A gap year around Australia changed our family

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Courtesy The Sydney Morning Herald

Before we left on our gap-year lap around Australia, my husband and his mates had a wager. How long would Kate last on this camping adventure with her family? Some predicted as little as a month; the most was three months. I feigned offence, but a bit of me wondered if they were on the money. Four of us in a tiny camper trailer, for almost a year, with no real plans?

I was an over-scheduled working mum secretly thriving on my busy-ness. I loved the gym, my girlfriends and long lunches; my job, bed and creature comforts. Long drives bored me. But I was excited at the thought of spending quality time with my family.

After years of dreaming, it happened quickly. Two months after delivery of our camper trailer, we were on the road. But I had no idea how to slow down. I had gone straight from school to university to work, never stopping to smell the roses. I was a pent-up traveller, wanting to control the day, frustrated by the lack of direction. Meanwhile, the boys – aged 10 and 12 – missed their routines and friends. Sharing a small space, they had to get used to being around each other and us 24/7. Hubby was burdened by responsibility, constantly tinkering in a paranoid funk that something was going wrong with car or trailer.

Then, at six weeks – just as it had when the kids were newborns – something clicked. We got used to one another’s rhythms, more respectful of personal space and levels of hangry-ness. We became hooked on the discoveries around the corner: a rock waterfall better than any plastic slide or white sand dunes perfect for boogie boarding.

A gap year around Australia changed our family

Our route was a figure of eight – up the east, down through the middle, back up the west – exploring the world’s best reef, oldest rainforest, most spiritual desert. What a country to traverse, regularly off-road, with the red dust, slashed tyres and smashed windscreen to show for it. We put up and put down the camper trailer 34 times, often in fly-nets that made us look like a family of beekeepers. We camped on gorges, cliff tops, beaches, salt lakes; by state border signs, ancient rocks and even more ancient lava tubes.

“We rode camels in Broome and chased emus across the Nullarbor. We had stand-up battles with feisty kangaroos, stepped over crocs and wandered among bats.”

At a plethora of caravan parks, action-packed with water slides, putt putt golf and roaming coffee vans, or – not so nice – rowdy, rum-filled lads yelling at their kids. We avoided those ones.

There are other snapshots. Scrambles up rocks into picture-book gorges, deep, blue and all ours. Five-star campfire meals under the stars. The stories of our Indigenous culture and history. Clusters of savannahs, boabs, gums.

The way the land comes to life; the colours and lights. The smell of earth, salt, eucalypt, heat. Of freedom. The sounds: birdsong from flocks of cockatoos and galahs, hundreds strong, swooping and squawking to wake the dead. Groaning cows stumbling past the campsite. Nosy bowerbirds and thieving crows; cicadas, of course.

Walking barefoot and unhurried, with all sense of time long lost, was the most soul-nourishing way to experience this diverse land. A long walk at sunrise was how I began most days. The sun slipped over the dunes or through the trees, hermit crabs or lizards scurried underfoot, birds plummeted to the sea or ground for fish or worms.

For a few nights we abandoned the trailer with glee: a deserted house on the Nullarbor, an underground B&B in Coober Pedy, an Airbnb protected from the driving Port Lincoln rain, which we didn’t leave for two days, doing seven loads of washing, watching bad TV and lolling in the joy of solid doors, puffy couches and efficient dryers. We also hired a 36-foot catamaran, learning to sail on the fly, exploring the wide Whitsunday seas for two weeks. We barbecued freshly caught fish off the back of the boat at sunset, snorkelled in our stinger suits and island-hopped – exploring the great walks and abandoned, once-great resorts like amateur anthropologists.

Back on land, we rode camels in Broome and chased emus across the Nullarbor. We had stand-up battles with feisty kangaroos, stepped over crocs and wandered among bats. We were bitten by quokkas on Rottnest, stung by bluebottles in Illaroo and sucked by leeches on a wet, 17-kilometre walk in Springbrook National Park (family tally: 372).

We searched for: gold, fossils, opals, garnets, dinosaurs, oysters, pearls. We took so many tours – museums and galleries, nature walks, mines, caves, astrology, farms – and met passionate, knowledgeable, Indigenous elders and battle-hardened, salt-of-the-earth farmers who hadn’t seen rain for years. We crept across salt lakes, climbed onto treetop walks, basked in hot springs, showered in natural swimming holes and coasted into gorges – about 80 in total.

We cycled by beautiful avocado, sugar cane, corn and banana plantations in Atherton and climbed past wildflowers in Ravensthorpe. We walked across a meteor crater, canyons, ranges and rocks of all shapes and so many colours. We got to know the moon via telescope during a night in the desert of Karijini National Park, under trillions of stars – there are more stars in the universe, we learnt, than grains of sand on earth. We played cards in the deafening outback silence.

There were wobbly moments. Setting up the camper trailer, hot and bothered, or in the dark, after a long drive. Red dust through hair, car, bed, clothing. Rain, sneaking in sideways through the zippered door and making adventures and bathroom trips difficult. Getting bogged in the middle of nowhere. We missed ice, fresh vegetables, friends, Wi-Fi. We hated home schooling. And the mozzies, midges and so many flies. In Townsville, we all got some kind of week-long, awkward, itchy family rash, possibly from bird mites. Our bikes were stolen in Brisbane.

But everyone on their Big Lap will tell you they feel so lucky. The finance guy who lost a close friend to cancer and decided life was too short to spend so much of it away from his kids. The hundreds of grey nomads escaping cold suburban lives or celebrating retirement. The surfie who had been shot in the head and was hoping nature would help. The man who had been travelling for 21 years – with swag, fishing rods, dog – and reckoned he’d barely scratched the surface.

A gap year around Australia changed our family

The plumber, nurse, arborist, disability worker, long-haul truck driver, builder and teachers (so many teachers!) – hitting pause to work out life’s priorities. And the Towns family, discovered off a messy dirt road in the middle of nowhere, sitting in their cossies by a croc-filled creek. Turned out they were from the same small Sydney suburb as us. We were halfway into our journey by then, a well-oiled unit, free of our big-city baggage and exhibiting a trailer set-up time of 10 minutes – a far cry from the 45 minutes it had been. But they had just made the decision to extend their travels to two years. Their advice: if you like somewhere, no matter how isolated, stay there. Don’t plan, book or rush. Take all the side roads. Throw away the map and get lost on purpose.

A gap year around Australia changed our family

Our road trip taught us that making memories, going on family adventures and laughing together is more important than any things. We learnt how to sail, dive, cook, use a map and a compass, build a fire, pack light, pack down, pack up, make limited supplies last, keep the peace, approach new people, get along, make amends. Most of all, we learnt about ourselves – that we could not only survive but thrive as a family in a two- by five-metre home.

I expected that we would experience adventures, sights, sites and discoveries in a trip around Australia. But I hadn’t predicted our individual growth in self-awareness or combined confidence as a family. We’re hoping to keep the family shorthand we developed, where one word could set us off into fits of giggles. To keep asking big questions, debate ideas. They are so beautiful, these conversations. I want to hold them tight. I hope that when we are at the dinner table in years to come, the memory of all these experiences, and this closeness, will remain.

In my old life, full of frenzied activity, I used to fantasise about enforced stoppage – a long-haul flight or hospital stint, perhaps. But busy-ness is a construct we create and control. It turns out very little in life is worth stressing about or rushing into, and life is so much better when you stop to smell the gorges. For the first time in my life, I have a sense of the country of my birth, its shape and vastness, and where I fit in.

I am so grateful that my sons have felt this so early in their lives.

-Kate Cox, January 23, 2021

Disclaimer : This article was first posted on The Sydney Morning Herald. Find the original article here.