I’ve twice felt the irresistible pull of Queensland’s Capricorn Coast. On my first trip I played the backpacker fool 10 years too old for sweet-smelling dorm rooms but hanging on to my youth all the same.
In Bundaberg, I drank fermented molasses with escaped fruit pickers and slept in a converted prison cell. In the Whitsundays, I went skydiving and snuck onto an under-30s all-you-can-eat seafood catamaran. By the end of that Australian summer, the holiday beard flowed freely and the pages of my Moleskine notebook spilled over with earnest prose.
Then offspring arrived — my bearings were lost along with airport lounge access. Was this an early retirement from life on the road? Or could l maintain that elusive sense of self on a brand new family road trip? Luckily, there was only way to find out.
Returning to Queensland with kids
The first thing I learned the second time around was that kids don't care where they are as long as they’re comfortable, fed and rested. We celebrated this revelation by loitering in Noosa for a week longer than planned before embarking on our road trip, heading north up the Capricorn Coast. We got lost on purpose up the Everglades, swam beneath koalas at Tea Tree Bay and took the Rainbow Beach barge out to Fraser Island. For children, an island feeds the imagination; it's a self-contained world with visible boundaries to stand on the edge of and guffaw.
Further north, located slightly off-the-beaten-Pacific Highway at the tip of a peninsula, we explored the Town of 1770 where Captain Cook first landed. We had alighted on the ideal destination for learning to surf or just frolicking in the water. The southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef offshore around Lady Musgrave Island is a camping-only paradise, and at the remarkable Fitzroy Lagoon kids can walk in ankle-deep water filled with tropical fish. If they get a bit queasy it's just a matter of skipping the three-hour ferry ride and taking the amphibious LARC vehicle instead for a sunset cruise followed by dinner at the renovated 1770 Hotel (www.sandcastles1770.com.au).
Tailoring a road trip for children
You can take the bus to most major destinations but renting a car gives you more flexibility and is not much more expensive for a family of four. There was a time in your life when ten hours on a burning hot Greyhound seat was a test of your resilience, but now is not that time. We flogged our rental sedan for 3000 clicks from Brisbane to Cairns in a few weeks and paid for it with sore hips and Play School on high rotation. National parks and photo opportunities flew by in swirls of sunburned rock and scrub. Ideally, aim for a maximum 200km on driving days and minimal car-time in between.
Little appetites are easily sated on an Australian road trip. In Queensland, you’ll find cheap tropical fruit aplenty roadside – pineapples, bananas, mangoes – plus cashews, macadamias and salty kangaroo jerky (fancy some roadkill?). If you need to stop for a meal, find an RSL (Returned Servicemen League’s Club). A perfunctory sign-in gets you a kids' menu, air-conditioning, ice-cold beer cheaper than anywhere in town, quick counter service, huge servings and a cast of true blue Aussie characters.
Taking a dip after time in the car is a great way to keep your troops refreshed. Fortunately when stinging jellyfish are close to shore there are loads of public swimming pools to bring down the temperature. A few bucks opens the gates to a shaded lawn, lifeguards on patrol, the odd water slide, splash pools and canteens where you can still buy lemonade icy poles for under a dollar.
As we continued north towards the tropics, we discovered a wealth of eccentric small-town sights and wildlife. Near the Big Bull, just outside Rockhampton, the Fitzroy River runs through town, with occasional crocodiles spotted upstream. The stately pubs along the riverbank are famed for their giant steaks, haunted hotels and red-hot rodeo nights. Here is as good a place as any to stock up on your stockman paraphernalia: akubras, whips, boots, stubbie holders.
A little further north still is Yeppoon, the gateway to Great Keppel Island. Once an icon of 1980s tourism, Yeppoon is now recovering from a tropical cyclone and the impact of a strong Australian dollar. Subdued but stunningly beautiful, this is a safe and accessible place to get marooned with little ones.
Instead of pushing straight on towards Townsville and Cairns, hug the coastline towards Byfield National Park. Here you’ll find semi-tropical rainforest, a fine beach at Five Rocks and the heavily guarded military facility at Shoalwater Bay (passable only by stealth canoe). Camping here is gentle and crowd-free. Nearby, Byfield’s pottery gallery is one of the finest in Queensland and the general store is a hit for burgers and shakes.
Sensing it was time to stay still, we rented a nearby holiday house overlooking a dam. As the smell of thunderstorms on the verandah turned us all a bit feral, my three-year-old son hugged me and bounced from leg to leg screaming he WAS NOT SCARED and the toddler jumped, squealing, in puddles out the back. My wife dozed in the iron-claw bath as Nick Cave droned on the radio and I fumbled for that old Moleskine notebook again.
I had two new revelations as the rain began to fall that night around the Capricorn Coast: some places do have a certain gravitational pull, and travelling with kids is still travelling.