The children had only been at school for three weeks when it was time for a two week school holiday. We spent the first week with some of their new school friends exploring the many wonderful parks and beaches of our new neighbourhood. I decided that for the second week we would try to be a bit more adventurous and take a little holiday in our new country.
My mum’s sister, Aunty Barbara, emmigrated to Australia in the 80’s and now lives just up the road from here in the most northerly town in New South Wales, Tweed Heads, in the very picturesque Tweed Valley. “Just up the road from here” is actually about 900 kilometres north. This did not deter us perhaps as much as it should have!
During the whole of the first week the children kept asking when we were going on the “long journey”, especially after I had pretty much given them a free rein in the supermarket to fill the trolley with snacks to keep us going and help alleviate the boredom. I tried to forewarn them that to drive to Aunty Barbara’s house would take about half the time that it had taken us to get to Australia by plane this did not phase them at all……because they could have sweets!
We loaded up the car on Sunday afternoon with pretty much the same amount of stuff we brought with us on the plane, plus four duvets and four pillows, and finally set off about six o’clock. The plan was that I would drive as far as I could the first night and then we would find a motel to stay the night and set off again early the next morning, hopefully arriving in Tweed Heads by lunchtime the next day.
I have done this drive a couple of times on previous trips to Australia but always in a camper van as part of a long leisurely drive with several overnight stops en-route, and always with a co-driver to share the load. Navigating is pretty easy as there is only one road between here and there, the rather fetchingly named Pacific Highway. But I had forgotten that this is a little bit of a misnomer as you don’t see very much of the Pacific and “highway” is definitely a stretch of the imagination for the road which, once it bids farewell the northern suburbs of Sydney becomes a winding single carriage way with an average speed limit of about 60km/hour.
I have always found travelling in the evening very easy with the children. They were in their pyjamas snuggled up in the duvets, very, very excited and about the trip and the holiday and even quite accepting of the “no sweets until tomorrow as you have just brushed your teeth” rule. After a couple of hours, Ben, Katie and Zach were fast asleep and only my trusty “Matnav” was still awake keeping me on the right road with his sharp eight year old eyes able to read road signs much earlier than I, and keeping me company with his incessant questions about what the difference is between 91 ocatane petrol and 98 octane and what differences could we expect in fuel economy and engine performance from each type. For the most part I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about but he didn’t seem to mind.
Matthew eventually dozed off around 10 o’clock and I pushed on for another hour and then knew I had to stop for a rest. The children were all fast asleep and it seemed a pointless to wake them and to put them to sleep again in a motel so I decided we would do a little “car camp”. Owing to the vast distances it is possible to drive in Australia, there are rest areas every few kilometres so it is very easy to find a safe place to pull in and doze for a while.
At 6am, feeling surprisingly well rested, I managed to get another hour’s driving done before the children woke up so by 7am we were already about half way there. The first question on Zach’s lips when he awoke was, “Can we have the sweets now please, Mummy.” I was rapidly running out of excuses but they at least agreed we should have some fruit for breakfast first. The next few hours reminded me of Eric’s Carle’s wonderful story of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
In the first hour they ate their way through one pound of grapes.
In the second hour they ate 2 bananas.
In the third hour they ate 3 apples
In the fourth hour they ate 4 packets of biscuits
You get the drift, the food consumption in the 14 hour drive-a-thon was immense, including 20 packets of crisps and four packets of “Jelly Joiners” (A bit like Lego made from Jelly Babies that can be joined together to make different flavours – a marvellous if rather sticky invention for a long journey!) Plus three pies and a six pack of Red Bull for me! Halfway through the trip there were of course a few complaints of tummy ache (where is a green leaf when you need one?). Unlike the Eric Carle caterpillar however, my little grubs did not then fall asleep for a week and awaken from their chrysalises as beautiful, graceful, peaceful butterflies. Sadly they behaved far more like Roald Dahl’s Vile Beasts i.e. children who have eaten too much sugar and been cooped up in a hermetically sealed box for 14 hours!
As Rich was not coming with us and he has much historical evidence to support the fact that I am not a very good navigator, he borrowed a fancy phone from work with an integrated Satnav for me to take with us. When demonstrating its use, he bypassed me completely and went straight to Matthew. Matthew was thrilled to be placed in sole charge of this exciting technology. Richard’s parting words were; “This is a really expensive piece of kit. Whatever you do, don’t lose it.” You think you can guess the end and you can’t because I didn’t lose it. However, when Matthew put it in the boot to re-charge, he failed to make Zach aware of the fact and in his over exuberance to get out of the tank on one of our many stops, Zach jumped on it and smashed the screen. For a while I toyed with the idea of none of us ever going back, just so that Rich would come to realise that people are far more important than things.
Eventually we arrived at Aunty Barbara and Uncle Eddie’s house. They were delighted to see us and couldn’t have made us more welcome. Uncle Eddie had cleaned out his garage and insisted I put the tank in there instead of parking it on their narrow road.
“My car won’t fit in there, it’s far too big. I’ll just leave it on the road.”
“The neighbours won’t like it. It will fit. I’ll guide you in.”
“No really it won’t fit. I’ll go and park it a few streets away.”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll do it for you, I’ll get it in.”
“No really. It won’t fit.”
“Come on give it a try. I’ll guide you in.”
I should have listened to my inner voice but I did not want to be an awkward guest.
I got the front of the car in the garage with inches to spare on either side.
“Ah see, told you it would fit.”
There was a sound of metal being crunched against concrete.
It was the sound of the rear wheel arch scraping against the garage wall.
“Like I was saying, it won’t fit.”
One of the rear wheel arch trims was now hanging by a thread and swaying gently in the breeze.
“Right kids, I hope you like it here because we definitely can’t go home now.”
I am not superstitious but I was tentatively awaiting the third mishap so we could get on and enjoy our holiday. I didn’t have to wait long. After a cup of tea and a cake (because we needed some more sugar) we decided to head to the beach. On the way out, I fell down the steps and twisted my ankle. “Oh good, perhaps this is the third thing, and ligaments can heal much more easily than bumpers and phone screens so that’s a relief.” As I limped out of the garage and once more entered the glare of the mid-afternoon sun I felt around me head for my sunglasses. Not there. Not in the house, not in my bag, not in the car.
“Is this it, Mummy?” asked Katie picking up a couple of disembodied plastic arms and some crushed lenses from the garage floor. I think my glasses had fallen off my head whilst I was on my hands and knees inspecting the damage to the car and the garage wall. The damage to the car was so shocking that I hadn’t noticed them fall and I had reversed over them as I left the garage. Great, this is the best holiday I have ever had!
In spite of our rather inauspicious start, we did have a fabulous time. The next day we saw whales and dolphins playing for hours off Fingal Head which made the tortuous journey and the ever-increasing repair bill start to feel worthwhile. We travelled all around the Tweed Valley and up to Surfer’s Paradise which is exactly as the name implies – miles of palm fringed golden beach and rolling waves full of surfer’s young and old alike, living the Aussie dream of avoiding the sharks and catching the big wave!
Our short stay was over all too quickly and it was time to bid a fond farewell to Aunty Barbara and Uncle Eddie who were like surrogate grandparents for our children who are so far from the real thing. Matthew, Ben, Katie and Zach begged to be able to return soon. And when we have saved up enough money for a helicopter we will be right back!