King Of The Road
This morning we checked out of our hotel in Sydney. Checking out of anywhere after a few days is always a major exercise; our stuff gets so scattered about it's amazing that we've only lost a handful of things along the way.
Well, actually, it's not amazing, it's due to the fact that Bec generally packs up rather than me. And so, as usual, I was sent off to entertain the children outside. Now here's a tip. The worst possible game to play in a foreign city whilst you are supposed to be looking after two small children is hide and seek. The first few goes were fine, and Ben was never much of a problem. But Lottie has turned into a hide and seek professional. I was even rehearsing the conversation I thought I might be having with the police. 'So when did you last see your daughter sir?' 'Oh just before I leant against a tree and counted to a hundred'.
Anyway, eventually I did find her, and luckily it was before Bec reappeared. We then made a fleeting visit to the Sydney Art Gallery that Lottie pronounced 'too boring for children'. Ben didn't think so. He thought it was the best place for mischief ever. We narrowly escaped pulling the legs off a marble statuette. Fleetingly I thought if those legs really do come off the best course of action would be to stuff any liberated limbs in my rucksack, calmly exit the building and then run like the wind.
We took a taxi up to Sydney airport and checked in for the flight to Cairns. Bec was stopped by security for trying to smuggle a Swiss army knife on board in her hand luggage. The Swiss lovingly refer to this particular model as 'The Picknicker'. This is surely a euphemism for the knife has the longest blade of the entire series. If this knife had been of any other European provenance it would have been called 'The Hooligan' or 'La Guillotine'. Suffice to say we carry it for slicing apples, but even Bec didn't try explaining that to the man with the AK-47. It was an honest mistake and rather than confiscate it they let us go back and check it in.
We arrived in Cairns three hours later and picked up our campervan. Oh my giddy aunt. What on earth were we thinking? It's not much bigger than Bec's car. Almost three hours of total full-on gongery ensued.
It all seems very simple when they are explaining it all at the depot. And then you're ten minutes down the road and everything's rattling about, you can't see out of the rear view mirror, it's thirty degrees outside and you can't find the air-con.
We made it to a campsite a whole kilometre from the depot. Fortunately they had a plot for us. Unfortunately I had to reverse into it. We are now parked with some wheels on and some wheels off a concrete slab. I'm not sure whether the slab is for parking on or sitting on, so I'm hedging my bets. Suffice to say that my father-in-law, a fifth Dan in the black art of caravan levelling would have fallen on his sword. Sorry Barry.
I then set about trying to open all the doors and hatches on the van to try and hook up with the simple pleasures in life like running water and electricity. Each hatch had been locked with a different key from a bunch of about a thousand I'd been given at the depot.
Meanwhile big bugs, the like of which only live in places where it gets this hot were busy taking chunks out of my flesh. To compound matters it was almost dark. For the first time ever on this trip I began to question the sense of us being out here at all.
We dined on jam sandwiches for dinner and in the absence of running water wiped our fingers on the caravan curtains. Sorry Barbara. We put the children to bed in an entirely unsafe suspended sleeping platform arrangement and I was sent directly to buy beer.
It transpires we have arrived in the real Australia. The off licence was a drive through affair where people pitch up in their trucks, throw a keg in the back, hop out barefoot to pay for their grog and speed off half-cut into the distance.
Imagine their amusement when a Pom turns up on foot asking for just four bottles of beer and some chocolate. 'Yeah you can buy just four bottles mate, but we've no chocolate 'cos that fat bastard's eaten it all' he said, pointing at his colleague.
I think, had I arrived in the car that they would have made me buy an entire keg. I just think they'd worked out that it was unlikely that the pale looking Pom was strong enough to walk home with an eighty-eight pint keg under his arm.
I am hoping that tomorrow we might manage to exceed today's distance and break the thousand-metre barrier. At the current rate it's going to take us three years to get to Brisbane.
Unless we've spontaneously combusted, more tomorrow.
July 02, 2005.
It seems it is only the grown ups that are phased by our transition to trailer park trash. Ben and Lottie love it. Where else can you roll out of bed at twenty past six and be at the playground by 06:21?
And so that's exactly what happened. Better still we were breakfasted and in the pool by eight o'clock. What a busy morning. I remember wondering whether it was the children's bedtime, checking my watch and discovering it was only half past nine. Boy, life in a campervan is full-tilt.
Which brings me neatly to the handling properties of our camper. It's the wobbliest, most unforgiving, unbalanced heap of junk I have ever had the misfortune to drive. In straight lines it's frightening to drive. Point it at a roundabout and you're in the lap of the Gods. The van is essentially a Bedford Rascal with a Portacabin blu-tacked to its roof. The chances of me being stopped for speeding in this baby are remote.
Despite all of this we've driven North today. No, the map wasn't upside down and yes this does mean we've got nineteen hundred kilometres to drive to Brisbane now, but at least we're moving. Albeit in the wrong direction.
We've arrived in a placed called Port Douglas. Quite a pretty resort with a pleasant holiday feel about it. We lunched at a restaurant on the main strip and bumped into one of Bec's old classmates from medical school. We knew that she now lived in Australia, but it turns out she was up here on holiday from Melbourne.
I was sure we'd meet someone we knew unexpectedly along the way. I just didn't know whom. Bec was convinced we would bump into this particular individual. Oh to be married to a witch.
Later we walked through a market to an estuarine beach and were put off by the signs warning of crocodiles. We're only just getting over bears.
And so we found a campsite for the night. We've no water or electric hook up on this site, and so it was just a matter of turning the engine off and putting up four deck chairs. Both activities fall well within my sphere of competence, and so tonight I looked like a professional.
Ben and Lottie are going the whole hog with their traveller lifestyle. They have given up hygiene and I'm sure Ben is trying to grow a goatee. Lottie, meanwhile, is running about in just a summer dress and beads. I'm eager to dissuade them both from running about barefoot and have convinced Lottie that the spiders will get her if she doesn't wear shoes. The difficulty is now getting her to remove her shoes in bed.
Tomorrow we hope to find a beach free of crocs. And spiders.
Oh and bears.
July 03, 2005.
Four Mile Beach
The morning started, unusually with a haircut for Bec. One of the other residents of our trailer park was offering haircuts. All styles ten dollars. To be fair when she came back it didn't look like a four quid haircut. Well, at least not from the front.
We had decided by this stage that Port Douglas was nice enough to warrant a two-night stay. So we left the campervan exactly where it was and walked down to Four Mile Beach.
We did all the usual beach style stuff, built castles, knocked them over, buried the children and ate sand. It was a very windy day but warm enough to go into the sea. Before long we had two fully clothed children in the water. What is it with them? If Ben had been in his trunks to begin with there is no way we'd have even got him even damp.
What was particularly unusual was that we were swimming less than a mile from where the crocodiles live. Just around the corner there was an estuary allegedly full of salties as they are affectionately known. Turns out they don't leave the estuary. Or so we are led to believe.
In the early afternoon we returned to the campervan and put the children down for a sleep. They were sufficiently cranky to warrant it, and they both delivered a full two hours. I might have even had forty winks too.
When they woke we walked back into town, ate ice-cream and found a playground. For a couple of hours we felt ourselves gradually coming round to the campervan way of doing things.
By this stage we had not eaten out for a full thirty-six hours and decided that Tapas would be just the ticket. Imagine Daddy and Lottie's delight when Mummy and Ben were scoffing handfuls of whitebait. I had to keep reminding them both that it's rude to talk with fishtails hanging out of one's mouth.
During dinner it started to rain. It's not supposed to rain up here at all, so we felt a bit cheated. Particularly after our experience in Sydney last week.
Campervans aren't much fun in the wet. Although it's almost watertight, the place is so small it soon mists up and the place begins to feel and smell a whole lot nastier than it really is.
So nasty, in fact, that we couldn't find the wherewithal to open the bottle of wine we had bought earlier in the day. Unheard of.
Anyway, we're currently feeling that this part of the trip is harder than we'd bargained for, not least because of the constraints of the campervan.
Icecream, beaches, tapas. Hard work? I can hear your hearts bleeding from here.
July 04, 2005.
Things That Go Bump In The Night
Thud. Then a half-second pause. Then a loud and miserable wail. We both knew exactly what had happened. The little guy had fallen out of his bunk. It wasn't far, but when you're only one, making your first night jump and forgetting to pack your 'chute is a painful business.
It was about half-past three and by this stage all of us were wide awake. All of us miserable, most of all Ben. To his absolute credit he didn't wail much and was the first back to sleep. He does however, have a spectacular bruise on his forehead.
Bec and I spent most of the rest of the night re-considering the appropriateness of a campervan for this leg of the journey. It wasn't supposed to be like this. The travel guides suggested we'd surf all day, drink cocktails in the sunset and the kids would take themselves off to bed not long after they'd finished cooking and washing up.
Campervans stink. At least this one does.
By the time it was light it was still raining. In fact it was persisting down. We stuffed everything loosely in the van and trundled off clanking our possessions behind us.
Less than ten kilometres down the road Lottie told us that she had tummy ache. A few moments later she was feeling sick, and in the time we could say 'There's a jug to your left if you need to use it' she was holding her breakfast in front of her. And bless her, not a drop spilled.
Not to worry Lottie, not much further I lied. Just another one thousand eight hundred kilometres in the rattling slow stinky barf bus I thought as I strapped her into the front seat next to me. Worse still, I'd just swapped my navigator, a member of the Royal College of Physicians, for a four year old.
Nevertheless, we had decided that a good wet weather option would be the local crocodile farm. And we were right. It was a great venue and we all loved it. The big attraction was the bump on Ben's head, 'Hey how d'you get a bump like that little guy?', oh and the crocodiles.
They make no bones about why they are farming crocs, it's for the meat and the skin. I'm sure my mother would have been busy liberating these grotesque creatures from their enclosures had she been there, but from a practical perspective is it really any different from farming cattle? And she's just gonna love the handbag I bought her in the gift shop.
We dined on croc burgers for lunch. And do you know what? It tastes just like chicken.
Later we climbed aboard the stinky barf bus and drove a short distance further south to Ellis Beach. We parked at a campsite that is just metres from the sand and started to unpack. Seconds later it started to pour down so I left Bec to it and locked myself in the toilets for long enough to get pins and needles in my feet.
Later we splashed in the sea, swam in the pool and covered ourselves and our belongings in sand. For a few moments it wouldn't seem so bad, then it would start to pour down again.
Due to the rain we ate dinner in a communal feeding shelter. Luckily it's an unwritten rule amongst trailer trash not to ask each other where bruises and scars have come from. So we ate in relative peace.
The highlight of the evening for everybody was when I went to wash my feet. Those we have stayed with along the way know that I'm determined to do this trip in just a single pair of shoes. Well, it's fair to say they don't smell too fresh right now. Worse still I can't leave them outside at night for fear of a funnel web spider or similar making one of my sneakers their home. I've made plenty of schoolboy errors in my time but that won't be one of them.
And so I stink, the van stinks, our children are sick or injured and it's a long way to Brisbane.
Right now I want to drive the camper off a cliff and book into the nearest seven star hotel.
Which I think is in Dubai.
July 05, 2005.
Back On Track
We did a headcount first thing. Everyone was present and correct; nobody had woken up injured. It was an early start and we'd not had the best night's sleep ever but it didn't feel quite as hopeless as it had this time yesterday.
For the first time during this phase of the trip we ate breakfast outside. It made a huge difference not to all be cooped up together inside. The weather was still showery but not sufficiently so as to cancel our al fresco breakfast.
A huge bug came to join us at the breakfast table. I don't really like creepy crawlies; I certainly couldn't eat a whole one. This fellah was like a grasshopper the size of my arm. The kids didn't really seem to mind though so I pretended I didn't either. I was glad when he bounded away in a series of twenty-foot leaps.
I've properly communed with nature only twice. Once in Nepal and once in Tanzania. By this I mean I've got to the stage where my hygiene standards have fallen so precariously low that the wildlife consider me one of their own. It seems like it might be happening a third time.
You'll be pleased to hear that we are still showering and aren't yet out of soap or deodorant. The trouble is that conditions are so warm, damp and muddy that the only time we are properly clean are those few seconds between stepping out of the shower and reaching for the towel.
Ben in particular looks like he's itching for an ASBO. He swaggers round with a bare chest and a scarred forehead. He wears his baggy shorts rapper style with the top of his nappy two inches above the belt of his shorts. Snot continues to dangle from his nose and on occasion his chin.
We took a long hard look at ourselves this morning and decided we would have a family makeover. So we drove back down to Cairns, did three loads of washing, emptied the toilet and cleaned out the camper. We felt much better for it and the sun began to shine.
In the afternoon we drove to downtown Cairns. The beach there isn't much to write home about, it’s muddier than Morecambe. Additionally it boasts mud crabs, stingers and crocs making it possibly less attractive as a beach resort than the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless Cairns has created an artificial lagoon on the esplanade that looks incredible and attracts hundreds of bathers to its shores. Down from the lagoon is the world's best playground as confirmed by Lottie and Ben. It's huge, full of water features and makes children cry when they have to leave. It was spectacular and what started out as a fifteen-minute bribe turned into an all-afternoon session.
For those of you following the round the world in a single pair of shoes story, I have some sad news. They've had it; they're in pieces and the bits that are left are particularly malodorous.
I've failed in my quest but at least I smell a bit fresher.
Anyway, socks with sandals. I think it looks okay.
July 06, 2005.
A Grand Day Out
Throughout this trip we've mostly made our own fun. We've generally avoided the tourist attractions, not least because we can't afford them. We usually turn up on the periphery and watch the throng whilst sucking on a sausage roll.
Today however, was different. We had booked a trip by train and cable car through the rainforest. We'd convinced ourselves that it was the sort of thing that the children would love, forgetting of course, that all they are really interested in are stickers and mud.
We caught the train at Freshwater station not far from our campsite in Cairns. The engine and carriages were charming in an old fashioned sort of way, until I tried climbing aboard with two buggies whereupon I remained wedged in the doors. I stayed there some time, in fact until a Japanese tour guide pushed me through the doors bullet train style.
The train ride took about hour. During the journey an audio commentary was accompanied by some hokey PowerPoint slides on plasma screens in each carriage. About fifteen minutes into the journey I asked Lottie why she wasn't looking out of the windows. 'Because I'm waiting for the movie to start' came the reply. Oh how Virgin Atlantic have spoiled her.
At the summit station we picnicked on pies and then spotted a butterfly enclosure. Lottie was keen to go inside, but we were wary of paying the entrance fee only for her to start crying the moment the butterflies started flapping round her head. And so we spent ten minutes with her establishing the parameters of the visit, that these insects might fly close to her and that she wasn't to be scared. She told us she understood and that she still wanted to go inside.
So we paid the entrance fee and went inside. I was pushing Ben in his buggy and Lottie walked by my side. The walkways were narrow, it was hot and there were thousands of butterflies everywhere.
A few moments into the visit one landed on Lottie's head, then her face. Here we go I thought, meltdown. But guess what she just chuckled bless her. Lottie was loving it.
Then the outsized insect jumped off Lottie and landed on my head. And I nearly soiled myself. It was awful, this huge flapping killer moth, the size of a small horse, was flapping in my hair and at my ears. I couldn't resist the survival instincts that were telling me to swat this dusty winged predator into oblivion.
So there I stood like a man possessed, taking swipes at these delicate endangered creatures and only managing to connect with my own head.
Other visitors just looked on aghast. 'I'm sorry, I have to leave' I announced as I pushed Ben carelessly over the other lepidoptera lovers' heels.
I heaved a sigh of relief as I emerged through the slotted vinyl curtain that stopped the winged beasts taking over the entire world. The next section of the attraction was much improved; in here each of the critters had been pinned to a board and secured behind glass for good measure. I was much happier here.
Later we bought the children an ice-lolly. I made the fatal mistake of asking Ben if I could taste his lolly. Without hesitation he offered it up whereupon I took a bite. As my jaws closed I immediately knew I had overstepped the mark. His face crumpled and he thrust the entire thing back at me crying 'Don't want, don't want'. It took some agile nibbling of the frozen dessert-on-a-stick to restore it to its original, if a little foreshortened, shape. And the little guy bought it for a while, until he decided that just like Lottie he didn't, in fact, like the taste of it at all.
Entirely uncharacteristically, we relented and went on to buy conventional ice creams. And guess what, I ended up eating most of those too. How many points is four ice creams on weight watchers? I suspect I'll be finding out.
Fuelled on a cocktail of frozen sugar and hydrogenated fat I herded my family through a crowd of sozzled aborigines along a rainforest trail. Turned out it was the wrong trail, so imagine my wife's delight when we had to turn round and reverse the pincer movement. Either that or walk all the way to Darwin.
The return leg of the excursion was via cable car over the rainforest canopy. The ride was almost as impressive as the construction of the cable car towers in dense forest. Apparently all of the material for the towers was airlifted in. A good, if expensive effort.
There were lots of trees again but from a superb perspective. Just incredible.
The rest of the day was a breeze by comparison. The evening was warm and the children sleepy.
We all went to bed and dreamed of butterflies.
July 07, 2005.
We spent the early part of the morning grinding cereal into the floor. Today it didn't really matter as we were eating breakfast outside under promisingly blue skies.
Lottie and Bec packed up the camper whilst Ben and I smashed the handles off a few cups in the name of dishwashery. I'm hoping we'll not loose all of our six thousand dollar deposit on the strength of two smashed teacups.
Once we were packed we set off towards Cairns centre. The children and I spent time in the world's greatest playground whilst Bec did some shopping chores. At one stage I had to simultaneously field Ben who had his head under water looking for his plastic crocodile and Lottie who was teetering at the top of a seven metre tall climbing frame. I didn't know where to turn, so I videoed them both in the hope that if we did have a disaster then at least I'd be two hundred and fifty quid better off.
When Bec returned we moved down to the lagoon, an artificially created beach environment where the children got wetter still. We shared a pizza lunch by the water's edge and then sedated the kids.
We then bundled them into the camper where, unsurprisingly, they slept for almost the next two hundred and fifty kilometres. We stopped at a playground where Lottie tried to shake off her Medised hangover, and then drove another hundred kilometres. This section of road is really called the Bruce Highway. Cool huh?
And so we've arrived in Townsville. We've not explored much yet. It was dark when we arrived and we've only been as far as the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Which was a grease fest. Still, I narrowly avoided wedging our 2.8 metre high campervan in the 2.4 metre drive through channel. Which was a bonus on every level.
Pizza for lunch, KFC for dinner. I look like I ate all the pies. Unless I'm spirited away in the night with cholesterol poisoning, more tomorrow.
July 08, 2005.
Water Wonderful Day
Bug central. That's where we are parked up. Parked up eh? Listen to me, we've been in a camper just a week and already I have an entirely new vocabulary.
Sorry, back to the entomological thread. We stepped outside the door of the camper this morning to a throng of angry beetles. These guys are huge and hiss at us when we try and move them along. I'm no expert but these are Herculean in size and look like they'd snip off your toes given half a chance. Boy am I wishing I hadn't moved to open toe sandals.
The giant grasshopper things are back too, along with flying beetles and the odd possum. I can deal with all of these as long as I keep my butterfly net at my side for comfort.
We spent almost the entire day today playing at an open-air swimming pool and water park. The strand in Townsville is a free but exceptionally well-designed area for having fun with children. The water in the pool is seawater and can't be guaranteed 'stinger' free, so despite it not being jellyfish season we kept our wits about us. The information panels take the whole stinger thing very seriously. This isn't just a case of transient smarting; the word on the street is that these jelly babies can cause victims to require resuscitation.
Regardless, we had a great time today, and for the first time in ages felt like we were on a summer holiday. We now seem to have got the campervan routine sorted out and are spending less time stopping the children from turning on the gas or drinking from the chemical toilet. The weather has improved dramatically too and the dry weather makes a significant difference.
We are staying in Townsville for a second night and plan to drive down to the Whitsunday Islands tomorrow. We still have a long way to travel, but all of a sudden it seems a feasible objective.
More tales of campervan chicanery tomorrow.
July 09, 2005.
I'm afraid that today's entry contain elements of a lavatorial nature. Those with a low tolerance for what can only be described as 'knob gags' should look away now.
Oh. You all appear still to be here.
Okay, here goes. One of the issues with campsites on this trip has been the communal bathrooms. It's not the fact that I'm averse to sharing my daily ablutions with complete strangers. No, quite the reverse, it's the fact that I have to share them with members of my family.
Take this morning for instance. We were up bright and early and very keen to get the show on the road. To expedite proceedings I had agreed to take Lottie into the shower with me whilst Bec took Ben. These days Lottie is keener to go with mum to the ladies toilets as apparently they smell better. I've not spent much time in ladies toilets, but I can't fault her logic.
Anyway, reluctantly Lottie came with me today as there was a baby bath in the ladies bathroom that was better suited to her smaller brother. Getting Lottie into the shower was straightforward. We sang a few Bob Dylan choruses, complained about the water temperature and engaged in a little baritone flatulence. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The other users of the facility had an average age of about a hundred and six, so were quite taken with the general brouhaha we were causing.
Then, just as we were drying off, the place fell silent and I saw her looking at my nether regions. In her loudest voice she said 'Dad, that thing dangling underneath your wee-er...', 'Yes,' I replied in my quietest voice. 'Well it looks like the underneath of a chicken's neck doesn't it Dad'.
The punch line was delivered with such perfect clarity and timing that we had to stay in our cubicle until the chuckling in the other eighteen stalls had died down.
This is just a hunch but I'm guessing she's been looking at some big chickens.
Once showered and preened we set off to the centre of Townsville. Where yesterday there had been nothing but tumbleweed the streets were filled with market stalls. The place had been transformed and so we spent a jolly morning walking between playgrounds perusing a largely useless bagatelle of items on sale.
We ate a picnic lunch in the heat of the midday sun. By this stage both children were generally tired, hot and bothered. We abandoned proceedings before 'gong show lite' turned into 'gong show classic'.
We bundled ourselves into the camper. Ben, by this stage wanted to drive. No amount of reasoning would persuade him that a two hundred and fifty kilometre drive in a two-ton camper wasn't the best environment for your first driving lesson. Particularly as he can't see over the dashboard. The tears lasted all of fifteen seconds, whereupon he slept for the rest of the journey.
The drive wasn't much fun. The wind had picked up and so our white-knuckle camper was even less stable than usual. We even took luggage off the campervan beds and placed it on the floor to lower the vehicle's centre of gravity. I'm not sure it made any difference at all, but it made us feel better. And that's what counts.
We arrived at Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsunday Islands at around four in the afternoon. We visited a tourist office and booked a ferry over to one of the islands. We leave tomorrow and will stay on Daydream Island for three nights. Unfortunately motorised vehicles aren't allowed on the island and so we'll have to leave the camper on the mainland. Jackpot!
Tonight we are staying on a campsite in Airlie Cove. In the spirit of sharing our progeny it was my turn to take Ben into the shower this evening whilst Bec dealt with Lottie. Ben isn't big into showering, much preferring the whole pantomime that is broadly described as bath time. However, tonight there was no bath available, and therefore I'd taken him for a shower.
I undressed Ben and then left him at the dry end of the cubicle and went to mix the water to a suitable temperature. I was fully clothed, but had taken the precaution of removing my shoes in order to keep them dry. Regular readers won't need reminding that these shoes are only a few days old and were a reluctant purchase. Nevertheless, as they'd cost a king's ransom I was keen to keep these as pristine as possible and prevent them getting wet.
I'd just about got the water to the right temperature when I turned round to see Ben, belly out, wide open grin, shouting 'Daddy, Shoes, Wee'. He'd peed in one of my shoes. It seems that like his vocabulary, his aim is improving.
I guess I should be thankful it was only one shoe and not the pair.
And so today I've learnt two valuable lessons that I'd like to share. That it's best to go to the bathroom on your own and that open toed sandals do have some advantages.
July 10, 2005.
As luck would have it my shoes had almost dried out when we woke up at dawn. Nevertheless, there is always something unsettling about putting on even slightly damp footwear. At least I squelched only a little as I set about packing up the campervan this morning.
Today we were going over to Daydream Island and so had to pack our bags with the things we might need for the next three nights. And guess what, it turns out we need everything. Well, just about everything, we did leave the smaller buggy behind.
Bec did a splendid job of packing everything into just two, instead of the usual three bags. At last, a manageable amount of luggage I thought to myself. Until I turned round to see the pile of carry-on items that included two buckets and spades, a box of wine, a packet of nappies, a book, three different types of sun cream, crisps, a coffee, four fully inflated armbands and two infants.
We tipped all of this stuff out at the drop off point at the harbour. Most of it spilled into the road. It was too much for me to handle so I jumped back into the camper to find a parking spot. Now that I'm a professional gypsy, the thought of paying sixteen dollars a day to leave the van in a car park left me cold. So I found a grass verge at the top of a cliff and abandoned the van up there. If there is so much as a stiff breeze I suspect we'll return to a pile of chipboard splinters floating in the detritus of a chemical toilet at the bottom of a ravine.
Special note to my in-laws. Don't panic. You won't have to resign from the caravan club in shame. We emptied the toilet before we left the van.
Anyway, we got on the boat and enjoyed the fifteen minute ride over to the island. Despite mummy having taken the precaution of feeding Lottie an ice-cream less than an hour before we set off there was no seasickness. Quite a result.
When we landed on the island we were each presented with a shell necklace. I turned the offer down and was immediately accused by the redcoat of being a party pooper. I suddenly felt the combined panic of hi-di-hi style guest participation and costume jewellery. It was an anxious moment.
I was then accosted by Bec and Lottie who told Ben and I that we should never turn down free jewellery. Besides they would make great gifts to take back home. Apologies to those of you holding out for a shell necklace on our return.
I need not have worried about the redcoat thing, the resort turned out to be quite upmarket. So much so that I look like the bloke who has come to clean the swimming pool in my ripped jeans and tomato ketchup stained t-shirt.
The rooms are large; there are three swimming pools, coral beaches and the world's largest artificially created reef complete with sharks. There is also bingo, mini golf and an Elvis impersonator so it's not all good news.
We spent the afternoon swimming. That's pretty much all we did. Swim. Swim. Swim. It was great, and the children loved it, even the usually hydrophobic Ben.
All things considered, this is a pleasant change from the confines of the campervan.
Anyway, must wrap up. It's eyes down in ten minutes.
July 11, 2005.
Desert Island Discs
If the lovely Sue Lawley ever manages to twist my arm and get me on to Desert Island Discs I now know what my two luxuries would be. Some cable ties and a set of earplugs.
I'd use the cable ties to handcuff the children to a palm tree, and then insert the plugs so I couldn't hear them crying.
Ben was awake during the night and as a consequence is tired out today. He is probably also teething. That boy has more teeth than a crocodile and is exhibiting particularly reptilian behaviour. He has spent most of the morning chewing his hands, fighting with Lottie and falling over.
In an attempt to restore some balance to the day we had an early lunch and split into two teams. The girls went to get Lottie a hair braid and catch up with their scrapbook. The boys wrestled and then went to sleep. Reinforcing gender stereotypes. You can't fight nature.
In the afternoon the weather took a turn for the worse. Grey skies turned to rain. Not to be deterred we borrowed a sea kayak. I thought initially the plan was to escape from the island but it turned out that the wind was too strong to get far from the shore. Nevertheless it was fun and the children enjoyed it.
When we were back on dry land a couple of wallabies hopped by. Lottie was over the moon shouting 'Look, real live Kangaroos'. They do look just like 'roos but they're just a bit smaller. Apparently there are just eighteen on the island so we were pleased to have seen them.
The weather continued just to get wetter and so we retired back to our room and watched cartoons for an hour or so. Cartoons on a desert island. I can hear the despair from here.
Better weather is forecast for tomorrow. I do hope it's right. I'm just not sure I can stand any more Spongebob Squarepants.
July 12, 2005.
This Is The Life
Ben is back on an early shift. Today started at half five. Still, it does mean we're first down to breakfast. We were in pole position by the poolside too. There is something curiously optimistic about being laid outside in the dark covered head to foot in factor thirty.
Despite the early start the morning went well. The children splashed around in the pool quite successfully. Even Ben joined in. The weather was hot too with barely a cloud in the sky. At one stage Lottie turned to me and said 'This is the life isn't it dad?'. She was spot on.
At eleven o'clock Bec had booked a guided snorkelling trip. It all looked quite serious with wetsuits and assorted paraphernalia. It was all a bit too fish oriented for me and they didn't supply harpoon guns as standard so I opted to stay ashore and keep the children's lungs free from water.
As mummy paddled out the children could see her out at sea lying face down in the water. It took some effort from me to persuade them she hadn't drowned and that in fact we didn't need to call for a helicopter. Bec loved it. I don't think there were any fish out there at all; I just suspect she enjoyed an hour away from the constant demands of her travelling companions. She even stayed out there despite the guide warning of potential shark danger, so we must be hard work right now.
Meanwhile we were able to see tons of fish just by wading out into the shallow water. There were even people feeding the fish causing even biggish fish to swim in amongst our feet. The children and I were especially brave and didn't flinch much.
After lunch Bec did more snorkelling whilst the children and I had a postprandial nap. Awake and fully refreshed I took the children back out to the pool. Lottie and I swam up to the swim-up bar and ordered fizzy drinks and chocolate. We were the coolest couple at the bar until Lottie fell off her submerged barstool, grazed her foot and howled like a banshee. I think we're barred.
We did more swimming in an attempt to tire the children out completely. I think we were almost successful. Back in our room Ben ate a banana and then discarded the peel on the tiled floor. I've not seen anyone slip on a banana skin in years, but like all classic comedy moments it's always funnier than you remember. We were all in tears. Especially Ben.
We ate dinner and then danced to the tunes of the resident easy listening lounge quartet. They were great. The quartet consisted of two guitars, a double bass, and a percussionist. The percussionist had a set of bongos and a cowbell. What you can't play on bongos and a cowbell isn't worth playing.
Tomorrow we have to abandon all this rich living and move back into the campervan. Stay tuned.
July 13, 2005.
Back On The Road
This morning was our last on Daydream Island. It's been great. Even when the weather was lousy it was still good fun.
And so we woke up, ate breakfast and collected coral from the beach until midday. I'm not sure of the rules for taking coral out of Australia but I have a sneaky feeling it may be prohibited. So if Lottie gets stopped at the airport I suspect she's going down for a long stretch. It should save us a few quid on nursery fees.
We took the boat over to the mainland and recovered our campervan. It was intact and refreshingly odourless. It made me wonder whether the campervan smell of which I have been complaining is in fact emanating from its malodorous occupants.
For some reason the camper seemed smaller than it had when we left it. I knew it wasn't big enough when we first picked it up, but with the ton and a half of coral on board its difficult to find a place for anything.
We gave Ben and Lottie a prophylactic dose of Medised and drove two hundred kilometres south to just below Mackay. The drive was unremarkable. Miles and miles of sugar cane and the odd road kill kangaroo.
We arrived in a two-horse town named Sarina. There's little to report about the town but our campsite deserves a chapter all of its own.
We arrived to find one of the residents knocking out tunes on his old bontempi. A small crowd had gathered around in their deckchairs to watch. Some were sleeping, some I suspect were already dead, and yet bizarrely the remaining third seemed captivated. The guy was pure John Shuttleworth. Even the children looked sideways at him before turning to me to try and work out what I was thinking.
We set about preparing dinner and were bombarded by the deluge of word-processed notices full of campsite rules and regulations. Notices were pinned to every available surface. Font selection was generally random and poorly considered. Everything was underlined and uppercase. It was as if he thought that without the ceaseless use of CTRL+U we really were going to urinate in the pool.
Best of all there was a lock on the male toilets that requires a key code to gain entry. There is something excruciatingly painful about fumbling around in the dark with a keypad made in Lilliput when you are bursting for a pee.
I think the rationale is to prevent non-residents from using the facilities. Well, I'll teach him. The code for the blokes’ toilets on the Tropicana campsite in Sarina, Queensland is C240Z.
Two billion Internet users can just look this up now. I suspect he's going to have to stock up on dunny roll.
July 14, 2005.
Despite the comedy campsite I described yesterday we had a reasonable night at Sarina. Ben woke early as usual and we were outside eating breakfast at seven o'clock.
This early al fresco breakfast came complete with a kangaroo floorshow. A group of four came hopping through the bush about a hundred metres from where we were sat. We almost kicked the table over in our excitement and ran towards them to get a better view. Unsurprisingly the 'roos just bounded away back into the bush. Nevertheless, it made a change to see real live kangaroos rather than the Michelin embossed variety we've been seeing by the side of the road.
We left the campsite and headed out to Sarina beach sixteen kilometres to the east. The beach lies within a small bay about a mile long and offers perfect sand. Lottie built castles, Ben knocked them over, Bec helped rebuild them and I went for a run along the beach. Everybody was occupied and largely happy.
We ate a picnic lunch and then prepared the children for an afternoon of driving south. Our target destination for the day was Rockhampton. There was nothing we really wanted to see there, but it was about three hundred and fifty kilometres down the road and therefore seemed like a reasonable stopping place.
There is very little of interest on this section of the Bruce Highway. In some respects it's a pretty dull drive. And strewth Bruce, it goes on for ever. Just miles and miles of bush and sugar cane.
The afternoon's drive seemed long and boring. Nevertheless, the thrill of being overtaken by double-trailer wagons and the crosswinds that these monster trucks create added a little frission to the journey.
We arrived in Rockhampton in the late afternoon. By this stage, despite having arrived at our target destination we felt we should try to get a little further south. We were still a long way from our ultimate destination of Brisbane.
In order to break the day up, we did spend a few hours in Rockhampton. We visited the botanic gardens where we collected fallen coconuts and visited a playground.
Now I don't pretend to be anything like as accomplished as Ray Mears, but I did think I would be able to get into a coconut using just my hands and the odd stone. Well let me tell you, I've changed my mind about my desert island luxuries. I'm now going to take either a machete or a manservant.
If any of you have ever successfully got into a coconut using just your bare hands then I salute you. And I don't just mean the breaking into the shell bit, I mean removing the endless hairy husk thing which surrounds it.
I tried until my fingers were bleeding but didn't even get close. Lottie was very disappointed that I'd failed. So much so that I had to promise that we'd take them back to the campervan and open them later with a knife. So now the nature table in the van comprises a ton and a half of coral and three coconuts.
That evening we ate at a restuarant called Sizzlers. It was an 'all you can eat' affair. Luckily, I'd taken the precaution of arriving in elasticated trousers. It was unlike anywhere I'd ever been before. The food was served on plastic plates and yet people were ordering wine with their meal. And best of all, every five minutes a new plate of unsolicited cheese on toast would be delivered to our table.
They let anyone in. All you need is sixteen dollars ninety five cents and something on your feet. No shoes and you're not coming in. It says so on the door.
We left the restaurant and waddled breathlessly back to the campervan. We put the children to bed and we hit the road again. By this stage it was dark; in addition to avoiding the other drivers I had rogue Kangaroos to avoid. Allegedly they don't come out in force until one in the morning, but we did see a few hopping by the roadside rather than on the carriageway.
We drove for almost another three hours and pulled up in a dark car park in a place called Miriam Vale. We turned off the engine and were in bed about fifteen seconds later. Ah the freedom of the road.
About sixty seconds later I realised I had parked just metres from Australia's busiest railway line.
Nice work Daddio.
July 15, 2005.
To Tin Can Bay
We listened to the sounds of the railway all night. I consoled myself with the fact that although this campsite wasn't perfect, it was at least free.
When we finally got out of the campervan in the morning I realised just what a jaunty angle we had been parked at. It was a surprise that we hadn't all rolled into the glove box during the night.
Lottie stepped out of the camper, surveyed her surroundings and announced 'whoa, nice car park Dad'. Ben, by comparison, was just pleased that this latest campsite came with its own railway interchange.
Bec suggested that we all go across the road to the Miriam Vale Hotel for our breakfast. The hotel in question looked like a place you would go for a fight rather than for a brace of kippers and a pot of Darjeeling. Still I had no better suggestion and so sent Bec off to investigate.
Bec came back having discovered a purveyor of sausage sandwiches and so the hotel idea was abandoned. A handsome feast was quickly rustled up and very soon despite our night in the car park we were restored to our former glory.
With little else to do in Miriam Vale we set off south again. We stopped briefly in a place called Childers and then continued on to Tin Can Bay. The attraction here is dolphins that we hope to see tomorrow.
The children have been really well behaved considering that we've driven seven hundred and fifty kilometres during the last day. Particularly as we are travelling at an average of less than 80 kph.
It's not much fun for any of us to be stuck in the campervan for such a long stretch, but at least now most of the journey to Brisbane has been completed.
Anyway, I'm goosed. More tomorrow.
July 16, 2005.
Pelican Shags Dolphin
It was a relief today to wake up knowing that we didn't have to drive anywhere. We've made up some considerable distance in the last few days and as a consequence we had decided to stay two nights in Tin Can Bay.
The reason we had driven here was to come and watch the dolphins that are reputed to swim up to a small jetty where they stay and chat for a while in exchange for a few fish. It seemed a reasonable deal to me and far cheaper than a trip to Seaworld down in Brisbane.
The children were quite excited about the whole thing, as were we. I'd not seen dolphins in the wild, only in cheap tins of tuna, and so even I was keen to see what a whole one looked like.
Despite turning up at the required time of eight o'clock there was no sign of them. So we bought drinks at the local café. And then we discovered that they may not turn up until eleven o'clock, so we bought more drinks. Then we discovered they'd not been seen since Wednesday last week. Worse still, or better if you're a dolphin, it's mating season, so they're all too busy bumping uglies to entertain the assembled masses.
Anyway, I think it's a ruse perpetuated by the local café owners. They do sell a lot of drinks between eight and eleven.
Despite not seeing any dolphins, we did see lots of other creatures. There were pelican on the beach, shags on the foreshore and rainbow parakeets in the park. Lottie made a point of collecting discarded parakeet feathers for her scrapbook. No doubt the entire family will come down with bird flu quite soon.
The most unusual discovery of the day was the solider crabs out on the mudflats. Thousands and thousands of the tiny critters huddled together in formation. The noise of millions of crustacean limbs clacking across the sand was amazing.
By midday the kids were largely bored with wildlife and were tired from their excesses at a nearby playground. So we locked them inside the campervan whilst we enjoyed a glass of wine. For just a moment the trip seemed quite civilised.
In the afternoon we visited yet another playground and watched the children exhaust themselves. It wasn't the most action packed day of the trip, but it made us feel a little less travel weary than we have of late.
In the evening we barbequed fish fresh from the local trawler. Although I don't generally like eating fish this stuff was fresh enough to put back in the water and tasted quite good too.
Despite not seeing a dolphin today we've had fun and we're going to see if they turn up tomorrow. By which stage I hope to have thought up another suitably tabloid headline. Don't go away.
July 17, 2005.
We tried again this morning. We were at the jetty by eight o'clock. This time we even bought breakfast at the café. But still no dolphins. By nine o’clock the children had lost all interest in any form of marine life and had engaged in some sort of mud pie hurling contest with some other children. Our offspring walked away victorious.
Following the script from yesterday we visited the playground, fell off things, bumped our heads and collected rainbow parakeet feathers. We now have enough feathers to reconstruct our own ostrich sized parakeet. They're in the van with the shells and the stones and the coral. I'm thinking of opening the doors to other tourists and charging a modest entrance fee. We're driving round in a mobile natural history museum.
When we got back to the campsite our neighbours were eager to tell us that on departure I had reversed the campervan over one of the children's buggies. Worse still I hadn't noticed a thing. So I tried to shrug it off as though it was something I did all the time and set about trying to untangle the mass of aluminium tubing and wheels.
When I began wrestling with the buggy it looked like something I'd just fished out of a canal. When I'd finished it looked like something I'd bought at a car boot sale for fifteen pence. Still, it now works after a fashion, even if Ben does have to sit in it with an arm hanging out dragging along the pavement.
We ate lunch and climbed in the camper and drove about 160 kilometres south to the Glasshouse Mountains. These are curious geological beasts and are essentially the remaining central cores of volcanoes. My favourite is Mt Coonowrin, which is a particularly slender peak and is now closed to climbers. In a show of particularly ridiculous scaremongering the authorities have changed its name to Mount Danger. I ask you.
We drove to the mountain lookout point and then had afternoon tea in a colonial style teahouse with a fine view over the mountains. Most of these peaks are only five hundred metres high, with the tallest standing at about seven hundred and fifty metres. So they are tiny in the general scheme of things, but their form and general topography makes them seem much grander which is unusual.
On our return to this evening's campsite we bought vegetables from a local farmers' market and left Bec to transforms them into a veritable feast. My side of the bargain was to entertain the children whilst mummy was preparing dinner.
And so I set off towards the campsite playground. On the way we passed an aviary containing a parakeet of some description. Both children were quite taken with the bird and so I started to whistle at it whilst Lottie and Ben had their noses pressed up against the cage.
For a moment the bird humoured me. Lottie even dared to suggest that it was smiling and must like us. And then it bristled its head feathers, fixed all three of us with a beady eye and then screeched. This was no ordinary bird sound, this was possibly the loudest noise I'd ever heard in my entire life. This was the noise I would make if I got my parts trapped in the hinge of a car door.
The children both squealed and burst into tears in unison. Ben was wide eyed, open mouthed and running on the spot, his little arms and legs flailing about as if he was on the set of Thunderbirds. I had to pick both children up and carry them to the playground where they stood still, eyes fixed on the aviary. They were both well and truly traumatised.
The usually bullish Ben curled up into my arms for the rest of the evening whispering 'scary bird, scary bird'.
Most of them are son, I thought to myself, most of them are.
July 18, 2005.
We're quite pleased that we've managed to make it this far in the campervan. When I think back to when we picked the blunderbuss up two and a half weeks ago, Brisbane seemed an awful long way away.
But now we really are like a well-oiled machine and can wake up, eat breakfast and be on the road within two hours. To those of you without children of your own this must seem like a period of geological proportions. To everyone else, we hear your applause.
And so we set off to the Australia Zoo. This is the place that is owned and managed by Steve Irwin, the self-proclaimed Croc Hunter who is often seen wrestling dangerous creatures on TV. It's a curious place, and although it's billed as a zoo, it's more of a shrine to Steve Irwin and his madcap antics. Nevertheless, there is a strong conservation theme, and it's possibly the cleanest place in the whole of Australia.
At the centre of the zoo is the Crocoseum, a five-thousand seater stadium where animal shows take place. There is a pantomime element and when Steve Irwin showed up in person to wrestle, sorry, 'liveshow' a croc there was a slight feeling of Victorian travelling show about the whole affair.
Apart from the pantomime the most amazing thing at the zoo was a tortoise that had been picked up by Charles Darwin on his travels 174 years ago. She's called Harriet and she's still alive. Crikey.
We spent over five hours there, during which we handled snakes, stroked koalas, fed kangaroos and elephants. Do the animals like it? I guess we'll never know, but many of them would be stuffed and on a mantelpiece if it wasn't for the Croc Hunter and his chums. And we had a great day out.
We got back to the campsite and went berserk in the playground for a while. We ate dinner in the cleanest-ever camp kitchen and then put the children to bed.
In the absence of anything else to read in the evenings Bec has taken to reading the Mills and Boon novels that are exchanged anonymously amongst frustrated wives in the campsite laundry. They have titles like 'My Dreamboat Chiropodist' and 'The Handsome Bingo Caller's Apprentice'. It seems the romance of the open road and a warm glow of a calor-gas stove just doesn't cut the mustard anymore and she's turned to chick-lit for comfort.
Not to worry, I'm off to brylcreem my hair and slip into a smoking jacket to try and lure my wife away from her book.
July 19, 2005.
The plan today was to visit downtown Brisbane. We had it on good advice that driving and parking a campervan in the city was simply not worth the hassle. So we decided to take the bus into town. This pleased the children, particularly Ben who spent most of the journey shouting 'nice bus' and pressing the next stop button all the way into town.
Despite this, we managed to get all the way into town without being thrown off. We arrived at the cultural centre, a hub of galleries, theatres and things. Whilst it all looked quite grand at ten o'clock in the morning there wasn't much going on. So we followed a walkway down by the river that took us over a footbridge and into the downtown area.
It was all very pleasant. There was nothing of particular note, but then we're getting slightly travel weary now and we're more likely to stumble across attractions rather than actively hunt them down.
There was the usual mix of playgrounds, drink stops and frog-marching of infants. We shopped only briefly and bought paracetamol and superglue. The tablets to remedy headaches and glue to repair the campervan before we take it back tomorrow. Had we not been travelling with children, it's unlikely we would have needed either.
On the way home we stopped at the Red Rooster for dinner. On the way out Bec and I argued about whether it was better or worse than KFC. We couldn't agree but neither of us are keen to perform any additional research.
On an entirely different note, just a word to campsite owners about securing your toilet rolls. Everywhere we stay there seems to be a different system of dispensing dunny roll. There is, however, a consistent theme. The owners all seem keen to ensure the security of their rolls at the cost of impeding efficient egress of paper from the dispenser.
Picture the scene. I'm sat with my trolleys round my ankles with one hand swatting at a swarm of tropical bugs with a well thumbed Mills and Boon. The other hand is halfway up a plastic toilet roll dispenser like a vet trying to calf a cow. When finally the paper is dispensed it usually comes out in pieces so finely shredded that they are only useful for throwing at a wedding.
So remember this campsite owners. If I really was of criminal persuasion, please understand that I would be more interested in the grand prix; diamonds, bullion and famous paintings rather than half-inching your shiny single-ply bog roll. I implore you, set your dunny roll free.
July 20, 2005.
Six Thousand Bucks
This morning was to be our last in the campervan. There were lots of chores to be done, mostly revolving around restoring the van to its former glory.
Despite their best efforts, Lottie and Ben weren't much help with any of this. So Bec and I took it in turns to either occupy the children or glue the campervan back together.
As I was knelt on the top bunk attempting to repair a pelmet that Ben had pulled off some weeks earlier, the tube of superglue sprang a leak. I can now testify that the words 'bonds in seconds' are entirely accurate. Approximately one tenth of a minute later I was simultaneously attached to a curtain, a duvet and a double mattress. At that stage I did consider just pulling the other pelmet off too and tossing both in the bin. At least then both sides of the van would match.
We managed to dispose of most of the shells, sand and coral that we'd picked up along the way without Lottie noticing. When we finally drove away from our pitch we had left quite an attractive artificial beach in our wake. No doubt the campsite will add it to their list of amenities.
We drove up to a place called Redcliffe where we had planned to spend a few hours before returning the campervan. I was petrified as I drove the short distance north; I'd managed to drive the last 2172 kilometres without so much as squashing an insect on the windscreen. So the six thousand dollar bond was all riding on these last few hours of driving where, at the very least, I was destined to roll the thing over.
Redcliffe is a quiet seaside town with, amongst other things, a fish restaurant complete with its own playground. We ate lunch there, played awhile, and then drove back to return the campervan.
I'd taken the precaution of leaving the rest of my family at a motel for this part of the proceedings. With Lottie and Ben on board there was a strong possibility that during the short drive back to the depot they could have undone the entire morning's work.
I shuffled into the reception with my hands in my pockets. I didn't want them to notice my webbed hands, the only evidence of the glue-fest. And what do you know, despite my concerns they were so impressed with the state of the van that they gave us our six thousand dollars back. I can safely say that I skipped off the forecourt.
As I was leaving they asked me how I'd found the van. Now that I'd got my money back there was no need to pretend that I'd enjoyed driving the hunk of junk at all.
So I told him straight, that it was hopeless to drive, it wobbled around, it was slow; I'll not bore you any further, you've heard it all before. And do you know what he said? 'Yeah, that's what everybody tells us, we're scrapping that model'. He did go on to say that they'd not had any tip over, but he said this in a puzzled tone as if the fact had quite surprised him.
I walked back to the motel a liberated man. The campervan had done its job, but it hadn't been the romantic experience that we had hoped it might be. And I use the word romantic in all of its senses.
In contrast to the campervan we had just handed back our hotel room this evening was positively palatial. We had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom, all extending over two floors. All four of us lay like starfish on the floor, taking up as much room as we possibly could, and we still had space left over. Tremendous.
The evening was spent washing clothes and packing four bags worth of belongings into three bags. Tomorrow we leave Australia and it's time to climb on a plane for the last leg of the trip.
July 21, 2005.