I have just returned from a 2-week stint through the Northern Territory and Northern Queensland, an exciting and exhiliarting “safe” adventure that we could enjoy with the whole family. Since the Australian outback is a vast and empty space, and getting around means spending a lot of time on the road, we decided that camping was our best option. Yes, there are motels, roadhouses and hotels en route, but really, the standards will not be the same as in the city. Also, camping meant that we didn’t need to worry about where we might end up for the night, even in a worst case scenario we would have the luxury of comfortable beds, cooking facilities and heating. Because what we did was not just “camping” but – I read this term only recently and think it’s rather befitting – “glam-ping”. Yes, we camped out, but we did it in style. Our vehicle of choice was a 6-berth motorhome rental complete with A/C, TV, shower and toilet. Since we were only 2 adults and 2 kids, there was plenty of storage space and no need to set up beds at the end of a long day on the road – we could just climb in and crash, perfect! Fully equipped this way we mastered around 3,500km of outback highways in around 10 days, with 2 kids of primary school age. No major dramas or breakdowns, but lots of great stories to tell and photos to share which I will do in the next couple of posts.
On our trip from Alice Springs to Cairns…
- We learnt about Aboriginal life past and present,
- We took a wrong turn and paid dearly for it,
- We flew over the desert,
- We stayed for a night in the UFO capital of Australia,
- We bought mango sorbet from a mango and wine producing farm in the middle of the desert,
- We stopped at a roadhouse that was clattered with travellers’ memorabilia from all around the world,
- We looked for dinosaurs and opals, and
- We frolicked in the tropical sun of the North Queensland coast, plus much much more.
So if you are the slightest bit intrigued, subscribe to the blog now and get updates when the latest posts roll in. But first things first.
The Outback as a Travel Destination
Driving through the outback is an experience of a lifetime but I appreciate it may not be for everyone. On any given trip there will be a couple of highlights along the way, but the distances are incredibly long, to a point that you can hardly fathom that the world is indeed such a big place. Once you are travelling even the smallest distraction will turn into a fulfilling attraction but you need to be open and see the value in it. If all you want is a selfie of yourself in front of a popular European attraction which you can then cross off your bucket list, then the outback experience might not be for you.
How to prepare for the Outback
Now, travelling over such a long time, on the road, with kids, requires some thorough preparation, even if the safety and comfort of a motorhome will allow some room for error. There were a couple of things that I packed or bought on the first day that brought up the same thought over and over again, “Thank God I thought of that, it makes my life so much easier!”
For maintenance and cleanliness on the road, I purchased sanitising liquid hand soap, a general purpose cleaner, and paper towels. I also brought with me enough washing powder for three loads of washing, which turned out to be a lifesaver, as laundries were universally available in all campgrounds, and due to the distances we travelled we needed several climate fitting clothes, hence I had to wash some stuff along the way for re-use.
I also packed some baby wet wipes, just in case, which as it turned out I never needed, but it was good to have them anyway. I also packed a super sharp kitchen knife as I am never happy with the knives I am supplied with in holiday rentals, and a chopping board, just to be on the safe side. I also brought along some extra towels and kitchen towels which was good as there was not enough that had come with our rental.
On the road I eventually purchased a salad bowl and colander – I was under the impression that this was part of the motorhome deal, but there were none when we started our trip and I was getting tired of drying my lettuce on kitchen towels and eating my salad out of a saucepan.
There are long stretches of highway with no mobile phone reception, something you have to get used to. The travel guides of Lonely Planet therefore were a priceless possession, with enough detail to help us map out our next section of the trip, and some really good tips on what to see and where to stay. We are so used to the internet these days, we sometimes forget to consult good old paper books. On a road trip like this guide books are invaluable.
On a road trip to sanity with two kids under 8
The tricky part was to keep the kids entertained for a couple of days. They are only 7 and 5, so while they do manage to entertain themselves to a certain degree these days, there are some limits. Thankfully, these two make a good team and don’t bicker or fight.
The 6-berth motorhome allowed that the kids could enjoy the drive seated while facing each other in the dining area. They could also choose to sit next to each other, looking in the same direction, plus I could join them from time to time if needed and help distract them (which wasn’t needed many times, I have to say). Plus, since they were seated in the dining area of the motorhome, they could make use of the dining table. Now, please note that it’s actually not recommended to drive while the table is installed, but given that we were driving long stretches of lonely highway we considered the risk minimal.
This way, the kids could read, do activity books and draw, so I made sure we had plenty of textas, paper and activity books in our suitcases. We also packed other toys that were brand-new to them and that wouldn’t have small pieces. Unfortunately, there seems to be only a small selection of travel toys in Australia, for example we couldn’t find board games with magnetic pieces anywhere. Definitely something toy manufactures or importers should look into.
We made sure we pulled out these toys one by one, only when we sensed that boredom was slowly creeping in or the mood was down. Having two of each helps by the way to prevent any fighting or jealousy. We are not so keen on electronic toys but our concession were two small kid friendly digital cameras which proved to be an absolute hit as the kids could now copy mommy who was always venturing out at stops to take 1000’s of pictures of buildings, wildlife, trees, rocks, and people.
With a motorhome you may also have the opportunity to operate the TV while driving but we never tried. Again, same thing as with electronic toys – once you go down that road you cannot turn back, and sometimes it’s hard to please both kids, and movies are a real commitment. Also, the noise of the engine and the vibrations while driving may not have made for such a great experience anyway, so we tried to avoid the TV at all costs and simply told them that it was broken, which is of course a white lie.
This also helped when kicking them out once we had stopped for the night. After spending a good deal of the day sitting I find it extremely important that the kids go out and play. Luckily, most of the campgrounds we stayed at had a playground or were at least kid-friendly in some way. A small ball, some flashlights, etc. helped the little explorers having their own adventures.
Winter really is the best season
Lastly, a couple of words about travelling the outback in winter. Winter actually is the ideal time to travel, since it’s not scorching hot and you are not being overrun by flies (just a little bit).
I was unsure when we packed our suitcases but I was happy I made the right decision – a winter jacket, beanies, scarves etc. are indeed necessary if you want to travel to Uluru in July. The nights are cold, even freezing, and the daytime wind can carry a chill that can travel easily through jumpers and light clothes. Once the sun was up the temperatures were not too bad, but the wind could make a big difference. A good idea was to have several layers of clothes that could be removed gradually as needed.
On the up side we never really had to worry about flies, the big plague of the outback. So forget about fly nets and the like, you will probably have no need for it.
However, moisturiser and lip balm turned out to be a real treat as the light dust of the sand dried our skin out in no time. In fact, our little girl suffered from nose bleeding twice, both while we were in the Red Centre, and nose bleeding is extremely rare with her.
Carry plenty of fluid when hiking, even in winter, as the dryness of it all can have some really strange effects on your body.
So now we are all set, our things are packed, the route defined, the kids entertained. Let’s go!
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