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On the road and living the dream
On the road and living the dream

Our mantra was "living the dream".

After years of dreaming, months of planning, and countless calls and emails to parts of Australia we had never heard of, our family of five set out on our 20,000km, four-month journey across most of the country.

My wife Emily, almost four-year-old son James and twin tearaways Maddison and Caitlin, aged about 18-months, left our Perth home in May 2011.

We deliberately never called the adventure a trip around Australia - we wanted to make the most of our time on the road rather than rush from point to point simply so we could brag about doing "The Lap".

TRAVELLING WITH KIDS

We focused on Queensland and spent about half of our 16 weeks away in the Sunshine State.

Driving holidays with children are challenging, after all, kids aren't built to sit still for hours on end - they are meant to run, climb, play and explore.

On days when we needed to cover big distances of more than 700km, we would hit the road by 5am and drive for a couple of hours before stopping for a good hour break and a roadside breakfast, we would then repeat the regime for lunch, and then, children permitting, sneak in a couple more hours in the afternoon.

It took us three days to cross the Nullarbor and we arrived at South Australia's Streaky Bay on the fourth.

After a couple of days out of the car, we packed up and headed east, stopping overnight at Port Augusta before driving through the scenic Flinders Ranges towards Broken Hill and into central NSW.

By Day 9 we had driven more than 3500km. During that time we had two full car-free days at Streaky Bay that gave us time to do the important things like riding bikes through puddles, wetting a fishing line and running down sand dunes.

It was a killer stretch and by the time we reached Dubbo we had a great appreciation for the in-car DVD player but the real hero of the long haul was Emily.

Her roles were too many to list and too varied to be believable but I reckon she spent more time during the 20,000km looking back to the kids than she did watching our wide brown land pass by.

DUBBO TO BYRON BAY

From Dubbo, our trip assumed a far more sedate pace north. We took a day to wander through the Western Plains Zoo before heading north through Australia's country music capital of Tamworth (we looked for a cowboy but didn't see any), through Miranda Kerr's hometown of Gunnedah (we looked for the Victoria's Secret supermodel but, as with the cowboys, we lucked out) then headed east towards the coast along the stunning Waterfall Way which ends near Coffs Harbour.

The steep inclines and sharp corners made negotiating the route with a two-tonne caravan challenging, but by the end of the drive we wished we had of spent more time soaking up the quaint towns and spectacular national parks.

Byron Bay was a short drive from Coffs Harbour and reminded us of Margaret River with a combination of beautiful coastline popular with backpackers and surfers, that alternative, hippy flavour, all backed up by pots of cold hard cash.

James had his first big bingle while attempted a Crusty Demons-style jump over a speed hump after reaching 80kmh on his bike (according to conservative witness accounts).

The poor little bloke had a couple of days of slightly older kids hopelessly fawning over his sisters rather than paying attention to him and the graze down his face was more salt in the wound.

THE GOLD COAST

The Gold Coast was always listed as a feature of our trip and we could appreciate why it is a popular destination, particularly among the party set, but it was our least favourite part of Queensland.

The theme parks probably didn't suit our young children, we felt uneasy seeing the animals housed in small enclosures and everything cost a fortune.

We loved the natural beauty of Mt Tamborine and Brisbane. We saw more of that further north at the Sunshine Coast, where we based ourselves at Forest Glen.

We could reach most attractions on the Sunshine Coast within 30 minutes of our caravan park - from the Glass House Mountains and Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo in the south east, to Caloundra, regarded as the gateway to the region, across to Noosa and the Eumundi markets in the north.

The coast had not been over-developed like beaches on the Gold Coast. Coolum was a personal highlight particularly after I took James for a round of golf at the home of the Australian PGA championship.

The mountain region to the west of the Sunshine Coast is great fun, with towns like Montville bursting with character. Just 50m into our first hike in a Queensland rainforest, at Kondalilla National Park, we spotted a very long tree python dangling from a branch.

This 4.6km foray into the jungle was really at the heart of what we wanted to do. We had hiking backpacks designed for carrying toddlers that the girls slept in as we headed down the steep bush track.

James was a trooper on the way down but his little legs were over it by the time we were heading back up the hill, meaning daddy had one baby on the back and a much heavier toddler wrapped around the front up a steep incline.

HERVEY BAY

Our next destination was only a short drive from Forest Glen - we headed to Hervey Bay, the gateway to the world heritage listed Fraser Island.

It's an idyllic spot, a protected bay, a small and friendly community. Our caravan park was right next to the water and we met a retired butcher from Tasmania who had been travelling to the same spot for 14 years.

He told us that in all that time he had never ventured to the Fraser Island. If he had, he may have been able to warn us that one day was simply not enough time to soak up that spectacular spot.

It's a four-wheel-drive enthusiasts' paradise and a barge ride either from Hervey Bay or Inskip Point, near Rainbow Beach.

There is accommodation on the island - including a resort and a number of camping spots that would have suited our caravan - and in hindsight we wish we had stayed a couple of nights.

The big challenge was timing your travels over the island to coincide with the tides. And for us, because we only allowed the one day on the island, the other challenge was making it to the barge on time.

We returned to the mainland late that night and left Hervey Bay the following morning, headed north towards Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.

Our first stop after Hervey Bay was Boyne River - which we later learnt was famous for its Barramundi fishing.

That should have been the first clue to the drama that was about to unfold. The second was a little yellow sign bearing an image of a wide open jaw, lots of teeth and a warning crocodiles inhabited the area - our first Queensland brush with the modern link to the dinosaur.

Emily always knew crocs were going to be a part of the trip but, in her own words, she wasn't ready for the surprise or that would not walk within 100m of the river.

The following day we headed to Mackay - a thriving regional community bursting at the seams with development - before we headed to Airlie Beach.

AIRLIE BEACH

There's a wonderful moment when you first drive into Airlie Beach.

We were one third of the way through our trip around Australia with the car, the caravan and the children Here we were parked at Adventure Whitsunday Resort - about 4km from Airlie Beach town centre.

That road takes you past Abel Point marina - the first glimpse of the Whitsunday Islands. Turquoise water, multi-million dollar recreational boats and blobs of land covered in pristine white sand and lined with coconut palms.

The hub of the tourist town is essentially one street with pubs, restaurants, backpackers, hostels and shops - and behind that main drag is a temperature controlled man-made lagoon.

We learnt backpackers are solar powered in Airlie Beach. They would meander from their digs at some unspecified time in the morning, spread a towel and shed most of the clothes at the lagoon where they would laze, dip, talk and read for hours upon hours before heading to the pubs at night to party through until the early hours of the morning.

A little further out of town and you get to Shute Harbour which is just too pretty to believe.

Our days at Airlie Beach consisted of lazing at the lagoon and grazing on the main strip, or letting the kids play with their new best friends (there was at least one in every town).

BEACHES AND ISLANDS

The highlight was probably a day we feared the most - taking our young kids on a cruise to the islands.

It could not have gone any better. Perfect sailing conditions, we first headed out to Whitehaven Beach, renowned for its pure silica sand sound that squeaks under you feet and the crystal clear turquoise water.

Next stop was Hook Island and an opportunity to go diving with angel fish bigger than anything I have ever caught.

At Daydream Island mummy and daddy had a relaxing tipple while the kids watched stingrays swimming in one of a network of sea water ponds.

It was a breathtaking day and only really worked because we were ultra organised for every contingency.

The following day was an exercise in even more complicated logistics. We parked the car and van in storage and caught a taxi to Shute Harbour for a ferry to Hamilton Island - best described to West Aussies as Rottnest on steroids where the authorities are clearly not afraid to develop.

Four days in a holiday unit gave the kids a chance to stretch their legs and run around in accommodation that was not built on a trailer before we packed up and sailed back to the mainland to resume our trip north.

CYCLONE SCARS

The scars of Cyclone Yasi were obvious five months after the Category 5 storm ripped through the region, particularly at Cardwell where uprooted trees remained on the beach and a number of homes and businesses wore the damage caused by winds of up to 285km/h.

Lush forests surrounding Mission Beach had also been shredded by the storm and a worker at the caravan park we stayed at, who was coincidentally from Fremantle, told us she had never seen the picturesque place like it in her years living there.

From Mission Beach we headed to Cairns - our base for about two weeks. To the south-west were the stunning Atherton Tablelands, to the north our next destination of Port Douglas which we used as a base to explore Mossman Gorge, Daintree River National Park and Cape Tribulation.

We didn't want to leave and we have promised ourselves we will head back one day, there was just so much to fall in love with in far north Queensland. And at the time we were there, the local tourism operators were suffering a sharp decline in trade fuelled by a soaring Aussie dollar and concerns over natural disasters.

TIME TO HEAD BACK

Our two months in Queensland was coming to an end and in mid-July we packed up from Port Douglas and started the long journey west. We left temperatures in the low 30s, encountered a thick fog and frosty conditions as we crossed the tablelands before coming across a moderate heat as we arrived at the Innot Hot Springs where we dipped our feet in soothing hot water where a group of German backpackers had stripped to their undies and appeared to be settling in for an afternoon of bathing.

The run west was intimidating - we planned to travel almost 3000km in six days without rest to make it to Darwin in time for James' fourth birthday. The Gulf Development Road didn't help, with other caravanners describing it as little more than a glorified goat trail where enormous road trains claim right of way over all other road users on single lane stretches of road featuring large drop-offs on either side of the bitumen.

Our first night was a roadside stop and we were pleasantly surprised to see the kids having a ball in the dirt as opposed to the five star resort-style caravan parks they had become accustomed to throughout Queensland.

GREY NOMADS

Our second night was at Kurumba - a mecca for Eastern States-based grey nomads who make an annual pilgrimage to the prawn and barramundi capital of Australia. Without a doubt they were the friendliest bunch of campers we encountered.

We ate a kilo of fresh caught prawns ($15) from the local docks, then took a couple of camping chairs to the beach where we saw our first sunset over the ocean - albeit the Gulf of Carpentaria - since leaving South Australia's Streaky Bay in early May. After two days on a dangerous highway it was like finding an oasis in a desert.

From Karumba we stuck to the bitumen, heading south on the Matilda Highway through Mt Isa and stopping near the border town of Camoweal before hitting the Stuart Highway and heading north to Darwin.

Forget the eagles, the kangaroos and the livestock, Australia's highways truly are the land of the grey nomad.

Our senior citizens who occupy these long and lonely stretches of bitumen drive luxury four-wheel-drives and tow enormous caravans with bumper stickers bearing quirky little quotes like "Spending the kids' inheritance".

One old fella had two stickers that leapt out - "Day at a time" and "Easy does it" - quite apt for a bloke who clung to his steering wheel of his sedan which was towing a caravan that looked like it could have been made when man first walked on the moon.

He stuck to 70kmh on the Stuart Highway - almost half the designated speed limit of 130kmh - and we overtook him three times on one day (kids need pit stops).

DARWIN

We arrived in Darwin completely filthy from a week on the road but in time for the big birthday bash.

Time feels different in the Northern Territory and I believe you need more of that finite resource to truly soak up the place.

Driving around Kakadu National Park takes literally hours, the place is massive, but there's an undeniable magnetism to it, particular the eastern border that overlooks Arnhem Land.

My wife and I felt it after a day exploring Kakadu when we took a moment to sit on a rock and look out over the Arnhem Range - the natural border that defines Arnhem Land.

We had regrettably been put off by people who referred to the world heritage listed park as Kaka-don't and only allowed the day in the area before heading 260km back to Darwin where the children had a day with their doting grandparents who had travelled from Perth to meet us after almost three months on the road.

HOME COUNTRY

Our departure from Darwin really marked the beginning of the end of our time in unchartered lands - Emily and I had seen most of WA on previous trips.

We detoured to Mataranka Springs, south of Katherine, during our trip home where Maddison managed to make a can of Coke explode all over the caravan, making our soak in the thermal pools all the more necessary.

At Timber Creek, a few hundred kilometres east of the WA border, we saw one of the more bizarre sights as young backpackers spoke a foreign language while raking leaves in bikinis.

It's been a year since we set out on the journey and I still believe it was a life-changing experience.

Too many people ask us if we did it at the right time considering the kids ages but I believe too many people spend too much time thinking of reasons to not go rather than grabbing the chance when it presents.

I would do it again in a heartbeat.