Australia travel by 4x4

Who hasn’t dreamed of doing the hot-lap of Oz? Here’s why you should throw the book of ‘why not to’ excuses out the window.

The sun was slowly setting, and the rock walls of majestic Windjana Gorge in the Kimberley were ablaze with the most amazing colours. Soon, the sky was filled with numberless stars and, with our three children fast asleep, we simply sat in front of our camper trailer absorbing the beauty and ruggedness of this remote destination in far north-west Australia.

It is hard to believe that two years earlier, Chris and I had hit such a low point. Working in Townsville as a carpenter was a drag, life was routine and we weren’t spending enough time together as a family. So, we planned a four-week holiday in far-north Queensland just to get away from it all and to re-evaluate our lifestyle. Up at Cape Kimberley [on the Daintree coast] we chatted with a couple who had a four-year-old girl and a six-month-old baby. They had been travelling around Australia for almost four years; both were nurses and could get work anywhere around the country. They’d had the baby on the road as well – it just meant they stayed in one place longer.

It didn’t take long to make up our minds. We had always dreamt of travelling around Oz, but we figured we’d need to save tons of money before we could go. Now we started planning for a two-year working holiday around Australia. Suddenly, we were filled with hope and excitement; life was going to be an adventure! We figured we would need a year to get the right gear together and to save enough money to keep us going for at least four months before we had to find work.

First things first: We had to buy a camper trailer. We already had a suitable 4X4 (Toyota HiLux Surf) with aftermarket suspension, long-range fuel tank (195 litres), snorkel, bullbar, cargo barrier and a roof rack. Some people warned us against taking a Japanese import around the country, but we never had any trouble getting spare parts for the car or finding a mechanic who could fix it. With a 2.4-litre diesel engine, we had to make sure we didn’t buy a camper that was going to be too heavy for the car. Fortunately, Chris and I believe in keeping things simple, so all we wanted was a basic off-road camper trailer without too many extras. Our reasoning was that having less gadgets would mean fewer things to break. And a big reason for taking this two-year trip was for simplicity, so we could enjoy life without getting distracted by too much stuff.

An off-road camper trailer was the obvious choice. We wanted to visit remote places and needed decent living space, as we would be travelling with our two-and-a-half year-old son, Shannon, and 15-month-old daughter, Chantelle. Within a month of coming back from our holiday we looked at a second-hand off-road trailer and bought it for $7500. With a 2.7m tent and annexe, it was spacious enough for two adults and two kids. The two-burner stove with grill and kitchen box were basic, but would suffice. Chris then made an extension to the kitchen bench so we would have plenty of room to prepare meals. We also bolted a heavy-duty toolbox to the drawbar; this would be the storage spot for our generator, pegs, guy ropes and, of course, tools. We had electric brakes installed because safety comes first with kids in the back.

The fridge was our biggest challenge. Initially, we trialled a heavy-duty icebox during a trip to Cape York, but soon got jack of cleaning the thing and, really, by the time you added your ice, there wasn’t much space for food and drinks. We started shopping around for a car fridge, but were horrified by the prices, and the fact that they had to run on power pretty much all the time. Bush camping is our preference, but you can’t run a generator in a lot of places (especially SA and WA), so we opted for a three-way Primus fridge which we could run on gas while in the bush. The thing isn’t big (35 litres), but it can stock a one-week supply of vacuum-sealed meat, two litres of long-life milk, vegies for seven meals and a one-litre carton of juice. Simple, but sufficient, and the best thing is that you never have to worry about recharging batteries. During road trips the fridge goes in the trailer and we connect it to the second car battery with an Anderson plug. We used the fridge for two and a half years and it never missed a beat. The best part was the price: it only cost us $299!

The sleeping arrangement was our next challenge. A camp mattress or airbed might be okay for a long weekend away, but for a two-year odyssey we decided that we wanted as much comfort as possible. We ended up putting our own mattress on the camper trailer and Chris built timber double bunks for the kids that could come apart to be packed on top of our bed. This meant the kids could sleep on their own mattress as well. Just when we thought that we had the vehicle and the rig sorted, something unexpected happened…

With only six months to go until our proposed departure date we had the biggest surprise of our lives: we found out we were pregnant with our third baby! Of course we were very happy because we had both said that we would love to have a third child. However, we weren’t too sure about the timing. After adjusting our expectations we decided to still go on the trip, five months later than originally planned. Now, it’s amazing how much stuff you have to bring for such a little person, but Chris being the world’s best packing expert figured out a way to accommodate the double pram, baby carrier, porta-cot with foam mattress and all the other things that come with a baby.

The only other issue was the fact that the lease on our rented house finished six months before we were planning to leave. This problem was easily fixed; we packed all our furniture into a shipping container (which we bought) and lived in our camper trailer until we were ready to head off on our big adventure. Friends of ours generously offered to let us camp at their property outside Townsville for as long as we needed to. In September 2008 little Hannah Jane was born (in hospital, not in the camper trailer!) and 10 weeks later we spent our last night in Townsville.

I cannot describe to you the sense of elation and excitement when we finally set out to explore this amazing country with our newly expanded family. It felt like we had been given a new lease on life. There were places to see, people to meet and memories to make. It felt incredibly good to be on the road and living out our dream; there is nothing like it.

Initially, we didn’t have any travel plans and we would look for a place to stay when we rocked up to a town or national park. This approach soon lost its appeal because you get sick of driving around to find somewhere to pitch the tent with three kids whining in the back. So we started planning ahead with the help of the Camps 4 book, as well as the RACQ Tourist Park Guide and, of course, the laptop computer with wireless broadband to surf the internet.

After our first four weeks of travel, Chris and I realised that we were exhausted from setting up and packing up every three days or so. The days we stayed put, we still sat in the 4X4 doing a day trip of some sort. Life was anything but relaxing, and it was time to put the brakes on. Our minimum stay in most places was going to be five days and we would limit our day trips to just one or two during each stay (or none if we felt like doing absolutely nothing). We decided that we would drive for no more than two or three hours to get to a different camping spot and we would have the destination picked out before taking off. It worked! Chris and I started to feel more relaxed and the kids were a lot happier, too, because they actually had time to play and muck around in the bush. During our two years on the road we spoke to many other couples and families who found it a challenge to balance sightseeing and relaxing at the campsite. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that seeing more places equals a better trip; the opposite can be true.

Even though we had two years to trip around Oz, we still had to decide exactly where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see. To put it into perspective, we met people who had been travelling for 10 years and still hadn’t seen everything. In fact, the more you see, the more you realise you haven’t seen. Chris and I came up with a list of places we both wanted to see; fortunately we were keen to see the same spots, so we didn’t have too many arguments about trip planning. On the top of our list was the Flinders Ranges, followed by the Kimberley, the WA coast, the Gulf and outback Queensland. We decided that the first year we would go via the Flinders Ranges, through the Red Centre to Darwin, find a job there for a couple of months, and then take the Gibb River Road to Broome and down the west coast to Perth. The only deadline we had was to be back in country Victoria to spend Christmas with the family. The second year we could travel to Tassie, the Gulf and explore outback Queensland and maybe country New South Wales.

The first year went pretty much as planned. I found an admin job at Darwin International Airport for three months and I loved every minute of it. The kids enjoyed staying put for three months, but we were all itching to leave when the weather started to warm up and everybody else around us started packing. It was time for more adventure!

The Gibb River Road in the Kimberley was so amazing that we decided to go back the next year. We also missed out on the Bungle Bungles so that went on our list too. The distances down the west coast of WA were massive, which meant a lot more time on the road, but places like Exmouth and Denham were definitely worth it. Still, we were happy to get as far south as Kalbarri where the distances became shorter and more manageable. By the time we reached Perth we had clocked up 15,000km and the HiLux never missed a beat. The south-west coast of WA is simply awesome and this is one area we would love to return to one day. Crossing the Nullarbor, however, was long and nothing we desire to do again any time soon…

Before we knew it, our first year of travelling had come to an end and we started planning for the second. We worked out an itinerary for the first five months as we knew exactly where we wanted to go. Tassie was fantastic; we had beautiful weather and we bush-camped for five weeks, apart from a couple of nights in a Hobart caravan park.

Back on the mainland, I couldn’t wait to go back to Wilpena Pound, in the Flinders Ranges; this is one place you have to experience for yourself. The previous year we’d run out of time to see Arkaroola. You must see Arkaroola at least once in your lifetime; its ruggedness and remoteness make for a memorable camping trip. We drove the Oodnadatta Track and made a detour to the Painted Desert, a place for glorious sunrises and sunsets.

Next, it was up the Red Centre for the second time, with a stop at the Devil’s Marbles and back to Kununurra in WA to prepare for another Gibb River Road journey. Chris and I had both been looking forward to camping in the Bungle Bungles, and we were not disappointed. Our second Gibb River Road adventure was even better than the first because we knew what to expect. Our adventure in the Gulf almost came to a premature end due to a broken alternator which got fixed in the middle of nowhere at a tiny town called Borroloola in the Northern Territory. We travelled for many kays without seeing another car or human being and we loved every minute of it. After the isolation of the Gulf we experienced the tropical Atherton Tablelands. Camping in the rainforest was a new experience and our canvas tent didn’t like the damp conditions. In the town of Charters Towers we learnt about gold, greed and ghosts.

The last leg of our trip took us through outback Queensland, via Winton, Longreach, Ilfracombe and Barcaldine, where we listened to stories about Aussie pioneers and learnt the history of that great poem, Waltzing Matilda. We were flooded out in Carnarvon Gorge and became stuck as the floodwaters rose.

Our last stop was Charleville in Queensland, where we dried out from our experience in Carnarvon Gorge and prepared to return to country Victoria to live in the house we had purchased during our second year of travel. At the end of two years, we had travelled 55,000km and stayed in 120 different campsites.

Would I do it again? Yes. Our trip was the best experience of our lives so far. Life was simple, the kids were happy (they still are!), we enjoyed every single day and the memories will last a lifetime. Don’t wait for the right moment to live out your own dream of hooking up the camper trailer or caravan and travelling around Oz. Someone once said that more people regret the things they didn’t do than the things they did. Just make sure you are not one of them.

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