Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal, Gear Guide 2012.
The rain was driving hard against the windscreen, the storm rocking the ferry to starboard, rotating it with the wind and current. The operator was yelling now, his voice barely audible against the squall as the loading ramp slammed into a sand beach on Fraser Island, Australia. A 200 Series Land Cruiser was off the ship first but quickly bogged, blocking my exit. After a few tries, the Cruiser climbed to the tree line and opened my chance at the beach. I locked the front differential and engaged low range. When my tires transitioned to the sand, I rolled into the throttle; the diesel motor provided just enough torque to maintain forward momentum up the slope. In one smooth motion, the truck pulled away from the ferry, through the ruts of the Land Cruiser, and up to the high tide line. My truck wasn’t a lightweight ute, but a 4,500-kilogram expedition camper—the EarthCruiser.
Not Your Standard Caravan
Overland travel requires a depth of capability and durability that a standard caravan simply cannot deliver. Sure, a wood-framed monster RV can drive down a few hundred meters of corrugations to a caravan park, but would never survive thousands of kilometers of outback punishment. Adventure travel requires a vehicle to perform on soft surfaces, sandy beaches, washouts, mud, and the unexpected.
In general, expedition campers must start with a robust four-wheel drive platform, low gearing, and higher-than-average ground clearance. The reason for all of that hardware is to ensure that the vehicle can traverse road conditions commonly found in the backcountry of developing countries. For the EarthCruiser, the base platform of choice is the Mitsubishi Fuso Canter FG, a factory-built 4WD with a low-range transfer case, solid front axle, and leaf-sprung suspension. The Fuso is a true global platform, proven in the remote and inhospitable places of the world where road conditions change with the season, or may not exist at all. In my travels on six continents, the Fuso is always there; cruising along a highway in Chile or busting through the bushveld of Botswana. For an example of how serious this truck is, take a look at the service interval: an incredible 29,250 kilometers—try this with your ute.
On the Road
Lance Gillies, from EarthCruiser, had arranged a lightly-used, short-wheelbase unit for me to test. After a quick vehicle orientation at the factory in Caboolture, Queensland, I was on my way north toward Fraser Island. The trip would expose the truck to hours of carriageway, miles of deep sand, and sections of rocks and mud—a suitable test for the vehicle. The immediate impression was that the Fuso is easy to drive and lacks most of the handling and ergonomic issues associated with a heavy truck. Shifting through the gears was nearly car-like, and acceleration felt adequate for keeping pace with traffic. The steering at low speed was excellent, and the turning radius impressive, besting vehicles with far more civilian underpinnings. As the speeds increased, the Fuso took on a more expected heavy-truck demeanor with a general lack of directness at the wheel. Any sustained speeds over 100 kph would induce too much driver fatigue to be worthwhile. What is the hurry anyway, since you have a house on the back? The brakes are particularly effective, providing predictable modulation at low speeds. On mountain roads and in city traffic, it is critical that the exhaust brake be utilized, as it significantly reduces stopping distance and brake fade. I enjoyed driving the Fuso on the road, but could never quite cruise with it. This is expected with a heavy-duty truck and should be a consideration where long highway transits are required. The solution, of course, is to slow down and enjoy the view, plug your iPhone into the supplied cradle, and settle into the rhythm of the road. In short, the EarthCruiser is designed for where the pavement ends, rather than tar the road.
On the Trail
A stock Fuso is suitable for light exploration and little more. It is delivered from the factory with dual rear wheels (DRW), 7.50R16 tires, and limited clearance under the unprotected transfer case. Fortunately, the team at EarthCruiser identified and addressed these limitations, turning the Fuso from limited to legitimate. The most critical modification is the conversion from DRW to single rear wheel (SRW). This is essential in soft terrain, as a DRW is forced to travel outside of the compacted track of the front tires, greatly increasing resistance and the chance of getting stuck. However, this modification does put some serious stress on the rear tire load capacity; care must be given to specifying the correct tire and keeping it properly inflated and cool. In addition to the SRW conversion, new leaf springs are fitted to provide additional ground clearance and room for larger tires—much larger. The model I tested came equipped with brand new Hankook MT 37×12.50R17 tires, nearly 150 millimeters taller than the factory rubber. The increased clearance moves the vulnerable transfer case higher and improves approach and departure angles. Fortunately, I have also driven stock Fusos, so I was able to compare overall stability on cambered obstacles. I found that the taller EarthCruiser was still predictable and balanced when things start to tilt. The dynamic side slope limitations of this vehicle are likely to be in the 25- to 28-degree range, but this is far more than most drivers’ nerves will allow.
For tractive performance, the factory rear limited-slip differential can be augmented with a driver-selectable front locking differential, keeping at least three of the four tires turning in extreme terrain. On Fraser Island, the EarthCruiser had an easy time in the sand; particularly once the tires had been deflated to 20 psi, the lower limits for a 4,500-kilogram vehicle without bead lock rims. Where the vehicle struggled was on steep sand slopes; the overall power-to-weight ratio resulted in several failed climbs. Compounding the issue was the limited suspension travel and effective damping, causing the chassis to bounce in the sand ruts, losing momentum and inducing wheel hop. Lest we forget, I’m comparing the performance of a camper with a built-in hot water shower to that of a Land Cruiser of half its weight.
On muddy tracks, the Hankooks did most of the work, aided by the limited-slip and torque of the 4-cylinder diesel. By maintaining steady momentum and keeping the engine just above the first third of the RPM range, the truck climbed over roots, out of deep ruts, and through axle-deep bogs with little drama. While there are few rocks on Fraser, I was able to test the articulation and boulder-crawling capacity on several large outcroppings that were exposed during low tide. Low range is compulsory for this kind of work, although I found the front locking differential unnecessary. Clutch modulation was better than expected and the large-diameter tires improved leverage over the sandy transitions, some ledges being a half-meter tall. Care must be taken to preserve the clutch, as the overall weight of the truck would show little mercy to the driver that favors the skinny pedal over finesse.
The reason why an adventurer would buy an EarthCruiser is the ability to transport camping comfort and all-weather accommodation to the Outback. For this requirement, it delivers in spades, yet forgoes the pretentious impression some other campers impart. Simple and clean in design, its sheer practicality reduces the clinical feel of the white and gray gel coat finish. Access to the camper is possible through a side door and cabin pass-through, an important safety consideration where exiting the vehicle to drive away could be hazardous. Configured as an aisle, the port side features the galley while the starboard houses the wet head. At the back of the camper is a double bed with ample cushioning, reading lights, and good ventilation. Just aft of the pass-through is the dinette, perfectly sized for two, allowing comfortable dining and a suitable workspace.
The galley is spacious and efficient, with a diesel cooktop and a deep sink. Hot water comes quickly, as does filtered drinking water, and storage is more than adequate for two people. The fridge is an upright unit, which makes access convenient; however, it will never match the capacity and low power consumption of a chest-style unit. Above the countertop is the electronics command center, complete with solar charge controller, battery monitor system, Webasto water/air heater controller and complete fuse panel.
Without question, the most impressive function of the camper is the lifting roof, which is both brilliantly simple and ultimately reliable. All four corners use the same electric lifting ram (reducing the required spares), which are operated by a two-position switch just inside the camper door. The roof lifts with no drama, time-consuming preparation, unlatching, or additional steps—it really is a class-leading pop-top. You can utilize nearly all systems of the camper with the roof down; with it up, 198 centimeters of stand-up height is afforded. Most critically, you can sleep in the camper with the top down should the weather be severe or you do not want to advertise, “I am camping here.” The only issue I encountered with the top was a small leak in the back corner seam. It dripped the equivalent of a few deciliters through a night of serious rain.
To Venture Further
With customers having traveled to all corners of the world, the EarthCruiser has become a legitimate and proven global exploration option. This vehicle appeals to all of my sensibilities as a traveler, but more importantly it appeals to the message I wish to outwardly portray while traveling. The truck is simple and understated, nearly lorry-like, and easily confused for a delivery vehicle. It does not scream out, “I have lots of money, please rob me,” but “I could be a delivery driver, an NGO, or even something more clandestine…do you really want to try to rob me?”
With my long weekend on Fraser Island complete, I rolled up the ferry loading ramp, the Fuso and I now working as one. As the ship rocked in the waves I closed my eyes and let my mind wander to distant lands, parking under a baobab tree in the Kalahari, or on the shore of a glacial lake in Patagonia. The EarthCruiser was certainly ready. And by the way, it will even fit in a shipping container.