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When family holidays are one big happy daze

WE usually leave her at home. There we were cruising down the Pacific Highway with the oldest member of our family. It's been years since she's come on vacation with us. At 77, she takes too many wee breaks, has bad breath, is a noisy sleeper and demands dinner at 4pm.

The three-year-old and the one-year-old were the least of our worries as we packed the car tighter than Tetris blocks and headed for Iluka on the New South Wales north coast. With the dog.

It's two weeks before COVID-19 lockdowns fell across the country. Before caravan parks closed, beaches were bollarded, holiday plans were quashed and walking past strangers required a wide berth or, heck, a face mask. The ignorance was bliss. If only we knew then that this may be our last holiday in a long time.

We had won a token voucher to put towards a stay at a caravan park. Months had been spent planning. The last time my husband had a week off work was on a blue moon. We would shed our uniforms and swap our keyboard tapping fingers for tummy tickles. One week of quality time with the kids. And the dog.

 

Sunset by the Clarence River, Iluka. Photo: My Clarence Valley.
Sunset by the Clarence River, Iluka. Photo: My Clarence Valley.

I imagined morning seaside swims, building sandcastles until our bellies told us otherwise, afternoons fishing and sipping rosés at sunset by the water (I'd read a lot about these).

When we arrived at our "shoebox" I felt as though we had entered the set of Gordon Ramsay's Hotel Hell. A double bed, triple bunk, kitchenette, shower and toilet were squeezed into one tiny room. Now I understood why there were no photos on their website. The floors hadn't been swept, goop was left on the kitchen bench and ants were squatting in the bunks. The vinyl mattress on the top bunk had never been wiped as the layer of dust and gunk revealed.

I wanted to complain … or cry. The town was booked out for the weekend so there was nowhere else to go. We weren't exactly paying for the place until night three, and we'd booked seven nights here.

Before I could clean up the kids were gliding across the floor like penguins riding Enjos. We prayed it didn't rain as it was clear from the stain on the ceiling that the cabin wasn't watertight.

Soldier crabs in Iluka Bay. Photo: My Clarence Valley.
Soldier crabs in Iluka Bay. Photo: My Clarence Valley.

We'd spend as much time as we could outdoors. That was until we stepped outside only to be ambushed by mosquitoes, hundreds of them. Enough to carry you away. We slapped ourselves like a crazy game of Bop a Croc. No amount of repellent-soaked skin would keep them away.

We raced for the river where there was slight reprieve and the grandparents had parked their caravan for week. We'd chosen Iluka as, only a couple of hours from home, the road trip was enough to test the kids' resilience without the long haul.

Then like a game of dominoes, all our holiday dreams began to fall. The little fella ran a temp of 39, despite our best efforts to avoid trolleys, parks and civilisation the week before. Gastro came knocking.

Miss Three's nose began to run like a waterfall. Before I could stop her, my shirts were slimed with snail trails of dried snot.

Then our best efforts to hide the dog like Anne Frank under grandma and poppy's caravan in the "no dogs allowed'' zone saw the old jack blow her cover.

Another canine escapee - a white ball of fluff - sprinted down the riverside like a greyhound who caught the rabbit with a hare in its gob. "Mum, I think that dog's eating the Easter bunny," Miss Three squealed.

Sickness took hold and we were forced to retreat to the shoebox. After two nights we hightailed it out of I (puka) and home to the comfort of the couch.

After two after-hours doctor's visits and two blissful sleeps in our own beds, we booked a holiday house - the Rainforest Retreat - back at Iluka before we even took a sip of our morning coffee. The car was still packed from the first attempt. We had unfinished business.

We threw the kids back in the car and headed south to chase that holiday feeling one more time. It was deja vu all over until we arrived at the house on the fringe of Bundjalung National Park. This time the destination was worth the journey.

 

Remnants of summer’s bushfires are visible at Shark Bay on the drive into Iluka.
Remnants of summer’s bushfires are visible at Shark Bay on the drive into Iluka.

The house was huge, older but clean, sparking memories of my own childhood summer holidays. There was a deck of cards on the table, a rack filled with magazines, a cupboard filled with kids' DVDs, a big bath to sink into and a large backyard surrounded by an umbrella of mango trees. There was even a resident koala in the gumtree out the front. The home was a hop, skip and a jump from Iluka Bay and around a corner was the rainforest walk through the national park.

A pelican enjoying the late afternoon sun on the river.
A pelican enjoying the late afternoon sun on the river.

We built castles on Bluff Beach and explored the driftwood teepees built by yesterday's beachgoers. We skipped flat rocks on the water's edge.

We still play a game of tug-o-war when it comes to the way we holidayed BC (Before Kids) and AD (After Delivery). It's hard to resist a $4 schooner happy hour after a long day with two firecrackers who haven't slept.

Sure, we pushed the friendship at dinnertime as chow mein and spring rolls were hurled across the table at the bowls club. The wrong type of bowl went flying, followed by a freshly poured glass of overpriced soda water. Dagger eyes came our way as their overtired bodies screamed for bed while we waited for the last raffle number to be called. It was worth it; we won a tray of fresh prawns.

But we weren't the only ones. One dad was pacing the club with a tiny tantrumming tornado on his heels.

Soon someone flicked the switch and both kids nestled into the nape of our necks in a sleepy slumber as we walked to the car.

Natures beauty, a colourful vibrant Rainbow in a stormy blue sky over water with boats next to the Iluka breakwall.
Natures beauty, a colourful vibrant Rainbow in a stormy blue sky over water with boats next to the Iluka breakwall.

Back at the caravan park with Grandma and Poppy the next day, we spent the day watching pods of dolphins play as they wove between the moored yachts.

A sun shower cooled summer's heat as the kids jumped in puddles. A rainbow formed behind them. Our pots of gold.

As the sun went down their little bodies playing became silhouettes against an iridescent sunset of deep purple, pink and orange. I was reminded that it's the moments in between that are special when you have kids. And watching one of those iconic Iluka sunsets is medicine for the soul.

An Iluka sunset over the river is like no other. Photo: Kiri ten Dolle
An Iluka sunset over the river is like no other. Photo: Kiri ten Dolle

 

If only we knew then it would be our last family getaway in a while. Or the last time the kids could hug their grandparents for some time. They are sweet memories we now cherish.

And for the record, the dog had a great holiday.

The writer travelled before COVID-19 restrictions were enforced.