A first-time fam­ily camper­van trip de­liv­ers on its prom­ise of ad­ven­ture, nov­elty and, even­tu­ally, a haul of fresh fish — as a dad’s birthday odyssey heads north through a smoky Bay of Fires and be­yond

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - Upront - WORDS SU­SAN OONG

A young fam­ily’s camper­van odyssey de­liv­ers on a prom­ise of ad­ven­ture, nov­elty and a haul of fish

I’m not sure who’s more ex­cited that we’ve hired a camper­van for a long week­end: me or the kids. For me, there’s some­thing thrilling about the idea of cart­ing around a por­ta­ble home. When we pick up our mam­moth six-berth rig from Ho­bart air­port, I’m pre­tend­ing very hard to pay at­ten­tion to the in­struc­tions on how to empty the grey wa­ter and plug in to power, but all I re­ally want to do is ex­plore our new home away from home.

There’s an abun­dance of hidey holes to stash away all our be­long­ings, in­clud­ing kitchen draw­ers com­plete with an oys­ter shucker, plates and cut­lery. It’s all very do­mes­tic. The kids are quick to claim the king­size loft bed above the driver’s cab, and my part­ner and I are rel­e­gated to the “par­ents’ re­treat” tucked at the rear with win­dows on three sides, a wall-mounted TV and a cur­tain. We set­tle into our seats, with the kids sit­ting op­po­site each other din­ing-car style in the back so they can play a boardgame, then we’re off.

The first stop is Devil’s Cor­ner Cel­lar Door at Ap­slawn to climb the look­out tower for a view over the rolling vine­yards to Moult­ing La­goon and across to the Haz­ards at Fr­eycinet, then it’s back on the road.

At Na­ture­world, at Bicheno, we’re greeted by Linda, who hands each of the kids a map and a paper bag of an­i­mal feed. The 60-hectare site on the banks of Old Mines La­goon houses mostly na­tive an­i­mals, in­clud­ing or­phaned wom­bats, dens of Tassie devils that are part of a breed­ing pro­gram and a healthy spot­ted quoll con­tin­gent. We’re wel­comed with a cho­rus of ‘hel­los’ by the res­i­dent sul­phur crested cock­ies but ig­nored com- pletely by the al­bino pea­cocks, which have full run of the park.

Af­ter spend­ing time in the large walk-through aviary, I dis­cover my new favourite bird, the Man­darin duck, with its el­e­gant deep ma­roon head and green plumage, and we all fall in love with the clutch of stripy black and grey Cape Bar­ron goslings.

We’ve booked in to the Bicheno East Car­a­van Park for the night at a pow­ered site. Be­fore we head out on our pre-booked pen­guin tour we sing Happy Birthday to my part­ner — this trip is to cel­e­brate his 40th. Then we hand the kids a torch each and weave our way through the car­a­van park to the pen­guin tour shop next door for an evening walk to see the nightly pa­rade. It’s breed­ing sea­son and we’re lucky enough to see a few down­cov­ered chicks stand­ing out­side their nests hun­grily wait­ing for their par­ents to re­turn from a day fish­ing.

The next morn­ing it’s on to the nearby Dou­glas-Ap­s­ley Na­tional Park, where there’s a level 10-minute loop walk to the Ap­s­ley wa­ter­hole. This na­tional park is one of the state’s last re­main­ing dry eu­ca­lyp­tus forests.

Mes­merised by the chang­ing scenery from my camper­van win­dow as we move on, I’m re­minded of the ac­claimed English gar­dener Anne Ware­ham, who for a year framed the same pic­ture each month from her bed­room win­dow to show the pass­ing of the sea­sons. From my win­dow, over the next day I see a ewe and her lamb graz­ing by the road­side in the whis­per quiet Dou­glas-Ap­s­ley; an enor­mous sow who moves slowly across a dirt track in front of us; and later the quaint town­ships of Sca­man­der and Beau­maris, the fish punts and jet­ties of St He­lens, and fi­nally the shore-hug­ging for­est sur­round­ing the Cosy Cor­ner North camp­ground at the Bay of Fires.

It’s here, on the se­cond night, that the camper­van re­ally comes into its own. Away from the con­ve­nience of town power and wa­ter sup­ply, the camper pro­vides a self-con­tained haven. We’re parked for the night be­hind the dunes of the south­ern stretch of beach. And there’s some­thing lux­u­ri­ous about hav­ing a hot shower then div­ing in to bed while camp­ing.

The sparkle of the aqua­ma­rine sea, con­trasts with the purewhite sand and orange lichen-cov­ered boul­ders at the northern end of the beach. But the day that we visit, the scene is dulled by wafts of smoke. We can smell a bush­fire and see a few burnt leaves that dis­in­te­grate on touch, car­ried on the wind from nearby Goshan, where a fire is raging. Just be­fore bed that night we re­ceive a text mes­sage from the fire ser­vice ad­vis­ing us to be ready in case we have to move quickly in the night.

The next morn­ing when we wake up, the azure wa­ters of the bay are gone, re­placed by a haze and a bright red sun that makes the beach look eerie. The smoke is so thick we can’t see the hori­zon, only an orange-tinged fog. On our way out of St He­lens we see two he­li­copters tak­ing off from be­hind the sports­ground with large buck­ets sway­ing be­neath them, headed west to­wards the fires.

The road to Targa from St He­lens is long and windy. We skirt around the bush­fire and stop at Weld­bor­ough, Derby and

Branx­holm to read about the area’s tin min­ing his­tory. Each town is a des­ti­na­tion along the Trail of the Tin Dragon route, which doc­u­ments the Chi­nese com­mu­nity of the North East in the late 1880s and the role the Chi­nese had in min­ing. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, even more so af­ter I later learn that my Chi­nese great grand­fa­ther spent some time in the area as a young­ster be­fore mov­ing to Goul­burn, in NSW. And we learn that the Gorge in Launce­s­ton was built from the pro­ceeds of a Chi­nese fundraiser held dur­ing the Vic­to­rian era.

From the look­out, we can see Mt Strz­elecki on Flin­ders Is­land across the Bass Strait, with the val­leys and moun­tains of the North East in be­tween. As we wind our way down the other side of the mountain, the rolling green pas­tures dot­ted with sheep give way to dense for­est and enor­mous man ferns. We nav­i­gate the wind­ing road known as the Sidel­ing be­fore we hit the hair­pin bend that re­veals our fi­nal night’s des­ti­na­tion, Myr­tle Park.

Set on 15 hectares with 6.5 hectares as a ded­i­cated camp­ground, Mry­tle Park is owned by lo­cal his­to­rian Wayne Cas­sidy and his wife, Colleen. It was a sol­dier set­tle­ment farm that is now a large, grassy area bounded on three sides by the fast­mov­ing St Pa­tricks River, which down­stream be­comes the source of Launce­s­ton’s fresh wa­ter sup­ply, and a eu­ca­lypt for­est with stands of myr­tle and stringy­bark that rise steeply on the other side of the river form­ing a nat­u­ral wall around the camp site.

We set up by the river and get out the fish­ing gear. Al­though the river has stocks of brook trout and rain­bow trout, we don’t catch any, but we spot a platy­pus flit­ting about, which is the first one we’ve ever seen in the wild. In­spired to catch a fish, we drive to Mountain Stream Fish­ery up­stream the next morn­ing on our way home and catch seven rain­bow trout within an hour and then con­ve­niently store them in the camper­van fridge for the three-hour trip back home.

It’s been a whirl­wind four days but a great over­view of an im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful re­gion. We prom­ise our­selves we’ll spend more time in the North East over sum­mer, which my sev­enyear-old son con­firms when he quips, “Mum, I could do that same hol­i­day over again.”

Camper­van hire: We toured in the Apollo six-berth Euro deluxe, which starts from $138 a night for a min­i­mum five-day hire. To book, visit apol­lo­cam­

Best camp­ing spots: Myr­tle Park at Targa, 30 min­utes from Launce­s­ton, is $10 a night for an un­pow­ered site. Cosy Cor­ner North at the Bay of Fires Con­ser­va­tion Area is one of four free camp­ing sites set be­hind the dunes.

Hot tip: Try to book ev­ery other night in a pow­ered site. Though the fridge runs on gas and the lights are bat­tery-op­er­ated, ap­pli­ances will only work while the van is plugged in.

The writer was a guest of Na­ture­world and Bicheno Pen­guin Tours

Op­po­site, the orange-tinged gran­ite boul­ders of the Bay of Fires; above, Myr­tle Park pro­vides an idyl­lic camp­ing spot by St Pa­tricks River at Targa.

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