turns out successfully dictate a message). So there’s no need to repeat that here.

Suffice to say the battery totally blew away my expectations. I’ll easily get well over 24 hours wearing the watch, perhaps even 36. In fact I’ve taken to wearing it at night, and just doff it for a charge once a day.

Conclusion

Whilst this is certainly for early adopters (whom own an iPhone) right now, I can’t help but feel that Apple again have set the benchmark for what a smart watch should be. A short week, and already I wouldn’t leave home without my Watch. And the opportunity for intelligent watch apps in the enterprise is a very real opportunity for developers, and competitive threat for other vendors.

If you use your iPhone a lot during the day, you will get a massive benefit with the Apple Watch. Even if you don’t use a lot of apps, but just use your phone for calls, messages, calendar, tasks etc. It’s also good for those that don’t use their phones a lot, but are into health tracking. Whilst not as functional as some of the watches out there (essentially lacking GPS) The Watch is far less chunky, and with the magic of software will outstrip dedicated watches very soon.

Already sales of the Watch are outstripping those of the iPhone 6. And as the platform gets better with more apps, expect that to continue.

If you are involved in mobile architecture for your organisation, I’d recommend:

  • Build the smart watch into your strategy – get one for yourself. (Note: I recommend buying it with your own money. This is the only way you’ll be compelled to actually use it to its full functionality)
  • Build BYOD into your strategy. More than smart phones people will bring in their own watches, they simply won’t wear one that the company has bought for them. Even if they did, they wouldn’t use it.
  • Start thinking now about what information people need to do their job, and how you can replace desktop applications with contextual information to enable people. If you don’t you can bet your bottom dollar, others will.

Almost Time

Unless you live under a rock, or have absolutely no interest in wearable computing, start-ups, or crowd funding – which is probably to say the majority of earth’s population, but probably a minority of the readership of this blog – you’ll have heard of the Pebble Time.

A New Way to Fund

Pebble, of course, is the start-up that ushered in the modern variant of the “Smart Watch.” They also famously were the hook in the J-curve that describes Kickstarter’s popularity (and revenue). The original Pebble didn’t pusue funding in the traditional ways: Bootstrapping, FFF (Family, Friends, and Fools), Bank Loans, Angel Investors, or VC Funding. Rather they created a video and pitched their idea on the nascent Kickstarter crowd-funding platform. And entirely blew their targets, cementing “Crowd Funding” as a thing, and removing yet another barrier for people to start a planetary scale business.

The original Pebble is still worn with pride by over a million people worldwide. Which alhough is far less than other electronic devices, and would probably be seen as a major flop by the powerhouses like Apple, Samsung, Motorola, and Microsoft; for a start-up is a phenomenal success. Not least of which is the way they created a new genre of device. The Smart Watch.

The “New” Smart Watch

I say “modern variant” and “new genre” because if you’ve been around long enough, like (cough) I have, you’ll remember that calculator watches, ie watches that allow “computing” hale back to the 70’s.

The Microsoft Timex Datalink 150 – circa 1995

Even connected watches have been around for a couple of decades. I proudly owned the Timex Datalink in 1995. This would literally sync with MS Schedule+ (the calendar precursor to Outlook) using an infra-red receiver reading flashing lines on the PC. Yes it was cludgy, and was out of sync as soon as someone invited me to another meeting. But that was 20 years ago, before Bluetooth, WiFi and PDA’s.

About a decade later, in the early 2000’s Microsoft came up with the SPOT Watch which connected to weather, sports scores, news headlines etc., via data encoded over FM radio. This was launched in the US, and (unfortunately) never took off. Imagine how different the media landscape would be if media companies had bypassed the Internet and connected directly to people’s wrists from their radio stations?

(c) Microsoft

And of course there are dozens of brands: Breitling, Citizen, Casio, Seiko, Garmin, Suunto, to mention a few, that have specific category watches that measure, and provide important functional information. Depth, altitude, air pressure, direction, pulse, position (GPS), running pace, cycling cadence; the list is almost endless. Mostly these watches tend to be very large, and value function over form. They also all use monochrome LCD exclusively, or in conjunction with analog hands, to display data.

So no. Smart watches are not new. Connected watches aren’t new. Even computing watches aren’t new. But the Pebble was the first of the new generation. The first that could be constantly connected to the Internet, and provide a platform enabling the magic of SW to create an infinitely variable device.

And unlike the PC (Apple and IBM), the Laptop (Compaq), the PDA (USRobotics, later 3Com), the Tablet (Compaq with MS, then Apple), the Smartphone (Palm, Blackberry, MS, Apple) this device was created by a start-up. Which is incredible.

And they’ve done it again. Their latest campaign has been to create version 2 of the Pebble, the aptly named Pebble Time. Again, they’ve outdone expectations. Again, Pebble have become the largest ever crowd funded campaign, this time raising over $20m. TWENTY MILLION DOLLARS. Raised from ordinary folk like you and I, with pre-orders as low as $130. (And yes, in full disclosure I’m one of them.)

The Interface

The Pebble Time (and Pebble Time Steel, their premium edition) differs in a number of ways to its predecessor. For one, it sports a colour display. No, it won’t have the elegance, or resolution of the Android Wear devices, or the Apple Watch. But it also won’t suffer the lacklustre battery life either. In fact battery life for the Time is posited at 7 days! Even Sports watches with monochrome displays, like the Garmin Fenix, or the Suunto Ambit don’t last anything like that long. (Although these do sport GPS on board the watch)

The second major difference is the interface. Rather than using a File and Folder semantic (Windows), or a desk top semantic (iOS, Android), or an arcane menu (Casio, Nokia); the Time uses, er, time. You navigate into the past, the present, or the future, to access information relevant to that time. Genius!

On paper at least, the time is superior in a number of ways to the current competition. For one thing it is waterproof to 30m. Where Tim Cook famously showers and swims with his Apple Watch, Apple expressly recommend against doing this. Not a problem with the Pebble Time, although they do recommend against scuba diving, other watersports: long distance swimming, surfing, sailing are all going to be fine.

The Strap

(c) Pebble

Then there’s another stroke of genius: Connecting digitally to the strap. The Time has a dedicated watch strap interface, that allows other suppliers to expand the functionality of the watch. Further sensors, like cellular connectivity, RFID/NFC contlactless communication (think Paywave, or your corporite ID access card), GPS, even additional battery. Actually the list is probably endless: From health applications like blood monitoring (sugar, alcohol content, pressure) to sports sensors (ABC – altimeter, barometer, compass; cadence and more) to camera controls to emergency information, expanded memory, camera controls and more…

In fact if I was FitBit, I’d create the FitBit strap to capture (retain) a market that is rapidly going to dump their ungainly wristbands for more functional watches.

Watch straps would even allow smart marketing opportunities. I could easily see a celebrity, or sports team branded strap that is enabled by a Pebble app to connect to fans. Heck, I’d buy a Ducati one that connected to my bike, and a Jeep one to connect with my car. Or a Yamaha/Roland one that I could use as an “eyes and ears free” band connected metronome.

Never mind as a musician, imagine being able to feel the music of your favourite band at a concert as well as hearing and seeing it?

Actually it turns out that the Apple watch has a diagnostics port where the strap connects as well. And there is speculation that they too can, may even, enable this for strap manufacturers.

How many watches are enough to make it worthwhile to create a dedicated wearable strap company?

For Pebble this is genius on an Apple scale, a Microsoft scale. It creates another entirely new market, an ecosystem for 3rd party peripherals that in turn will cement Pebble. If they can get critical mass.

Race Condition

And that’s a big if. Timing is going to be everything. Whilst Pebble don’t have the marketing reach of Apple. Nor the wooing of the fashion industry. Nor the design aesthetic. They are a crowd funding darling. The watch will work with both of the top smart phone platforms. And their platform is Open Source.

The way the Kickstarter campaign has worked out, there was a bundle special to get a Pebble Time and a Pebble Time Steel together. (The two together are cheaper than the Apple Watch Sport.) The Time Steel has a longer manufacturing process. So it worked out I may very well get my Time before my pre-ordered Apple Watch, and the Time Steel afterwards. (Ed: I didn’t. I received my Apple watch today, and my Time ships tomorrow…)

(c) Swatch

But the race condition isn’t just between Apple and Pebble. Or Apple, Android and Pebble. Traditional watch manufacturers aren’t going to simply lay down. It’s not too much of a hop for Casio (G-Shock), Garmin and Suunto to add “smart” features to their already functional watches. And even the Swiss are getting in on the action. Swatch has announced a device with potentially 6 months battery life.

Connected

I still maintain the killer app that the Apple Watch has over the other devices is eyes (and ears) free communication. It’s not just about connecting people to their information, no matter how rich or timely. It’s about connecting people to each other. This is what the Android Wear devices, the current watches, and even the Pebble Time miss.

We live in a world where humanity has developed, then learned on a mass scale, arcane and complex technologies just to communicate with each other. Cave paintings, paper, calligraphy, the printing press, semaphore, morse code, phone, radio, even T9 for SMS. The millennials in the early 2000’s even changed our language to adapt communicating via SMS.

This is where the Apple Watch has out-thought and out-designed all other watch competitors. But they are hamstrung by their closed eco-system (and price). This is where developers, and potentially with the strap, the Pebble Time, without such a constraint, could really compete.

Almost Time

The imperative is clear. Think beyond simple telemetry and glance notifications. The new battleground for software enabled magic is the wrist. The one-eyed king in this valley of the blind is going to be the vendor that can enable a way for the ordinary person to connect (richly) with their family, friends, tribe, and the world. Crucially, whether they have a watch or not.

When I was a lad all my sci-fi heros had wearable devices that did magical things. And now it’s almost time…

 

Sydney or Bust

This is it. Day three. One more state to traverse, along with a quick visit to the ACT (which doesn't really count as a whole state) to drop off Rohan.

Last night was our longest sleep yet at 5 hours. So recharged, in body and gizmo's, we're back on the road. There is a definite grumpiness this morning. Despite the relative comfort last night, the long hours with only each other for company, and mind numbing roads, are starting to take their toll. We need stimulants. Caffeine. Stat!!

There's also the hilarious situation of the Garmin GPS quarreling with Google Maps. For the first time this trip we were countermanding the driver. And he really, really didn't appreciate that.

It's wonders what coffee can do though. So with a full tank, and a final wrangle with the Garmin, we were headed towards Coburn. Which was a mistake. My mistake.

When planning the trip, I wanted to head via Wagga Wagga. For one thing it's quicker, and the roads less busy. But the options Justin presented to me this morning, were via Mildura (the Wagga route) or Parkes. For some reason in my fugue state I thought that Mildura was in SA, and I didn't want to go back there. (No offence SA) So we opted for Parkes. Ah well. What's another hour between friends?

Wilcannia was the town that promised breakfast and shift change “BP any right, second left.” But as it turns out, not so much. The BP was a single fuel bowser, a corrugated shed, and not even a bathroom. We did meet four touring motorbikers, all on single cylinder 650's in mud splattered rain gear. They were telling tales of overturned 4WD's and a day of offs in the slick conditions, and I started getting a little concerned. Until I realised they were describing their ride across country on dirt roads in the rain. Nothing to worry about here lads.

We did stop at the Emmdale Roadhouse for breakfast, which despite all appearances to the contrary (“No Tresspassing, YOU Keep Out” signs; locked toilets, etc) was really welcoming and hospitable. And joy of joys, a mug of hot, loose leaf tea, with a bacon and sausage roll. Heaven!

Can I say that the roads in outback NSW are terrible. Lumpy, and bumpy, with potholes and missing edges. It takes everything to keep the car on the road, and there's no way you'd drive this in anything with sporty suspension.

As previous driver, Justin was in the Nest pushing some z's, and Rohan was my co-pilot. When, for the first time this trip we hit bingo fuel. The range counted down to 40 kms, then announced “Low Fuel.” Which, an unknown distance from Coburn (we later figured out 25 kms), and no phone signal, was a touch disconcerting.

If the number of towns we passed in SA gave the impression of increased population, NSW is positively heaving. Animals, both wild (crows, eagles, roos, emus) and domestic (goats, sheep, cows, and dogs) litter the countryside. Not only are there more frequent towns, but there are residences, farmhouses, constantly within view. Fences eloquently describe land ownership in a way that's conspicuously absent in the other states.

Traffic has changed from trucks and roadtrains to utes, caravanners, 4WD's, and cars. In WA you could drive for hours without needing to overtake. In SA, perhaps 30 mins to an hour. In NSW it's practically Picadilly Circus.

Now it's just head for home. Although the GPS plays us for a fool again. Rohan busted the drive from Coburn to Narromine. Then Justin took a shift. With the GPS pointed at Harrison (Canberra), we end up all the way over in Dubbo, and still pointing away from Parkes down the Mitchell Highway. This may be a faster route, but is clearly further. So, yet another routing mistake adding still more time to the drive. At this rate Sydney or Bust, is looking rather like “Bust.”

But how can you cross Australia without stopping at “The Dish” for a quick photo? RIght, you can't. So we did.

Parochial tourism sated, we leave the Dish as the sun is setting, and our game becomes positively silly. “It's 5 o'clock, and it's like we have to drive to Parkes still.” I know. Ridiculous.

We decide to switch from the Garmin, that seems to weight main roads over B roads despite tens and hundreds of kilometer impact, to the iPhone. Now that we have pretty consistent data, Google maps is quicker and more specific to our needs.

This of course takes us down the scariest road yet. Not much more than a single lane width strip of tar, if you could call it that, through roo country, at the worst time of the day. Too dark to see anything, and too light for headlights to make a difference. With no cats eyes, reflector strips, or even painted road markings, just keeping the car on the road is challenging. Thankfully there's no traffic to contend with. For the first time in my life I'm actually looking forward to the Hume Highway.

Before too long, we're in Parkes for our last dinner, and first Macca's (McDonalds) of the trip. Then it's Yass where we bid a final farewell to Rohan. His wonderful better half, Karen, has packed their two kids in the back of the car to drive 30 minutes and collect him. She tolerates our crazy video with a touch of bemusement before packing him in the car, and heading out.

I take the final 3 hours shift from Yass back home to Sydney and for the first time in damn near 4000 kms, we're on an actual motorway. Twin lane, dual carriageway, cats eyes, smooth tar, the whole bit. With the car on cruise at 110kph we literally glide home. Effortless. Imagine the whole trip was like this, as it would be in North America, or Europe?

But we've done it. We've actually driven from Perth to Sydney in 3 days. The car is parked in my driveway with an additional 4250 kms on the clock. I've literally immersed myself in the Jeep, and I love her.

And the Roadtrip? As expected.

Epic!

Going for Broke

Three and a half hours sleep is simply far too few by anyone's standard. Especially after a fractured 4 hours the previous night and over 1400 kms of driving country roads. But there you go, it is what it is and we have almost another 3000 still to our destination.

Border Village is pretty much what's promised on the can. A roadhouse, petrol station, couple of backpacker dorms, some prefab cabins, and a graded RV park. The showers take $2 coins, but for that give you 10 mins of luxurious, piping hot water, worth at least ten times that.

Minutes from the border are the cliffs marking the head of the Great Australian Bight. The sky is sullen, and frames massive rollers that seem to come straight from Antarctica. It is truly beautiful in a harsh, stark kind've way. If this was Game of Thrones, we'd be in the Iron Islands.

Then what most people come here for, the much famed Nullarbor Plain. Which is ultimately uneventful. Yes, it exudes a strange beauty, devoid of trees. But nothing arduous by car standards, within 2 hours we're at the settlement of Nullarbor with the plain behind us. Little more than a blip in the drive. Fuel for body and vehicle, photo ops, change drivers, rinse, wash repeat. And on.

Traffic on the road is sparse, albeit still frequent, and road trains still threaten to blow the bonnet off as they rush past. Fun fact: Everything you posses has been transported by truck at least once in it's lifecycle. That includes the materials used to build your house, anything planted in your garden, what you wear, drive, listen to, and watch. So it's no wonder that one of the only two major arteries across the country is dominated by trucks.

Already South Australia feels more populated than Western Australia. We pass country town, after country town. All marked with massive grain silos, and railway junctions. Unlike NSW, where the fast arterial roads are choked by driving through the middle of village 50kph zones, or towns are threatened by bypasses that skirt them miles away; here the major road runs alongside the villages, ensuring traffic flow, but within a single block for easy access.

It's not until Penong in the afternoon that I realise I totally missed taking a shot in Ceduna, our half-way mark for the trip. Another fun fact: The quarantine station for controlling fresh fruit into SA is Ceduna. That's 500 klicks from either border. Insane!! We get checked by a friendly quarantine agent, but one look inside the Jeep at the three of us, and he laughs and waves us through. Nothing fresh I here I guess.

In the afternoon we pop into Wirrulla looking for a feed, but after driving down depressing, deserted roads, and popping our heads into an equally deserted hotel pub, we decide to press on. Maybe it s because it's ANZAC Day, or maybe everyone just heads to the Big Smoke on weekends, but despite the increased number of towns, the whole state just seems empty and forlorn. We end up down the road at Poochera at in interesting little Roadhouse, complete with the obligatory rickety horse wagon, and bizarre statue of a Dragon Ant. Yep. Crazy South Australians.

At about 7pm we turn into the town of Iron Knob. How could you pass up a photo opportunity in a place with a name like that? And if we thought Wirrulla was deserted, Iron Knob is a ghost town. 7pm on a holiday week-end and there are no lights on, houses are dark, and nothing's open on the Main Street. It's positively post-apocalyptic. So onwards.

Port Augusta for a fill. Then suddenly for the first time in over almost 2500 kms there are hills. And, holy carp, corners!!

Time for our second night of roo baiting. But, despite the odd sprinkle, the weather, not to mention the roads, make for far more visibility and a more relaxed drive than last night. Like last night, a 4WD overtakes us. Unlike last night, however, there's no worry about fuel, and we only see one kangaroo in 300kms. Also, the Prado that overtakes us is traveling too fast to keep up.

At midnight SA time we get to Cockburn and the NSW border. Another 45kms and we're in Broken Hill. Fun fact: Broken Hill has a population of 18,000. So is bigger than Port Augusta. Who knew?

The GPS takes us around the houses and down a dodgy alleyway, and before you know it we have police lights in our rearview mirror. “Evenin' lads, have you had anything to drink?” Which is arguably a reasonable question to ask the driver of a WA registered Jeep, that has just turned a dogleg into a dodgy alley at midnight on ANZAC Day. “Not since Perth a couple of days ago.” “Righto,” he replies warily, “count to ten please.”

And then, just like that we were at the Desert Sand Motor In, bantering about who was going to share the double bed (Justin and I). Laughing at Justin who had a freezing shower (operator error) and charging countless electronic devices.

Then, blissful sleep.

2 days. 2 states. Boom!

Epic!

Head For The Border

Our first full day for the Roadtrip begins early. Too early. With far too little caffeine. And if pitching the tent was hilarious, folding was ludicrous.

It went down. We rolled it neatly around the poles. And it didn’t fit the bag. Like what? The poles are the size of the bag, the tent is rolled at the size of the poles, and yet it’s still a couple of inches too long.

Sigh.

Back to the drawing board.

Unfold. Refold. And yep. We have it. Done.

Then the 3D jigsaw puzzle to get everything back in the car and head out.

7:12am. Not too shoddy.

First stop is Merredin, a couple of hundred kms east. Here Rohan treats us to a Big Breakfast that puts to shame pretty much every breakfast I’ve ever had on the road, in any country, in a lifetime of travel. The only adjective that comes to mind is “lashings,” as in “lashings of bacon…”

We hit the IGA (supermarket) to stock up on essentials like water, fruit, vegetables, salads, and washing detergent, chocolate and chips.

Finally we leave at 11:45. A big hit to the day, that changes our ETA in Eucla from 8:40pm to 10:30pm. Time to hustle.

The roads are straight. Long. And straight. And today is a double demerits day in WA. So the cruise control is set for 110 and its drive, drive, drive.

The Jeep slowly transforms to something that resembles an NSA surveillance van. Window mounted phone, GPS, GoPro, SPOT GPS Tracker, and in the rear, yet more action cams. There are also laptops, tablets, more phones, headphones, and battery packs to keep everything running.

The routine is roughly every 2 hours we rotate clockwise. The driver gets into the “Nest:” a comfortable space on the rear seat behind the passenger amongst the luggage. When there’s signal, this is the best place to get stuff done – conference calls, email, Facebook, blogging, Instagram and the rest of our connected lives. This is also the best place to rest – reading, writing, editing, listening to personal audio, and of course sleeping.

Initially I was concerned about comfort, space in the rear seat for an adult; but over 4 hours in the Nest has totally shifted my perspective. We all look forward to getting into the Nest, there is plenty of legroom. More than most flights I’ve taken recently

The rested driver rotates to co-pilot. Responsible for navigation, photo/video, food and drink, and keeping the driver alert.

Co-pilot becomes driver. They make the call on speed, overtaking, stopping for stretch, fuel, and photo opps, and source for the sound system. One of the unwritten rules is “no backseat driving” although this is tempered with “Everyone should call out risks, even the obvious.” The way it works is not to direct the driver, but definitely to shout out everything that could pose a risk, like a change in speed limit as you come into a town, or hard to see traffic at an intersection.

It’s a great system, that gets better over time as we become comfortable with each other’s driving styles.

As a vehicle, the Jeep keeps on surprising. The sound system rocks, the seats are super comfortable, even in the back which I wasn’t expecting. In fact this is the first time since my teens that I’ve spent more than a couple of hours in the back seat of a car.

As a driver the Wrangler is unexpectedly nimble. Visibility is superb. Even filled to the gunwales. And the electronics brilliant. Telemetry for everything from compass direction to engine systems, km specific driving range to tyre pressure.

We take a driver change break at Boorabbin, site of the 2007 bush fire in this area that tragically killed 3 truckers. A silent testament to how even with our technological advances, just how dwarfed we are by forces of nature.

The late arvo stop that substitutes for lunch is at Widgiemooltha. Home of the Golden Eagle Nugget. I know, right! Still, 530 kms down and only 800 or so to go today. Here’s where start a crazy little game where someone calls out the time, and then a Sydney-to-Destination equivalent. Like “it’s 5 and we’re about to drive to Ballina.” Yep. “Righto.”

One of our original aims was to avoid driving at dawn, dusk, and after dark because of the risk of a roo strike. Yeah, well with a 15 hour drive day, in autumn, that was never going to work really. I drove with the setting sun in my rearview mirrors and before long it was pitch black. And here’s where the work really started. Driving through intermittent showers, on a greasy, lumpy, country road, watching for Roos, that were everywhere. Anxiety racked up exponentially with oncoming traffic, as you had to dip lights creating an area of darkness between the extent of the headlights and the oncoming vehicle. Mostly oncoming vehicles are roadtrains; double and treble articulated lorries up to 100m long, that don’t slow down for anything, and rock the Jeep like a storm tossed barque.

By the time Rohan is driving we have further to go than range left in the fuel tank. We’re not overly worried, as there’s a couple of towns between us and Eucla, either for a fill or a to call it a night. But one by one we find petrol stations closed. This really is remote country. Comparing the drive by distance to a similar drive in the U.S. or Europe is entirely ridiculous. There you’re on 6 to 12 lane motorways, without the threat of animal strikes, and 24 hour servos dotted everywhere.

But now we slow right down to about 80. Mostly because of the animal threat, but an unintended consequence is to dramatically improve fuel consumption, and pretty soon the distance to go is reducing quicker than our range. Then we’re blessed by what can only be our guardian angels. We’d noticed headlights in the rearview mirror creeping up on us for about 45 mins, when they finally overtake. Talk about blessed relief. It’s a Toyota Landcruiser with massive bullbar, even bigger spots, towing a big off-road camper-trailer. With them in front we speed up. An extra set of daylight bright spotlights, not to mention eyes, 100m ahead; coupled with the knowledge that their car could reasonably take a hit pretty much unscathed, gives us welcome relief.

We both pull into Cocklebiddy looking to change drivers and fill up, and we meet our saviours: Rick and Sue are moving to Adelaide from Perth to be closer to family, as Rick is chronically ill. They’d had to spend the day in and out of Norseman to ensure their settlement went through. This had put a day’s dent in their intinerary, so they were pushing through as far as they could overnight.

The fuel bowser is closed at Cocklebiddy, so we pull back onto the Great Eastern Highway with me in the driver seat. And despite a healthy wariness for Roos, the car is now much more relaxed. Rick has taken over from Sue, & continued her habit of flashing the right or left indicator to warn us of the Kangaroos. Finally at Madura we find a self-service petrol pump and fill the tank. Whew.

At Eucla, with just 10 or so kms to the border we decide to punch through to South Australia, and camp there for the night. So we bid farewell to Rick and Sue, who are driving as far as they can, and pull into Border Village. It’s only now we realise another unintended consequence of driving East. Timezone change. The clocks in SA are 90mins ahead, so midnight is actually 1:30am and we still have to get up at 6am to make our second big day tomorrow. Unnnghhh.

Time to get the tent up, which is fun in the wind on ground too hard for pegs. There are plenty of rocks, however, that hold the groundsheet down. And Rohan, of course, has heavy duty pegs. Before long, we’re pushing Zzz’s

Coming Together

And finally we're all here. My flight to Perth was the best type ever. Uneventful. All the “event” is on the other side of this particular trip, and all on the ground.

A very long ground.

Craig, from Vicpark Motors, went above and beyond to pick me up and tKe me back to the yard, well beyond 7pm. Where else on the planet do you experience that sort of friendliness? (This goes beyond “service”)

And there, for the first time I lay eyes on “Laney.” My new Jeep. And yes. Everything I expected, and so much more.


The butterfly and V-Club badge will have to go of course. But the halo headlights & the LED's are pretty cool. The soft top is still sealed with the “Customer to remove” band. It has simply never been used. And inside, your feet are bathed in a soft, blue glow. Very hip hop.

I also meet Dave, another of the 3 partners, and complete all of the paper work. Then it's time to load up bags and head back to the airport to collect Justin.

Here, the parking ranger, who'd been diligently chasing away lingering cars, leans in for a chat. It seems Jeeps attract new friends as much as motorbikes do. Or maybe it's just me 😏

The bags start piling up with Justin's (where is Rohan gonna sit? Srsly?) and after a quick bite to eat (note: Don't try the Hungry Jacks' Pulled Beef Burger) we return to the airport to collect our third: (delayed) Rohan.

Then it's “Head East young men” on to Northam for the night, in an attempt to make up some time on tomorrow's big day.

Finding the unpowered campsite was more of a mission than it should've been. But it was 11:30, 1:30am body clock time, pitch black and we were pretty bushed.

This in turn made pitching the Instant Up tent, well, hilarious. The tent was up in about 3 minutes, the beds on the other hand, not so much…

Finally it was trackie-dacks for some of us, silk sleeping bags for others, (no Rohan I won't mention any names) All rugging up against the 8C night.

And we have t even started yet…

Epic…Roadtrip – Prelude

Sometimes things all go to plan. 

It turns out, buying a car on the other side of the continent is a plan with more complexity than you’d imagine.

Especially when you’re selling your current car on the day of departure, and have a day of work in another city first.

I agreed to meet my erstwhile Porsche buyer at the airport to give him the car at 7am before checking in for my flight to Adelaide. Between getting an agreement drawn up for the transfer of funds, and preparing for The Roadtrip, I left home at 6:25am. 

That’s about the fastest you can drive from our house to the airport. Without early morning, post #SydneyStorm traffic. The radio was full of reports of flooded roads, broken traffic lights, and congested motorways. Yet, miraculously, I pulled into parking at 7:03. Everything just went to plan.

Whilst crossing the bridge, with minutes to get to the airport, The Qantas app finally allowed me to check in, after 23 hours of time outs. 

Admittedly, I may’ve been a touch anxious when it took 14 mins for Mik and I to find each other. Especially with the unusual task of having to check a bag in. But we did, I got the bag tagged and sent down, and even managed to get to the lounge for a glass of OJ.

Now I’m boarded the Adelaide flight, and glad I packed my winter woollies for tonight’s planned stop in Northam.