Thursday, 21 February 2008

We got all packed up, did some school, and piled onto the train with all our bags to go to the campervan pickup sight. We called the campervan place from the subway platform outside town, and were picked up by a man in a campervan for a short ride to the rental office. We could hardly contain our curiosity and excitement as he drove us the two minutes back to the office. Would this be our campervan? He would have to verify at the office, he just grabbed the closest van to come pick us up. I sat in back with the kids where we pushed all the buttons within our reach, while Clay sat up front and got a crash course in driving large vehicles on the “wrong” side of the road.

When we got to the office, Clay went inside to take care of the paperwork while we waited for news whether this would indeed be our campervan. As soon as Clay popped his head in to verify this was, indeed, our home for the next three weeks, I began unpacking and the kids began figuring out how everything folded up. They commenced long discussions on who would sleep where. The loft was the place in question, this cool little cubbyhole, up high above the driver and passenger seats, was the coveted spot.

I unpacked our stuff, cramming it into all the nifty little hidey-holes. There were buttons on the drawers and cabinets to lock them in place while in transit, ledges on all shelves to keep things from sliding, and hidden storage compartments tucked everywhere. Clay returned with a man who showed us how everything worked. How the table and bench seats turned into a bed, how the couch and benches in back turned into another bed, how the sink in the bathroom folded up to use the potty, how the TV slid in and out of a cabinet. We walked around the outside and learned about propane tanks and chemicals that turned our sewage into fragrant blue stuff and how to hook up to camp sites and extend our canopy.

Once we were well-briefed, the man handed us the keys and left. There we were, all buckled up in home sweet home. I couldn’t believe we were finally in the campervan in Australia! Clay pulled out on the left side of the road, and we began to drive. Our first destination was a grocery store just a few blocks down the road, which we found without incident. While Clay stayed out in the van with the kids, I went inside to stock our new kitchen. I had so much fun, buying bread and peanut butter and fresh fruit and vegetables and all sorts of snacks. We had a kitchen again! An hour later, and four separate trips into and out of the store for things we’d forgotten, we were stocked. I highly recommend anyone renting a campervan to find a grocery store, and then eat lunch in the parking lot. You’ll discover all sorts of things you need, like trash bags and dishwashing soap and mayonnaise and salt and pepper.

We finally got on the road again, and it wasn’t so bad, the lanes were nice and wide and we bypassed Sydney with all its traffic. We never really hit a highway, we encountered lots of lights, but eventually we made it to our first destination. Just an hour or so north of Sydney, we arrived in Stockton Bay. We paid for three nights, got our code for the bathrooms, and eased into our campervan site, between two trailers, under the watchful eye of an older man and his twin grandsons. He gave us the thumbs up.

I was eager to learn about this new world of campervan parks. To see all these new “faces”. After browsing through our magazine of all the campsites in Australia, I noticed that most listed their total number of spots, and then the number of “tourist” spots available. I speculated that campgrounds which consisted of fewer tourist spots would have more live-in regulars. I wondered if they might treat tourists like gypsy riff-raff, here today and gone tomorrow. I also wondered if these “live-in” residents might be a little on the trailer-park-trashy side. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As I took my first little walk around this first campervan park, I noticed how spic and span it all was. It was evident which places were permanent, they had landscaping and front porches with lattice work and roses and wooden benches. The “gypsy tourist” sites had makeshift clotheslines hanging from them, light weight foldable chairs and tables, and looked just a little disheveled. Residents nodded and waved as I walked by, holding their glasses of wine or beer and chatting with their neighbors from their front porches. Most seemed to be amongst the retired set, spending their senior years in a little camper by the ocean with all their friends close by. Able to pack up and see the grandkids on a moment’s notice.

The resident brown bunnies were adorable, our kids quickly grabbed a couple of carrots and began to feed them as they scurried around the campers, while Clay and I set up house. I checked out the bathrooms, which were surprisingly clean and tidy. Clay hooked us up to wastewater and electricity and set up the canopy. We had a prime location, close to the community bathrooms and laundry and easy beach access. We’ve decided the only ones who will use the campervan bathrooms are the boys, and only for late night/middle of the night pees. We’d rather not deal with frequent emptying of the chemical toilet.

As Clay finished up I took a little walk in the evening air, admiring the neighborhood feel of the place where kids rode their bikes down the narrow strips of asphalt between trailer sites, and tossed balls with their grandparents. Where people ate on their front porches and talked across the yards to each other. It was a friendly place. I suddenly noticed a young boy running at top speed from the direction of the beach. “Eileen, Eileen!” he yelled (only it sounded like “I-ween, I-ween” because he had a cute little lisp) with all the urgency of someone who had just spotted a beached whale. My adrenaline immediately shot up and I debated over whether I should run and get the camera and the rest of the family to see whatever it was, or if I should just bolt from the beach so I wouldn’t miss it. “Come quick. The moon is rising on the horizon!”  (“wizing on the howizon!”) he yelled.

Wow. I was in a place where the moon rising over the ocean got just as much excitement and entertainment value as a beached whale. I ran to get Clay and the kids and we all took the thin path between the dunes that led to the beach. And what a moon it was. Huge, giant, yellow, and sitting just on top of the ocean. We admired it while we dabbled our toes in the ocean, then made our way back to the campervan for dinner.

A late diner, we didn’t eat until after 9. While I cooked, the kids watched a video some of Alayna’s friends had sent, Hannah Montana. They lay down side by side in the loft, their chins propped in their hands, and just soaked in popular culture for a while. It was cozy inside, our little circle of light and cooking smells as the darkness surrounded the camper outside. When dinner was ready we turned off the TV, saving the rest of the video for a rainy day.

The kids have never been so appreciative of a home-cooked meal. “This is the best food I’ve ever had,” declared Nate, over his plate of sweet and sour chicken, with fresh veggies and bottled stir fry sauce. I have a suggestion for mothers who are tired of their kids complaining about their dinners. Take them away from home for seven months, feed them restaurant meals across the globe, and make them wait until they’re really hungry. They will suddenly become so appreciative of the simplest meals, and you will be their hero.

That night Alayna got the loft, while the boys bunked down in the bed that folds down from the kitchen table. Clay did not drop to his belly to do push-up’s, he did his final daily set on his birthday back in Sydney, meeting his goal of doing a hundred push-ups every day for a year. Some people eat tons of birthday cake and ice cream for their birthday, some people vow to do a hundred push-ups every day for a year. It’s a good thing, I don’t know if he’d have the elbow room to actually do a full push-up in this campervan. He managed to get them all in everyday and only twice had to resort to doing them in public places, both times at the airport before an overnight flight.

It was a little hot so we switched on the air conditioning and closed up the windows, but as I walked back from my last trip to the bathroom and saw the golden moon that had now risen a little higher in the sky, and heard the ocean lapping up on the beach on the other side of the dunes, I convinced Clay to turn off the air and open up the windows. It felt like camping, but with a kitchen. Like camping in the backyard, with all the conveniences of home just a few steps away. Camping with a bathroom in the backyard and an ocean in the front yard. That’s my kind of camping.


Friday, 22 February 2008

I woke up this morning to the sound of a baby crying. Only it wasn’t a baby, it was a weird kind of crow. Lots of them. Clay thinks they sound like they’ve been sucking helium. I made a trip to the bathroom, early morning light just starting to spread across the sky. All was still quiet, the sound of the waves on the other side of the dunes still lapping up on the shore. When I got back to the campervan, people were starting to stir.

When the boys got up and took off the t-shirts they slept in, bits of skin fell gently to the floor. The peel had begun. They were horrified, this was the first real peel in their lives, and it was a doozy. While they were disgusted, they were also strangely attracted to the thin gray sheets of skin that they could carefully peel from their backs. Bits of skin were everywhere, and we came up with a very ingenious way to clean the sheets. We vacuumed them with the little vacuum we found under the kitchen sink. I may just start doing this at home, it would sure cut down on the laundry! “Kids, go vacuum your sheets and then you can go out and play . . .”

We did our first morning of school in the campervan, and it was so much easier to have places to spread out. Alayna did her math outside on the table and chairs, while Nate took the kitchen table, and I snuggled up with Benji on the back bed to read his shark book. We could switch places as they suited us, snacks and drinks were close at hand, we finished with minimal complaining. The whole morning, we had the beach whispering to us, “come and play”, “come and play”.

Benji was embarrassed of his peeling skin and wanted to wear a shirt to the beach, until I convinced him that everyone peels, that his back looked perfectly normal for someone who had a bad sunburn. He was finally convinced, we grabbed the two boogie boards and three beach towels we’d gotten in Sydney, and headed to the beach. It was beautiful, we had only to walk across the dune line to get to it. Clay met someone who said they actually ship the sand from this beach to Waikiki, it’s that great. White and soft and deep. Alayna and Nate took the boogie boards first, running out where the big waves were curling, while Benji ran away from and jumped the waves hitting closer to the beach. He’d get so excited and just squeal every time. With each wave he got a little braver, Clay showed him how to use the boogie board, and he caught a few good waves that brought him all the way to shore. Clay and I got our turns with the boards as well, there’s nothing like catching a great wave that carries you all the way in on a foamy crest.

At one point, while Alayna and Nate were way out in the ocean and I was picking up shells that caught my eye, I looked out and saw fins in the water. “Sharks!” I screamed. “Sharks, sharks, there are sharks out there, Clay, sharks!” My voice was high pitched and out of control, just the way you want to be in a panic situation. “Get the kids, there’s sharks out there,” I screamed in my wimpy high-pitched, panicked voice. Clay was skeptical. “Sharks?” he asked, in a very calm voice. “Yes, sharks,” I insisted, scanning the horizon. “See, there, there, I saw them again,” I yelled/screamed/warbled. “Kids, come in, Alayna, Nate, get in here,” I yelled, waving my arms wildly. They came in. “Those are dolphins,” Clay insisted, “sharks don’t jump like that.” I watched them some more. “Wow, dolphins, come on guys, let’s follow them,” I yelled, starting to hurry down the beach. They really did look like sharks to me, with their fins sticking out of the water.

I don’t know how many times we’ll be boogie boarding with dolphins in our lives. They never did get very close, too bad. It would have been so cool to actually play out there with them, free of charge. But they were still out there, a few bus-lengths away, curling their backs and diving down again, playing just like everyone else. Enjoying that beautiful ocean.

After a long morning we headed back to the camper for lunch, then decided to check out the nearby pool. When we first arrived it was inhabited entirely by pre-teen girls, obviously on an all-girls school field trip. Alayna, Nate and I determined the water was too cold and sat out a while, while Clay and Benji jumped on in. We analyzed the many complex dramas going on amongst the girls, Alayna talked about how great it would be to go to an all girl’s school. I wonder how many more years that opinion will last? The girls eventually left, we decided jumping in the cold pool water was better than sitting on the ant-infested grass or hard picnic benches, and we all went for a swim. There were diving platforms on one side designed for swim meets, and Nate loved diving off them and seeing how far he could glide (always a competitor). I tried to swim the length of the pool and decided when I get back to Austin I’ll get some swim lessons. I’m a terrible swimmer, and yet it feels so good to work out in that nice, cool water. No sweat. Benji learned how to do a “watermelon”, and Alayna finally did a dive after much nagging. She’s actually pretty good at it.

After the pool, we took a walk on a spit of land that jutted out into the ocean. Before the spit was erected, creating a breakwater, it was a real hazard for ships. Many of the shipwrecks were memorialized along the jut of land we walked along, and some of their skeletons had even been incorporated in the structure. Big, rusty, iron bones with no more wooden decks or masts. They looked spooky. We noticed several rocks along the way that had names and dates spray painted on them, like headstones in a graveyard. The most intriguing was for “Rose” and “Bud”, twins we supposed, born the same day but died twenty years apart. The epitaphs were interesting, one said “Swimming with the fishes” and had the handprints of adults and children on it. I could just imagine the scene, a family that’s lost a loved one gathering together at the spot that person loved best to say a few words and paint a rock in their memory.

We had another “best dinner ever” that night, noodles and tomato sauce. There’s just something about home cooking. Clay took the kids to buy ice cream cones, and they came sauntering back all drippy and chocolaty. We headed to the beach to watch the moonrise, just as spectacular as the night before. I felt like I should go running back through the campervan park to make sure everyone knew “the moon is rising on the horizon”. So big and golden. We got the kids to bed earlier, all the sun and sea made everyone tired. We tucked Nate and Snaggle (that’s what we refer to Benji as these days, in deference to his alarmingly snaggled front tooth that seems to jut ever more forward with each passing day) into the loft, easier to set up the “table” bed as a single than a double. Alayna was a little more gracious in relinquishing “her” spot than she would have been the day before, since “it was hot up there”. We fell asleep to the sound of the ocean again, I could get used to this.


Saturday, 23 February 2008

We did school in the morning, then the beach in the afternoon. We had to force ourselves to sit down and study the guide books a bit and figure out where we’re going next. I felt perfectly happy right where we’re at, I could spend weeks doing school in the morning and beach in the afternoon, but we’ve got to make our way to Heron Island since we’ve booked it, and there is still a lot of beach, and a lot of Australian coastline, to see. So, we got out the books and maps and figured it all out, we leave tomorrow morning.

It was an afternoon of boogie boarding and digging holes in the sand and shell collecting. We’re collecting our shells on the concrete pad next to the campervan, and we’re already trying to decide which ones we can’t part with. Clay got a little over ambitious and took on a huge wave that picked him up and threw him straight down to the sandy bottom. He was lucky, he just scraped his shoulder. If he hadn’t turned his body in time, it would have slammed him straight down on his head, snapping his neck. It was powerful. He analyzed the wave like a true surfer. “It was so big I should have tried to get “in” the tube instead of “on” the tube.”

I took a walk that afternoon, hoping to get some $1 coins at the front office so I could do my laundry. Kids, still flushed and gritty from a day at the beach, rode scooters and bikes around, while neighbors napped on chairs on their front porches, or sipped a beer with friends. Life is slow and easy here. I’m surprised they don’t regard us gypsies with more resentment, I’m sure they get their fair share of partiers that get loud and rowdy and leave a mess, but they were nothing but friendly as I made my way to and from the office. Waving, saying “g’day” or “how ya goin’?”, it is a caravan park utopia here.

That evening Clay took the boys back so they could get a shower and get dinner going, while Alayna and I finished work on a huge drizzle castle before the tide rushed in to reclaim it. We’re picking up the stakes and moving on tomorrow morning, making our way up the coast. I hope we don’t forget anything. I can just see us taking off with the waste water hose trailing off behind us, leaving a trail of goodness knows what.