Australia Personal

Recollections of a Gypsy Caravan

When I was a kid, listening to my Mum and Dad stock the caravan was always how you knew the holidays had started, and more importantly, that the travel was about to begin. It was never anything else. Not the drop in class work. Not the school parties. No, the packing was the clue. Those muffled noises of Mum and Dad moving under the house, speaking in murmurs. The slight sounds of bags and boxes being pushed and slotted into empty spaces. They’d spend the night down there, just before we hit the road, stocking up the caravan. From my bedroom right next to the garage, I could hear their voices through the walls. Sometimes, I’d try to stay awake by memorising each step they took to make the van ready. But sleep always prevailed in the end, rocking me to slumber with a gentle lullaby of whispers.

We got the caravan just before the turn of the new century. It was a little Jayco camper trailer with a rusted crank that screamed ear-piercingly as the roof came up, double beds that pulled off the ends like awkward wings and an air-conditioner taped to one of the canvas windows. Inside, dust and mould bred, soaking into canvas and fabrics. When we went to look at it for the first time, in a tiny apartment block in Darwin’s northern suburbs, I was unimpressed. It was very brown, nothing like what my parents usually owned. They hated dull colours, avoiding them with a hippy’s fury. To be honest, I never thought we’d buy it. I couldn’t see how the most colourful family this side of the equator could ever travel or even belong in that little brown box on wheels. Lucky for me Mum and Dad saw something in that caravan that I didn’t. Lucky for us all.

In weeks, that sad little caravan had transformed into something else entirely. We dumped the air-con, fixed the canvas and got rid of all the brown we possibly could. Mum took to the interior of the caravan with a paintbrush and a passion. Soon there was shell-patterned fabric on the mattresses and midnight cotton with sparkling silver stars for our curtains. Even the ceiling got some new life, coloured sky and clouds. A friend of a friend, some aspiring airbrush artist, gave the outside a similar treatment, covering the wavy shell with wispy clouds floating along the sky. It was like our entire house seeped into the soul of the caravan and bred in that musty warmth.

All things considered, my family fell into the habits of having the caravan pretty quick. Everything we did had a process, and despite our general chaos, we managed quite well. Falling out of the car, still stiff and carsick, sometimes half-dreaming in the darkness, we’d branch out and set up. In a manic haze the caravan would rise in front of us: roof cranked, beds pulled out and secured, annexes put up and furniture organised. Then, when everything was done, the kids would explode in an excited scream of blonde curls to explore and Mum and Dad would collapse to relax. My favourite part of having the caravan was setting it up. Sometimes, I wonder if I was the only one to see the magic of it. That beauty of creating in minutes an entire shelter, not without creature comforts or family. There’s a strange sense of pride in that for me. Working together, we could build a home.

gypsy-van-1

On The Road With The Caravan

Our first major trip in the caravan was to the Woodford Folk Festival, a weeklong hippy fest at the height of summer held on a patch of farmland a few hours outside of Brisbane. Celebrating Christmas on the road, we made the drive from Darwin in three days, a new record, and pulled into Woodford on Boxing Day. With the exception of the local art markets in Darwin, the campground at Woodford is the only place I’ve ever felt instantly at home. Everywhere children ran barefoot and wild, there was body paint and dreadlocks on almost everyone and incense burned outside tents, caravans and buses alike. Our gypsy caravan fit perfectly between the Happy Hippy House, a bright pink kombi, and an old tent with a smiley face flag flying out front.

The first day of the festival, it was unimaginably hot, even for us born and bred in the tropics. Before the day was done, the general store sold out of hand- held spray bottles. Those who had them walked around the festival misting themselves and anyone within reach in the face to stop spontaneous combustion. Inside the caravan was basically uninhabitable with all six of us so warm-bodied, and that unbreathing canvas. Laying in bed in as few clothes as possible we all tried to block out the heat by burrowing into meditation tapes of oceans and flowing rivers, my Mum’s eternal panacea.

The next day it started to rain.

And it kept raining.

For the whole festival.

Soon, the whole place was an inland sea. Muddy was a permanent state of being. Stepping out of the caravan the morning after the first night of deluge I sank up to my knees in the brackish water that flooded through our woven plastic Tiwi mats. Summer storms only perpetuated the wetness. In the most spectacular of these, the wind picked up the entire kitchen annexe, plus all the furniture inside it, and took off in a soggy gust. Typically masculine, Dad and the older boys braved the howling battlefield to seek out our stuff before the mud claimed it. Mum’s panic peaked here. She screamed at me to stay exactly where I was (for God’s sake) on one of the wing beds and she curled with little brother Jaya on the other, in her mind surely saving our gypsy caravan from blowing away in a haze of cyclonic destruction.

Despite that, being at Woodford remains the shining light of my childhood, and the mascot of my childhood travel experience. Clothed in tie-dye, covered in grime and absolutely saturated I ran amok with my brothers and a melting pot of festival kids. Our gypsy caravan became a refuge, one dry place in the middle of a muddy ocean. We weren’t always prepared for what we’d gotten ourselves into, but for everything else we improvised. Hay bales appeared and were grabbed to ease our joyful suffering. Trenches were dug with borrowed shovels, and our campground neighbours were always happy to give advice on the finer art of fluid dynamics. Through all of it the rain kept going, and so did we.

When they’d bought it, neither Dad nor Mum had ever towed a caravan before. In light of that I suppose they took to it rather well. Of course, I never knew this as a kid, and so trusted their driving skills implicitly. Now that I’m older I can’t imagine how, with all the startling evidence to the contrary.
One night, driving along the dark highways of the Hay Plains in New South Wales, my Dad looked in the rear view mirror and found the caravan alight in a blaze. Springing into action he skidded to a stop and, in a panic, hauled everyone outside into the freezing desert air and (seemingly) safety. Nothing will wake up a family of sleeping children like Dad’s frenzied call of fire.

Of course it turned out that the fire was only the reflection of the car’s taillights on the van. A quick call to check his glasses, some relieved giggles, and we were all piled in and off again.

Another incident saw us, on a perfect desert day with Mum at the wheel and Dad plugged into a meditation tape and napping. In the back, the boys and I passed the time however we could, reading, sleeping or complaining. Suddenly the car swerved violently and a sound akin to a truckload of chickens being launched at a steel wall exploded across the level plains. Blood splattered on the back window and Dad sat bolt upright, loosing an amazing collection of curses. After the chaos, when we had made it safely to the side of the road, we pieced together that a pair of emus had run out of nowhere in front of the car. Mum had swerved, but in avoiding the first she’d trapped the second between the car and caravan, an unenviable position. A bloody, feathery mess awaited our inspection, but no body.

The emu had survived.

Shock and amazement broke down into tears of laughter. Leaning on each other in fits of hilarity at the side of the desert road, surrounded by the goo and feathers of Australia’s luckiest emu, I dread to think of the impression we might have made if another car had passed. But none did. So we, as usual, continued on towards the horizon, trusting in our family and our gypsy caravan.

The Final Caravan Packup

These road trips really made me love the open road. There’s a peace there I can’t quite place. Tyres on tarred bitumen, the rolling skies, a multitude of stars and galaxies laid out in front of childish eyes. Most nights, I’d fall asleep to a chorus of brother’s breathing in the back as we hurtled through those magnificent landscapes. On the nights sleep didn’t come, I’d listen to Mum and Dad talking softly in the front seat, illuminated by lights off the dash, and quiet tunes of country music emerging from the stereo until I too slipped off into dreaming.

Our gypsy caravan survived its fair share of wars, storms and emu encounters, but in the end it couldn’t survive the passage of time. As the kids got older, our little hippy bubble started to stretch at the edges, until it finally popped, and we all came tumbling out into reality. After Mum realised her sea change dreams and packed the younger boys and me off to Bali, neither our family nor our gypsy caravan ever saw the open road again. It sat in the backyard for a while, serving as overflow accommodation for our heavily populated house, but rotting wood, a coconut thrashing and much-needed maintenance eventually retired it for good.

A few years ago, Dad gave the caravan away. I’m not quite sure where it is now. Still, it often comes to mind. Sometimes, I wonder if the spirit of all those adventures might have soaked into it. That little part of me that is still a feral blonde kid running wild with her brothers, her imagination and her gypsy caravan is almost sure of it. I imagine she even thinks the caravan missed those journeys as much as we did. She’s probably right. For an old gypsy caravan, it sure had a lot of life.

This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.

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