We had a wonderful time in Sydney with my parents (as outlined by Barb, Caleb, and Connor in other parts of this blog) but now it was time for us to head off on our own and do the camping thing as we travelled from Sydney to Cairns, some 2419km to the north in Queensland.
Let me state right now that we are not “backpackers”. We used to be backpackers but Barb informed me that we no longer belong to that sacred designation. We are now “flashpackers” which means we are willing to spend that extra $2 to have hot water in our little A-frame hut. It also means we will dine at a restaurant more often if it’s more convenient and helps with our schedule of activities rather than cooking in a shared kitchen. Having children as part of the equation also means we are much more concerned about personal (family) safety than 20 years ago.
We rented a “campa” from a company called Jucy, which reminded me of the old VW camper vans, and this was in reality a modified Nissan Quest. Because of the camping modifications we learned that our Loss, Damage, and Collision coverage through our MasterCard did not cover us for this type of vehicle. The Jucy rep was sharp enough to draw our attention to this possibility and once I Googled and read through the policy – sure enough, she was correct. So, unfortunately, we ended up paying an extra $30/day for their offered insurance. Lesson #1 learned: always read through those silly, tedious, legalese-filled policy documents to know what you get and what you don’t.
The top popped up to make a cosy spot for the two boys which was called “The Penthouse”. Once the bed was set up with the provided sheets, pillows, and comforter we could just leave it made, even if we had to close the top to drive around to various activities. Barb, the every practical and organized one in our group, bought 4 small laundry baskets to hold each of our belongings instead of keeping everything in the communal duffel bag for easier access. Inside the van the bench behind the front seats lowered flat to butt up against the back seats to form the inside bed for Barb and I. She found it quite comfortable but I, being 6 feet tall, could not lie down flat and slept with my knees bent. I suppose this is keeping in line with the backpacker spirit of being frugal though. We could have rented a larger van – but at double the cost! It was also painted a bright purple and neon green. Guess we won’t be robbing any banks and using this as a getaway car.
My contribution to the purchase list was getting a 30m power extension cord, a dozen bungee cords, and a butane lighter to start campfires. It turns out that ALL of the campgrounds (at least the ones we stayed at) did not allow campfires at your site, unlike Canadian campsites, so the butane lighter only got used once. And that was to light a propane cooktop in a camp kitchen whose built-in sparker seemed to malfunction. The bungee cords were much better used as we tied down the boys’ boogie boards at night to keep them from blowing away and attached our clothes line to our van and various trees throughout the duration of our trip. The crowning glory was the extension cord which we used every single day to recharge our devices (whoops, back into “flashpacker” territory here). Ultimately useful, the extension cord became like a good and reliable friend. When it came time to leave behind some of the items we couldn’t carry with us to our next country I asked Barb, “Guess what I regret having to leave most?” and she said, “The extension cord” and gave me her “you are SO weird” look. This just shows that Barb knows me. She just doesn’t always understand me. Lesson #2 learned: buy the cords and skip the lighter. To quote Meatloaf, “two out of three ain’t bad”.
As we worked our way northward, staying at various campsites along the way, we discovered that there were two main campsite companies: Top Tourist Parks (which has now been rebranded as “Top Parks”) and Big4 Parks. We stayed at both of their offerings and found the sites and amenities to vary greatly. It seemed to me a little like the Holiday Inn brand of hotels – you could stay at a fabulous property in Atlanta but a less-than-desirable one in Podunkville (my apologies to my friend Mark – I don’t know if HI actually has properties in those cities, it was just an example). Barb found an app called WikiCamps Australia that allowed us to choose filters for the specific things we wanted to have (powered site, laundry facilities, wifi access, and showers) and had user ratings and comments. This was probably the most useful tool in deciding where we would stay. They even had a function to let you look up directions to the campground via Maps.Me or Google Maps. The app cost $7 on the App Store. Lesson #3 learned: get WikiCamps Australia, it’s worth it!
We decided to do a day of hard driving in order to make up for time we spent doing other activities (many of which are outlined in other parts of this blog) and we left Maroochydore for Rockhampton. I saw our gas tank was just over half full so I, foolishly, did not fill up before we left. This particular stretch of road seemed to be very sparse in terms of civilization. Granted, we did see several signs for various towns 9km to the east or 24km to the west but nothing to speak of directly on the M1 road. That meant gas stations (or “petrol stations” as they are called in Australia) were few and far between. It got to the stage where I thought we were going to run out of gas right there in the middle of nowhere. I asked Barb to Google petrol stations from our current location but we were in such a remote area that our phones couldn’t get a tower signal. So we couldn’t even call for help if we did run out. Eventually, we did pull into a town while running on fumes and filled up. I almost bought a jerry can to carry extra with us but Barb put the kibosh on that idea. Lesson #4 learned: fill up when you can and don’t let the tank get below half, especially in this particular stretch of the M1.
The further north we went the temperature rose from the comfortable 22C/14C highs and lows of Sydney to the more tropical 35C/26C of Cairns. With it came the humidity and we found ourselves sleeping more and more with the windows and doors open (so much for increased safety concerns). The camps we had been staying at all seemed very family-friendly and the culture was everyone looked out for each other and their kids. Keep in mind that we were also in the low season a month before Christmas break so there weren’t very many people in the campgrounds to begin with. We were staying at a Big4 campground in Cannonvale near Airlie Beach and just as I was about to turn in for the night with all the doors and windows of the campa wide open due to the heat I see a faint shadow of what appeared to be a very large cat shuffling towards the van. I shone the flashlight out and saw this creature:
It seemed even bigger when lit. He stopped and stared at me for a moment and continue to shuffle towards me in the open side door of the campa. So i picked up one of my flip flops and shied it at him at which point he turned and ran for the trees. “That takes care of him,” I thought. As I checked e-mail before going to bed I heard a scuffling noise outside. I shone the flashlight again but didn’t see anything. Suddenly, a head popped out from under the van – it was the creature again!
“Shoo!” I said, loud enough to scare him away, hopefully, but not loud enough to wake up Barb. He wasn’t scared away. In fact, he started to climb into the van! I growled like a bear and he stopped. Slowly I reached for my other flip flop and threw it at him. Again, he took off in a hurry and I decided to sleep in the sweltering heat with the door closed. So much for increased family security. The next night I kept a mini golf putter handy in case he came back but didn’t need it. My bear growl must have been effective. Lesson #5 learned: know how to growl like a large animal and have a handy supply of flip flops to chuck at the local wildlife.
Overall, our camping experience in Australia with the boys has been an excellent adventure. Would I do it again? Yes, of course! But with a slight modification. Although the Jucy campa was a lot of fun and a great way to see a good chunk of Australia’s East Coast I found the transitioning from driving mode to sleeping/camp mode a bit wearing and tedious. Yes, we had it down to a pretty smooth system after the first week or so but with the campa there is no way to divide the labour/chores/errands as easily. Next time, I’d like to get a car and tow a camp trailer (called “caravans” in Australia) so we could park it at the site.
One of us could set up the trailer (with awning, we really needed an awning) and the other could run to the Woolworths or Coles for groceries and supplies. It would also allow us to leave our gear in a relatively secure place while we take off for the day to do some activities like visiting the Great Barrier Reef or Hartley’s Crocodile Farm and not have to pack everything up first. Barb said that when we retired we’d get a camper van but she has since changed her mind and said a camping trailer would probably be a better option. Yes, we’re showing our flashpacker leanings here but I’m OK with that. Lesson #6 learned: go for the car and caravan option over the campa. You’ll fit more of what you want to do into your day.