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Dashing across the Simpson with a Haval H9 and Great Wall Steed – Part 4 – Communication and Navigation

How And Why We Dashed Across The Simpson Desert In A Week From Melbourne With A Haval H9 And Great Wall Steed. Exploring the communication you need.

COMMUNICATION is critical on a 4×4 trip, on all sorts of levels. I’ve mentioned the satellite phone a few times, so a bit more detail. It’s an Iridium 9555. I’ve found it to be reliable compared to others. The battery is long life compared to a smartphone, and it lives in its own robust little bag with a 12v charger for the car and 240v mains charger. There are instructions for its use as its different to a modern mobile phone, and every night I gave the instructions to a different group member and told them to text our backup people for the check-in. That way everybody got to learn how the satphone worked.

It’s pretty simple once you know how – extend the antenna, switch on, wait for a signal and then dial using the +61 prefix. Then be prepared for pauses as the signal needs to travel a long way. SMSes aren’t instant either, but it does work.

We need to bust one persistent myth I’ve heard from the ADF, fire authorities and ambos – your mobile phone WILL NOT and CAN NOT use satellites to make emergency calls in the event that it cannot connect to normal cellular towers and is only showing SOS.

What actually happens is that your mobile will connect to any mobile network compatible with its hardware, and you can make emergency calls on that network even if you don’t have a account on it, or even if you don’t know the PIN code for the phone. Take a look at your phone’s unlock screen – see “Emergency Calls” or similar on it? That.

You can also call 112 instead of 000, and 112 works in any country to connect to emergency services because every country is different – 911, 000, 999 as examples. 

Also, your satphone will not connect to a normal mobile network unless it is specifically designed to do so. Some are, and there are some satphone sleeves for mobiles too. My 9555 cannot connect to a mobile phone network, and it doesn’t need to.

We also carried, in another car, a distress beacon. These are little devices that you activate send a signal up to satellites, which is relayed to the relevant country’s rescue authorities which then look up who has registered that beacon so they know who to look for. In the case of Australia, that authority is AMSA.

Our beacon is a PLB or Personal Locator Beacon, sometimes erroneously known as an EPIRB. Both are distress beacons, but the PLB is a small unit for land use, whereas the EPIRB is for marine use and designed to different specifications.

A PLB is great, but it’s one-way communications; you set it off and wait for help, which will come. That means you can only really use it in life-threatening situations, whereas with a satphone you can have an (expensive) chat with anyone you like, emergency or not. There are also now two-way satellite messaging and tracking devices like InReach and Spot, but we didn’t have either of them. If you buy a PLB, make sure you get one that sends your coordinates as it makes it a lot easier for you to be found.

Inter-vehicle communication is also important, and there’s only really one choice these days which is UHF radio. Two of the cars had permanently installed 5-watt units with bullbar-mounted antennas, but we needed a solution for the H9 and the Steed. Usually I run handheld radios with press cars, but that wasn’t going to work well this time for a couple of reasons. First, we’d be out for many days and the handhelds would require recharging, and we had enough things to keep charged as it was. The more powerful 5-watt radios we’d want don’t tend to run off AA batteries either. And the range of a handheld would be an issue, as we’d be travelling on high-speed dirt roads with lots of dust. Our four-car convoy could be spread out over five kilometers or even more, and that’s too much for a handheld. It’s not the power, as you can get 5-watt handhelds, it’s the quality and location of the antenna that’s the issue. 

The Uniden UHF tidily installed with double-sided tape.

The solution was in the H9 to use an Uniden UH500PNP (Plug and Play), which is a 5-watt UHF unit that is designed to be temporarily installed into a vehicle. The antenna is magnetically mounted to the roof, so I stuck it up front and race-taped down the cable (see below). The unit itself went on the side of the centre console with double-sided tape (see above), and we plugged it into a 12v socket. A neat and tidy installation, the effectiveness of which we’ll discuss in later updates. 

The Uniden’s antenna magnetically mounted to the roof, and the cable secured with tape.

Navigation was covered with a selection of maps. The standard is Hema’s excellent productions, and our Desert Parks Pass came with some of the very useful Westprint maps too. It is important to carry different and multiple maps of the area so you have backups, and no map shows everything. Different scales are important too, so you can get detail on one map and an overview on another. You also need maps that cover areas that you aren’t planning to visit, just in case plans change!

For digital moving maps I like to use Android devices running Oziexplorer and AusTopo 200k maps, Hema Maps and whatever else I happen to have. The Hema app itself is also useful and quite different to Oziexplorer.  My preferred devices is a Samsung Note as it has a fairly large screen, and as my Samsung Galaxy S7 mobile phone is pretty well useless without Internet access that becomes a second mapping screen, running a more detailed map than the bigger Note. One or the other device is set to a waypoint or two so we know how far away we are from our next checkpoint. One of the prep things we did was create a series of waypoints and give them to our helpers back in Melbourne so we could easily refer to them and say where we were. 

What you don’t want to do out in the bush is rely on either Google Maps or your in-car nav. If it works, and while the Haval’s sat-nav did have the Simpson tracks we didn’t rely on it. This next statement is very important so it gets it own paragraph:

Always, always maintain full situational awareness of where you are and never, ever just blindly follow sat-nav directions out in the bush.  

People have been lost and killed following sat-nav where they shouldn’t. Yes, you can download Google Maps for offline use, but that shouldn’t be your primary navigation. The safest way is a paper map backed up with digital, and at least two people tracking position. Always do a sanity check – it’s early morning, does it make sense that the sun is rising off to your right when you think you should be heading east?

Next time, we’ll cover packing for the trip. At some point we’ll actually start driving, but there’s more work to be done yet, and our aim is to produce a series of articles that will set you up for any major off-road trip you’d like to take.

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6 years ago

A lot of great information so far. I look forward to Part 5.

6 years ago

Calls to the satphone are cheaper. We turned it on each night and placed on the bonnet of the car for it to locate satellites (can take some minutes) for family to call at a designated time.

I think its important to operate a cornerman or similar system. Ie No one proceeds through an intersection or junction without a visual and radio coms on the following car. Someone is designated to be tailend charley or sweep. In addition regular stop and regroups either based on time,distance or point of interest to make sure the front runners don’t outrun daylight etc.

6 years ago

When travelling down WA, I could hardly believe it, the Sun rises at 11 and sets at 9, one would expect after hearing the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, not so in WA

When we woke up each morning, going down WA you’d expect the sun to be on your left (East), nope it’s just behind you at 11, damn sun shone on my rear visor mirror and reflected off my side mirrors, had to manually move side mirrors inwards

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper