As inconceivable as it may be for a generation who measures their holidays by Instagram likes, air travel was once a really big deal for the average Australian. You booked months in advance, saved for even longer, dressed for the occasion and dealt with hours of passive smoking for the jet-setting privilege. And that was without taking into account hotel costs.
If you had more children than could be squeezed into trundle beds in a double room, then a far more affordable option was the caravan. In the egalitarian ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, all you needed was a vehicle with enough grunt to – in Dad’s words – “tow the bastard,” and the sunburnt country was yours for the taking.
Your average Jayco was a wonder of engineering, a compact marvel that fitted many of the comforts of home but in a fraction of the size. It was like someone had chucked your place into a tumble-dryer, shrunk it, chucked a few tyres underneath and Bob’s your uncle. A caravan also required a tow bar, and a tow bar meant anyone who inadvertently bumped into the back of your car was to come off second best.
A week or weekend in a caravan was like living in a Swiss Army Knife. Almost every surface was hinged or cantilevered so when a latch was released or a button pushed, it transformed into something entirely different: the dining table became a bed, the banquette folded out into a sofa, what was once a kickboard became a bedside table and soon what were previously rudimentary affairs – slightly more luxurious than a tent – quickly acquired the mod cons of home. And it was always with a small thrill of wonder that the hot water system, fridge, microwave or fan whirred to life when your dad sprung for that most luxurious of caravanning options: the powered site. All of which was illuminated by a series of woefully underpowered fluorescent tube lights that gave everyone involved the washed-out demeanour of a ghost with anaemia – go back and look at the pictures.
Caravan trips brought with them their own family rituals such as the who-got-the-top-bunk argument, the cranking of the rusty tarpaulin attached to the side that provided blessed shade and the board games not played since last year’s Scrabble sulk (“Mum, Andrew used a swear word! He spelled ‘bum’”.)
Your average jayco was a wonder of engineering, a compact marvel that fitted many of the comforts of home
Before manufacturers responded to what many considered an egregious oversight, one had to also conquer that three-word spectre that terrified so many young caravaners: the communal ablutions block. It was a fear that soon turned to mortification when Grandad or Dad showed no such qualms as he tucked a newspaper under his arm and strode off like the man on a mission that he was, inevitably returning some 30 minutes later proclaiming: “I feel sorry for the next bloke who goes in there.”
Sure, there was an enforced intimacy living cheek by sunburned jowl with your family. And while teens mentally counted down the days until they were old enough for schoolies, it’s these days – and the vehicles – that many of us look back on most fondly. Because, no matter their inherent dagginess, the tragedy of no television and the “are we there yet?” whingeing, there came a time in every caravan holiday when you found yourself beside an unfamiliar beach at sunset with a soundtrack of breakers and the mossie zapper, when Dad, working the BBQ, would look around and hold Mum’s eye for a few seconds longer than usual and say, “It doesn’t get better than this.” And he was right.