A lesson in reversing the van…

For most of my adult life I’ve always wanted to visit the town of Seventeen Seventy, locally referred to as “1770”. There’s something rather dreamy about visiting a sleepy seaside village named after a year. A tiny town, situated roughly 500km north of Brisbane and surrounded on three sides by the Coral Sea and Bustard Bay. It was the second landing site of Lieutenant James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour in May 1770 and is a huge part of Australian history.

The road into 1770 and nearby Agnes Water was not what I’d expected. I’d imaged a windy, coastal road that took in the beautiful vistas of the ocean. Instead, it was surrounded by dry, dense and rugged bushland. The little towns, like Rosedale, our picnic lunch stop, felt quite deserted and very remote.

As we arrived at the town of Agnes Water we checked Wikicamps for a good spot to stay and found a place called ‘Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary & Camp Ground’ – 4.5 stars is almost as good as it gets, throw in some wildlife and the kids will be over the moon. We drove through the gates and the dirt road leading into the property gradually became narrower, more winding and then suddenly…very steep. Too steep. The X-trail could not pull the weight of the van up the hill and as the front wheels started slipping we decided it wasn’t safe to go any further. This was new. 100m up the hill with a ditch on one side and a drop off on the other the only way was down. We had to reverse. ”Just take a few deep breathes everyone”. I climbed out, worked out we had about 1 metre to work with and very slowly started guiding the car and van down the hill. Seriously not for the faint hearted! The kids didn’t fancy going off the edge – I’ve never seen them move so fast. They jumped out and agreed to meet us at the bottom.

We were doing ok until two backpacker filled campervans arrived behind us. You can just imagine their faces when they realised there was no way around and that they too, had to reverse. Fifteen gruelling minutes later with a small audience by now and we were back where we had started. I’m not sure if you know this but some campers just love watching the ‘newbies’ try to park and reverse their vans. They pull up a chair, make a cup of tea and watch the show. No pressure. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes (like yesterday) we get it horribly wrong. You’d think we’d have it mastered by now! We are getting better, I promise.

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As for our wildlife camping idea, it was obvious that we were not going to be able to spend the night there so we headed off to the first available campsite and found ourselves on a flat, gravel free surface, right on the beach in 1770. A small wooden fence was all that separated us from the beach. The view over the bay was spectacular. This is one of the few places in Queensland where you can watch the sun set over the water. As we walked along the sand that evening, fishermen standing in the water and nearby pelicans hoping to steal a catch forming a backcloth of silhouettes, we now fully appreciated why this was such a popular holiday destination.

After breakfast the following day we took a leisurely stroll along the beach to a heritage listed site, a cairn situated on Round Hill. The cairn stands on the site where one of Cook’s crew carved the date on a tree near where they came ashore.

Rockhampton was our next destination and as we wanted to get there before dinner, we quickly packed up and headed straight off. We were going to have dinner with good friends that we hadn’t seen in years. There is only one way in and one way out of Agnes Water and 1770 and it’s quite a long, monotonous road. If you’re planning on visiting, allow yourself a few days there at the very least and don’t forget your fishing rod!

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I’d like to share a tip for all the future caravanners out there. A lovely family that we met on the cruise ship gave us very valuable advice when it comes to reversing a caravan. The person guiding the driver stands in front of the car and van reversing, facing the driver. If you want them to reverse the van to your left, call out ‘pull left’ at which point the driver pulls the steering wheel to their left and if you want them to reverse towards the right, ‘pull right’. It has saved us from embarrassment numerous times but especially in 1770!

 

Vava’u, Tonga

The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, directly south of Samoa and consists of over 170 islands, many of them uninhabited. Vava’u, with a population of around 15,000 inhabitants, is an island group consisting of one large island and 40 smaller ones.  As our tender approached the shore we could hear a youth brass band playing and a group of kindergarten aged children, singing and dancing to raise money for their schools.  Beautifully crafted goods were being sold by the locals, hoping to make the most of our short stop.

We drove through the main town and then headed over to the Tongan Beach Resort, around 20 minutes from the port.  The return taxi drive cost us 50 Tongan Pa’anga and entry to the resort (including a delicious barbeque lunch) 90 Tongan Pa’anga. We passed by little houses, some of them so small you could barely swing a cat in them. This was the poorest of all the islands we’ve visited so far. Pigs of all sizes run around freely and you need to keep your eye out for the odd lost cow wandering across the road.

Tongan Beach Resort is a peaceful, private and cosy retreat made up of rustic bungalows, a half-filled swimming pool and a very basic restaurant and bar.  Yet, it’s popular with visitors from all over the world because right off the jetty lies a spectacular lagoon, abundant with fish. As we lay under the trees, we watched as diver after diver returned from their daily adventures and it was clear that this was what travellers came here for. We spent the rest of the day swimming and snorkelling in the lagoon. The marine life was good here but there wasn’t much reef.  Watch out for sea urchins and stone fish, reef shoes are essential.  If you’ve ever wanted to swim with a humpback whale, this is the place to do it. Trip Advisor’s number 1 tour is run by ‘Tongan Expedition Dive and Whale Watching’ and offers a safe and truly unforgettable experience.

Our next stop was scheduled to be Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital. Unfortunately, the wind picked up the night before our expected arrival and our ship was unable to safely pass between the reef to enter the harbour, the captain made the decision to cancel this stop.  We ended up spending an extra day at sea but it wasn’t a big deal.  By now we were comfortable with being on the ship for longer periods of time and the kids had some home-schooling catch up to do.

Next stop: Dravuni Island, Fiji.

“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”  Anonymous

Vila Bliss

A place where nothing but treasured memories are made.  The capital and largest city of Vanuatu is situated on the south coast of the island of Efate. Our fourth visit to this small but flourishing city was once again, nothing short of spectacular and what we’d come to expect from Port Vila with it’s warm hospitality and friendly locals.

It’s been nearly six years since our last visit to this port so we expected a fair bit of change especially after the devastating Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015. Some of the cruise passengers headed off on tours of the island and others caught a taxi to the famous Cascade Waterfalls. We decided we’d walk into town and then head over to the pristine waters of Erakor Island Resort, about a five-minute taxi ride from town. Once we had disembarked the ship, we began our long walk into town. We could see new buildings in the distance and construction all over the place…though not on the same scale as we’re used to back home.

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Iririki Island, a short ferry ride from town, looked as beautiful as ever but we noticed a few boats and a rather large ferry that had been swept up onto shore during the cyclone. We asked a local if these would ever be removed and he, in true laid-back island style, commented that it would be too expensive, so for now, that’s where they’ll stay. The main road into town is getting an upgrade, though don’t be fooled, this road will only ever just, be wide enough for two vehicles. Pedestrians walk on the side of the road wherever they can find their footing. There seemed to be more taxis than people in this town so it’s never hard to find a ride.  There will be 20 ships docking in Port Vila this month, great for the locals, especially since only 2 will dock in Santo. 

On arrival in town we found that the local market hadn’t changed at all. A feast for the senses.  A crowded and vibrant atmosphere where the locals come together to eat and buy their fresh fruit and vegetables for a fraction of the nearby supermarket’s prices. A mandarin will cost you a mere 6 cents. Beautiful flowers and fruit adorn the tables, live crabs tied together, spread out on the floor, the unique bags of potatoes, each individually hand-woven for you to carry home.  We meandered through the souvenir market before catching a taxi to another secret little hideway, Erakor Island. Our taxi drive cost us $10 but when we got there we realised we didn’t have any small notes. Our taxi driver suggested giving him the $20 note we had and vowed to return to pick us up later. He was there, 6 hours later, to take us back to the ship.  His kindness and honesty really impressed me.

The taxi will drop you off at the wooden ferry terminal, at the end of it you’ll find the little boat that takes you to and from the island. The daily entrance fee of $15 for adults and $10 for children is paid at the rather delightful bamboo hut on the right. The daily rate can be used as a credit in the restaurant or towards water activities at the resort. We were the only cruise passengers there all day so we’d successfully managed to escape the crowds and at times had the entire beach to ourselves. Three steps in to the crystal-clear water and you’re spoilt with different coloured starfish and sea cucumbers. As my daughter and I entered the water to snorkel, a black and white striped sea snake swam past, narrowly missing our legs. Some squealing and much laughter ensued for some time after that. We spent the day building sandcastles, watching the locals sailing by and enjoying some spectacular snorkelling. The marine life is fantastic here with a fair bit of reef located about 20 metres offshore. I was spoilt by the ocean again, lucky enough to spot a Moray Eel, almost in the same spot as last time. My husband missed it on our last visit so he headed back into the water for one last look before we had back to the ship. He saw 2! Having dived a fair bit in my past life I do get a bit excited when I see interesting and ‘not so easy to spot’ marine life.

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Whatever you do, don’t leave Port Vila until you’ve a spent a day at this astoundingly beautiful and family friendly island resort. If you do decide to stay longer, they’ve got magnificent villas spread out over the island with the waves lapping right outside your window. Henry and the other locals working on the island do an amazing job looking after you and the restaurant has a glorious view of the lagoon, perfect for a memorable family sunset dinner.

Our next stop will be Port Denarau, Fiji.  The last time I was here I was pregnant with my son and my daughter was nearly 2.  I feel so lucky to be going back to this part of the world with my family and making new memories.

“The greatest legacy we can leave our children is happy memories”  Og Mandino

Breathtaking Espiritu Santo

Halo from Vanuatu!

I got a bit excited on the first day of the cruise when they said you could buy unlimited premium internet access on the ship for just $99, little did I know they meant limited unlimited access. I’d love to have given you an update of our adventures before now but internet reception has been dismal. We’ve also been catching up on some much-needed sleep, I don’t think we’ve ever been so tired…The last week in our house was like a scene out of The Block. We were packing for the cruise, packing and organising the van and preparing the house for our much loved friends who are renting it for the next five months (you really don’t realise how many things need repairing until someone else is about to come and live in your house!).  Going from a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom house to a 17 sqm cabin with just one bathroom has been interesting to say the least. I don’t know about your family but I always notice how out of sync we are the first few days of a trip.  It has been wonderful to reconnect with each other again though.

After two and a half days at sea we woke up to the beautiful shores of Luganville, a major export centre on the island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu. I was really sea sick the day before and therefore SO ready to get off the ship.  Unlike other times we’d cruised, I had no idea what we’d be seeing on Santo. We are not ‘follow the crowd’, ‘shore excursion’ travellers so hadn’t booked anything. I cannot think of anything worse than queuing to get on a bus with heaps of other tourists only to take us somewhere that we can visit on our own, for half the price. We decided to take our chances, catch a taxi from the port and see what the day brings. We negotiated a flat rate for the day and probably paid more than we should have, but we figured $140 for the whole day was pretty good value as there were four of us and could take our time exploring. Our awesome driver John did not disappoint us. The people on the island were incredibly inviting, kind and just loved the tourists. The island’s inhabitants are very poor (in the money sense) but evidently rich in other ways. We passed three schools which were all extremely basic, some of the classrooms didn’t have windows. According to our driver, basic education isn’t subsidised after year 7 and parents need to pay for high school education which is very expensive, resulting in many kids not finishing their educational journey. This made me incredibly sad and I wondered how they could improve their future outcomes without this opportunity.

There are potholes in the roads, dogs roaming the streets, the sweet smell of smoke coming from fires in the little houses and the washing lines are simply ropes strung out from a roof to a nearby tree.  Coconut plantations abound and cattle in the fields inland, Santo is world famous for its beef.

The Riri Blue Hole

We’d never visited one of these before so didn’t really know what to expect. When we got to the end of the dirt road we found a few of the locals sitting in a little thatched hut, we paid our $5 per person entry fee and made our way down the man-made path through the forest. The first sight of the water almost took our breathe away. It was almost transparent and very inviting with water warmer than I had expected. There also weren’t swarms of tourists around so it made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. A giant rope swing hung in the distance and we couldn’t resist. This thing is so big you needed a 6m wooden pole to grab the rope from its resting place. My husband went first and made it look easy with his upper body strength! Our son was next but got the jitters. I decided to be a good role model and ‘have a go’, it was AWESOME! I felt like a child again. And…it worked! Our son went next and then five times more! We were late for our driver but it was totally worth it!

Lope Lope Lodge

Our next stop for lunch was recommended to us by our driver and we were so glad he did. As we drove through the gates of Lope Lope Lodge we caught a glimpse of the turquoise waters that lay ahead and we knew we were about to experience something wonderful. A rare little hideaway tucked away behind a high wall. A nearly 180 degree view of crystal clear blue water with the reef lying about 100m offshore.  The open-air restaurant sits right on the water’s edge and the live music and warm hospitality made us wish we could stay here longer. We vowed we would return one day and even checked out the accommodation while we were there (they have but four cosy little villas that sit on the water’s edge). A tiny little piece of heaven. After a snorkel and a bite to eat we headed off to the next stop.

The cultural village

Having visited many cultural villages around the world before, I found this one to be truly authentic and definitely worth a visit with only a $10 per adult and $5 per child entry fee. We got to step into the men’s hut where they make the famous drink, Kava. They pound the root of the Kava plant (which looks a bit like ginger) and mix it with a little bit of water. It’s pretty potent so they only give you a bit at a time to try. My husband agreed to be the dummy and have a taste, he said it tasted ‘earthy’ and made his tongue tingle and go numb. After some dancing and singing we headed over to the pool for a water music show with a difference. This involved the local women stepping into a half-filled pool and making the most amazing music using drums and the sound of the water as they hit it with their hands. A couple of the little kids from the village climbed in too and I couldn’t help but notice how happy they were. They seemed very connected to their families and their traditions.

Million Dollar Point

Our final stop in Santo was ‘Million Dollar Point’ which had a $5 per person entry fee. If you’re interested in history then this is a definite point of interest. During World War 2 the Island was used by Allied Forces as a military supply and support base. At the end of the war the American forces dumped most of their equipment here. Wrecks are strewn across the ocean floor from 1m to 15m below water level. The wind had picked up and the water was a bit choppy but we decided to snorkel it and see if we could spot anything. There was tons to see here and the marine life was abundant. The boys swam through what felt like a bait ball of fish and I was lucky enough to spot a Lion Fish.

We loved Santo and would really like to return to explore more of this unique island. It’s one of those places that transports you back to a time when life was a little simpler and more carefree.

Our next stop is Port Vila. It will be our fourth time there and we are keen to see how it’s all changed, it’s been nearly six years since our last visit.

Restoring the van down under

Our 2000 Jayco Eagle caravan suits our family’s needs just perfectly and we really do love it but these things are a lot more complicated than they look! Having never owned a caravan before or spending much time in one has not served us well and we definitely have a new-found respect for all you caravaners out there.

We haven’t even left yet but we’ve already come to realise that the caravanning and camping community is an awesome one. We have met some of the kindest people along the way who have taken the time to help solve our problems or suggest someone who can. Then there’s the world wide web and the many people who’ve done the homework for us, we love you Youtube! What did people do before the internet?

Here are some of the things we’ve learnt so far.

Doing your checks

Finding the van of our dreams wasn’t as hard as we’d thought it would be but before we handed over any money we made sure we did a REVS check. This told us if the van had ever been written off, was stolen or had any money owing on it. We used a website called www.revscheck.com.au (make sure the one you use is relevant to your state). It was quick and inexpensive and could save you a lot of money and heartache.

Roadworthy & Gas Certificate

When purchasing a registered van you need to ensure that it’s roadworthy and comes with a valid roadworthy and gas certificate. Check with your state’s transport department but in Queensland, this is not your responsibility, it’s the sellers, and if they try to bypass this process don’t accept it. For two reasons:  Firstly, you can’t get it registered in your name without a certificate and if you arrange this yourself you will be responsible for any repairs required. Secondly and most importantly, when you drive the van home for the first time you want to make sure you’re going to get there safely.

Electrics

Once it’s registered and insured, you want to do your own safety check. Ofcourse, if you’re not comfortable with this, getting someone who is reputable and qualified to do the job is highly recommended! We began our check with the electrics and made sure all the lights and indicators were working…in our case our travelling lights weren’t. A few light bulbs later and we were right! Next, we connected power to the van and made sure all the interior lights, power points and the fridge were working. We found that the cable which connected from the van to the car had some exposed wires and needed cleaning and covering as dirt had settled into them. This is just maintenance but can cause all sorts of problems along the way.

Tyres

There’s a rectangular date stamp printed on the tyre sidewall which tells you the week and year of manufacture (in our case it was 4802). The tyre was 15 years old! Tyres don’t have an actual use by date but some sources in the tyre industry do recommend that if the tyre is older than six years old and there’s visible cracking then it’s time to change it. We ended up replacing ours.

Brakes & Bearings

We need a.. what? Well this one was a bit more complicated. Firstly, we had to make sure the van had brakes. The X-trail we have is amazing but it’s not the biggest car and the Eagle does weigh over a ton which could make going downhill super fun! In Qld, if the trailer has a GTM (Gross Trailer Mass) of more than 750kg it must have an efficient braking system installed. Ours had electric brakes. Lucky!

These brakes will only work though if you have an electric brake controller which in our case needed to be installed into the X-Trail. Cha Ching! We decided to go with the Redarc Elite system as it had excellent reviews and we found it easy to operate. I managed to tow the van and recalibrate it myself, and if I can do it then seriously, anyone can. Unfortunately, the brakes weren’t working very well though, even though we’d recently had the van serviced. Turns out the magnets were really worn and the drums needed replacing. The wheel bearings were borderline but as we’re going to be travelling long distances thought we’d replace them just in case.

Rust

Our van isn’t a dinosaur just yet but we do live close to the ocean so it did have a bit of rust about, especially underneath. We treated it and painted it with a rust prevention paint which you can buy at any hardware store to prevent any further corrosion.

Inside the van

Canvas Walls

Dreaded mould! The sight of this stuff makes me shiver but as this is quite a common problem in these types of vans we were able to find some great advice on how to deal with this issue. It took us two days to clean and treat the canvas using a 30-second mould killer from Bunnings. You have to be quick with this stuff as it can bleach the canvas but we found it worked better than the other recommended treatments that we first tried like vinegar, salt and oil of cloves. Just make sure you rinse it all out with fresh water afterwards. NOTE: this does damage the water-repellent so we did need to re-waterproof the canvas. We used the Coi Leisure Aqua Proof product from BCF.  It was very easy to use and dries clear. Judging by the age and condition of the canvas prior to this process, I’d say it needed it anyway. A bit of seam sealer on the edges and it’s all ready to go!

Sleeping arrangements

The van has two beds on each side, a queen and a double, a lounge area that converts to a king single and the dining area that folds down and turns into another single bed so it’s definitely big enough for the four of us. The mattresses were in excellent condition but we steam cleaned them anyway to make sure there was no mould hidden inside.

Some minor repairs

A few handles needed repairing, locks replacing and some cushions re-upholstered. The gas bottle on the van was very old and full of rust so it too had to be replaced. The awnings needed cleaning and repairing and with the help of some awesome guys at The Canvas Place in Brisbane, they’re as good as new.

All of this might seem like a lot of work but we don’t think it would have mattered if the van was 5 or 15 years old. What we’ve learnt is that vans need to be cared for and well-maintained if you want them to be reliable and comfortable and if you need help along the way, just ask! There are tons of people out there who are willing to lend a hand.

We have exactly two weeks to go before we leave, now we just need to work out how to pack for the next five months!

Taking the leap

If you asked me to describe what we were like before having kids I’d probably say “always busy planning an adventure”.  Prior to diving 111 metres, head first towards the Zambezi river from the Victoria Falls bridge in Africa, the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, we’d spent a month travelling by overland truck from Kenya, diving lake Malawi, then Zanzibar and having a few, rather close encounters with some wild animals in the Serengeti.  We weren’t filled with fear or what if’s, except perhaps that the baboons sitting under the bridge might chew through the rope before we would finally get to jump.  The sheer sense of exhilaration we felt that day is something I’ll never forget. To date we remain friends with the people who jumped with us that day.  This is what travel does.  It challenges you.  It forces you out of your comfort zone and it connects you to people and places that you would never ordinarily encounter. Throughout all our travels we learnt something new about ourselves, that we were capable, strong and braver than we’d ever thought possible.

Then came parenthood and somewhere along the way we got scared.  Afraid of the unknown, taking risks and leaving the safety and comfort of our home.  Our instinct to protect our children and give them a ‘stable and happy childhood’ kicked in. The pressure of constantly thriving to be the ‘perfect parent’ (whatever that may be) got in the way of doing what gave each of us joy, energy and a sense of fulfilment. Spending quality time together, away from the distractions of technology, really embracing life and venturing out into the world in pursuit of new adventures.

When it comes to travelling with the kids, we have done a few trips here and there.  A few cruises, holidays in the Polynesian Islands, 10 days backpacking around Japan (which I would HIGHLY recommend), a holiday in Hawaii and last year we visited parts of England and France.  Some days were really hard and at times we pushed them to their limits.  Our youngest was only 4 when we travelled around Japan but they both thrived and still speak about that holiday like it was yesterday.  When we first arrived in London they were nervous wrecks at the tube station entry point, by the end of the holiday we had to chase after them as they raced each other to the platform. Their fear of the unknown and their self-doubt in new situations had almost completely disappeared.  Travelling definitely agreed with them and made them more resilient.

Last year we visited Paris and this turned out to be a pivotal turning point for us all.  Making our way from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs Elysees we found ourselves being approached by refugees who were desperately pleading for help, crying because they had nowhere to go.  Our daughter was so distraught.  We really felt for them, especially the helpless children, feeling compelled to help as much as we could.  After that night we all complained a little less but most importantly, it opened up the conversation about different events occurring in the world.  A dialogue about the impact of war, refugees, homelessness and suffering.   Realities that our children are so sheltered from here in Australia. They came back a little wiser and people commented on how much they had matured.  They were kinder to one another but most importantly more empathetic to those less fortunate than themselves.  This in my eyes was a gift, a gift that only travel can give. 

Not long after this we decided that we needed to travel more, for longer periods, pursue all that world has to offer and really enrich the lives of our children with the hope that they will grow up to become global citizens who seek positive change in the world.  And so we began dreaming and planning.

A year and a bit later, here we are.  Finally taking the leap and about to embark on a little adventure once more.

A travel loving family, embracing life and creating lifelong memories.