This is a story about our journey from Tasmania to Uluru, Australia’s Red Centre. Seven-thousand kilometres, six-weeks, with two adults, two kids, and a baby entangled in one van. We encountered natural wonders, russet-red dust and clouds of insects. And arrived home with our hearts full of stories: of Aboriginal creation, pioneering European settlers, and our own adventures in the Australian bush.
It was a journey that began last year in spring. We had just bought a van, with a pop-top and space to sleep all five of us. And with a family holiday just-around-the corner, we fitted a kitchen in the back and a rack for our electric-bikes. We packed the children and supplies and set out for Uluru, in search of new horizons, adventure and time together. Our van wasn’t spacious, but it felt just right. We found a nook for most things, the art box, slack-line and potty. For six weeks we were free, the best way to travel with a young family.
Early one morning we woke to the shrieks of our eldest tumbling over the edge of the pop-top bed to land on the baby who was sleeping snuggled against the steering-wheel. “Bucket toilet, I need the bucket toilet”, she crowed. Behind the curtains the sky was turning tangerine. I smiled at our grubby family. We were sleeping on the side of the Stuart highway, at a truck stop, on our way north to Uluru. We had perfected the art of driving until ‘just-dark’, finding camp and popping-the-top. We would slide the children still-asleep into their beds, heave out the child-restraints, and fold down our bed for some rest until sunrise. The luxury afforded to a small camper-van set-up.
We took a detour south to Kangaroo Island, 112 kilometres south west off the South Australian coast. We camped wild behind sand dunes and roamed lonely beaches, played handstands on ancient rock formations and slept under the beam of a historic lighthouse. Our van became a beach dweller and filled with memories of the sea: heart-shaped rocks, shells and sand. Though in hindsight these were fairly benign compared to the burnt-red-dust from Australia’s Red Centre that infiltrated everything.
We survived long days on straight roads, entertaining the children by reading the Magic Faraway Tree, making paper-planes and shredding toilet-paper-rolls. At the end of every journey, the electric doors would open and a compost heap would spill out. Along with containers filled with Lottie’s bug collection.
It was stifling hot at Yalara. In the cool of the morning we walked through the canyons of Kata-Tajuta, the children chasing tadpoles in trickling creeks. We rode our electric-bikes around Uluru, the “ginormous rock’, as the children called it. And were enchanted by Aboriginal Anangu creation stories and Uluru’s weathered-caves and water-runnels. At midday we would retreat to the pool at the caravan park and laze on buffalo grass under the shade of a tree.
Lottie watched Aboriginal women painting dot stories, a love of art blossoming. In the evening, the children went to sleep with wet tea-towels and we would gaze at the jewels in the great southern sky. I wasn’t sure how I would feel in this place of natural wonders and rich Aboriginal culture. We were far from home, but I felt strangely comforted by the spirit and beauty of the land. Perhaps here, beneath Uluru and the Milky Way, I finally understood our place in the world. It illuminated our vulnerable and trivial lives against things both eternal and enduring. And a message of love, for the land and its people, settled in my heart.
At Kings Canyon we raced to start the day early. We carried frozen water-bottles and smarties to lure the children-along the sunburnt tracks. One morning when everyone was sweltering and cranky we sheltered in a cave and discovered a gallery of ochre hand-stencils. The children were delighted and imagined aboriginal children playing here long-ago. At nap-time, Anders told stories of snakes, emus and kangaroos. We sat looking out in wonder at the valley below and of all that had unfolded before-our-time.
On our way south we were caught in a dust-storm. The world went dark, and I was grateful for the shelter of our van. The children were silent, entranced by the chaos and their father running around outside enjoying the thrill of the storm.
At Coober Pedy we drove along the ‘dog fence’, explored underground churches, and marvelled at a community besotted with opals. We left the comfort of the highway and negotiated the infamous Oodnadatta Track. We had been lucky, the often impassible 4WD track had been freshly graded, and it was dry. We journeyed through tiny towns and haunted railway stations, swam in natural-springs and took a flight over Australia’s largest inland lake, Lake Eyre.
The Lake’s duality amazed me: how sun-burnt mud and thick salty-crusts could transform into torrents of water roiling with fish and teeming with bird-life. Desolate and still, then destructive and regenerative. I held it together as we took off, all five of us, in one small plane. Anders smiled and joked that at least we would go down together. A sobering thought as we flew across a desert littered with cattle carcasses and stunted shrubs. I wondered too if our Oodnadatta journey had been a little crazy. Out-here, help was elusive. But our gutsy 2WD van survived, returning to the Stuart Highway with tales of dust, gibber-stones and an endless-horizon. Though I won’t miss the throb of flies or the buzzing black-cloud that trailed behind the baby, the stinkiest of our tribe.
It wasn’t always sunshine and smiles. We had our share of challenges and breakdowns, mechanical and human. We lost sun-hats and shoes. Cracked the transmission, most likely a result of my driving. Though we managed to get our van to a mechanic who did a marvellous repair job. And we endured long nights of hot itchy children, meltdowns mid-highway, and pre-dawn awakenings by children ready-to-play. Our journey to Uluru with two toddlers and a baby was unpredictable. The best moments were never-imagined: hand-stencils in a cave, smarties under a rock, a sunrise from a truck-stop. And we found joy in the in-between: dinner under a gumtree, excursions on the side of a highway, icy-poles in an air-conditioned supermarket. A real adventure, full of unexpected surprises.
And we learnt to parent on the road: a balance of all-in family time and splitting-up to get things done. To make living easier we condensed our belongings, wore fewer clothes, washed occasionally and ate simply. We didn’t need much, we had each other and the rewards of adventure. When we had set out I had been worried how the children would cope with our mobility. But the van and their ‘pop-top’ bed was always there – our only constant against a moving horizon.
When it was time to move on, we would draw straws: one would pack the van, the other entertain the children. Anders’ loved to ride his electric-bike down the road with all three children and I would organise our belongings and follow. And though I imagined late-evenings filled with cups of tea and games-of-cards, in reality we were so pleasantly exhausted we fell into bed not long after the children.
Life on the road entangled us in the present. Our children played in the here and now. Worries and ‘next week’ faded. There were insects to catch, rocks to climb and kangaroos to spy. The important things. But there was also the time to reflect on our responsibilities. And our journey remained us of the need to act with love towards the land and all its people.
Our raspberry patch was bursting with fruit when we returned home. The children squealed in delight as they stuffed handfuls of berries into their mouths. Their red-stained lips reminding me of the iridescent colours of Uluru at sunset. And it felt like a perfect finale to a sweet and fulfilling family journey to Uluru, Australia’s Red Centre.