Family campervan holidays on Australia's east coast

Campervan holidays offer family living in the raw: wondrous moments, grumpiness and laughter are all magnified in the small space. The kids will probably think it's awesome, but parents might want to tackle a motorhome trip in easy-to-manage bites, writes Tracey Spicer.

Claire Dunphy: "I didn't want to get halfway to Yellowstone only for Phil to discover what malevolent hell-spawn we have for children ... whom I love very much." – Modern Family 

The Dunphys discovered what the Griswolds gathered a generation before: family motorhome travel can be tough. 

(They're in Dante's little-known 10th circle of hell, according to some scholars.)

We'd returned from two RV trips through the US with our relationship, and vehicle, intact. But we'd never tried it at home.

So, during the Christmas holidays, we decided to drive from Sydney to Brisbane in an Apollo motorhome.

This is my trip diary, warts 'n' all.

Day 1: Sydney to Hawks Nest

The angels sing as we set sight on the new Euro Star 4 berth – that is, if you consider two kids squealing to be akin to angels. 

They play delightedly with the buttons controlling the double bed, which whirrs down from the ceiling.

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"Stop playing with that, it's not a toy," I retort, until becoming distracted by technology in the form of Bluetooth compatibility, USB ports, and a flat-screen TV. Nice. 

We stash our clothes, food and skateboards in compartments, which are perfect for hiding Christmas presents. (I feel like "Trailer Park Santa!" hubby exclaims, with a "ho ho ho".)

"Now kids, don't cut yourselves on the … s--t!" I scream, slicing my shin on the surfboard fin. (I later discover we're not supposed to take such items in the main cabin. Oops.)

The kids eventually strap themselves into the seats at the dining room table, where they can draw, read and play games – all out of earshot.

(I'm reminded of a trailer for a horror movie: "In a motorhome, no one can hear you scream!")

During the two-and-a-half hour trip, hubby says it's easy to drive with dual mirrors on the sides plus a rear vision camera.

At North Coast Holiday Parks Hawks Nest we're greeted by Tracy, who suggests a glass of wine in the restaurant across the road after we hook up. (Now that's my kinda woman.)

But the kids are tired so, after a simple salad in the compact kitchen, we try to sleep.

Suddenly, the van's a rockin' (like my early years in a purple Sandman) but it's not from a wild night between the sheets.

The kids are trying to murder each other in their shared bed above the driver's cabin.

Thus begins hours of threatening, reasoning and cajoling, until Taj is forced from the bed by his sister, to sleep on the dining room table.

Fortunately, he's none too bothered by the flat face the following morning.

Day 2: Hawks Nest to Urunga

We wake to the sound of waves crashing on the beach, after a surprisingly good sleep.

Excitedly opening the curtains, we see relentless rain has washed away our plans for a game of volleyball, surf and bushwalk.

Nonetheless, we enjoy cranking up Metallica on the iPod, for the drive to Port Macquarie.

Our rest break is at the Billabong Koala & Wildlife Park, with its cute snow leopards, exciting crocodile show and healthy café.

A further two-hour drive takes us to Urunga, a stunning spot near Coffs Harbour. 

This is where the "rivers meet the sea", so I go paddle-boarding at sunset as the kids scream, "Careful of the crocs!"

They play Kings and Queens, building castles in the trees with sticks and seaweed, before body bashing in the surf. 

Forget Crescent Head – we've found our new favourite place. 

The North Coast Holiday Park at Hungry Head is right on the water, a minute's walk from an excellent coffee shop and coastal pub.

"The special's swordfish. We caught it this morning!" the publican beams. 

After dinner, the kids climb the spider's web in the park's playground, before playing endless rounds of euchre.

Instead of using the amenities block, I try the small shower: easy-to-use, warm and comfortable. 

Tonight, I sleep above the driver's cabin with the "kicking monster", Grace. Fortunately, she sleeps like a lamb. 

Taj, on the other hand, thinks hubby is his cuddle toy, grabbing, whacking and nuzzling him all night.

Day 3: Urunga to Brisbane

Breakfast in a motorhome is easy: either cereal at the kitchen table or bacon and eggs on the flip-out barbecue at the side.

As this is our longest stint, we make the foolish decision to stop at Byron Bay – in the middle of the school holidays.

Sure enough, after a 45-minute traffic jam, we park a kilometre from Wategos Beach, walk for half-an-hour carrying the boards, only for the heavens to open. 

I start to sound like someone with Tourette Syndrome, swearing and muttering under my breath. 

Fortunately, the children don't care, bodysurfing in the bucketing rain.

Sheltering under a tree – much like Buddha – I have an epiphany: instead of criticising hubby's driving, perhaps I should have a go myself …?

After several swear words, the boards are loaded into the van, with only one fin chop and a small splash of blood.

I sit behind the wheel, feeling like a tattooed truckie: "Ah, breaker one-nine, this here's the Rubber Duck. You gotta copy on me, Pig Pen, c'mon?"

No one laughs. Mental note: stop referencing movies that are 37 years old.

Seriously, I LOVE driving the motorhome. There's a feeling of power, and safety, being behind the wheel. 

However, because of this, you have to drive really carefully, indicating well in advance and giving other drivers a wide berth.

I arrive at the family home in Brisbane, like the prodigal son (except, female).

"I've made up the spare bed, so you can sleep there tonight," my sister says, sympathetically.

"You can't do that. It's not part of the adventure!" hubby attempts, as I decamp homeward. 

The kids choose to sleep in the motorhome with a couple of their cousins, although it's somewhat of a sauna in the suburbs compared with the sea breezes of our coastal digs.

Days 4, 5, 6 and 7: Brisbane

These days are spent staying with family for the festive season.

Many of my relatives are motorhomers, so I pick their brains about the pros and cons.

They dissuade us from parking illegally, to save money on caravan park costs.

"They're like vultures in Australia," one uncle says. "The fines are expensive."

We hope to be able to plug into the power supply at our reloes' properties, but the motorhome has a different voltage.

So, much of this time is spent sleeping and showering inside the homes of family and friends.

Day 8: Brisbane to Kingscliff

Oddly enough, after four days, I start to miss the motorhome.

There's something comforting about being crammed in there on a family adventure.

And I've become accustomed to the gentle clinking of plates as we bounce along the roadway.

Wisely, we decide not to stop at Byron on the way back; instead we explore Alstonville.

Atop this pretty plateau is a 172-acre macadamia, avocado and tomato farm called Summerland House.

Built by the founder of House with No Steps, it's a working farm providing employment to people with disabilities. 

This turns out to be the highlight of our trip, with a fun tractor tour, water spray park, and fancy high tea. 

Hubby has to fly back to Sydney, so we drop him at Ballina Airport and continue to a holiday park at Kingscliff.

Soon, the kids are making new friends in the pool, while I lounge in a camp chair with a book.

Unfortunately, there's no corkscrew in the kitchen (why did I buy a bottle of wine without a screw top? Why? WHY?), which is probably a good thing because we have a four-and-a-half hour drive the next day. 

Day 9: Kingscliff to Bonny Hills

Believe it or not, the kids aren't getting bored in the back.

They've read dozens of books, played hundreds of games of cards, and run down their electronic devices.

The problem is me. Without hubby to chat to, I'm going spare.

Suddenly, I have another epiphany: why not listen to all the podcasts I've been saving up for the past – ooh – five years …? Bliss. 

The only annoyance is the odd driver who sneaks up on the inside as the overtaking lanes come to an end. (Now that's a death wish.)

Sure enough, in less than five hours we're at North Coast Holiday Parks Bonny Hills, on a headland overlooking sapphire seas.

Despite the questioning looks, I manage to reverse, plug in, and hook up without any damage to person or property.

This is five-star camping, with an amenities block that wouldn't look out of place in The Hilton.

Fellow travellers wave, and their kids holler, adding to the convivial atmosphere.

We decide we want to stay longer at this special place, until we discover it's booked out for five weeks.

Day 10

A short walk around the headland brings us to the main beach, which is flagged.

After catching the gentle waves, we hear the surf lifesavers' loudspeaker crackle something about a "shark".

Our stop on the way back is at one of the sharkiest beaches in NSW:  Stockton.

"Yeah, didn't you see the news last night?" an old fisherman belly laughs, as the kids swim in the shallows. "There are hundreds of juvenile great whites out there!"

We forego the pleasures of the deep, to pick up fresh produce at roadside stalls for one last meal in the motorhome.

It really is a cheap, easy and fun way to travel.

There's only one subject I haven't addressed in this diary: the poo hole.

In my preview column, I wrote that I was going to make the kids empty the toilet cassette. 

However, like everything in these modern motorhomes, it's simple: you slide out the cassette, tip the contents into a waste disposal point, rinse it inside and out, and pop it back in.

(Make sure you empty this before returning the vehicle, or you cop a $150 fine. "That's an exorbitant charge," I say to the guy behind the counter. "Yes, it is," he shrugs.)

Looking back, a motorhome holiday is one of extremes: the best and worst of family interaction can take place in this metal box.  

"Family members who take a motorhome road trip together have a chance to talk, joke, sing along and indulge in a few classic road trip games, creating memories and close bonds," says Apollo chief executive Luke Trouchet.  

For the kids, it was "awesome". For us? Next time, we plan to take more frequent stops, re-configure the bedding to improve sleeping, and be a bit more patient with each other.  

At the end of the Modern Family episode, Phil exults, "It's a dream come true!"

If this is your dream, make sure you take it in small steps, rather than one giant leap.

Tracey Spicer and family travelled courtesy of Apollo Motorhome Holidays and The Legendary Pacific Coast.

Email: tracey.spicer@fairfaxmedia.com.au. Twitter & Instagram: @TraceySpicer

Top Tips

Put your fruit in the crisper of the fridge, or it will end up bruised from being banged around in the pantry. 

Buy fresh produce from roadside stalls, as cafes in coastal towns are crowded during school holidays.

Caravan parks can be expensive during peak season. Our stop at Kingscliff cost $75 for the site, power and water.

If you choose to park illegally, the rangers are more relaxed in New Zealand than Australia.

It's easier to drive, and stay in, a motorhome in the US because the roads are wider, and there are more "'trailer parks".

Trip Notes

More Information

To coincide with the 30th anniversary of Apollo Motorhome Holidays, the company is offering up to 55 per cent off rentals in 2015. Born in a Brisbane backyard, it's now the biggest motorhome company in the world, with branches in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia:  apollocamper.com/holiday

The Legendary Pacific Coast: pacificcoast.com.au 

Staying There

North Coast Holiday Parks: northcoastholidayparks.com.au

See + Do

Billabong Zoo: billabongkoala.com.au

Summerland House Farm: summerlandhousefarm.com.au

See also: The world's greatest road trips, named by the experts

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