It’s about 2:30pm. Having just towed our camper trailer up a 6,000-foot mountain on a windy off-road track in Victoria’s High Country, we’re slowly stepping our way down a rocky descent. I’ve got Cave Lion, our 100 Series Land Cruiser, in low range, trying to keep the momentum of our Cub off-road Supamatic camper trailer under control as we gingerly poke our way down the mountain. That extra day of training I got in Braidwood focused on off-road towing is looking like time well spent.
Cave Lion started our trip into Vic High Country freshly washed white, but now it is happily caked in mud and dirt. All is good. Siberian Tiger has streaks of red dirt from our trips to Cape York and the Queensland outback. The red dirt, I’m told, can never be cleansed, and we kind of consider its presence a merit badge in this family.
The trail is rough, a path pocked with holes, rocks of all sizes, dirt and dust. In the back of my mind I’m glad our tires – Coopers S/T Maxx, ironically made by an American brand testing its mettle in Australia, just like us – are relatively new. Despite all the abuse we’ve put them through, they have only about 20,000 kilometers of wear and feel up to the task. I’m focused on driving, but I take a quick look around. The view is majestic as we “walk” down the mountain range. It’s a horizon full of greens, browns, yellows, and oranges as we move among the peaks and trees, all set under the kind of deep blue sky I’ve rarely seen outside of Australia. Of course, a byproduct of off-road trails leading down majestic mountain ridges is the perilous cliff’s edge, a hazard not far enough off to the right. It’s a feature of the drive that keeps me alert, to say the least. The story about the crazy Americans who left Brooklyn to go camping and off-roading in Australia is much better if we don’t drive off a cliff.
There’s a lot of crunching noises as we navigate the rocky downward trail. The angle is steep and the rocks are chewing at our tires. By steep I mean the kind of steep where you can feel the firm grip of the webbing in the shoulder strap of your seatbelt holding you in place as you descend.
I take a moment to glance around our fully loaded interior. Next to me in the passenger seat is the intrepid Jessica Lipnack (her post about this journey here), a loving mother to my wife, grandmother to my boys, and mother-in-law to me. She is visiting for this portion of our journey. This is her second day ever 4WDing, and the first time she’s been on this kind of off-road track, towing a camper trailer down mountains, for sure. We positioned her in the front seat to be polite and also to reduce the chance of car sickness (it can be tough riding on a bumpy, winding road squeezed between two car seats). Her sense of adventure is impressive. Her hands are gripping something, hard, but she’s handling what must be a ridiculously scary descent with complete coolness, not raising the level of anxiety in the carriage one iota. Jessica is in fact emitting such a calm energy for this circumstance that I wonder whether she is employing some newfangled kind of zen master trick like invisible knitting.
This is particularly impressive to me. Most of our driving together has involved navigating the city, during which I’ve not done much to impress her. In Brooklyn you have to drive with a kind of psychotic edge to survive as your road companions follow such rules of the road as “accelerate into intersections; people will move” and “turn first, signal never,” among others. Outside of New York, my poor sense of direction is usually the culprit. Wrong turn here, wrong turn there, a stubborn unwillingness to learn my way around the streets of her hometown in MA. Finally my still-developing parallel parking skills may not have made a good impression. But luckily there is no parallel parking out here…. Certainly there won’t be with a camper trailer in tow!
Assuming you know what your car is capable of doing, it’s much easier on your stomach to drive these off-road tracks than to ride shotgun. When you’re driving you feel in control – even if you find you’re not – and have the steering wheel steadying your body, a luxury not afforded to the passenger. You also know before every brake, bump, and turn. As a passenger, all you can do is sit there, choose whether you want your eyes open or closed, and pray the driver has had enough coffee.
In the back seat sits my lovely wife Miranda and our two boys. Lake and Finn are seasoned veterans of this kind of thing. They are unfazed. Lake is reading a book about Han Solo. Amazingly, Finn is taking a snooze.
“Wake me up if we cross a river,” he said casually before nodding off.
Miranda is suspending Finn’s head carefully to prevent it from flopping into awkward positions as we trundle downward. She’s a loving mother; I’d be napping like Finn, letting his head flop in the wind. Don’t be fooled by who’s penning this: Miranda is an accomplished off-road driver and has far better wheel placement skills than I do. She drove the previous day, when in fact we did have more than twenty water crossings as we explored the Crooked River. Finn was pleased!
Don’t worry; we’re not so terribly irresponsible parents as it seems. We haven’t explored High Country off-road before, and didn’t want to be taking the boys down potentially treacherous mountain trails on our own. So we have joined up with a “tag along” off-road 4WD tour run by our friend Vic Widman’s company Great Divide Tours. Through pure coincidence – a post he noticed on Instagram – we found out we were camping right by their tour, that they had an open slot, and we were able to join up with a great group of Australians on Day 2 of their 7-day journey through the High Country. We were planning some off road adventures outside of Bright, Victoria, but this would let us really explore the area in a way we probably wouldn’t have been able to do safely otherwise.
The expedition was led by a fearless father son duo, Greg and Jason. In addition to being friendly and expert guides, they were well-equipped with safety and recovery gear and know-how. Perhaps more importantly, they came prepared with plenty of supplies for making long lasting campfires. Also, both Greg and Jason had cool Australia outback hats, an attribute which speaks for itself. Thinking back on this, if I end up leading 4WD tours with Lake, Finn, and Miranda one day, I’ll be one happy man.
We met up with the Great Divide team at their campsite in Talbotville. From there we visited Grant and had a mouth-watering burger at the iconic Dargo Pub, before making our way to Wonnangarra valley and Conglomerate Creek. We also saw several famous bushman’s huts in the mountains, but the refurbished one featured in The Man From Snowy River film – Craig’s Hut – was the most awe-inspiring for me.
We had an unbelievable time on this tour. It was a great way to explore the High Country and make new friends. The group of tag-a-longers was inviting and fun, embracing our addition to their team with smiles, the occasional story about their trip to Vegas, and some kindly American jokes… I know, it’s hard to imagine those exist. Naturally, the best response to all this was to respond to every radio roll call with the most classic American response I could muster- and this was exactly how I felt at the time: “Yippee ki yay!”
We accomplished a feat on Friday that I would not have considered possible just a few short months ago. Our family hiked to the most southern point of Australia* in Southwest National Park, Tasmania. The amazing part was not reaching the southern tip about 100 days after reaching the northern tip of Australia, but rather that the boys walked over 15.4 kms / 9.5 miles to do it! We were walking for just over 6.5 hours to make it happen.
In accomplishing our goal of reaching the southern tip of Tasmania, the journey solidified a lot about what we have learned about hiking with young children:
1) Hiking / bush walking is more of a mental challenge than a physical one for kids. Our boys have boundless energy, but long walks can be boring, which rapidly can lead to whining. Keeping kids engaged makes all the difference. We normally begin walks with a long story from Jay. The boys pick the characters and seemingly will walk to the end of the earth (they nearly did!) just to hear what happens to their characters. Turns out Jay can keep a story going for about an hour and that gets the kids over the initial hump of a long walk.
2) Goals are important. We talked with lots of excitement about how Lake and Finn would be the first 5-year-olds from Brooklyn to reach the northern and southern tips of Australia. (No Guinness Book verification on this one, but it seems a reasonable assumption.) On the track, we try to identify many interim goals so they can feel their progress. A goal is often getting to a particular feature of the walk (e.g. waterfall, open field, etc.) or it may be arriving at the next stop (e.g. lunch). We often spend the last part of the hike talking about all that we saw and all that they achieved. On this trip, the boys were positively energized during the return portion of the hike. The first half of the journey took 4 hours, whereas the return was only 2.5 hours. There weren’t any large descents to account for the discrepancy. It was mostly excitement of having reached their goal. Lake proudly told each of the 3 groups of walkers we passed on the way back that he had reached the southern point of Australia.
3) Lots of snacks are key. Kids burn energy quickly and keeping them fueled up is an important part of multi-hour walking. We carry a wide assortment of bars, fresh fruit, dried fruit, and sandwiches in addition to sweet treats. Walking is a great excuse to treat kids to usually restricted treats. Normally, our kids get biscuits / cookies and lollies / candies quite infrequently. The allure of getting a treat as we pass different milestones on the track is a great motivator. The boys are always willing to go a bit further on the promise of a marshmallow. We also find that the sugar rush provided by these sweets helps the kids keep going and we don’t see the hyper, sugar fueled kiddos that can sometimes come from eating sugar.
4) Good equipment makes a difference. It makes a difference for adults and it does for kids too. We got the kids good hiking boots, hiking socks, rain jackets, rain pants, and appropriate layers for the conditions. (We were fortunate to find the rain pants at a great second-hand, pop-up shop in Hobart since it rains so frequently here.) For shorter trips, the kids often wear sneakers or hiking sandals, but I think they end up expending a lot of extra energy trying to keep their footing. Adequate footwear reduces this issue. At the end of our hike, Lake told me his boots had “really improved their mud skills” on the trek. He was right! He was able to keep his footing and his feet stayed dry all day in spite of the intermittent rain.
5) Steep inclines and declines are hard and kids need extra support. Not rocket science here, but holding hands on steep inclines and helping share the burden make these portions of the track much more enjoyable for all. It also helps keep pace going uphill and avoids discussion of needing to be carried. Similarly a strong hand going downhill can help avoid many slips and tumbles as kids learn better foot placement skills.
6) Let the kids lead the conversation. This is not new parenting advice, of course, but I have found long walks to be a unique opportunity to let the kids talk. It creates a rare, focused, uninterrupted time to talk. The boys relish in this opportunity. On this excursion, conversation spanned magic green and blue Knights with the ability to start a campfire with their swords to the process of mummification in ancient Egypt to various uses for a grappling hook. As our conversation followed the amazing journey through their heads, we also made great progress on the track. There are no toys, no chores, or other activities to distract any of us from focusing on one another.
7) Separating for portions of the walk into one parent / one child teams works well for us. It allows each of our boys to get uninterrupted attention from a parent and to focus on what interests him most. It also has the side benefit of avoiding a seemingly contagious condition of “I’m tired”-itis.
8) Observing our surroundings helps keep it interesting. The boys love to stop and look at different kinds of rocks, plants, and water features as we walk. We discuss the changes in landscape, types of trees, mud, rocks, etc. as we go. Picking specific items to observe at different points in the walk often encourages the boys to run down the path in search of the anticipated item. Trail markers can often be enough to keep them fascinated with the path ahead.
9) It’s a mental challenge for the parent too. I realized that believing the boys could do long walks was an important part of their succeeding. We had never tried long walks because the boys often complained about very short walks. Turns out that with longer walks they are able to get into a rhythm that we hadn’t experienced on shorter walks. On the long walk last week, the boys started to hit a wall about 30 minutes from the turnaround point. We were 3 hours into the adventure when they started to complain that they were tired. I felt myself panic. We were 3 hours of walking into the middle of nowhere and I found myself worrying about what would happen if they melted down. How would we get back? What had I done?! Turned out a 5 minute break, re-tying of the shoes, some extra attention and they were back at it. An hour later, we were running down the path and I was digging deep in myself just to keep up.
I told the boys I was writing this post and asked them if there are things he wanted to share. Lake wanted me to be sure to tell you that he taught Mommy that even though she was tired she could still run (he’s right). He also noted that his favorite parts of hiking are seeing beautiful things you couldn’t otherwise see and feeling proud when it is finished. He made sure to clarify being proud of his hike is different than liking every step. Finn’s advice is “bring whatever snacks the kids want!”
As with everything else in parenting, hiking / bush walking with young children is a different experience than doing it without them. It rarely includes the meditative silence I found on previous trips and I also find a lot less space for whining to myself about my own fatigue. In place of those things, I get to explore nature in a new way with my attention brought to little ferns and bizarre insects all the while having genuine quality time with kids. Over the next few days, we’re looking through a book of hikes as a family to pick our next one!
* We decided to exclude islands for our definition of northern and southern points. The northernmost point of continental Australia is the tip of Cape York. The southernmost point was a bit more complicated. We decided we would choose a point in Tasmania to meet the goal of southernmost point rather than the more commonly known, more northerly point in Wilson’s Promontory on mainland Australia. The problem is that the most southern exact point can only be reached by boat. We decided the most southernpoint that can be reached on foot was a lofty enough goal for our crew.
I don’t know if Tasmania noticed our absence, but we sure missed it! Last week we returned to Tassie and introduced this unique place full of natural wonders to our five year-old twins Lake and Finn, taking an overnight ride on The Spirit of Tasmania with our Land Cruiser and Cub Camper, dubbed “Cave Lion” and “Siberian Tiger,” respectively, by our Big Cat loving boys.
We were all super excited to make the trip to Tasmania. On the drive to Port Melbourne we came up with a new family song about taking an overnight boat from Port Melbourne to Devonport, Tasmania, to the delight of the boys. This ditty was performed during the hour-long lineup to drive aboard the Spirit. It was sung by yours truly, and pantomimed by a toy stuffed Mars planet, to a tune very loosely inspired by a combination of Andy Sandberg’s “On a Boat” and “Troodon Night Train” by Mr. Conductor on the kids’ show Dinosaur Train. Other passengers waiting to board only wished their radios would play such a melodious tunes…
The Spirit was ideal transport, with a restaurant, activities, a pub, and plenty of room to wander about as we left the mainland behind us. We stayed in a very comfortable berth with two sets of bunk beds, kids on bottom, parents on top. Amazingly, despite the excitement over our new adventure, we were all asleep with no issues by ten. The voyage on the Spirit can encounter rough seas, and I have to admit I was a bit concerned I would tumble off my bunk during the night. There was one time I woke up in the early morning hours and found myself looking down at Miranda. I knew this meant trouble, potentially, as she was also in a top bunk, and there was only one explanation why I could be looking down at her — this boat was really rocking! But luckily, no one fell, and we made it back to sleep, and the kids mostly slept through the night as well. I’m guessing if they can fall asleep during a 4WD track down a mountain in the Victorian high country, they can handle some waves! Overall I’m happy to report no major issues or sea sickness for the team!
The good news is that, even after all our adventuring over the mainland, Tasmania has not lost its shine. So far we’ve spent much of our time in the southeastern shores, with a long stint camping on Bruny Island, a pitstop in the Huon Valley and a run to the southernmost point. The coastlines here are raw, and the beaches can emerge in stretches of unblemished sand alternating with dramatic rock formations, windswept eucalypts or coastal spindle grasses. The rock formations are the most magical for me. Sometimes they are cliffs, where it’s easy to imagine Tasmania breaking off the mainland. Other times there are piles of boulders, or an intricate pattern with the sea intermingling with long flat rocks along narrow grooves carved slowly by the surf over time.
I’ve been so moved by the beauty here I’ve decided to embark on a new project. We are going to post 30 sunrise photos over the next month from our trip around Tassie to our MilesFromBrooklyn feed on Instagram. Just log on to Instagram and follow @MilesfromBrooklyn or search for #thirtytassiesunrises
I’ve included a few sunrises in this post, and we will do a follow up post when as we near 30. In the meantime, stay tuned for some exciting family adventures from Tasmania on MilesFromBrooklyn.
Finn and Lake were the extremely happy recipients of toy bows and arrows for Christmas. The good news is, before we venture too far into this tale, that we still have eight eyes between the four of us. The even better news is that these arrows were a massive hit with our adventure seeking young duo.
The inspiration for the gift was our eldest twin son Finn (by all of two minutes), who had been attempting to build a bow and arrow out of rubber bands and sticks ever since meeting a new friend named Mathew in Townsville, QLD. After our friends Cameron and Benita showed him a real bow and arrow in Rockhampton – Benita is a sharp shooter – his interest in them became an obsession. When we read him a book of Greek myths, Heroes, Gods and Monsters, Finn listened intently to the story of the huntress Atalanta, whose archery skills felled the wild Calydonian boar. He listened to that tale more than a few times. Now, nerf-like weapons in hand, Finn tears over the grass at a full sprint, his head swiveling from side to side with precision as he fires soft green arrows on all-comers: man, toy, dog, or magpie. This has, of course, made us a favorite among the parents of other five year olds in Bright…
Before descending on Bright, VIC where our bow and arrow frenzy has reached full throttle, we were camping in the lovely town of Ballarat at a family friendly Big4 there called The Windmill – run by what must have been the nicest staff in Victoria. Outside of Ballarat I had the pleasure of taking Lake and Finn to Castle Kryal, which was the kind of adventure that made me once again think how lucky I am to be a father of adventurous, imaginative twin boys!
We got the idea for going to Castle Kryal from Matthew, who had a set of toy knights and dragons, and enthusiastically recommended it! Kryal is a very kid friendly castle set in the style and dress of Arthurian Legend. Lake and Finn were the perfect age for this, with activities that included a lifesize maze, a wizard’s workshop, a playground shaped in the form of a castle, and of course a live jousting tournament. The kids are SUPER into lifesize mazes and we’ve been fortunate enough to come across a few recently (including an amazing one at Adventureland in the Riverlands, which leads you to a playground when you find the center!). Fortunately I had the key to this maze, courtesy of the “wizard’s apprentice” so I didn’t mind venturing in and letting Lake and Finn run wild despite the midday heat! I would highly recommend this maze because once you find the center, there is a quick path out and you’re free in thirty seconds.
Now, I have told Lake and Finn all about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, so they were properly stoked for this adventure. True to form, Finn’s favorite knight of the round table is Sir Perceval, one of the Grail Seekers. Of course, Finn likes Sir Perceval not for his feats of legend, but because of his beloved green pillow, Percy from Thomas the Train, who shares the same nickname. Lake doesn’t seem to have a favorite knight, but he loves King Arthur and Merlin, and listens intently to the stories. Lake can always tell when I don’t quite remember the tale. He doesn’t mind me making up a new ending – he just wants me to make sure I clarify what is “real” and what I am making up 🙂
Castke Kryal was loads of fun and we searched every bit of it – except the “torture chambers” -which were definitely targeted towards older kids…. Plus, I like to avoid torture chambers whenever possible. Our adventure began with a history of Castle Kryal that included an animatronic dragon in the style of Showbiz Pizza and a gripping tale of magic, intrigue and drama. Then we headed outside, where our gallant young five year-olds faced their destiny, stepping up to the legendary sword in the stone. Try as we might, none of us could pull it out. Alas, the Albanys are not the rightful heirs to the throne of England!
Without question, the highlight of the afternoon was the joust. The joust was the perfect mix of excitement without too much violence. It also included theme music well-suited for parents of my generation. As the knights prepared their steeds and lances, an emcee of sorts – still in period dress – announced that we all needed to rise before commencing the joust to listen to the national anthem of Kryal. What song was this? Picture kids, period-dressed actors, parents, and a smattering of black T-shirted medieval times enthusiasts rising to stomp their feet to We Will Rock You as the knights entered the arena. Fortunately, the mead was flowing – this was still Australia after all.
Then each knight circled the arena, raising their shield and lance to elicit crowd support. And yes, both Sir Baldwin the Lionhearted and Sir Godfrey the Blue brought theme music. Sabotage by the Beastie Boys and whatever that song is from the early naughts (or perhaps late 90s?) that goes like this: “I’m the fire starter! I’m the fire starter!” to screeching but somehow pleasing fast-paced dance music. (Fact checking has revealed this *song* was by an outfit called the Prodigy). Lake and Finn were enthralled. Their mouths dropped open. Those were really horses. Those were really lances. This was really a joust. Dust rose in a cloud as the knights gently kicked their steeds into action. A roar from the crown sounded as lance smashed upon shield. The Lion knight won, raising his shattered lance in victory, and making Lake happy (he loves lions). And after the joust there was a melee of sorts, in which one knight fired arrows carefully into another’s shield. Both boys had smiles from ear to ear as the arrows were let fly!
Adjusting Christmas family traditions while on the road can be a challenge. For most of December I found it difficult to imagine that Christmas was approaching. Nothing about the lead up to Christmas felt familiar. We hadn’t really celebrated Thanksgiving. We missed Chanukah entirely (oh my beloved latkes!). The stores in Australia had occasional Christmas references, but it is nothing near the all out Christmas extravaganza / deluge that engulfs every retail establishment in the United States. The decorations were at best understated and I don’t think I heard Christmas music playing anywhere. It was alternating between warm and hot during the day – not things I associate with the days before Christmas. I am from New England so all of our Christmases were cold even if they rarely qualified as a “white Christmas”.
It turns out that the preparation and anticipation of Christmas is a sensory experience for me and the absence of the usual stimuli made it easy to forget its approach.
We did feel it was important to make some effort to celebrate the day given that we have two 5 year olds that were eagerly anticipating its arrival.
We knew that having a tree would be impractical given that we were unsure of where would be spending Christmas. I saw a suggestion online to create a felt tree and then make the decorations. I loved the idea. We already had a tradition of spending an afternoon making felt ornaments every year with the kids, so this year we just added a tree and stockings to the creation process.
The boys were concerned at times about whether Santa would be able to find them so far from home. We reminded them that they had celebrated Christmas in many different places in the US in previous years, which helped a bit. The tree was – felt or not – was very reassuring about the red guy’s impending arrival. And the thing that finally warmed the boys to the idea of Christmas in Australia was the realization that they would get to open their presents many hours (16 hours in fact) ahead of when they would otherwise get them in New York.
Keeping the presents hidden was also a huge challenge with the kids. There are very few places to hide things when the sum total of our storage space is the back of the car and a few drawers on the trailer. We decided to do the small bit of shopping at one stop and then mail the gifts ahead to the our Christmas destination. (By the time we mailed them, we had decided to spend Christmas in Bright, VIC)
Our usual Christmas Eve meal of beef and cheese fondue was replaced by grilled steaks.
Once the kids were settled in the cabin that my mom had generously rented for us for Christmas, the camper trailer became the ideal wrapping location once the kids were settled into bed on Christmas Eve.
Our Christmas Day menu was an attempt to be Aussie-ish. We had a lamb roast with Wombok salad and then a Christmas pudding for dessert. Not sure whether we hit the mark, but it was a noble effort on our part given that we are used to foods much more cold weather friendly on Christmas.
I wish we had been able to magically transport to be with the rest of our friends and family to celebrate the holidays as that is the part I missed the most, of course. I feel fortunate that we were able to celebrate a lovely, warm Christmas day with my mom who made the trip here to be with us.
I hope all of you whether celebrating a warm or cold Christmas or none at all are enjoying a relaxing week!
I’ve just returned from what would have been an entirely unremarkable experience a few months ago. I had what can only be described as an average shower, but today it was glorious.
Two disclaimers before I begin. I am fully aware that some people will read this post and it will reveal me as a high maintenance camper or even (gasp!) a glamper.
I am also fully aware that some people will read this post in absolute disgust and perhaps feeling a bit squeamish about our dirt ridden state of affairs.
But alas, I will share some of the realizations on cleanliness I have had in our camping life over the last two months.
1) Washcloths should never be white when camping. This isn’t for the obvious reason that nothing should be white because it’s impractical. Rather, it is because the white washcloth reveals the honest assessment of the level of dirt that we carried into the shower. It’s horrifying! After one particularly dusty camp site I considered throwing out the washcloth convinced it could never be cleaned again.
2) There are different kinds of dirt. Of course this is stating the obvious, but some particularly finely grained dusty ground can be a real pain to eliminate – even after lots of soaking and swimming! I had never considered the possibility that my skin on my feet may be permanently stained from dirt.
which brings me to my next observation.
3) I miss pedicures. Need I say more?
4) It’s been a gradual but continual readjustment to lowering our general primping standards. I think it’s somewhat inevitable when living outdoors, but there are moments when it catches me by surprise and I suddenly wish that the person I am speaking to could see what I looked like in New York when I was dressed for work or to go out to dinner. Not because I want to be doing those a things, but just so they know I didn’t always look so unkempt… You’ll be relieved to know I have not yet resorted to this activity… I think it would be awkward in the middle of the conversation 🙂
5) There are few mirrors encountered in camping life. Initially it was odd to go many days without seeing my image. Now it’s often a relief.
6) Campground showers can sometimes be a conspiratorial ally of the dirt and enemy of cleanliness. The bathrooms are basically never heated so if you are not in a warm weather, it is a torturous experience to take a shower in the cold – particularly without hot water! And worse, a gross campground shower is … gross…
All that is to say, on a day that I get a hot shower with good pressure and passable ambient room temperature, I am left with an appreciation of it in a way that I never had when it was always available to be 20 feet from where I slept.
With no television and extremely limited electronic device rationing, we have had a great time reading with Lake and Finn – and watching them take it up! The kids have enjoyed looking at books on their own, and a favorite series for them is the DK Readers Star Wars and Clone Wars collections, which includes at least five levels depending on how advanced you want to be. These also cover the fighting and potentially scary aspects of Star Wars more tactfully on the lower reading levels. It’s funny because, other than knowing Poppa likes Star Wars, they have developed a surprisingly strong affinity for Star Wars with books and figures only – they haven’t seen any of the movies. Yet….
Lake and Finn have really enjoyed these DK Readers books, and Lake will get really proud when he can read a new level on his own. His favorite is called Yoda in Action. Finn’s favorite is a Spiderman DK Reader where Spidey must help cure the “Lizard Man,” a father who accidentally turns into a lizard man, but who doesn’t really want to be a villain. At this point Lake can read all of our kids early reading books alone, and I was pretty amazed to find him reading The Twits by Roald Dahl with Finn the other day, which I had read them aloud a few weeks before. I am searching my brain for good books I liked when I was young that he might enjoy and we might be able to find at a library or second hand store here.
You may ask: What are good books for reading aloud when traveling with your five year-old kids in a camper trailer around Australia? I remember having the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe read to me at this age, but try as I might, I can’t get the kids interested. Witches are scary, and they have busted me twice trying to trick them by reading about the “Lion the Lady and the Closet.”
Surprisingly, there have been some very relevant books for our journey. Of course, a childhood favorite of mine, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day is perfect for packing up your family and moving to Australia. The main character is a boy – Alexander – who wants to move to Australia, where he imagines no good very bad days just don’t happen, except to his enemies: “I hope the next time you get a double-decker strawberry ice cream cone the ice cream part falls off the cone and lands in Australia.” That’s just pure gold for taking the kids to Australia, though we have yet to find the giant pile of strawberry ice cream scoops at the end of the rainbow.
And then there’s the incredible trove of Roald Dahl. I mentioned we read The Twits, during which I addressed the fact that Poppa, too, has grown a furry beard. Of course, unlike Mr. Twit, I do not store morsels of food in it for consumption later in the week (just as a snack in between meals). The climax of the Twits involves an intricate plot by crows to trick the Twits into shrinking themselves, which the boys thought was hilarious. We have seen quite a few crows traveling Australia, so it has made for good conversation. And Finny LOVES any plot that involves either shrinking the bad guys or turning them into babies.
Then there is the Dahl book tailor made for our adventure, Danny Champion of the World, where the main character lives in a caravan with his story-telling father. The boys’ favorite in this category is the BFG, and who can blame them. That was my favorite, too!
On longer driving days we have also turned to book tapes. The challenge of children’s book tapes is that as an adult you either have to be interested or be able to ignore them. I prefer to pick ones I can follow along with too so we have something else we can talk about later. At first the kids’ favorites were the Magic Tree House series, which stars Jack and Annie, young kids who travel though time using books and a bit of magic. Their favorite big boy in the world, Ben, gave them the first set of these in paperback, and the series has gone a long way. Mary Pope Osborn, the author of the Magic Tree House Series, also wrote a kids version of The Odyssey, which Lake and Finn enjoyed so much we took a chance a downloaded an older mythology book called Heroes Gods and Monsters. This was a HUGE hit. Lake enjoys listening to the list of the Greek gods and asking me what their Roman names are. Finn loves the story of Perseus, which fortunately is the longest hero tale in the book. Why Perseus? Is it the flying shoes? The dalliance with the daughters of Atlas right under his nose? The thrilling battle with the gorgon Medusa? Nope. As far as I can tell, the main reason he likes this tale is because the main character’s name is close to Percy, a pillow that is his most prized possession. He listens to the story, then reenacts the heroic part with Percy. And some days he’ll tell me- Poppa, Percy is Perseus today!
We’d love to hear from you if you have any suggestions you think our five year olds would enjoy. Please let us know by email or in the comments section at the bottom of this post!
You might be wondering after reading about our adventures in Kingoonya – how did this crazy family of city slickers from Brooklyn make it through the Outback from Longreach through the Strzelecki desert anyway? Shouldn’t they be crow food? It’s a good question! Fortunately for all involved, our travels through the Outback involved no snakes other than this one fascinating piece of art near the beginning of our journey.
The thing about driving in remote areas is that it’s really key not to be an idiot. Mistakes take on a much larger meaning when you’re 400kms from civilization. A few good examples of things to avoid include: 1) ignoring crocodile threat signs – always a bad idea; 2) actually knowing how to turn on / engage your four wheel drive before you leave the paved road; and 3) not taking a precaution for something because you think: “Hey, I’m in good shape, worst case scenario I can walk it.” These sound simple, I know, but you would be surprised at the amount of times we were told horror stories of Europeans, Canadians, and even our own countrymen not making it out of the Outback on account of doing these very same things. To be fair, I didn’t specifically hear of a Canadian doing something foolish, but I suspect one did, and, for once, decided it was OK just this time to let everyone assume he was an American…. Zing!
Regardless, we did not want our adventure to become a story that began like this: “Don’t be like those foolish Americans who went in the outback with their twins…”Knowing we were not from these parts, and that book smarts and spreadsheets don’t necessarily help much when you break down in the middle of nowhere, Miranda and I went to a lot of effort to be as prepared as possible as we set out into wide open country. (Read: Miranda went to a lot of effort, and I was impressed by her planning). We were not keen on becoming a permanent part of this baking desert landscape, like this guy, whom we came across on The Strzelecki Track:
Some of the key preparations we took involved bringing a week’s worth of water, a first aid kit, desert comms including a nifty SPOT device we could activate in the event of an emergency, and lots of spare parts for our Cruiser, among other things. Most importantly we asked experts like our friend Vic from Great Divide Tours (who has helped us heaps as you can see in our earlier posts) what we needed to plan for- and what we needed to be wary of- when exploring Australia off-road and in remote areas. We also came prepared with both the hard copy and GPS versions of HEMA maps – a move I thought was overkill until this particular trip – read on to learn why!
We loved driving through Outback Queensland. The small communities we passed through along the way were full of friendly people who took pride in being great hosts. And the drive was the kind of beautiful that is more an experience than a pretty picture. It’s the way the side of the road moves softly from scrubby to dusty to sandy and back again, alternating from brown to yellow to red, with the hues of each changing depending on the shadows and position of the sun. It’s the general effect of the changing mineral content mixing with the air in the slow bake of the sun throughout the day.
After our enjoyable stop in the iconic outback destination of Birdsville, home to famous races, a friendly pub, scorching heat and dust, we set out southward across even more desolate and inhospitable country, heading down a lonely dirt track across the South Australian border to Innamincka, which would be our launching point for the Strzelecki Track. Innamincka is a small town of about 130 people, and the local pub was a bustle on the Friday night we rolled into town. After a Cooper’s Pale Ale and a meal we headed to our campsite at the Town Commons, which was a nice campground by the river, teeming with birds and incredible red gum trees with twisted shapes formed from battling the wind and lack of water.
The Strzelecki Track is a desolate road that takes you from Innamincka to Lyndhurst, and was made famous by a cow thief, Harry Redford, who became a folk hero after leading a thousand stolen cattle through the barren wasteland that he was apparently acquitted at trial despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt. I imagine the jury read the verdict as “good on ya.” I can only imagine how a cow thieves made it through this path. I took a very brief jog one day on our journey to see how it felt and spent 20 minutes recovering in the aircon. Camel thieves, perhaps.
You might be wondering what we do on drives through the desert? Me, I stare at my surroundings in awe and try to compel everyone else in the car to talk about how neat it is to see such a barren landscape that it feels like you can actually see the earth curve on the horizon. Miranda, she humors my commentary and also enjoys the landscape- especially when there is red dirt to be seen. We also partook in a few podcasts – Serial, of course! Lake and Finn? Well, they enjoy the scenery occasionally, but mostly they enjoy sticker books, imaginary games with Magnetiles and toy figures, and book tapes. During this trip they followed the story of Odysseus from Troy back home to Ithaca, peppering me with background questions as we drove along. It was kind of amazing for me that they became so deeply engaged in the Odyssey while we are all involved in our own epic journey in a desert that definitely was miles from Brooklyn.
Lake and Finn were so engaged in the Odyssey that they barely noticed when Miranda and I began doing incredibly foolish things – just as we had tried not to do- in the middle of the desert – Yikes!
It all started at lunchtime at the well-known Merty Merty Dune, a striking large red sand dune alongside the track. I popped out of the car into the blazing heat, loping up and over the dunes with the camera while Miranda went around to the back of the Cruiser to get lunch ready for the boys.
Here’s the thing. It’s always the incredibly mundane things that hurt you badly. Just before we left on our trip, I had one of the worst cuts of my life while making Lake a cheese sandwich. We know that things move around in the back car while we drive, especially when we’re not on bitumen. But sometimes you just don’t remember, and as soon as Miranda opened the back, before she could do anything, our backpack fell on her foot. I heard a serious cry of pain. Miranda was down, possibly with the bone at the top of her foot broken, not capable of walking. We were in the desert. Despite all our planning efforts – which yes, did include extensive packing and a drawer system in the way back to prevent just this kind of injury- we had managed to incur an injury doing the most mundane act!
Suddenly the what-ifs started creeping into my brain. Where is that satellite phone again? Maybe it’s not such a good idea to run off over the dunes anymore- time to assess the situation and move on. We propped Mirm’s foot on the dash, and headed out. Miranda winced with every corrugation on the track, and I was getting very concerned.
It turned out Miranda’s foot was only deeply bruised, but we didn’t know this, and in our panic to get back in the safety of the car and moving on towards a place where we could see a doctor if we needed to, we made a wrong turn. Foolish move número dos. Neither of us noticed the error as we drove over stunning red dunes for the next 50 kilometers. Then Miranda pointed out our HEMA maps was showing us going the wrong way! Who would have thought there was another dirt track out there among the dunes?
Then we started calculating our remaining fuel. Panic is one of those things you have to force yourself to swallow down and ignore so you can think straight. We attempted to do so. We should have had ample fuel, but these off the track dunes were steep, using more fuel, and the round trip of our navigational error was about 100km – almost 20% of our tank in flat off-road conditions. Although the track did get traffic from time to time, we hadn’t seen another automobile since we turned onto the track. If we made another wrong turn, we might find ourselves being the foolish tourists walking out of the desert! When we got back to the main track, we had to make a decision: either retrace 40% of the trip to Innamincka, which we would surely make, but would be over rough and often corrugated roads, or press further, challenging our fuel tank on a track where the quality improves as you head toward Lyndhurst. We did some quick math and I determined that we should be able to make it Lyndhurst with 50kms of gas to spare, which seemed ample, so after a short debate we pushed onward…
Then HEMA started to come in handy. HEMA Maps is the serious mapping company in Australia, on road and off, and we were very glad to have one in our Cruiser – if only we’d been looking at it earlier! The GPS we were using hadn’t had the software updated in a while, and lost track of where we were, missing a few turns and being generally unreliable for this stage – this can happen when you fail to update the maps software, as we had. But the worst was, after we switched to the fuel sub-tank, the GPS got confused and added 80kms to our projected route. More than our 50km buffer – Yikes! It was as if, like Odysseus, we had offended the gods, and they decided to make our journey longer in turn! Fortunately we pulled out our trusty HEMA physical map, and rechecked all of our calculations. We pressed on after camping for the night in the Montecollina Bore. Somehow we were able to forget about our potential fuel issues in the Bore. Miranda’s foot was feeling better, though she was still not fully ambulatory, and we were all fascinated by the hundreds of birds that seemed to come from nowhere to play in the bore. There were little white parrots and pink parrots, all making beautiful sounds, singing and chirping in the desert.
We were fascinated by their interplay. It was as if they were taking organized turns in the pool. A group would fly to the edge of the water from the dunes, sing and play in the water, and then head back to the dunes as another group flew forward. Talk about an oasis! Lake and Finn (and Poppa) found about 500 birds gathering in the dunes behind the Bore, perhaps waiting their turn, and decided it was a great time to run full speed into the flock, sending them all scurrying upwards! It was quite a site (and sound!).
The next morning I packed up as quickly as possible while Miranda entertained the boys and rested her foot. The sun was coming up quickly and the cool desert night had transformed into head. There wasn’t much shade, it being the desert and all, so I used what I could and worked under shadow of the cruiser and camper. I put Cave Lion in gear and turned onto the track, wondering if she’d make it, or whether I would suffer the indignity of having to call for help just 30kms out of Lyndhurst. I need not tell you which intrepid traveller had assured the other that he was good with numbers and that we had “plenty” of diesel. Gulp.
I’m happy to report that after a few hours the GPS miraculously switched back to a forecast that matched our own calculations. Whew! We rolled into Lyndhurst, sighs all around, ready for a shower and an ice cold stubby! Miranda’s foot healed in a few days, and now I continually make the joke that objects may have moved in the way back compartment during our journey, so please be careful when opening the rear hatch…. I am still waiting for a laugh on that one!
Other considered titles
My Worst Nightmare
Worst Night Ever
Oh. My. God. Last Night
A disclaimer before I begin. No one was hurt and therefore in the grand scheme of events that can occur during our travels in the outback this was inconsequential. And yes, we are already aware of all of the deadly creatures and assorted threats possible during remote travel.
My sister, Eliza flew from Brooklyn to travel with us for three weeks. We were incredibly excited to see her and eager to give her a taste of our travel experience.
After a day picking her up and getting organized in Adelaide we headed northwest to show her a bit of the desert before heading to the beach.
We settled on an evening in Kingoonya, which is about 40 kms off the Sturt Highway and positioned us to travel due south to explore the Eyre Peninsula. It was evident after a long day in the car that this was not her idea of a vacation. Packed car. Long driving days. Long stretches of nothing but desert scrub. After driving all day, we pulled up off a dirt road to a camp site. I was enthusiastic about the flushing toilets, but apparently the otherwise barren landscape didn’t translate to a great find.
We cracked open our cold beers in the 100 degree F (40 degree C) weather to discuss the days ahead. I was busy worrying that we had gone too far afield and the camping was a bit rough. I was reminded that our adventure is not everyone’s idea of fun. After a bit, we all settled in and I was starting to gain confidence that the plan was OK.
We were all sitting around in our camp chairs waiting for our curried lentils from Smitten Kitchen (try this recipe… It’s fantastic!!) to finish cooking when a I spied a slithery brown friend approaching our camp. Like any experienced camper, I stood up on my chair and screamed “SNAKE!”
Before I tell the rest of the story, I must disclose a couple of things. First, I hate snakes. I have been terrified of them for as long as I can remember. My memory of my first nightmare of my life was snakes in the desert. In the weeks leading up to our departure, all of my anxiety was manifest in dreams where snakes appeared at my campsite. It’s a phobia. I get it. I’m not afraid of bugs. I am terrified of snakes. The second important thing for you to know is that it is relatively rare to see snakes. In the last 4 months on the road, we have only seen 3 snakes and 2 of them were from the car (though to be fair – one was a python that stretched across the length of the road- yikes!) On the whole, snakes aren’t interested in people and if you aren’t looking for them, they’re relatively easy to avoid.
So here we are. I’m standing on my chair. Liza is on her chair as is Finn, and Lake is watching the snake. I have tossed Jay the headlamp and asked him to track the snake to ensure that the snake continues it’s travels beyond our trailer and into the night. As we are eagerly awaiting confirmation that the first snake has departed, one of the boys screams “another one!”
The next several minutes unfold as only a nightmare can. One snake, then another one – longer! THEN ANOTHER! (Jay: they were clearly being drawn to the sweet smell of lentils wafting softly over the red gravel). So, now we have 5 snakes slithering amidst our campsite. I am pondering what level of stress could actually lead to my death on the spot. As the seventh snake twirled around her blue Dune camper chair, Miranda expires…..
But the saving grace that keeps me breathing is the overwhelming guilt I feel for putting my sister in this situation. Somehow the competing anxieties are offsetting each other enough to sustain my erratically beating heart. In the lead up to her visit, I repeatedly offered that any fear of encountering any of the awful Australian critters was theoretical but irrelevant possibility. Joke is on me. Luckily the boys are calmly observing and noting aloud the paths of the various reptilian visitors. One passed under Lake’s chair, for example.
I try inadequately to suggest this is an unusual occurrence as Jay whisks the kids into our tent. Liza and I scurry behind taking as few steps as possible to reach our canvas safe house. She announces she will not be sleeping in her separate tent tonight, as we see a brown fiend unfurl from beneath her tent fly.
Jay brings a table and dinner into the tent and we all try to settle down to have a semi normal dinner. (Our hero!) We are shocked and wondering how we would handle needing to use the facilities during the night. I found myself wishing we had alcohol in more concentrated forms than beer! The dinner turned out quite well and our excited discussions of the snakes were intermingled with exclamations of how good our dinner tasted. We really are a food loving family.
So we all tucked in for the night a little after 10PM. I was just drifting off to sleep as the wind kicked up. I listened and initially felt disappointed it would be such a windy night. The canvas can be a bit noisy in the wind and it doesn’t always lend itself to the best night’s sleep. Oh, how wrong I was to worry about that!
Over the next several minutes the wind went from annoyingly loud to exceedingly concerning. The canvas buckling in on us as the wind raged. By this time Finn is shouting “Mommy, what’s happening?!?!” And the adults are casting worried glances at each other. I remembered we were under a tree and decided immediately that we needed to get the kids out of the tent and into the car. (I know this is why you don’t set up a tent under trees… It was just SO hot…)
Liza and I each grabbed a kid as Jay furiously tried to close up our camper. The winds were so strong it was hard to get to the car. All of our items that had been left outside were now strewn about. We made it inside the car and the world quieted just a bit. I realized we needed to unhitch the trailer from the car so I could drive away from the trees.
Jay and I were standing next to each other, trying in vain to shout over the winds with the pelting sand stinging our skin. The pin in the hitch was jammed! It really felt like we were in a bad movie at this stage. Who would even believe this absurdist plot twist. We finally get it free. I jump in the car, drive away from the trees and position our high beams on the trailer as Jay continues to try to close the camper trailer. Liza and I are back and forth from the car trying to help and feeling woefully inadequate against the elements.
Then the skies open up and the rains begin. The torrential kind. (Now I need to take a moment here to share some relevant info about heavy rain that may not be apparent to city dwellers who dread rain because it slows down trains. Rain also floods dirt roads and erodes the surface enough to render them impassable. Most dirt tracks like the one we are on includes notes that say they are in good enough condition to drive except if it rains…”drive to conditions indeed!”)
Wow. This night just went from unbelievable to beyond absurd and now into some other stratosphere that words fail to capture the circumstance.
Jay dashes to the car having closed the camper in record time (Jay- don’t expect this kind of enthusiastic performance in the morning – adrenaline works better than coffee apparently 🙂 ) Now we are all sitting in the car and taking a collective sigh of relief.
So this is the story of how the five of us ended up sleeping in the car. We really know how to show our visitors a good time!
Once light emerged we were able to assess the damage. Our things were spread quite some distance all around. Liza’s tent was wrapped around the tree but generally we were pretty unscathed… At least among our material possessions.
With our planned track impassable, we decided on the only logical recourse. We headed straight to wine country.
It was about 12 degrees Celsius hotter than our guidebook’s projected average Spring temperature for pretty much our entire trip from Longreach to Adelaide. Ouch!
Last Wednesday a friendly caretaker at Beltana Station saw sweat tickling down my brow and asked me how hot it gets in New York. She had seen a movie one time where the main character is a woman who is trying to escape oppressive heat in a New York summer. I almost didn’t want to answer because this was going to be the alligator and the crocodile all over again. And the “American” position never fares well in that debate.
In case you’re an American wondering what I’m talking about, well, let’s put it this way: Australians aren’t much impressed by alligators. To hear them tell it, they consider Gators at about the same threat level as a pet iguana. And I’m not talking about the Gators coached (for now) by Will Muschamp. I’m talking real toothy gators hungry for a meal. Everywhere we go, if the subject comes up, Australians point out that crocodiles are far bigger and tougher than alligators. Now, I have wrestled neither alligator nor crocodile, and have no imminent plans to, but by all accounts the saltwater crocodile is a super predator which hunts man and beast alike with an unmatched wild ruthlessness. They are hard to spot – it’s the croc you don’t see that gets you- and I want no part of an unexpected croc encounter. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make alligators geckos. An alligator is certainly capable of ending you, or at least taking a limb. Apparently there is a reality show about Cajun Gator hunters popular in Queensland, which made it seem like alligators are weak animals. I have no way of verifying either that the hunters were Cajun or what they did that made the gators seem docile, having not seen the show, but Aussies out there I assure you – gators will bite hard if provoked.
Back to my story. So you see my predicament. When I say a hot summer’s day in New York is in the mid-90s, my new friend will do the math (35 degrees Celsius) and chuckle. You see, 35 is hot of course, but it’s in the mid 40s today here and still Spring. I don’t even want to know what 50 degrees feels like (122 degrees), but we will almost certainly encounter it in the summer if we come back to the interior. The thing is, New York IS hot in the summer, even at 35 Celsius. Sure, it’s no Outback, but with the humidity and the heat from the concrete, busy streets, smog and automobiles, it gets petty darn uncomfortable. I suspect even this woman would emerge from the subway drenched in sweat if she were unfortunate enough to have to wait too long for a train during a commute from a subway platform without aircon in her office attire. But if I say any of this, it will just sound like an excuse, like I can’t admit my inferiority. Even my Alabama childhood, which consisted of long stretches of 100-plus degree days in the summer, doesn’t really compare to 50 Celsius with no AC. Plus, this place had alpacas…I’m just saying, it’s not likely you will ever win the one up game against someone who has alpacas…
My dad used to describe this as the “one up game”, something in human nature that compels people to tell a bigger or better story after they hear you tell your story.
Well, I answered the question. “95 degrees.” Her eyes moved as she calculated mid-30s. She shrugged. “That’s not so hot.” I tried to explain about the humidity, about the amplification of heat in the city. “Still, it’s a lot hotter than that here, right now,” she said, clearly let down by 95 degrees. I couldn’t bring myself to discuss heat indexes. Instead I tried to recover with an Alabama story, about how hot it was at a BBQ festival I went to at Sloss furnace one time when the temperature was 102, people were smoking ribs everywhere, and the heat was coming at you from the sun, the gravel, the cooking and the furnace. I got a look of mild approval when I reminded her of the unmatched Alabama humidity factor.
Then she made her next move in what had clearly become a losing hand for me in the one up game. She tells me of an outback summer day in the 50s, no aircon (I just don’t understand that part!). “It was so hot, she says, people were flooding into the hotel (also local pub) because It was the coolest place in the town, paying top dollar for a cold drink,and watching birds drop dead from heat, falling to the ground right out of the tree in the town square. Yep, birds were just falling from the trees.” Game. set. Match. We have found the one up champion of the world in the “how hot is your town” tourney. >