14 days in a Camper Van (and it rained a lot!)

Day 1

It always takes longer than you think to gather yourself together, work out just what parts of your house you need to take with you, get it into the van and get underway. I am reminded to set closer locations for the first nights stay.

We finally leave at 2.30 and make the 3.5 hour drive to the Booti Booti National Park, and the seven miles of beach front at the doorstep of the Ruins Campground. Along the way we realize we’ve forgotten important things like a bucket for lugging dirty dishes to campsite washing up facilities and a sharp knife. When we arrive we remember mozzie coils and candles. Oh well.

We motor through torrential rain, but it has stopped when we arrive in time for drinks on the spectacular beach – endless it seems into the mists on the northern end – and wrapped in a wind blown fur coat of silver green. The sky is brooding with rain clouds yet spent but a touch of blue breaks through in time for evening’s orange glow. We drink gin, eat yummy unhealthy snacks and remember how much we enjoy family van life. 

Day 2 

Things are, as always with my family, slow to start, but I take the opportunity for a morning walk in the blustery sea breeze on a beach strewn with blue bottles. I am reminded just how much I love the sea. I feel as wide as the ocean out here, free from daily life.

We meander northwards.

Battling through a mozzie infested rainforest to a tree top look out that takes in the wide sweep of tumultuous ocean, and the endless yellow sands of beaches miles long, we find that some people, young no doubt and still in the grip of passion’s intense embrace, have taken the trouble of inscribing locks and attaching them to the railings of the lookout tower.

One mile beach beckons with crashing waves and cappuccino foam and the excitement on the faces of my children as they swim amidst the push and pull of the waves  is delightful. The feeling in my chest when I look at them having fun is what love feels like.

We travel over rivers swollen and brown with rain to have tea at a lookout where the effect of the runoff is demarcated in the sea. The rain returns as we cross Little Beach and make our way to Taking Point lighthouse near Port Macquarie. As the rain pummels down, we wrap ourselves into our Campervan with wine and spaghetti Bolognese and hope we don’t get bogged in tomorrow.

Day 3 

We start the day at an astonishingly excellent aqua park, seemingly randomly situated in the middle of nowhere – a sort of raw challenge in water which reminds me to work on my pelvic floor and upper body strength.

Our meandering takes us to coffee conversations about careers and futures with our nearly adult children in a cute restaurant in Kempsie, before a walk and sort of swim on yet another endless beach.The sea is brown and bitty, full of the after effects of last month’s floods, but the walk is refreshing and watching the kite surfers mesmerizing.

We amble into Bellingen, lush and green and bursting with fat cows, for dinner with our oldest of Australian friends at a bar buzzing with people having a very good time. Tonight we are free camping. It is hot and, momentarily anyway, not raining. But this town is gorgeous and one I fall in love with immediately. 

Day 4

Today is all about splashing about in the lush green backyard of Bello. We meander into the Promised Land to swim in a creek with water so cold it makes your breath freeze up inside you. It is as clear as air, and the rocks twinkle below, uncomfortable underfoot. But we find a pool big and wide enough for the kids to satisfy their desire for jumping off things.

We push the bus up the mountain into panoramic vistas of fertile greenery, and find ourselves agog with the sheer magnificence of the countryside. It is Waterfall Way we are trundling along and so it is unsurprising to find ourselves in the company of several torrents of water cascading down the steep incline.

Our last stop of the afternoon is the rainforest walk in Dorrigo National Park. It is late-ish when we are arrive, but we are all a bit cantankerous with each other and set off for a 7.5km walk to breath in some space. It’s good for the head and the heart to be surrounded by towering trees and the convoluted, multi textured layers of this rainforest. It is beautiful beyond words, a fantastical landscape that surely must have played inspiration to fantasy writers the world over. It feels like we are lost in the movie Avatar.

We come across two main waterfalls, water thundering in white smoke down the slippery rocks, sending spray into our hair and faces, before hiking back out, up inclines my calves will feel for the rest of the week. Tonight we are sleeping in a Showground. It’s our first. I like it better than free camping on the side of a suburban street. And we are able to make a fire and watch the stars burst out of the twilight, while a cacophony of cicadas play their nightly tunes. This will do. 

Day 5

Is it really only day 5? The day starts in brilliant sunshine. We have slept on top of the world, or so it seems. When I step out of the Campervan after a ridiculously good night’s sleep everything is clean and vivid and fresh.

Our first stop is Dangar Falls – closed to the the uninitiated. But we follow the general throng of people clambering around stay out signs and pick our way down to a fabulous waterhole at the base of a waterfall that cascades off the rocks above and makes its own rain. There is much swimming and laughing amidst the spray coming from the churning water.

We also trek out to Ebor for another waterfall. The languid, barely noticeable Guy Fawkes (why is this patch of brown water named after some British terrorist?) river tumbles with astonishing force over a staggeringly sheer cliff face – not once, but twice – a sort of double layer cake of a waterfall. There is a lot of water on waterfall way, but last year’s fires are in evidence in the closed off lookouts burnt to a crisp and the blackened trees which make their way deep into the valley and up the other side.

We head back down the mountain in torrential rain, wreathed in cloud which limits our visibility to about 10 meters at best. Coming down a sharp and winding incline when you can’t see much is an exercise in anxiety, but Mike is the hero of the hour as far as I am concerned and gets us to Coffs Harbor without many sharp intakes of breath from me.

Rain looks set to dog us for this holiday. After watching ash fall out of the sky last year I am not complaining (much) but it makes for a rather damp affair. We chase the sunshine nonetheless, hoping for bright spots as we continue to head north beneath the glaring signs forbidding us entry into Queensland without a permit. 

Day 6

Wet. Wet wet wet and grey. We go for a walk along the beach and onto the Marina in Coffs Harbour and get caught in a torrential downpour that leaves even our underwear dripping with water. Today we retreat to the Grafton movie cinema and watch Wonder Woman save the world from the chaotic ambition of one man’s narcissism. Prescience much? 

Day 7

Today continues in the same wet and grey vein as yesterday. We drive miles through gusty, blustery rain drenched fields of greenness – sugar cane, fruit trees, fields – before finding some sort of relief within the confines of Lord Byron’s cellar door. A good tour of the ins and outs of rum production and the purchase of several bottles of brew was the highlight of today.

That was until we arrive into the gorgeous beach side town of Kingscliff and set up home about as close to the beach as you can get without being in a boat. The weather remains dismal, and Mike and I get rained on yet again while we wander the high street, but the sound of the waves and the wide expanse of soft sand, the live music floating over the night air and the concrete slab we are parked on (and therefore a glorious lack of mud!) makes me feel very happy indeed! 

Day 8

Beachside life with one of our longest time friends. Swimming, talking, eating, drinking while our teenagers roamed free building an amazing desert island home and playing board games and tackling the crashing waves of the ocean on our doorstep. It ended with ice cream as beach days should. Exceptionally good day. Except for the bit where I got stung by a bee. That was exceptionally not good! 

Day 9

We have reached apogee in our travels and pivot around Fingal Head lighthouse to trace our way back home. The reason for trekking to this particular exposed rocky finger of earth stretching into the sea is to see dolphins and we do – in the distance, a large pod of fun seekers surfing the waves. We are still staring into the misty tumultuous waters when a squall hits us and we are drenched within seconds and having to do battle with a wind that would blow us right off the cliff tops.

Mike and I tour and lunch at Husk Distillery, home to our most favourite of gins – Ink Gin. It’s an upmarket slick affair that looks perfectly crafted by adept marketers but I am pleased to learn it is a family business done good, and although their new stills reach into the skies, each bottle is hand labeled and sealed. Lunch is divine – thick prawns with spicy chorizo for me and ink-gin infused salmon for Mike.

This afternoon we trundle into Byron Bay and, finally, some sunshine. This is a jam packed town and we are squashed into a beach side campsite with a million other campers. We spend the afternoon on the beach though, which is scarred quite badly by the recent floods. Stairways have been washed away, leaving gaping pathways 12 foot above the sand and the beach seems to be held together with sand bags. Ripped up vegetation is apparent everywhere, but the sand is flat and soft and the waves seem to suit the plethora of surfers who keep at it until darkness falls.

We walk into the town for ice cream, paddling ankle deep in the sea both there and back. On the return trip there is a rainbow that stretches from the lighthouse to the ocean and this feels like a fitting end to the day. 

Day 10 

Yamba in the sunshine. We walk up a steep ridge that Matt insists is entirely unnecessary and would be better off blown up, before lurching down the other side to reach a wide stretch of yellow beach and distant waves that crash and tumble with a ferocity that brings sheer joy to our son’s young face. He doesn’t notice but two dolphins cavort in the waves near him as he gets vaguely swept out to sea before battling his way back to a level he can stand on. Be still my racing heart.

We hike up the hill again and meander around to the lighthouse – our children learn the word phallic in this regard – and down again to another beach and alongside the Clarence River estuary. Matt spends the afternoon jumping off a cool jungle boat, and we walk down the breakwater for evening drinks in the setting sun. Dolphins play in the waves and we catch sight of them now and again between the fishing boats heading out of the river and into the roiling sea. The night sky is adorned with stars as we collapse into bed exhausted from yet more walking! This holiday is exhausting us – we may need to return to work for a rest. 

Day 11

What difference a little sunshine makes. We return to Coffs and the scene couldn’t be more different from our previous drenching experience. Matt jumps off the high points along the jetty with the locals, plummeting a long way down from my anxious perspective and we swim through the depths back to the shore together. I spend a lot of time not thinking about what marine life is swimming about below me, and I am glad we visit the dolphin and sea life conservation centre after the fact.

Here we see a slice of sea life from around these parts; snapper the size of small dogs swirl lazily with some sort of horned shark and rays and turtles. There are many turtles rehabilitating here, resting and degassing before being returned to the sea. The show stoppers of course are the dolphins, who put on a vigorous display and grin at the applause that greets their high flying antics. I love dolphins and I am brought to tears watching their playful interactions and thinking about the human parasite that wrecks havoc on the earth.

Later, we trundle down to the remarkably delightful hamlet of Urunga. It’s a different sort of place – set on a tidal lagoon I suppose that rises and falls with the sea. We walk (always walking) down the boardwalk at low tide, taking great delight in the bizarre array of crab life at play amongst the mangroves – strange scuttling spider like crabs with fat blue  backs (soldier crabs apparently), yellow one armed fiddler crabs that look like they’ve emerged from some sort of nuclear experiment, crabs with two red claws. As we walk along the estuary, with the tide returning , we see dolphins! The women next to me says “I’ve been coming here for 25 years and I’ve never seen dolphins come into the harbor”. I feel like a dolphin whisperer this week! 

Day 12

Sometimes you come across a view so spectacular it leaves you short of vocabulary. Such is the panorama from Crescent Head lookout – high above the seaside village and the surfers who appear the size of ants. The deep blue ocean spreads before us from north to south and all the way to the horizon where it meets the sky – today crisp and clear and eternal.

Back at sea level the water is that annoying tea colour from the river which flows across the beach and into the waves taking children and adults alike in blow up floaties with it. We only have time for a quick dip and lunch before we head off for a three hour drive back south, leaving the north coast with all its vivid lushness behind us.

Day 13 

Chill day, beach day – sand and sea and surf. We start early, the pair of us “parentals” with an earlyish walk, coffee overlooking Nelson Bay and a swim in waters of aquamarine. Then it’s down to the beach, while the kids and Mike go out in a tinny to do some fishing and, accidentally, a spot dolphin gawking. Arabella sees them with her sharp eyes.

They are kind enough to fetch me for the dolphins and we manage to find them cavorting across the bay. It is just delightful, a thing of childlike awe, to see these gorgeous animals playing in front of you.

Fish and chips on the sea shore and a spot of snorkeling before evening drinks on the dunes at Anna Bay overlooking an incoming storm. This trip, even restricted as it was to NSW, is a reminder at just how spectacular Australia is. 

Day 14 

This is it. The final day of our rather epic NSW adventure. We’ve had rain and mud and waterfalls, sunshine and sunburn and dolphins. We’ve seen gorgeous rainforests and spectacular beaches, turquoise blue seas and swollen brown rivers and the corrugated slopes of wind blown sand dunes. Today we did relaxation. We swim in the icy rolling waves at (another) One Mile Beach and play a 5 hour complicated board game (that we nearly lost!).

Rounding off the trip with a chill day before back to work next week.

Tonight the Milky Way is visible in the sky and the kookaburras laughed as the day winds up. Life in Australia is a gift. A bountiful land we are grateful to call home and blessed to explore. 

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