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
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 apollocamper.com
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.