Lou Wood takes a road trip Down Under to discover whether a motor-home holiday with her family is enough to drive her mad.
Accommodation in Australia can be expensive, and the price may not always reflect the sort of five-star standards we’ve come to expect from living in Asia. For our weeklong holiday, we looked for an alternative. Our mission was to get out of the city and back to nature. With our spirit of adventure falling short of a tent, a campervan seemed the ideal solution.
A quick Idiot’s Guide: Campervan is the term commonly used for the smaller of these vehicles – think 70s hippy culture or teenage surf-dudes, or in the case of our rental, the Kenny Grocery van with a mattress shoved in the back. The bigger upscale models are motor homes; they can come with all sorts of mod cons like satellite TV, central heating and toilets.
There are only three of us and we like to think of ourselves as environmentally friendly. We didn’t have a huge wad of cash burning a hole in our pockets for this trip, so we took the smallest vehicle possible, a two- or three-berth Hiace Hi-top campervan, which cost us around $750 for six days.
Crammed inside were a small fridge, a sink and a two-ring burner. The bed was actually roomier and more comfortable than I had imagined, and with the curtain open we were able to lie in relative comfort at night watching the stars. I never attempted to cook on the burner, which seemed dangerously close to the sleeping arrangements. My main peeve was the total lack of storage, leaving us constantly shifting luggage around the van. Despite this, the van worked for us because the warm weather meant that we lived and cooked outside and used the inside as a bedroom only.
The south coast of New South Wales is not the area that immediately comes to mind for an Australian holiday, but we were informed by former Sydneysiders – on the quiet – that it’s a bit of a secret gem. So we picked up our van from the depot, a 10-minute taxi ride from Sydney airport, and after three laps of the city’s one-way system we hit the open road in search of the Grand Pacific Drive.
The Grand Pacific Drive is a brown-signed route that starts 30 minutes south of Sydney. The views of the ocean and the national parks are spectacular as the road snakes steeply down cliffs before veering dramatically out over the sea on enormous concrete plinths. The route continues all the way to Kiama, but it’s probably worth getting back on the freeway just after Thirroul.
A 2½-hour drive brings you to the stunning beaches of Jervis Bay. Hyams Beach is reputed to have the whitest sand in the world and I wouldn’t argue with that. The water at Jervis Bay is crystal clear and the geographical horseshoe of the bay wraps itself protectively around the beaches making for calm, kid-friendly seas. There are dolphin cruises from the town of Huskisson and you are guaranteed to see a pod or two.
Booderee National Park occupies one of the bay’s peninsulas. The land was handed back to its hereditary owners, the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community, in 1995. It has since been leased back by the federal government, with profits from tourism going to sustain the reserve and the Aboriginal community. It is one of only three national parks owned by Aboriginal communities in Australia; famous Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and Kakadu are the other two.
Staying overnight in the park is an experience that makes taking a campervan worthwhile. You share your pitch with towering eucalyptus trees and abundant birdlife and wildlife. Our evening barbecues were monitored by a passel of possums. (Seriously, that is the collective noun – I looked it up!) Talk about getting back to nature.
Booderee is packed with activities: snorkelling from the picture-perfect beaches, walking the carefully marked bush trails, visiting the Botanic Gardens, or checking out the ruined lighthouse with an interestingly macabre history.
You could continue down the south coast all the way to Melbourne some 800 kilometres away, but we opted to move inland to the Southern Highlands. The film Babe was shot in this area, and the verdant rolling scenery is spookily European. The mountain passes here will certainly test the van-handling ability of your designated driver. The pass from Nowra is as nerve-wracking as it is awe-inspiring. Stop at the Cambewarra Lookout and see the full sweep of the coast below. There is an enticing restaurant at the top – a chance for a spot of lunch, or maybe a stiff drink for your passengers.
This is the great outdoors. Plenty of opportunities for biking, canoeing, fishing and horse-riding, or you could just kick back and enjoy the view. There is a burgeoning wine industry in this region; wineries in the Moss Vale area have cellar doors (where visitors can buy their wine), and the camping is great in nearby Sutton Forest.
We had our first wombat encounter in the quaintly named town of Kangaroo Valley. There we learned that a highly disgruntled wombat, in full flight from a crazy five-year-old waving a torch, could reach speeds worthy of a geriatric snail. (I have no idea what the collective term is for wombats – a “waddle”, maybe?)
Our main observation about this area is how little it has been affected by the tourist industry, given its proximity to one of the world’s most famous cities. We decided that if we were Sydneysiders, we would be here every weekend.
Calculate the costs. Essentials like outdoor tables and chairs, even bedding, are often wrapped into a “convenience package”, adding a few hundred dollars to the rental price. Make sure you get comprehensive insurance, child-seats, a gas bottle and unlimited mileage included in the deal.
Seat the kids. Smaller vans don’t have access from the cabin to the back, and the child-restraints can be on the far seats. When booking, find out where the children can sit and how easily you can get at them.
Halve your luggage. There is no room for matching accessories, so travel light and take foldaway hold-alls, not suitcases.
Maps. The maps promised by the rental company are rarely great. Take your own if you can.
Take a torch. Check that your van has one. If not, take your own, with spare batteries – it is essential.
Plan your drop-off. You pay a surcharge to drop your van at a different location from the pick-up point. You pay even more if you decide to do this after you have set off.
Don’t be too ambitious. Plan to stay a few more days at fewer places.
A word on awnings. Tricky blighters – ask for a demonstration at the depot.
DVDs. Your DVDs may not work on the van’s player if it’s not multi-system.
Peak periods. Book campsites ahead of time during school holidays.
More parting advice if you decide on the rental of a two- to three-berth campervan:
– If you are over four feet tall, you will bang your head at least ten times a day.
– Travel light – the clothes you are wearing should do it.
– The two-ring cooker is surely for decorative purposes only – do not be foolish enough to use it.
– Always, always check your sleeping bag before you get inside. (I am saving my wolf spider story for another time.)
– We would absolutely do it again. A campervan allows you privileged stays in some of the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. Next time, though, I’m getting the one with a DVD and a hot tub.
The Grand Pacific Drive – www.grandpacificdrive.com.au
Green Patch campsite Booderee National Park – www.environment.gov.au/parks/booderee
Flat Rock Kangaroo Valley – A hidden swimming creek. (Ask locals for directions.)
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