How reliable are maps and GPS?

By: David Cook, Photography by: David Cook


There goes David, by the grace of the mapmaker's will.

How reliable are maps and GPS?
What would your GPS tell you to do here, I wonder?

Just hang on a sec, will you, while I… get this… darn map… folded just here… so I can work out where I am.

There, I’ve got it.

You know, maps can be a vital part of camping but by the living Harry they can be a bloody nuisance.

I know, I know; where would we be without them? Probably lost, I agree, but you’d think they could be a little more convenient.

And the digital age hasn’t made it any easier. Where once we wrestled with vast sheets of brightly coloured paper with little lines and numbers all over them, now we peer straining at a little screen divorced from its surroundings (and often reality) with some prim voice telling us to "turn right in 800m". As if she’d know her way around Tibooburra! Maps suck us into believing they know what they’re about with their numbers, curly lines and magnetic and true norths and so on. I trust my doctor because he’s there with his stethoscope and if he gets it wrong then I’m back for a claim, face-to-face, or more if a coroner’s involved.

But do I trust a mapmaker in some distant office? I dunno whether I do. There’s been many times when I’ve had a map in front of me and became hopelessly lost. My wife (a map rotator) cites user error.

I’m adamant though; those digital boxes with digitally rotating maps and their implying know-it-all voices can lead you astray, even with all of their black magic smarts that plot. courses from one side of the nation to the other. And there are times when they just take you via the most circuitous route imaginable.

We were travelling the central west NSW from one town to the next, 80km away to stop and camp for the night. Our map showed us two possible routes, so we punched in the destination calling on dark forces to help us decide on the best course. In its wisdom, it chose neither, shunning perfectly good sealed roads for a ‘route’ that, at one stage, consisted of little more than two wheel ruts in the grass.

Many of the tracks didn’t appear on our paper map, only the faded letterboxes on the occasional gate posts suggested an intention for public use. I half expected to find a postie next to a burnt out van feasting on a pigeon in surrender to the wild. However, credit where credit’s due, the box of tricks got us there and it was an adventure (of sorts) that filled in a few gaps on our travel map in spite of the intervening anxiety.

I suspect some navigators depend upon your ignorance so they can get away with any old ramble, as long as you ultimately get where you want to go. In fact, I could imagine a weekend newspaper expose on seedy underworld mapmaker figures caught impregnating devices with improbable routes.

My good wife doesn’t trust them. When crossing from one side of, say, Melbourne to the other (where, at times, we’ve sought north via where moss grows trees) she’ll say, atlas in hand, things like, "Don’t listen to that thing. Look up there at that signpost. It says go straight ahead to Lilydale, so don’t turn right."

What bothers me is that she is usually right, and I have no idea where that box of nonsense is directing me. Maybe there’s a mysterious route circling all big cities where lost drivers wander, peering perplexed through the windscreen and falling prey to fuel stations and take-away food outlets in the suburban industrial fringe. Perhaps my wife’s cynicism has saved me from having the buzzards pick at my bones.

Out in the countryside is a different matter. There are fewer roads and intersections and you can almost get away without a map by following the signposts to the next big town. However, once you hit a featureless landscape and your paper map shows less than 10 per cent of the roadways, a navigator can play merry hell. If you left the last major town 40km out from the Giant Cardboard Box three hours ago, and you’ve seen nothing but tree patches, a few mindless sheep and six or so suspiciously similar silos – then you know its playing havoc.

And paper maps aren’t any better. Back in the day, we picked up one of those free state-wide maps (remember those?) from a petrol station south of the Queensland border on our way home to Sydney. Bored with endless bush, we thought a side trip off the highway towards the coast would give us a chance to enjoy an ocean view.

A quick consultation with our ‘Golden Fleece’ revealed an alternative to the Pacific Highway via a left turn at Kempsey, out towards Crescent Head and south to Port Macquarie. Given the map of NSW was on an A3 sheet, we expected the route consisted of major roads.

Alarm bells rang as we hit south towards Port Macquarie, when a hand-painted sign nailed to the last telephone pole before the dirt read: "This road may be closed by sand drifts, recent rain or fallen trees at any time. Drive with care."

I was driving a Honda Accord with my three young children crammed into the back, along with all the impedimenta of a planned two-week holiday. And we were heading home early because it had continuously rained for a week.

The road was a nightmare. I waded through long stretches of grey water to check it didn’t reach the door sills, and we travelled over long grass to divert the large sand dunes, which had indeed drifted across the road. And, yes, we did squeeze through two fallen trees across the narrow and rough road, thanks to prior travellers who’d sawed out the middle.

How this goat track ever made it on to a Golden Fleece map of the whole of NSW has me stumped, unless I accept a cartographer slipped it in under the boss’ nose to catch out unwary families for a quiet Christmas party snicker.

And, yes, we did make it into Port Macquarie, after crossing on the old punt which chugged across the Hastings River, and we have only since returned with our offroad camper and 4WD a little better equipped for the experience.

Put simply, after having mulled over the above experiences, I have concluded that I just don’t trust maps of mapmakers, be they digital or on paper. Now, if I can only get this magnetised needle to float on this bowl of water I’ll be off on my next journey. See you next month.

If I don’t get lost.

Check out the full feature in issue #110 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.