Did you know that not all kookaburras laugh? That the ‘dingo fence’ in Australia is the longest fence in the world? That saltwater crocodiles sleep with their mouths open so their brains don’t overheat?
This time last year, I didn’t know any of that. And nor did my kids. After all, it’s not typical classroom fodder. And that’s precisely why a family road trip is such an invaluable experience.
The vastness and diversity of Australia is best appreciated not by plane-hopping between cities and popular beach destinations, but by driving… and driving… and driving. And, of course, making plenty of stops on the way!
We took our three kids, aged 9, 7, and 5, out of school for a term, hitched a camper trailer to our car, and hit the road with only a rough plan of where we were heading. For three months, we averaged 200km per day (though this tended to be a big hop of 600km every three days). Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it, with the whole family cooped up in a vehicle for so much time?
In fact, the kids coped better than we could ever have dreamed. They kept themselves busy with school work, car games, and audio books – not to mention looking out the windows at the scenery, which alternated from the odd (burnt-out cars and crazy bush sculptures) to the breath-taking (the huge salt plains at Lake Eyre, the rust-red escarpments in the Kimberley, the cool blue bays in Cape Le Grand National park in the south-west).
We’d stop and set up camp for a few days, and the kids would busy themselves building forts, mixing bush potions, tracking wallabies, and perfecting their fire-setting skills. They saw thorny devils, snakes stretched out like the garden hose, and giant monitor lizards that looked like they’d stepped out of the dinosaur age. We walked to bush waterfalls and discovered ancient Aboriginal rock art under cliff shelves, and drove beside the massive trains that transport iron ore between the mines and the coast. We panned for gold, “noodled” for opals, and scoured remote beaches for enormous unbroken shells.
Of course, when we arrived back home they had missed some things at school. Our youngest was a bit behind in his reading (but ahead in maths thanks to the times tables competitions we ran in the car). Our oldest had missed school camp and the flying fox – but this seemed a good trade-off with the helicopter ride and days spent riding the rapids in the water wonderlands of the north.
And I love that one child, when responding on a school project about things that made him happy, said “the shells on Eighty Mile Beach”. It’s not somewhere he’ll get back to for quite some time (there is a place for work and school in life, after all!), but I’m so glad he has that memory – and that it makes him happy just thinking about it.