08 Apr WHAT I’VE LEARNT
Tidying up the desktop today I came across this which I wrote after the big round Australia trip for some magazine or other, can’t quite recall now, about the lessons learnt on the road. Figured I ought to share.
THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN FAMILY ROAD TRIP
WHAT I’VE LEARNT
Driving 27,000 km around Australia with a family of four, living in a caravan for eight months, might sound like your idea of heaven or hell, depending on your taste in holidays. For Tim Baker it was a teenage dream realized but an emotional rollercoaster heavy in life lessons.
When I was 15 I read a book called Surfari Highway, part of a wave of low brow surf lit brought out in the wake of the Gidget phenomenon. It told the story of two friends, Jonnie Grant and Rick Miller, driving around Australia, surfing as they went. As a newly surf-obsessed but landlocked teen in the suburbs of Melbourne, I found this cheesy, pulp fiction novel completely intoxicating. I vowed there and then, the moment I finished high school and obtained a driver’s license, I would embark on just such an adventure. After I finished high school, I studied journalism and landed a job on a newspaper. The great surfing road trip never happened. 30 years later, with a wife, two kids and a mortgage, wrestling with mid-life angst, somehow the pilot light of that distant teenage dream flickered back to life. Was it not too late for me to surf my way around the country while I was still able?
Australians have always been enamoured with the idea of “the Big Lap” – but most of us wait until we are retirees, the dreaded “Grey Nomads,” as reward for a lifetime of toil, paying taxes, and raising kids.
I didn’t want to wait until I was old and grey and unable to surf the multitude of mind-boggling waves scattered around our vast coastline. I wanted to do it while I was still young enough to surf at a reasonable level and the kids were young enough to pull out of school for a year without damaging their education.
The result, while often challenging, was probably the greatest surf trip of my lifetime – and I say that as someone who has spent much of his adult life surfing and traveling around the world, writing as I go.
So, what have I learnt? Well, I’d better have acquired some valuable wisdom out of all this, because after eight months and 27,000 km on the road I returned to our regular suburban life very nearly broke, thoroughly exhausted and ill-prepared for a resumption of normal work and domestic duties. I guess there’s a good reason why most folks wait until retirement to embark on such a venture.
But I was also the fittest I’d been for 10 years, spiritually renewed, inspired and awed by the sheer beauty and diversity of our vast country, comforted by the priceless family bonding and rich life experience my children had gained. What have I learnt from the great Australian family caravanning trip? Realizing your dreams is a two-edged sword.
I am an idealistic fool. I embarked on this adventure with visions of endless carefree days surfing to my heart’s content, as my children built sand castles and splashed in shorebreaks and my wife lazed in a hammock with a good book at one idyllic coastal campground after another. Stop laughing! I know. Sheer madness. The reality was altogether more fraught. Transporting a family around our mighty island nation is a complex business. All the practical stuff of shopping, cooking, washing, paying bills, all still needs to be done, in often trying circumstances. Yet, now it was all a moveable feast, a traveling circus, with family members crammed cheek to jowl 24/7. At times mere survival and sanity seemed the highest goal. Yet, at other times, we were rewarded with a sense of perfect freedom and endless adventure that will keep me warm through the long winter of old age.
Don’t slam caravan doors. In a silly flash of anger after a trifling domestic dispute in Tathra, I stormed out of our van, slamming the door for dramatic effect to register my displeasure. I planned to stomp off like a petulant child until someone came looking for me. Instead, I heard my children howling in distress, trapped in the van with the door wedged shut. I had to turn on my heels, swallow my pride and gently prize the door open with a screw-driver, and spent the next 24 hours apologising profusely.
If your caravan ever starts feeling a bit small during any tense family moments, simply step outside (being sure not to slam the door on your way out). You are usually in some beautiful natural environment with a calming seascape, bush setting or star-filled night sky to soothe your ragged nerves. Even the confines of the typical van park – the burps, farts and disputes of your neighbours clearly audible, old ladies bloomers flapping on the communal clothes-line – can feel restorative at such times.
Board games and cards are your friend. Never under-estimate the family fun to be enjoyed from a simple game of Scrabble or Monopoly or Uno during the inevitable rainy days trapped in a van. A surprisingly convivial atmosphere can be generated in the confined space of a family caravan with a few cups of tea, a pack of Anzac biscuits and a few time-honoured parlour games.
Don’t obsess about the home-schooling. Friends who’d completed similar journeys expressed regret that they spent too much time in their caravan hunched over schoolbooks and advised us to take a more relaxed approach. It seemed a shame to travel vast distances to stunning natural settings and spend your days rehearsing times tables. The kids kept journals, did a few work sheets as we drove, got out the school books a couple of times a week, and it seemed to do them no great harm. Within a term they’d caught up on anything they’d missed out on in their absence. And what they’d learnt can’t be acquired in any classroom.
Carry healthy snacks. Try living on roadhouse fare and you’ll need a liver transplant or heart surgery by the time you get home. My wife always prepared a bowl of carrot and celery sticks and apple pieces for the road. If there was nothing else to eat, the kids would happily eat it.
Share the driving. It’s a big country – having a reliable co-pilot is vital.
Having said that, don’t necessarily share the task of reversing or hitching your van. At this very moment, all over the country, there are dozens of couples arguing over the complex mechanics of manoeuvring their caravan in and out of tight campsites. At the end of a long day on the road it is the ultimate relationship tester and, let’s be honest, most of us fail. I opted to preserve my marriage and undertake these duties solo, even if it meant jumping in and out of the car a dozen times as I monitored my positioning.
Slow down. Don’t always be racing to the next destination. You never know what you might miss along the way. Even the vast emptiness of the Nullarbor Plain has its own magic, if you spend the time to absorb it.
Plan ahead but be prepared to change your plans. There are plenty of destinations where you may need to book a campsite ahead of time, especially in the northern reaches in winter when the Grey Nomads descend on places like Exmouth, Broome, and Kakadu. But remain open to the happy, chance discovery. Good information can always be gained on the road from folks who are travelling in the opposite direction, who have just come from where you are headed.
Get the kids some onboard entertainment. It’s a big country, requiring a lot of driving. We got the kids iPod touches – with audio books, music, movies, the ability to shoot photos and video, though we found too much game time wigged them out. Good old-fashioned fun like spotto, car bingo, and “Who Am I?” also helped wile away the long driving hours.
Buy National Park memberships in each state. Any more than three night’s camping in a national park and you’re already ahead. And you’re contributing to the upkeep of some of our most beautiful wilderness.
Buy a copy of the Camps Australia Wide guide, with comprehensive road maps and listings of every campsite in the country. There are plenty of free campsites if you are on a tight budget (though the Grey Nomads tend to fill them up pretty early in the day).
Get in touch with Indigenous Australia. This country has an ancient history and rich living culture that ought to be celebrated. There are plenty of examples of the tragedy of alcoholism and dysfunctional communities, but encounter Indigenous people who are empowered, in touch with their culture, on their traditional lands, and you’ll pass through a window into a deeper understanding and appreciation of our country.
As a people, we seem to have become incredibly soft in the space of just three or four generations. Everywhere you look in this country, cast back a hundred years or even less and there are stories of the most excruciating suffering, hardship, misery and brutality: the inhuman toil of timber-getters and whalers, workers on Tasmania’s hydro-electric scheme or Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, the wretched fates of shipwreck survivors and convicts, the brave pioneering deeds of early settlers in some of the most remote, harsh country imaginable and the atrocities they sometimes meted out on the Indigenous population. Our current era of relative peace, wealth and abundance is a mere bubble in time that might be well spent not whining about the price of petrol, cigarettes or real estate, patchy mobile reception or the speed of your internet.
16. Lots of people are driving around Australia, and this is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because hopefully more of us will form a lasting connection to our land and thus care more deeply for it and feel more empathy for the First Australians who have cultivated such a connection with it over millennia. Bad, because there are so many of us doing it that we place more pressures on often fragile environments.
Two hundred and thirty thousand caravans and campervans were manufactured in Australia in the past seventeen years, according to the Recreational Vehicles Manufacturing Association of Australia. Annual production hit a new peak of 20,000 in 2010, a figure that has quadrupled in fifteen years.
Still, Australia is a very big country with relatively few people. If there’s one thing we don’t need to fear here it’s too many people or a lack of space.
Don’t hurry back. It will all still be here when you get home and all those incredible experiences will very quickly seem like a dream.
How you do it is less important than actually doing it. We met a family of four riding round Australia on a three-wheeler motorbike, dad driving, and mum and two kids on a bench seat behind him, towing a trailer with all their gear. A family of five, with three young kids, were camping in a tent for six months on the road. One woman we met, a hairdresser by trade, cut hair all around the country, posting little flyers on the doors of the ablutions blocks advertising the service. Camper trailers hold their value remarkably well. Pick up a second hand one for 15 or 20 grand and you’ll probably be able to sell it for the same price at the end. However you manage to pull it off, taking long service leave, renting out your house, working in the mines for a year, doing odd jobs as you go, it will all be worth it. If you commit to the expedition, the details will fall into place.
Tim Baker is the author of SURFARI ($34.95, Random House Australia, 2011)