Meet the cabin crew

You need to pitch a tent for a genuine family camping holiday, don't you? Not quite, writes Jacqui Taffel.

My husband is not a happy camper. Last time we put up a tent together - well, I put up a tent for us to sleep in - was in 1998, on a trip to Uluru.

"Where are the pillows?" he asked. I still remember his appalled face when I scoffed at the idea, and told him to stuff some clothes into his sleeping bag cover. We have not camped together since. "Why would I sleep in a tent when I can stay at a hotel?" he asks. Any answers I could offer would fall on deaf ears. I don't like hotels much, so we found a compromise and have had many fine holidays in rented beach houses.

Now things have changed and there's an unbeatable answer to the "why would I sleep in a tent" question: "Because we have a five-year-old, and he wants to go camping." And he wants to go camping with his parents, not just his mum.

So I devise a plan: let's start with the easiest kind of camping. We will do a leisurely road trip to Brisbane to visit friends and stay at holiday parks (what camping grounds are called these days) along the way. If the weather looks at all dodgy, we will book into a cabin. There will be no camp stove cooking, we will dine at local RSLs or bowlos. And there will be pillows. The aim is to use the tent at least once or twice along the way.

This is an experiment. If it works, we may do more family camping trips. If it doesn't, Oscar and I will go with friends while dad stays home and watches Scandinavian crime dramas.

I borrow all the camping gear from family and friends - tent, sleeping bags, sleeping-bag liners, sleeping mats, fold-up chairs, head torches and a small Trangia cooker, run on metho, just for making cups of tea. All this fills the whole boot of our Corolla hatchback. Lucky we only have one child, as the rest of the load - food, clothes, toys - is squashed in next to him.

I have an itinerary: four nights to get to Brisbane, two nights there, and two nights to drive back to Sydney. I don't book anything, as we don't know if we'll be camping or cabin-ing, but it's the end of May, outside school holidays, I've checked availability online; it should be easy finding a place at the last minute. I have researched cabin options at each of our stops and have booking phone numbers. This might seem over-organised, but I want this trip to work. Before we leave, I ask the tent-phobe (an actor and director by profession) for just one thing: if we do camp, at least pretend you're having a good time. For your son's sake.

The weather has been lovely for weeks. The morning we leave, it's raining. Dad tries not to look pleased but fails. It stops for a while but starts again around Newcastle. Time to phone the first place on my list to book a cabin. Bizarrely, on a rainy Monday, Seal Rocks Holiday Park claims to be full. I get an earful from dad - why didn't I book it earlier? We'll never find anywhere to stay now, etc ...

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Googling frantically on my phone, I make a quick recovery. The very nice man who answers at the Pacific Palms Caravan Park says we have the pick of the place tonight. The deluxe cabin is lovely and cosy, with separate bedrooms for us and Oscar, a fancy en suite bathroom, comfortable living area, well-stocked kitchen and plenty of blankets. Oscar is excited about sleeping in the top bunk, and I get one of the sleeping bags out for him.

We have an excellent meal at the nearby Pacific Palms Recreation Club, fish and chips for father and son and a whole baked snapper - caught locally and perfectly cooked - for me. It's cold and dark when we return. I have to admit, I'm glad we're not in a tent.

Next morning, it's pouring. I try to ignore dad's barely contained glee as we pack up. The deluge stops by the time we leave, but the forecast for the rest of the trip to Brisbane is patchy. I had high hopes of pitching the tent at South West Rocks, our next stop, where the beachside camp ground overlooks the bay, next to a picturesque convict jail ruin. But the rain keeps coming, on and off. We take a playground break at Kempsey Tourist Information, where I get a hot tip - try the Trial Bay Eco Tourist Park.

It is, in Oscar's words, "awesome". Our designer cabin has more bunks for him, a queen-size bed for us, en suite bathroom, swish kitchen and a small deck with outdoor table and chairs. There's also a playground, trampoline, mini-golf, a giant jumping pillow, games room, free kids' and adults' DVDs , plus bikes, canoes and kayaks for hire. And kangaroos wandering around. There's also a discount if we stay two nights. Done.

Pre-Oscar, we've had several happy holidays in South West Rocks. We give him a tour of our favourite spots - the beach, the old jail, the lighthouse at Hat Head, the op-shop in town where dad browses second-hand books. Then we pick up some prawns for dinner from the local fishing co-op.

It's raining again as we head towards Byron Bay, last stop before Brisbane. At Ballina Headlands Leisure Park I make a tactical error and take a more expensive cabin. It's like a four-star hotel room - small bottles of toiletries, mohair throw rug on the big leather lounge suite, two flat-screen TVs ... uh-oh, it's glamping territory. I didn't want the reluctant camper to know this kind of thing existed. On the way back to Sydney, we stay in a small cabin at Evans Head that's perfectly clean and comfortable, but he pooh-poohs it. My husband has turned into a cabin snob.

We sleep in a "proper house" for two nights with our friends in Brisbane, where we catch the ferry to South Bank to go on the giant Ferris wheel. "It's a lot bigger than the one at Luna Park," Oscar notes nervously, but as we soar into the sky he spots a huge crane building a skyscraper and all is well.

The day we leave Brisbane, the morning is finally sunny and warm. I'm quietly hopeful we'll crack out the sleeping bags tonight. But five minutes before we're due to hit the road, it starts to rain. Uncanny. We book another cabin.

The last night of our trip is dry but there are gale-force winds. We check in to our final cabin, at Bonny Hills Holiday Park near Port Macquarie. It's not as glam as the posh one at Ballina, but still firmly at the designer end. And we get a free packet of Tim Tams. "You don't get these with a tent site," says the cheery lady as she hands them over with the keys.

Oscar falls in love with a four-wheel pedal bike contraption for hire outside reception. The whole place is right next to the beach. We vow to return when it's warmer.

So, although our camping trip is more like a sham-ping trip - the tent never budges from the car boot - the experiment is a success. Dad is stoked: it rained just enough to be cabin-worthy, but didn't stop us doing anything else (Oscar and I even swam at Byron Bay). Oscar had heaps of fun, slept in lots of bunk beds and played on things he didn't know were invented.

And I learnt some valuable lessons. Don't try to convert an unhappy camper when the weather is cold. It's not fun, even when it's not raining. But staying in cabins at off-peak times is a great idea - cheap compared with a hotel, no crowds, no need to book, but plenty of things to entertain kids.

Finally, we are reminded there's no need to go far from home for a holiday. The coast from Sydney to Brisbane is as beautiful as anywhere, with good coffee and food along the way if you know how to Google for it, loads of wildlife and plenty to look at out the car window. I think we've discovered how to go camping together. Next time, Oscar and I might even put up the tent next to dad's cabin. As long as he shares the Tim Tams.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Take the Pacific Highway from Wahroonga 950 kilometres north to Brisbane.

CAMPING THERE

BIG4 Trial Bay Eco Tourist Resort, 161 Phillip Drive, South West Rocks. (02) 6566 6142, trialbay.com.au.

Silver Sands Holiday Park, Park Street, Evans Head. (02) 6682 4212, northcoastholiday parks.com.au/silversands.

Pacific Palms Caravan Park, 1 Mariana Ave, Elizabeth Beach. (02) 6554 0209, pacificpalmscaravanpark.com.au.

Ballina Headlands Leisure Park, 35 Skennars Head Road, Ballina. (02) 6687 7450, ballinaheadlands.com.au.

BIG4 Bonny Hills on Rainbow Beach, Beach Street, Bonny Hills. (02) 6585 5655, big4bonnyhills.com.au.

Note: These are winter weekday rates outside school holidays we paid for two adults and a child.

MORE INFORMATION

destinationnsw.com.au

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