What Is The Largest Living Thing On Earth?

Not long after dropping back our RV in Cairns, we were enjoying a pizza at a lovely Italian restaurant in Trinity Beach, our new home for the week.

Trinity Beach was a good location for a family break, within 15 minutes drive of Cairns and on the road up to Port Douglas.

Snorkeling On The Great Barrier Reef

We planned on doing not much this week. Except of course we couldn’t come this far and not go out to the barrier reef.

On the drive up to Cairns, we passed roadside signs with trivia questions. I believe these were designed to combat driver fatigue. This is how I learned that the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on earth, at least according to whoever installs signs for the Queensland roads department. I trust them.

A friend had recommended going on a tour with Quicksilver, from Port Douglas, which included a boat ride to the outer reef plus the option of doing some snorkeling.

The boat trip from Port Douglas took 90 minutes. At the outer reef we were landed onto a fixed pontoon large enough for several hundred people, marooned out at sea for at least the next few hours until our boat ride back.

Both kids are now stronger swimmers than me, plus I don’t like putting my face into water. Something about not wanting to drown. So, I opted to see the reef via an underwater semi-sub.

I was expecting to see a glorious display of colour on the reef, but most of the coral was grey, with just the odd patch of brilliant blue. There appeared to be a healthy population of fish living on the reef, and I was lucky enough to spot a few green sea turtles grazing on the seabed.

As I wouldn’t get my face wet, Anja got the honour of taking the kids snorkelling. First they had to change into some very fetching, full body lycra suits.

RTW Family

Family travel blog

Kiera is a very confident swimmer, but there were some big fish in the water and we were miles out to sea, so it took a little time to get enough confidence to enjoy the experience. Needless to say, after several hours in the water she didn’t want to get out.

Family travel blog

Family travel blog

Lexi was braver than me and at least got in the water, but she wasn’t quite ready to go out swimming with the fish.

RTW family

I’m not a marine biologist, but I understand that rising sea temperatures are bleaching the coral, which is why the reef had lost its colour and didn’t look particularly healthy. Perhaps the presence of several hundred tourists each day, arriving for lunch and swimming in the sea, also isn’t conducive to a naturally pristine environment.

After a few hours on the pontoon, we were whisked back to dry land, ready for a beer and some food along the Port Douglas waterfront.

Crocodile Cruise

Despite our visit to Australia Zoo the previous week, we decided to visit some more crocodiles while we were in their natural habitat. Hartley’s place is an interesting combination of zoo and farm, with live crocodiles mixing with crocodile sausages.

None of us really fancied sampling the sausages. The real highlight was going out into a crocodile infested lake on a tiny boat, where another crazy aussie dangled raw chicken off a makeshift fishing pole made from bamboo.

RTW family in Cairns

We were told that this method of feeding helps to keep the crocodiles active, but it seemed designed to antagonise the poor creatures. Either way, it worked wonderfully. The boat was nearly swallowed whole during the ensuing feeding frenzy and we all took one step back as the largest crocodile attempted to join us in the boat.

RTW family

Waterplay

We were still acclimatising to life in the tropics, so most days for us needed to include an element of cooling off in water.

Given the combination of crocodiles and jellyfish, plus the lack of a natural beach in Cairns, the best and most definitely safest spot to cool off is along the Cairns esplanade. There is a man-made pool, constructed on the sea front, using filtered sea water. There is even a small artificial beach for sand castles.

RTW family in Cairns

After enjoying some wonderful natural sights in Queensland, the kids felt that we hadn’t seen enough colourful plastic, so we also headed for a day of water sliding at Sugarworld. It was the school holidays, but the place was nearly deserted. This was perfect for our two. No queuing.

Family travel blog

Family travel blog

Pokies

Pokies are an Australian phenomenon, with signs for the addictive gambling machines lining most high streets. They hadn’t featured highly on our family itinerary, but we’d lined up a visit to a sports bar to watch the British & Irish Lions take on the All Blacks, so I had to check them out at least once.

Trinity Beach sports bar had all bases covered. There was a family restaurant and bar, a sports bar and a pokies room. I learned that pokies are basically the same as slot machines, so I can’t quite understand why they’re such a big deal over here. You might as well take all of the money in your wallet and set it on fire.

After some negotiation with the Australian sports obsessed Australian bar staff, we managed to secure one television screen in the family bar to watch the Lions. A small group of fellow fans and a couple of kiwis gathered around us. There was no sound, we were just on pictures, but that was good enough to see the Lions triumph and tie the series at one game apiece.

Next Time

We have a few days in Sydney to wrap up our Australian adventure, before a week in the sun on Oahu island, Hawaii.   

It Doesn’t Look Too Far – On A Globe

Melbourne to Cairns Road Trip

While enjoying our week in Tasmania, I had been keeping an eye out for special RV relocation deals on the internet. The idea is that if hire companies need one of their vehicles moving to a different depot, then you can volunteer to do the drive for them and in return they give you the vehicle for $1 per night.

This sounded too good to be true when I first heard about it, but after much searching I found a deal that worked for us. For less than the cost of a coffee, we’d be the proud, temporary owners, of a 6 berth RV. In return, we simply had to move the vehicle from Melbourne to Cairns. We had 7 days.

Looking at a map of Australia, Melbourne is at the extreme bottom and Cairns is very close to the top. A quick google search revealed that the shortest driving route is 2,944 kilometres, with a best case driving time of 32 hours.

greyhound_pass_melbourne_-_cairns

Coming from the UK it’s hard to comprehend this distance. The furthest we’d contemplate driving at home is maybe 4 or 5 hours in any one direction. Beyond this I’d be booking flights, or else we’d be driving into the sea.

My maths brain kept reassuring me that 32 hours over 7 days was only 4-5 hours driving per day. But it still looked a reasonably long way on the map.

Fresh Tin Can

We arrived feeling fresh at the Melbourne Maui depot at 10am. This is where we’d been instructed to pick-up our vehicle, rather than a random sightseeing trip.

I half expected to be presented with a ten year-old wreck that was being sent to a retirement home in Cairns. Instead we were handed the keys to a freshly minted RV, with its cutlery still in a plastic wrapper, making its maiden voyage to warmer climes.

We felt like campervan pros after our 12 nights in New Zealand, so after a quick inspection we were off. After 0.5 kilometres we stopped for supplies. This took over an hour as the kids were hungry and needed feeding. At this rate, it was going to take us a lot longer than a week to get to Cairns.

After a late start, we stopped off in a caravan park just before sunset, at a bend in the Murray River called Tocumwal. We were only 300km outside of Melbourne, but given the abundance of Australian wildlife littering the roads, I was keen to avoid night time driving unless it was absolutely necessary. It’s hard to see a kangaroo in the dark and I didn’t fancy the job of scraping a dead one of the road.

Instead, I thought we could get an early start the following morning, with the goal of reaching Dubbo by afternoon, which was 500km away.

At 6am it was still dark and a heavy mist covered the ground, with icicles hanging from the wing mirrors. I was starting to question the wisdom of setting off so early. I couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead and visibility was probably worse than if it had been the middle of the night. At least the road was mostly straight and there wasn’t too much in the way of traffic.

Conditions improved as the sun rose and we made Dubbo in reasonable time. After starting to exhibit early symptoms of cabin fever, the kids were ecstatic to find that our campsite had a swimming pool and waterslides. The day had warmed up nicely and I was equally pleased to open a cold beer while notionally standing on lifeguard duties.

Glancing at a map, I was pleased to see that we were now north west of Sydney, which felt like reasonable progress. Cairns was still off the map though, a very long way away. I was starting to formulate a back-up plan in my mind, involving Anja and the girls catching a flight from Brisbane, while I bravely drove the lonely road to Cairns.

A Typical Day in the RV

We reached Moree on day 3, after a relatively short day because we didn’t set-off until gone 10am. The kids wanted one last go in the swimming pool and I was happy to take a break after yesterday’s early start.

Our standard routine was getting pretty well drilled, with a couple of hours driving followed by a rest stop, preferably somewhere in the vicinity of both a playground and a bakery. The bakery was mainly for my benefit, so that I could top up on fresh coffee or grab a pie for lunch.

Two or three spells of driving each day would theoretically be enough to get us to Cairns.

We’d stopped un-making the beds each day to save time and effort. This left us with one small table in the back, where the girls sat during the day and where we could all eat dinner.

Family gap year

Sunset was around 5pm, so by the time we had found a campsite and eaten, it was pitch black and we were all ready for sleep.

Nearly Half Way

Rather than stick to the inland route all the way to Cairns, day 4 saw us heading towards Brisbane. This wasn’t technically in the right direction, but Anja wanted to catch up with some friends from a previous visit to Australia.

Brisbane looked about half way to Cairns on the map, so I was happy that we could afford the diversion and still leave ourselves 4 days up the coast road.

It was lovely to meet our Australian friends and get out of the campervan for a few hours. We were greeted with food and beer, the kids had toys and a few lizards to play with. Everybody was happy.

Australia Zoo

Having come this far, we decided that we couldn’t miss a chance to visit Australia Zoo. This was the home of Steve Irwin.

I’m sure there are videos on youtube if you are not familiar with Steve’s work. He used to be on TV at home quite often, wrestling wild crocodiles and catching ridiculously dangerous snakes. He was killed a few years ago by a stingray, but his legacy lives on.

Australia Zoo contained all the standard wildlife that you’d expect to see, including cuddly koalas, cute wallabies and brick shaped wombats. But we only had eyes today for the crocodiles.

Two crazy Aussies jumped into one of the crocodile pens. This was a planned event that a crowd had gathered to watch, not a spectacularly stupid suicide mission.

RTW family at Australia Zoo

Crocodiles are stealth hunters, evolved over millions of years to sneak up on their prey, before crushing their unsuspecting victim with the most powerful set of jaws in the animal kingdom. Our crocodile man was standing within striking distance of the water with some raw chicken in his hands, which didn’t seem the brightest move.

The show was good fun and the crocodile appeared well accustomed to aiming his teeth at the raw chicken rather than the human surrounding it. But even from the safety of our vantage point, it was still a touch unnerving to be so close to such a dangerous killer.

RTW family at Australia Zoo

Australia zoo contained plenty of other treats and we happily spent the day wandering back and forth. I was surprised to find tigers and rhinos complementing the usual line-up of Australian marsupials. We could have stayed longer, but the zoo was closing up and the road was beckoning.

Night Driving

Is it a good idea to drive around Australia in the dark, in an over-sized tin can that requires a decent amount of advanced warning before coming to a halt?

I think the answer is probably not, and I’m pretty sure the official answer is not.

But there was no way we were reaching Cairns without some night driving, especially after our day at the zoo. So I set the sat-nav for a distant camping spot and tentatively steered a course through the darkness.

It turns out that it is possible to spot kangaroos in the dark, but only at a distance that makes it impossible to stop if any of them decides to cross the road. My driving speed dropped from a steady pace to a slow crawl and we inched into our roadside camping spot, ready for bed.

Life in a Lay-by

After experimenting with driving in the dark, we also discovered that the majority of campsites closed up for the night around 7pm. This left us with two options. Carry on driving, or park up for the night in a designated rest stop just off the highway.

I used our campsite app to locate a potential rest stop ahead, expecting to find little more than a deserted patch of tarmac and an overflowing waste bin.

It turns out that highway rest stops are, in fact, thriving spots of tourist activity. I was actually pleased to find that we would have some company. Safety in numbers. But I was surprised that so many people had decided, purposefully, to spend some of their holiday camping next to a major road.

Having survived our first experience of life in a lay-by, I decided that I quite enjoyed the fact that we could camp for free, surrounded by fellow travellers sharing a simple need for rest.

I could get used to this I thought. Many of our fellow campers appeared to be grey nomads. Caravans attached to their 4x4s, drifting around Australia as the mood takes them. Not a bad looking life.

By this point in the trip, we had dispensed with all but the basic essentials of human existence. We had no need for fancy shower blocks or flushing toilets. We were at one with nature. Focussed only on reaching Cairns in one piece, no matter how bad we all looked.

We Need A Wash

As we edged up the north eastern coast of Australia the temperature started to climb. After leaving Melbourne feeling distinctly cool, we were heading up into the tropics, and officially crossed over the Tropic of Capricorn in a place called Rochampton.

As the weather grew warmer, so the roads became lined on all sides by sugar cane fields. Narrow train tracks weaved around the giant plantations, with toy trains ready to help with the harvest.

Our roadside stops did not surprisingly come with en-suite bathroom facilities, and it was a non starter trying to take a shower in the campervan. The shower enclosure was so small and in such close proximity to the toilet that it would have been easier to take a bath in the kitchen sink.

So I decided to treat the family to a shower.

At Rockhampton we headed for the open air pool and washed, then swam, then washed again just to make sure. Having enjoyed our wash so much, we decided to repeat this process for the next few days. Breaking our journey at whatever municipal swimming pools we could find, in favour of taking playground stops.

RTW family road trip

You Have Reached Your Destination

We didn’t have time on this trip to explore the coastline in any depth, or visit numerous attractions, but we did get a sense of the scale of Australia and an idea of life between the big cities.

Towns that we had never previously heard of are now at least slightly familiar, and we learned about many other places that we would like to visit again.

It was, however, a great relief to reach the Cairns motorhome depot at bang on the agreed time of 2pm, almost exactly one week after we had pulled out of Melbourne.

RTW Family

Next Time

No more driving. We’ll sit still for a week in tropical Cairns and hopefully get out to see the Great Barrier Reef.

Our Favourite Kiwi Experiences – Auckland to Coromandel

I have wanted to travel to New Zealand for as long as I can remember. I think it started when somebody once told me that it was a bit like home in the 1950’s.

I can’t remember whether this comment was said positively, but to me it sounded great.

I have often felt that I may have been born in the wrong era. An opportunity to travel back in time sounded like an excellent prospect.

After nearly eighteen months of planning our round the world trip, we finally arrived in Auckland, with a week to explore the city and the Coromandel.

Auckland Harbour Ferry

We’re not generally a seafaring family.

So, when I first suggested we catch a boat from Auckland across to Devonport, there wasn’t much enthusiasm.

However, given that the total duration of the ferry in question is only 12 minutes, I persisted. We finally managed to get everybody on by the second day of our trip and got some lovely views back to the city.

Round the world with my family in Auckland harbour

The sight of some huge cruise ships in Auckland harbour even got us thinking about one day taking a cruise. Baby steps are probably best though, as Anja was feeling slightly queasy on the return journey when we started travelling backwards.

Round the world with my family on Auckland ferry

Devonport

The destination of our harbour ferry was the seaside village of Devonport. There are views back to the Auckland city skyline, but this place feels like a million miles away from any urban bustle.

After some initial scepticism about reaching Devonport across open water, we all had a great time.

The harbour beach was ideal territory. Driftwood and shells to collect for imaginary play, soft sand to roll around in, and some low waves to jump whenever ships sailed by.

Family-Travel-Blog-DevonportBeach2Family-Travel-Blog-DevonportBeach - CopyFamily-Travel-Blog-Devonport

It was also good to see the local kids out practicing their cricket. Given half a chance I could watch a game of cricket, but instead I was put on lifeguard duties to make sure the kids didn’t wade too far out into the shipping lanes.

Devonport is also home to the New Zealand Royal Navy. I couldn’t get the kids to muster enough enthusiasm to visit the Navy Museum, but they did enjoy spotting the sailors walking around in their uniforms.

Wynyard Quarter

A similar concept to Cardiff Bay, but with better weather and more expensive looking yachts.

The Wynyard quarter was developed during the run up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, transforming this industrial corner of Auckland harbour into a more people friendly space.

Remnants of industrial heritage still remain, including some pretty large storage tanks, but the area has now been filled with restaurants and bars.

It’s hard to beat having a nice cold beer at lunchtime, looking out across shimmering blue water at ships sailing off into the distance. Given half a chance I could happily have stayed all day, but this time I was put onto ferry watch, as the kids decided we should investigate the goings on with a local car ferry that was disembarking next to us.

Silo Park, at the far end of Wynyard quarter, also provided some amusement for the kids while they tried to get to grips with their jet lag.

Pasifika Festival

Through no good planning on my part, but pure good fortune, we happened to be staying in Auckland on the weekend of an annual Pacific Island themed festival.

At Western Springs park, there was a riot of singing and dancing in full swing by the time we arrived.

A variety of Pacific Islands had taken over different corners of the park to showcase their talents. We only managed to get around a few islands. Each area was too good and we ran out of daylight and stamina.

We found the Maori stage first, and got amazingly lucky to witness a full-on haka within 24 hours of landing in NZ. We then toured around the Cook Islands and Hawaii, with the kids totally absorbed by the costumes and dancing.

The only disappointment from our first day in Auckland was that I’d somehow managed to exhaust our camera of battery power. I got a few snaps on my phone, but it’s not the same. I’ve hopefully learned my lesson.

Hot Water Beach – Coromandel

A tourist classic, well on the beaten path, but still a highlight of our time on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Round the world with my family on Hot Water Beach, Coromandel

The hot water in question is easily accessible on the beach, but you do need to arrive two hours either side of low tide. You simply dig yourself a small, paddling pool sized hole and you’re done.

You can even rent shovels from the beach side cafe, if like us you’re travelling light and without garden tools.

The water temperature ranges from lukewarm to boiling hot, so a little trial and error was necessary to get a pool at comfortable lounging temperature.

Round the world with my family on Hot Water Beach, Coromandel

The waves looked ideal for surfing, but not so great for swimming. The lifeguards were very active, continually diving out to rescue tourists who’d decided to cool off in the sea, despite warnings about rip tides.

Pauanui

Our home for three days, Pauanui was covered in forest until the 1970’s. It was then developed as a holiday home retreat, with just a few locals standing guard during off-season.

The location is incredible, on the east coast of the Coromandel, with Mt Pauanui towering over a 2-mile long pacific beach.

We had nearly the whole place to ourselves, apart from some local kids running a surf competition one afternoon.

We recklessly decided to tackle Mt Pauanui one morning. A climb of 400 metres didn’t sound too much and the kids were feeling energetic.

I’m not entirely sure how far we got, but after an hour of climbing an increasingly steep and narrow path, we decided to turn back. The prospect of having to carry the kids downhill was playing on my mind. I think we got pretty high and the views were still amazing.

Round the world with my family at Pauanui

We were more sensible after our mountaineering expedition, and enjoyed some time on the beach. Kiera was born to swim and she’s now getting confident swimming into waves much bigger than I like. She wants to try surfing now, so we’ll be on the lookout for some lessons when we’re next on the coast.

Next Time

We’re heading inland, towards Rotorua and Lake Taupo, staying for a week on a dairy farm in the Waikite Valley. It’s then onto Wellington to explore the capital, before we say goodbye to the North Island and head south.

Are We Prepared For A Year Away?

It seems to have taken a long while, but we are now officially just three months from the start of our family gap-year.

I have not been great at sharing the last few months with you, mainly because I have spent most of every night scouring the internet for cheap flights and interesting accommodation.

While not at work or planning our trip, I have also been taking an unusually keen interest in the workings of world currency markets. Not that you’d probably want to hear, but ask me about the recent trading pattern of sterling versus any of the major world currencies and I could keep you enthralled for at least a few minutes.

Progress So Far

Despite my minor obsession with exchange rates and playing with flight options on skyscanner, we have made some tangible signs of progress towards taking a family gap-year:

  • Flights – we have opted for a series of one-way flights, rather than a RTW ticket, and have booked ahead just for the first few weeks to get us out to New Zealand. I may add more onward legs over the next few months, but we are keen to keep the trip as flexible as possible.
  • Places to stayAirbnb has proven to be a great help in finding places to stay for a family of four on a budget. We have booked accommodation for our first few weeks on the road so that we can settle into our nomadic lifestyle without having to immediately find a wi-fi connection to search for rooms.
  • Vaccinations – we have all been jabbed, which was a relatively painless experience, although Kiera did take slightly longer to be convinced of the need for needles than the rest of us.
  • Work #1 – Anja’s boss has known about our travel plans for some time. Some might say this is because Anja’s idea of a secret is to only tell two or three people at once. However, this appears to have worked out well on the basis that Anja has been lucky enough to get approval for a sabbatical.
  • Work #2 – I handed in my notice today. I don’t expect to get a sabbatical. I would be very happy at this point to return to my current job, but I’m also excited about the prospect of taking a year away and not knowing what I’ll be doing when I get back. Our mortgage company may be less excited about this prospect, but I’m hoping they don’t read my blog.

Plenty Still To Do

There is still enough to do to keep us occupied before departure day:

  • House – we have spoken to a letting agent about renting out our house while we’re away, but after Christmas we need to get permission from our mortgage company, get the house on the market and find a good tenant.
  • Storage – the likelihood is that we will need to rent out our house unfurnished, so we need to move out all of the things that we are leaving behind and find somewhere suitable for them to stay.
  • Pets – unfortunately we can’t put our pets into storage, but we are very fortunate to have the support of friends to look after our dog while we’re away, and we’ve even found a potential “volunteer” to be the proud new parent of the kids’ guinea pigs.
  • Packing – we have thought through the theory of packing for a year away…I suspect the reality is going to take a few dry runs, and possibly a few interesting conversations about how we all define what is “essential”.
  • Travel Paperwork – less exciting than researching itineraries, but at some point we need to apply for travel visas and get ourselves some travel insurance.
  • Personal Finances – there is probably more to do here than I’d like to think about at the moment, e.g. research best bank cards for withdrawing money overseas, let our regular bank know what we’re doing, sort landlord insurance cover, etc.

And, of course, I still want to do more research on our travel plans and read about the places we’ll be visiting.

All of a sudden three months doesn’t feel very long.

Are we prepared for a year away? Probably not, but I’m confident we’ll get there!

I Love Travel Planning

Do you love travel planning?

I get that it might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Perhaps you prefer to just rock up at the airport and jump on a flight. Wander the streets of a strange town and find a great place to stay. Waltz into a ramshackle old cafe and grab a bite to eat.

Me?

I prefer to spend hours, days, weeks, agonising over the details.

I am going to spend longer planning our family year away than we are actually going to spend travelling.

Why?

Because I can, but also because I love doing it.

We are counting down the weeks now, until our departure next March, so the planning is starting to intensify. The stack of travel books on my coffee table is starting to grow. My reluctance to book anything without having first weighed up all the options…well that never goes away.

Is this healthy?

Probably not if I try to micro manage our entire year away. I am restricting myself to booking the odd week here and there, based on our loose itinerary, rather than attempting to fill 365 days.

We want freedom while we’re travelling. We want to be flexible, to stay somewhere for another week just because we’re having a good time. To run away from somewhere else because: (a) I can’t get a decent cup of coffee; (b) Anja is too cold; (c) the kids are driving us mad because they’ve run out of organic rice cakes.

But, and this is mainly me, I also don’t want to spend 24 hours on a plane to New Zealand, get there, then miss all the good bits and spend a week in wherever is the Kiwi equivalent of Swindon. No offence meant to the lovely residents of this fine Wiltshire town, which currently provides me with gainful employment, but you don’t see too many queues outside the Swindon tourist information kiosk…if indeed anybody has bothered to build one.

I need to get back to Lonely Planet, so that’s enough for now.

If you have any tips for our stay in New Zealand or Tasmania please share.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: