The next best thing to planning your own big trip is to share the excitement of friends planning theirs. And with two girlfriends about to pack up their families and set off on their own amazing adventures, we've enjoyed quite a few extended coffee catch-ups and family dinners in recent months. My friends have interrogated me for tips and advice about things to consider and what worked for me when heading off long-term touring with the kids. So we thought we’d share a few highlights of what we covered.
LEARNING AS YOU GO
The first and most guilt-ridden question my friends threw at me was: “do you think the kids will be okay missing that much school?” My response? “Absolutely they will!”
We’re not talking about spending months vegetating by the pool in some generic Club Med resort. They’ll gain so much in so many ways from the experience of travelling as a family compared to what they’d get in a classroom that I don’t even know where to start.
That said, schooling is compulsory in Australia, and each state has different requirements as to the total number of days that a student may be absent from school. The trick is to communicate early and often with your school principal and they should be able to guide you as to what is available. Most states offer their own version of distance education, with varying eligibility criteria. For example, in WA if you are going to be away for longer than one school semester you can access School of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDE). Don’t get sucked into asking the teacher for their annual teaching plan and associated resources – you’re going on a holiday not trying out for a Diploma of Education.
What worked for us was making use of the endless opportunities for spontaneous learning along the way. The “three R’s” (reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic) can all be easily covered.
Reading: Get the kids to read signs and brochures at places you go. Ask them comprehension questions about what they’ve read. Read a book to them each night in bed.
Writing: Get them to keep a diary, and send emails or postcards home to friends.
Arithmetic: How far to the next town? How much fuel will we use? How much money will that fuel cost? How much change will I get from $100 when I pay for it? (That one was a trick question, when you’re driving with a petrol-fuelled ’Cruiser). Purchase a couple of generic daily workbooks and work on a little bit of everything per day and you are set. There are plenty of curriculum-targeted ones to choose from at educational book outlets.
SCHOOLING ON THE ROAD: THE NITTY GRITTY
Most states offer some version of distance education which can be accessed for students who are travelling long term. Each has slightly different eligibility criteria. In WA, for example, if you are travelling for more than six months you have the option of enrolling your kids into the School of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDE). Less than that seems to be left up to the individual school. The program will provide you with comprehensive educational packages to suit the ages of your kids, along with instructions for you. You supervise completion of the workbooks and then post them back for marking and they send out more.
This arrangement can be a bit of a challenge on the road, as you may need to anticipate where you are going to be at a certain time in order to receive your next instalment. When we were in Cape York we organised to have our package delivered to Bamaga post office for collection, not realising that the mail only comes once a week by barge. The logistics of it and us arriving in the same place at the same time were a non-event and the mail eventually caught up with us in Darwin several weeks later, much to the kids' disappointment. (They were so looking forward to saying “the crocodile ate my homework”.)
CLOTHES AND KEEPING CLEAN
Then there was the question of what clothes to take. If you’re going to be gone for several months, chances are you’ll encounter a range of weather conditions. You don’t want to miss out on doing anything, so the motto here is: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Pack for all seasons but work on layering clothes for warmth as opposed to taking bulky items. A thin raincoat works a treat for both keeping dry and blocking the wind for warmth. Thermal underwear packs a lot of warmth for little space. Dark colours don’t show the dirt as much.
The odds are the kids are going to look just as grubby five minutes after you let them loose as they did at the end of the previous day. Embrace it. One of the joys of travelling is that you meet new people every day, so the likelihood of someone noticing that the t-shirt your child is wearing today looks suspiciously like the same one they had on yesterday is pretty low. The bottom line in clothing hygiene is clean socks and jocks each day (and no boys, turning your jocks back to front and then inside out doesn’t mean you can get four wears out of one pair). If you are heading off the bitumen at all, it’s likely everything will get stained red with the dirt, so leave the designer labels behind and plan on throwing away most of the clothes you take when you get home. It’ll save you many stressful hours of unsuccessful stain removal attempts when you rejoin the rat race.
If you aren’t planning on spending every night in a caravan park, conserving your water becomes an issue and showering can become a bit of a luxury. If you are swimming, consider if you also need to shower or are you are really clean enough. If you feel the need to wash at the end of the day, then a 'submarine shower' might be the go – wet, water off, lather up, then a quick rinse off. Or a 'pommy bath' with a small bowl of water, a flannel and some baby wash might do the trick (baby wash doesn’t have to be rinsed off, so it saves water). Even more water-wise is the strategic use of baby wipes. Choose your weapon depending on the kid’s grottiness factor on any given day.
This is one area where you really need to change your mindset between what you throw in the fridge for a weekend away versus a long-haul trip where you might be a week or two between shops, feeding the whole family three meals a day. Plan some meals, write down every ingredient you’ll need and then do your grocery shopping based on this list. Knowing in advance exactly what each meal will be, and that you have all the necessary ingredients to hand, takes much of the stress out of meal preparation. And remember, there are always two choices on the menu at meal time: take it or leave it!
One lesson you don’t want to have to learn from experience is to make sure you have two gas bottles. When one runs out in the middle of cooking, it’s a simple change of connection and you’re back in business, with a couple of weeks up your sleeve to get the empty refilled. Much better than an empty gas bottle, a half cooked meal and a hungry family.
FOOD PACKING FOR THE LONG HAUL
In the pursuit of being able to have a holiday too, I’ll often pre-prepare meals to take away on a weekend camping trip. This is fabulous for shorter trips, but if you have a fixed amount of storage space and need to resupply when you’re on the road long term, it can lead to a nervous breakdown. You can only buy as much food as you can fit into your camper trailer. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of space-saving packing ideas, like dehydrating food, but when you're on the road you probably won’t have this luxury. Especially if you plan to tour through some remote areas, you can’t plan to be food shopping two or three times a week – you may need to stock up and know that you have all the makings for a week or more of meals.
I stock basically the same foods when we first leave home as to what I plan to buy along the way, that way everything has a place. I know this container can hold five 1L tetra packs of milk, so that’s how many I buy – they’ll fit, and I know they’ll last us five days. At the shopping centre car park all the containers come out for filling (the boot is full of camping gear, so there's no room to stash shopping bags of groceries to take home). Meat gets pulled out of their bulky trays and put into snap-lock bags for freezing, bread into the bread box, muesli bar boxes are emptied into the snack box… Not your usual car park antics, but the effort saves a lot of space and stress later on.
TOYS AND OTHER STUFF
However much we’d like the kids’ eyes to be glued to the passing scenery, entertainment on long stretches of boring bitumen is a must. I confess that we had DVD players build into the headrests of the ’Cruiser and they have been a sanity saver – there are only so many games of eye-spy you can play.
Kids love their “stuff” and it’s only fair to allow them to take a small selection of their favourite things along. For us with two kids, each child had their own little box that lived in the middle of the back seat next to them, into which they could put whatever they wanted to bring along. Three kids across the back seat can relegate this storage to something with pockets that can hang off the back of the front seats. However, the main thing the kids need to pack is their imagination. With a bit of encouragement and practice, Mother Nature offers up everything they will need for hours of fun.
As they embark on adventures, it’s a good idea to fit each kid with a backpack for carrying their own water bottle and a snack. If they are old enough to wander a little further afield on their own, two-way radios/walkie-talkies are good for keeping in touch. And for nighttime, head-lamps are a great idea – both so they can see where they are going hands-free and for you to spot them in the dark.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
Life on the road engenders accountability and self-assurance in kids and they quickly develop great social skills as they connect with a wide range of people, young and old, along the way. They will experience things and develop important life skills that you just can’t replicate in a classroom. The “three R’s” suddenly expand beyond traditional education to things like reduce, reuse, recycle; or resourcefulness, responsibility and respect.
As well as the obvious opportunity to see more of what this amazing country of ours has to offer, long-term touring is a chance to be a family unit without the constant distraction of work and other commitments. With a bit of preparation and planning before you leave, it doesn’t have to be hard work. It’s a unique opportunity to spend extended, quality time together with your kids and forge foundations, which will hopefully support you through the turbulent teenage years ahead.
At least that’s what I’m hoping...