Jayco Penguin Outback on the Darling

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It would be nigh impossible to organise a better caravan or pop-top testing scenario than a tip to Louth, 100 km downstream from Bourke on the Darling River. Not so demanding I hear you say… but add to that, torrential rain on the first day’s drive, first setup towards the end of a 16mm drenching at Bourke, 20km of still wet/sticky red dirt road, and 20km of dry and dusty unsealed road, just to get to the destination. Then on the return, 80km of corrugated and rutted outback road, before again returning home on the back-roads.

Now that’s a real-life test you won’t see in many magazines!

The RV in question is the Penguin Camper-trailer, which is more like a pop-top caravan than a traditional camper-trailer, and I was lucky enough to have the Outback version. I recall some years ago when I first saw a Jayco Penguin and felt it was abit devoid of any aspiration style and thought the name was somewhat naff.

I collected the new iteration of the Penguin from Jayco Albury-Wodonga and to my amazement, the ugly duckling had morphed into a very smart looking unit, especially in the Outback form. And with the new look, the name seemed to have a bit more cred emblazoned proudly on the new livery. My initial prejudices were immediately nullified and my enthusiasm for the week away was heightened.

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So how did it perform?

The Penguin got an overnight drenching before my 5.30am departure and first couple of hours included torrential rain, flowing floodways, and a lot of water across the road while heading to Narrandera. The rain continued all the way to Bourke to such an extent that the roads to Louth were all closed.

As any RVer will testify, weather and dust sealing of caravans is paramount and this is especially true for non-fixed roof versions, so the first day’s drive was a perfect moisture test; but I wasn’t to know how the Penguin stood up to the rain and floods till that evening when I made camp.

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As is normal for me, I never read any marketing literature or forum posts on any RV or caravan I take out for a review as I like the unadulterated approach, clean from any spin or glossy marketing campaigns. That also includes reading operating manuals, common to most of the male species, as I like determining how intuitive something is to operate. The dealer showed me how to pack it up, but not how to set it up.

Setting Up

I arrived in Bourke with it still raining and checked into the last remaining spot at the caravan park.

While sitting in the car working out my plan of attack for setting up camp in the rain, a small part of me wished I had actually done a dry run, emphasis on the ‘dry’ and maybe added a bit of ‘warm’.

I alighted from the car, open the front boot of the Penguin, grabbed the power cable and roof-crank, run to the back of the Penguin to plug in the mains, insert the crank in the winding mechanism, and then in one fluid movement I released each of the four corner latches before returning to the back of the Penguin to wind the roof up. Probably three minutes including inserting the two safety poles into place on adjacent corners.

Once done, I jumped inside the Penguin to inspect, but the interior lights didn’t come on despite checking the main switch is on. Then I recalled that the power cable to the roof must be unplugged when the roof is lowered; not for safety but the ‘cigarette lighter’ type plug needs to be removed before lowering the roof as it will break the plug. Not sure why it is not hard-wired which would be easier and eliminate the potential of an unnecessary plug being broken.

As the lights came on, I expected to see water from the full day of rain during drive out but to my amazement, it was totally dry. Impressive!

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Now came the tricky bit. Due to the pop-up nature of the van, there needs to be a way for the door to split and fold. When packed up, the upper section of the door and its frame is hinged and attached to the roof. A safety strap and two clips hold the mechanism in place for travel, and it is simply a matter of releasing and carefully lowering into place, then connecting to the lower part of the door.

The whole process took no more than ten minutes. Now the design, and desirability, of the Penguin started to make sense.

But there was also an element of design that was not too conducive with this trip and it is common with any soft-walled RV. The temperature overnight got down to 2 degrees and while the canvas & Boltiflex walls kept the wind out superbly, soft walls are not renowned for their insulation properties. My arctic-rated sleeping bag and doona did a good job till about 4am, but at least I was comforted by the fact I was dry.

Talk Around the Park

With the prediction that the roads to Louth would not open for another day, I took solace from the many other RVers also stranded so it was a day for relaxing in the caravan park.

In terms of the Penguin, it was a very popular topic of conversation with the day regularly punctuated with passers-by commenting on how good it looked, what it had in it, and what it cost. I felt my Penguin and I were on a stand at a caravan show. A rewarding experience and nice feedback that the Penguin was so well received and that many concurred that the ugly duckling had in fact evolved into a beautiful… not Swan, as that is the larger Jayco camper-trailer… but we all agreed it was a beautiful Penguin.

While the general consensus/rumour was that the roads would not open till the following afternoon, I had it on good advice that they would open in the morning. As I did not want to travel in convoy with the masses heading to Louth, I kept that to myself and headed down to the Louth turnoff at first light in anticipation of the roads reopening.

Mud and Dust

With Bourke receiving 14mm the day before, and Louth dry for the previous day, I knew there was going to be some good stretches of mud and then dust.

7.30 and the road was open. I hit the dirt and from the first section of the red soil, I could see the mud spraying up onto the Penguin and despite it still being noticeable slippery, the well-balance Penguin was a dream to tow. Before long I head to weave my way through two grader crews who were still preparing the road and their handy work with fresh soil made section like driving on wet marshmallows with some interesting wobbling and weaving but the Penguin tracked true.

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Once through the worst sections, the road slowly evolved in to dry dust, corrugated and rutted in parts, and now it was a test for the Outback versioned suspension. The Outback option does away with beam axles and runs individual stub axles of the JTECH Suspension. It was very sure-footed on the rougher surfaces.

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With the plumes of dust trailing the Penguin for the last 40km, I was confident any foibles with the dust sealing would be revealed later that day when I arrived at my destination.

I arrived at Trilby Station and headed to the billabong to setup and inspect how the Penguin fared in the mud and dust from the day.

Free-Camping Setup

The first obvious design challenge for the Penguin was a huge build-up of mud around the front AL-KO drop down support legs, fairly understandable considering the testing conditions, but rendered the release mechanism difficult to use, especially with the still-sticky mud underneath the dry crust.

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More of a (design) issue was the lock/release for the slide-out door steps, which was basically stuck in the lock position. It would be better if that mechanism was on the rear-facing side of the steps, or the addition of guard to the front of the van which would also protect the support legs.

Upon raising the roof, I was amazed that no dust had accumulated on the outer section of the Canvas & Boltiflex softsides of the van. Very impressed!

With the Penguin properly setup in dry conditions, it certainly was an impressive unit and while it lacks the two fold-out bed configuration of its bigger siblings, the Swan and Eagle, the Penguin is the perfect for couples of any ages – even with a small child. The ease of setup and the Outback option makes this a very capable and affordable Outback touring solution.

Jayco Penguin Details

  • MANUFACTURER: Jayco
  • MODEL: Penguin (Outback)
  • TRAVEL LENGTH: 5365mm
  • TRAVEL HEIGHT: 1910mm
  • INTERNAL HEIGHT: 2070mm
  • INTERNAL LENGTH: 4340mm
  • WIDTH: 2240mm
  • BERTH: 2 ½
  • TARE: 1185kg
  • TOW BALL WEIGHT: 130kg
  • WARRANTEE: 12 months
  • PRICE: $26,374 Driveaway (As at August 2017)

The Verdict

+ Fit, Finish, functionality

+ Dust & Weather Sealing

+ Towability & Outback additions

- Front Mud Protection

- Door lift configuration

= Brilliant small camper trailer ideal for singles/couples

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