How to Travel Australia with Kids

This month sees the publication of 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go).    You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, moving at a frenetic pace that very nearly did all of us in.  Family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast.   But we discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two.   To celebrate the launch of the new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them.

75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (Published by Affirm Press)
  • There Are No Gurus

With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper).   Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Flying

If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.

  • Driving

We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?”   Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.

  • Packing

Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.

  • Eating

The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips.   Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get.    Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.

  • Accommodation

Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do.   Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.

  • Activities

I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences.   You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia.   Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT),   being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis).   But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.

Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.

You can buy 75 Must-See Places To Take The Kids at Booktopia and Dymocks. 


Melbourne Zoo’s Roar n Snore

Several zoos offer an overnight experience. Parents and kids get to:

  • Learn all about animals
  • Experience a zoo at night when there’s no crowds and many animals are active
  • Camp in the city with access to flush toilets
  • Stay up late and do something fun at night when they really should be sleeping

  • Melbourne Zoo gets some 10,000 visitors a day, and all of them have gone home when my daughter and I pull into the parking lot at 6pm. The gates are still shut, and knowing the assortment of wild animals that reside within, it feels like we’re in the opening credits of a Hollywood movie, the kind where things go awry and lions escape their cages and start picking off overnight tourists one-by-one. To be fair, young kids will be less concerned with the animals and more freaked out about the dark, since they rarely spend much time in it, much less roaming around an empty zoo to a soundtrack of grunts, hisses and squeaks of animals. The service gates open, and our group of just over a dozen Roar n Snorers are greeted by Jacky and Katheryn, our two friendly hosts for the evening. They’re fun and enthusiastic and superb female role models for Raquel. We drive our vehicles into the service area – backstage at the zoo – and are shown to our safari style canvas tents on raised wooden platforms. Shaded by palm trees and within earshot of various animal calls, our tents – named after former and current zoo elephants – are surprisingly roomy, with sleeping bags, pillows and air mattresses. We’re advised to keep the tents zipped unless we want to cuddle a possum, which I have to remind my daughter, is not something we actually want. Having dropped off our bags, we’re led on a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo, learning about the animal diets (did you know the animals are fed veggies provided by grocery stores?) and the old heritage-listed buildings that now function as storage facilities. All this entrances the older kids in the group, but my kid just wants to see the animals. Fortunately, the red panda is up and about and eager to say hello to us as we use the public bathrooms a short walk from our tents. With fruit bats flying overhead, we’re free to wander about as our hosts prepare BBQ’d burgers and chicken, served with salads and corn in a former elephant enclosure.

    I wonder if the smell of grilled meat drives the carnivores crazy. Satiated, any sign of my daughter getting tired quickly dissipates as we grab our headlamps and head out for a nocturnal walk in the zoo. Animals are always more lively at night, especially in summer. We hurl apples and pears to the elephants, greet the hyperactive Bolivian, squirrel monkeys, and learn that it’s best to keep your distance from the one-eyed tapir. We pet a tortoise and a python. Along the way, our hosts tell us great stories about the animals and reveal the inner workings of the zoo. Melbourne Zoo uses a category system where animals are rated between 1 and 5 to determine how dangerous they are. A tiger is a 1, but so is a peccary. At the lion enclosure, a juvenile male is particularly active and jumps up suddenly against the thick glass viewing area. As the smallest and therefore most vulnerable member of our group, my daughter clings to my neck for the remainder of the walk. It’s dark, it’s late, it’s a little spooky, and it’s time to go to bed.

    Milk and cookies are the reward back at our camp. Parents with kids who run on a tight schedule might struggle with the late bedtime, but since my daughter rarely sleeps anyway, we’re up at 11pm as she thrashes about in the sleeping bag we’re inevitably sharing. Older kids are having a much easier go of it, and personally I enjoy hearing the sounds of the animals at night, presuming they’re not the sounds of the young couple enjoying a romantic weekend adventure in their adjacent tent. We wake up, pack up, enjoy breakfast, and take a pre-opening excursion to hand feed the giraffe, and watch the zookeeper feed the penguins. Our ticket includes admission to the zoo the following day, and so we retrace our steps in the early morning sun, before the zoo opens for business.

    Click here to learn more about Melbourne Zoo’s Roar n Snore Overnight Camp.