Canberra to Launceston – Road trip to escape the bush fires

The smoke from this year’s early and severe bush fire season had been closing in on Canberra for the past month. Official figures showed that breathing the air was equivalent to smoking several packs of cigarettes every day, with the city regularly topping the index of “world’s most polluted cities”. The ongoing fires, which were showing no sides of abating, where being fanned by high winds and extreme temperatures.

A fine view of Lake Burley Griffin and the Brindabella Range though the smoke haze in downtown Canberra
A fine view of Lake Burley Griffin and the Brindabella Range though the smoke haze in downtown Canberra

Smoke masks were either unavailable or in limited supply, and in any case didn’t come in non-adult sizes, so it was definitely time to get the children out. Some families headed to the coast, others to Melbourne in the south. We’d already escaped to Vanuatu for a week, but were now back in town and conditions were getting worse. We decided to go and camp on our property in Southern Tasmania.

Bronwyn needed to stay in town to work, but Berrima and I were free to go. It would be an interesting experiment, because at four and a half years old, Berrima had finally given up a nightly slurp of mother’s milk, and we thought that she was ready for an extended trip with Papa alone. We loaded up the Land Cruiser with camping gear, and hit the road.

On previous family road trips, Berrima had needed constant attention and frequent breaks at roadside playgrounds. This time, she entertained herself by chatting about the scenery, embroidering, drawing, and using road signs to teach herself to read. It was all quite charming.

To make it more fun, we stopped every 1.5 hours or so, selecting highway exits at random and driving around to see if there was a playground or something else of interest. It turned every 3 hour segment into an enjoyable 5 hour exploration. 

Stopping for hot chocolate and curry at the Dog and Tuckerbox in Gundagai, we stepped out into 40 degrees of heat, passing trucks trailing rooster-tails of choking dust. We’d taken as wide a circuit as we could around the Snowy Mountain fires, but there was still a heavy smoke haze, with temporary signs along the Hume Highway warned of impending closures, and local fire signs set to Extreme.

Fire Danger Rating Extreme

One of our rest stops was in the typical rural town of Juglong, which had the advantage of a playground, but with the temperature still up in the forties, even Berrima couldn’t face playing in it for long. There was however a cute memorial sculpture to a policeman who was shot by a bush ranger (ie highwayman) in the late 1800s. 

The Seargeant Parry Memorial at Juglong NSW
The Seargeant Parry Memorial at Juglong NSW

We weren’t out of the smoke yet, though, by far. The plume from the fires burning all down the East coast and across Kosciuzco had reached South America and New Zealand, so our little detour inland to Yass and down the Hume Highway didn’t make a great deal of difference to the air quality. Passing Tarcutta, my eyes were streaming so badly that I could barely see to drive. Goodness only knows what it was like for the folks out defending their properties.

On our first night, we set up on the banks of Lake Hume. Usually we bush-camp, but most if not all of the national parks were closed because of the fire danger, so we ended up at the Great Aussie Holiday Park in Bowna. This did have the advantage of a children’s water park and a very welcome pool, but the disadvantage of being far from any grocery shops. It was late in the day, so we we braved the cafe.

It took the chef 40 minutes to cook a steak and nachos, during which time Berrima and I covered an increasingly eclectic range of conversational topics as we tried to ward off hungry crankiness, one of which was trying to guess why the table had so many cut marks in the surface. I could only hypothesise that somebody had cut pizza on it, which didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Then, when our food finally came, it arrived with metal cutlery but no crockery, just a soggy paper bag which decayed instantly, so that cutting into the steak swiftly revealed… the table surface. Hopefully it was fairly clean. 

Not exactly gourmet cuisine, at the Great Aussie Holiday Park
Not exactly gourmet cuisine

Back at the car, we’d set up the awning to provide maximum shielding from the dozens of overly bright lights that seem to be de rigueur at every Australian camp site, and to take advantage of the wind coming off the lake.

This latter seemed like a good idea at the time, but the wind soon built up into 40kph gusts bringing with them searing convection-oven heat from the Kosciusco fires.

The Land Cruiser’s awning was plastered against the poles by the searing wind. There’s a video of what the the wind was like inside

As the night drew on, a Southerly change brought a welcome freezing gale, followed by a thunderstorm and rain. We were awoken by an ecstatic dawn chorus, and the sight of clear blue skies for the first time in weeks.

Shuddering at the thought of breakfast at the cafe, we hit the road and continued South until we found a decent coffee shop in a sleepy roadside town.

As we crossed the border from New South Wales into Victoria, we drove out of the smoke from the out-of-control bush fires in Kosciuzco, and into the smoke from the out-of-control bush fires in Gippsland. We weren’t that surprised, as we had been hearing from friends who had escaped with their children to Melbourne, that the smoke there was little better than in Canberra.

Because we had a ferry to catch, we could only fit in a couple of stops along the way, but they did include the site of Ned Kelly’s last stand in Glenrowan (but no playground), and shark and chips in Benalla (ditto).

Without too much more ado, we arrived in Melbourne (not too smokey, as it transpired) and were efficiently embarked upon the Spirit of Tasmania II. We were early enough to enjoy an uncrowded dinner in the excellent restaurant, which is set up to showcase the best of Tasmanian produce, and then stood on deck to wave goodbye to the mainland before retiring to our cabin for the night.

The swell in the Bass Strait was a relatively reasonable 3-4 metres which rocked us gently to sleep.

Early in the morning, we were decanted into Devonport under clear smoke-free blue skies, and headed to Launceston for a well-deserved breakfast. The chair-lift at Cateract Gorge beckoned, followed by a dip in the pool, and then of course a straight five hours at the playground.

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