A caravan adventure

Plagued with doubts, first-time caravanner David Reyne buckles up and hits the highway.

We've all encountered a caravanner. They're usually at the head of a long line of crawling traffic, their cars burdened with a mass of extra mirrors that extend precariously into the adjoining lanes.

Sometimes you see them sitting on the side of the road surveying the splintered wreckage of their home-away-from-home that has become unruly at speed, uncoupled itself from the family sedan and come to rest in a thousand tiny pieces, 500 metres inside a cow paddock.

Why, then, has a recent survey commissioned by caravan manufacturer Jayco found seven out of 10 Australians believe caravanning is cool?

I pursue the phenomenon at their factory, where I expect to find a couple of blokes in a shed, welding aluminium walls to a trailer. The address, 1 Jayco Drive, should have given it away. The joint is massive. They're producing one caravan every 12 minutes. They've got a workforce of 850. There's a boom going on.

There are vans of every type and size. Some expand. Some pop up. Some even have rooms for jet skis. All have a bold dash of colour streaked along the side. But cool? I'm given a caravan called a Discovery and encouraged to discover the cool for myself.

The EastLink is mercifully quiet and the vanning is easy. We exit on to the Monash and it's like a posting to the frontline. Semitrailers bear down. The one in front has a sign that says its speed is limited to 100km/h. It's not. It's doing 110km/h and those flanking me to the left and right are racing it. I'm locked in, the van is dwarfed and I'm sweating bullets. There's nothing cool about it.

We arrive at Nagambie Lakes Leisure Park, where a row of cabins lines the swollen Goulburn River. A lake laps gently at brilliant green lawns. There's a swimming pool, activities centre, something called a bouncing pillow and a cafe. I've visited caravan parks before. They make me nervous. This one, though, is flash.

I give myself room and back up. A twitch of the steering wheel and the Discovery swings out. I overcompensate and almost jackknife it. I bring it to rest on an angle and, short of letting down a tyre, wonder how to get it level. I raise the jockey wheel, drop some arms beneath each corner and in less than 60 seconds it's horizontal.

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I climb in and pop the lid. There's a wraparound couch, a table, sink, stove, microwave, fridge and airconditioning. The queen-size bed is draped in a bedspread the colour of aged champagne and, joy and rapture, there's a toilet and shower. It's an apartment. On wheels.

Nagambie begs to be explored. The Goulburn River coils through flat plains. Dirt roads lead to occasional mansions hidden among river gums. A soaring angular edifice pierces the sky above a field of balding grapevines and looks as if it's the control tower of some suspicious Asian airfield. It is magnificent, in a daggy '70s way, and amusingly confusing as to why Mitchelton Winery built it in the first place.

The creaking historic grace of the adjacent Tahbilk estate is a contrast. Majestic plane trees rim a courtyard bordered by the winery and cellar. Inside, immense beams and posts of red gum and ironbark bow beneath the weight of time. To one end, huge vats of Polish oak, first installed in 1862, stand bulging and stained, the legacy of almost 150 years of cabernet and shiraz in their bellies. I'm inspired to put some in mine.

A fitful slumber follows. Perhaps the Discovery isn't quite level. Perhaps it is the shiraz.

Pink shafts of sunlight split the low morning cloud. Cockatoos screech. Flocks of fowl skitter across the lake. I shower in fabulously private comfort. Bacon and eggs spit and sizzle, the toaster coughs up a browned slice and a fan extracts the exuberant steam of the jug. I don't have to line up for the Nutri-Grain at a hotel restaurant, I'm not beholden to a check-out time and I'm not required to join the queue at reception to pay an exorbitant bill. Caravanning's benefits are adding up.

I swing wide at the intersection and head south on the Goulburn Valley Highway. To my left, the Goulburn River slinks lazily through waterlogged fields, occasionally disappearing into bends in the valley. Every now and then a pocket of forest shades its glistening progress. At Yea, I follow the low range that flanks the Melba Highway to Healesville.

The violent din of a leaf-blower greets us at the boom gates of the Big4 Badger Creek Holiday Park. I find my site wedged between a haphazardly parked van and a substantial tree. A damp lawn drops away to a creek.

The leaf-blower falls silent. A couple lean out from beneath their annexe, eager to judge my skill. If I turn too wide I'll enhance the dazzling artwork on the side of their van with a precise, jagged groove. If I'm a little tight, I'll demolish the tree. If I need to adjust, I'll send the lot into the creek. I swing hard, close my eyes and remember the simplicity of hotel check-in.

Hilda Inglese greets us at the door of her Al Dente Cooking class in the Yarra Valley with the kind of smile that makes you wonder if she's married. She's an impeccably groomed and fastidiously neat woman. So is her kitchen. Ample bench space is punctuated by shining bowls and orderly rows of vegetables. I've hardly got the knot tied on my apron and she's got me trimming capsicum to the exact length required for her nonna's recipe of herbed chicken.

Three hours later, having trimmed fat from fat-free chicken thighs, turned egg and flour into lengths of fettuccine, transformed lemon rind into flecks of flavour for baked ricotta cake and drooled at every turn, I've eaten the lot.

I can hardly wrap the seatbelt around my groaning stomach for the drive back to the van. There are more caravans at the park now and although it's chilly, the vanners are out in force. They're barbecuing, they're sharing wine from a cask and they're draping washing over anything vaguely horizontal.

Fearing I'll be offered a chop and a glass of fruity lexia, I retreat to the Discovery's queen-size bed to sleep off the effects of an enormous lunch.

It's 5am and I'm unplugging the van's power, turning off the water and coiling the pipe. It splashes my shoes. The pop top's down, the jockey wheel's up and I'm slinking from the site without any interruption to the cask-induced snoring from the van next door.

The trouble with hot-air ballooning is the early start - and wind. Get the direction wrong and there's every chance you'll find yourself dangling from a pine forest limb in a wicker basket. Having met Brian Garth from Global Ballooning at Rochford Winery, we're on our way to Wonga Park cricket ground for takeoff.

There's no breeze. We lift gently from silly midoff and before we've scaled the tree tops, Garth is singing, "Do you want to fly in my beautiful balloon?" If our lives weren't in his hands, he'd probably be lynched. We drift above Wonga Park's McMansions. Dogs howl. Steam rises from swimming pools. Kangaroos are boxing in the paddocks next to the Heritage golf course.

Garth almost touches it down on a short par three before cranking up the flame and sending us floating above the vines of the Yarra Valley. Cotton-like mist snuggles into the creases of surrounding hills. A dazzling shaft of sunlight illuminates the distant city skyline.

Breakfast follows at Rochford Winery. The vines are shedding golden leaves. The Discovery is parked among them, glistening beneath a sprinkling of dew. It's followed me across a glorious wedge of Victoria offering me comfort and convenience at every step.

I'm told seven out of 10 Australians believe caravanning is cool. Make me number eight.

David Reyne travelled courtesy of Jayco.

FAST FACTS

Nagambie is a 90-minute drive north of Melbourne via the Hume and Goulburn Valley highways.

Nagambie Lakes Leisure Park has powered sites from $30. See nagambielakespark.com.au.

Mitchelton Winery is open seven days 10am-5pm. See mitchelton.com.au.

Tahbilk Winery is open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm and weekends and public holidays 10am-4.30pm. See tahbilk.com.au.

Big4 Badger Creek Holiday Park has sites from $33. See badgercreekholidays.com.au.

Al Dente Cooking Classes are at The Oaks Winery and start from $148 a person. See aldentecooking.com.au.

Global Ballooning has flights over the Yarra Valley from $200 a person. See globalballooning.com.au.

Rochford Winery is open seven days 9am-5pm. See rochfordwines.com.

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