What we learned on the road

Wollumbin / Mt Warning, NSW ©careerusinterruptus.com

The Skeptic and I both came from families that not only moved countries regularly, but also determinedly exploredwherever we were, so it was perhaps inevitable that as soon as we read this delightful book about a family’s three month round-Australia camping trip, I’d begin planning. Look at that gorgeous Mum, smiling as they shared the experience of a lifetime. I could do that! I figured, when the kids were 6 and 8 – old enough to remember it, wouldn’t miss much school. Perfect. 

Bless my starry-eyed sleep-deprived socks.

I clearly hadn’t yet twigged that the non-stop-talking-and-moving was going to be a permanent feature, one that ramps up if you put a seat-belt on it for any length of time. So while I did know about Crazy Hour, I hadn’t quite realised what that looks like after four hours in a car. I definitely had no inkling just how recalcitrant self-directed my little learners would turn out to be.

Nonetheless we took our first trip just past their 7th and 9th birthdays, driving 3000 kilometres over a fortnight. A masterpiece of planning if I do say so myself, our five destinations through south-east and central Queensland took in the Granite belt, cattle country, coal-mining country, and the coast. We visited sites important to Aboriginal Peoples and a Bushranger’s hideout; we toured an old sapphire mine; saw wild emu, echidna, and platypus (kangaroos and wallabies too common to mention), went whale-watching and gem fossicking. Apart from the unsurprising lesson that we do not do well staying in one room – let alone a tent, my god, what was I thinking?! – the whole thing was undeniably marvellous, start to finish.

Oh, fine, there’s a joey for you, and a humpback whale and yes that’s a real live echidna and an emu running away through long grass. ©careerusinterruptus.com

So when my feet started itching again three years later, we mapped a similar trip in the opposite direction, through northern and central New South Wales. This trip coincided with the 50th moon landing anniversary, so we visited three of Australia’s biggest telescopes and spent an evening at a private observatory where we saw Saturn’s rings. We bathed in a hot spring at night, visited the Western Plains Zoo, a private geological museum, a koala hospital, a settler’s homestead, a ruined colonial prison, and looked out at the Three Sisters, one of Australia’s most iconic vistas.

Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri; the Australian Astronomical telescope, and the Dish. ©careerusinterruptus.com

And there were so many activities we couldn’t fit in – we didn’t pan for gold at Port Macquarie, for instance, or pick cotton near Moree, or go on the scenic railway at Katoomba, nor into the caves at Jenolan – partly because I was trying to be more relaxed (ha). And partly because, sigh, recalcitrant learners let you know when they’re relentlessly refusing to be impressed. (“You’re making me look at rocks. Again. Yay.”)

Meeni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo – the Three Sisters, Katoomba NSW ©careerusinterruptus.com

I wouldn’t call it road-schooling, exactly, because while the kids now know the gist of land and industry, I doubt they retained a single ‘fact’. We listened to James Herriott, Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl, we did no “work”, and nobody’s interest in history or big science was remotely piqued. (“Now you’re making me look at buildings. Again. Yay.”)

What we gained was far less tangible: Enduring regular 40-minute waits where lanes were blocked for repairs on the Newell Highway, with views that mostly looked like this.

scenes from the Newell Highway, NSW. ©careerusinterruptus.com

Discovering that we can sleep three nights in a shipping container with a frog in the toilet and no TV. Or in a tent, with the toilet built into a water tank next door, and overnight temperatures around 5ºC. Sitting in the car by the highway, in rain so hard you can’t see the end of the bonnet, listening to that roar, feeling the car shake as trucks thunder recklessly past. Surviving snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef in winter. (Not the same as your winter, true, but still cold enough to make you wonder why on earth we did it.) Watching Mr Pixel’s water bottle bounce and tumble the 200 metres we’d just climbed up Bald Rock, visiting towns with populations smaller than our local high school, being outdoors under a VAST night sky, steering a yacht. Even better, watching the yacht’s captain simply ignore his cut foot bleeding all over the deck while he navigated away from shore (my goodness that blew their minds). We saw the drought up close and listened to third-generation cattle farmers talk about it. Five months later when the disdained landscape was burning, it meant something to them.

Of course, similar experiences could be had from home. We’re ideally positioned here between the Great Dividing Range and a bay full of islands, with rock pools and rainforest, bush and beach, all within an hour. We could and should get out into it, far more than we do.

But it seems to be easier to step outside your comfort zone, when you’re already outside it. Basic physics, I suppose. When your backside is comfortably nestled into its sofa indent, moving it requires an enormous input of energy, and it’s a fact that sofa indents exert a unique gravity. You have to go pretty far to escape its pull.

When your backside indent is 1700kms away, however, you might as well climb the escarpment, even if you’ve never done anything like that before, it’s intimidating, and your shoes rub so much you have to walk almost all three kilometres barefoot. You may as well get on that boat, or in that water, or walk through a gate warning of snakes. You argue less about getting out of bed when it’s not your bed, and you’re more invested in keeping track of your stuff if you know you’ll never see that town again.

For kids who’d prefer never to challenge themselves and never to be uncomfortable, those lessons are truly priceless. It says everything that, last time I was planning a trip I asked my friends to sedate me if I ever thought of doing it again, but two years later here I am, tapping my toes, looking at maps, wondering when the government will figure out this virus business enough to open up borders between the States, and where we’ll go when we do. My eye is on Tasmania.

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