Seattle to Vancouver by Train

A train has to be one of my favourite modes of travel. Perhaps not battling for breathing space on the tube, but relaxing in comfort on a long distance train is hard to beat in my book.

 Travelling across an international border by train takes things to a higher level. It’s quite a few years since I went inter-railing across Europe, when there were still border crossings to navigate, but I still vividly recall the mixture of excitement and apprehension at reaching a far-flung border patrol in Eastern Europe at the dead of night.

And so I booked us onto Train 510, leaving Seattle King Street Station for Vancouver, at 7.45am on a bright Tuesday morning in July.

Four tickets cost us $126, which I thought seemed pretty reasonable, especially as it meant we didn’t need to spend another few hours waiting in airports.

There was, however, a pretty strange system to board the train. Rather than being allocated seats in advance, so that you can simply walk onto the train at 7.45am, we had to arrive at the station an hour before departure to check-in our luggage and receive a seat allocation. This was straight-forward enough to do, but it meant waking the kids slightly before their natural rising time, which is always a risk before a long journey.

Our wait in Seattle station was livened up by a very talkative Kiwi, who was making his way home to Vancouver Island. We chatted about New Zealand, which we hadn’t long departed, and inevitably drifted onto the subject of Rugby, which you are almost bound to do whenever meeting a true Kiwi. I couldn’t help but feel a tad envious of somebody lucky enough to have a New Zealand passport and a Canadian visa.

We boarded the Amtrak service and left Seattle on time, camera at the ready to capture the passing scenery as we journeyed north to the Canadian border. In between taking the kids on journeys to the buffet car, I spent most of the journey trying to master taking photos while moving at high-speed.

Seattle to Vancouver train

Seattle to Vancouver train

I just about managed to get a picture of a golden eagle, perched on the shore, but you might need to look quite hard to see it.

Golden eagle on the beach

Otherwise the journey was one long masterpiece, and it was only a shame that we couldn’t have spent longer exploring this stretch of coastline.

Seattle to Vancouver train

Seattle to Vancouver trainSeattle to Vancouver train

Border control was at Vancouver station, which caused a slight delay getting off the train, but it still felt incredible to be walking onto Canadian soil at just after lunchtime, having spent the morning in America.

Back To Reality

Around four months into our new life of not working, we’ve made the decision to come back to reality after six months of travelling. This is shorter than the full year we’d originally planned.

Before embarking on a year away, the kids were worried about missing school, missing their friends, and not having enough toys to play with. So far, they have loved most of the places we have visited, and have coped well with the constant changes of scenery and lack of routine.

But having never travelled for such a long period of time, choosing to go away for a year was always a slightly arbitrary aim. Six months now feels right.

This does mean, however, that our original itinerary goes out the window. After Australia, the plan was to spend a couple of months exploring the USA and Canada, followed by some time in Central America and back home via South East Asia.

We already had flights booked from Sydney to Los Angeles, via Hawaii, so we still intend to spend some time on the West Coast, but we’ll then skip back and finish our trip in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was near the top of my wish list for this journey and I can’t wait to take the kids to see some real life elephants and enjoy curry for breakfast.

Goodbye Australia

It seemed somehow fitting to end our tour of Australia in Sydney. In the city that you might assume was the capital, if you hadn’t paid too much attention in geography class.

The site of the first British colony in Australia, only 230 years ago. Selected due to its extremely accommodating natural harbour, which now provides Sydney with miles of expensive river front properties and a perfect setting for its two most iconic buildings.

RTW family travel

The opera house may be the most familiar building in Sydney, but for me, the harbour bridge dominates the scene. Built in the 1920’s to provide a road and rail link between Sydney’s central business district and its northern suburbs, the bridge has become an iconic landmark. You know you’re in Sydney when you spy the towering arched framework, which forces itself into view around almost every corner.

RTW family in Sydney

A visit to the Rocks museum, tucked away in a small stone warehouse down a maze of side streets, offered a glimpse into the effort that went into building the bridge. A black and white video was playing on loop, showing the extreme disregard for health and safety that prevailed in 1923.

Thousands of working class men were offered lucrative employment opportunities when construction started. But the money on offer was partly danger money, with a days’ work involving heavy manual labour on partially built steel girders, hanging hundreds of feet over the river below. Not the place to be if it should get a little wet, or windy, or both.

16 workers died during the building process and it seems surprising that the figure wasn’t even higher given the conditions.

Family travel blog

Manly

We were staying in Manly, around ten miles down river from the city centre. Manly harbour is the site where Captain Arthur Philip received a spearing from one of Sydney’s original inhabitants. It’s now a trendy commuter suburb, where one bed flats cost eye watering amounts and you’re not short of options for a morning coffee or afternoon gelato.

RTW family travel blog

To blend in with the locals, we decided to arrive in style by catching the commuter ferry from Sydney harbour. After an effortless train journey from the airport that directly connects to the harbour terminal, we set sail under warm blue skies. There can’t be many better daily commutes and it sure beats my usual run up the M4.

We made this same ferry journey twice a day, every day we were here. It was worth leaving the house just to stand at the front of the boat, enjoying a cooling breeze and watching Sydney’s incredible coastline unfold.

RTW family travel blog

Sydney Aquarium

Lexi loves an aquarium and we had high hopes for Sydney’s offering. After a journey involving two ferries, we pulled into Darling harbour and stood in line to be unburdened of some cash.

We learned that Octopus have eight hearts and blue blood, and that Dugongs are distant relatives of elephants and require feeding every ten minutes. That may seem excessive, but to be fair they only eat lettuce all day, which must get a bit boring.

RTW family in Australia

After several hours underwater, exploring everything from sharks to starfish, we eventually had to surface for some lunch.

Luna Park Take Two

Set almost directly beneath the harbour bridge, it hadn’t taken the kids very long to discover that Sydney was home to another Luna Park. We’d spent the whole day in St Kilda’s Luna Park during our stay in Melbourne, so it seemed unlikely that we’d escape another visit.

Luna Park is an old fashioned amusement park, but with modern day prices. We got good value out of our day in St Kilda, because the park was relatively quiet and the kids were able to go on most of the rides together, without having to muster up a brave adult to accompany them.

The park in Sydney had a different combination of rides, and Lexi was too small to go on anything exciting without a responsible parent in tow. This was unfortunate, because it meant I also had to go on some rides to keep Kiera company.

The kids did love the indoor play area, which contained a variety of wooden slides and some genuinely antique looking games.

Both kids seem to have inherited my competitive streak, so they particularly relished the opportunity to nudge some smaller kids down a spinning wheel contraption, to claim the title of last child standing.

Goodbye Australia

We arrived on 9th May and left on 3rd July, with our eight weeks spent touring around a fair-sized portion of the country.

Western Australia already feels like a slightly distant memory, but we won’t forget our first kangaroo spotting expedition, or the many hours we spent in Kings Park and Hilarys Harbour.

It was great to spend some time with my family in Adelaide. Hopefully next time will beat the previous 25-year gap.

As hoped, we all enjoyed the slightly cooler climate of Tasmania, with its laid back friendly atmosphere and the charming cobbled streets of Hobart.

Melbourne and Sydney were both cities where I could imagine spending more time in the future, with so many possibilities we only scratched the surface with a few days in each place.

I’d also like to take on another long distance Australian drive at some point, but on a more leisurely timetable than our RV relocation deal allowed.

But the kids have started to speak with an Australian twang and have memorised the timings of their favourite programmes on the ABC kids network, so it’s time to move on before we need to apply for a residency visa.

RTW family adventure

Next Time

We’re heading across the Pacific, with a stop off in the sunny island of Oahu, Hawaii. I can’t imagine we’ll often be passing by Hawaii, so it seemed an opportunity not to be missed. I’m hoping to visit Pearl Harbour, but I think the family may have other ideas in mind, possibly involving sun tan lotion and some inflatables.   

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.

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