Home and away

Stunning ... Diamond Head, Crowdy Bay National Park.
Stunning ... Diamond Head, Crowdy Bay National Park. 

On a family road trip Jane E. Fraser finds pleasure in board games, bush walks and a curbside cuppa.

When I was six, my parents took long service leave, packed up a pop-up caravan and took us on a three-month trip up the east coast of Australia.

My sister, who was eight at the time, says she remembers little of the journey from South Australia to Cairns, but for me it was the start of a lifelong love of travel.

Cotton fieldsd glow at sunset in Narrabri.
Cotton fieldsd glow at sunset in Narrabri. Photo: Getty Images

As a kid from a small country town, there were so many things to discover: the variety of shells on tropical Queensland beaches, eating Moreton Bay bugs by the seaside, riding in the back of a Mini Moke around Magnetic Island, the first taste of avocado ... so many indelible impressions.

And here I am 30 years later, camper trailer hitched behind and my own kids, aged six and eight, in the back seat, on an old-fashioned family road trip.

It's been a big trip in some ways but, really, a simple one.

It's a month rather than three but the rest is pretty much the same: a car full of activity books, heads poring over the road atlas and lots of discussions about where we're going and what we've seen.

Family ties ... a camp fire in the outback.
Family ties ... a camp fire in the outback. Photo: Getty Images

We're coming to the end of a 6000-kilometre journey, having travelled in a loop as far north as Noosa, as far south as the Great Ocean Road, as far west as Adelaide and as far east as the lighthouse at Byron Bay.

It's been a big trip in some ways but, really, a simple one.

We've had lots of family walks, joined forces over crosswords, played board games, had singalongs in the car, played cricket and gotten plenty of sand and dirt on the soles of our feet.

An inquisitive emu.
An inquisitive emu. Photo: Alamy

We've spent hours watching dolphins play off the coastline, sat among grazing kangaroos and counted emus on saltbush plains.

We've spent further hours blissfully reading in the sun while the kids have ridden their bikes along dirt tracks and, gleefully, through muddy puddles.

One of the best stops has been Pebbly Beach in the Murramarang National Park, about four hours south of Sydney. It's an old favourite for us, with its grassy banks sloping down to white sand, views to richly coloured headlands and a resident population of kangaroos.

Late in the afternoon we took a bottle of wine and some nibbles down to the beach and just sat and watched the 'roos until the sun went down.

The boys made a flying fox by hanging a forked stick over a sloping tree branch and had a ball rolling down the grassy slopes.

When we returned to the campsite a pretty-faced possum came to spend the evening with us; hanging out quietly in the hope of picking up some unwanted scraps.

Another particularly favourite stop has been Crowdy Bay National Park on the mid-north coast, about five hours north of Sydney.

It was picked at random from the map - I'm willing to admit I'd never even heard of it - and turned out to be a wonderful place to spend a couple of days. We did a five-kilometre bush walk around the headland and had lots of fun poking around in rock pools on the beach.

The boys found some sea plants that sucked their fingers and thought that was first-class entertainment. They were also greatly amused by the metre-long monitor lizard that ambled right through the middle of our campsite, unconcerned by our presence.

There has been a lot of pleasure in our time on the road, too, listening to music and podcasts while watching the landscape change from rich green rainforest to the muted colours of dry bushland, the sudden lushness of irrigated fruit growing areas and the enticing nothingness of largely featureless plains.

We have enjoyed visiting large and small towns along the way but having a "kitchen" hooked on behind has given us the ability to stop wherever we like to make some lunch or boil the kettle.

For me, one of the highlights has been pulling into a random rest stop in western NSW and finding on display a 19th-century steam engine that once belonged to my great-great grandfather, W.T. Smith, who had a large sheep station on the Murray River where he used the engine for pumping water.

I knew there had been a steam engine on the station because I'd heard stories of my grandmother, as a child, being made to climb into it and clean it out, having been unlucky enough to be the smallest member of the family. But I had no idea where it had ended up and would never have seen it if we hadn't been meandering; a genuine case of serendipity.

For the kids, one of the simple pleasures has been eating fruit and nuts fresh from trees in the Riverland region of South Australia. My six-year-old, who cannot normally sit still for five minutes, spent a good hour shelling nuts that we then roasted in a pan in our camp kitchen.

The boys were also surprised to discover that cotton comes from plants, not factories, and stared in amazement when we came across large fields of fluffy white balls in northern NSW.

They picked it from the side of the road and sticky-taped it into their travel journals.

It's been a very educational journey on many levels (and I'm not just saying that because we took the kids out of school). The trip wasn't planned around activities or attractions but we've found lots of great things to do on the way, from spending a day at the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo to visiting the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

We've had a look around the Royal Flying Doctor base in Broken Hill, delved into space and science at "The Dish" in Parkes and learnt about fossils and cave formations at the World Heritage-listed Naracoorte Caves in South Australia.

We've also had a moving reminder of how easy our lives are, in the form of an underground tour of an old mine near Silverton in western NSW.

I never doubted that mining is backbreaking work but hearing about the early miners who worked 12-hour shifts banging away at the rock face with only candles for light and practically nothing to protect their bodies or lungs - only to come out to sleep in a makeshift hut in the searing heat or freezing cold - was humbling.

Anytime the boys complain about something being tough, we can remind them that the miners' kids worked underground from as young as eight, carrying bags of rock weighing up to 60 kilograms each.

Not that we've had much trouble from the kids while we've been away. With so much fresh air and so much to discover, they've kept busy during the day and been asleep within seconds of hitting their pillows at night. I can report with honesty that we have only had a few "are we there yets" for the whole journey.

It has me wondering why we always feel the need to do something "big" with our holidays, when there is so much enjoyment to be had in the simple things.

It also makes me wonder why we always want to go overseas when there's so much to see right here in our own backyard.

I ask the man who knows why we do the things we do, the demographer Bernard Salt, of KPMG. He tells me it is all about our aspirational lifestyle, consumerism and materialism.

"The holidays that we take are a new way of establishing our position in the tribe," Salt says.

"Along with our bigger houses and branded clothing must come bigger holidays as well.

"There is a social cache attached to holidays and going to a beach shack up the coast just doesn't cut it anymore."

Salt believes Australia also continues to suffer from a "cultural colonial cringe", which gives a holiday at Kuta Beach in Bali more cache than a holiday at Coolangatta, although it is arguable which is the better experience. "If you come from a colonial society, then getting out of that colonial society is seen as quite exotic," he says.

"We have a craven desire for exoticism."

I understand the theory, but I no longer feel the need for bragging rights from my holidays.

Maybe it's easy to say from the privileged position of having travelled so much, but I think a simple holiday takes a lot of beating.

 

Other simple ideas

If camping is not your thing, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy a simple holiday. Many national parks have cottages or cabin-style accommodation and there are countless private rental properties to be found on the internet.

For an old-fashioned beach break, there are many small seaside villages up and down the east coast of Australia, or look for just-away-from-the-action holiday spots such as Kingscliff in northern NSW, Greenmount on the Gold Coast or on the Sunshine Coast.

If mountains are more to your fancy, try the Blue Mountains, Snowy Mountains, Tasmania or the Gold or Sunshine Coast hinterland areas. The south-west of Western Australia and south-east of South Australia are also great places for quiet breaks, with beaches, forests, vineyards and small villages.

Further afield, New Zealand offers an appealing mix of quiet towns and natural attractions, including secluded beaches and alpine hideaways.

Pack books, magazines, board games and walking shoes, and leave behind as many gadgets and communication devices as you can bear to part with.

It's not so much about where you go, but how much you surrender to the simple pleasures when you get there.

 

To camp or not to camp ...

One of the greatest benefits of camping is that you have the freedom to stop wherever you like each night — although we always try to make each stop at least two nights so that it doesn't turn into a chore.

The downside of camping (apart from composting toilets and the odd day without a shower!) is that you need to arrive with plenty of time to spare, to avoid having to set up camp in the dark when everyone is tired and hungry. We can have our camper trailer, which is complete with a kitchen, lights and running water, set up in about 15 minutes, but with tents it can take at least an hour.

The upside of camping is that you can stay in incredibly beautiful places where there are very few people, especially during the week or outside school holidays. We opted for national parks and state forests wherever possible and spent many nights laying in bed listening to waves and many mornings being woken by birds. I would normally give anything for a sleep-in but on this trip opted for sleeping with all the window flaps open so that I could watch the sunrise from the comfort of my bed.

As an added bonus, camping is cheap, with most national parks charging just $30 a night for a family of four.

 

Top 10 tips for driving holidays with kids

1 Resist the temptation to introduce DVD players in the car — it is hard to undo and doesn't teach kids to be good travellers.

2 Get a large plastic tub and create an activity centre with pencils, paper, stickers, activity books and novels.

3 Encourage kids to keep a journal about their trip, with pictures or words about their favourite things.

4 Print a simple map off the internet so kids can plot their journey and learn a bit about the geography along the way.

5 Leave an hour earlier each day than you think you need to — it's amazing how often you get sidetracked or need extra stops.

6 Take bikes, scooters, a frisbee or whatever you can fit in the car to help kids burn off energy.

7 Invest in a GPS — you don't need the stress of being lost with kids on board. (You can download fun voices. We found great amusement in Homer Simpson's directions.)

8 Public libraries have great selections of audio books, which can also be downloaded from the internet. Favourites on our trip included Roald Dahl and The Chronicles of Narnia.

9 Take the opportunity to introduce your kids to different music (bye bye Wiggles) by taking turns to choose songs.

10 If all else fails, bribe them with treats!

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