Some people called us crazy when we told them we planned to do a 'Big Lap' of Australia with our young daughters who were only 18 months and 4 years old when we left. Some even called us irresponsible but the overwhelming majority could see that this would be a special time for us and our kids and it was worth any risk or hardship.
And they were right!
The reality is that having kids is a challenge no matter whether you are living at home or travelling around Australia but on our 16 month adventure we learned a few things that you may like to take on board.
Ease The Transition
We started talking to our kids about our 'Big Trip' about a year before we left. We put up a map on the wall and marked our proposed route. When we saw a place on TV we planned to go we'd point it out and talk about it.
Basically we built the anticipation so they were looking forward to it. We also had plenty of time to discuss any fears they may have before we got going.
We also emulated their bedroom to an extent in our camper trailer - we took their quilts, pillows, books and special toys so that they had a tangible connection with their life at home, again easing the transition.
It didn't matter where we were geographically, their familiar and secure bedroom was always with us.
Keep The Routine
While half the fun of a Big Lap of Oz is getting away from routines and clock watching, kids feel secure when they have consistency. To strike a balance we always made sure the bedtime routine was consistent. This usually involved brushing teeth and a couple of stories in bed before sleep.
Kids also need their sleep and fortunately this was easier to achieve on the road. When you are basically sleeping outside and don't have TV you tend to work your day around the sun so with 12 hours of night, getting the kids to bed at 7:30 was easier than getting them there at 8:30 at home.
When you're a kid, Life = Play so we gave our daughters a toy bag each which they could bring some of their favourite toys from home. For example, books, colouring in stuff, baby's and dolls, dress up clothes etc. While we were actually travelling they could take a few things in the car and we put pockets over the back of the front seats they could stash their bits and pieces into.
Don't go overboard though because kids are great at improvising and you really want them interacting with the environment so they learn new things. Our eldest, Savanna, built an Indian Tee Pee from a small tarp and some sticks and we made several cubby houses from tarps & rope along the way.
One of the best investments you can make before you go is an in-car DVD player. I realise that some people will argue that you don't go on holidays to watch movies but put it in perspective. You'll spend upwards of 400 hours in the car on a lap around Australia and there are only so many games of I Spy and 20 questions you can play. Allowing the kids to watch 2 or 3 movies on a long driving day will keep them sane and give you some quiet time to chat or just enjoy the drive.
We bought a DVD folder that has sleeves in it and transferred all the girls DVD's into it before we left home which was much more compact and easier to manage that the DVD cases. You'll also want to get headphones with your DVD player so you don't have to listen to the same movies a dozen times.
Kids also love playgrounds and when we checked into a caravan park or stopped at a park for lunch, we always had an eye out for a good playground. They will play for hours and then be so tired that they'll sleep soundly all night . . . perfect!
These days most kids have iPods and iPads and they will keep the kids amused with games and movies for hours. Most have an inbuilt camera so the kids can be taking photos of the things they discover along the way and building their own photo library.
We soon learned that travelling with kids had an impact on the distance we could realistically cover in a day. Forget 800km days. We tried to set a limit of 500 km and even then we found that we'd cover an average of about 50km every hour so it was still a long day. You need to build in more and longer stops to allow the kids to get out and run around otherwise, well, they'll drive you crazy!
We met a couple of families on our trip who were using their 3 months long service to do a lap of oz. We calculated they needed to cover an average of 300km every single day to get around the country which probably explained why they looked pretty tired and frazzled.
Kids make friends very easily, in fact sometimes a bit too easily. While it is great that they can walk up to some other kids and be playing happily 5 minutes later, this does create an element of risk that you need to keep front of mind.
In Alice Springs, Sara, who was about 2½ at the time, made friends with another boy near our camp and ended up wandering off with him to his site about 100 metres away. We found her 15 minutes later but it was a pretty nervous 15 minutes.
You can't keep them locked up so you just have to keep your eyes on them all the time - we would tell them constantly that if they can't see us, we can't see them.
Whenever we spotted other kids camped nearby we'd try to say hello to the parents and we'd always find they were as happy for their kids to have someone to play with as we were. We would also then both be keeping an eye on the kids, which created a larger safety net.
We were also a little cautious with the types of caravan parks we'd stay in. Generally, the more 'touristy' the better. We avoided parks that were predominantly full of permanent residents, partly because they were not geared for travellers but also because they can occasionally attract some less than desirable characters.
Having touched on safety, I'll expand on a few more points.
There are inevitably risks associated with snakes, spiders & crocodiles but realistically these are minimal if managed. We trained our daughters not to jump over logs or run blindly into the bush and to be aware that snakes are around but don't be terrified of them because, given an easy exit path they will happily take it.
Our rule was that if you encountered a snake, STOP and freeze, then slowly back away from the snake, tell anyone else nearby to watch out for it then come and tell mum or dad. Savanna and I actually encountered a large Western Brown snake one night on the floor in a toilet in Karijini National Park and rather than make a big drama of it, we stood quietly and watched it and in a few minutes it went on it's way.
Crocodiles are the other real risk in the northern part of the country. We taught our daughters that unless we absolutely knew otherwise, we assumed that all water had crocodiles in it. We didn't tell them that crocodiles were bad or monsters but that they were wild animals that were always looking for food and if you get into their patch of water then they may accidentally mistake you for food. This was all it took.
I actually think that the biggest danger kids face while travelling is from speeding cars in caravan parks. Too many people ignore the 'Drive at walking pace' rules in caravan parks and they speed around at anything up to 60km/h sometimes. Kids can so easily walk out from behind a car or caravan and not see or hear a car coming at them. If you see someone speeding in a caravan park, do everyone a favour and point out the dangers to them (one way or another) and if that doesn't work, report them.
Realistically the danger of hitting a child in a caravan park while speeding is many times greater than having an accident while speeding on the road - unfortunately some people don't think about the 'what if' factor.
Given your environment changes so frequently it may be hard for your 3 year old to explain where their camp is. It's worth writing your mobile phone number on a card and putting it in your kids' pocket so that in the event they do get lost then someone who finds them can give you a call.
You do have to be more alert for your kids safety while travelling but don't let it put you off or worry you too much. Common sense and a good radar for trouble will keep them safe. Don't try and shelter them too much - they should know why crocodiles and snakes are dangerous and how to avoid them but at the same time learn to love them for the amazing wild animals they are - it's about respect, not fear.
I can't speak with authority about schooling your kids on the road because both of ours were pre-school age. However we did meet plenty of parents with school age kids along the way.
Here's some of the tips we gleaned from them:
- The education department will give you far too many books and materials to take with you however apparently the Queensland Education Department has a compact travel schooling kit so this might be worth looking into.
- The workload set down is hard to keep up with and most parents seem content to let their kids learn as much as possible from the trip itself and catch up the academic stuff later.
- It is easier to do the schooling in concentrated bursts than bits every day.
Obviously the older your kids are, the greater the pressure will be to keep the schooling up so they don't fall behind. One observation we made was that high school age teenagers were probably the least enthusiastic about the whole experience because they missed their friends and life back home and didn't want to fall behind at school. This is something you would need to manage if you plan to travel with teenage kids.
Having said that, keep it in perspective. Not many kids get to travel around Australia at all and the lessons your kids will learn about Australia, life and other people should not be undervalued.
Read more: 5 Tips for homeschooling on the road
Sharing new and often unplanned experiences with your kids is a great adventure. Kids are highly durable and adaptable so don't smother them in cotton wool. When we broke down in the middle of Western Queensland we were stuck for three days waiting for parts to arrive so we could fix the car. We had no facilities at all. We washed in a nearby creek and dug a hole for a toilet. The kids couldn't have cared less. They take it all in their stride. In fact it has turned out to be one of the more memorable experiences of our trip.
Have your default routines to keep them in balance but also be prepared to adapt your trip to suit theirs and your needs. With clear boundaries and lots of love they'll have the adventure of a lifetime with you.
And one more thing, buy them a digital camera each before you go. In years to come being able to look back at the photos from your trip will far outweigh the relatively small cost of a couple of cameras now.