Guide to family desert touring

By: Rana Stollery, Photography by: Rana & Leigh Stollery


After plying the well-worn route south-to-north along Australia's east coast, Rana Stollery, her husband, Leigh, and two daughters, Liv and Maggie, aged 11 and 8, turn west into Australia's vast desert interior.

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In the beginning, the decision to embark on this epic journey was an easy one. A yearning for change. A giant leap off the mouse wheel. A chance for us all to really connect. We wanted to create wonderful memories that will linger with us forever, no matter what the future has in store; a once in a lifetime opportunity to share the history and culture of this big, brash, diverse country called Australia—together, as a family.

Always keen to take the road less travelled, we planned early to head west through Croydon and include a stopover in Karumba, before finally heading onto our final destination—Darwin via Cloncurry.

At the time of writing, we're still travelling—and with our original map. It's exciting beyond mere words to see our lap of Australia come alive, as the hours we spent in preparation, plotting map routes under lights at our kitchen table, materialise from dreams into reality.

The whole journey has been incredible, but here are our family desert touring highlights so far.

HIGHLIGHTS

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Kennedy Highway

Most immediately apparent was the sudden change in landscape as we broke through tropical coastal rainforests, up over the hinterland range and out into 'cattle-station country,' with its serene sentry-like eagles soaring in rising warm air currents. I'd be amiss if I didn't mention one of our favourite accommodation stops so far: Pinnarendi Station and Stay—an awesome location, fabulous hosts and exceptional food. What more could you want? We left feeling very well looked after.

Savannah Highway

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The name of this highway suits it perfectly—wide expanses of savannah either side of the highway, flat as the eye can see. It's continuously breathtaking, with audible gasps aplenty frequently heard from both the front and back seats. We warily checked for crocs at every bridge, as we were advised to, but didn’t see any!

Croydon was a winner for Leigh and I, especially. The historical precinct has been lovingly restored by the local council and is now on display, plus it's free! The locals are incredibly proud of their town and its mining history, as well they should be!

Normanton was a favourite for the girls, the information centre was a highlight and reading the history of the pioneers who worked the land was inspiring to say the least! Not to mention a crocodile information overload—very educational for all of us.

Barkly Highway

Travelling between Cloncurry and Camooweal was unexpectedly unique, with its large rocky outcrops set against a foreboding backdrop of dark, threatening clouds and verdant green vegetation, which certainly made us sit up to attention. We camped on the Georgina River at Camooweal and stargazed under the full moon until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. Everything appears so much bigger and brighter out in the wide expanses, and the profound thoughts triggered by the simple act of looking up at heavenly bodies, make for the best type of family conversations.

Stuart Highway

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It certainly felt like were on the home stretch to Darwin, despite the fact there was, at the time of writing, more than 600km to go—nevertheless, we made a last minute decision to stop the night at Three Ways Roadhouse (back-seat complaining was at a premium after a long day).

We hit the road early to get to Daly Waters. After some rather desolate desert touring, Daly Water Historic Pub is a complete sensory overload but also a whole heap of fun—happy hour and live music glossed over the jam-packed dust-bowl caravan park but unfortunately the fun and music couldn’t save Leigh from having to pay 80 bucks for a carton of beer—gulp!

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Bitter Springs has been, hands down, the girl’s favourite place to visit, after 12-days touring the desert, noodling about the pristine waters of this little oasis in the desert was invigorating, and the Bitter Springs Caravan Park spacious, friendly and well worth the stay!

Our favourite National Park so far would have to be Litchfield, south of Darwin, we thoroughly enjoyed a bit of 4WDing to The Lost City and cooling-off under the refreshing waterfalls of Wangi Falls—a very special detour, and one that we would do again in a heartbeat.

The desert compels you to appreciate uniqueness as you come across it. Every 300km or so, a small oasis tends to pop up out of nowhere in the form of a small town or historical museum—don’t drive by, they are worth their weight in gold (no pun intended).

CHALLENGES FOR THE SMALLEST TRAVELLERS

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Boredom

No parent wants to hear, "how much longer?" when the navigation system screen reads "6 hours, 35 minutes". Leigh and I found our inner 'MacGyver' while travelling the long distances across Australia—you learn quickly to make something out of nothing. Leigh’s favourite road trip game was the macabre 'name that roadkill', or equally disgusting, 'spot the wee bottle'—nice one, Dad ha ha. Each never failed to trigger giggles from the back seat, though. We loved that the girls shouted, "Yayyyy we are here!!!" whether we were pulling into a campsite or into a new town, and we were constantly amazed at their flexibility when plans don’t come to fruition.

Food

No-one wants HANGRY kids in the middle of the desert, believe me. However, eating out of boredom isn’t healthy either, so meal planning is definitely a key issue when travelling with children through the outback. Opportunities to stop and rest are few and far between, so we ensured there was cold water and fruit in the Engel and a cooler bag of snacks in the back seat.  

CHALLENGES FOR MUM AND DAD

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Fuel and water

We never take any risks with either, and unlike the east coast where BP is a familiar friend, we topped-up at every opportunity. Obviously there are large distances between petrol stations outback (highways signs alerting you to this are actually very helpful). Of course, the further away from the city lights we got, the more expensive the diesel—the most we paid for fuel was $1.78 at Camooweal. It's unavoidable, unless you splash out on custom monster tanks.

Heat

Never underestimate the effect heat has on a travelling family. As grateful as I was we were not sitting in snow down south, setting up in 35°C degrees had its downsides too, and we tended to get a little snappy and frustrated in the baking sun. Being adequately hydrated, wearing suitable hats and constantly slopping on sunscreen were all fundamental parts of our daily routine. We opted to get cracking early, before the sun was at its most intense and to be back at campsite by early afternoon, in time to unwind and enjoy the cooling dusk.

Education

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It's disappointing the Australian school curriculum includes very little about Indigenous Australian history or Aboriginal culture. Our greatest reward so far has been the excitement and wonder on the girl’s faces as they embrace and discover this wonderful country. It's why we chose to look at their learning holistically and focus on Australian geography, culture, history and wildlife, while simultaneously ensuring they kept up the pace their peers were setting back home. Thanks to a very supportive school, we've been able to come to a mutually agreeable solution, rather than enter the formal home-schooling system and, personally for us, it works.

Groceries

Touring the desert has its disadvantages when it comes to shopping for a family. For all our good intentions, waistlines expanded and often due to the lack of availability of fresh fruit and vegetables (or a lack of supermarkets, full stop).

I had great plans of shopping at roadside markets, but that went out the window, along with alcohol free days—5pm was (and still is) my favourite time of the day.  

Personal Space

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No sugar coating this one: there literally wasn’t any—and no, it wasn't sunshine and lollipops all the time. We disagreed like any family but the hardest part was that there was nowhere to go to cool off.  

There wasn’t really a solution. Just to be mindful of everyone else and give space if it was needed. It's still a  learning curve but we know if we could resolve our little disputes in the confines of our vehicle cabin, or campsite, we'd be able to easily handle something similar when back in the wider horizons of our usual lives.

The rewards we've experienced as a family will stay with us for life. The way we talk with each other is completely different to how we did when we departed, unsure and full of anticipation about what lay ahead. Our expectations have become fluid and the girls have adapted to having both Leigh and I parenting together (back home, shift work doesn’t always allow for it), and the benefits are tangible.

Liv and Maggie have become incredibly close, cementing a tighter sisterly bond. Aside from gaining knowledge about their country, history and culture, we have watched the girls flourish, grow in confidence and independence while learning new life skills—how to make a campfire, cook dinner, and solidify an ability to make friends and hold conversations with people from all generations.

Our nomadic trek via some of northern Australia’s best touring routes, experiencing our country’s incredible ancient culture, pioneer history, unique wildlife and spectacular sunsets has been amazing and at the risk of sounding corny, life-changing.

The constant beauty and ever-changing landscapes around every turn—from the expanse of The Savannah Way, to the crazy character of Daly Waters, through to the spectacular oasis of Bitter Springs and our final destination of tropical Darwin, with its sensational National Parks of Kakadu and Litchfield—has been a massive event in the history of our little family, and one that we will remember, always.

Check out the full feature in issue #117 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.