Many families dream of a round-Australia camping trip. Here’s the story of one Melbourne family that did it, loved it and would recommend it.
By ROSEMARY MULLALY
It all started with Allison Lester’s delightful and enormously popular book chronicling her family’s year long trip around Australia. ‘Are We there Yet’ is the story of Mum, Dad, three kids, a watermelon styled sunhat plus an old fashioned pop-top.
For us, Mum, Dad, Louie, 9 and Declan, 7, our many readings of this 32-page picture book ended 25,278 kms and many thousands of dollars’ worth of diesel later – no longer the suburban family dreaming through Allison Lester’s eyes, but now the kind of people who ‘do that sort of thing’.
On reflection, it is making the choice to actually do the big trip that is the Mt Everest moment. Once you say those magic words: “we’re going around Australia” everything that follows is little more than logistics. You’re going, so get on with it.
That would be all okay to say if we had some pedigree….if in fact we were “über campers”; people who have it in their DNA to reverse a 24-footer into the spot in one go without a single cross word and who cook a perfect leg of lamb with nothing more than a rock, a piece of foil and a few coals.
Let me put that thinking to bed. We’d only begun camping about 18 months before the big adventure (the man of the story having given it up in his early 20s). And I had never even been in a tent at all before that mid-40s milestone.
Admittedly I loved it with a passion from the very first night, but before we headed off in April 2011, I would barely have had 14 nights in the great outdoors and almost all of them with experienced camping families. We also became famous among our friends for never once taking a dry tent home; always having to put it up again in the back yard to ward off the
As for the love of my life, well I am determined to be kind because I want him to keep travelling with me, so perhaps I can put it this way. He doesn’t actually like camping. He doesn’t have a handy bone, in his finely tuned body. He does not care one whit for cars or what makes them work. Unless I took it on, towing, reversing and chocking was pretty much out of the question.
The solution was easy: buy a tent.
We did, and travelled the length and breadth of the nation with one happy commandment: if it doesn’t fit in the car, it doesn’t go. We never regretted the decision not to take a van or trailer; although I know my beloved hankered for the nights and places I would agree to a cabin or other solid accommodation.
Our tent was a Coleman Montana 12. With three huge rooms it measures 6.5 metres long and 3 metres wide (when we realised we had a Taj Mahal we learned to call ahead and check sites were big enough). At over 2 metres high (1.8 metres at the low ends), you could comfortably ‘live’ in it. We bent and split poles, bickered and sulked, but it always went up and it always went back in the bag when we moved on… I am delighted to report, never even once was it wet when we needed to pack, even after a famous cyclonic day and night in Onslow.
Not only would we need a 4WD, we would need to know what a 4WD actually was and did. We asked around, grilled our 4 Wheel Driving mates, did a little reading, and decided on a 2005 Prado with about 250,000 on the dial. It was one of the best decisions we made. We did a good detailed 4WD course (Oh, that’s how it works!) and I then made friends with the local ARB adding a bull bar, snorkel, cage rack on the roof, some serious shock absorbers, a UHF radio and a second battery with new wiring to run the 40 litre Engel fridge we’d bought (one of the other best decisions we made).
We also invested in some safety and recovery gear that thankfully went unused, including an Accusat personal EPIRB that sat in the glove box and sold on eBay after the trip for not much less than we paid for it new.
So where did all this gear take us?
Months before we left, a big laminated map of Australia went up on the dining room wall and with the help of some maps, guidebooks, the internet and our imaginations, it was gradually peppered with bright little labels on places we hoped to see. Being Melbourne people, a breakthrough moment was figuring out not to head west and risk getting too caught up in
South Australia. It is close enough to ‘do’ in smaller trips and this trip was not to be small. Similarly, we decided to ignore the east coast; Victorians spend half our lives doing Sydney, Byron and Surfers and there’d be time for that.
We wanted distance quickly, so set ourselves the task of reaching one of our favourite towns in Australia, Port Douglas, for Easter which was two weeks away. Seymour, Wagga Wagga, Dubbo, we were on our way. Charleville, Longreach and beautiful long days of driving gave me my first inkling of what would be my favourite memory of the trip.
It was the Australian landscape. Just the thought of it even now makes me feel like a bigger, better person. It never once disappointed and often made me gasp as we would crest a hill and some new horizon appeared.
Vast and indescribably beautiful are the long, long days and hundreds and thousands of kilometres of outback NSW and Queensland’s grass and scrublands; the brash rich sandy reds of the Kimberley; the corals and colourful fish of Ningaloo (Australia’s best kept secret); the burning beauty of the Northern Territories pandanus country; and the perfect pink and pale green pastels stretching across the Pilbara – quite possibly the most beautiful landscape on earth made even more so as its wildflower season gets started.
Eagles and hawks were our constant companions and emus, wallabies, dingoes, monitors and ‘roos never failed to turn up and delight.
We were lucky, the nation had had some rain and the land was responding.
Part of our luck was that roads closed through the wet seemed to open again just as we headed their way with the exception of the very top of Cape York (we only made it to Cooktown).
One of the magically open roads was the Plenty Highway (Highway being the technical term for what is a rutted dirt goat track). It took us into Alice Springs. Albeit circuitously. We’d headed from Port Douglas to Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria via Mt Surprise (one of our top five caravan parks) via the Savannah Way. The plan was ludicrous but brilliant: get from there to Alice and then back up toward Darwin without driving the same ‘roads’.
This took us from Karumba (sensational) down to Mt Isa and then onto the Northern Territory Queensland border to a tiny one amenity town called Urandangi where we camped deep in the bush on the banks of the Georgina River. The boys played with the local indigenous kids after school. It doesn’t really get more remote than Urandangi but if you ever get a chance and it’s not in flood, it’s a fantastic experience.
We were also lucky to have the time to go up north, head to the centre, and then up the Stuart Highway to enjoy Litchfield National Park, Darwin and Kakadu before heading for weeks on the west coast.
Doing the calculations
Everyone who makes these trips has to calculate the very personal algorithm that puts together where they want to go, how long they have, what time of year it is, how much they have to spend, and what can and cannot give. Among the maths we learned as we went was: time is not elastic and that means you have to keep moving and planning ahead;
also almost everyone on the road wishes they had roughly twice the amount of time they actually have no matter how little or long their journey.
While the so-called Grey Nomads are probably the best known of the long haul Aussie travellers, there are two other common species out there on the road: the young foreign tourists in their rented Wicked, Apollo and Britz campers, and my type, the families with young kids.
The families can be broken down into two groups, those taking a term off school, and those taking a year or more. While we were closer to the school term crowd, we had decided for the sake of a few additional weeks and adventures not to worry too much about it. We met families like ours the length and breadth and one particular family everywhere.
One question the travelling families get used to hearing is about school on the road.
My answer was they were in school every day; they just had to look out the car window for a lesson.
There was also plenty of maths in measuring the magnificent miles, and no-one ever asked:
“Are we there yet?” But I often ask now: “When can we go again?”