Diary of a caravanner: Top tips for a first-timer

For the past five years, we’ve been getting an education in all things caravanning and camping.

I still recall that fateful day when we attended our first caravan and camping show. What an event! A bedazzling, cornucopia of caravans all promising a chance to experience the great Australian dream.

Polaroid-like imagery slowly developed in my mind. There I was, watching Uluru dance with colours at sunset; swatting flies while camping on the banks of the mighty Murray River; and chasing the sun on an epic Australian road trip.

A Newhaven sunset

The mere thought of escaping life’s routines and responsibilities to travel was hypnotically tantalising. And, if we so desired, we could opt for bundles of luxurious extras to ensure we did it in style … enter the glorious wine chiller!

All jokes aside, I totally admit to being wide-eyed (OMG, they have an outdoor heated shower!) and slightly naïve (it’s how much?) when it came to actually finding the right caravan for our family.

Whether it be a basic camper trailer or a pimped-up rig, it’s so easy to overlook the most important things. Such as:

  • Can we actually afford it?
  • How much weight can our car tow?
  • Where the heck will we store this beast?

As you can well imagine, the fancy-pants van was very much beyond our modest budget range. Instead, we acquired a much-loved, retro camper trailer enthusiastically dubbed the Freedom Fighter. Yep, cheap caravans can be a thing.

The Freedom Fighter!

This van and our family have seen many adventures. We’ve covered about 15,000km and we’ve met wonderful travellers on the road, from young families to grey nomads (or silver schoolies).

As you can see, we’ve had a bit of an education when it comes to caravanning capers. So, with that in mind, here are some things we’ve learnt about how to caravan that we thought others might benefit from.

Find the right van for your family

There are so many things to consider when you’re in the market for a van. Budget obviously defines a lot of what you will get but knowing the weight that your car can tow is very important. You don’t want to be in a predicament where you have to upgrade your car, too.

If you are okay with trudging off in the middle of the night to the shared camping amenities, you certainly don’t need the luxury of a toilet and shower. But you should consider whether you’ll need extra beds for guests or an annex to store stuff when it rains.

In fact, there are so many things to consider, but luckily there are loads of resources out there to assist. Yep, there is a whole collective of caravanning and camping folks eager to provide advice.

Joining a caravanning Facebook group online is a good start. Or reading the printed camping mags. And for adventure junkies, TV shows like Patriot Games are enough to wet the whistle. We found YouTube videos really helpful, especially when learning how to set-up our van safely.

Decisions, decisions…

Safety, plus some!

This point is super important. Crossing your chains is a thing! You can get fined if you don’t hook up your van to your car properly.

Also, the distribution of weight needs to be considered when you’re packing everything into your van and hitting the road. The majority of the weight needs to sit over your wheels.

Avoid packing heavy items in the back. You don’t need a swaying van attached to your car. We are pretty pedantic about safety checks before we leave. It’s easy to set up a routine with someone doing a walk around and checking lights are working, ensuring chains are fastened, the van brake is off, water and power caps are closed, etc.

It’s so important to do regular safety checks.

Kit up

The dollars quickly add up when you get a van. You don’t just need insurance and registration; there’s all the stuff required to live in your home on the road.

Essentials like a kettle and toaster, bedding, cutlery, and dinner sets are standard issue. We actually bought new items for our house and moved the second-hand stuff into the van.

We soon realised there was a lot more to kitting out a caravan – and so began an ever-increasing list of items, from water hoses and connections to an outdoor barbecue.

Camping with a mob of kangaroos
I think Skippy liked our outdoor set-up.

Get ready to choose your own adventure

It’s a great idea to have a test run. We did so for three nights on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. This helped us with learning what not to do!

Like, don’t just leave the caravan keys anywhere. Or better still, have an extra set cut. Choose one designated place where you keep them – ours is inside the car door – otherwise you may suffer from having to put the van back up to find them.

This kind of trip is all about baby steps, and you will likely find fellow travellers who are more than happy to help out. The communal vibe is tangible.

We certainly don’t consider ourselves to be experts in any way. But after experiencing an eight-week road trip, and then all of our other shorter family adventures, we’ve reached a point where we feel pretty confident.

In saying that, we all have our Achilles heel! I seem to be cursed with forgetfulness when it comes to remembering to remove the hose connector at holiday parks. Luckily this is a common occurrence – as I’ve learnt – and most parks have a box full of ‘those that were left behind’ accoutrements to borrow.

So, best of luck with your caravanning adventures! Please do say hi if you see us around the traps. Just a heads-up though, we’re upgrading our van. We’ve realised the caravanning life is our kind of life.

This article was commissioned by BIG4 Holiday Parks, December 2018.

Have child, will travel!

The year was 2005 and I had just boarded a National Express bus in Glastonbury, England. I was well into my ‘round the world’ trip and would soon be jetting off to Canada to live and work in the Rocky Mountains. My attention was drawn to a mother and child walking past the bus. I began to speculate on the perils of parenthood, and in the process, began to draw comparisons to this complete stranger’s life and that of my own. Here I was, free to travel the world, not rooted to the routines and responsibilities of motherhood.

Then a curious thing happened. They boarded my bus, smiled politely and took their seats. The child, a girl of around 5 years old, carried a backpack that was covered in a chaotic collection of geographical patches. They were a German, mother-and-daughter-duo just doing a ‘short trip’ around the UK ‘this time’.

That was really a defining moment for me. I was so inspired by the experience that I vowed to never stop travelling because, as I’d just seen, having kids doesn’t mean you can’t travel – it just changes the way you go about it. Staying true to my promise has meant that I’ve had to find creative ways, or work-arounds, to keep exploring this beautiful continent and beyond.

State of Play

Get the lay of your land by exploring your own ’hood’. You don’t need to travel vast distances to have an amazing holiday. We travel around Victoria all the time. This year, we’ve indulged in some Murray River magic at both Moama and Mildura; we’ve camped at Capel Sound on the Mornington Peninsula; we’ve wandered through rainforests around Healesville and waded through the Yarra River in Warburton. For the recent Melbourne Cup break we camped at Wye River, then had a weekend in Bright. We’ve just returned from Christmas with the family at Rye (we parked our caravan in the driveway!) and finally in a few days time, we will be heading to Phillip Island for a few weeks.

Become a membership maverick

Check out the membership discounts you’re already eligible for from your roadside assistance club to union membership perks. If your kids are over 2 years old and don’t qualify for a free flight, sign them up to a frequent flyer program and pool your points people! My son is a member of Qantas’ Joey Club, so all frequent flyer points he earns will conveniently end up in my account. Invest in a holiday parks membership, we joined BIG4 before we left for our 2-month Australian road trip last year and we saved a lot of money, plus we’re still members.

Develop superhuman organisational skills

This one is important. You need to hustle! Get that annual calendar out and block out possible travel dates. Monitor your work leave balances. Take note of your children’s school curriculum days, list all term breaks and highlight those very welcome public holidays. Book things well in advance – it really does help to either get those good camping spots or membership perks like get 3 nights for the price of 2.

Our recent trip to Wye River was only possible because of a school curriculum day smack bang in the middle of a weekend and Melbourne Cup Day. And, that Bright trip I mentioned earlier, well it was a short 2-night trip (in a cabin, so lux!) so we could squeeze that sucker into a weekend – with the small caveat being that all of us are missed 2 hours of school and work, but I don’t really sweat the small stuff.

 

As you can see, our wanderlust does not have to be abandoned or shelved like a dusty old encyclopaedia. Sure, we may not be hitting ‘the road’ Jack Kerouac-style, but we can still have glorious adventures travelling with kids in tow and as willing participants. So, where are you off to next?

Note: This article was commissioned by BIG4 Holiday Parks, November 2018.

The evolution of family travel

Right at this very moment, families are holidaying. They’ve been hiking in the high country at Mt Hotham, cooking damper around a campfire in the Red Centre and swimming with dolphins at Ningaloo Reef.

Not much has changed from when we were kids, right? I mean, we still take the same holidays as we did when we were little. Or do we? Do you ever reminisce about the holidays you took with your family, when you were a child? For me, we rarely left Australia. Our school holidays centred around a little shack, right across the road from Lake Mulwala, New South Wales. It had belonged to my great-grandparents but became the family holiday house, ironically referred to as the ‘Hilton Mulwala’.

Do rein in any sort of grandiose imagery friends, as this was no 5-star holiday. There was limited hot water due to a recalcitrant hot water service. I’ll never forget hearing that loud bang, the cascade of expletives and seeing my dad’s singed eyebrows and eyelashes after a particularly testy relighting of the pilot episode. This place seemed to me an enigma. It oozed a kind of menacing and dusty charm and I absolutely loved it! We all did. We loved the sloping floorboards, uncomfortable bunk beds and the rather lopsided veranda where we could watch the sun dip and strum our guitars to ‘This Ole House’ and ‘Home Amongst the Gumtrees’.

Every summer when school finished for the year it was on! A chaotic cavalcade from the Mornington Peninsula to Mulwala. Packed picnic and thermos for the rest area stops, 5 people squashed into the family Ford Falcon station wagon, packed to the hilt, windows down for air circulation (no air con!) and a constant shower of slobber from our gregarious labrador whose main mission in life seemed to be to feel the wind in his floppy, golden ears.

Canine capers aside, it was almost rite of passage stuff, and for me a test of stealth and endurance because, at any moment, I could receive an elbow in the ribcage for crossing over ‘the line’ – an invisible boundary that separated mine and my big brother’s seat. There was limited entertainment for this 4 hours if-we-were-lucky road trip, apart from games of Eye Spy, holding our breath when we drove past a cemetery and listening to the latest ‘Summer of’ album, on rotation, on my Walkman.

There were also no fancy dinners out, it was a treat to get hot chicken and chips from the local milkbar, iced lemonades to drink in the cool confines of the pub next door’s (how convenient) beer garden and the occasional 20 cent piece to play space invaders.

All sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? These days, digital disruption has certainly changed the way we travel. We by-pass the travel agent and check out destinations and deals online. We read customer reviews of this hotel or that resort or we book an Airbnb. We peruse photos and videos on travel blogs and Instagram. We download the latest location guide apps and book an Uber from our smartphone. We develop a preconceived idea about what the place is going to be like, we organise, we make detailed itineraries.

My son and I recently returned from a trip to the USA. I had neck pillows, noise cancelling headphones, activities for the plane, hand sanitiser, wipes. I checked the seating maps multiple times, the entertainment, the LA airport map, connecting flight info, read articles on how to score an upgrade to business class and even feared a terrorist attack. My desire for control was causing an internal ruckus and I’ve come to the realisation that it doesn’t have to be so complicated! So, from here on in, I will do my best to commit to the Dalai Lama’s philosophy: ‘If you can control it, don’t worry. If you can’t control it, don’t worry.’

Remember that family cooking damper around the campfire in the Red Centre? Soon after, they retreated to their glamping tent. They hit up Netflix, with the free Wi-Fi, cranked up the air-conditioner, posted selfies to a multitude of social media channels, checked the weather forecast online for the next day, and FaceTimed the relative who was looking after the family dog.

The way we ‘holiday’ has certainly evolved, as have our expectations, but what I can never see changing is the desire to travel, and not only that, to travel with our favourite people – our families.

Note: This article was commissioned by BIG4 Holiday Parks – September 2018.

5 experiences for kids that parents will love too!

When I was 6 years old, my parents took my siblings and I to New Zealand. It was my first big trip and I recall feeling very grown up because we were required to write a travel journal.

I remember feeling intimidated by the size of the Qantas ‘jumbo’ jet, excited by the novelty of aeroplane food, and worryingly asthmatic due to the constant haze of cigarette smoke (what were they thinking?). These were my first impressions, felt with so much emotion and pure wonderment.

My New Zealand travel journal, bulging with glued-in postcards and the wonky handwriting of an excitable 6-year-old, detailed travel stories from a snow-capped Mount Cook visit to a fjord boat cruise around the breathtaking Milford Sound. But, in the midst of all these bucket-list worthy adventures, there is one diary entry, one magical memory-making-moment in Queenstown that I wrote about in capital letters: WE PLAYED ELEVATOR TIGGY!

Family holiday in New Zealand 1983
Just a little excited about travel (I’m in the middle).

That defining moment speaks volumes about kids and travel. In all the places that we’ve taken our 9-year-old, both in Australia and overseas, he always surprises me with the things he loves the most. So, keeping that in mind, here are 5 experiences for kids that adults will love too.

Wilsons Promontory National Park

Wilsons Promontory National Park. Well worth the online application, every June, for the summer camping ballot. Surfing, hiking, kayaking, bike riding, wombat spotting, free junior ranger activities, sunrise/sunset beach walks, the activities go on and on. Invest in walkie-talkies so that the kids can take off on their adventures and regale you with tales of their triumphs. Be prepared for constant updates (over and out!) and don’t forget to pack extra batteries. One non-negotiable activity every year is watching a film at the Tidal River Open Air Cinema. Snuggle down in comfy bean bags, don the blankets and have a magical cinematic experience under the Milky Way.

Sailing with kids on Tidal River with Whale Rock in view
Sailing by Whale Rock at Tidal River, Wilsons Prom

Follow the sun on a family road trip

Escape winter and keep thesun company on a family road trip. We’ll never regret doing this last year. Our experience sailing in the Whitsundays was a favourite for all of us. The kids took on the important task of protecting the catamaran from pirates with gusto.

Catamaran capers with the kids
No pirates here

Vivid Sydney

Experience Vivid Sydney, especially the Vivid Taronga Zoo event. Larger than life animal installations are on display in a riot of colours. Take a one-way ride on the cable car and watch the show from above. That was our favourite part, watching Sydney sparkle across the harbour while listening to a cacophony of animal sounds fill the night.

Vivid-at-Taronga-Zoo
Sydney sparkling across the harbour

It’s play time!

A family that plays together stays together. Theme parks such as Movie World and Wet n’ Wild are great fun for everyone. We stayed at the BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park which was located close enough to ride our bikes to these amusement meccas. If you want to go further north, I highly recommend the BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort. This place is kid-heaven and boasts an incredible waterpark. Plus, don’t forget about that oh so pleasing tropical Queensland climate.

DSC02430
Barefoot beach adventures are the best!

The Great Barrier Reef

Take a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. My son still raves about his snorkelling experience with Cruise Whitsundays. During the boat ride, out to the reef pontoon, we watched whales breaching and dolphins diving through the wake. A rainbow of colours were on display as we snorkelled with an abundance of marine life. For those who don’t want to get wet, there is an underwater viewing chamber and semi-submersible ride where you learn all about the largest coral reef system in the world.

Snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef
We loved our Great Barrier Reef snorkelling experience

Note: This article was commissioned by BIG4 Holiday Parks August 2018.