Shaking like a Leaf (III): Hitting turbulence

This blog post is part of a series about my road trip around South/East Australia in an electric vehicle. Read other posts using the same tag.

Day 5: Cowra via Blue Mountains

My Sydney visit came to an end, and it was time for me to start the inland part of my trip.

After a brief charge just short of the Blue Mountains, I headed along the winding highway to Katoomba to see if I could catch a look at the famous Three Sisters sandstone formations…

A viewing platform in Katoomba with numerous visitors, but with a complete whiteout situation in fog.
This was not the white Christmas I was expecting.

Yeah, nah – it wasn’t gonna happen. I’ve visited here before, but that was a decade ago, so it would have been nice to have another view of it this time. Oh well. Instead of admiring the fog, I set up my camping stove for a 2-minute-noodle break by the side of the road.1

The boot of a car with a camping stove on top of its own carry box on a closed cool box, next to the cool box is a large pile of food and utensils. The camping stove is lit, with a small pot on top and instant noodles inside boiling.
Welcome to my roaming kitchen!

Heading further inland, the next stop was Lithgow. As it happened to be Christmas Day, it was dead quiet driving up to the local club where the NRMA fast charger was. I pulled up and plugged in – and it was surprisingly free! A couple of minutes later, an elderly couple with an Ioniq pulled up next to me but couldn’t get their charger to work – apparently that was a known issue with that unit, which may explain why the chargers were free. My car jumped from 28% to 68% in just over 15 minutes, which was enough to get to the next stop, so I spread the Christmas cheer and ended my charge session to let my neighbours have a go.

I was to stop the NRMA chargers at Bathurst next, but the night before I found out that someone had seriously damaged it and was going to be out of action.2 By sheer luck, an alternative set of Evie fast chargers were available behind the McDonalds nearby, and only opened just days before! (Conspiracy?)

An Evie electric vehicle charger with port 1 in use and connected to a Nissan Leaf; to the left is the power distribution equipment cabinet.
I didn’t take a picture of the McDonalds, so you’re getting another EV charger picture.

It was lunch time and while I was literally behind probably the only restaurant that was going to be open here today, I decided I would just hang around and snack on what I had on hand. The weather was absolutely fantastic (only downside being that the sun was probably too strong) and so I just sat at the back of the car looking out over… a pretty empty car park.

What happened next wasn’t something I was expecting on Christmas Day – a lady walked up to my car, looked at what I presume appeared like some fancy gadgetry in her eyes and proceeded to ask about what the whole thing was about. This to be the first of many roadside chats about my road trip and EV, with this one lasting almost an hour. The chats went as far as back stories, parenting, career choices, life aspirations… I never would have thought that the opportunity to just stop and charge a car would end in me appreciating the varied and fulsome discussions I was to have with a number of strangers that I’d meet along the way.

Having spent way longer than I had originally planned at the charger while chatting, the car was topped up to 90%, and I was off again after waving goodbye to the lady and her young kid. The extra charge proved to be fortuitous however, with what happened next…

After an hour and a half on the road, I arrived in Cowra and had a go at charging at the NRMA charging station. Despite some Plugshare reports of users recently being able to use it, an error code 9 appeared when I tried to use it… Not great. I suspected it was an issue with the charger on its CHAdeMO side, because that side would be rarely used so not many people end up reporting such specific issues on Plugshare. In the end, I had to give up.

A close up of the Cowra #1 electric vehicle charger, with the panel reading "Err 9".
You’ll need to zoom in to see the
“Err 9″… sorry, not sorry.

While I still had 40% charge left at this point which might just get me to the next charging stop in Young… I thought I’d use the opportunity to get more of a buffer if I could, especially since I was going to stop here for the day anyway. It was Christmas and the office of the motel I was to stay at was unattended, so had to make a phone call to check if I could run the charger I brought with me overnight. They had no hesitation in allowing me to do so, and I thanked them for their generosity.

After unpacking everything I needed for my stay, I carefully ran an extension cable from my room out to the car and set the charger to run at 8A throughout the night. The door was so tight around its frame that I had to keep the door ajar to let the cable through; it only held in place with small table up against it. I didn’t need to worry about people breaking in while I was asleep because you could probably count the number of people around on one hand. Plus the motel left the key inside the unlocked room when I arrived! Country Australia really is something.

A Nissan Leaf parked close to the door of a motel room, with an EVSE connected via a red/yellow extension lead from the room.
I was tempted to drive the car all the way to the door seeing how close it is…

Day 6: Hay via Young, Narrandera

After a chilly night, my car got up to 95% charge and I was ready for an early morning wander around Cowra. There still wasn’t really anything open at this point, so I visited some public spots – the World Peace Bell and the former site of the Prisoners of War Camp, the latter of which takes no more than a few minutes’ drive to get to from the centre of town.

You might notice that there are a lot of references to Japanese – the Cowra POW camp is known as the site where a large number of Japanese prisoners staged a breakout during World War II, with a significant number dying in the ensuing chaos and manhunt. There is also a Japanese War Cemetery nearby, the only such cemetery in Australia.

There was one more place I wanted to drop by before I left Cowra, and that was the Cowra Japanese Garden. In the 1970s, the town and Japanese Government agreed to the establishment of such a garden, designed in the Edo style. It is supposedly the largest Japanese garden in the Southern Hemisphere, which surprised me considering that you could say it’s situated in the middle of nowhere. Even if you’re not specifically into Japanese gardens, it’s a nice tranquil place to just relax and live in the moment a bit – that’s basically what I did for an hour, before retreating to the on-site cafe for a quick bite.

An hour out from Cowra, I made a brief stop in Young – using the fast charger there while I did a small walk of the main strip. The plaques with some background to the buildings and history of the town helped pass the time, but it wasn’t long before I was on the road again.

Next stop was Coolamon, but halfway between Young and Coolamon was a peculiar sight – the Bethungra Rail Spiral. I hadn’t planned to look at this heritage listed bit of rail infrastructure, but my inner train-loving part of me decided that I had enough time to sneak a peek.

Getting to the lookout over the spiral meant driving on a dirt road – the first major dirt road that I encountered with my Leaf on this trip – but once you’re on the rocky road there’s only one way to get there, so it’s hard to miss. What you see is a deep cutting where trains emerge from a tunnel, with the rest of the track circling around a nearby hill (hence the rail spiral) to gain elevation and then crossing over the top of the tunnel. It’s hard to make out the path from the photos, but you can make it out by looking at overhead satellite photos.

I planned to use fast chargers for basically the entirety of my trip, because… they’re fast4. No one wants to stuck in a random town in the middle of nowhere and waste a day waiting for a car to be drip-fed while on a road trip. Originally that meant driving through to Wagga Wagga, but the only fast charger that I could use and compatible with my car was out of service, so instead I opted to drive to a different town with a newly established, but slower, charger – Coolamon. It also meant a slightly shorter drive to the stop after, in Narrandera, but that wasn’t a big concern since any time advantage would definitely be swallowed up by the slow charge.

Coolamon was tiny and dead quiet with no shops open on Boxing Day; thankfully I had some food with me and set up my camping stove at the park right next to the charger. And even though it was a public holiday with basically no one out and around, a curious chap on a mobility scooter came up and struck a conversation – talking about his curiosity of an EV in a place like Coolamon, his previous life as a truck driver, how he came to be here… I didn’t ask him about his prosthetic leg, but if I had more time I’m sure he would have had a lot of stories to share. Upon learning where I was headed next, he gave some helpful tips and also passed on the local pronunciation for Narrandera (ner-RAN-drah).

I stopped the charge just short of the 2 hour mark to not get charged5 a time-based fee, leaving my car at a modest 55% – enough to get me to Narrandera, only an hour away. There I found the fast charger located also next to a park, with the town centre a couple of minutes by foot. Heading to a supermarket for some snacks, a Caucasian kid did a “ni hao” in a manner that could either be taken genuinely or derisively; I was slightly taken aback, because I haven’t found that happening to me in a long time in metropolitan areas of Australia, and just nodded in return, but on reflection I could have given the classic “g’day mate” or something back at them and see how they react6. I need to sharpen my ability for impromptu zingers.

After smashing through some ice cream cups waiting for the car to charge, I hit 99% and prepped myself for the final stretch to Hay. I already knew this was going to be one of the hairy sections of the trip – no charging infrastructure anywhere in between7 meant I needed to just go for it and not stop. ABRP noted that if I started at 100% charge, I’d just make it with 3% to spare. For most of the trip so far I’d been pretty happy with ABRP’s estimates and sometimes they were a little conservative (either because they made it so, or maybe I drive a little smoother than the average driver?) so while I did brace myself a little at the thought of dropping to near-zero charge, I thought I was fine. The estimate on the instrument panel even said 209km, and I only needed 174!

A screenshot of the ABRP app showing a route from Narrandera to Hay, with expected charge falling from 100% to 3%.
3%? Looks fine to me!

I was wrong. Not only was the distance estimate waaaaaaaay off (which to be honest I kinda knew), headwinds on the way didn’t help. I drove at usual highway speeds at first, and over time you could see the estimate drop like a stone. I did try and slipstream behind larger vehicles, but some were so kind as to stop on the side to let me pass! Oh the irony! Internally I was just hoping that I would make it without having to take any interventions, but by the time I was about 30km or so away from Hay, the expected charge remaining started to creep into the 20s and then… my first WARNING in my car lit up, telling me in no uncertain terms that I needed to find a charger as soon as possible. That was when the adrenalin really kicked in.

What if I have to pull over in the middle of nowhere? I have roadside assistance but are they gonna deal with EVs in the country? It’s already 5:30pm and getting quite late. I don’t wanna be waiting hours in the (literally not exaggerating) freezing cold for help. Faaaaaaark.

I lowered my speed down to 20-30km/h under the limit – which in normal circumstances will get you absolutely crucified by other drivers on the road, especially on highways, but thankfully most of it was fairly straight and light on traffic, and when someone did approach me from behind I turned on my blinkers and pulled over for them to overtake me. Slowing down reduces the impact of headwinds and general energy consumption, and that was really the only thing I could do at this point – there was no use in stopping along the side of the road here, so I might as well make it as far as I could.

The precipitous fall in the distance estimate slowed, and things continued along with me regularly cross checking that against the actual remaining distance in Google Maps, which didn’t last long as it got low enough to show “— km” range remaining. Was I gonna make it?!?!

It felt like forever, when… the major roundabout into Hay came into view along the horizon! I looked down at the dash to find it reading 3% remaining!

A photo from inside the driver's position in a car, with a brick wall and electric vehicle charger in the background. The instrument panel in the car displays the warning: "バッテリー残量低下 充電してください", with the battery reading 3% charge and an estimated range of "---" kilometres.
“Warning: Battery level low. Please charge.”
The Aussie version would probably say: “Oi! Battery’s flat! Get yourself a charge, mate!”

Driving through the town, I panicked a bit trying to find the AC charger, but when I eventually did and pulled in… I had to sit there for a moment to collect my thoughts. ABRP proved to be right, but not in a good way – its own estimate was also optimistic this time because I had to pull my speed down in order to hit 3%, so who knows what situation I might have gotten myself into if I blindly continued driving at usual speeds?

The rest of the evening was luckily uneventful – I was able to plug my car into the charger overnight, checked into the hotel just around the corner and made it just in time before their restaurant closed for the day. While it was the usual pub fare, it was one meal I really savoured.

I somehow was able to get myself to sleep just fine after all of that, as heart-stopping as it was. However, this paled in comparison to another “incident” that was to happen much later in my trip. And you’ll need to read on to find out.

Continues in Part IV (to be published.)

I found some NRMA chargers that nominally charge a fee but for various reasons don’t. Lithgow and Narrandera were the first of many – sometimes because they were partially faulty and were opened up to the public as a result, others could be because they were still transitioning to a fee-based service. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter why – all I care is that I saved some cash!

Cowra (via mains electricity at motel)Free
NRMA discount-0.61
Subtotal (excluding discounts)22.89 / 786km
Trip total (excluding discounts)110.30 / 1961km
  1. Yes, I set this up inside my car (albeit in the back, with the boot open). No, I am not suggesting you do this. Don’t blame me if you accidentally set your car on fire. ↩︎
  2. I didn’t know what the extent of the damage was at the time; I later found out it was absolutely flattened. ↩︎
  3. The date on the bell of 1983 suggests that the inscription isn’t referring to 20 years of the garden, as the project only started in 1973. Looking further into this, I think it could be referring to the Inazawa Rotary Club itself. You can find out more about the Cowra-Inazawa Rotary Club relationship here (Japanese only.) ↩︎
  4. Fast… if we just set aside the self-imposed charging restrictions with the overheating battery in my car… ↩︎
  5. I realised after typing that out, that there are way too many opportunities for unintentional puns and confusion when reading about charges incurred during charges at EV chargers. I’ll try to use other synonyms but “electric vehicle energy transferral unit” doesn’t have the same ring to it. ↩︎
  6. Sadly, “mate” isn’t (yet) in my normal everyday vernacular. Maybe I need to hand my citizenship back. ↩︎
  7. Not exactly true, but the need to deviate some distance away from the highway to the few, mostly private, possibly functional, slow chargers that popped up in Plugshare effectively made them as good as non-existent. ↩︎

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