Claudia Bouma not only succeeded in travelling around Australia with her husband and kids in tow – she loved it so much she went back for round two! The sun was slowly setting and the majestic rock walls of Windjana Gorge in the Kimberley were set alight with the most amazing colours. Soon the sky was filled with countless stars. My husband Chris and I sat in front of our camper trailer, with our three young children fast asleep, absorbing the beauty and ruggedness of this remote destination in north-west Australia.
It is hard to believe that two years earlier Chris and I had both hit rock-bottom. For Chris, working in Townsville as a carpenter was a drag, our life was just a routine and we didn’t have enough time together as a family. So we planned a four-week camping holiday in Far North Queensland just to get away from it all and to re-evaluate our lifestyle. Up at Cape Kimberley we chatted with a family with a four-year-old girl and a six-month-old baby. They had been travelling around Australia for almost four years. Husband and wife were both nurses and could get work anywhere around the country.
Their lifestyle inspired us and it didn’t take long to make up our minds. We had always dreamt of going on The Big Lap around Oz but we figured that we needed to save up tons of money before we could go. Now we started planning for a two-year working holiday around Australia. Suddenly we were filled with hope and excitement: life was going to be an adventure! We figured we would need a year to get the right gear together and to save enough money to keep us going for at least four months before we had to find work.
First things first – we had to buy a rig. We already had a suitable 4WD (Toyota Hilux Surf) with aftermarket suspension, long-range fuel tank, snorkel, bullbar and a cargo barrier. An off-road camper trailer was the obvious choice as we wanted to go to remote places and we needed decent living space as we would be travelling with our then two-and-a-half-year-old son Shannon and 15-month-old daughter Chantelle. Within a month of coming back from our holiday we looked at a second-hand off-road trailer and bought it for $7500. It needed a bit of work, but Chris is handy and with the help of some mates we soon had a rig that we were confident would take us all the way around the country. Chris built timber double bunks for the kids that could come apart and would be packed on top of our bed.
With only six months to go until we hoped to leave we had the biggest surprise of our lives: we found out we were pregnant with our third baby! Of course we were very happy because we had both said that we would love to have a third child. However, we weren’t too sure about the timing… After adjusting our expectations we decided to still go on the trip, five months later than originally planned and with all the baby gear that we thought we wouldn’t need. It is amazing how much stuff you have to bring for such a little person but Chris is the world’s best packing expert and figured out a way to fit in the double pram, baby carrier, porta-cot with foam mattress and all the other things babies seem to need.
The only other challenge was the fact that the lease on our rental house finished six months before we were planning to go. This problem was easily fixed; we packed all our furniture into a shipping container and lived in our camper trailer until we were ready to head off on our big adventure. Friends generously offered for us to camp at their property outside of Townsville for as long as we needed to. In September 2008, little Hannah Jane was born (in hospital, not in the camper trailer!) and ten weeks later we spent our last night in Townsville.
Can you imagine our excitement the night before the start of our trip? The kids were fast asleep when we heard the thunder. At first the rain started softly and it seemed as if the storm would pass over, but ten minutes later it was right above us and there was no escape… Within minutes the area around our tent was flooded and the water started seeping inside. We put the kids on our bed as it was high and dry. All we could do was to watch the water rise until finally the rain stopped and we could assess the situation. The kids loved it! With a huge swimming pool all around the tent, life couldn’t get much better for them, but we weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
We had no choice but to pack up a sopping-wet tent and hit the road. That same afternoon we drove straight into another thunderstorm. Branches were being ripped off trees, we could see no more than 50 metres in front of us and the thunder was deafening.
Even though it was a challenging start to our two-year adventure it didn’t dampen our spirits. I cannot describe to you the sense of elation I felt when we finally set out with our family of five to explore this amazing country. It felt like we had a new lease on life – that life was worth living. There were places to see, people to meet and memories to be made. It felt so incredibly good to be on the road and to be living out our big dream.
Talk about adventure! From almost getting blown away in Robe (SA), to our son Shannon breaking his arm in Wilpena Pound (Flinders Ranges); from seeing whales for the very first time at Cape Leveque (north-west WA), to watching the most spectacular sunsets on the Wild West Coast of Tassie, life ever since has been awesome. According to Chris: “These were the best years of my life so far.”
Our kids have experienced the Red Centre and spent the night in the desert; they have seen Australian native animals close-up (including crocs at Windjana Gorge in the Kimberley) and most of all they have enjoyed having mum and dad around most of the time. It isn’t all rosy and easy but the positives most certainly outweigh the negatives.
Talking about the negatives, one of our worst experiences would have to have been our stay in Mt William National Park, north-east Tasmania. First we had to sit through 40mm of rain, which we used as an opportunity to top up our drinking water by catching the rainwater in our big buckets (there is only bore water in the park). Our poor neighbours had their dome tents set up in a dip and had no choice but to pack up all their wet gear in the middle of the night. We survived the rain without any trouble but the next day the wind started blowing, with gusts soon reaching gale force. We were silly enough to go on a day trip to the lighthouse, which was about a 40-minute drive from our campsite. By the time we came back the shower tent had been blown over and the annexe was looking like it had been hit by a cyclone; it had a big rip in it. Chris and I looked at each other and decided to pack up and go (it was 3pm) because we knew we wouldn’t be able to sleep if we stayed. One hour later the trailer was hooked up and we drove to a place called George Town where we spent the night in the car because the wind would not relent and setting up was simply not an option. The next morning we rewarded ourselves and the kids with the most amazing hot breakfast at the bakery in Exeter. Their incredible meat pies made up for an average night of sleep.
Chris and I heard some interesting and often completely contradictory comments about travelling with three young children. Some people exclaimed, ‘You must be crazy!’ and I tell you, that motivated us even more to prove it could be done! Others thought that our poor kids would be deprived because they wouldn’t have a lot of toys or the stability of staying in one place like “normal kids” (who determines what a normal child does anyway?).
On the other hand, I also spoke to retirees who told me that they regretted not doing The Big Lap with their kids when they were young. The people I will hold dear to my heart for the rest of my life are the ones who told us we should receive a medal for taking our three young kids on this unforgettable adventure-of-a-lifetime. Reality is, there will always be people who can only see the potential problems in any given situation and we have learnt to simply ignore them. Negatives can be turned into positives and problems are challenges that can be overcome! It is all a matter of perspective.
Being the extrovert of the family, I love to meet new people and boy, did we meet interesting people during our trip. In Burra, South Australia, we met a nice man in his fifties who told us how much he regrets the many hours he put into his job. He never saw his kids and after getting divorced his kids don’t want to see him anymore. Up at the tip of Cape York we met a woman in her early sixties who had been told by the doctor that she would be blind in six months’ time. His advice: go and do the travelling you have always wanted to do while you still have your sight.
In Darwin we met a lovely couple in their sixties who loved spending time with our kids as it reminded them of their grandkids. In Alice Springs we met a couple with three young kids who were living out their travel dreams after hubby had gone into remission from what had been said to be incurable cancer. The moral of the story: don’t leave it too late to live out your dream because life can take unexpected turns and it might never happen unless you make it happen now.
There is no doubt that there is a lot of hard work involved when you travel with (small) kids, but there are many more positives than negatives. In a time when most kids don’t spend a lot of time with their parents, it is absolutely awesome to have the opportunity to spend quality (and quantity) time with your family. Involve the kids in what you do: go grocery shopping, talk about where they would like to go, have fun exploring national parks, teach them about nature and wildlife, the list is endless. Most importantly, make memories that will last a lifetime. Take lots of photos so you can talk about where you went and what you did once you are home again. A big lesson for us adults is: learn to relax!
Two years seemed such a long time when we first drove off into the sunset with our car and trailer packed to the hilt. We felt mixed emotions about finishing our trip but we ended up walking into yet another adventure: buying our very first house. Up until we left for our trip we had rented because buying a house was simply out of our reach, especially in Townsville. During our trip we visited every single state and territory and so we had a fair idea where we would like to live.
And so we went from living in a tent to a five-bedroom house with two bathrooms and two lounge rooms in a small country town in western Victoria. I now work as a freelance writer and write travel articles for different magazines. This is yet another dream coming true because it was during our two-year trip that I became a published writer (Chris is the photographer).
It’s been almost six months now since we dismantled our tent for the last time, somewhere in outback Queensland. We still travel from time to time but the trips are shorter and we have a home to go back to. The kids are now five, four and two years old; the two older ones tell stories about the roos, crocs, snakes and different places we visited. Maybe we were crazy but I would encourage anyone who feels the itch to quit their job, jump in the car and drive off into the sunset. I guarantee you will not regret it