Families’ new Australian dream: The ‘Big Lap’



Lucia and Michael Sharrad with their children Elijah, Zachary, and Evie in Kalbarri National Park, WA, during their trip around Australia.

Lucia Sharrad’s parents had always dreamt of travelling around Australia together.

After saving up for their entire lives, piece by piece, Herbert and Theresa Jokisch were finally able to purchase their motorhome and embark from Canberra on the adventure of a lifetime.

But their dream was cut short when Herbert died in Cairns after a shock illness.

The motorhome was returned to Canberra, along with his ashes, and Theresa was left to build a new life on her own. It was six months later, on a road trip from Canberra to Adelaide, that Lucia and husband Michael made a promise to each other: they would not wait. They would travel Australia with their children, and they would do it soon.

“It just pointed out to me that it wasn’t worth waiting. If we want to do this then we need to make it work,” she said.

Four years on, after meticulous planning, hours of research and a careful ordering of finances, the two public servants and children Elijah, Zachary, and Evie left Canberra.
Lucia describes it as “40 weeks of amazingness”.

“We scrimped and saved every scrap of leave, purchased some leave, did all our calculations and we managed to get 45 weeks off work,” she said.

The decision to uproot life as they knew it — to squeeze their busy family into an 18-foot van and travel Australia — is not unique to the Sharrads. Young families are hitting the road in droves, defying the grey nomad trope, and shifting the travelling landscape.

Social media proves a source of inspiration

A group of people standing in front of a truck
Jen, Ben, Tom, Jack and Chloe McAlister at the entry to Gibb River Road, WA. (Supplied)

Jen McAlister and husband Ben ordered their caravan in late 2018, but an almost 18-month wait meant they picked up the van just as the most severe COVID restrictions were introduced.

Two lockdowns passed before the Canberra family was able to hit the road. It was social media and the vast number of travelling families who choose to share their adventures online that kept Jen interested and excited.

“They do these incredible bird’s eye view [videos] of the camps and I’d be like … ‘we’re gonna be there’,” she said.

“It definitely influenced us.”

The online community is where dreaming travellers often turn to share their questions and excitement.

Annette Jones runs the online travel blog All Around Oz, and moderates an online Facebook group dedicated to allowing travellers to share hints and tips with one another.

With 20,000 of its more than 116,000 members having joined since April this year, there is no shortage of interest and advice. Question number one? How do people afford it.

“They get to a point where they think, how am I going to fund it?” Annette said. “Then the next couple of questions are, do we rent our house out, or if they own their home, do we sell it.”

Up to $700 for a tank of fuel

While financial preparation looks different for each family, Annette says the general figure bandied around is a dollar for each kilometre travelled — giving a rough guide of $50,000 to $60,000 needed on the road.

But that is dependent on whether they own a four-wheel drive to begin with, or a caravan — and then how much they want to invest in their rig. That alone can lead people to spend up to a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

And with expensive rigs, comes masses of fuel.

For families like Jen’s — who could have had a much cheaper holiday pre-COVID — soaring fuel prices and rising costs in accommodation have hit hard.

“I just feel weird about paying $200 a night for something where you’re still in communal toilets,” Jen said. “We’ve got a long-range tank on our Landcruiser, so it’s not unusual for us to spend $700 to fill up our car.”

But even with every ounce of preparation, there is no number of towing courses or research or Facebook groups that can shield novices from the rookie mistakes that eventuate while on the road.

For Aaron Clausen and wife Ali, the sheer amount of maintenance required to keep the show on the road has been the biggest difference between expectation versus reality.

From flooding the van, to locking themselves in it, and getting stuck in the overhang of a Bunnings car park — there have been sagas galore for the couple, and young son Atticus.

“We’re always fixing something. We’ve always got wheels off the van, wheel bearings loose, fridges coming loose, or something is cracked. It’s a big part of it,” Aaron said.

Long-term investment for a lifetime of memories

Juggling financial pressure, fatigue, scheduling, and busy families in a small space is a considered effort — and choice — for Aussie families choosing to travel. It requires immense discipline and passion, qualities that shine through Aaron and Ali, as they consider extending their trip by another year.

“We’ve poured so much money into getting the equipment, why would you want to cut it short once you’ve finally set up to do that trip. So I’m leaning towards, ‘let’s just push it out longer’,” Aaron said.

Lucia and Michael’s strict leave deadline meant extending their trip wasn’t an option. Rushing back to Canberra meant there was little downtime and they had to avoid wishing their final weeks away.

“The life admin started to impact us and our mindset about experiencing what we were actually doing,” Lucia said. “We were just emotionally exhausted. Our bodies were tired.”

For Jen and her family, it’s the refreshed perspective and idea of a travelling legacy that underpins their perseverance.

“To strip your life entirely of all the pressures you had, and to take it back to … this nucleus of a family, it is liberating. I mean, it’s suffocating in some bits, but it’s liberating.”

She hopes her children learn that they don’t have to wait their whole lives to go on the road-trip of their dreams and that they can choose a life of adventure for their family, too.

“If the biggest gift out of this trip is that my kids take theirs, then what a win that two generations get to do this.”