“Bring water,” my Aussie mates tell me when they hear I’ll be traversing their continent with my husband, seven-month-old baby, and scruffy terrier. I laugh their words of warning off—that is, until I find myself confronting the shaking head of a stout man behind the counter of the only gas station for hundreds of miles in the middle of Australia’s Nullarbor Plain. “No water here,” he says in a tone that really means, You’re in the middle of the desert, you stupid tourist. Of course I don’t have water for you. This is the Australian outback after all, where the slow-but-steady trickle of human visitors are far outnumbered by the marsupial ones.
It is in this moment that I start to fully comprehend the enormity of the land down under.
Before moving to Australia—or marrying an Aussie for that matter—my image of Oz consisted either of rugged men wrangling crocodiles in an uninhabitable kangaroo-covered desert, or, in stark contrast, of bronzed surfers riding waves along postcard-worthy beaches under a perfect blue sky. After all, I was a native New Yorker who had been living for over a decade in London, that great gray melting pot of a city where my husband and I met, and where the annual smattering of sunny days had us rushing outdoors in a half-crazed state, and the most interesting wildlife were the urban foxes who howled nightly outside our apartment. How could I know what life in Australia was really like?
When we finally left London for sunnier shores, it didn’t take long to realize that Australia was far more climactically and culturally diverse than I ever could’ve imagined. Then, of course, there’s Australia’s size (roughly the same as the United States), never fully realized even by its own inhabitants who mainly live and travel on the outer edges of their country. (According to Tourism Research Australia, just 816,000 Australians out of 24 million drove across the bottom half of their country—the route that connects the most major cities—in 2015.)
So when it came time to uproot ourselves once again to begin a new life close to kin in New York’s Hudson Valley (I blame the persuasions of my Italian-American family after the birth of their first grandchild—my daughter), we decided it would be an excellent—and not at all crazy—idea to drive across the continent of Australia, dog and baby in tow, to witness Oz in all its gargantuan glory. And hell, while we were at it, why not drive across the USA as well? But that’s another story.
Our route would take us from the laid-back port city of Fremantle (30 minutes south of Western Australia’s capital of Perth) to the vibrant foodie city of Melbourne, Victoria, where we would fly to Los Angeles and repeat the journey all over again across the United States.
The months and weeks leading up to our departure were a logistical circus reserved for those peculiar people who thrive on spreadsheets (namely, my husband). Furniture was sold off or given to friends, notice was given for work and rental accommodation, boxes packed with our belongings were sent on their sea voyage to the other side of the world (we wouldn't see them again for nearly six months), and, after eight months of bureaucratic hoop-jumping, hubby was finally granted his U.S. resident's visa (phew!). At last we were set to go, although not without teary goodbyes and a mix of emotions ranging from excitement to trepidation at the thought of sharing a confined space with a baby and a dog for several weeks in the most remote corners of Australia.
Anticipating that we would not be traveling lightly (with six overstuffed suitcases, a host of baby equipment, and a dog crate to be precise), we splurged and opted for the “deluxe” 25 foot, six berth motorhome, which included a surprisingly well-outfitted kitchen, bathroom with shower and toilet, two tables, and a double bed above the driver’s and passenger’s seats. It was cozy for the four of us, but by no means roughing it.
I’ll admit, our first few hours in the caravan did not go well. They involved a cacophony of cringeworthy crashes resulting from badly packed wine glasses and a mis-latched refrigerator door, along with a nervous dog scrambling beneath the driver’s feet and nearly running us off the road.
But when we arrived at Wave Rock, the 46-foot natural rock formation shaped like an ocean swell (it’s really something quite spectacular to behold) 200 miles east of Fremantle, we were starting to get the hang of things.
Knowing we had to drive south a little ways and then directly east for a long ways, we allowed ourselves a few detours along the way to take in some well-reputed sites like Wave Rock. One of our biggest detours, on the second night of our journey, was to the coastal fishing town of Esperance at the bottom of Western Australia, where tame kangaroos lounged on the pristine local beaches. There we shared a motorhome park with “gray nomads” (the affectionate term for the many Aussie retirees who traverse their country in a house on wheels) who showed us a thing or two about camper van life, including the surprisingly tidy task of emptying our water tank.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the Nullarbor (which literally means “No Trees”) Plain, the band of desert running along the bottom half of Australia. It’s an unnerving feeling knowing you’re about to drive yourself into one of the biggest deserts on the planet and not emerge from it for several days; where the odd gas station every couple of hundred miles becomes your only connection to civilization. But there’s also something exhilarating about the sheer nothingness of it all: over a thousand miles of scorched earth and low-lying scrub and the white-knuckle driving that accompanies the endlessly straight, shoulderless single-lane road, all dominated by a cavalcade of terrifyingly fast “road trains,” or triple tractor trailers.
There were nights spent parked on the side of the red-dust encrusted road, attempting to walk the dog amidst toilet paper scraps and litter. But there was also a night where we were perched above the lonely sea-swept cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, where desert meets sea in the most dramatic of fashions (surely a gateway to heaven, if one believes in such things), cooking an elaborate meal in our pocket-sized kitchen and witnessing a breathtaking sunset.
After two nights in the west and three nights in the desert, reentering civilization happened more gradually than exiting it did. Trees replaced scrub, parched earth morphed into green grass. What was once desert was now South Australian farmland.
Our four-ton house-on-wheels was put to the test up the steep, winding slopes of the Adelaide Hills, just east of Adelaide city, where, in extreme contrast to the dry, flat uniformity we’d become accustomed to, we reveled in the lushness and quaintness of a region defined by cozy cottages, babbling brooks, and terraced vineyards. A few nights were spent outside the motorhome at a friend’s, treating ourselves to a bed that didn’t slope, hot showers, and wine with some of Australia’s most laid-back yet exciting winemakers (Ochota Barrels, Gentle Folk, and Domaine Lucci).
Several more nights were passed in Victoria traversing the rugged Grampian Mountains through a wall of soupy fog, and coaxing our high-strung dog to pee on a precipitous cliff-edge on the dramatic and beautiful Great Ocean Road, along the state’s southwest shore.
But when, two weeks and 2,150 miles after leaving Fremantle, Western Australia, we finally rolled into Melbourne to crash with friends and spend a day repacking the giant suitcases that held our lives’ most essential belongings, I’d already forgotten about the hiccups.
Boarding the plane at the Melbourne airport to fly to Los Angeles (after tearily sending our terrier down to cargo), I realized that I never did witness any crocodile-wrangling in my time as an Australian resident; and my encounters with bronzed surfers were limited, to say the least (sigh). But these stereotypical images didn’t do Australia justice anyway.
Today when I think of Australia, my memories come mostly in sounds: The noisy drawl of crows as they click-clack their claws on our tin roof in the morning, and the laughing of kookaburras high in the gum trees at dusk; The screw cap of a wine bottle snapping open and the ping of a popped beer cap falling onto the patio beside a sizzling barbecue; Waves crashing against a pristine shoreline; A herd of kangaroos hopping through a parched field; our dog barking at the dinosaur-like blue-tongued bobtail lizards in the back garden; wild parrots perched in sunflowers munching their seeds. And then I think of the unconventional way my little family and I departed Australia, and I am proud (and mildly surprised at our unexpected adventurousness). But mostly I’m deeply grateful that we were able to experience a slice of such a vast and varied country of immeasurable beauty. In the end, despite some bumps in the road, our camper van journey brought us closer to each other and to the land down under. I would do it again in a heartbeat—even with a baby and a dog.
Christina Pickard is an American-born professional wine writer and educator who, after living abroad for 13 years, recently made a move back to her home country via two cross-country camper van adventures
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