Getting there can be half the fun!
According to Wikipedia, a campervan is a self-propelled vehicle that provides both transport and sleeping accommodation. That sterile definition needs to be more elaborate as our beloved campervan was our fun hot rod during the day time, a kitchen at meal time, a mule train hauling our baggage, and most importantly our ticket to a wonderful four day romp through the incredible Australian countryside! Unbelievably, this great experience was an economic bargain as well, as through the resourcefulness of my wife (oh why oh why do I sometimes doubt her?) the campervan cost us only $5 a day!
You read that right, $5 a day!
Others are free or they could charge anywhere from $1 to $50 or more a day, it varies by company. How does this work? There is a thriving rental business for camper-vans and motor-homes (the larger more luxurious cousin – these might have showers and sleep 6 people). People pay $100-$250/day to rent in major cities and then go to their chosen destinations. Once their destinations are reached the campers need to be relocated to the more desirable rental sites. These relocation trips have been formalized and enable the bargain booking that benefits the rental company and the renter, a win/win situation!
We were able to take a train from our recently completed Melbourne house sit to the Britz rental Melbourne office. It was a busy place with multiple employees walking renters through the paperwork and giving them brief demonstrations of the camper van’s features. We had a brand new Toyota Hi-Ace (6 KM) ready to take us out on adventure. Our van is the smallest available, which is good as there is just the two of us and it will be easier to drive than a bigger coach. We have never driven on the left side and, as anticipated, it takes a while to get used to a massive change of ingrained driving habits. This minivan features comfortable seats up front with bench seats in the back that convert to a bed.
Accessible from the back is a small, powerful refrigerator, a 25 L water bladder feeding a small sink, and storage for the butane powered stove burner. The van is well equipped with crockery, pans, and cutlery. We nervously drive out of the lot and use Google to direct us to a Coles grocery store. We stock up with simple items plus a key necessity, bug repellent. The soundtrack for the open road here is easy, Australia’s own AC/DC (sort of – our music streaming service, Amazon Prime, does not have the actual AC/DC, but it does have an excellent tribute band, Australian Thunder, who rock our campervan’s playlist sufficiently). It is time to get the road trip started!
Day 1 Kangaroo Spotting, Sculptures & Beaches
We have four days and three nights to turn in our van in Sydney (550 miles / 880 KM). It is an easy but boring direct drive. Australia is a massive country, the 6th largest in the world (as well as being the largest island). Australia is almost exactly the same size as the continental US, with only the population of Texas. The area we will travel is liberally sprinkled with many state and national parks. The beauty of the campervan is the flexibility in route and prioritizing your stops.
There are many options for a scenic route with mountain passes, beach roads, and rolling hills through the bush country. We tentatively have a route that incorporates a variety of scenery, starting with a drive to the ocean. Terry is a great navigator, helping me get through the awkward feeling of driving on the left as we work through the traffic on our way to the coast. Our eyes are scanning for our first view of a kangaroo.
McClelland Sculpture Park
A sign for the McClelland Sculpture Park grabs our attention. Do we like art? Yes. Do we have full bladders and a desperate need for a quick break? Absolutely. The McClelland Sculpture Park, a state funded enterprise, is a fascinating complex covering 40 acres (16 hectares) with over 100 outdoor sculptures connected by paths through both groomed grounds and natural greenery. A large visitor center with indoor galleries and cafe houses clean bathrooms decorated with art and tropical flowers.
We spent over an hour wandering the trails, enjoying a variety of sculptures from that varied from a massive ape head and ram skull to a simulated bike wreck and falling climber. Visually arresting, it was fun to turn corners in heavy brush and then be surprised by the next art installation. A favorite was a tall Phil Price Kinetic Sculpture called Tree of Life with circular rotating branches.
Mornington to SeaSpray
Refreshed, we pushed on to nearby Mornington. This small town is known for its nice beaches, bathing boxes (above) and village atmosphere. Enjoying the views of the sea and sand, we also visit our first tourist information office. A great asset for travelers, these volunteer staffed locations directed us to some of our favorite spots. Seeking to camp on the beach, we were directed towards Seaspray. This tiny hamlet would be our entrance to Shoreline drive, a 18 mile stretch that follows Golden Beach along the Tasman Sea. Along this remote road there are 60 plus campsites and so far, in the diminishing day light, only 8 sets of campers. Now it is up to Mrs. Offpeaker to affirm a choice.
We will fast forward now to a time where the little van is easing into a parking spot in the dark. We are happy because we are parking, a site has been finally endorsed, we are a bit giddy upon having had a couple brief but satisfying views of shy kangaroos in our headlights, and we have experienced a full day motoring on Australian highways and we have not been attached by any rogue motorcycle gangs or brigands. My key research for our trip (which consisted of watching the “Mad Max” and “Roadgames” movies) indicated that homicidal maniacs would make an appearance at least as often as trees. Glad that has not happened, but perhaps the killers are shy and will be emboldened now that it is dark. Our camper is easy to set up, and by the time we have converted our car into our bedroom, we have recovered our good moods and are ready for our first night in the bush.
We are rewarded with both a restful night’s sleep and then a spectacular sunrise over Golden Beach. We have the beach to ourselves and are inundated with brilliant colors. It is our first morning on the Tasman Sea and we could not imagine one more beautiful or a better celebration that we were not murdered in our sleep. Perhaps the danger was overstated in the movies or perhaps Mel Gibson chased the bad guys into the interior. We decide to drive down to a visitor area to have breakfast. On our way we get to see additional kangaroos AND beautiful wild birds. In a short span we see our first Kookaburra and Scarlet Rosellas. Our little kitchen enables us to enjoy bush coffee and a quick breakfast. New friends are made with campers from New Zealand that gratefully use our bug repellent to dissuade the ravenous clouds of “Mozzies” (mosquitoes) that magically appear when you leave the comforts of the campervan.
Soon we are on the road towards Longford. We sight a mother kangaroo and joey that do not run off. Easing the van off the road, Terry gets out to take a photo, inexplicably turning back to the van to slam her door, with the kangaroo then bounding off before getting photographed. With her typically good timing, Terry redeems herself by soon sighting a flock of yellow tailed black cockatoos.
This interesting band of big birds is feeding in trees along the road. The cockatoos prove to be more noteworthy than our stops at a historic suspension bridge or a 4 KM nature walk that featured grass and more mozzies. Now we pull into Barnsdale’s information center. While I get details on free camping spots in the region, Terry hits gold! When jokingly sharing that we have not seen any Koala’s, the volunteer excitedly tells us she knows just where to send us, and it is only 15 minutes away!
Koalas At Last
Just south of us, off of Paynesville, is Raymond Island. Koalas were introduced to the six square mile island in 1953 to help avert the fear of their extinction. This has been a successful transplant operation as the original 32 now number over three hundred. Just two hundred yards from the mainland, we excitedly waited for the ferry boat.
Once on the island, we headed for the established koala walk. The walk starts in a city park, goes through a neighborhood of nice homes, then goes into a wooded forest. We ask an exiting tourist if they had any luck and they excitedly tell us they saw 12! This amps up our adrenaline even more and we head down the trail ahead of a noisy approaching family. Probably we did not need to, as koalas prove to be sound sleepers.
Our first sighting is a big fellow wedged in the crotch of a tree, perhaps 8 feet off the ground. It is exciting to see him, and truly looks so adorably cute that you want to grab him and hold him. Soon we see others, normally higher up. Their chosen eucalyptus trees have rather sparse foliage, so it is easy to spot them and watch them…sleep. We did see a few look around with drowsy eyes, shift into a better position then drift off again. The limited nutrition in eucalyptus means that koalas sleep 20 hours or more a day.
The stocky creatures weigh from 9-33 pounds (4-15 kg) and live 15-18 years in the wild. They have one of the smallest brain size to weight ratios which makes them poorly adapt to change. An example given is that koala cannot recognize picked leaves as food, they must be attached to the branch. We excitedly bounded along the trail to find more. We would eventually see 16 koala (yes, we were striving to see more than the other travelers.)
We scan from the ground up as we excitedly see two echidnas along the trail. Echidnae are an egg laying mammal (like a platypus) that have a hedgehog like quills. Cute and unflappable, they don’t care we are in the neighborhood. Terry’s keen eye finds beautiful birds along with the marsupials. A flock of Galahs (rose breasted cockatoos) are a bright pink, vocal bird that are enjoying a meal in a nearby tree. A well camouflaged family of 3 tawny frog mouth was fun to see. As well as more of the dazzling Rainbow Lorikeets, thankfully these colorful and playful birds are plentiful and will be a recurring companion in our travels.
We think the pair of black swans are no stranger to visitors, they swiftly and confidently swam up to us hoping for a handout. Raymond Island is a magical destination. It is surprising that it is not better known as many of our new Australian friends have never heard of it and have had very few opportunities to see koalas in action (at rest?). We are reluctant to leave but we want to get some additional traveling in before nightfall.
Snowy River Basin
Mealtime is fun with the camper-van. The area is generously populated with inviting picnic areas with views of mountains, beaches, rivers or just a quiet spot in the shade. As we head towards Orbost/Marlo to see the Snowy River basin, we see the interesting emu running in a sheep pasture. The national bird of Australia, at up to 6’4″ (1.9 meters) and weighing 45-130 pounds (20-60 kilos) this is the second largest species on earth. It looks to be a wild emu as the fence is quite low for the sheep. We watch it feed although the other (rare) cars that pass do not seem to find it of particular interest.
Just outside Orbost we happen upon a slow thinking/reacting/moving kangaroos and get our treasured photo. We hope this unlocks the key to enhanced sightings in the future, but not too close. We cannot drive at night (no insurance coverage) due to the high frequency of kangaroo collisions. We are surprised by the size of both the Snowy River and of the huge pelicans that congregate around the area. There are few cars, and we are by now semi-experienced in driving on the left hand side of the road.
The Barnsdale tourist center had also told us of a great free camping area in Genoa. It turns out an opportune place to stop for the night, getting there 30 minutes before dusk. A tiny hamlet with a population of 300, this camping area is lush, well designed as has a nice bathroom and plumbing (yeah!). Our second night out is peaceful and restorative.
We rise with the sun and are quickly on the road. We have decided to have brekkie after we have driven a distance. The road rewards us with interesting views. We see dead wombats, and these nocturnal cousins of the koala would be a terrible accident. Looking like large barrels with stumpy legs, they can be 40 inches long (1 meter) and weigh 85 pounds.
In two hours we drive through parts of two National Parks (Nalbaugh and Nungatta) and a state park. We find a nice, but empty rest stop that has covered picnic tables. Rest areas can have a scenic trail to the outhouse. We are consistently surprised how nice the outhouse toilets are:clean and fresh/no smelling. We would do well to discover the housekeeping practices of their forest service.
After breakfast we look over the rock pool indicated on the sign and use our on board sink to wash dishes. After climbing through an interesting mix of pines and ferns, we break out on table land on top and see beautiful pastures home to the largest sheep we have ever seen.
To Australia’s Capital, Canberra
We work into a lovely little town, Bombala, that labels itself as “Platypus Country”. We detour to the platypus reserve. Beautifully landscaped along the river, we see flowers and birds but none of the elusive platypus. We spend an enjoyable 30 minutes at the town’s tourist center, learning much about the area and the ranching as one of the staff raises Merino sheep. The Snowy River Scheme, a huge series of 16 major dams on the river’s upper reaches is highly recommended to us as a must see. We just do not have time as we must turn in the van in Sydney the following day.
Our path is the direct road through the capital city of Canberra, and inland city of 403,000. Canberra was a compromise choice as capital between the two large cities of Sydney and Melbourne. We only spent an afternoon in the capital, but we happily saw the National Museum and a flock of frenzied flying foxes. The flying foxes had been disturbed from their nesting trees by construction workers taking down stages and fencing from a festival. That same work had the area directly by the foxes closed off, but we loved seeing the terrifying but harmless bats shrieking and winging around. Flying foxes eat (in order) nectar, pollen and fruit. They do not have sonar but adults have an average wingspan of 3.5 feet (1.2 m). The museum was nice but two things disappointed me.
The natural science (think platypus) was closed for work and the remaining, admittedly massive, well lit, modern space seemed to be haphazardly organized with very short descriptions and no consistency of content You might see a few things about tennis and then information on Holden Motors then something about a telescope. Almost like items at a garage sale. Canberra itself looks clean, sleek and brand new. Sort of like an Ikea store municipality. It was interesting to see Captain Cook’s cannon rescued from the reef where he was temporarily stranded, hear about an incredible sheep shearer Jack Howe who sheared 321 sheep manually in 7 hours, and the cart that Warren Bonythorn used to traverse immense desert regions by foot.
Last Night at Wingello
The 5:00 PM closing of the museum sent us towards the village of Wingello. Terry had researched a highly rated campground in the Wingello State Forest. A lovely drive drive through wooded pastures turned into heavy timber and a dirt road. Driving through a clear cut we saw a number of kangaroo up close that were curious about us and did not flee. Our campground, that had a sink and an outhouse, only had one other occupant. We set up our final camp under the watchful eye of a group of magpies. Later we were happy to hear the complex cries of the kookaburra in nearby trees. Early the next morning we were off to Sydney for our 3:00 PM return deadline.
A field of bright yellow flowers and pine trees called on us to halt for a look, as did an amazing flock of 75 or more yellow crested cockatoo that were cleaning up the spilled grain in a recently harvested field.
We stayed off the main expressway and took back roads into Sydney. Curiosity made us stop to look at Fitzroy Falls when we saw the sign in Morton National Park. As we saw with Raymond Island, the falls at Fitzroy deserve much more press. At 266 feet (81 meters) high and falling over a cliff into a Jurassic Park like immense canyon, this beauty comes out of nowhere to stun the viewer. It is a must see if you are in the area.
We continued our purposeful drive through the stunning Southern Highlands of New South Wales. Google directed us to one of the most diligent car washes we could imagine. The automatic car wash was preceded by ten minutes of soaking, spraying, and scrubbing of our only a little dirty campervan. We fueled up and after a last picnic in Sydney’s Josef Banks Park, we reluctantly returned our dream machine ahead of the looming deadline.
A holiday driving to destinations does not have to be a Griswold family disaster. We had one of the best trips ever in our camper-van sourced through a relocation website. This enabled a tremendous bargain. Below are a few of the sites that can be used to research available vehicles so you too can have a grand camper-van trip! Remember that you have to be flexible and that some deals only show up a few days to two weeks prior to availability. Depending on route you may get some fuel, a toll tag or other inducements. It is not too good to be true, these are real options for an exciting get away!
If you do nab a trip or have previously done so, please let us know where you went and how your experience was. We would love to know more and learn from your experiences. Lets all be happy campers!