Roothy needs little introduction for most people interested in caravanning and camping in Australia. As one of the most prominent four-wheel driving and camping journalists and entertainers, John’s career as what seems to be a professional camper is enviable. Recently I got the chance to catch up with John while he was tinkering in his shed and found out what life and camping have been like off the camera.
Brendan: I still remember reading your articles about four-wheel driving and camping in Australia when I was a teenager, which is part of why I bought a four-wheel drive and started to go camping. Did you ever think, when you were writing about this stuff, that you’d be so influential?
John: Only recently, actually, and because so many people like you have mentioned that in passing and I suppose the last five or ten years I’ve been hearing it and it makes me feel really proud. If a bloke ever had a legacy, what a wonderful legacy to have.
It was never meant to be like that – it was just me doing what I liked doing and what I’ve always done and somehow out of that, this other growth happened and it’s just wonderful.
I think there’s an awful lot of people, 20 years younger than me who don’t know what a dirt road is. When I was a kid, all roads were dirt until you got just outside of Adelaide, and then probably for the next 20 years most of the highways still had big components of dirt. You’d leave Brisbane and it was dirt after 15 miles when I was 17 going north, and now we’ve got a motorway. It’s a different world. But it’s still all there because it’s such a big country.
Brendan: Were there any people that influenced your love for the Aussie bush and camping?
John: The Leyland Brothers would be the best-known influence, and I think they influenced a lot of people. I remember them, in their early 20s, coming through our property in the northern Flinders Ranges and that was pretty amazing. We had a big barbeque for them and they filmed some of it. And I guess the Aboriginals I grew up with, because as a young kid you are very influenced. The way they’d just meld into the country and feel right at home, that was a big thing for me.
Brendan: What sort of camping did you do as a kid?
John: We used to go out mustering, and we didn’t even think of it as camping. That was basically just sleeping next to a fire and drinking black tea with sugar and eating damper and tins and a fair bit of horse riding. Most of my camping after that came about when I was old enough to get a licence, which was 16 in my case, and the only way I could afford to do the big mileages I wanted to do was to camp out in the bush.
Brendan: So much of your public camping life has been on trips for magazines or DVDs or with sponsors – do you do much travel with your family, and what are those trips like?
John: When the kids were little we used to go tenting and then we bought a camper trailer and a lot of our family camping trips have been to nice places – beaches and things like that. The funniest thing, really, is the fact I’d come home from a trip (where I’ve been away for a month sleeping in a wet canvas bag) and I would always plan the trips so I’d be home for school holidays. I’d come home, they’d have the camper trailer ready and we’d turn around and be straight out the gate.
We’ve done a lot of camping, although it’s evolved, like most family camping. All my kids have got licences, except for the youngest, he’s on his way, and so now they’re all sleeping in swags, so we’ll be selling the camper fairly soon, because we sleep in swags too, Karen and I.
You sort of evolve through the camper stage and come out the other end. But I’ll never buy a caravan
Brendan: You’ve had a couple of caravans in your time, haven’t you?
John: I built them as projects for Caravan and Motorhome magazine. Yeah, I like caravans, it’s just not what I would choose to do in my own… dotage. Karen doesn’t need it, and I would rather spend my money on a pub in town – I love staying in little country pubs, and I love staying out in the bush. So the combination of that makes for a pretty relaxing trip.
Brendan: For almost as longs as I’ve been reading your articles or watching you on videos, Karen’s been referred to as the Handbrake, but I imagine she’s anything but, given your lifestyle. How much of what you do is possible because of the support she gives you?
John: All of it, in our married life. We’ve just clocked up 25 years and we were together for a year before we got married and I’m really lucky because she’s quite a bit younger than me. She’s from a family where her father was a ship’s engineer so he was away six weeks, home six weeks, so she’s always been used to the man of the house being away and that has made my life possible, to be honest.
She’s always happy to see me come home, but six weeks later my bags are packed and she’s wondering where I’m going to be going next.
Brendan: Is she just as happy to see you leave, by any chance?
John: Yes, of course! She gets the place in order and cleans up. She’s brought the kids up, really. I’ve always planned the rest of my life so I can pick them up from school when I’m home, that kind of thing, but it’s all possible because of her.
The funny thing is, I came up with the Handbrake concept early in the piece, but we used to lie there in bed and all those funny columns where I’d heap shit on her, basically she’d come up with half the ideas for those. She’s got a great sense of humour. So, it’s been very much a shared life.
Brendan: Karen pops up in a couple of your more recent videos. Is it nice to be able to travel with her for ‘work’?
John: Yes, it is, it’s great. Because of the nature of what we’re doing now – we’re basically YouTube, social media eyeball grabbers and all that, and she does all the editing. She’s a graphic artist by trade so to come along on the trip if you’re the editor is obviously of paramount importance – she’s essentially the producer for what we do now.
All those years, and you probably know this from your own travels, if you are somewhere on a work trip and it’s somewhere really nice, normally the first thought is that ‘I wish the kids and the wife could see this.’ It’s one thing to see something with your colleagues and mates on a work trip, it’s another to share it with those closest to you. And that’s what we’re trying to do now.
Brendan: You’ve had a couple of famous four-wheel drives, in particular Milo and now Milo 2, what else is in your shed at the moment?
John: Pretty much everything I’ve got is pre-1984. I’ve got the yellow Troop Carrier, which is our family vehicle. A 1984 mustard truck. And I’ve got a 1950 Mark V Jag I built about 15 years ago. It took me about 10 years to do it. That’s just a car I’ve always wanted to own. There’s a World War II Jeep which I restored with a locking rear diff and better suspension and a couple of mods just to make it useable. I haven’t used it yet, really off-road, but I will be. And there’s 14 motorcycles. I love bikes, they’re all old.
There’s a bike here, a Matchless 500 which I rode to school when I was 16. I’ve still got it. There’s a BMW here that I bought when I was 18, I’ve still got that, and my number one bike is a 1994 Harley Davidson I bought when we made some money mining opals, and I still ride it. I love my old bikes.
Brendan: It’s no real secret that you do a lot of motorbike touring. What is it that you like about it so much?
John: Bikes are just fun They give you a real sense of freedom and a real connection with the environment. I don’t have air-conditioning in any of my vehicles anyway, but just the freedom of a motorcycle is really quite an awesome thing when you’re touring. Our tour groups would go from Cairns to the Tip in two days on Yamaha TTR250s. And we could do that in three days in the wet season. You can’t do that with a four-wheel drive – you can’t even get through in the wet season. But there are places you can go rapidly on a trail bike that take a long time in a truck – even a really well-equipped truck.
It’s just the freedom, the fact that it doesn’t cost very much, so you can go a long way for not very much. For me, the best sort of touring is the simplest. I don’t like it to be complicated. I don’t like to take a tonne of stuff and I guess that’s where bikes come into their own too, because you’re a bit limited in what you could take.
Brendan: If you had to choose between a trip in Milo or a trip on the bike, which would it be?
John: Oh, that’s an impossible question, Brendan. I love my four-wheel drives, and I love Milo particularly, but Milo’s got over a million kays on her now, so that’s why we built Milo 2. I’m actually still in two minds as to what to do with Milo. Its next trip could possibly be to the transport museum. But back to the question, it would depend entirely on who was going and what the trip was about.
Brendan: What are you up to now? What are your own projects?
John: We are working on our YouTube subscribers. We’ve built that up to nearly 25,000. I work for Channel 7, doing Creek to Coast up here and I do a radio program every week and those sorts of things create the eyeballs, which brings in enough sponsorship to make it all pay. It’s basically what I’ve always done, but I don’t need the company structure. There’s a lot of places I want to fill in on that map, too.
Brendan: From the outside, your life looks incredible and amazing. Is it always easy, is it always incredible?
John: No, it’s been a lot of hard work. You only ever show people the good parts and it’s been a helluva lot of 24/7 work, which I love because it keeps me doing what I love doing, but it’s not a life for everyone and the life away from home, specifically, you’d need exactly the right sort of home to get away with that. I wouldn’t change any of it, though.
Brendan: If you retired, what would retirement look like for you?
John: We’re going to drive my old ’84 Toyota to remote places in the bush and spend a bit longer camping than I got to while I was working. So, I’m not really going to change anything other than I’ll be paying for it myself!
I probably couldn’t see myself hooking up a caravan and doing a lap as a grey nomad. Because I don’t really need a caravan to do what I do and go to the places I like to go. Caravans are fantastic, they’re especially good for people who aren’t as comfortable sleeping out, but I’m not sure. I think if I was going to do that it would be in something like a Hiace or a HiLux with a little camper on the back. In fact, I’ve been contemplating that lately. But a good roof-top tent, or a swag is more sort of my end of it. I’m one of those people who sees $80,000 for a caravan and thinks I could go around Australia for three years on $80,000.
If you want to see more of what Roothy (and the Handbrake) is up to these days, check out his YouTube channel and social media accounts. There’s hours of great content, and best of all, it’s all free.
Find out all the details at roothy.com.au.
This interview originally appeared in issue 34 or ROAM. To read all the best celebrity camper interviews, subscribe here.
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