Saturday, September 26, 2015

7 reasons to go on a campervan holiday with kids

1. Pop-up café
Having your own mobile kitchen addresses one of the drawbacks of family holidays – the cost and inconvenience of eating out three times a day. A simple breakfast of toast and tea is a relief for the stomach and the wallet. No need to make a reservation at your own mobile pop-up café.

2. Mobile table and chairs
The kids need a break from driving so you pull up at a park where you feel like a cup of tea but there’s no café nearby. What do you do? No problem – turn on the gas and boil the kettle. Too hot or cold to sit outside and watch the kids play? There’s a warm table inside. Can’t find a park bench to eat your takeaway fish and chips? There’s always an inside seat at your own mobile pop-up café.

3. Mobile shower
If you’ve ever showered in a caravan park toilet block you’ll appreciate how good it is to have your own shower. Sure it’s cramped and you need to refill the tank every day, but you can shower without thongs or fear of secondary infections.

4. Mobile toilet
Taking a toilet with you everywhere you go is handy for kids (and older adults!). But be warned – it’s best used only for number 1s, not number 2s, unless you have no sense of smell.

5. Bunk above the cabin
Climbing up the ladder and hanging out in the bunk above the cabin was a kid favourite. But it’s hot and stuffy up there, so get a van with windows above the cab. Avoid renting in summer.

6. King of the road
Sitting high above the traffic using a truck-like steering wheel to veer in and out of lanes makes you feel like the king of the road. Even Sydney drivers will let you merge for fear of being sideswiped.

7. Campfires
Kids love toasting marshmallows over a campfire. Everyone loves sitting around a campfire. Just starting one is pretty cool. Taking your campervan off grid so you can have your own campfire is just about the best thing we did.

7 reasons NOT to hire a campervan with kids

1. Electricity
Surprisingly there is none in the bush, and less than you imagine in a campervan. Seemingly luxurious appointments such as air conditioning, microwave, toaster, kettle and powerpoints only work when a campervan is plugged into the grid at a caravan park, which kind of defeats the purpose of camping. Off grid the only electricity trickles to battery-powered lights, water pump and fridge. When stopped you need to turn on the gas bottle to run your fridge, heat water for showering, and to cook or boil the kettle on the gas stove. Implications: No toast for breakfast. No heating or cooling the van when parked. The gas kettle takes forever to boil, and I need my coffee now!

2. Plumbing
Or the lack thereof.  Yes, I’m talking poo. We all do them, ideally every day. Four people = 4 poos. Poo smells. Campervan windows are generally small. You work out the rest. So ideally avoid using the toilet for poo. Which means you still need to camp near a toilet, in which case you may as well be in a tent (or better still a cabin). Yes, the toilet is handy for wee. But that’s all.

3. Water
Water water everywhere but not enough to drink. Yes, there’s a big water tank underneath for the sink and shower but you can’t drink it. So you lug around big plastic bulk containers of drinking water that quickly run out despite their back-breaking weight. You seem to spend half your time re-filling everyone’s drinking water bottle. And filling the kettle takes forever. Clean reticulated drinking water is a great civilising influence for which I thank WaterNSW and Sydney Water.

4. Trivia
Small daily tasks seem to take forever. Like finding your toothbrush and water bottle and turning on a pump simply to brush your teeth. Or filling a water bottle from an even bigger water container only to pee it moments later into a sump toilet that you have to carry to a dump point to empty. Repeat.

5. Tallness
Campervans are small confined spaces ideal for kids and short adults. Tall adults will spend their whole time hunched over, and inching sideways in semi-circles like a backhoe in a terrace backyard. Short people will have no sympathy for you. And don’t start me on the size of the toilet cubicle.

6. Trees
It’s really easy to back into them. You can memorise the 3.5 metre height so you don’t drive into things but you quickly forget the vehicle is also a whopping 7.7 metres long. So it’s easier than you think to reverse into trees, fences, cars and echidnas.

7. Sickness
Kids get sick on holidays. No-one likes to talk about it, but they do. And sick kids are miserable in a confined space with few distractions. Intermittent access to doctors and medicine is stressful for parents. When kids cough through the night, every night, everyone is frazzled the next morning. Not the campervan’s fault, but worth bearing in mind.

Packing tips for a campervan holiday

  1. Halve your clothes (and double your alcohol).
  2. GPS in vehicle (so you can still navigate off grid with no mobile reception).
  3. Firestarters, kindling, newspaper and long matches (for campfire. Firestarters would have reduced my performance anxiety of starting a fire).
  4. Marshmallows (to toast. We also took long wooden skewers but it turns out there are plenty of sticks in the bush).
  5. Picnic blanket (should you have the bizarre urge to eat outside instead of inside at your camper table).
  6. Coffee plunger and ground coffee (no electricity to heat pods off grid).
  7. Bulk water (to refill water bottles and kettle. Tea is an essential part of camping).
  8. Bacon, eggs, sausages, bread rolls, waffles, pancakes (covers all the food groups - off grid you can use gas stove to make bacon and egg rolls for breakfast one day, heat waffles or pancakes in frypan for breakfast the next day, and cook sausages in a bun for dinner every night. I never want to see bacon or sausages again.) 
  9. Glen 20. Quite frankly the whole experience is highly unsanitary. Spray the van when you take delivery, and every couple of days. 
  10. A big plastic tub for your shoes. Then spray them all with Glen 20 every night (especially after visits to caravan park toilets and the world in general).
  11. Nurofen, Panadol and asthma puffers for the kids (and mild sedatives for the adults).

Tips for planning a campervan holiday

  1. Book direct. An aggregator seems easiest but the actual company who rents you the vehicle may resent such bookings and you seem to have less control over assessing the hire company’s reputation and fleet.
  2. Eyeball the vehicle. Ideally you need to inspect the actual van you are hiring as not all ‘6-berth’ vans are the same re ease of converting tables to beds or the most functional layout of shower/toilet. Don't rely on website descriptions or generic layout diagrams.
  3. Get a demo. Insist on a thorough demonstration of how every part of the campervan works, inside and out (ours was so perfunctory we never found the hidden extra board to make our very narrow bed slightly wider, and could never turn the rear bed back into a stable table).
  4. Maximise your excess. Not your excess of drugs and alcohol but your insurance excess. Take the maximum amount of insurance with the minimum excess (some companies offer nil excess. You’ll appreciate it when you inevitably back into a tree or leave the handbrake off and roll into a lake).
  5. Go hassle-free. Any extra payment to avoid re-filling gas bottles or to get extra camping equipment or GPS is worth it. In hindsight I’d even pay them to empty the toilet one last time.
  6. Adjust your attitude. You either need to be highly organised or totally carefree – nothing in between will cut it. We were highly organised and still mildly unhappy (OK, I was very unhappy and Sherrie was mildly discomforted). So really a campervan is only for the carefree (and a little unhinged). And short people.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Spectacular Springsteen!

Saw a concert last night. Some bloke called Bruce. Sounded like he might have a future in the music business. He had this house band with him, E Street or something. They were pretty good too. I think they should take their show on the road, see a bit of the world - who knows, they might even catch on.

For all I know, maybe that's what people in bars around New Jersey were saying in 1972, shortly before the release of Bruce Springsteen's first album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. What I do know for sure is that 40 years later, last night we saw one of rock's greats deliver one of the greatest rock shows of all time.

Peter Knobler was there in 1972. He was editor-in-chief of the first magazine to profile Springsteen, well before he became The Boss. Knobler warns of the dangers in writing about Bruce - that because "Springsteen is an inspiring performer, writers have forever tried to capture in words the feeling of his concerts", and the result is generally florid and overwrought.

So you've been warned!

Last night was the second of Springsteen's three Sydney shows at Allphones Arena. It's a terrific venue for an act like his - big enough to feel like a stadium with a sea of waving hands, small enough to see the man and his band without the aid of the big screens.

I know much less about Bruce than my good mate who joined me, along with our partners. But it doesn't matter. Once you 'get' Springsteen, he hooks you deep.

It's because he writes about things that matter to us. He writes simply, but his words and songwriting have real power.

He talks about big things to ordinary people - things that we might not have the words to articulate ourselves, or even if we can find the right words, we lack the courage to say them.

I am told there are still people who don't quite 'get' Bruce Springsteen's brilliance. To them I say....
  • If you've ever had a lost love, especially when you were young, listen to Bobby Jean, and you'll change your mind about Bruce Springsteen.
  • Dreamed of escaping your everyday life? Listen to Thunder Road, and you'll change your mind about Bruce Springsteen.
  • Life hasn't turned out as you hoped? Listen to The River - Springsteen has written your story.
  • Hankering for high rock opera and drama? Nothing surpasses Jungleland. I'll never forget hearing it live last night.
Spectacular, in every sense of the word - that's how I'd describe a concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It was a bucket list moment, and I'm glad I got to share it with Sherrie, Graeme and Kate.

Very few rock musicians sustain their creativity, power and passion into their 40s, let alone their 60s. Yet at age 63, Springsteen's latest album Wrecking Ball is as full of hits and heart and soul as any of his earlier work.

There are those lucky few who got to see Springsteen in the 1970s when he was touted as the future of rock'n'roll.

There are now many more of us who can say they've seen The Boss at his best, still surfing the crest of the wave all these years later.
He was no flash in the pan. He was the genuine article. If anything, that perhaps makes this tour even more special. Thank you Bruce Springsteen, and thank you E Street Band.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Farewell, to two little boys...

Singing. From their very first day, we sing to our kids. Soothing lullabies to calm a restless baby (or agitated mums and dads). As our babies grow into toddlers, soothing songs remain part of the bedtime ritual.

But it's just hit home to me that the singing ends.

The Complicated One no longer wants me to sing to him at night. The Big Fella still lets me occasionally, but even he's starting to move on.

It seems to happen around 5 or 6 years, but at some point your kids just don't want you singing anymore. Perhaps they think it's only for babies, or it's not cool. They don't say, and I don't ask.

Now that both our boys are at school, change seems to be speeding up. Maturity, exposure to a wider group of friends drawn from more diverse backgrounds, or just the acceleration of peer pressure, which will only intensify as they rocket towards and into the teen years.

So before I forget, I want to write down the names of the songs we sang to our boys.

Admittedly, it's a wonky collection of tunes, sung with a wonky voice, but I don't care! It's my 6-song repertoire of suitable bedtime songs where I know all the words:
  1. Morningtown Ride by The Seekers 
  2. Puff the Magic Dragon, by Peter Paul and Mary 
  3. Two Little Boys by Rolf Harris 
  4. Thankyou for the Music by Abba 
  5. Dancing Queen by Abba
  6. Looking for an Echo by Ole'55 (or better still, by Kenny Vance and the Planetones).
Some of them are songs my mum sang to me, like The Seekers' Morningtown Ride...
"Train whistle blowing, makes a sleepy noise,
Underneath the blankets, go all the girls and boys..."
If there's a pop song in the last 40 years with better lyrics or a sleepier melody for little kids, I'd like to know.

Perhaps, I hear you suggest, another folk song from the 1960s? Like Peter, Paul and Mary's Puff the Magic Dragon. It's another great bedtime song, but for years we didn't sing the next to last verse, because it's too sad...
"Dragons live forever, but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys..."
Two Little Boys by Rolf Harris is another bedtime favourite with a happy/sad final verse that we edited out for years. But sometimes, they'd ask for it, for their own private reasons...
"Long years had passed, war came so fast,
Bravely they marched away.
Cannon roared loud, and in the mad crowd,
Wounded and dying lay..."
Like a good showman I like to leave 'em dancing, and nothing fills me with more joy than Abba. The Complicated One always enjoyed Thankyou for the Music, which sounds OK even with my two-note singing. It perfectly captures the balance between light and dark in Abba's music.

An alternative show-stopper is Dancing Queen. "Friday night and the lights are low, looking out for the place to go..." is a familiar and much-loved refrain for my generation.

But my sneaky favourite is Looking for an Echo, as sung by Ole'55 on Countdown in 1976, to me as an impressionable pre-teen... 
"At daydream junior high school we used to harmonise,
Me and Frankie and Jimmy and some Italian guy.
We were singing oldies but they were newies then,
And today when I play my old 45s I remember when..."
Now that I am an old music nerd, I've tracked down the original version first performed by Kenny Vance in 1975 - and it's even better!

Kenny Vance first knew fame in the 1960s with Jay and the Americans (their big hit, This Magic Moment, features in a current TV commercial for a certain gambling company). Vance turns 70 this year, still performs regularly in New York and New Jersey, and still sings this beautifully as a finale to his shows... Looking for an Echo - Kenny Vance and the Planetones.

Looking for an Echo best sums up the beauty and melancholy I feel as I sing to our boys. Knowing they can't stay little forever, but not wanting to let go to some of the special times that may never come again...
"We've sung a lot of changes since 1955
And a lot of bad arrangements we've tried to harmonize.
Now we've turned into oldies, but we were newies then,
And today when I play my old 45's, I remember when...
We were looking for an echo, an answer to our sound.
A place to be in harmony,
A place we almost found."

Monday, February 4, 2013

First day of school - what a difference a year makes!

The Big Fella went to school today without a backward look. He waved happily to us, and literally skipped into the classroom.

What a contrast to The Complicated One's first day of school, when he retired to bed in his school uniform just before we left the house, and literally had to be dragged crying into the classroom on days 1 and 2.

They're different cats, that's for sure. The Big Fella is sure of himself, and goes with the flow. He'll talk to anyone, and nothing much bothers him.

The Complicated One is less sure of himself, thinks of all the alternatives, worries about which is the right choice, and second guesses himself afterwards. He'll only talk to you if he likes you, and pretty much everything bothers him (I guess I'm exaggerating a bit!).

The Big Fella has a good friend from his child care centre starting kindy at the same time. They're not in the same class, but having a familiar face in the playground on day 1 must make a huge difference.

Plus he's been to the school every day for a year, dropping off or picking up his brother, so it's already a familiar place. Add a different personality, and you can see why The Big Fella is recipe for success.

We suspect it won't all be smooth sailing. He's amongst the youngest in his class. And writing and craft type activities don't yet appear to be his forte. He's more of a running around kicking a soccer ball kinda guy.

In a few weeks he may well decide school is boring, and declare he's had enough. He's done that sort of thing before.

But just as likely he'll find some way to make school fun and interesting, perhaps by focussing on activities outside the classroom.

Who knows what hidden talents school will reveal? It may be oral presentations (try shutting him up!). It may be acting (he's already a clown). It may even be numbers (he's certainly more interested in adding up that recognising letters).

Whatever happens, The Big Fella and The Complicated One will make an interesting pair as they travel through their school years together.

Sometimes I imagine it will be like the Reacher brothers from the Lee Child novels. Jack, the novels' hero, is the younger but physically bigger and tougher brother of the more thoughtful Joe.

Jack used to beat up the kids who gave Joe trouble in school. Jack says "... we had different brains. Deep down, he was a cerebral guy. Kind of pure. Naive, even. He never thought dirty. Everything was a game of chess with him.”

Not that The Big Fella has ever swung a punch. He's not yet even 5 years old - and quite gentle, for a big unit. But maybe he'll be looking out for his big brother, and vice versa.

Let's hope he's as cool and relaxed on the last day of school, as his first.