Let’s do something different…

One day my mother announced that ‘this year we will do something different for our annual holidays’. ‘Yeah, Yeah’, the family scoffed. We didn’t believe it would be possible to break the family tradition of an annual pilgrimage to the Florida Car-O-Tel on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Imagine the shock and awe around the Formica dinner table when Mum announced she had booked us on a bus trip to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs via Coober Pedy in South Australia, calling into Mt Isa in the middle of Queensland on the way home. A round trip of around 6070km and not a beach in sight. Now that’s different!

Underground Church Coober Pedy
Mum & the Underground Church – Coober Pedy

As one we were all excited about our first big bus adventure and the fact that we were going to camp EVERY night. Little did we know that our excitement was seriously misplaced.


The departure day arrived and we were packed, organised and waiting impatiently on the forecourt of a large service station in Dubbo to be collected by the Trans Tours coach. We waited, and waited, and waited. An inauspicious start, which must have been a nightmare for my parents with two children just about jumping out their skin with excitement and yet we were going nowhere, fast!

Five hours later, the ‘coach’ chugged into the service station, revealing itself to be a BUS that had seen better days. ‘Engine trouble’ was the excuse and even then in the fog of excitement, we should have seen the writing on the wall.

As the tour was now way behind schedule, it was decided that Dubbo would be the overnight stop. Still running on adrenalin, we convinced our parents that we should camp for the night too rather than return home to the farm. Yes, it was the coldest night in living memory and I was dreaming of my very own warm bed waiting for me at home. Oh well, the price you pay for adventure.

Bus group
The hardy souls on a Trans Tours ‘coach’

The next day dawned bright and clear and we were soon on the road west, getting to know our fellow travellers. Poor Dad was one of only two men on board amongst a gaggle of divorced women, blue rinse set ladies and noisy children. He was kept busy though, as it seemed that every time the bus reached its destination, it would refuse to start again. The bus driver and Dad would gather up the tools and bury themselves in the engine. Dad must have been wondering whether he had even left the farm and what sort of ‘holiday’ this was going to be.

Domincan convent
The REAL Dominican Convent, Moss Vale. Source: http://www.spic.nsw.edu.au

By this stage of the trip, the concept of the ‘swear jar’ had been introduced. If you called the bus a ‘bus’ and not a ‘coach’, it was considered swearing and it was compulsory to put 20c in the swear jar. This bus was so far removed from a coach it wasn’t funny. Bench seats with aluminium hand rails (á la school bus), no air conditioning except for old sliding windows, and a hand-wound sign on the front of the bus that said Dominican Convent, Moss Vale’. Angels we were not, but as it was all new and exciting, you can overlook such details as a child.

Not quite convent material but neither was the bus!

We bounced our way out of NSW, trundled through South Australia and finally made it to the highlight of the trip – the centre of the Northern Territory. Ayers Rock, now called Uluru, did not disappoint and we were silenced by its majesty, by the sheer scale of it. Similarly, the Olgas were stunning and remain fixed in my memory – even after all these years.


The night before our departure from the campground, the bus (coach?) driver asked the group – ‘who would like to go to the Camel Cup in Alice Springs tomorrow?’ It was a resounding ‘YES’ from the group even after we learned that it would mean a 2.00 am departure to get there on time.

Of course, it rained overnight but that didn’t stop us dismantling our wet tents – well, our wet everything – and bundling onto the bus. At least the damn thing started this time. We all promptly went back to sleep and awoke to a brilliant blue sky day about 300 km south of Alice Springs.

The bus gave an almighty bump, swerved a little and we looked out the window to see a set of bus dual wheels bouncing high and disappearing into the Northern Territory scrub. There was a delayed reaction – ‘there goes a set of bus wheels…..pause…….they’re OUR bus wheels!’ And the bus wobbled, lurched to the left and came to a stop on its axle.

We kids thought this was all part of the excitement of touring by bus in the 1970s and tumbled off the bus to chase the wheels through the scrub. No doubt the adults could more rightly see that this was no laughing matter. This was 1977. No mobile phones and in the middle of nowhere.

We waited and waited and waved down the first car to appear on the horizon. The car had no choice but to stop, as we kids had made an immovable picket line across the road, including half of us laying down to form human speed humps. A message was duly relayed and we were collected about five hours later and transported to Alice Springs. Yes, we had well and truly missed the Camel Cup.

Camels at a camel farm – the closest we got to the races!

The rest of the so-called holiday was spent trying to make contact with Trans Tours, them promising a replacement bus and no vehicle materialising. Alice Springs is a nice place but not after 10 days straight.

The bus ‘adventure’ finally came to an end, with us bus-less but possessing an intimate knowledge of Alice Springs. We did get our first ever trip on an aeroplane back to Dubbo…and Trans Tours declared bankruptcy not long after!

From that time on, whenever Mum suggested we ‘do something different for our next holiday’, a knowing look from us all made her quickly change the subject and start work on her beach holiday packing list.


So long ago – 1977?? and apologies for the quality of the 1977 photography!

Carefree Caravan Days

I have mixed feelings about Grey Nomads – those adventurous folk of 50+ age bracket who spend every minute of their retirement years exploring every inch of Australia in their trusty caravans and motorhomes.

I have to tread carefully on this issue as my parents are your typical Grey Nomads – escaping the Winter chills to the Queensland Gold Coast each year. However there is nothing worse than getting stuck behind a string of caravans in convoy – all sitting on or under the speed limit and travelling so closely together they are impossible to pass safely and squeeze in between.

I also need to tread carefully as ‘in the olden days’, I was a super-excited, restless child bouncing up and down in the back seat of a 1970s sedan towing our very own family caravan. It is the old case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’, but in this case, it was dull silver with a canvas awning and contrasting stripes down the side.

Source: Pinterest

Our first caravan was a 1950s Carapark Zestline – a hulking silver beast that originally belonged to my Uncle Arthur. Uncle Arthur was my great uncle, a kind and gentle man who had loose and clicking false teeth that would dance around his mouth as he ate. That used to freak me out no end, but the purchase of his caravan made him so much more acceptable.

The caravan was tired and dated but it must have been the right price, and Mum set to freshening it up with a repaint of the cupboard doors, new brown and orange floral curtains and new brown chenille bedspreads. Yes, the last word in mobile style.

The Zestline had your typical caravan floor plan – twin beds up the back and a table that collapsed into a double bed. I doubt much has changed in floor plan design to this day but perhaps the vans are now made from lighter materials and have a stronger focus on aerodynamics. Uncle Arthur’s van was built to survive a nuclear holocaust unscathed and towed like a brick dunny. It was solid, square and indestructible. But as children, we loved it and were so excited to be off on our first caravan adventure.

The caravan was duly packed, hooked up to the Valiant, and we were on the road north. We made good time and our first night ever sleeping in a caravan – I can still remember the thrill – was spent at a tiny village called Bendemeer on the Northern Tablelands of NSW. Bendemeer has a pub, a school and a convenient caravan park just off the highway and on the side of a hill.

Bob and Dolly Dyer and the Zestline featured in the December 1954 Carapark Australian Motor Monthly. Source: http://www.timetoroam.com.au

At first glance the hill wasn’t an issue, and it wasn’t an issue for anyone else in the family except me. You see, the way the beds were configured and the way that Dad parked the van meant that I spent the entire night trying to stop myself from rolling out of bed. My brother was fine as he simply rolled into the wall (and had the ability to sleep through WWIII anyway) and my Mum simply made up the bed for her and Dad so their heads were higher than their feet. Just like a rock climber, I spent the night tensed up, jamming my hands and feet into any available crevice or gap between mattress and wall and hanging on for dear life.

Added to that, it was the coldest night in living memory of Bendemeer residents. My parents had each other to provide warmth, my brother slept on oblivious, and I was rock climbing in the Himalayas for the entire night. Or so it felt.

The journey continued on to Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW. It was significantly warmer and flatter there, and the holiday soon stretched out into carefree days of roaming the beach and caravan park with packs of other holidaying children – all of us decked out in midriff tops, flared shorts and surf thongs. Ah, what’s not to love about 1970s fashion?

Big banana
Source: http://www.ournakedaustralia.com.au

Coffs Harbour had endless beaches, a marine park and the Big Banana. A holiday just can’t get better than when it’s in an Australian town with something BIG in it. On a damp, grey day we abandoned the beach to tour the Big Banana. Picture it: banana train, banana trees, banana souvenirs and banana food. As a child I was permanently hungry and scoffed the full menu of banana food including a chocolate-coated frozen banana. This was finished off with a large bucket of hot, buttered popcorn. Yes, my appetite knew no bounds!

Unfortunately even my cast iron stomach could not handle this blend of cuisine and I spent the next 24 hours throwing up. I was past caring but I can only imagine how unpleasant this was for the rest of the family in the cramped confines of the caravan. To this day I cannot stand the smell of hot popcorn. One of the few things I don’t like to eat!

Coffs - 1976.jpeg
Hungry Kid vs Hungry Seal!

Mum very quickly tired of making up their bed on the table each night and we spent the entire two weeks eating off our laps – either inside when the weather was wet or outside under the red/orange/green striped canvas awning. Being an uncoordinated kid, I spent a good part of each meal trying to catch my sausage as it rolled off my plate or retrieving various food stuffs from the floor or grass. No doubt this was a great boost to my immune system, enabling the development of some resistance – alternatively it could have been the cause of the popcorn fiasco.

As always when you are a child, the holidays are too quickly over, and all too soon we were towing the silver sinker on the long road trip home. As we rolled into my home town of Dubbo, Dad suggested one last splurge of a Chinese meal before we covered the final 30km to the farm. We ordered up and as one, we dropped our elbows onto the table and heaved a combined sigh of relief. For once Mum let our manners go west as we luxuriated at a real table, just perfect for resting elbows.

Ah, childhood holiday memories – so simple and powerful – but don’t ask me ever again to sit in the backseat of a car for 10 hours towing a caravan. I am more than happy to leave these sunny memories in the distant past and intend to ignore any grey nomadic tendencies well into the future.


Sometime in the 1976

A Long Road Trip Down Memory Lane

Life on the farm was driven by the constant demands of weather, work and weariness, but once a year the family would be loaded into the 1960s sedan and driven full tilt to the Florida Car-O-Tel at Miami Beach on Queensland’s Gold Coast.Florida Car-O-Tel

The sense of anticipation was such that the whole family was fired by an unusual sense of excitement and energy. Even my normally calm and reserved father would have a spring in his step as he headed towards the shearing shed.

Preparations would start weeks in advance with packing and sorting clothes, but how much do you really need when you wear swimmers and go barefoot for three weeks? My mother had standards and they had to be adhered to.

Food was planned and the old tartan-patterned, metal esky would be dragged out of the laundry cupboard and dusted off. Our fringed towels would take pride of place in the packing pile on the back verandah and the tube of white zinc, thick and smeary, retrieved from the back of the bathroom cupboard.

It was hard to sleep the night before the big trip because it was THE trip of the year and you knew the night would be short anyway. Why bother to sleep?

Around 2 a.m. my father would gather up our groggy bodies and lay us in the back of the car. Me, being the youngest, had a bed made of pillows on either side of the large, immovable hump on the floor of the car. My brother was given the whole back seat. Seat belts? Who needs them?

Off we would shoot into the Dubbo darkness – us kids oblivious to the exhaustion our parents must have been feeling.

At some stage after the sun rose we would stop for mutton and peach chutney sandwiches – white bread of course – and my parents revived themselves with a thermos of tea.

The drive continued, seemingly without end and the passing scenery simply did not rate against the anticipated destination.

We fought. He punched me, I pinched him. “If you keep this up you can get out and walk.” “If you keep this up, we will just turn around and go home.” These threatening statements bought a short reprieve for my parents from the endless backseat antagonism.

We slid across the vinyl bench seats as we whirled around mountain corners. We marvelled at the coastal eucalypts – so tall and straight – and made comments like “Gee Dad, you could build some good cattle yards out of those trees”. Yes, out of the mouths of bush babes.

We built barricades between ourselves to head off further pinching and punching. We had Marella Jube eating contests where we jammed as many hard jubes into our mouths as we

Marella Jubes – great for keeping kids quiet…

could fit and slowly tried to chew. At least it would have been quiet – temporarily – for Mum and Dad.

At last the Gold Coast loomed. We wound down the windows and heard the bellbirds ring true and clean as we descended the mountains and the competition began as to who would be first to see the sea. Any trick in the book to distract two tired and restless kids locked in the car for the past 12 hours.

I’m unsure who was the most relieved to see the glowing neon of the Florida Car-O-Tel – us kids tasting freedom at last, or our parents, who knew they wouldn’t see us again for three weeks!

Each year we were greeted by the latest version of the resort owner’s Labrador dog. We aged with those dogs and any momentary sadness at an old dog’s passing was soon offset by the excitement of a new, younger model to play with. Similar, the parade of seasonal visitors or almost permanent residents. We met up with Mr and Mrs Janz each year and I doubt whether they actually ever went home to Melbourne. True sun worshippers, they had deep brown, leathery skin – slick with coconut oil – which made it difficult to tell their true age, although I suspect they were younger than they looked.

Three pools to choose from, trampolines to injure yourself on and the beach on the other Florida Car-O-Tel - cold poolside of the trees. For the inevitable wet day there was a games room with indoor croquet, ping pong and carpet bowls but usually also with one or two pieces of vital equipment missing. A raggedy pin-board held the rare, but longed-for, letters from your best friends at home and some lean-to bookshelves held the world’s largest collection of dog-eared Readers Digest magazines. Of course, none of these indoor delights rated in comparison to sand and sunshine.

Friday was treat day. A small shop to buy Clinker lollies and mango or rockmelon Weiss bars. A tiny fish and chip shop to lash out on hamburgers (real ones with the lot) or potato scallops that burnt the roof of your mouth.

Collapsed onto the divan bed at the end of each day with remnant white zinc on my nose (if Mum had caught me to put it on in the first place) and my skin still warm from the day’s rays, I drifted off to sleep believing that there was nowhere more heavenly than this.

Holidays - Ian and Melanie on beach
The Pincher and the Puncher circa 1968