For the first eight years of my life I spent six months of the year travelling around Australia in a rusty blue Hiace. My father, you see, was a member of a professional orchestra. He and my mother would bundle up my three siblings and I, wedge us in with an assortment of suitcases and musical instruments, and away we'd go, accompanying the orchestra on their various national tours.
My memories of those days are overridingly positive, though the fingernail-shaped scars my two older brothers bear to this day suggest that there may have been the odd moment of, ahem, sibling tension during those longs drives. But growing up along highways and murram roads was a privilege and something I want my own children to experience too. We're trying to give them a taste of life on the road; in fact this evening we returned from a driving trip from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.
Of course the shoe is on the other foot now. I look back in admiration as I consider the hundreds of toileting emergencies, food fights and boredom-induced-hair-pulling incidents my parents must have endured. And so I've reflected on my own experiences as a child and a mum to pull together my guide to surviving the family road trip.
Before you leave: Pimp your ride
Okay, so maybe customised paintwork isn't quite necessary, but you'll want your car to be kid-comfy. This might mean seat-back protectors, waterproof pads on toddler car seats and front seats adjusted to provide maximum leg room (and fewer kicks in the rear). It might also mean installing sunshades, a shoulder pad on a seatbelt or a mirror so you can keep an eye on children in the back.
We keep a toy bag hanging on the back of each front seat. We fill these with toys that stay only in the car. Needless to say noisy, talking toys are vetoed, but matchbox cars, figurines, novelty sunglasses and clip-ons are winners.
And if you're going to be on the road for days on end there are ways to turn the car into a real multi-tasker: a bucket with a lid, a handful of laundry powder and a few litres of water creates an on-the-road washing machine, as the bumps and jolts wash your clothes clean. A pull-down boot door on a four wheel drive makes a great nappy changing station. A GPS will (theoretically) prevent marital discord.
The first hour: Novelty factor
You're only two hours late. You found Dad's missing sunglasses, the toddler has weed in the driveway and at last, you're on the road. This is a happy time; at this stage the trip is a novel, even good, idea. Children who are old enough might like to look at a map of the journey. You can get the children started on filling out home-made passports for the trip. You can pass time by talking about where you're going, what you will be doing and pretending you're the Brady Bunch.
Mid-morning: Pull out the cooler bag
Suddenly the road looks a little less exciting. The pre-schooler's fifth rendition of 'I Like To Move It' looses some of the cute factor. Stomachs begin to rumble. It's time to open up the cooler bag. I'm of the mindset that supervising snacks is harder work than driving (in fact I had a conversation to this very effect with my husband today). But it's worth the arm strain for the contentment that will ensue. Go for small, not too-filling or too-crumbly bites. I like bananas, apples, dried fruit, muesli bars and peanut butter sandwiches. If you're super mum you can even make individual snack packs. If you're like me you'll throw everything together in a bag and hope for the best. Don't forget to also bring a stash of wet wipes, hand sanitizer, napkins and rubbish bags. A water bottle for each traveller helps too, but you might want to dole these out and collect them up again if water fights are at all a possibility.
Lunch time: Get me out of here!
Unless you're about to miss your brother's wedding or something, do NOT eat lunch in the car. If you wish to arrive at your destination as the harmonious family unit you were when you left home you'd be wise to plan regular pit stops along the way. There's no substitute for a park where little ones can burn off pent up energy or a services stop, where your children's shouts will just blend right in with the ensuing noise and general chaos. You might have to substitute nutrition for fast food contentment, but since you packed such healthy snacks (see above) don't beat yourself up about it too much.
Look for pit stops that have playgrounds, toilets (or at least tall trees), drinking water and space.
The post-lunch slump: Audio/visual aids
The baby's asleep. With luck the others will be soon. But if your little angels don't nod off, arm yourself with a coffee, crank up some music and pretend it's 1999 again. Mister Four is currently being schooled by my husband in the history of 90s garage and hip hop. There is a good deal of censorship required, but it beats hearing The Wiggles for the nine hundredth time. Children's audiobooks are good too. Don't make the mistake of trying to listen to anything adult. I bought Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Everything' a few years ago and we are still trying to get past Chapter One.
Screens can be a godsend at this point too. I'm not a fan of in-car DVD players (but that may be because in my child traveller days I thought our tape player was the height of modernity), but I have lots of friends who swear by the calming effects of a Disney movie at this point. I must admit I've whipped out an iPad a few times and lapped up the ensuing silence with great relief.
Then there are family games. Personally, 'I Spy' makes me feel carsick, but you might try playing 'Have you ever?' or 'First person to find a yellow car gets a Smartie' type games.
The home stretch: Make plans
By this point the car looks as if it has been accosted by a pack of monkeys. Your toddler is squashing raisins into his hair and your husband has somehow managed to find a radio station broadcasting the most boring cricket match in the history of boring cricket matches. Look lively, people! Now's the time to start drumming up excitement about your destination.
What will you eat tonight? Who's sleeping where? Will there be time for a quick swim before dinner? Look out for places to visit and things to do as you approach your end point. Get everyone to guess your room number or the colour of your hotel/motel/caravan/cabin/yurt's curtains (winner gets to sit in the front seat for an hour on the drive home). Turn down the radio. Sing Kumbaya together. See, you're the Brady Bunch again! You're nearly there. Wasn't that easy?